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Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger would probably have been considered an anomaly. One of those people you might consider quaint and charming, but never taken seriously, if it hadn’t been for Grandma Moses. Who is Grandma Moses? Obviously you’ve been living under a rock. Anna Mary Roberison; AKA, Grandma Moses. Grandma Moses is now considered a painter. Her work hangs in art museums across the country. Some might even call her a Great American Artist. I don’t. She had been an anomaly. She may not have been the very first octogenarian to put pig bristle into oil, dabble and smear canvas, but she was a hit. A big hit and there is no doubt about that at all. She died in 1961. Don’t believe me? Look up Moses in the dictionary. There are two descriptions under that name. Anna Mary Roberison and that other guy, you know, the one with the Ten Commandments.

What’s Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger to me? Well, I’ll tell you about that. But, let me give you a little background first. I’m an artist’s rep and dealer consultant. I’m twenty-eight, graduated from Pratt, on a full scholarship, seven years ago and have been methodically cultivating one brilliant and successful career in the high end art circuit for the last five years. Unlike most of the parasites that bloat this field, I have considerable artistic talent and skill. I had my first one-woman show at the New York Foundation for Contemporary Arts in my junior year and walked out of that gallery with twenty-three thousand dollars in my bag. How many twenty-one year old art students do you know that can pull that off?

And do you know what? That’s absolute chicken shit, compared to what I’ve done since then. The real money is not in playing the "starving artist" game; agonizing over "inner vision", "truth" and "integrity" while kissing up the fat asses and hoping their spare change falls your way. Nope, the real money is in finding the "art" and selling it to those same fat asses, so their even fatter ass country club homeies can think they’ve got class. I learned that real early in this game. Wheel and Deal. Work the phone. Combining my incredible speaking and presentation skills, knowledge and background, I’m sharp. I can spot a trend, be in and out with a clear million dollars before most of the other, so called dealers, even see it coming. I’ve already got a killer reputation for being dead on. Hundreds of truly gifted creatives throw themselves and their work at me every week, begging me to move their stuff. The "patrons of the arts" are even worse, they throw desperate money at me, hoping to get in early on the next Mapplethorpe, pick up bragging rights and then cash out! Me, I get them on both ends and I’ve made myself a pretty damn good life out it.

I have a penthouse view from my condo, overlooking all of Central Park. I wear designer. I don’t mean that Hugo Boss knock off crap either; right now I’m wearing eight thousand-dollar Ungaro silk over a one off, pair of Gaultier endangered lizard skin pants. Don’t even ask. I’m at the top of my game. I am lean and mean.

So, here I am, fresh out of my ten o’clock with Claude, hailing a cab, when I get the call from my Aunt Miriam down in South Carolina. I really love Aunt Miriam. She is actually my mom’s aunt, but we’ve always called her Aunt Miriam. I don’t know why, she is just always "Aunt Miriam" and I always stop whatever it is that I am doing when she calls. She is like that. She isn’t demanding. Nothing like that, but she has a presence about her that well, it’s hard to describe, she is respectable and always very proper. And, well, when Mom died, Aunt Miriam was there to lend a hand, offer encouragement and well really, I wouldn’t have gotten the Pratt Scholarship without her help and guidance. Anyway, Aunt Miriam is certainly never intrusive, but she is now our Ruling Family Matriarch. We keep in touch regularly and whenever she calls, like I said, I stop, listen and defer to her wish and request.

A few months ago Aunt Miriam had called about her friend Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger. Apparently some old Community Pier down in Lenningsburg, used to jut out into the Atlantic Ocean for eighty years before being swept to sea by a hurricane. Apparently the Lenningsburg Historical Society had decided that the Lenningsburg Community Pier now warranted a commemorative plaque. Apparently the plaque was going to set the historical society back all of nine hundred dollars. Ok, now here’s the pseudo tie in to Grandma Moses. Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger fancied herself to be a painter and what’s more, most of the simple folk that lived in and around Lenningsburg, agreed with her. Now, I do not mean to make a mockery of the Widow Blitzenburger’s work, but you should understand that she had no formal art education, was not particularly gifted and in fact, had not even begun to paint until she was in her early seventies. Her training seemed to have been entirely concentrated to matching correct color to corresponding numbers on small pre-printed canvas boards. Through some, by no means inconsequential leap of ability, she had now managed to create a painting with some resemblance to the late lamented pier. Furthermore, enthusiastic local support of countless pie and cake sales had raised funds, sufficient to compensate the Lenningsburg Herald Times for the printing of one hundred color copies. It was expected that sale of signed limited edition prints and a live auction of Mrs. Blitzenburger’s original oil painting, would generate all the money needed to manufacture and install the commemorative plaque. At the outset, I had offered to completely finance the entire project, out of pocket, purely as a benevolent gesture, but Aunt Miriam would not hear of it.

Aunt Miriam had in fact sent a photograph of the painting to me, two weeks ago. It was, in fact Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger’s greatest moment. Would it sell to New York? Ordinarily, I would have to say, no way. Here was the rub. It wasn’t really any worse then some of the "Grandma Moses" things. It probably wasn’t any worse then some of your own grandmother’s things. Aunt Miriam wanted me sell it to the Rockefellers! And… I could not refuse.

I am the consummate New York Art Dealer. I am representative to a large portion of the most creative artistic genius on the planet. I can’t be in the least bit associated with huckstering some amateur granny paintings. My God, I’d be laughing fodder at gallery openings for the next thirty years. Assuming I would even be invited again. My validity was at stake. What the hell was I supposed to do? Aunt Miriam wanted me to join her in this crazy Lenningsburg Pier enterprise; It is Aunt Miriam calling out to me, I have to go. At eleven-fifteen Friday night, I find myself on SouthAir flight 512, out of LaGaurdia and bound for Raleigh, South Carolina.

……………………………………..

I had a lot of time for reflection on the flight down. I haven’t seen Aunt Miriam in over three years. She doesn’t drive and doesn’t really care to travel. In my single-minded preoccupation with my work, though I travel all of the time, all over the world, I have not been to Lenningsburg since my days at Pratt. The last time we had actually been together; was at a family reunion outside of Kinston. We kept in touch with phone calls and cards. Lenningsburg was still a small relatively backward, coastal town. A few tourists showed up in summer, but it had never caught on with the nouveau rich or developed like the areas around the Outer Banks. I Googled it before I left New York, so I wouldn’t be going in completely cold. Life there is slow paced and unassuming. It appeared to have enough of an economy to acquire a few strip-malls with a Kroger’s and Wal-Mart anchor store and support a few curio and antique shops. "Dickens’s Framing and Crafts" was to be the epicenter of the extravaganza. Dickens’s did not have a web site, so I couldn’t fine anything more on it.

One thing I had decided early in this adventure; was that I was NOT going to invite any of my "Grade A Crowd". Sure, I can pump them up and easily sell them anything, but inevitably, word of this low brow escapade would circulate into the wrong circles and my esteemed reputation would be compromised. Aunt Miriam, of course, fully aware of my prowess within the art world, expected that I would indeed bring down the Big Spenders and they would drive themselves into a feeding frenzy over the Widow Blitzenburger. I had a better plan. For a couple thousand dollars, I was able to hire ten amateur actors out of the Fayetteville Neighborhood Theatre. They would drive over for the Saturday Night Auction and pretend to be Lords and Ladies of Means and purchase the damn painting and most of the prints. I wired them another fifteen hundred, to make sure they were successful. The actors jumped at my proposition, thinking it was easy money and sure to be a big hoot playing Mr. And Mrs. Flush Bottom amongst the Hicks. I figured it was a win, win, win, win deal. I would write the entire thirty-five hundred off taxes, as another business expense. Widow Blitzenburger would sell her goofy painting. The Lenningsburg Historical Society would exceed their financial goals for the commemorative plaque. And most importantly, Aunt Miriam ought to be most pleased that I had more or less, unquestionably marshaled my considerable influence and talent to help her in her request. Her little niece would have shown to come through and Miriam would be revered in her ability to pull this event together. She correctly assumed that I would bring prestige and success to their little project. When it was all over and done with, on Sunday, everyone would be happy. I did feel guilty about deceiving her with my phony buyer’s scheme, but I just couldn’t expose myself to pushing a rank primitive like Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger. It was the perfect plan.

The ride to Lenningsburg was uneventful. I had twisted my shoulder length chestnut hair into a simple chignon at the airport and covered it with a beautiful Hermes scarf. A pair of dark wraparound glasses provided additional anonymity and added the aura of deep mystery to my look. I’m sure the cabby was convinced I was some movie starlet, on a scandalous and incognito holiday. He had stuttered and stumbled all over himself, trying to be helpful and couldn’t keep his eyes off of me in his rear view mirror, for the entire drive. I had long allowed my own driver’s license to expire, having no real need of it. Owning an automobile in New York City or any cosmopolitan city is so plebian; and pointless, with limousine, taxi and chauffeured rides offered to me by clients and adoring customers.

As the view from the backseat window became increasingly rural, I did have some pause to consider that I was perhaps, overdressed for the occasion. Aunt Miriam would certainly expect me to appear tasteful and cultivated. It is no secrete from her, that I travel in exclusive and wealthy circles, that is part of the reason I’m joining her today. She is a simple woman though, and I have no desire or need to flaunt my success with her. An ostentatious display of my lifestyle will likely insult her. I could only hope that she is so removed from life in the fast lane, that she would not realize that you could outfit an entire family of eight down here, for twenty years, for less then the price of my slacks.

Aunt Miriam stood beaming at me from her front porch. She had clearly heard the cab approach and the slamming of doors, as I got out and the cabby removed my overnight bag from the trunk. I discreetly slipped him an extra fifty for his trouble, but the ensuing "God Bless You, God Bless You" and his exaggerated theatrics in carrying my bag to the front door, pretty much exposed my extravagance. I though I noticed the slightest bit of a scowl cross her face. Aunt Miriam believed in day’s wages for a day’s work, anything more was irresponsible. She was not burdened by it though and after a round of warm, friendly hugs and compliments, she happily ushered me into her modest home. Note to self. Remember your roots, don’t act the city slick.

Aunt Miriam has aged gracefully. She still looks as trim and proper as I have remembered her from the Kinston reunion. She is the perfect vision of a granny now, conservative and mature in a simple flowered dress with white lace at the collar and cuffs. Sensible tie shoes protect her feet with those ubiquitous tan, heavy support hose covering her legs, even on a Saturday morning. Her white hair is meticulous, permed into one of those short little curly styles, synonymous with little old elderly ladies. She looks adorable. I love her.

She is so gracious and happy to see me; I feel like a little girl again. Listening to the sound of her voice is so soothing, I soon forget why I had even come here. Gosh, I really miss the old days before New York, even before Pratt. Life was so simple then, standing next to her in the old kitchen, helping her to bake ginger cookies, taking turns weaving each other’s hair into plaits and pigtails. God, life seems so pure here. I am in a state of bliss. My mind is in another world, when I suddenly realize that she is telling me something important and it has a lot to do with my real purpose for being here.

"Well, Mrs. Blitzenburger has had a bit of trouble."

"What do you mean? Mrs. Blitzenburger your friend, the painter? What kind of trouble?"

"Well, She’s taken a bit of trouble with her heart again. They’ve taken her over to Fayetteville Memorial. She’s all right now. Stable, they say. But they need to keep her in and don’t want her to be getting overly excited. The Poor Dear is just devastated. She has been looking forward to this night for the last two months. And what’s worse? Well that’s not exactly right, nothing could be worse. But, the fact is. The entire auction and the dedication and all the rest of the festivities is pretty much centered on Margaret being there and unveiling her painting of the pier and meeting your New York friends. Burt, the auctioneer from over at the Grange, is going to handle the sales. But, well, I just don’t see how we can rearrange every thing at this late hour. This is so important to the community. No one else feels right taking her place. I don’t know what we will do. This was to be Margaret’s big day!"

"Oh MY! That’s so sad! What a disappointment that must be for her. What can I do to help? I can certainly take her place. You know I’ve been to countless openings and presentations, I am more then happy to help with this. It’s really nothing. It’s no trouble at all for me. Really, Aunt Miriam, I don’t mean to belittle the seriousness of Mrs. Blitzenburger’s situation, but you know I certainly can run an opening. It’s what I do. I’m the best!"

"I don’t know if it will work. What about your New York friends?"

"What? Why, um, they’ll be just fine. Yes, certainly. Of course they do just love to meet the artist at these affairs, rub shoulders. It makes them feel more important and gives them something to brag about with their cronies, back at the clubs. I’m sure they’ll all be extremely disappointed and miss her insight and antecedents, but, ah, um, I’ll bet you it won’t effect the depth of their pockets. I just know they’ll be thrilled with her painting. I know I can sell it. The fact is, they really have no idea who Margaret is. I talked her up of course, but they wouldn’t know her from Grandma Moses. All they know is that she’s in her seventies and she’s going to be hot."

"They like to meet the artist, you say? Talk to her? They like to talk with her? Oh Dear. Do you really think they will be as open and generous without Margaret’s presence? She’s such a big part of the history of the pier and she’s put so much of herself into her painting. Oh, I hope you’re right. Dear, Me. Well, You know, I’ve saved clippings from the newspapers, when you are mentioned in the articles. That’s part of the reason, I first called you about this. I’m sure you know what you are doing in these matters. Oh, My. It always seemed to me that the artist was a very important part of those stories. I don’t know. It worries me. It seems a big part of this is Margaret, She’s the Artist."

"Please, Aunt Miriam, let me help. Let me sell the painting. I’ll explain everything to the buyers. I know what to say. I know the words they want to hear. This will work."

"Well, I don’t know. Let me call June Ellen once, and see what she thinks."

Geez, for crying out loud. Who! What the hell does this June Ellen know about art? Give me a break! I feel bad for Margaret. But she’s in a hospital and it sounds like she’s ok. I mean, Aunt Miriam isn’t wailing about like the old Widow Blitzenburger’s going to check out over the weekend. Fine. Who needs her here for this, anyway? I surely can’t tell Aunt Miriam what’s really going on. This is already a "Done Deal". My "New York Friends" are really just a bunch of second rate actors, I’ve hired to come in here, throw some money around, buy the painting and get out. They don’t give a rat’s ass about Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger. Geezus! The Lenningsburg Historical Society gets their plaque paid for in full, Margaret gets to be the famous artist for one night and the hometown hero forever, everybody’s happy, bing, bang, boom, it’s over and I’m out of here. Don’t get me wrong. It’s nice to see Aunt Miriam. When she calls, I come. I love her dearly. But really, let’s not waste this trip and my thirty-five hundred; hell, way over four grand with the airline, cab and miscellaneous. We’re in Lenningsburg for God’s sake, this is a closed shop.

I had not been paying attention to Aunt Miriam’s call to this June Ellen person, until she started describing me over the phone.

"Uh, huh. Chestnut brown. Yes, straight. Yes, pretty long, I guess. Well, maybe, I suppose it could work. How tall are you Honey?"

"What? Me? Ah, Five, seven. Why?"

Aunt Miriam redirected her attention to the phone. I can understand their concern. This auction, Margaret Blitzenburger’s big "coming out" to the world is probably all they’ve talked about for the last year. I must not be so annoyed; mustn’t let it get to me. Their anxiety is normal. It’s just that I’ve done this song and dance so many times, it’s hard for me to keep from slipping into my art as commodity mindset and feeling a little edgy.

"OK. It’s set. You’re sure you don’t mind filling in for Margaret?

"Yes! It’s perfectly fine with me. I’ll do anything I can to help."

"Well, ok then. June Ellen’s Bill is on his way over to pick us up. You’re sure you don’t mind?"

"Please! Aunt Miriam! Yes! I’ll do anything and everything to make this night a resounding success. I’m a professional. Trust me! Now, Let’s get this show on the road!"

……………………………………..

June Ellen’s Bill, is almost a carbon copy of my cab driver. They don’t look alike, but old Bill here, sure does trip over himself trying to be helpful. He just can’t stop staring at me. It’s embarrassing. What a twit! I feel sorry for June Ellen. Then it really hits me. June Ellen’s place is an old fashioned beauty parlor. The kind that have little bells that jingle, when you open the door. The kind that smell like chemical refineries. Geezus, I didn’t think these chop shops existed anymore! Actually, it is the front half of June Ellen’s home. June Ellen’s Bill finally put his tongue back into his mouth and headed off through a rear doorway. Maybe his brain’s been toasted by this sickly sweet, pungent odor that seems to hang onto everything. Maybe, June Ellen brought this upon herself. Gawd almighty! My eyes are beginning to sting in this haze.

"Well HI! How are you all? My, My, Miriam, this must be your little niece from the city. Whoeee! Pretty dang fancy! This’ll take some doing!"

June Ellen is maybe in her fifties. Neat as a pin in her aqua blue nylon smock and white polyester slacks. Her hair is a permy curly, carbon copy of Aunt Miriam’s, with the addition of a light blue tint. And then again, maybe it’s the other way around. There sure seems to be an awful lot of uniformity in this part of the world. Maybe Aunt Miriam spends many a Saturday morning in June Ellen’s big vinyl chair. Maybe there aren’t a lot of options. Not that I mean to disparage my Aunt Miriam’s style. She’s a gracious and fine looking woman and I love her dearly. I guess this is just the way things are done down here in Lenningsburg. Well, God bless them all. There hasn’t been one nasty chemical anywhere near my head since the chlorine pool, when I was on my high school swim team and I aim to keep it that way. Thank you very much!

"Here you go, Honey."

June Ellen is patting the back of the seat of her big old overstuffed salon chair and looking me straight in the eyes. I look over at Aunt Miriam. I don’t really think her hair looks like she needs anything more done to it. Aunt Miriam is looking at me.

"Come on Honey, into the chair."

I look back toward June Ellen. She’s still looking at me, smacking her hand flatly onto the seat. Is she talking to me? What’s she doing? Why is she looking at me? She can’t seriously expect me to climb into that chair. Claude has just trimmed, washed and put an organic conditioner on my hair yesterday. I am not following this. What in God’s name are we supposed to be doing here? What the hell does any of this have to do with Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger and her Gawdamn painting? Geezus! She’s not touching my Gawdamn hair!

"She’s a little squeamish for a big city girl, isn’t she? Sweet Dixie, Miriam, I thought you said she was all set to help us out here? What the heck, don’t be telling me she’s like the rest of those Damn Yankee Carpetbaggers that came down here promising everything and leaving us with nothing!"

Right about now, you can knock me over with a feather. I still don’t see how June Ellen and the maniacal gleam in her eye figure into hawking the Blitzenburger painting. This is so out of nowhere! What is she suggesting?

"Aunt Miriam?"

"Darling. You did say you wanted to help us in anyway. You did say you would take Margaret’s place. I wasn’t sure it would work at first, but you did insist that you could do this for us and it does mean a lot to this community. We will all be eternally grateful and of course, it does mean a great deal to me. I know you were raised a righteous woman and it makes me real proud to see you step up and take charge! You are a real honor onto our family and our good name!"

"Aunt Miriam? My hair?"

"Well, for heavens sakes, Child! Snap out of it! Miriam! How does she expect us to make her look like Margaret without fixing her hair? Answer me, that? She’s not daft, is she?"

"Look like Margaret?"

"Well, yes. That’s what you said. You have all these Big City New York people coming down here tonight to meet Margaret in person and see her wonderful new painting of the old Lenningsburg Pier. Now how can you expect them to think they are meeting Dear Margaret, if you look like yourself? Well, that’s just nonsense."

"Look like Margaret?"

"Honey! You’re starting to sound like an old phonograph record. Now hop into this old chair and let’s make some magic. When we get done with you, those New York Slickers will be fighting with each other, just to get your autograph on a napkin!"

What in the hell did I just get myself into? This wasn’t my idea at all. I didn’t mean I’d take her place like in some kind of insane masquerade, no, I just meant that I could sell her painting without her, that’s all. How did they conclude that this is my idea? This is crazy. Everyone in Lenningsburg surely knows that Margaret is in the hospital. Are they all in on this bizarre conspiracy? This can’t be happening?

"Come on, Honey, Down you go."

Unbelievably, I climb into the big vinyl chair and settle back. It crinkles and crackles in my ears, mocking me as I adjust myself into its embrace. You know what’s really, really nuts? "The New York Art Buyers". That rag tag band of wannabe troubadours will come rolling into this town in a few hours, intent on having a smashing good time with my money. This entire charade will be lost on them. We made our arrangement over the internet. They have no idea what I look like, no idea what Margaret looks like, what anyone looks like. They’ve never been to Lenningsburg or New York, for that matter. They don’t care! Whatever happens here tonight, will be over tomorrow. Everyone will go on with his or her lives. So will I, except for one big thing! Whatever desecration June Ellen is about to perpetuate upon my virginal hair, will be with me when I return to New York! This is so wrong. And the best part, the greatest irony, is that I cannot say a single word about it to Aunt Miriam. I don’t know if it’s my pride or my insufferable allegiance and submission to my Aunt or what grips me like a vise. What forces me to submit to this atrocity. Whatever it is, I cannot fathom it. I cannot utter a sound.

June Ellen has freed my chignon and is slowly running her fingers through my hair, lifting it, letting it fall, as if contemplating it’s silky splendor. I wonder if she’s ever had hair, as well cared for as mine, in her hands. Does she even begin to comprehend the years of nurture, the gentle brushing and combing. The hours of love lavished upon it. Hair as fine and healthy as a young child’s. Light dances on individual strands. Men have begged to touch it.

"Nice hair, Hon. Ok, let’s get you all covered up."

My melancholy is rudely invaded by the harsh crack of plastic as a horrid pink and yellow cape envelops me. My throat is gripped in crude embrace as she tightens it around my neck. My throat is fixed in the collar. I have difficulty swallowing.

"Ok. First thing is, I’m going to knock this all down to where I can work with it. Miriam! If you want, you can go on in the back with My Bill. I know you have a lot of rearranging and calling folks with things to do for tonight. You tell My Bill to do what ever needs doing. He can help with things and make himself useful. You tell him I said so! I can take care this here, all right."

"Yes, I suppose I must. I should call Burt too. It’s better not to spring any last minute surprise on him. I know you’ll do your very best June Ellen. My, my, it’s just so… well, I’ll leave you two alone. I’ll just pop back, in a little while. Oh, my!"

Aunt Miriam had not even finished her words, before the brutal crush of what could only be the shearing of livestock filled my ears. Tears flooded my eyes as a golden chestnut curtain abruptly separated from the left side of my head, paused momentarily upon my shoulder, then slid slowly down and over my breast into a lifeless pool at my lap. I lifted my watery eyes to the mirror before me, as the hair on the right side of my head joined it. June Ellen continued to cut, to hack, to butcher, a lifetime of simple joy, my identity, my personality seemed to be severed. I sat aloof. I had not understood the depth of my own very emotional attachment to my hair. I never thought I’d be without it. It was not a consideration. It was not like cutting a nail or changing a shoe. My hair had been a definition of who I thought I was. Who I wanted to be. What I thought of myself. What I wanted others to think of me. I had been unaware as to how much I loved my hair, the way it bounced when I moved, how it felt under my own hand, how it changed color in different light. I stare blankly into the mirror as my glory is reduced to an ugly brush of jagged two-inch bristle.

"Now, let’s get a wash on you."

The chair spun and tilted. I was falling backward, a basin, my head was in a basin, and then water. I am in a dream now. Warm water. My head is being massaged, washed. The hands are brusque, the motions are purposeful and swift. It is oddly soothing. Not like the hands of Claude. Claude loved me, loved my hair, massaged it, and caressed it. This is clinical, efficient, overwhelming. The chair is raised. I am now upright. The hands again. Hard hands. They add fluids to my head. Jellies, syrup, thick, the hands knead, massage, work to lather, foam, no, what is it? Insistent, they work the substance over and over into my skull.

"Let’s let that sit for a bit."

She is before me now. A strange bag in her hands. She moves it between her fingers, studying it, shifting it, then lifts it to my head. She places it above me, over me. It is a hat, a cap, a bonnet, it fastens with a strap beneath my chin. It surrounds and tightly hugs my entire head. I have no tears now. I stare at the mirror. It is a hood of some type. Yes. Is it metal? No. It must be a heavy nylon. Quilted? I stare. I am reminded of my first snowsuit when we lived in Pittsburgh. I was so proud of it then. I wore it everywhere. It had a hood like this. I think it was pink like this one. It kept me warm and comfortable. I can’t see my hair under this hood. It covers everything. My head is warm though, I wonder what’s happening under there? I shouldn’t move. I think she wants me to sit still. I’ll just sit here and look at myself. I wonder if it will be long. I wish she’d tell me what she’s doing. Claude never did this to me. How long do I have to sit here?

"Ok, Honey. That’s about thirty minutes. Let’s rinse now."

June Ellen unsnapped my chinstrap and carefully lifted the hood. Hugh! What a mess! My head is all gooey. My hair looks like mush! Eeww!

"Hon, I’m going to lean your chair back again and wash this out. Now close your eyes."

Whew! That felt good. After June Ellen rinsed my head, she raised the chair again so I could see myself in the mirror. Then she took a big fluffy towel and scrubbed my head real good until it was just a little damp. My hair is just sticking straight out, all over the place, forming a uniform two-inch ball around my head. Claude would just die! It look’s lighter, much lighter. How did that happen? What did she do? It’s not chestnut any more, that’s for sure. What color is that? It’s like a light tan, like the color of wheat! My hair was never this color before, unless maybe like, before I was a year old! Yowl! This is so different! Claude is absolutely going to shit! This is wild! I don’t know why I was so freaked before? I’d completely zoned out, like a freaking zombie. I guess I thought since June Ellen and Aunt Miriam both have such patented little old lady perm heads, I assumed that was my fate. But this is damn wild! Geezus, if I had a Cartier nose stud, I would be totally kick ass! Ha! This is too much!

"Well, Welcome back, Hon. I thought you all were falling asleep on me, here for a while. Believe me, I know there’s nothing like getting your hair fixed to make a girl feel good and relaxed and pampered, but you’re going to have to stay awake for the rest of it."

"The rest?"

"Well yeah. But don’t you worry, Hon. I’ve been fixing up Margaret’s hair for twenty-five years. When we get done here, even your Aunt Miriam will be hard pressed to tell you apart."

"Really, June Ellen! I don’t think that’s going to be necessary. What you’ve done with my hair is perfect. It’s very trendy and certainly looks "Arty". It projects a certain look of disdain for convention that is almost expected of artists in these circles. It’s really a stroke of genius!"

"Honey, I don’t know what you are all talking about. All I did was get rid of those God Awful loose ends and lighten it up some. Are you trying to smart mouth me? Disdain? Margaret has better sense then that. She doesn’t disdain anyone. You better be thinking a little more seriously about what it means to represent Margaret, this evening. No self-respecting woman would let people see her, looking like she just got out of a shower! I didn’t think you had the backbone for this. But you gave your word to your Aunt Miriam and around these parts, your word is your bond. You better just hope your Aunt Miriam never hears you talking like this. Do you understand me, Child?"

"Yes Ma’am."

"All right then. We’ll hear no more about it."

A thousand thoughts run through my mind at once. Not the least being that I’ve completely lost control. June Ellen had cut to the core though. Word is bond here and Aunt Miriam always lived by these simple rules. Family is the same way. Patriarch or Matriarch at the time, whoever it is, is respected, always deferred to. It’s almost primal. I have been so preoccupied within my own razzle-dazzle, big shot, and big city act that I hadn’t even heard what I had agreed with. I had come to Lenningsburg full of arrogance. I had been unwilling to be honest with anyone. Embarrassed to admit to my roots. I have hired ringers to stand in as willing art buyers and now I must pretend to be the artist. What a twisted chain of events, I have created. Imposters performing for imposters! I have no choice, but to suck it up and smile through this in silence!

I stare numbly at my reflection as June Ellen rolls a low trolley cart to my side.

She starts at the very front with a comb, by sectioning out about a three-inch wide strip of my hair, that is maybe a quarter of an inch deep. She holds those strands of hair above my head, gripped between the comb and her fore finger. I watch as she reaches to the cart with her other hand to extract a thin paper, which she positions behind the strand, also pinched at the top end between comb and fingers. She reaches again, this time returning with a small pink rod, perhaps a tiny bit thicker then a pencil. Tucking the comb between her knuckles, she quickly and deftly places the thin tube under the strand and rolls it down, wrapping my hair tightly around it until it is firmly against my skull. Her thumb moves to grip it, before sliding a long clip over the rod to fix it in place.

The comb is immediately relocated directly behind the first secured rod to segregate a second three-inch strand. She repeats the entire winding sequence to place the new rod directly behind the first. June Ellen’s dexterity and speed is astounding. The methodical, repetitious, comb, pull, wrap and secure motion quickly transforms into a straight, neat row of pink cylindrical coils, leading from my forehead, across the top center of my head to the nape of my neck. The thought that it is my own hair under that coiled stress seems detached and irrelevant.

June Ellen, of course has done this procedure so many times that what I find so startling, that my hair has never been forced into a curl is of no consequence to her. She is just doing her job, in much the same way that I should have been doing mine in the first place. In less time then it takes to reflect on this irony, she has begun placing a second series of these rod restraints along side the center row. Again finishing at my nape, she is quickly into a third row along the other side. I almost wish this were being filmed. This is an art that I’m sure is disappearing. Perhaps in some of the more ethnic sections of New York, this still goes on, but I know Claude lacks this skill. With the third row complete, June Ellen has changed direction. She is now sectioning out pieces of my hair, perpendicular to the top rows. Again starting right up against them, she defines shorter widths with shorter rods. There are now four at each temple and four over each ear, before increasing the count to six as she reaches the bottom sides and back of my head. The mirror reflects an amazing sight. My head is fully covered with these mechanical looking tubes. It is an oddly harsh, techno looking appearance. It is an impressive sight, fascinating if not bizarre.

"Chin down a minute, Hon."

I comply, allowing a cloth, towel like affair, a collar to be slipped up and around the circumference of my head beneath the collection of rods. It fastens tightly at the center of my forehead.

"What’s the towel for?"

"Oh, that just keeps the perm solution from dripping down all over everything."

"Perm solution? You mean like a perm? Like you’re giving me a perm? I thought you were making my hair a little curly just for tonight? Isn’t perm, like permanent?"

"Well, no, Hon. Hair grows out, you know. You’ll have to get touch ups every four or six weeks. And, well with your straight hair, I don’t really know how well or how long it’ll hold a curl. Certainly can’t chance having it wilt or fall down tonight, can we? It works real good for Margaret, should work good for you all. Her hair’s a little stringy like yours, Hon."

"But!"

"Hey! Now, Hush. Do I need to get Miriam in here?"

I shut my mouth. This does not ease my concern though. I am further shaken as June Ellen rolls thick rubber gloves over her hands and up her arms. Seriously, am I to believe it’s ok to put this stuff on my hair and scalp, when she is wearing such protection to keep it from touching her own skin? Any fear I may have felt is exponentially squared as she opens an innocuous looking plastic bottle and acrid fumes envelop my senses. My God! This smells worse then the Newark Refinery, downwind on a bad day. My hands clench desperately at the arms of the salon chair. Blurry visions of an executioner’s cell at Attica State Penitentiary fill my head. Do the condemned feel this same fear at the onset of lethal injection! The vile fluid is on me! I want to SCREAM! My emotions rage inside me. I am torn between my desires to please my Aunt and my weakness in accepting my fate.

I cannot hold back the wetness from my eyes. Tears stream involuntarily down my cheeks. With agonizingly slow deliberation, June Ellen saturates each and every roller on my head. I feel the liquid ooze across my scalp and begin to collect in the towel collar.

"There you go. That ought to do it. Let’s just let that percolate for a while. You sit here and be comfy a minute and I’ll be right back. I need to ask Miriam something."

June Ellen deftly placed a bouffant plastic cap over my head to confine the chemical reaction and left the room. I am left to sit and stare at myself in the mirror. What an apparition! You’ve really gotten yourself into it this time girl. This really takes the cake. My goose is cooked… Hell, my hair is cooked. It has to be. Who knows what mutations are permeating my follicles within this vinyl isolation. Twisting the very molecules into hideous compressed springs.

"Hey, Honey! Wake up! How tall did you say you are? And, What size are you?"

June Ellen is hollering from the other room.

"Huh? Five foot, seven. Ten. Why?"

"Just wondered if any of Margaret’s things will fit. Ten, Miriam, she says ten. Yeah. Well, I don’t know either, probably. Yeah. Guess we’ll just have to go over and see. Yeah. Soon. She’s cooking now. I don’t know, maybe all told, at least another half hour."

Margaret’s things? Fit? Lord I hadn’t even considered that. They really do want me to quiet literally take her place. Wear her clothes? Oh, God! I hope not. Oh, God, an old lady’s clothes. What if they smell or are all buggy. Oh, God! The thought just gives me the creeps! Isn’t it bad enough that I’m letting them destroy my hair? Oh God! Cooties! It just gives me shivers thinking about it! None of this is doing anything for my peace of mind, or my sanity. Ten, fifteen more minutes pass, before June Ellen returns. I am a nervous wreak.

"How are you doing? Let’s see what we’ve got under there."

With her gloves back on, June Ellen carefully removed the plastic cap and threw it into the sink. My attention is riveted on my hair as she removes the first of the rods. I hold my breath as it unrolls and cannot suppress a gasp when it is free and springs back into the same tightly coiled shape. They are all like that, each rod leaves behind a tight roll of hair that mimics the circumference of its mold. Oh, this so weird! I look like a Brillo Pad. Before I am allowed to examine my reflection further, she spins the chair and begins to lower me again into the basin with all the discarded rods, and cap.

"I’m going to add some neutralizer, then rinse it all out before we pop you under the dryer for a spell. Ok, Hon?"

Sure. Who am I to complain or tell her what to do? She’s the boss here, I’m pretty much just along for the ride now.

I have been sitting under June Ellen’s big, old fashion chrome dome hair dryer for at least fifteen minutes, when Aunt Miriam returns. With the combination of thick cotton wads taped over my ears, purportedly so they won’t burn and the roaring jet-engine rush of the old dryer motor being so loud, I can’t hear a single word they are saying. They do look over at me often and I smile back with all the sincerity that I can muster. Finally, June Ellen comes over to shut the fan down and motion for me to climb back into her chair. I’m thinking we have got to be near the end of this now.

Aunt Miriam is strangely silent. I am hoping for some congratulation for sticking it out, being a real trooper through all of this, or some word that might indicate her pleasure. She seems preoccupied, deep in thought, maybe it’s dawning on her that I’m never going to look like Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger. Oh well. Resigned to my fate once again, I look toward the mirror, curious to see what June Ellen’s next moves might be.

The first thing she does, is to just grab a hold of my hair and squeeze it. It compresses easily within her hand and bounces back into its curly shape, when released. Then she starts doing this all over my head with both hands, gradually separating the rolls of hair coils into smaller individual curls. Using just her fingers, she is able to turn it all into an interlocking mass of hair. From the top of my forehead at the hairline, it all rises to sit buoyantly around my head. My hair doesn’t seem to be so much a part of me now, as some alien covering around me. It looks very unruly now, almost like dandelion gone to seed… not that I’ve ever seen curly topped dandelion. I am enjoying my little chuckle. CRACK!

That noise! The raw, nerve grating sound of an electric hair clipper, snarls like a banshee from her right hand, making my spine tingle over its entire length. Using a comb as a guide, she shapes the top, cutting everything off that does not meet with her approval. Thousands of tiny hairs fill the air around me, as she precisely carves my hair into a perfect globe. As she works down each side, a greater volume of hair is removed, rapidly blended into an acute taper that ends just below my temples, then disappears into minute points in front of my ears. June Ellen continues to work the taper toward the back of my head. Staring straight ahead at the mirror, it’s become more difficult to follow her progress. She has continued the taper to nothing, over the tops of my ears and by feel alone, I sense that she is following nearly that same line at the rear. The sensation of cool air on my nape and the insistent pressure of the clippers surely confirm this to be so. Using a pause in the action to slightly turn my head, reveals that she has indeed transformed my hair from it’s earlier rounded, ball form into a sleeker, domed teardrop shape.

"Be still for a minute."

Obeying her admonishment, I hold my breath. Placing her left hand firmly on my ear, she folds it down and deftly carves the clippers around it. The procedure is quickly duplicated around my right ear. When she release her grip, I glance over toward Aunt Miriam, who seems to be mesmerized by the entire process.

"It’s Margaret’s do all right. That’s amazing June Ellen, I just don’t know how you do it! It’s perfect!"

"Well thank you, Miriam. Actually, their hair’s pretty much the same. I just had to put a little more of the old sauce on, ’cause your little niece still has more of it. But, yeah, she looks pretty good if I do say so myself. I just want to clean her up a bit around the bottom and we’re done. I’ve been thinking though. You know, her makeup’s all wrong. Margaret doesn’t wear all this dark stuff around her eyes, lipstick’s all wrong too, what is that supposed to be? Looks all wet, like she was eating a peach and forgot to wipe her mouth! Looks ridiculous. And she’s been plucking her eyebrows. I don’t think Margaret ever did that. If you want, Miriam, there’s some cold cream in the bathroom. We can get this stuff off her face now and think about what to do later, when we’re over at Margaret’s."

"Yes, I suppose so. Well, ok, June Ellen, you get finished up here. We still have some things to do and we certainly don’t want to be the last ones to show up at Dickens’s!"

"Ok, Honey. This is a razor, so don’t go squirming around. Don’t move, we don’t need to be getting you all bloodied up here!"

"I am not moving, believe me!"

The last thing I need, is to turn this affair into a Vincent van Gogh retrospective. I can’t imagine that there’s much hair left on my head to require a shave. She blew a squirt from an aerosol can into the palm of her hand, dabbed into the foam with her fingers and laid a thick stripe of it around each of my ears. She then rubbed the rest of it over my nape. After cleaning her hands, I sat paralyzed when she unfolded a straight razor. Following a few strops back and forth over a wide leather belt, she set her feet firmly, tightened her jaw and with her left hand folded my left ear down again. I am holding my breath. I hear the sharp ticking of a clock that I had not noticed before. There seems to be no other noise inside, nor outside. My heart is pounding. I think I can hear it. Then the hard steel touches just forward of my ear and with a loud SKRIIIIIIITCHHHH… June Ellen drags the blade around my ear, leaving a half-inch wide, defining radius of bare white flesh. The feeling is exhilarating!

I do not chance even moving my eyes, as the blade is placed now before my right ear. Again, a brief stillness before the stark scrapping sound circles, surrounding my ear.

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!"

"You ok, Honey? I didn’t nick you? I don’t see anything?"

"Ummmm. Yes, ah, umm. Sorry, Yes. I’m ok. I’ll be still!"

It is one HELL of a rush! That sound, serious and severe, right at my ears. And that hard, sharp blade dragging over my skin, the entire sensation just spikes all of my nerve endings and reverberates through my entire body. God! I’ve nearly pissed my panties. Geezus! Whoa! This is nothing like shaving my legs!

"Ok, hold on. I just need to do the back and we’re done."

June Ellen placed the blade on my neck, behind my ear, probably where my tapered hair ended. Geezus! This is actually getting me excited. I can’t believe this! As she pulls it down my neck, it takes all of my resolve to suppress a shutter and sit still. As it is, it seems that my body is electrified. Geezus! If I sit here and piss myself! God! What must it be like to have my entire head shaved? God! No wonder they do it! I am drenched in sweat by the time she finishes. She’s shaved my entire neck. She hands me a small mirror, so that I may see the result. It’s breathtaking! In the back, my curly mass of top hair simply disappears into a severe taper, leading to nothing more then a bit of stubble before terminating in a graceful hard white edge of skin, carved finally into a point at back center. My head, my hair is like a piece of sculpture! It’s that amazing! I can’t explain the feeling. If I saw this cut, these tightly permed curls, on old Margaret, or any other elderly woman for that matter, I would simply dismiss her as just another dowdy old lady with some easy to manage, pathetic last grasp at trying to look presentable. As I examine my entire head in the context of my twenty-eight years and youthful complexion, I find it highly erotic! God! Claude! You’ve got to meet June Ellen!

"June Ellen, here’s the cold cream. My! That looks nice! It’s uncanny!"

"Thanks! Here, Honey, clean that stuff off your face. Miriam! Does My Bill know we’re done here and we’ll be needing him to drive us over to Margaret’s?"

"I think so. He seems ready to go. I don’t think he’s been real happy about waiting around for us."

June Ellen removed my cape and allowed me out of the chair. I quickly removed all of my makeup and cleaned off with another towel. June Ellen’s Bill had entered the room.

"Lands sake, ladies. I have the automobile started and we really need to get… Whoopee! Lookie here! My, my, MY! Look at you!

"BILL!"

June Ellen snapped and shot "Her Bill" a look to kill. We gathered our things and headed out to his car.

……………………………………..

Margaret’s place is like a small one-story bungalow. The living room seemed to have been turned into her "studio". Her paintings cover all the walls.

"This is her work?"

"Yes. Lovely isn’t it? She’s so talented. You best study it some before we leave, so you can say some good things about her painting, tonight at the unveiling. But right now, we better get you changed."

"Do you think I can take a shower first?"

"Yes, of course. Margaret has a shower hooked up in her bath doesn’t she Miriam? Yes, of course she does. You think we live like hillbillies here? Make sure you cover that hair. Margaret probably has a shower cap in there, you be sure to wear it. Now get along, time is growing short. Come on Miriam. Let’s see what we can find to fit the young’un in Margaret’s things. Bill, you just stay out in the living room, or walk around outside, I don’t care. You just don’t come in here until we call you."

The shower is one of those screw on hose things with the head attached to metal piping that rings the tub. There is a frilly flowered plastic bath cap hanging on one of the faucets. Gingerly I pick it up and peer cautiously inside. It doesn’t look too bad. It crinkles like cellophane as I pull it over my head. The shower feels great. I can stand here for hours and just let the water sooth my jangled nerves. The day has been an emotional roller coaster. One minute I seem gripped in absolute terror over the mental and physical indignities forced upon me and the next second, I’m battling to overcome autoerotic desire. The warm water is neutral and pleasurable. June Ellen’s demanding voice; however, shatters this small luxury.

"Are we about done in there?"

Grudgingly, I end the shower, towel myself dry and remove the cap. My hair seems unaffected. Although, it’s unlikely that I’ll find a hair dryer here, if I did get it wet again, I have no doubt that this perm will stand up in a hurricane. With the bath towel securely wrapped around my body for modesty, I tiptoe toward the sound of their voices.

"What do you think, June Ellen? Most of Margaret’s things are an 8 or smaller. Do we have the time to drive into town and get some new things that might fit better?"

"No. Time’s running short. I don’t think we have to worry about some tightness very much though, Miriam. Heaven’s sake, we’ve all worn things that have grown a little small on us one time or another. She’ll be just fine."

"Well of course, we’ve all suffered through a little bloat now and again. But that’s not really the point, is it? This is still an extremely important event for Lenningsburg. And it’s to be Margaret’s artistic introduction to some very wealthy and refined ladies and gentlemen from New York City. Margaret would not ever present herself into this new world wearing ill fitting clothes. Really, June Ellen! How can you even consider such a thing!"

"Miriam. If we want to stay on schedule, we really don’t have the time to ride all the way into the Wall-Mart and back, with a whole new outfit. 10, 8, it’s only a couple inches different, it’s nothing. I’m sure Margaret’s got a girdle or two around here, we can put to good use. Last week, Margaret showed me what she was planning to wear for tonight and I’ll bet it’s still hanging on the back of her closet door. So, we don’t have to be spending any more time scratching our heads trying to figure out what’s right. Now, let’s just stop this bickering and get her dressed. OH! And another thing! We better start getting used to calling her Margaret. If these Rich City Slickers hear us getting our names mixed up, well, then the jig’s up!"

"Margaret!" Call her Margaret? Yes, I suppose we better get used to that. It seems strange saying it though. Margaret, or Maggie, maybe… that might work better. Maggie might roll off the tongue better and it does sound a little more arty, doesn’t it? Ok. Maggie, it is. Then it’s settled. Ok, June Ellen, a girdle you say. All right. Let’s see where she might have such a thing."

Maggie? Throughout their little discussion over what I am to wear and what they will call me, I have stood to the side, left out of the conversation, wrapped in a bath towel. It is all a little humiliating. Maggie, huh? I guess I knew this was coming. Margaret’s style of hair; Margaret’s clothing and now her name. I’m just being sucked deeper and deeper into this fantasy. A girdle now? Why does this matter? Isn’t there anyone else involved in this conspiracy with my dress size? What can it possibly matter what I wear? Even if these were real art connoisseurs, they could care less how Margaret dressed. I could wear a damn flowered tent and it would make no difference to them! What is with this confounded insistence on authenticity? Do they both really think that if I can squeeze into Margaret’s clothing, I will somehow be less of a fake?

"Here you go, MAGGIE!"

June Ellen is standing next to the opened drawers of Margaret’s bureau, with some large, strange, shiny peach contraption swinging menacingly from her hand. Calling me Maggie, suddenly takes on the tone of a taunt. A classic shit-eating grin does nothing to conceal the glee she seems to derive from my impending discomfort.

"My word, June Ellen! Where ever did you find that? That looks like a full body foundation from the thirties! What size is it?"

"I don’t know. Most of the tag is gone and what’s left is unreadable. Miriam, I’m sure whatever size it is doesn’t matter. It looks like there’s enough adjustment in here to get her down into anything. Hmm, Smells a little musty though. Oh, well, we’ll just dose her down with some perfume, that’ll cover it. Maggie, Dear, you get your little fanny over here. Miriam, why don’t rustle up some stockings, panties, slip, whatever you think we might need."

There doesn’t seem to be much point in postponing this. I drop the towel, walk over and resign my body to June Ellen.

"Turn around and put your arms back."

I turn away from her as directed and hold my arms straight behind me so that June Ellen can slip the arm openings over my hands and raise the garment to cover my back. In place, it sits heavily on my shoulders. Against my skin, the material feels like a thick soft felt. On the outside it appears to be made of heavily embroidered brocade. Between the inner and outer coverings is a vast vertical collection of what can only be rows of multiple steel stays. She pulls the front half across my body and begins to fasten dozens of small hook and eye closures that run from the hem, which circles well below my hips, all of the way up to my left armpit. There does not seem to be much consideration for breasts. I consider my own breasts to be average and never was I thought to be buxom, but in this device what I have, seem too large and flattened against my chest. The top rides high, only an inch below the top of my sternum, before it blends into the wide straps. There are several darts over each breast, which do present some artificial mammary projection, but for the most part, I now appear flat chested. With the foundation now roughly closed and surrounding my body, constriction is evident across my chest and hips. The light pressure at my waist however, does not seem consistent with the girdle horror stories overheard in ladies washrooms.

"Not a bad fit at all. I was afraid it might be too short on you. Well, that’s good. Now, let’s get it laced closed."

"But it is closed, June Ellen! You’ve fastened all of the hooks!"

"The hooks, yes. But, look at the lacing back here, it’s all loosened. Well, never mind, you can’t see it. Trust me. You’re not getting into anything, like this. There’s a lot of slack back here, that has to come out."

Well, this is quite a twist in sleepy old Lenningsburg. Whatever possessed Margaret Blitzenburger to acquire something like this and then to keep it for all of these years? I thought she’d lived here all of her life. I can’t imagine a situation or occasion, where there could be any need to get trussed up in something like this. UGH! Geezus! June Ellen had busied herself with the lacing, while my mind had wondered over Margaret’s imagined past. She had it quite snug already and has just given another… UGH! Hard! UGH! Tug!

"Come on Maggie, brace yourself! Hold your breath or something. For Land’s sake you can help a little bit. I have to get at least another inch taken in on this."

"UGH! OH! UGH! AH!"

She is relentless!

"UGH!"

"My word, what’s going on here? Ah, Maggie? Now stop this fooling around. You know time is of the essence. Help June Ellen get that closed, so we can get on!"

Aunt Miriam stood glaring at me, holding some more things. I nodded and grasped hold of a neweled corner of the bed for support and took two deep breaths. On the third, I exhaled hard, hoping to fully cleanse my lungs. June Ellen took this as her cue and pulled sharply on the laces.

"UGH!"

"That’s good, Honey. A couple more like that and I’ll have it."

A couple more like that are out of the question. June Ellen has already reduced the circumference of the foundation, sufficient that my waist can not expand to its earlier diameter. Never the less, I give it my best and exhale once more.

"UGH!"

"Again!"

"UGHH!"

"Again!"

"UGHHHH!"

"Again!"

"UGHHHHHHHHHHH!"

"Got it!"

I am reduced to accepting short, sharp pants for oxygen that are completely insufficient to my need. I feel lightheaded. All of my concentration is focused upon the development of a steady and consistent acquisition of measured breath. I stand silently in submission, only vaguely aware of the activity around me, as I lift one foot and then the other for June Ellen, as she rolls heavy, cotton stockings up my legs. They are clipped to a half dozen wide garters at the bottom edge of the foundation. I repeat the stepping motions to accept a pair of full nylon panties. I am offered a slip, but once my arms are into it, I haven’t the energy to pull it over my head. Instead, I raise my arms and allow it to be dropped and fitted over me. It is also made of nylon, white and seems to be cut in a full loose shape, until June Ellen closes a zipper along the side of it that pulls it into my waist.

Aunt Miriam returns with the outfit off the back of the door. It seems quite unremarkable given the serious figure control suffered by my torso. I’ve discovered a full-length mirror on the far wall. It’s odd to see myself like this. Of course it is me, but the transformation seems to be revealing a different person, now that I am able to observe myself from head to toe. It is a calming distraction. I see Miriam hold the white blouse open behind me and instinctively move my arms backward, allowing her to slip the sleeves over my hands and up my arms. I drop my arms to my sides and watch as she comes around to my front and begins to close the buttons. The blouse fits tightly across my flat chest, but does not gape or pull. I lift my chin to allow her access to my collar. It is closed with an extended tab that buttons to hide under the left wing. It is tight around my throat and will remind me of its presence all night. Carefully, Aunt Miriam flattens each wing of the collar to lie neatly over my collarbones. The appearance is restrained, simple and conservative, starched and formal without drawing unnecessary attention. A pastel, mint green, polyester pleated skirt drops over my head. It slides easily over my hips, the hem grazing my knees. The waist is fully elastic and bunches upon itself, fitting snuggly around this girdle corset. I do not see why the extreme compression to my waist is necessary, but it is of no further concern to me as I continue my adjustment to it.

Aunt Miriam leaves, to be replaced by June Ellen, in a crouch before me. I lift each leg so she may slide white mesh, oxford shoes onto my feet. She ties them carefully, fussing to assure that the loops of the laces lie even, along side their knots. Little tassels adorn the ends of the laces. Miriam helps me into my jacket. It is a light weave, predominately in a soft bone with a pattern of large florals, printed in pale greens and oranges. Shoulder pads add width across the top to compliment the deep shawl collar, closing with a single, large flat pearl button at my waist. I feel like a queen in the presence of dressing maids. And the pair of them have become giddy.

"AH, Miriam. Well! Look at her! Look at our little Maggie. Isn’t she adorable?"

"Yes, It’s absolutely amazing. I would not have thought it possible. My, my. Oh! Look! Maggie! You must take those little diamond studs out of your ears. June Ellen! Please find some earrings she can wear. And, I guess now’s the time to consider what’s to be done about your plucked brows!"

"Leave it to me Miriam. I’ll find something just right for the finishing touch! Lawd, I haven’t had so much fun since we fixed up Sally Bole’s girls for the pageant show down in Charleston!"

I remained aloof. My metamorphous nearly complete. The figure in the mirror is nearly another person. All that remains of my former persona is my face.

"Here we go. Maggie did you pull out those studs?"

I remain silent.

"Ok, never mind. Oh, You got them out, good. Here we go. These are fabulous!"

"Yellow Daisy’s? June Ellen! Don’t you think they’re a little big and gaudy for tonight? We’re not going to Bingo, you know?"

"Naw, Don’t be silly. They’re perfect! They go with the flowers on her jacket!"

June Ellen screwed large shiny plastic yellow daisy earrings to each of my ear lobes. My face started to disappear.

"Well… maybe. They’re kind of shiny though."

"Naw, I’m telling you. Maggie’s got to stand out like a star tonight, it’s only right! And look here, what I found in Margaret’s studio. Pastel sticks! This will be just perfect to fatten up her eyebrows with, so she don’t look like some white trash Georgia Hussy! Come on now, hold still, Honey. I don’t want to be smearing this all over the place!"

I closed my eyes. I am still facing the mirror. When I open my eyes again I will be Maggie. I could sense her before me, even before I felt the grainy stick touch the inside edge of my brow. It rested there for a moment. June Ellen gave it a little twist setting the color and then slowly dragged it across my eyebrow to the outside edge. I waited patiently. The pastel returned to rest at the beginning of my other brow. I felt the slow twist before it moved again. I kept my eyes closed. The pastel returned again to each brow, making second passes. Still my eyes remained closed. I would wait now until she pronounced me finished. I know she cannot resist my lips. I licked them once in anticipation. A moment passed. Another. Still I waited. I heard June Ellen moving around. There was a slight click, a cap had been removed. I held myself motionless. It would be soon.

It started at the center of my upper lip. It pressed against me and traveled in a slow methodical arc toward the outside of my mouth and then stopped. It returned to the center, pressed and slowly arced, the same measured distance in the opposite direction. I waited breathlessly. It returned to press into the outside corner of my mouth, then crawled down along my lower lip, not stopping until it reached the other corner. I am not ready to open my eyes. It has it’s own scent. It smells of fruit, of citrus. I want more. She does not disappoint me. She returns its soft head, repeating its path, deepening it and widening it. I don’t want her to stop. She doesn’t. It circles again and again.

"UHMMMMMM"

"That’s it, Honey, press um together."

"UHMMMMMM"

"That’s good, work it in."

The aroma of citrus is overwhelming. It tastes like wax.

"UHMMMMMM"

"Well, Miriam. That’s about it. What do you think of our Maggie?"

My eyes slowly open and I am gone. It is Maggie, staring back at me. Her mouth is pale orange. Drawn and painted with no regard to the natural shape of her lips. The color exceeds their bounds and expands into an enlarged and redefined caricature, mocking the full lips of a painted heroine on the cover of a paperback romance novel. Only her eyebrows, thickened and darkened beyond any reality, match the exaggeration of her mouth. It is a memorable face. Pale, unadorned eyes peek out meekly and innocently, in stark contrast to the fraudulent color above and below. In their simplicity, they hint at inner clarity. It is a compelling face. I am drawn to it with both revulsion and fascination. What stories lie beneath this facade?

Vision expands to take in my full image. So this is Margaret. Not really what I expected. I should not be surprised though. Her paintings have hinted to this. Her later work reveals willingness to color outside of the lines, with the gradual introduction of bolder and stronger pigments. I see a woman torn between rigid, parochial conformity and an intense desire to release and flaunt a long repressed extroverted personality. The tension between these two polar extremes, the mature conservative style and cut of clothing and hair, plays havoc against color and pattern. I like this woman. This woman can go far tonight.

I truly regret that I have not invited the "cr?me de la cr?me" of New York Art Collectors, the Nouveau Cognoscenti. They would be at my mercy. They would be lost in Lenningsburg, completely beyond their experience. They would fawn at my every word. I would dance rings around them. I would give the performance of my life. I would sell every painting on Margaret’s walls. They would shred their purse strings in their compulsion to pay exorbitant prices for the pleasure of talking to me and taking home a small memento of the evening. When they awoke the next morning, they would have their imported tea and marvel at their new acquisitions. Well, I shall still give them all a grand performance. Will those damned hired actors appreciate it?

……………………………………..

Dickens’s Framing and Crafts is located inside a storefront on one end of a nondescript strip mall. The entry and front walls are all glass, facing the parking lot. Inside, one wall is covered in quarter frame samples and the other is hidden behind shelves of bird feeders, wreaths, baskets, carved walking sticks, candle holders, embroidered throw pillows and anything else the bored residents of Lenningsburg might concoct. The back wall has been slightly cleared of the normal sofa art to provide a central display, for more paintings from Margaret’s home. In front of that display, a covered easel stands alone, that no doubt holds her famous painting of the Lenningsburg Pier. The small sales counter has been cleared off to accommodate cheese, crackers and punch. Anything else that may have occupied floor space, seems to have been shoved into a far corner. Dickens’s is not the greatest venue for unveiling the next featured artist in an "Art in America" magazine article. Actually a funeral home would have provided more decorum if you covered up the sign. But the reality is, that there will be no articles, beyond the Lenningsburg Herald Times coverage, unless the wire services pick it up. And that is highly unlikely, since no mention of my real name will be reported. Ahhh… the real New York crowd would have been amusing to watch here, sweltering with their discomfort in this place. Pity.

There are about fifteen, maybe twenty, people inside the place and the room already feels warm. Not surprisingly, they all seem to be elderly or at least nearing retirement. At my arrival, heralded of course by another little door chime, they’ve all stopped talking to turn and face me. By their dress and appearance, they all seem to be residents of Lenningsburg. None of them recognize me, but they all know I’m not Margaret. I’m not sure if they know who I really am or why I’m here. It’s a very awkward moment. I stand stiffly, just inside the door, remove the cheap flowered scarf from my head, which June Ellen insisted I wear, tuck it into my little white purse and smile. Aunt Miriam nods hello to several people then immediately calls for attention to address the crowd.

"Good evening. As you all know, tonight is an important moment in the history of Lenningsburg. You all know why we are here and I’m pleased to see such a nice turnout. Thank you. Well, the very first thing I must say, is that all reports indicate that Margaret Blitzenburger is resting comfortably and the Doctors seem to think that she will make a good recovery."

The group seemed to expel a large sigh of relief in unison and their mood is suddenly lighter.

"Now, I know that’s good news to everyone and she thanks you, one and all and I do urge you to continue with your prayers for Dear Margaret, so she’ll be back with us just as soon as possible. As you know, many people have worked very hard to bring us to this place tonight. Not the least, being Margaret. As you can well imagine, she is sorely disappointed that she is not here with us. But this has been a community effort as well. There’s Burt Jackson, Hello Burt! Burt’s come over to help us with the auction later tonight. Millie and Andrew Dickens of course, who have so graciously allowed us the use of their shop, and donated the framing. Well, there’s one other person who has played a big part in bringing this together, and that’s my niece. Now, I know some of you have heard me talk of her and some of you have heard me tell, how she has become quiet an authority on art and painting in New York City. I want to tell you all right now, that my niece has arranged for several, very influential and wealthy New York Art Dealers and Patrons to come all the way down here to Lenningsburg, this very evening to participate in our fund raising effort and help to make this a resounding success!"

At these words, the entire group burst into hearty applause and cheer. Approximately half of them look over toward me, some with quizzical expression, shrug and return their attention to Aunt Miriam. A few, with critical eyes, linger in survey. I do nothing to increase or hold the attention of either and continue to smile. It’s unlikely, in my Wal-Mart ensemble, heavy-handed makeup and matronly hairstyle, that the majority suspects my true identity. I’m sure that even in Lenningsburg, they’ve seen enough television to expect a big city hotshot, to dress with much more drama, style and flair. Whoever they think I might be, "big city hotshot" has not crossed into their minds. Clearly, Aunt Miriam is going to spell it all out for these folks and shortly, I’m going to be the center of attraction. I must surely believe that she and June Ellen have rightly determined that these people will except this massive deception. And, hopefully, none of them will ever realize the true depth and focus of my own deceit. It seems a victimless ruse, but the fact remains, people don’t take well to being conned. I begin to feel an acute uneasiness in my predicament, far beyond the strictures of my girdle.

"Thank you. Yes, we are all quite excited with this prospect. Now, I must tell about one little change we’ve made in the itinerary. Well. Now, it seems; according to my niece, who certainly is well versed in these matters, that these high fluting art collectors like to hobnob with the artist. They like to talk with her and fine out things about the painting and such. It makes them feel more involved and a little more generous. Well, since Margaret’s all laid up and needs her rest, it just wouldn’t be right to drag the whole crowd over to Fayetteville Memorial. So, what my niece, has suggested, is that she’d be willing to step in for Margaret. Since she; my niece, is all educated in artist things and knows how to talk to the people who buy these paintings, she’s going to play the part of Margaret."

Complete and utter silence greet these words. You could definitely hear the proverbial pin drop in this room. Even the few, who’ve smirked early on, seem lost for words at this revelation.

"And now, with no further ado, I’d like to present, "Maggie!"

Silence. Total silence. No hurrahs, no groans, no cheers, no gasps, no furrowed brows, no smiles, nothing! I can’t read their faces. Damn! This is what a jury looks like right before they deliver the bad news.

"Yes, Maggie! Yes, I know what you’re thinking. I don’t have a niece named Maggie. Well, for this to work, she has to be Maggie. And, we all have to call her Maggie. You can call her Margaret, if you want to, but if that makes you uncomfortable or might make you give pause, then call her Maggie. So, now, don’t you even think anymore about my niece. Forget her! There can’t be any slip up. She’s Maggie! It’s that plain and simple. So, here she is… Maggie!"

The jury seems more then a little taken back by Aunt Miriam’s proposition. I keep smiling at them. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to jump in here and say something or what. It’s all extremely awkward. In groups of two and three, they lean together and began to discuss, what I assume is their willingness to accept this last minute switch. One of the rubes, actually raises his hand.

"Well, Miriam! Dang it all! Aren’t these fancy people from New York going to take one look at her and know she ain’t Margaret? I mean, I know she ain’t Margaret!"

"No, Benjamin. This isn’t how… MAGGIE… normally looks. This is Margaret’s outfit. Maggie’s wearing the very same outfit that Margaret bought, especially for tonight and had hanging on the back of her closet door. And we spent almost all day over at June Ellen’s, so June Ellen could fix her hair exactly the same way she fixes Margaret’s hair. Now, Benjamin, Don’t you think she looks like Margaret?"

Well, Dang! Well, yes she does. She’s the spitting image of Margaret. She could even be her sister at the least. Dang! You mean you have her all fixed up to look just like Margaret, wearing her same clothes and everything and these fancy people ain’t even gonna know the difference?"

"That’s right, Benjamin and that’s certainly what we hope."

God, how embarrassing! It seems to be taking a real long time for this to sink into his befuddled brain. What a moron! He’s an unbelievable sight, dressed completely in sky blue and white polyester. Blue blazer, blue shirt, white tie, blue and white checked pants, white belt and of course, white shoes. If nothing else, Mister Fashion King Benjamin and his comb over hair, stand out as the most ill conceived peacock in the entire room! I dismiss this grotesque, only to realize that made over as I am, in Margaret’s image; I look to be his equal, his royally bizarre Fashion Queen! God, he keeps staring at me, as his mouth slowly opens into a giant grin like he’s the Cheshire Cat! God! I hope the whole night doesn’t go like this!

Your little niece from New York, Huh? Well. I’ll be danged, banged! She sure is a pretty little one. I’d be right honored to hold her hand and show her off around town!"

"Now Benjamin, you behave yourself this evening. I know it’s Saturday Night, but you just remember why we’re all here!"

The entire crowd broke into raucous laughter at his suggestive and provocative comment. I am mortified in the sudden realization that, beside any trials I may yet face this evening, I may now have to fend the advances of this lecherous old bull.

"Alright, now just remember everyone. When the New York people arrive, we must all be on our best behavior, so watch your P’s and Q’s! We want them to have a good time and let’s just all show them how friendly Lenningsburg can really be!"

Benjamin has certainly broken the ice, so to speak. Aunt Miriam turns her attention to the Dickens couple and abandons me to the crowd. If I was expected to make a little speech of acceptance or introduction, that time is already passed. The entire assemblage surrounds me in a tight circle, asking questions and seeming to all speak at once. Everyone seems to have bad breath or wear too much perfume or cologne. Is it me, or is it stifling hot in here!

High on my agenda, from a purely tactical perspective, is the need to study the Lenningsburg Pier painting closely and then analyze the rest of Margaret’s work, so at least, I’ll know what they’re titled. It’s harder to cross the room then it ought to be. Lyle Clark is convinced he’s met me before at the Fayetteville Fair. Robert and Belinda Smith are desperate to know if I am saved and will not release my arm, until I promise to attend the Blessed Never Ending Redemption Church as their honored guest in the morning. Jonathan and Louisa May Lynchfield are co-chairpersons of the Lenningsburg Historical Society and they just don’t know how they’ll ever thank me enough and make me promise to join them for Sunday Dinner tomorrow, as a special favor to their grand daughter. Charlotte Delmyra Bouregard wants to know all about the paintings I sell in New York. She is just tickled to death to have a famous artist to talk to after all these years, because she is also a painter, but not nearly as good as Dear Margaret Blitzenburger. I tell her that I’m not really an artist anymore, I’m now an artist’s representative and that I am here to represent Margaret and show her work. She listens carefully as I distinguish the differences and then asks me if I use more then two blues when I paint a sky. I repeat that I do not paint, to which she explains in great detail that, of course I paint because Margaret is a wonderful painter and I am Margaret tonight. It now makes perfect sense to me.

I finally reach the painting of the pier, lift the draped cloth and bend forward as best I can in my confines, when I feel a soft but sure pressure at the small of my back.

"That sure is one dang nice painting ya got there, MAGGIE! But, I gotta tell ya, it sure don’t look as fine as you!"

Geezus, if it isn’t that string brained Benjamin idiot! He moves his face right down next to mine, as the hand on my back slowly begins to discover the steel stays previously camouflaged by my clothing. I cannot believe he’s coming on to me like this. I do not wish to draw embarrassing attention to his unwelcome advances; or myself, but I do need to get this hog off of me right now.

"Well, dang me, I do like a woman that’s taught, right down to the bone." You are one wiry little lady!"

"Benjamin! Please take your hand off of me right this minute! Why, I don’t even know you. Why, you’ve been drinking, but that is still no excuse, I expect you to behave like a gentleman. And so does Miriam!"

"Well, hell yes! That’s right! I’m Benjamin Jay Summers, the Third. Always the gentleman! Most call me Ben, but my friends call me Big Ben! And Maggie, you for sure, are gonna be my friend!"

With that announcement, he gives me an agonizingly, exaggerated wink as if to underline his intent! What a freaking creep! Under any other circumstance, I would haul off and slap his face into the next county. I am at a complete loss for words. I cannot create a scene here. Not now! Somehow, I do have to take the starch out of his pants. I straighten up to face him.

"Benajamin."

"You just call me Big Ben, Maggie."

"Big Ben. All right. You know we all have to be on our best behavior tonight. There will be some very important people here tonight. That means we all have to be good. People mustn’t think there’s something going on between us. Now you just be a good boy and we’ll see about later."

God! I can’t believe I’m saying this! It must be that the chemicals in the perm have fried my brain. Lord, I sound like my grandmother. It must be the clothes. It seems to be working, though. He still holds the smile of a baboon, but he’s removed his hand and backed off. I need to mingle or something. Maybe I can find some safety around other people. Perhaps I can distract him with a mission. I give him my best, sweet little old lady little smile.

"Why don’t you be a dear and get me a cup of that punch?"

"God! What have I done? Did I just lead him on and invite him back? Why do I feel humiliated?"

……………………………………..

At that very moment, the screech of tires, out front, drew everyone’s attention to the parking lot.

"Shusssssshhhhhh! It looks like two vans just pulled up. I’ll bet it’s those New York Aristocrats, that’s arrived! Now everybody be quiet!"

Oh Lord! I don’t know exactly which one of this group blurted that out! What are these people planning to do, jump out and shout "SURPRISE", when they walk through the door? And the Fayetteville Troubadours! What the hell are they doing, pulling up here, like a bunch of circus clowns in a couple of buses? Geezus! I can only hope these Lenningsburgians, or what ever you call them, think ALL New York Aristocrats, travel in packs in rented vans! The night is shaping up to one real astounding, slapstick, couple of hours! The clowns in the parking lot, masquerading as big city aristocrats. I’m masquerading as Margaret the Artist. The Lenningsburgians think they’re fooling the aristocrats, while these pseudo aristocratic actors think they’re fooling them… and me as well, since they don’t have a clue I’m now Margaret! Any of this, would be more then enough of a challenge, without Big Ben the Third, intent on hound-dogging me into submission! This is definitely a triple-crown circus and I’m the juggler in center ring! How am I ever going to keep all of this from blowing up in my face?

"BONJURNO! My Friends!"

Oh… My… God! They’ve burst into Dickens’s like opening night at Carnegie Hall on Acid! The little bell over the door clangs for dear life like a fire alarm as they troop in; one after the other. They look to me like they’ve pillaged their theatre’s entire costume department. The plain and simple folk of Lenningsburg are struck dumb! These Fayetteville Thespians are dressed in slightly moth eaten finery, spanning more then a century of varied fashion. Thank God, none of them have dressed as far back as the Elizabethan era! My eyes dart about the room. What do these simple folk think of this? Do they even believe their eyes? I feel I must rush up to them, or say something, do anything to defuse this, this time bomb! This is the cultural equivalent of the Titanic meeting the iceberg! Oh, God! I’m supposed to be Margaret! I’m not supposed to know who they are. I must stay in character, play my part, I must be Maggie! Whatever happens next, I must behave like a sweet little old Lenningsburg lady, it’s the only choice I have.

The actors are ON. They’re pumped! They’re here for a jolly good time. They want to spend my money. They’re wildly greeting each other again, laughing and slapping each others backs, as if they haven’t just spent the last two and a half hours cooped up with each other in a van. Doesn’t anyone but me, think they’re way over the top? This is unreal! I am silently screaming in desperation; when finally, Aunt Miriam approaches their group.

"Good evening. Welcome to Dickens’s Framing and Crafts. I’m Mrs. Miriam…"

"MIRIAM! Of COURSE! How WONDERFUL to meet YOU! AHhhhhhh… Dickens, is it? But of COURSE! It makes PERFECT sense. So this is Lenningsburg? Delightfully, quaint little village you have here… or should that be BURG? Ha, HA! We’ve heard sooooooo much about it! Delightful! Wonderful! It’s GREAT to finally be here. Yes indeed. I was just in saying to my comrades in arms, how relaxing it shall be this fine evening, divorced of the Cacophony of Broadway! We shall hear crickets in the trees!"

"Well, yes, we do find it rather nice living here in Lenningsburg. I trust you had no trouble in finding us. Did you have a pleasant trip? It’s certainly a great honor for us, to have you come all of this way, down from New York for our grand unveiling of Margaret Blitzenburger’s wonderful new…"

"MARGARET!" Wonderful! What a MARVELOUS name! Margaret must be the new ARTIST! SMASHING! We’ve heard sooooooo much about her EXTRAORDINARY talent and her WONDERFUL painting! We all do so hope to meet her! Is she present? Where is the Great Gifted One!"

"Well, yes. As I was saying. Margaret, well Maggie actually, has been working…"

"MAGGIE! Maggie is it! That’s sooooooo DARLING! Where is the DELIGHTFUL little urchin?"

Just how much have I overpaid these fools? He’s pouring it on way too thick. What a rank amateur! He’s stepping all over Aunt Miriam’s lines! Geezus, If he’d just shut up for a minute and let Miriam get a word in, we could move on to the auction and put me out of my misery!

"Yes, it’s Maggie. Well, I guess you’ve certainly all come a long way to meet her. Maggie! Would you please come forward and join us? I would like you to meet our guests, Mr… Why, I don’t believe I’ve caught your name."

"TRUMP! Cornelious D. Trump!"

"Mister Trump! For land’s sake, it IS an honor! Well Mister Trump, I’d surely like to introduce you to our Maggie. Maggie Blitzenburger. Maggie, may I take pleasure in the greatest of honors in presenting Mister Cornelious D. Trump. Mister Trump and his friends are with us tonight, to help in the raising of funds for the new Lenningsburg Community Pier, by bidding on your wonderful painting! Isn’t this just thrilling!"

Damn! The balls on this guy! Trump, my ass! And he’s so damn loud! This framing shop isn’t that big, where does he think he is? I’m sure everyone can hear him all the way out in the parking lot. Then he takes my hand in a sweeping stage bow and plants one huge wet kiss on top of it!

"Misses Blitzenburger! I am DELIGHTED! You are EVERY bit as charming as they say!"

"Why, Mister TRUMP! You flatter me so! It is truly an honor for me to meet you! Tee, Hee!"

I pinch the side of my skirt and pull it slightly to the side, as I dip into as much of the curtsy afforded by my stays, as is comfortable. The oaf refuses to release my hand and remains bent before me, smiling broadly into my face. The smell of cheap whiskey drips from his tongue! Great, am I to be accosted by drunks all night! I am forced to hold my smile, try to appear fascinated by his charm and suppress my basic desire to tell him he’s fired and get the hell out! Geezus! Let go of my damn hand! Geezus! I haven’t really been coached in Margaret’s mannerisms and acutely aware of my part in this conspiracy, I realize that I must remain pleasant and cordial at all cost.

"Why, Mister TRUMP! You really MUST meet the rest of our community. They are ALL very anxious to meet you. And, My now, just who are all your friends? Won’t you introduce me to them all?"

"Well dang me, if you ain’t Mister Trump! Well, I heard a whole lot about you! Dang, if I never did think I’d meet up with the likes of you real close. I’m Benjamin Jay Summers, the Third. Most call me Ben, but my friends call me Big Ben! Ain’t that right, Maggie?"

"Ahhhh… Yes Benjamin, ah, Big Ben. That’s right."

"Maggie’s a special lady you know. She’s very dear to my heart!"

Geezus! Big Ben the Third has rushed to my side and now has his left arm around my waist and his right extended to shake the alleged Trump’s hand. Geezus! What the hell is he doing? The bogus Trump is momentarily caught off guard and with a startled look on his face, releases my hand and straightens. I don’t need Big Ben coming to my aid like this. I can handle these clowns! Is he jealous! At first, it’s hard for me to tell what he’s up to. He’s now pumping The Trump’s hand like he’s working a tire jack and the look on The Trump’s face; indicates he’s got the grip of a bear trap. He continues to pile on the compliments, but I sense a strong undercurrent of raw sarcasm in his words. His arm remains around my waist and he’s now pulled me tightly against him. This display is not lost on The Trump.

WELL! Mister Summers! It’s DELIGHTFUL to meet you. And you must be Maggie’s paramour as well? Well, isn’t that just LOVELY!"

"WHAT did you just call me?"

"Paramour, Ben, a paramour. A paramour is like a, ah… it’s ah, kind of like a special friend, yes, that’s it… a friend! He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s not calling you anything bad. It’s just how they talk in New York. Now why don’t you say hello to the rest of Mister Trump’s friends?"

The Trump looked straight at Benjamin and gave him a big conspiratorial wink!

"It means, LOVER, my good man!"

Shit! You bastard! You asshole! Well, everyone in Dickens’s just thought that was totally hilarious. Both groups exploded in laughter. The only one that isn’t laughing is me.

"Well, she is too!"

Oh! GREAT! Oh NO! This is so WRONG! I stole a glance up toward Benjamin. He isn’t laughing either. No! He’s grinning like he just won the drawing for the prize pig at the county fair! He’s shaking his head up and down like the fool has just pronounced us man and wife! At no point has he relinquished his grasp of my waist and I am so tightly pulled to him that I fear I shall be lifted off my feet like a rag doll! I have never felt so humiliated in my entire twenty-eight years! My eyes dart about, looking at Aunt Miriam for help. She is not laughing; she looks shocked!

"Why, of COURSE she IS! A great painter like Maggie surely MUST be a PASSIONATE woman! Such an unbridled spirit is unquestionably presumptive of artistic GENIUS!"

"Pre… What you say?"

"PRESUMPTIVE! Presumptive my good MAN! Expected! KNOWN to BE!"

"Well, Dang, Bang! Yeah! Ain’t that so, Maggie?"

Oh God! These two are just feeding off of each other! They are both out of control and the crowd is just eating it up! Aunt Miriam! Help me! Do something! PLEASE!

"Ahem. Gentlemen! My word! Benjamin, please. You’ll soon have Dear Maggie bouncing around the room like we’re at the dance at Freddie’s Starlight Lounge! We really must continue with our introductions all around. There’s much to do yet, tonight."

This pair of roosters seem to regain some composure at her words and let go of each other’s hands, but the fire and excitement remain in their eyes. The Trump is very much intent on projecting his pomposity and Benjamin is bubbling like a groom on his wedding night. He suddenly pulls me right to him, encircles my body in both of his arms and plants a wet one fully right on my lips. I am blown away! I meekly submit to his unprecedented lead, remain within his arms and allow this invasion to proceed unchallenged. Sweet Geezus! Is there no end to my humiliation?

"BRAVO! MAGNIFICENTICO! And NOW! If I may have your attention, PLEASE! May I draw your attention to the BELLE of LONDON, Lady Diana Charles Elizabeth!"

The embarrassing and thunderous applause ringing my ears, as Benjamin unabashedly holds me locked in the kiss of death, paused for a moment at these booming words. Lady Diana? Is he out of his ever-loving mind? No sooner do I scoff at this latest absurdity, when the room is wildly applauding again. Benjamin finally releases me and looks up. The woman is brazen in a red sequin dress and Marilyn Monroe wig. Twenty-five pounds of costume diamonds drape around her neck, hang from her ears and adorn a tiara about her head. How can these Lenningsburg folk accept this astounding caricature as any kind of reality? Free of Benjamin, I force myself once again to suffer a curtsey and reach out for her hand.

"How do you do your Highness. Please excuse me, if I don’t know how to address you properly. Thank you so very much for choosing to grace my opening and our auction tonight. I believe I speak for us all when I say how thrilled and honored we are in your attendance."

She took my hand in hers and leaned forward.

"Orange."

"What? Orange? I don’t understand."

"Orange lipstick. You have orange lipstick on your teeth."

The rest of the introductions go straight down hill from there. Thankfully, Aunt Miriam has pretty much stepped up and taken over this duty. I don’t remember any more of the strange names the actors have picked for themselves. I don’t catch the rest of the names of the Lenningsburg folk either, as they are introduced. I am pretty much reduced to a babbling idiot now. I just keep mumbling something about being honored and pleased to meet you and shake their hands. Benjamin has not left my side for one second. I glance down and realize that I am desperately holding onto his arm like I am lost without him. For his part, he’s acting like he’s been my protector and companion forever. It’s all a little blurry. I feel remote, detached from my body, not truly a part of these goings on. I feel like I’m tied to tracks before a run-a-way train. It’s seems just a matter of time, before I am found out, tarred, feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Maggie! MAGGIE! Are you all right? You seem like your mind is a million miles away. Come on, you must say your piece about the painting, so Burt can begin the auction. Go on over there now."

"What? Aunt Miriam? What? Yes! The painting, yes, I must tell them about the painting."

"Benjamin. Be a Dear and please help Maggie over there, she seems a bit overcome in all of the excitement. Maggie, Now pull yourself together. Remember your training. You’ve done this before. You know this is an important night for everyone."

Yes. It’s important. The painting is important. I must talk about the painting. What do I know of it though? What can I say? What am I doing here? I didn’t paint this! This is fearsome! I look up at Benjamin for reassurance. He is smiling down at me and gives my hand a little squeeze. I return his smile. He is so strong. I’ll be all right. I can get through this. I lower my eyes to the painting. I remember now. It’s the Lenningsburg Pier.

"The Lenningsburg Pier was destroyed by a hurricane…"

I talked, but I do not know what words I say. They’re just silly words. Nothing makes sense to me. Everyone stares at me, silently and reverently hanging onto every sound I make. I am uncomfortable. My breathing is labored. I’ve been taking shortened breaths all night. I thought I had it down. I though I was adjusted to this corset girdle thing. I am feeling light headed again.

"Oh, Benjamin!"

Yes, Maggie?"

"I… I…"

"Benjamin! The drape! Help Maggie with the drape. Take it off the painting!"

"Aunt Miriam?"

"Maggie! Oh Dear! Benjamin! Please help me with drape, then help Maggie, she seems nearly faint in all the excitement! There! Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you, the Lenningsburg Pier, painted by Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger!"

There is pounding in my head! Noise! Clapping! Everyone is clapping their hands loudly. They shout out words at me. Bravo! Wonderful! Marvelous! The crowd surges toward me, surrounds me, touches me. Bravo! Wonderful! Marvelous! They are smiling and talking at me, all at the same time! It is so hot in here! It’s horrible! I cringe away from their advance, they will not let me alone. I slink backward into the arms of Benjamin for solace and support. Benjamin, Big Benjamin holds me close.

"Dang, Maggie, you seem a little flushed! You ok?"

"Bemjamin!"

"That’s Big Ben to you, Maggie. You all want to step outside for a little breath of the cool night air?"

"Oh, Big Ben! Yes! That would be so nice. Please!"

We moved away from the painting, the center of attraction and the throng of loud people. Big Ben parts a pathway to escort me toward the front door. As we approach the front, the bright lights of the shop interior, against the now darkened outside, transform the window glass into a mirror. I see the reflection of an elderly couple before me. They are a couple. I know that because they dress and appear to compliment one another. The man appears tall, perhaps in his late fifties, dressed in a festive, color coordinated blue and white outfit. He has a well-developed paunch over his stomach and perhaps, self-conscious in loosing hair, has taken to combing long strands of it across the top of his head. The woman appears slightly older. She seems docile, prim in her demeanor beneath the restrained set of her tightly permed bubble of hair. Her conservative style of dress is slightly in conflict with the bold floral pattern of her jacket, large yellow earrings and the eccentric application of makeup. They are a cute, senior couple, dotting over each other, hanging on each other’s arms.

"Big Ben. Would you be a Dear and fetch my purse?"

"Sure Maggie."

I hear the soothing, singsong, meandering of Burt’s melodious auction voice, as Ben walks off. It’s started now. Burt’s operatic warble rises and falls, punctuated by short spontaneous shouts of here, here and amen. It is a pleasing sound and puts me at ease. I see Big Ben reclaim my purse and turn back to me. He has a soft smile on his face. He’s been good to me this evening. I return his smile.

"Here you go Maggie."

I smile again for him as I retrieve my scarf from the purse, lift it over my head to tie a dainty knot beneath my chin. There might be a chill in the air. When it’s secure, Big Ben pushes the door open and we step outside. It is a clear night and the sky is filled with a billion sparkling stars. The cool air is invigorating.

"Maggie, Darlin’. I know you’ve been on your gull darn feet for a long time here and there’s really no dang place to sit down in this dang old parking lot. If you’d like, we could sit a spell in my truck. It’s a crew cab and there’s pretty much room."

Why thank you, Big Ben. I do believe I would like that."

Big Ben took my hand in his and led the way to his truck. It is nice to be away from the heady and raucous commotion inside Dickens’s. The walk through the parking lot is relaxing and we do not hurry. At his truck, Big Ben is a perfect gentleman, opening the door for me and helping me, lifting me actually, with his strong hands about my waist into the passenger seat. With a smile, he closes my door and starts around the front to the driver’s side.

"Now don’t you run off on me, Maggie!"

Big Ben is still grinning like a young schoolboy, as he climbs in and joins me in the cab. It would be such a joy to finally let my body just melt into this soft bench seat. It’s been a strenuous day for me. I have no idea now, how long I’ve been awake, or even when this journey began? I wish I could go to sleep right here. It’s not easy to get comfortable, trying to sit in this girdle thing. The steel stays do have slight flexibility, but they protest strongly, pinching me across my abdomen. I move my bottom toward the forward edge of the bench seat and gingerly lean back into an awkward semi-reclining position.

"Maggie, if you want, you can scrunch over a little bit more toward the middle. Then you can put your legs up on the dang seat and get comfortable. Don’t worry about your dang shoes, either. There’s been worse things then your Pretty Pegs, on this old seat."

It’s an enticing suggestion and there is certainly enough room on this bench for me to stretch out. By rocking slightly onto my left hip, I am able to swing my legs up, but in the process I nearly fall against Big Ben’s shoulder.

"Don’t you go and be getting shy on me, Maggie. You can lean up against me."

He’s right of course and the next thing I know, I’m stretched about full out, with my feet up against the door panel and my head resting comfortably on his lap. God, this is wonderful. The strain is finally off my body. I really could go to sleep like this. Ben drops his hand from the top of the seat back to my shoulder and begins a slow massage. Mmmm, that does feel so good. The gentle motions are mesmerizing. His hand moves easily to the side of my neck, fingers probing around the tightly buttoned collar of my blouse, brush against my freshly shaved nape. Mmmm, I feel a sudden electric tingle along the length of my spine. Ohhh… that is so nice. The tips of his fingers are so soft, back and forth, mmmm… my skin is so sensitive there. This is wonderful. His touch is so peaceful. My head burrows ever so slightly, as I settle in, his warm lap is like a soft pillow for me. Warmth radiates against my cheek and then I feel him stir. It is a small twitch, almost indiscernible. I am not even sure if he’s actually moved or I’ve imagined it. The he moves again. He is growing beneath me. Oh, My!

"Dang Maggie! In another dang gone minute you’re going to find out why they call me Big Ben! And, I’ll tell you, it’s going to get mighty uncomfortable for me. I don’t suppose you all’d be wanting to open up my pants a little bit and give a man some dang breathing room? I’d sure be mighty obliged."

His words are accompanied by a sudden growth spurt.

"Dang it Maggie! You better hurry up some or I’m going to be strangled here!"

Without considering the consequence, I lift my right hand, place it into his lap and begin to fish for the zipper of his fly. A slow metallic, shritching sound fills my ear as I carefully pull it down. Once fully opened, the warm musky scent of a man fills my nostrils, and I raise my head slightly to ease my fingers between his parted pants. His lusty member remains trapped beneath the material of boxer type underwear. I search further for a second opening, before a another surge increases the length and girth of his growing frustration. Ben groans in desperation at my ineptitude. In another moment, I have him in hand and tug and twist him through his openings. Another long groan escapes his lips.

"Dang it all, Maggie. You got to be a little more easy getting out old Ben. That about smarts!"

"I’m sorry Ben. Is it better now?"

"Well, just!"

I laid my head back down on his lap. His member, now fully released, throbs beneath my cheek and along his left thigh. I watch fascinated, as it extends outward, beyond my left eye. I can feel his pulse through it. It moves, synchronized to each beat of his heart, growing larger and longer, it begins to rise, lifting it’s self before me. I bring my hand back to touch it, encircle it within my fingers. It continues to grow and pulsate.

"You know what would be nice, Maggie?"

"What?"

"If you was to put your lips around it. You know, nurse it some. You know, like when you was a baby."

"I didn’t ever nurse something like this when I was a baby."

"Maggie, Geez! That ain’t what I mean. I mean, didn’t you nurse when you was a baby? Didn’t that make you feel all warm and comfortable? I’m just saying, if you was to nurse on it now, it’d make you feel all warm and comfortable again, is all. Dang! Don’t it feel pretty warm already? I know it would sure make me feel all warm and comfortable out here in this old cold truck."

"I don’t know, it sure seems to be getting awfully big!"

Oh, Maggie, You just go on and put your mouth around it and close your pretty eyes and nurse and suckle on it and you’ll be purring and feeling real good in no time."

He rises like a stone pillar right in front of my face. He’s gotten thicker to the point where my fingertips just graze the end of my thumb as I hold on to him. Without thinking, I’ve been slowly stroking my hand up and down the shaft, feeling the course texture of thick veins, passing over my palm. Ben’s hand is on my ear, toying with the big plastic daisy, he doesn’t seem to be in any hurry, content to let me full fill my desire on my own. I struggle to free my left arm, wedged beneath my body, moving that hand to support myself on the seat as I raise my mouth to the helmet shaped knob at his end. I am so close to it. I open my mouth. I take a deep breath and exhale, my tongue circles my lips. I open my mouth again, wider this time, I am right over the head, paused to savor the excitement of what I am about to do, I shake with the anticipation, wider, wider, as wide as my mouth can be. And then I plunge down, down as deeply as I can, until his fat helmeted head, strikes the very back of my throat and I gag and lurch forward on it, involuntarily driving it even deeper. My lips close tightly around the shaft and I suck deeply and draw on it. I gag again, the lurching reflex ripples through my throat, breaking suction until I clasp my lips tightly and repurchase his meaty shaft again. It is a convulsive, violent motion. Spasmodic, gagging, contractions reverberate from the pit of my stomach, upward through my throat, heaving me forward each time, mouth wide, slobbering, desperate to swallow his entire length before my lips seal and I suck, suck as hard as I can. In this manner, I am impaled on his full length, my lips buried deeply within his pubic hairs, locked around the very base of his rigid bone. Tears stream from my eyes as my entire body is wracked with a hundred orgasmic convulsions centered around his manhood.

"Dang, Bang, Maggie! Take me! EEEEYOOOOOOWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!! Take my boys HOME!

He is pumping me madly. Both of his hands locked behind my head, pulling me into the full depth of his groin, as if to pull his entire self completely into me. I swallow his hot flush, it bathes my throat, fills and warms my stomach. I greedily gulp him down until he slows to a dribble and I just lay there, absorbing him. Our hearts are both pounding hard, the only sound in the world now. I stay on him then; suckle him and nurse from him, warm and comfortable at last.

Ben’s fingers play idly at the tangle of tight curls on my head, still secure beneath my crisp nylon scarf. They comfort and caress along the bare skin of my nape. His touch is soft and soothing. Mmm, I feel so safe and secure with my Big Ben. He has no cares for what pretense has brought me to this place. My deception is of no concern to him, Ben has taken me at face value. I had forced him to confront an ostentatious parody of the people and life, I’ve assimilated in my own world of art. The egomania, backstabbing, posturing and scheming, the shameless performances focused solely on recognition and adoration, the exaggerated intellectualism. It is all it’s own fiction. What I had brought upon Lenningsburg, wasn’t any more false then my "real" world of international art. The good people of Lenningsburg are simple, straight and honest. They say what they mean and mean what they say. They had expected that of me. They know I’m not Margaret Eleanor Blitzenburger, but they accepted that my assumption of her image was what I required to do my job. I was the professional. Yes, It’s true I’m not Margaret, but when I saw myself with Ben, in the reflection of the glass, I was Maggie. It is a comforting image. Serene and mature. I really do need some serenity and maturity in my life. It really is time for me to move onward and abandon my never-ending; and ultimately, unattainable quest to be at the pinnacle of avant-garde. Ben will give me simple direction and stability. I can wear Wal-Mart, I can sit under June Ellen’s hands and have her fix my hair. I can play bingo and go dancing with Big Ben at Freddie’s Starlight Lounge. I can be Maggie.

Dang, Maggie! For an old lady you sure do please me no end. I don’t care if you ever were Miriam’s little niece from New York City, you ain’t EVER going back to that life! You’re Big Ben’s little old lady from now on and forever. Yessirre, you’re my Little Old Maggie now, it’s what you want and you KNOW it! And that’s fer Dang Sure!"

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