. . . because he could tell I came from the lower end of things where parents named their children Floyd and because I had big bright blue bedroom eyes like a little boy named Floyd he knew in grade school and I slouched like the lower classes and he thought I looked easy which at that time was not entirely off the mark and he put all this together and came up with the nickname Floyd-Eyes even though he was, of course, intensely aware that I was female, gloriously. He picked me and me alone from among a sneering line-up of big city girls absolutely arrogant of their future position among the catwalk greats.
Haute Houcke has a bright Fairfield Porter he can no longer see —three tourists in white deck chairs on a green lawn overlooking an Atlantic becalmed and radiant. He saw it once when he bought it. Then Guinevere, his wife at the time, put it on the wall. And that, ipso facto, was that. It presided over an apartment-atelier overflowing with drug addicts, whores, penitents, vomiting Dachshunds, deposed royalty and trust-fund revolutionaries. I hadn’t seen Houcke in thirty years but I knew that painting was in exactly the same place. Guinevere, the drug addicts, the Dachshunds and the Che brigade are long gone, I don’t know where. The penitents and royals live together in Miami. Perhaps they’re learning something from each other. The painting and one or two durable prostitutes remain, among them an Andalusian named Inez with a ruthless, beautiful mouth who has been making his coffee, so to speak, since the day we met and who, in her own mysterious way, has not only survived and prospered amid his chaos and corruption but outlasted several wives.
One day years ago when my life was very bad and I was selling blood at the plasma center in Topeka for box wine and cigarettes I thought about this painting and Inez. I thought about them each time that needle slid in. Thank god for Fairfield Porter and his summer ocean. Thank god for Inez and her indomitable spirit. As for Houcke himself —from that lower life, from a life among those who call the gutter hearth and home, he speaks the upper tongue. His designs are not really clothes at all but in those unearthly clean lines the tangible mutterings of a spirit. Houcke not only rides the trends but bends them. It is part of his genius. “I dress for television!” he declares. Or, “It will never be Friday!” Or, “I find you attractive like my fat drunk sister.” Or, “¿De qué tamaño le necesita?” while grabbing his crotch long before Michael Jackson ever grabbed his own.
Guinevere was an astrologer who told me that when the moon moves harmoniously with Jupiter in Taurus all our troubles (blow, bulimia, Houcke, each other) would be over. The moon and Jupiter came and went a hundred times but the trouble remained. Back then Guinevere was witchy-beautiful with full curves and huge gray cat-eyes. Houcke certainly knew his women. I have no idea where she went after he dropped her, or if he found a way to cheat alimony, which is more than likely, or if she still reads the stars —or, most importantly, if she now realizes how badly the stars betrayed us both. The stars are more unreliable than god, and that’s saying something. Today when someone asks for my birthday I spit it out like a curse. As for the middle class, I am unambiguously above all that, even though Houcke once told me I am the child of a lesser god. This would be the lawn-care god, I think, the most haphazard deity in a sky absolutely bursting with haphazard deities. He does not appreciate his lesser daughter. His lesser daughter does not appreciate him.
When he called the first thing I thought was, If I’m tired, old Houcke is really tired. The awful weight of that success! Who could bear it? “Floyd-Eyes,” he says — “Good times all over again!” What a lie this is already. Don’t forget Houcke has always been a slippery little bastard and don’t ever forget what he did to you (with you? —I honestly can’t remember) in that tiny Stockholm kitchen, that ambidextrous little slut who is never what you think he is. Houcke found a way to neutralize all my childhood conditioning. All too soon my white was a puke shade of olive drab, and heretofore black suddenly all-too-white, burning me like a false and deadly sun. Yet with Houcke those aspects of my life I had considered broken came together all at once and made something whole and powerful. You’re with me now, he said without saying, and all your life has led to this. Close your eyes. Surrender.
I had surrendered to Houcke long before I knew the full meaning of that word. I had surrendered instinctively, as a dog before a master, as a mortal before a god. As an offering it was neither proud nor dignified, but it was the best I could do.
He told me to stop smoking immediately. I did, of course, weakling that I am, even after all these years away from him. I can smell you from here, he said. I was ashamed. Your Marlboros stink all the way to New Jersey, Floyd-Eyes. Pray for health. Your health and my health. The enterprise depends on it.
I have found praying for health to be as utterly useless as praying for love, or money or rain. The lawn care god is a stingy god who blesses, if you can call it that, with crumbs tossed from a grimy hand. So far as I know he speaks only Spanish heavily accented with the Texas border. There’s not much there for a girl like me, but he’s the only god I’ve got.
Kansas City smells like a dime store. Here I can live for next to nothing if you call this living. I am humbled by many years of unemployment, especially the employment for which the lawn-care god created me, which is tramping down an elevated catwalk before a thousand shining eyes. What did I do for Houcke? I painted his astonishing garments with light. Electricity jumped between my skin and his nimble bias-cuts. My long hillbilly legs paced those runways as naturally as the hallway from bed to lavatory. I gave his ideas a heartbeat, turning the planes of my body and the cuts and colors of his fabrics into aurora borealis before their very eyes. I did not capture the light, I set it free. That’s what I did. It was not enough. Suddenly it didn’t matter, any old thing goes out there in fashion land and Houcke goes with it. Houcke drives it. Goodbye, Floyd-Eyes, he says. I hope you land on your feet but I’m not optimistic. It’s a savage business and the wide wide world is worse. You’re on your own, at least for now. I’m sorry.
I had a quick offer to play Mattress Mary for a furniture store in Chicago and lay about all day in a see-through nighty while the suits gawked and the dowagers clucked. After Paris? No thanks, and anyway if I’m going to be paid meat it will be standing-up meat. I smelled that trouble a long time ago and to my vast credit and in due course married a Wall St. guy, then expeditiously divorced him and saved up the last of the alimony. Yes, I managed to squirrel away a few pesos while Mr. Big Bucks was living low on the hog with a series of sixteen-year-olds strangely reminiscent of my younger self that he had in actual fact leased from their white-trash mothers. Now he’s got late-stage prostate cancer and I send a card once in a while: Get Well Soon! Of course my get-well cards are shit sandwiches on whole wheat bread and he knows it, which makes it even more entertaining. At this hopeless point in his life he just wolfs them down. He was an investment banker, of course. We all married them. After a long string of the more or less destitute they didn’t seem so bad. This was one of the many compensations of Houcke: At some point one heeds his example and shoots high.
In Kansas City I live among people who think Balenciaga is a Mexican restaurant and Côte d'Ivoire a candy bar. They couldn’t locate Milan if you held a gun to their heads, but they know more about barbiturates than the druggist, especially the hausfraus who are all so uniformly fat and stupid one could reasonably argue they possess identical genes. What a life! So when King Shit calls from New York and you haven’t heard from him in decades and your life is crap and you simply exist amongst the supremely bewildered American proletariat and he offers you a window seat on Delta 1148 where you can drink cup after little white cup of good black coffee while looking magically down upon the rest of the continent all the way to LaGuardia —well, you don’t ask why.
Houcke once did a show in Amsterdam featuring suicide vests, black plastic sheets and Confederate battle flags. Another in Rotterdam with explosives actually sewn into lacy underwear and bras. He called this “Honeymoon in Baghdad.” Several times in several places I walked completely nude for Houcke, if you don’t count the six-inch Blahniks and nipple rings, once with a tampon string hanging out of me to which he had affixed tiny red plastic figurines of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck en flagrante delicto.
After Houcke dropped me there were three predicable seasons of peek-a-boos and baby-dolls, including plus-size PJ’s (I’d added a few pounds) with drop-flaps in the butt. Then a job modeling “sporting wear” featuring yours truly half naked —one time in a camouflage vest stuffed with ammunition, holding a shotgun. The client wanted the vest unbuttoned down to there, no blouse, no bra. I know how this works. Misdirection is a crucial component in the theory underlying all fashion. Even sporting wear knows this. So when Dick Cheney shoots his friend in the face I fully understand. Obviously old Dick was thinking of something else.
When “sporting wear” finally ended I lost those pounds and spent a year teaching belly dancing in Santa Fe to California transplants with bad lip jobs and an unseemly penchant for Humboldt marijuana. Another year in Taos doing “sonic healing” for faux-hippies with turquoise pendants big as your hand and leather coats worth three-thousand dollars. A season boning up on Vlad the Impaler for a more-or-less permanent Halloween gig I’d been promised as Vladette in the tradition of the great Coors Light Beer Elvira, who bore such a striking resemblance to Houcke’s Guinevere that for some years I assumed it was her and actually bought the beer. There was one very hot summer with a heroin addict on a street corner in San Antonio selling suction-cup Madonnas —surprisingly profitable until he overdosed himself one broiling night and I called the disgusting dynasty he considered family and they flew him off to rehab in the Atlas Mountains. I didn’t have enough confidence in the Virgin of Guadalupe to sell her semblance in that dangerous place all by myself. I never saw him again. Then a seminar in the middle of the northwest New Mexico desert dealing circuitously with feminine soul travel wherein I happened one late morning upon the resident “soul master” pawing his way through my laundry and sniffing my panties —as if familiarity with the private perfumes of his students were actually essential to training in transmigration. Two months with Hare Krishnas proselytizing around Los Angeles. We hitchhiked everywhere. This is what I learned: Anything you need is on the side of the road.
There were men: A Brazilian architect who actually theorized a scheduling problem for the final Resurrection of the Dead and told predictable Catholic jokes but who was never able to elaborate that subtle correlation between his comedy and his faith. He was also, unaccountably, a Justice Clarence Thomas aficionado, which certainly hints at much deeper issues. A cop, a fireman, another cop (as if I hadn’t got my fill of these lunatics); a series of shotgun shacks with brutal but attractive working men; a vicious drunk who swore he was in treatment but could only come up with the first name of his addiction counselor and I’m pretty sure he pulled that out of his ass and who, or so I heard, was later put away for screwing his fifteen-year-old daughter after they’d shacked-up at a Motel 6 in Oklahoma City and gone on a vodka binge; and finally, before the cancerous fund manager, a statistics professor at the University of Missouri with a mind so dense and impenetrable I did not think he was altogether human. He was a fallen Mormon and fluent speaker of Vietnamese picked up on an LDS mission to a small post-war immigrant enclave of shrimp fishermen on the Louisiana coast. He told me that when he first lost the faith his life was free and happy, an atheism that saw god only in the hummingbird suspended midair before a crimson bloom. He learned tango. He dated Asians. Over time a darkness descended, sometimes to the point where he was tempted to kill himself. So what’s the problem? I asked. God, he said. What’s the probability? I asked. That he could not compute, PhD notwithstanding. One year later he was gone and back in the church. Last I heard he married a woman twenty years his junior, working on a new batch of little Mormons. There are worse lives, I suppose. When he left he gave me his old Benz and a graduation ring from Brigham Young. I asked if he really didn’t want to keep the ring. “Something to remember me by,” he said. “One of these days I’ll need to look back on this just to survive. Maybe God will give you to me in the afterlife. Who else would want you?”
Such is my oeuvre. Such is my world.
Houcke turned his back on that world when he wanted to —certainly on his colleagues if they got too successful or close. “Drugs and homos,” he said when this happened — “What am I, a fucking couturier?” Yes, literally turn his back when they walked in the room, a nasty Warholian touch he learned from The Master himself somewhat before The Master worried his heart into arrhythmia and got packed back off to Pittsburg in a bronze coffin wearing a platinum wig and silly sunglasses. In Houcke’s eyes Alexander McQueen was a capable but unwelcome interloper who arrived whole from out of nowhere like a spaceman. Now McQueen is dead and Isabella Blow has poisoned herself with insecticide, and god, that old lawn-care god, alone knows the reasons why. Marc Jacobs? $39.95. Norma Kamali? $19.95. Vera Wang? Wedding dresses premeditated by a figure skater. Gaultier? Television. That says it all. Only with the great drunk Sephardic anti-Semite Galliano and amongst the Japanese could Houcke maintain a cordial and constructive demeanor, reserving his few good manners for Yamamoto, Watanabe, Miyake (loved the perfumes) and Rei K, whose talent he admired and natural deference he prized, as if it were reserved for him alone—as if, from all the way across the Pacific Ocean, he had done something to deserve it.
He had not. Over the course of many years Houcke’s fortunes rose and fell. Mostly they fell, but Houcke did not fall. Genius does not fall. It endures.
Inez and a woman named Ronda whom I later learned was half-sister on her father’s side met me at the gate, all smiles and flattery. From their bearing one would never construe the decline of the House of Houcke. Inez hadn’t changed at all, not a single wrinkle on her face had deepened, not a single pore enlarged. Her English was just as bad, maybe worse, as if she’d never fully recovered from a head injury. “O how beauuut-i-phulll you are —steeeel, after all dos yers.” She stroked my face and Ronda stroked my face and then each took a hand and led me to a limo that waited at the curb with my luggage. We sped away as if we were diplomats on an urgent mission. Houcke, barely recognizable with wear and weight, greeted me at the house as if we had only parted yesterday. Fairfield Porter glowed on the wall behind him. He held out his arms and embraced me warmly.
“Floyd-Eyes,” he bellowed — “You look fabulous! Where have you been all my life?”
“Houck,” I said, “do you remember that Fairfield Porter?”
“I gave it to my wife.”
“I can’t remember.”
“Whatever happened to Guinevere?”
Inez covered her mouth and giggled like a schoolgirl.
“The show is tomorrow,” he said. “Our theme is ‘Free Sandwich.’ We will inhabit a space as yet undefined. We will construct a new narrative. There is much to do.”
Assistants of indeterminate gender all dressed in a fabric of ebony scales like a species of fish-people raced around and shouted importantly into cell phones. I was led to the studio behind the house stuffed with more frantic aides and Houcke’s haughty high constructions on scores of fleshly mannequins with cherry lips. Near the back on its own black platform so far above the rest of the floor that stairs had been constructed to the top was an oversized white silk wedding dress with a willow-branch crinoline and a huge white silk hat. The première de atelier and a small team still worked on the hem which was translucent and into which they sewed live mice and crickets. Inez told me that the grande design had been inspired by Yamamoto but that Houcke would, in a cosmic sense, fully elaborate his friend’s composition. “It eees for you,” she said, “ Wan look. Dere iss no more.”
“A wedding dress?”
Inez wagged her finger and told me to strip. It was time for ideas and there was, of course, no time. Houcke was a spirit who divined the will of the gods and his impulses were sacrosanct, now take off dos clothes, yas, all of dem, even dos underwears.
“I’m fifty-four years old!”
Inez wagged a finger. “All of dem!”
I had worn the single good set of lingerie I still possessed. Inez examined me with squinting eyes as I removed even these, then turned me around and appraised my flaccid torso, poking my buttocks with her index finger.
“You are gloour-eeous!” she declared. “You are pear-fict!” She took my large sagging breasts into each hand and weighed them and pushed them sideways so that one nipple pointed east and the other west, then stepped slightly back. She let them fall and said something in dialect to assistants who stood just behind her. She leaned forward and kissed me on the mouth. “Now we gets to works,” she said, and fished a pair of lethal scissors out an apron pocket.
The assistants returned with rolls of wide masking tape and crepe paper, and for the next four hours Inez trussed and untrussed my round body until my skin was raw with tape tracks. Make-up experimented with rouge and eyeliner, applying and removing thick glops in lightening gestures. That night I slept in a room Houcke had once reserved for the Dachshunds. I could still smell the little mutts. If I closed my eyes I saw them vomiting on Houcke’s carpet and poor Guinevere on her hands and knees, weeping, with a bottle of spray cleaner and a roll of paper towels, her lush straight black hair spilling around her neck almost to the floor.
At 4 a.m. three herald trumpeters dressed in court regalia and stupid peaked yellow hats with foil tassels and brass bells marched up and down the hallways, blasting away at full volume. I pulled the covers around my neck and tried to remember where I was. Inez and Ronda burst in with eggs and coffee crying Eat! Eat! making forking motions into their mouths —then to the shower where naked models leaned up and down the hallway shivering and hugging each other. Among them were eighteen tall perfect women, a woman with one breast, a woman with no breasts, a midget. Two Japanese in loincloths pulled each girl into the bathroom and pushed her under steaming water, scrubbing her top to bottom with a rough loofah and soap till her skin glowed rosy pink. Then icy rinse and ejection into another hallway for a rubdown with warm white cotton towels, white cotton robes, white cotton slippers. We were herded like cattle onto a cold bus and driven forty-five minutes to a warehouse in a bad part of Queens.
Inez and Ronda raced around like madwomen on drugs. They pulled me into the first dressing room and went to work. “You are de begin,” cried Inez, her expression soaring with purpose. “You are de begin in de hol show!”
One after another they came: undergarments, corset, make-up & lipstick, hair —manicure and pedicure both at once by Filipinos who worked like surgeons —hosiery, shoes, and finally the great dress itself, which, together with the massive hat, took two full hours to set and pin. This was done with exquisite precision.
“We mus trus de maestro in all!” cried Inez referring to Houcke, whom I had not seen. She handed me an envelope. Fish-people wheeled in a mirror big as a door. The young me of thirty-five years ago, brought astonishingly back to life, stared back from the glass, equally amazed. In the suddenly empty room I opened the envelope, a note from maestro himself: You are as regal and inscrutable as a Noh Empress. The hem of the great dress shivered with tiny creatures. Vintage Houcke. I was home.
Inez and Ronda exploded back through the door, discolored with rage. Inez punched me in the face. Ronda tore the hat from my head and slapped me till I fell, then jumped on top of me and held me down. Inez jerked pruning shears from an apron pocket and roughly hacked my hair in ragged clumps. She kicked at my legs, then stomped my feet till she’d broken a heel from one of the shoes. They pulled me, stunned, destroyed, back up to my feet and ripped holes in the dress, wiping blood from my bleeding nose down the front. Inez spit in my eyes and smeared mascara across my face and throat. An assistant ran in with a plate of meatball spagetti and dumped it over my head. Another tossed necklaces of orange prescription pill bottles and a hangman’s noose around my neck. Ronda whacked me across the shoulders with a riding crop then shoved it into my hand. Everyone ran out. I teetered hysterically on my one good heel. Houcke marched in.
“WAKE UP!” he shouted and clapped his hands. “WAKE UP!” He grabbed my shoulders and leaned in close. “Now you are ready! Do you understand?”
I did! My god, I did!
He dragged me limping to the runway, just beyond reach of eye and camera, and dropped to his hands and knees.
“Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis you are not,” he said. “Don’t hold back.”
He crawled toward the light and the incipient crowd-roar and I wobbled behind him in fantastic tatters and then we stepped into that familiar brilliance and I whipped Houcke with everything I had —all the way down that immaculate blazing runway and then right back up, above the filthy bowery alley with derelicts and addicts elbow-to-elbow with the mandarins of fashion and media empires and cameras flashing like flame-throwers, and bellows and screeches so great as if to mark the Second Coming of Christ Himself. The midget wearing only an iron crucifix from a chrome chain pulled a wedding cake on a cart just out of Houcke’s reach. Every few steps he threw a piece of cake onto the runway. Houcke, barking and slavering like a dog, devoured it upon the very floor.
By the time I’d thrashed him back to the start the crowd was completely out of control. Along the way several women jumped upon the runway and assaulted Houcke, striking him with their purses and cell phones, punting his face and genitals with their thousand-dollar pumps. He was rushed to the hospital directly after, the happiest man ever to have his face sewed back together in ER. Inez ran the rest of the show, an afterthought which proceeded amongst dazzling chaos —a nude barefoot woman with no breasts waving a tiny Canadian flag; a nude woman with one breast sporting cleats, blue men’s jockey shorts and a Minnesota Twins baseball cap; eighteen tall perfect women in latest Houcke, serene homage to the Japanese he loved, faultless counterpoint to the filth and pandemonium in which they were presented.
That evening I saw him in his hospital bed. He drew me down and whispered, “All our lives for this, Floyd-Eyes!” He referred to Inez and Ronda as the chainsaw sisters who wouldn’t know a catchstitch from a coat hanger. He asked if I could tell they did sixty-nine.
I told him I didn’t care if they did ninety-nine, they were great artists.
“Inez is a raconteur,” he said, “you should hear her. I could listen to those stories till the day I die.” He opened a hospital Bible to the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Colossians: Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering.
“Have you heard the good news?” he asked, tears in his eyes. “Jesus died for our sins. Isn’t that incredible?”
Needless to say I left with Fairfield Porter, signed, sealed and delivered. That day the moon was in Cancer forming insignificant aspects. Houcke’s catwalk mortification fairly glowed with consequence, trifling and transcendent. Inez, appreciating the sensational rehabilitation of the House and unwilling to see this compromised with an extravagant lawsuit both gave me the Cartier right off her wrist and manipulated Houcke into a signature. He thought he was buying a riding mower for a new show called “Become A Social Worker.” You could say that the lawn-care god came through at last, transferring ownership and securing provenance for a skeptical daughter weary of his gossip, lies and slander. If nothing else, he knows that happiness is a well-stamped passport. Say that much for him.
Houcke asked me to join him in Paris.
I’m thinking about it.
© PD Mallamo 2012
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