How To Get Hired as House Harpist in the Holy High Country
by Tom Bradley
"By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof."
--Psalm 137: 1-2
It has always been a piece of cake for Sam Edwine to get himself hired on as house harpist way out in Utah, because he has learned to give restaurateurs exactly what they want at that all-important first audition.
Suppose, as is often the case with those specializing in European foods, the prospective employer appears to harbor ambitions toward being "cultured." Say he has an unclipped mustache and a toupeeless bald spot, and every other clause is "as they say" or even "as it were," and the television in his office is always tuned to something Edwardian on PBS. Well then, it's best to give him the Injured Young Artiste in Dire Need of a Highly Refined Patron. Sam centers his beetled brow right where the guy will notice it most and grunts occasionally as he plays something raucous by Hindemith or Luciano Berio.
On the other hand, say a certain resort manager is a hopeless hormone case, but tries to cover it under grubby cable-knit sweaters and bumptious, ultra-Intermountain speech patterns. The canny harpist will perceive that this man likes to be on top in life. So Sam plays him a teensy-weensy Mozart transcription, and is all breathless from his fluttery-buttery nerves, and somehow causes himself to appear small. Sam is by no means small, but that's beside the point. A precise, almost painterly touch of morbidezza-blush and a falsetto titter hidden behind a flustered wrist can shrink an elephant. Sam can be ever so small.
However, once he's gotten a gig through this second, more degrading approach, Sam usually can't help but try to regain a portion of his manly pride by cutting as preposterous and stinky a figure as he can while performing, and generally ends with his precious ass canned anyway.
Jean Cocteau exhorts us as follows: "Whatever the public blames you for, cultivate it: it is yourself." Sam once read this in the back of the New Yorker or the Atlantic Monthly or someplace east-coasty like that, and ever since has cultivated "himself" to a perverse degree, even though he has no idea who Jean Cocteau might have been.
In the case of the owner-proprietor of the Lucerne Spa, an approach of calm, muscular competence was called for: Sam's patented six-foot-nine butch act.
Gaylen Kimball himself was a small, pale and pointy Latter Day Saint, with colorless, wet, effeminate eyes. His voice was the merest of whispers, and he spoke in that special suburban Mormon accent, mincing and obliging and soft, the tip of the tongue nipped with sufficiently nice precision on the sibilants, just enough to convince any susceptible male adults within earshot that he was trying to get them to seduce him cruelly, right there on the spot. Meanwhile, his gigantic-mouthed spouse, Dora Lee, would be rolling around in the neighboring chair, wearing the puffy, preoccupied face of the adulteress.
Gaylen Kimball dressed himself in fetching, fragrant leisure suits. And an integral, if seemingly incongruous, component of this Mormon's womanish graciousness, was an aura he exuded of infinite stinginess. Somehow, it was obvious that he was going to be the type of boss who would cause his waitress' tips to be pooled at the end of each day, giving the house a substantial cut; the type of boss out of whom the harpist should expect to have to wheedle, cajole and grovel every single fucking paycheck.
Sam had developed a whole set of very unattractive theories about "these people." Sam, himself, was fifty-percent "these people," in much the same way that Richard Wagner was fifty-percent Jewish. But he nevertheless put forth his hideous, almost genocidal theories, tapping stores of psychic energy which seemed to come from somewhere mysterious. He was born of a mother who had to swallow enormous dosages of chemotherapeutical substances to counteract her cerebral cortex's biochemical whims, who had spent a large part of her life behind soft pastel bars. So Sam deserved a bit of petulant self-indulgence, perhaps. Someone with such negative charisma could never be politically dangerous, anyway.
As vile a specimen as Gaylen Kimball might have been, according to Sam's theories, he had nevertheless managed to retain a bevy of the most ingratiating older women outside of the original cast of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Sam had heard it whispered that these ladies were all Gaylen's secret plural grandmothers, but he didn't believe a word of it. It wouldn't be necessary to dig that deeply to recruit an army of ingratiating older women around these parts.
There is a whole species of rural Mormon female, theoretically speaking, who, even alone or at ease with her intimates, assumes an air of ever-so-sweet solicitude. In her manner is an absence of aggressiveness, discontent, sarcasm or critical intelligence. Judging from her facial expression when she thinks she's not being observed, she most assuredly, in her heart-of-hearts, operates in this Christly way internally. She must even discourse in complete blamelessness to herself during moments of solitude, when she's alone in the mineral bath, or taking a shit. (Do people like this in fact take shits?) Her nature is fey and ingenuous. To somebody anal like fat Sam, she seems mighty cloying, especially so soon after a boyhood presided over by his brilliant harpy of a mommy.
Father Gaylen, who affected the outwardly sweetness of these old creatures as a means of concealing his own turpitude, was sensitive enough to the symptoms of through-and-through goodness to have hand-picked as his minions and administrative assistants a half-dozen or so of the primest, most sublime specimens of this type. They, in their turn, had soaked themselves in that special old-lady perfume that smells like ballpoints and stamp pads, and had excited eternal loyalty among the janitors, maids, waitresses, gourmet chefs, dishwashers and stable hands, establishing the sort of camaraderie that can only occur in the tightly-knit "family" which is being nurtured, as it were, under the auspices of several beneficent mothers.
This had lent the Lucerne Spa the nearest semblance of stylishness attainable so close to the fumes of the Great Salt Lake. The many gentle grandmother-figures had whipped the resort into ship-shapedness, and transformed it into the kind of place where Robert Redford deigned to appear with his retinue on those gray days when he found his "Sundance Kid" ski resort in nearby Provo Canyon to be almost as insipid as himself.
One slow afternoon the diminutive movie star borrowed some high-rise cowboy boots from the riding stables, ventured up to the house harpist and muttered, with little fanfare, "How you doin'?" And Sam replied, "Better than you." Upon which Redford skipped a beat, then, in a formal tone of voice, complimented Sam on his playing. "Oh, thank you, Mr. Beatty!" Sam had gushed.
It must've been disorienting for this famous Hollywood personality to meet such a gargantuan man with such a severe case of "small man's syndrome," that preemptive feistiness normally observable only in tiny males who have been the victims of bullies all their lives. Why did Sam pounce on others more distinguished than himself with the typical talons of the short person? Who could've been the bully who bullied enormous Sam? His mom, maybe?
Now, at this time, the Lucerne Spa was going through an identity crisis similar to Gaylen's own. He'd apparently been debating in his heart whether or not to switch this place to a private club and apply for a liquor-by-the-drink license. Which clientele to cultivate: the mob of steadfast, loyal, but uninteresting Latter-Day-Saints, or the few dozen rich atheists and shining Jewish sophisticates from down in Salt Lake City, who seemed to have developed a health fad, a mineral-bathing craze among themselves?
Such a well-maintained spa attracted not only brown beauties in swimming suits of odd and seemingly non-functional shapes, but also the pale, sullen, tragic, barren, wasted women of the intelligentsia: the sort who hold their Eve cigarettes up around their earlobes, displaying with unconscious pride the emaciated state of their forearms, exhaling smoke through their effete nostrils (one of which is generally plugged up), looking straight at you with evident disrelish while they scratch themselves.
Some of them wore tee shirts instead of bikini tops, and these tee shirts said "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle." Of course, the house harpist was too terrified to tell them the first juvenile response that popped into his contrary mind, something about seafood-reeking seats. He could be arch and insouciant when he played his transcriptions for empty-headed bathing beauties, but not in front of these bland intelligentsiatrices: they made him self-conscious about the angle at which he was holding his eyebrows.
Aside from all the unfortunate rural-Utah odors, the sinusy mineral bath smells, the goat-crotch, crushed-skunk and horse diarrhea smells, the vestigial whiffs of volcanic sulfur, which permeated the atmosphere of the whole resort, the only other thing that reminded you that you were in the savage provinces of the Rocky Mountain West was the floor plan of the main building.
This had been designed many generations before by barn-minded Teutonic rustics, and was laid out in such a way that the men's echoing showers, full of the inevitable pubescent boys shrieking arias, were well within earshot of the opulent and ponderous dining room, with its mead-hall-from-Beowulf decor, its twelve-point antler racks and Volkswagen-sized stuffed grizzly heads, its heraldic rows of early Mormon death instruments, its mighty roof beams, and its big blazing stone fireplace with an archetypal lyre perched under the granite mantlepiece, embraced by a huge and brooding, orange-bearded "Flaming Seraph" (that's what he had sequined across the sound box).
So the sun-flaked bull of a female lifeguard, under orders of the Vice President in Charge of Food Services, had periodically to bellow throughout the Lucerne Spa a scrannel "Let's us keep it down in them shaw'rs, hey!" And the shrieking adolescent boys (not without justification--who ever heard of a silent shower? If he wanted silent showers, Brother Kimball should've removed all this satisfying aquamarine tile and lined the place with cork) treated the elegant diners to booming, crystal-clear retorts of "Why don't you come in here, Mrs. Lifeguard-girlie, and suck my cock, hah? Come on, it's right he-e-e-ere, m-m-my cock, my cock, my co-o-o-ock?" (truly to the tune of "Celeste Aida").
And the white-haired Mormon diners, who had just finished uttering "Heavenly Father bless you" in complete seriousness to an acquaintance over the orts of an imported Hessian knackwurst, would perform an abrupt subito and hold their satin serviettes to their lips as if to dab away the taste of soaped pre-teen penises.
And Gaylen would move abashedly among the tables, consoling his guests with broad arm gestures, like the choral director he really should have been, calling everybody's attention to the brilliant instrumentalist whom he had the informed taste to engage for their edification.
Meanwhile, Sam's hourly thirty-minute break would have rolled around. Rather than allow the customers to digest slowly in relative silence, Gaylen would press a special button underneath the desk in his office.
50,000-watt clear-channel KSL Radio would start to blare over the sound system, to occupy the space between people's ears the harp had vacated. Gaylen had read in a qualitative marketing textbook that customers tend to ingest to the rhythm of their aural environment, whatever it may be; and the Lucerne Spa had been firmly committed to the concept of Rapid High-Volume Patron Turnover ever since the early days of Grandfather Kimball, the pioneer founder, who'd grabbed this land from an extended family of Ute Indians. The application of this greasy-spoon hash-house "marketing strategy," juxtaposed with the supposed elegance of the place itself, gave everything an incongruous and dreamlike feeling.
Sam was always conscientious about starting his break at the top of the hour, in order to hear the local news blasted out over the heads of his chomping audience.
"The badly decomposed, partially dismembered--"
"Would you folks care to enjoy your cream of Asparagus soup now or later?"
"--sexually molested, nude-from-the-waist-down, bloated corpse of a retarded--"
"I'll take the tomato omelette, please. And, li'l Missy, what you going to have?"
"--covered with human bite marks, was found floating in Moroni Reservoir this morning. The sheriff's office reports having arrested a local citizen on suspicion of--"
They'd swallow on, these patrons, desensitized to such things, in much the same way that their sons and daughters and grandchildren, even unto the third generation, would keep shoveling in the popcorn and Ju-jus at a PG-rated movie downtown, while Robert Redford's screen-colleagues slashed each other with voluptuous motions and died and bled, snuggling up to the ground, sighing.
After the weather and Dow Jones industrial averages, the boys would resume their sudsy cock arias and the house harpist would re-mount the stone hearth. From his station in front of the gas logs, Sam would often improvise a tasteful accompaniment to subtly enhance and reflect the nuances of mood as he imagined them out there in the locker room.
He found himself imagining the showers and their humid atmosphere with very poignant feelings surfacing in his breast. But it must be emphasized that these feelings were in no way inspired by illicit thoughts of possessing the sleek young bodies that happened to be shrieking in there. Unfashionable or no, Sam was no pansy, no bloomer-button, no Nancy-boy. He was the kind of guy that would've picked Lot's virgin daughter over the two angel boys any day of the god-damned mother-fucking week. If those Sodomites had all been like this harpist, their town would never have been vaporized.
Rather, his hankerings were after all that cool, more or less clear, faucet water; for, in consideration of the remoteness of this spa, Sam had resigned himself to a showerless, gypsylike existence for as long as the gig lasted. And, considering the ripenings which occur when such a huge person lives like a showerless gypsy for any length of time, it was safe to assume that Sam didn't exactly enjoy an enviable level of job security, even in so pungent a restaurant.
But this may have been mere persecution mania on his part. Gaylen Kimball never gave the slightest wince, not even a sidelong glance of disapproval, at Sam's poor grooming and worse odor. The was far too impressed with Sam's sheer technical mastery of his musical instrument to risk offending him with criticism of his personal hygiene.
Sam's boss did, however, occasionally beg him to brush his long orange tresses out a bit, and actually provided the brush every time. Then, strange to say, the little man would, almost reverently, even ritually, take the implement back upon himself, its bristles interwoven with the dandruff and prematurely fallen hair of the Flaming Seraph.
And, as if moved to nervousness by this privilege, Father Kimball would pause in silence, put his fingertips in his mouth, and begin methodically biting his nails to the quick. He'd save the ten scalloped moon-crescents and, as was his habit, stack them carefully in the pocket of his leisure suit jacket. Then, admiring his unshampooed double fistful, he'd wander back to his office.
Religion can do terrible things to a man's personality, thought Sam.
About the author:
Tom Bradley's latest short fiction is in Big Bridge, Killing the Buddha, Exquisite Corpse, 3am, Jack Magazine, Eyeshot, milk, Samsara and Web Del Sol's In Posse Ethnic Anthology, and will be in the next Oyster Boy, River City, NakedPoetry and Two Girls. These stories feature such gentry as a harelip with a six-figure book advance, a Palestinian abortionist, a seven-foot-tall banjoist losing his mind in the London tube, a peyote-eating teen killer, a rent a-Frankenstein on Purple Haze, a Chinese compulsive masturbator, cannibal orgiasts in the basement of the Mormon Tabernacle, and Japanese schoolgirls conscripted to stir the vats in a poison gas factory. His no-less uplifting essays appear in McSweeney's, LitKit Journal, Salon.com, David Horowitz's FrontPage, Exquisite Corpse, Ralph, and Heresiarch, the mighty journal of anti-theology out of Belfast. Excerpts and reviews of Tom's books, links to his online publications, plus recorded readings, are posted at his website--http://www.literati.net/Bradley/BradleyBooks.htm.