Pam Hopkins

The Two Most Beautiful People in the World

               The Shop Steward distributed the pamphlets with much discretion. They were tasteful, elegant, but he was still uneasy about them. He’d chosen a simple picture, a silhouette in evening blue of a man and a woman embracing, the shared color of their bodies blending them into a single, inseparable entity. He thought the first passage of Corinthians was fitting, Love is patient, love is kind, and so forth, as long as he did not attribute anything to St. Paul. Despite its intended purity, he could not help but feel the puncture of doubt, as though the pamphlets were advertising something unsavory. (You had to blame brothels, the Shop Steward thought, for veiling sleaze in romantic cursive and soft body outlines. The advertisements for such places spoke of the unknowable, you heard gasps in the smoky font, fluttering pulses in the reclining silhouettes. Such are things that never flourish for a dollar, not really. It was a something that could not be described, in the manner of the rarest of birds. And no one used the blunter terms anymore, either. Strip joint and brothel became gentleman’s club was what you heard nowadays.)
                It was not quite a club, as customers were plenty but varied; there were few regulars. Location was discreet, but veiled in the sense of being hidden in plain view. The Steward set up his shop in the vacant window of what had been a sandwich bar; the marble counter remained, as did the stools, frothing foam from the leather cushions, and the chrome tables and chairs. From the hours of five in the morning and nine in the evening, passersby glimpsed through the panes of an empty display window at the sterility of a business in the process of folding. The place breathed when the neon over the door blinked, first sleepily, then letter by pink ringlet letter: Our Place.
                The Shop Steward took note of customers in those first months. When they showed up, they cast shifting eyes from street corner to street corner, characteristic of society underlings with an eye out for the law, thinking that the prize couldn’t truly be this easy to get to. Some, the Steward sensed, blushed as discreetly as they could before, what looked like, gathering their nerve in a big sigh, crossing the street and coming over. Was it embarrassment that made this particular crowd hesitate? The Shop Steward wouldn’t put it past them, for Our Place provided an unusual service. People came feeling, well, pathetic; but the cost was only slightly more than a movie ticket, and didn’t people frequent movie houses for much the same reason? Though, unlike A Summer Place, Our Place boasted “the Real Thing”.
                The Shop Steward had some reservations using that phrase, “the Real Thing”, as though the spectacle advertised was some sort of organic fruit juice. But there was no spattering of words, short of melodrama (and melodrama was coarse), brought about the aura of what happened each time the lights came on, on the first pulse of music, every night that Our Place folded its customers in.
                The spectacle, when on the rare acknowledgement of their separation, consisted of one man and one woman. He would celebrate his twenty-eighth birthday on October the thirtieth, she would see her twenty-fourth on March twelfth. Much of their audience claimed to be skeptics, but they were just as susceptible to astrological canon as any believer who would tell you that, without a doubt, a Scorpio and a Pisces were compatible to the very end.
                It was really a very boring story, how they came into this line of work. The Shop Steward supposed it wasn’t so different than the way most prostitutes might come sniffing out a job. It was when the Shop was in its sandwich-making days, when two young people, a boy and a girl (for, shuffling as they did in clothes, it would hardly be fitting to call them a man and a woman) huddled in, clutching hands. They were looking for work, they said, would the Shop Steward need an extra hand? The Shop Steward rubbed his whiskers, wiped the ham grease and tomato-water from his fingers, and said, Why not? Simple as that. And days went by before the Shop Steward noticed that folks did not come in so much for the luncheon offered but by the two who served it: bathed in one another’s eyes, caressing each other across the room with fluttery smiles. The customers picked at their food and gazed, admirers from afar, not admiring the male nor female specifically, but the shimmering aura they wrapped themselves in. The Shop Steward settled himself between them one day (he could feel the strain in put on the two), and said, Now look, any other business might give you the boot for the way you two carry on. But, the folks who come in seem to like it. Like it a lot, in fact. The male and the female could have room and board, above the store (the office things the Shop Steward would clear out), in exchange for their…their presence. What else could you call it. The Shop Steward said, Just do what you do normally together. Pretend no one’s watching. For anyone else, this might have been a strenuous request, a test of one’s modesty. But the male and the female took to the stage without a thought to who might be in the audience.
                Apart, the man and the woman were what people would call “easy on the eyes”, but no more so than the average attractive specimens of their genders. In such cases, one is always inclined to search for some sort of flaw, not out of real spite, just a lapse of insecurity that we are, one and all, prone to. He, the Scorpio, for instance, looked tall enough to stoop in most doorways, and had lips thin and red enough to give the impression that he bit them often, lending him an expression that could be either modest or shifty. His hair was dark, bursting from his scalp like the spines of a sea urchin, fringing over eyes that were as densely lashed, almost too pretty to be on a man’s face. There was a certain appeal, of course; a cluster of the town’s women (of what can be unkindly referred to as the “handbagged age”) frequented the theater for that odd placement of prettiness, whether it stirred in them the memory of a young love or an unexplored fetish. Either way, he had garnered a following, of which he was completely oblivious.
                The woman, the Pisces, was the cause. Like her mate, she was attractive enough, but one caught the flaws in her beauty as one did when holding paper money against light for the hidden president’s head. Mild scoliosis rounded her shoulders, forcing her neck to crane outward slightly from between them, as would an old crone. While the man towered a full two heads above her, she found herself gazing up him, pushing her waves of auburn hair behind her shoulders as she did so, making herself seem smaller and older than she truly was. Her teeth, when asked to smile, showed discolored bicuspids, bleached in the middle, which darkened to urine-yellow to the gum line. Otherwise, it was a lovely smile, something only asked rarely of her, and then only by her mate. It was an action best told through the clichés: “It lit up the room.” “Breaks your heart right down the middle, every time.” “Stunning.” Not really. If you really wanted a smile that lit up a room all its own, look at the ladies who advertised minty toothpastes. To have and to hold (or to imagine) all that could be carried in this single gesture could not garner the appropriate language. The customers were reverent and stuck to phrases, rather than risk pretentiousness.
                Their admirers came alone, from the moment the Shop Steward lit the lamps at a quarter to eight. They came in shifting clumps, together but separate, like troupes of scuttling ants. They settled themselves at the round tables, where a career waitress took orders for non-alcoholic beverages. The Shop Steward kept a tight fist around his policies: Alcohol was forbidden on the premises, following an ugly incident involving a woman lacking the tolerance for her wine and the boundaries set by Our Place—Approaching the spectacle, to touch, to plead, to threaten with firearms, not murder but suicide, if an audience member could not participate, had never been allowed. The Shop Steward hired career waitresses for their stamina; no other profession, save for devoted motherhood, demanded such sympathy. Years upon years of feeding strangers had to turn into nursing somewhere. These ladies were old enough to know that they were in it for the long haul and not about to run off for an audition. They found themselves doing what they had been doing for the last twenty, thirty, forty years, though their current workplace might be the oddest they’d ever had. Their customers weren’t much different than the beatniks and perverts they’d served before: it was something about the eyeballs, the heaviness in the lids, almost threatening to break suction and drop from them. And they all took caffeine, coffee or colas in long strings, subsequently causing them to make a lot of trips to the restrooms.
                A jukebox sat by the small stage. The Shop Steward hand-picked and offered a library of sop songs. Everyone listened to them in private, it must be its own genre, he believed, that kind of song that hit upon what you thought that you, and only you, wanted the most. Sting was a popular artist, for “Sister Moon” and “When We Dance”. There was a request for “Desert Rose” had been made a few months back, along with a laundry list of unsavory suggestions from the customer; the Shop Steward threw him out (threw his own back out, too), telling him soundly the shop protocol: that Our Place featured the act of love at its purest, and if he was looking for smut, he could just wave a dollar outside and it would surely come crawling. (Days like this made him feel like a regular Apostle.) Peter Gabriel had a good week a while ago, the jukebox pumping “Blood of Eden” into the air thick as perfume; customers described the song as “primal” in the monthly Our Place survey, that its “earthiness” matched the spectacle to perfection. After a scrupulous survey of his customers, the Shop Steward collected songs of all genres that all led back to the theme that made the heart turn to melted butter. They were to be played prior to and during the spectacle’s performance; song requests were inexpensive, what you would expect to pay from a jukebox elsewhere, but requests had gotten to the pushing and shoving point. Perhaps it was time to raise the price. The popular songs of the day, the Shop Steward felt, cheapened the genuine beauty of what happened on the stage. Also, their audience tended to be of a certain age, where the value of sentiment expands with the waistline. A certain gentleman just yesterday had stayed ogling at the spectacle from opening until the last hour, drumming his fingertips in time to the piano of Double’s “Captain of Her Heart”, looped for as long as he sat and stared. Sat and stared, feeding quarters into the jukebox with numbness to all else.
                It wasn’t one of the Shop Steward’s favorites. If he went in for this kind of music, he felt his tastes would have a robustness, Debussy’s “Reflets dans l’eau” maybe, or Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose”, something that held an aura of a smile in the fantasy. The customers preferred to weep; romance and warmth did not seem to go hand-in-hand for them, and so they fed their quarters into hopeless lyrics.
                The Shop Steward wondered at the spectacle’s staying power. He only did so much to groom them beforehand, and would have taken note if they kept earplugs for such occasions. Was gazing into each other’s eyes all that was really required? The Shop Steward pictured himself, seated on this very platform, ogling glassy-eyed at some homogenous woman opposite him, while a phantom jukebox played “The Captain of Her Heart” on that loop. He exhausted his imagination sculpting a face, a gesture, a voice, anything to make him forget the whine of that saxophone, the European lilt of the singers (from the Netherlands? Belgium? What did it matter, either nation had produced the most obnoxious singing duo to date.). And when, at last, he had conjured his own personal darling, all fantasies ended with him clawing her lovely face away, thanks to the song that his customers absorbed so headily. Just damnable.
                He stood in his usual place, at the far left corner of the room toward the back, the cool buzz of the soft-drinks machine needling his underarms. The stage lights he’d installed earlier this month were a lurid pink; they brought to mind landing spaceships, operated by aliens who were fond of sloppily iced cake. The audience’s heads glowed pink halos around the edges, while the heads themselves looked blackened, as though their brain matter was wafting from their pores in a mist, emptying their hosts out. The Shop Steward knew the arrangement of every face: melting from this soppiness, mouths trickling open, eyes oozing, noses spongy and running. He imagined the idiot static scratching away under the jukebox nonsense. Indeed, they had been abducted, every one of them. On stage, their aliens paid them no mind, their eyes, minds, and hearts only for each other.
                According to the magazines, the books on the subject, all couples skipped merrily through a “honeymoon phase”, which, in its maximum, lasted for a period of three years. It was his understanding that the male and female would be celebrating their first anniversary in January. Even when couples reached had endured three hundred-and-sixty-five days of each other, the literature said, both parties could subconsciously predict where the elastic in their romance would begin to thin and, eventually, give out. To watch the woman and the man, one wondered where on the romantic scale they were of late. From where the Shop Steward stood, it seemed a prolonged manifestation of the first sight. Rumor had it (a rumor that he had asked a waitress to slip when she was off-duty) that they had caught each other’s eye and could not look away with the exception of losing themselves in an embrace. Their pupils widened so, one could no longer detect their color. Their arms weaved in and out from their forms, in the manner of tentacles, snaking here, wrapping around a shoulder, the audience speculated where these spectral limbs began and ended, or if, after three hundred-and-sixty-five days of devotion, they had simply fused together (the latter tended to be the observation of a first-time observer).
                Tonight, the first one to the jukebox had selected something unexpected, an old favorite of the Shop Steward’s: Joni Mitchell’s jazz years yielded some good things, “Blue Motel Room” being the best of them, refreshing as hot tea. The opening guitar picking cued the Shop Steward to part the curtains.
                The overhead lamps did not possess quite the brightness as hoped (not to mention, paid) for, but the spectacle glowed in washes that rose and fell in their cheeks and necks, as earliest sunlight glimpsed through trees. They had awoken to each other. The Shop Steward let the curtain cord hang and, feeling the creak in his knees, groped behind him for the chair he’d placed there. And he, now but a head among moist, mooning heads, watched. The spectacle, the good Lord knew, performed the routine enough times for it to have become routine. But here they were, their eyes splitting open, devouring each other with dialating pupils (yes, it could very well have been as much about taste for them, as it was all other sensation), love at a first sight programmed by a higher power to repeat itself til death did they part, perhaps beyond that. A late-comer could not fracture the protective love-gloss, as this one had not: The service-bell over the door gave a tinkle that made the audience gnash teeth, ruining a moment that was not theirs. The late-comer, bashful, with a name like Wendy, tightened her lips and lowered herself into the window-sill; it was now, the Shop Steward thought triumphantly, standing room only.
                He wondered if there was much point in keeping the lights on. Perhaps he should dim them little by little, for there was glow enough radiating from the two bodies onstage, warmed also by the eyes of the moonbrain members of the audience, to revere the spectacle.
                In this glow, a subtle transformation had occurred. Their limbs sinewy, roped and knotting at the elbows. Their skin peachy, knitting together at the abdomen like a soft quilt that pulsed. Veins connected from body to body. A leg (it was difficult to tell whose), wrapped beneath the moons of what looked to be the conjoined buttocks of the spectacle, the woman and the man. From the spectator’s position, all that defined either entity were two heads, sprouting the respective hair of the woman and the man, an odd combination of auburn waves combed through with deep brown spines.
                It was not an action to be confused with sex. This was something of which the members of the audience were particularly adamant. To even try to familiarize it this way, with something that could be so crass, so grunting and bestial…The spectacle did not paw at each other with beastly abandon. They did not let their brain power turn off, to be replaced by the oily voices of their groins. They had…It was difficult to find a word for it—they had fused, bound themselves together, as they were meant to be. No one would be so vulgar as to call them “the beast with two backs”, not here. They were more than that. The spectacle was what everyone, at their core, wanted to have. Anyone who said otherwise was a liar, through their teeth.
                The Shop Steward, on his part, had maintained the spectacle long enough to know that this melting of bodies was illusion, not in a cynical sense, but simply something that the mind was inclined to do when watching the woman and the man together. Perhaps it was where he always chose to sit, somewhere where the stage lights were not so dominant. Perhaps it was because the spectacle had been under his care long enough for him to see the plain and simple of the whole thing—that it was just two starry-eyed young people doing what starry-eyed young people did when they were in love: they necked. The Shop Steward reckoned that if the setting were altered, placed somewhere seedy, like a drive-in, in an old, farting Camry strewn with fast-food wrappers and gas receipts, the audience might just pass them over for irresponsible young punks, rutting en plein air with all the other young drive-in punks. He knew it would be the case with him.
                From his angle, the spectacle was not bathed in the dreamy pinkness of the lights. The coolness of where they shadowed was clearest here, to the farthest right corner of the stage. You could see a rat’s nest in the woman’s hair (the Shop Steward knotted his hands to keep from reaching out and undoing it), and a layer of dead skin coating the man’s lips. (How could she stand to be kissed by that? Like making love to sandpaper.) It was also from this spot where their smell was highest—and the scent of intimacy is never enticing, unless you are a part of it. The Shop Steward kept a little bowl of potpourri at his elbow, but it was no use. They smelled. They made sure to bathe every day, and still when this moment came, they smelled. They smelled of fish, of sweat, of deodorant going stale, of tiny flakes of skin scraping off and into the air, of spittle and morning breath bathed in layers of toothpaste.
                And their audience inhaled it. The Shop Steward had a better view of the spectators than he did of the spectacle, and from his perch, he looked on at the rows of fishpeople unhinging their slackened jaws, their lips gently trembling as they issued each breath, sucking in human staleness. Again, it was a stench that went unappreciated unless you had some investment in where it came from.
                The spectacle trembled. You could see them begin to separate, in tiny stages. Their skins split in thin seams, their limbs untangled. The elasticity of their epidermises shrunk back into their individual bodies. They were a man and a woman again, though their eyes never left one another and their shared smell hung thick in the room. It was about that time. The audience knew it, too, shifting in anticipation of the herding out. The Shop Steward stood and groped for the volume dials on the jukebox. “Blue Motel Room” had been playing on a loop since the spectacle’s appearance, and the Shop Steward was grateful to fade it out, tiny turn by tiny turn of the dial. When the business was in its early days, the Shop Steward used to switch on the houselights. The spectacle would have disappeared by this point and the audience was left seated, their faces squished and twitching from the shock of the sudden light.
                They came back to earth with infant stupidity. They blinked, eyelids mashing rapidly together at the real dinginess of their surroundings, the linoleum sandwich shop floor, the sticky tabletops, the sallowness of their own skins. And then, at some point in their reorientation, they would look sidelong at the Shop Steward, working the light switches or sweeping up with the big broom. “Don’t look at me like that.” He did not normally address anyone in the audience and preferred it this way, but he did not want to take their resentment home with him. How their eyes slit, their jaws creaking tight, for taking the spectacle away from them before they were ready. There had been one woman, one night last summer, who, once the lights flicked on, slapped her hands on her beefy thighs and issued a shriek between her screwed together rows of teeth, and didn’t stop until the Shop Steward had shooed everyone out and brought the spectacle back to the stage in a private viewing for her. People got primal when the spectacle ended too soon. He’d had to keep the man and the woman on an extra hour just for her. The spectacle never protested. The song she selected on the jukebox had been Jan Hammer’s synthesized piece, “Windows”. “Windows”, if played once, was exactly four minutes long. The fat woman insisted that it play a continuous loop for the hour that she’d been given, fifteen times. The Shop Steward complied, and wondered why he’d put it on the jukebox; it wasn’t romantic, really, he found it closer to the kind of music one might find in tasteful pornography. But the customer was always right. If she wanted Jan Hammer’s “Windows” fifteen times, she would get “Windows” fifteen times. He brought up the houselights, though, before the spectacle could mount. For the fat woman in the audience, the only one left, this was just fine. She’d mopped her cheeks and her mouth with the corner of her blouse. She’d gotten up very calmly, head erect, eyes glazed, and lumbered out. The Shop Steward watched until her balloon of a form floated farther and farther out into the street until she became a pinprick. Later, when he was cleaning up, he’d spied a tiny piece of lined paper, under the woman’s empty glass. On it, the fat woman had written in a round girlish script:
Don’t ruin it. Or I will ruin you.
                There was no signature. He chose not to take the note as a menopausal threat, but as a business tip: Know when it ends for the night.

Pam Hopkins is a left-handed graduate of Hampshire College. She lives off a diet of avocados, tomatoes, and black tea, and, with her fiance, pretends to have a pet corgi named Dorothy. This story is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.
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