Rod blinked, wondering why he kept staring at those overhead stage lights, and shifted uneasily in his itchy, rented tuxedo. He again opened the glossy program at his little table, keeping track of where they were in the presentation. Then he glanced around at the tables all around him.
The place was huge. This International Fashion Foundation was a well-heeled outfit. Such an opulent setting. There had to be a thousand people here. Not many were alone like he was. Most were in couples, or in groups of three or four. All well done up. "Black tie", the invitation had said.
And it was freezing in this place. Maybe in Montreal they assumed everyone else had the same tolerance of cold as Canadians. He was thankful for once for being covered in long sleeves and pants, cinched up to the neck. Despite the things weighing on his mind he was bemused by all the women in backless and sleeveless gowns, the bare legs and sandals. Usually he resented dress codes. They were so unfair to guys, and pure hell in hot weather. But it was funny to see all these white arms and bare shoulders -- well, some were brown -- rubbed by their owners' hands to keep warm. A few had been draped with tuxedo jackets by their chivalrous companions.
"Now, entrant number eight, Nadya Walewska, University of Gdansk, modeled by Cerena Jacunski..." Yet another pretty, skeletal model, strutting up the runway with the standard pissed- off expression, this one wearing a diaphanous metallic-looking pants suit... Rod tried to pay attention. But he could not take his mind off that notice that was burning a hole in his jacket pocket.
2LT SYKES, RODNEY S 045-374875-347
MASS N.G. DETACHMENT BURLINGTON VT
YOU ARE BREVETED TO 101ST DIV
REPORT TO FORT DIX NJ 21 APRIL 0900 HOURS
He hadn't told Tami about it yet. Yet he had known it was coming. Notices had been raining down on his National Guard regiment, even as more and more of the engineers had started not showing up for the weekend maneuvers to receive them. He didn't want to burden Tami with the possibility, with all the rest she had to deal with. But now, of course, the worst had come true. A few weeks at Fort Dix, then off to Iraq.
Breaking it to her was best if he had a plan. And he had one, distasteful as it was. That big project near Toronto that was hiring. Several of his regiment had escaped there after they had gotten the call, and had told him a spot was waiting for him, even as he pretended not to hear. He disliked them calling it an "underground railroad", it trivialized the past, but in a way that's what it was. He had shut his mind to it; it was totally against his nature. His mother would be ashamed, for sure. But he had to do what was right. He was a husband with responsibilities. In Canada he would be employed, he would be sending home money… and he would be alive. Tami had a father in critical condition, the family business shuttered, deep in debt, a mother plunged into depression, a brother stuck in Iraq for another year dodging car bombs, and a dubious future for herself.
At least Tami wasn't going to get expelled from Campbell - Frank College. That disciplinary hearing was a heart-stopper. Tami, standing bravely in front of that committee, admitting that breaking Lorinda's jaw was all her fault -- Acting Dean Noyes about to announce, reluctantly but inescapably, her expulsion -- and then Lorinda's surprise appearance, speaking through wired teeth, saying that she realized all that she had put Tami through and that she was withdrawing the charges, then leaving with her eyes down. What a shock. Whatever Tami said to Lorinda that night in the dorm, it had obviously worked.
So Tami was going to graduate. And then what? Grad school was out of the question. She had to make money right away for her family. But she was precluded by that defense contract from patenting or selling her Cherish formula, and really Cherish was all she had that was sellable. Her clothing designs were too weird to be marketable -- they might be "Tami Originals" but they were not recognizable. Pants or overalls? Boots or leggings? He was too kind to point it out to her but it was clearly true.
And the money from the defense contract wouldn't come in unless she won this goddamn competition. Which was impossible. The International judges would never reward someone in bed with the American military industrial complex. And they knew about the contract. He blew his stack when the programs came in the mail. The blurb under Tami's name, on page 6, mentioned that she had sold her creation to the Pentagon. He was immediately on the phone screaming bloody murder at Girardo. The old man protested that he hadn't included that in what he sent them. But somehow they had found out. Someone was trying, over and over, to screw Tami from afar. The guy who drafted the contract. The guy operating the torturing tail from the FAA control tower. Rod was certain who...
As it was, the mention at the end of Tami's blurb sat there, in plain print, damning her. It was perfectly clear to everyone reading the program that THIS girl wasn't going to win. Once again, he felt so mad, but had no outlet for his anger.
Rod wearily looked at page 6 as the latest model exited the huge, wide stage. The MC, a stern-looking woman named Pierrette Louis-Jacques, in silvery hair and a red long-sleeved gown, had told everyone to hold their applause till the end. Now she looked out into the audience and announced the next entrant and the next model. Suddenly Rod realized that Tami's design was the next after this one. He hoped that backstage Gretchen wasn't breaking a heel as she fidgeted and got ready.
This one was a tall black woman of about 30, maybe. She was wearing a flowing robe over very tight leggings. She actually gave a half-smile as she teetered on high heeled shoes with pointy toes. With so much on his mind, Rod's observations became irritable. What is it with women and shoes, anyway? They gravitate to styles that hurt their feet as much as possible...
He took in a breath and braced himself. "Next, entrant number fourteen, Tami Smithers, Campbell - Frank College, South Lowell, Campbell County, Vermont, modeled by Gretchen Spaulding."
Gretchen, being Gretchen, was nervous, conscious of her height and the slight chubbiness that set her off from the other models, but she did not do too badly as she sauntered to the front of the runway, and did her well-rehearsed little turn. The tan garment was Tami's most conservative cut, a longish tunic- style dress, flowing around the arms, successfully hiding Gretchen's love handles, setting off Gretchen's pale skin and blonde hair nicely. Her low-heeled pumps looked downright sensible.
It was time for the narrative. Ms. Louis-Jacques said, "This entry uses a polymer-based fabric that Ms. Smithers has developed with Ms. Spaulding's help. It is lightweight and designed to hold in body heat, but to wick heat away in hot weather. This purpose is achieved through catenary-style shirring..." As the technical jargon flowed out, probably making some sense to this pretty sophisticated crowd, Rod tried to catch Gretchen's eye. He succeeded. She winked and he smiled and gave him a thumbs up. And now a broad smile from Gretchen, lighting up the room, a first for the night's models, and a little playful sway of the hips, from the first model tonight who had any.
The brief narrative ended. With an unusual (for her) graceful skip, Gretchen turned back and strutted off the stage. Whew. Rod was afraid she'd trip. But she did well and was quite fetching.
Now his smile faded and he found himself again falling into despair. He put his head in his hands. There were no good choices. He would have to tell Tami he was going to Canada. In his mind he rehearsed his exact words. And rehearsed them again. They still seemed to come out wrong.
He felt so inadequate and helpless, and once again pictured himself working his trombone, all dressed up on a freezing cold day, having marched in the front of the band for five miles through the biting icy wind, now finally entering Foxboro Stadium, for the pregame show before the Patriots took the field, a great honor for his high school, and as the band turned onto the field, all covered from head to foot with their thermals on, they followed in silent unease behind the faltering steps of their nearly naked, blue-skinned, now seriously hypothermic majorette --
Third place and second prize had been announced while he was in his miserable daze. Now Ms. Louis-Jacques said, "Before I announce the winner of this year's International, I must note that we have had more publicity this year than ever before. You obviously notice that many from the press are here. We are happy to have them, and it is good that more people know about us. The winner of this prize will be interviewed and his or her creations will widely publicized. Let me just advise the winner to handle this new-found fame with caution and responsibility. I don't want to be seeing you a year from now you on the cover of National Enquirer." Some laughter, mostly from the women rubbing their cold bare shoulders and arms.
"And now the winner of the fifty-first annual International Fashion Foundation Award. The winner receives a full scholarship to the Rhode Island School of Design, with adjunct professor status. Also he or she will have a slot at this year's Bryant Park show in New York." She opened the envelope. And opened her eyes wide and blinked. "Tami Smithers, for her design called 'Cherish'!"
Rod's head shot up. He had been rubbing his eyes and they were bleary. The thunderous applause stunned him. It took a few seconds before he could gather his wits and remember who he was, and begin to rise.
"Accepting the award for Ms. Smithers, her husband, Rodney Sikes."
He almost stumbled as he lurched down the carpeted aisle, fumbling in his pocket for the little speech Tami had written on the off chance that she would win. As he got closer he strode more upright. He felt borne up as if on a cloud, weightless, going up to a new world, as the realities of that world flashed before him.
Tami was going home to Rhode Island.
She was going to get that huge defense contract advance. Her family's financial problems were solved.
His mother didn't have to sell her house. Tami could stay with her. It was only a 20-minute drive in to Providence from there.
And, of course, he had to report to Fort Dix. She couldn't very well receive Department of Defense money if her husband was a deserter.
Going to Iraq scared him, of course, as it would anyone. But he was weirdly happy. Finally I get to sacrifice for Tami's benefit, after all the sacrificing she had done. In his dream life he dropped the trombone and grabbed Frigid Brigid, and carried her over to throw her into a heated pool that had materialized in the middle of the field, and as her body tingled and came back to pinkish, ruddy life he himself stripped and they hugged and kissed in the hot water as the stadium and the rest of their band cheered.
He scaled the steps and his shoes stepped from the red carpeting onto the cold polished marble, and shook hands with Ms. Louis-Jacques, who handed him the little pyramid-shaped trophy, which he held up playfully. He unfolded the short speech and looked out to the crowd and was amazed at their applause that went on and on, like one of Tami's orgasms, or like his own lately.
Rod thought of people who surprise you: of liberal fashionistas honoring a defense contractor; of foppy, limp- wristed professors with sharp legal minds; of immature, abusive girls who suddenly forgive; of stuck-up fundamentalist college people who found a warm place in their hearts for a naked student; of ground crew workers who turned out to be ingenious and wise; of a traditional black family that welcomed a white girl. And of a scared freshman, stripped and terrified, who survived her trials to become the bravest and strongest person he had ever met.
As the applause died down he cleared his throat, and was glad the words were in front of him to read. "I would like to thank you for this great honor and sorry I could not appear to receive it. I dedicate this award to my husband Rod," -- a little smile -- "and to my friends, and to Gretchen, who helped me with the chemistry, and most of all to my family. My design Cherish is named after a wild horse that saved my life. I hope that it will be of use to our soldiers in inclement conditions, to people like Gretchen's fiancé Roger, and especially to my brother Joe. Joe, your big sister loves you. And finally I hope that..." Rod found himself choking on the words but went on. "... I hope that all our soldiers like Joe and Roger come home soon."
This brought down the house. The applause became a standing ovation.
Rod bowed modestly, felt like he had to hold up the trophy again but decided against it, and in the pandemonium and flashing lights of dozens of cameras Ms. Louis-Jacques came over and held her hand up. Such was her presence that people stopped cheering almost on cue and the light flashes stopped.
"In your kit I'm sure you noticed the little zippered pouch with instructions not to open it until the show is over. Well I'd like you to open it now. It contains a half-yard of Cherish. Drape it over your shoulders, ladies, I think you'll be surprised."
Some unzipping and then the nearly weightless tan cloths came out. After two seconds or so, a massed chorus of female cooing filled the huge hall as cold shoulders suddenly got warm. Then laughter at the uninhibited cooing. Then another buildup of applause.
Now clapping was joined by whistling and shouts from the gratefully warmed women and the tuxedoed men. Rod and Ms. Louis- Jacques looked at each other and smiled. At a sign from Rod, Gretchen came out and bowed, now in her formal black dress, holding the long tunic made of Cherish up on a hanger, as the shouts got louder and more flashbulbs popped.
Her name was Caroline Unger and she was the stage manager of the event, and not one to let a good turn go unappreciated. She appeared from behind the curtain, clipboard in hand, pulling ferociously on a bare arm. And now the arm was followed by its owner.
One's first impression was of illness, but the bald scalp was tanned, the eyebrowless face strong and pretty, the naked bronze body lithely muscled, from the squared shoulders down past the firm breasts, the concave tummy, the bare lower lips with the little clit peeking out above, the strong legs and tough bare feet with widely spaced toes. Allergic not only to fabric but to her own hair now, she must undergo twice-weekly full-body depilations, a communal endeavor best done in the open air. Hence her desire to stay hidden and not a visual distraction to the proceedings.
Caroline Unger would have none of that. She turned Tami Smithers to the crowd so that the naked young woman could acknowledge their applause. Tears ran down many faces as they cheered the creator of this revolutionary fabric, which enshrouded so many bare shoulders in its warm, velvety embrace. Careful to keep her bare feet away from the carpeting, Tami bowed modestly, the constant popping of camera lights playing across her body. Gretchen walked over and handed her the tunic on the hanger.
Smiling happily at Rod and Gretchen, looking out at the standing, shouting crowd, thinking of people far away, Tami stood in the chilly auditorium air, holding up the wire hanger with the tunic next to her -- though not close, because she could not allow the merest touch against her tanned, cold-stiffened nipples, not even for a second.
(NOTE: Google "Caroline Unger" and "Beethoven")