Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was a congressman before he became President? Did you know that Lincoln was completely smooth shaven in his early days? If I was a college professor giving an American history exam, this is how I would formulate my essay question: As we all know, Lincoln was smooth shaven as a congressman, yet bearded as our sixteenth president of the United States. Please describe and characterize the social, cultural, psychological, political, and economic factors that caused Lincoln to embrace facial hair, and after you've done that, explain to me the role that facial hair played in his ascendancy to the presidency. Helen used to tell me she hated beards on men, that it signaled a kind of moral laxity, a lack of ambition. I viewed my morning shave as a purification ritual. I lopped off the stubble, first with an electric razor to pound the overgrowth, then a blade to apply the delicate finishing touches. You know what I mean, there's close and there's closer. I would point out to her, again and again, how rarely men with facial hair are used to sell products in mass-media advertisements. I'm just giving you an idea of the kind of rapport that we used to enjoy. Where are all the bearded men in television commercials, I asked? Shaving products, I can understand. But beer? Tires? Credit cards? Given the stunning market failure of facial hair in contemporary society, why would any man grow a beard, and why would any woman enjoy running her fingers through that thistle? All rhetorical questions, to be sure. I didn't expect her to answer me.
"This is not going to be pleasant," she said. I had just shaved that morning. I was sitting on the bed, leaning my smooth smooth face against that cool cool wall. Extra-credit question: No American president since Theodore Roosevelt has been distinguished by a mustache or beard of any sort. Why is that?
"I've met someone else," she told me, slowly wrapping the belt of her bathrobe around her wrist.
"I see," I said, reasoned, rational, ready to explore our options. "What does he do?" I asked. Isn't that the first question everyone asks in this town? Let me just stop at this point and tell you that I was a GS-13, a rising young star in the federal bureaucracy. I had articles published, presented talks at symposiums. I shook the vice president's hand once, in a reception line. My work appears in the Code of Federal Regulations, shelved in any library of any city, county, or state in the land. A federal seal appeared on my business cards. I had credentials. So what does he do, this someone she has met, this embodiment of power and prestige beside whom I apparently pale?
"He's a chimney sweep," she said.
"A chimney sweep? A chimney sweep. What the hell is that?"
"What do you think?" she said, irritated. "He sweeps . . . chimneys."
"But you live in an apartment!"
"I'm not attracted to him for his professional services," she said. That hurt, Andy. That hurt. I was speechless. What does one say in such a situation? What would you say? Please tell me about your new young man! Does he go up chimneys, or does he go down chimneys? Does he ever get stuck? Does he grease himself? What if there's a flood? What if there's an earthquake? Does he wear a top hat? Does he hold an umbrella? Does he speak with a Cockney accent? What percentage of his body is covered by black soot, and do you look forward to helping him remove it every night? And please explain to me, Helen, how is it and why is it that his heavy chimney-sweep boots came to stomp the burning embers of our love into a flattened pile of ash? I was crazed with jealousy, Andy. Every time I thought of Helen and the chimney sweep together, well, the whole business had connotations of a sexual nature for me, and I apologize, Andy, for bringing it up. We're in mixed company here and people are listening, and believe me, I'm the last person who would approve of that kind of talk. But you know what I mean, don't you Andy? Sweeping chimneys. Chimney sweeping. I don't have to draw a picture for you.
Chimney sweeping became my obsession. I did research. I looked in the yellow pages and found three and a half pages of chimney sweeps. And their claim? Positively no mess! No mess guaranteed! I looked in the Code of Federal Regulations, to see if there are any government regulations on chimney sweeping. Nothing! I looked in the U.S. Code. Nothing! I lit a match under a paper cup, watched it shrivel and blacken. Smoke always rises, Andy, it makes its getaway. "This seems so abrupt, so cruel," I told Helen. I'm back on her bed, my head against that wall, having just heard the horrifying news.
"I'm so sorry, I never meant to hurt you," she said, dry-eyed. "But by all means, keep in touch. Do feel free to call me." Like I should be grateful! Like I'm some kind of charity case! Me, a GS-13, who shook hands with the vice president of the United States at a reception! My flesh touched his flesh! Our sweat mingled!
Call number one. "Let me ask you a question, Helen. Why would anyone want their chimney swept? Aesthetics? Compulsion? If soot and ash cake on brick and nobody sees it, is it really there? Do guests at a dinner party politely excuse themselves from the table, walk into the living room, and shine flashlights up the chimney? What is the point, Helen? Methinks the emperor has no clothes!"
"Creosote," she said. "Look it up."
Creosote, Andy. Creosote. I did some re-search. Phenolic compounds obtained by the distillation of wood tar. It builds on the walls of a chimney and causes fires.
Call number two. "But what better place, Helen, to have a fire than in a sturdy brick chimney, attached to a fireplace!?"
"Please do not call me anymore," she said.
"Et tu, Helen?" I shouted into my office phone. She hung up.
Call number three. Cellular. "I'm riding on the Metro, Helen, and I'm wondering, considering, pondering. What does the chimney sweep have that I don't have? I am inside a subway train, a tube diving into deep tunnels, a giant pipe cleaner, whisking through, cleaning it out. Inside this train, I'm holding a Q-Tip in my hand. I'm inserting it in my ear. I'm expertly twisting it back and forth, gently loosening, loosening. My blood is coursing through my heart, Helen, purging the hurt-encrusted deposits of betrayal and pain you left there. Yes, Helen, the blood removes impurities, cleans them right out. Like a Q-Tip. Like a pipe cleaner. Like a subway train. LIKE A CHIMNEY SWEEP!"
Attention, passengers. It has been determined that the situation at Foggy Bottom station cannot be rectified in a timely manner. Presently, we will be returning to the Rosslyn station stop, where passengers may disembark the train. We apologize for the inconvenience. Remember: please take newspapers, magazines, and other personal belongings with you when you leave the train. And thank you for riding Metrorail.
Call number four, Andy. "I'm not talking to you," she said and hung up.
Call number five: click, dial tone.
Call number six: click, a little more emphatic, dial tone.
Call number seven: a man answered. His phone manner was atrocious. Are you surprised?
"Yeah?" he sneered.
"You the chimney sweep?" I asked.
"You the lunatic?" he replied.
"I've shaken hands with the vice president," I countered calmly. "And you, chimney sweep?"
"I've kissed the vice president," he said. "A big wet one." I heard laughter in the background. Familiar female gurgling cascading laughter. A bed jouncing, sheets rustling. This time, I was the one who hung up. Et tu, Helen? Et tu?
Let me set the scene for you, Andy. It was seven years ago--December 7, 1991, a day that still lives in infamy. I'm standing on the platform of the Woodley Park-Zoo station. I'm inside the station, with those ribbed concrete walls arcing into a vast canyon. It's like I'm in the belly of a great whale. Not Jonah, I think, but Pinocchio. Remember Walt Disney's Pinocchio? I'm inside Monstro the Whale.
And who do I see inside this belly? Can you guess? They are staring down the track at that tunnel entrance, two heads bent in anticipation, four eyes watching for that approaching light in the distance. Our eyes meet. Helen's face falls, then quickly recomposes itself. She whispers in his ear. He glances at me, eyes narrowing. He shakes his head.
He had a big brown beavery beard. Black buttony eyes. I made my approach. "How's business?" I asked. Him, not her. Pointedly, not her.
"Get lost, asshole," he smirked. Smirked.
"Is that real, chimney sweep?" I inquired. I pulled on his beard, gently.
"Don't you touch him!" Helen shouted. We started to scuffle. He pushed me, I pushed him. People swirled around us, shouting. I felt a briefcase pressing into my thigh, smelled aftershave, shoe leather. The chimney sweep grabbed the lapel of my suit with his left hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that faint lick of light creeping up the distant rail, tantalizing, getting brighter, illuminating the darkness from whence it came. He embedded his right fist deep into my belly. My belly within The Belly, get it? I doubled over, moaning. Hexagons filled my eyes. He lifted me up. The angry redness of his face shone through his thicket of a beard. There was froth coming out of his mouth. The gusts of the coming train blew his hair into wild billowing tufts. He punched me in the face. Left right left right! The lights on the platform blinked. Blink blink blink blink. The train moved into my peripheral field of vision. The thunderous rattle and screech of metal on metal drowned out my anguished cries. He swung. I ducked. He lurched. I pushed. The chimney sweep went over easy, too easy. He fell onto the track, screaming, and disappeared under the train, which silently, smoothly, filled the emptiness between platforms and would have belched a puff of smoke had we lived in another era.
Let me just stop right here for a minute Andy, and make something clear. The phrase: "accidentally on purpose" does not appear in formal case law, but if it did, it would be one of those legal terms of art that comes as close as possible to describing a certain human situation for which no other term or phrase can approximate. I will now employ this term. I pushed the chimney sweep onto the track "accidentally on purpose." There was no premeditation. There was no voice in my head saying: I hate this particular chimney sweep, therefore, I will push this chimney sweep onto the track. I simply reacted to an external stimulus. How much responsibility do we bear in this moral universe for the involuntary actions of our bodies? Nerves can twitch, Andy, even after death.
Now where was I? Oh yes, mass confusion, hysteria. A mob encircled me, closed in on me, retribution in their faces. At my back, the door of the arriving train opened. "MURDERER!" Helen screamed at me. "Excuse us, sir, we're trying to get off," accused the angry and uncomprehending passengers clutching their newspapers, magazines, and other personal belongings. Oh, the humanity! What would you do, Andy? I pushed my way onto the train and started running toward the back, going through back and front doors, from car to car, strung together like sausages. NO PASSAGE EXCEPT IN AN EMERGENCY, said a sign on each door. If this wasn't an emergency, Andy, what was? I ran down aisles and each aisle on each car looked exactly alike, the passengers looked exactly alike, the bland advertisements, the sleeping heads pressed against dark tinted windows, the drab suits and skirts, the dull metal poles, all exactly alike. As I ran, bleary eyes peaked at me over the serrated edges of Washington Post editorial pages, held by white-cuffed hands. Tourists pondered me, pondered their maps. On the last car, I opened the back door and leapt off the train. It is farther to the ground than you would think, Andy. It was a hard landing. My ankle twisted, but I was already in pain, my stomach throbbing, my face bleeding and sore. I started running. I ran down the track bed and into the tunnel, back toward Cleveland Park.
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