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The Tie 


"May I help you?" The owl-eyed salesman arched an eyebrow. A character actor from an art deco musical comedy, anything by Busby Berkeley.

"No, thanks, I'm just looking at your ties."

"Let me know if you need any help."

The salesman turned and walked back to the cash register at the other end of the glass display cases where he had been standing when Rutledge walked into the Men's Department.

Paul appreciated ties, seeing them as unfailing indicators of the kinds of men who wore them. Primal phallic symbols, certainly, but they were also badges, emblems of individual identity. And, he believed, they tell the tenor of the times.

Show me a department store tie display, he thought, and I'll tell you what the majority of the men are thinking and feeling at that precise moment in history.

The display he was looking at, for example, told him that the men of the time he was occupying were in the process of emerging from a bland but prosperous period of conforming conservatism into a time of potentially dangerous uncertainty where individual expression is highly prized while social consciousness deteriorates. Time for a hero.

The evidence was the fact that about one quarter of every tie display is devoted to ties from the preceding fashion period, in this case subdued but rich regimental stripes, elegantly textured solids, and understated patterns. The remainder are the ties of the times, and here they were sharp-edged, almost jagged geometric patterns in glaring colors that seemed to be illustrations of anxiety, large floral prints, and, most tellingly, a large assortment of brilliantly colored patterns in a style strongly suggestive of abstract expressionism. There were, of course, the usual assortment of specialty ties -- fish for fishermen, golf balls for golfers, even one whose swirling pattern purported to be the molecular structure of dark beer -- but Paul had come to view these as historical constants, with equivalents in every fashion period since the necktie, a gradual mutation of the scarf, first appeared as a European white male's accessory sometime during the Renaissance.

Paul's personal collection consisted of two hundred and seventy-three ties reflecting not only the Zeitgeists of the times in which he had thus far lived, but also particular periods in his own life, like the impossibly wide, hallucinogenic paisleys of his college years in the early Seventies, the traditional stripes of his first publishing job, the ultra-narrow black or neon ties of his after-hours punk period, the earth tone knits of his first marriage, and his brief flirtation with bow ties shortly after his divorce.

Now he was looking for a tie that would alter his mood, which at the moment was anger out of all proportion to the incident that had provoked it. But then again, he wasn't really sure that there had been an incident at all. He had been having lunch with a close friend, a sociologist who taught at a nearby college. They had been party beasts together for years, drinking beer and smoking dope on the weekends and sharing an ironic disdain for mainstream American existence. When they were sufficiently stoned, they liked to pretend that they were characters in an unwritten play by Samuel Beckett, taking names like Flood or Touchstone and improvising their witty, despairing dialogue. They called themselves nihilistic playmates.

But a few months ago his friend dropped into a major depression, and his shrink put him into a hospital where he was prescribed an antidepressant and compelled to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. When he emerged a month later, he referred to himself as a "recovering" alcoholic and went to AA meetings almost every day. He said that he was happier than he had ever been before and that the treatment had saved him from what he called "slow Dionysian suicide." And Paul had to admit that he appeared at least as happy as Paul had ever seen him, walking evidence of how prominent addiction issues had become for humanity. Paul himself had long been convinced that one of the greatest potential social problems we ever face could come when our highly successful human technology finally produces a drug of universal appeal with no side effects whatsoever, a true soma. It was only a potential problem, he thought, because sobriety is relative to whatever purpose it serves, and there is always a sense in which addiction has become an inescapable consequence of postmodern consumer culture, America's gift to the world.

Still, things had changed between them, and even though they both had told each other that this new way of life would not alter their friendship, it had. For one thing, it made Paul look at his own lifestyle. He had never thought of his friend as an alcoholic. Sure, they got drunk on the weekends, but they were always sober during the week, and no alcohol-related misfortune had ever befallen them.

Now Paul made a point of never drinking more than two or three beers in front of him. They still seemed to have fun together, but to Paul it appeared that they had become slightly wary of one another, even a bit uneasy in each other's presence.

And when his friend said something at lunch that sounded to Paul as if he were implying that his new manner of confronting reality was in some sense superior to Paul's, Paul suddenly found himself in a vortex of rage.

But he didn't show it. He never did. He was afraid of anger, a fact of his life that had been the focus of much psychotherapy, and he had learned enough in therapy to know that the kind of disproportionate anger he was now feeling had its source in something deeper, more fundamental. Probably his father again, he thought. It usually was.

The only thing he knew for sure was that the department store did not have a tie that would do what he wanted done. Then he caught a glimpse of a rack of ties he had missed because they were partially hidden by dress shirts on sale.

Good God, he thought. They've finally come back. Hand-painted ties from the Forties. I knew it would happen, but not this soon.

Simulated hand-painted ties, actually. Reproductions. He had often admired the originals in antique clothing stores, but he could never bring himself to wear a dead man's clothes. The inevitability of someone else's even imagined karma, he thought, was nothing to be trifled with.

Now he had before him a visual feast of brilliant green palm trees, tropical sunsets in pink and gold, the 1943 New York skyline by night, a shapely blonde in a bathing suit beneath a leering Man in the Moon. All unforgettable, some even transporting. They spoke of fantasy and a world he had only dreamed of. Alas. After that timeless time, he motioned to the owl-eyed salesman.

"Which one will it be?"

"That one."

The one he bought had a raucous yellow parrot in a palm tree overlooking sand and surf beneath a big orange sun.

Somehow it made a difference he could almost understand.

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