Story — From the July 2017 issue

The Mustache in 2010

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Social historians will record that in the early twenty-first century the fashion for a clean-shaven face lost its dominance in metropolitan North American bourgeois society. (The no-nonsense goatee-mustache, associated with manliness, had long been a very well-liked provincial look.) It was permissible, and often chic, to sport stubble, even in formal settings. A full beard was almost de rigueur for younger white males who wanted to signal that they occupied, or deserved to occupy, a prestigious role in the culture economy. The more elaborate and antiquated the beard, the more credible the signal. Emperor Franz Joseph himself could have wandered the streets without attracting attention. Indeed, it may be anticipated that future commentators will detect, in the whiskered countenances so typical of our epoch, a melancholy identification on the part of young Americans with their complacent and doomed counterparts in Austria-Hungary. This identification was of course ahistorical. The so-called millennials knew next to nothing about the Hapsburg Empire, the centenary of whose disappearance approached without their knowledge. Nonetheless, our descendants may well argue, the America of today is best understood not by reference to, say, Italy circa 1920, a period of substantive national chaos, but rather by reference to the complex political contradictions that characterized the relatively prosperous Dual Monarchy of a decade earlier, contradictions in many ways comparable to those obtaining in the United States during our beard craze, when a vast, apparently stable, multiethnic and multicultural polity depended for its cohesion on a philosophical and legal apparatus resembling, in its old idealism, the outdated dynastic raison d’être of Austria-Hungary. All this is by way of introducing the drama of Alexandre Dubuisson’s mustache.

A youngish businessman (to be thirty-six in New York City was to be considered on the young side, it will be chronicled), Alex availed himself of the new shaving norm. That is, he shaved only every third Monday morning. To put it another way, he always shaved a three-week beard. The growth was black and dense, especially above the upper lip. Almost a quarter of an hour of lathering and razoring was required to get rid of it all. One morning, Alex saw that he had accidentally left himself with Elvis Presley sideburns. This amused him. Thereafter, when he shaved, he subtracted facial hair so as to create an amusing residue. The soul patch, the cop stache, muttonchops, the Zappa, the pencil, the chin curtain, the rap-industry standard: Alex barbered himself in these and other styles.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

There was no question of wearing these designs outdoors. They were private jokes. But before Alex did away with the joke, he stepped out of the bathroom to present himself to his wife, Vivienne Ferguson. Viv always laughed, albeit beginning with an ironic scream of horror because Alex would sneak into her presence and try to surprise her. This became one of their running gags.

Alex’s interest in pranking was somewhat forced on him. He was a Quebecois, and his English fell just short of the level required for wittiness. The bons mots that came easily to him in Montreal were, in New York, just beyond reach. It left him with a woodenness of personality that was, above all, unjust. The practical jokes mitigated this, as did the adoption of certain postures of droll Gallic dignity. For example, he professed to object to the custom, popular in the under-forty cohort, of removing one’s shoes when entering a home; and when friends invited him and Viv over for dinner he would theatrically bring out a pair of velvet slippers. Viv, who spoke no French, sympathized with her husband. She knew that he actually didn’t give a hoot about being seen walking around in socks. He just wanted to take a painful weakness—his alienness—and, by doubling down on it, turn it into a comic strength.

The glance of posterity, if it is acute, will stop at this detail: the sudden and strange rise of the “double down” trope. A term once confined to blackjack tables became, in this period, ubiquitous. Most important for our purposes, the buzzword described a new and uncannily powerful—one might even say revolutionary—maneuver of political argumentation. In former times, if White clearly proved that an assertion made by Black was incorrect, Black’s options were to either (a) withdraw his assertion or (b) appear dishonest. Now Black had a third option: He could double down on his incorrect assertion, i.e., reiterate it more forcefully than ever—and yet not appear dishonest. This was because a person who acted in transparently bad faith was, by virtue of the transparency, now deemed to be relatively honest. Also, by doubling down Black would put White in an impossible position. Precisely because White’s position was correct, it was not susceptible to being doubled down on. She was therefore stuck with the role of the reasoner rather than the straightforward liar, her good faith necessarily remained opaque, and a relative deviousness automatically attached itself to her. Moreover, any attempt by White to contradict Black’s doubling down would make her appear foolish as well as dishonest. That is, White would be perceived to be committing what logicians of the future might term the liberal fallacy: arguing on the false, naïve, and finally ridiculous assumption that the laws of thought are applicable to the argument.

So Viv was always on the lookout for a nonverbal diversion for Alex. When the night of the school fund-raising auction arrived—they had two boys in elementary school—she made sure they went. It would be an evening of broad, boisterous fun.

The auction took place in the school gymnasium. The ethos of the event was that the parents would get a little drunk and then make bids. There was a silent auction, for the less valuable items; and there was a live auction, conducted by a parent who was a professional auctioneer, for the more valuable or quirky items.

We must be careful here to avoid a certain irrelevance. The unsatisfactory acoustics of the event space, the kinds of food prepared by the parents, the sociological and anthropological minutiae of the occasion, the auctioneer’s strange attire: These are not our concern. We are concerned only with the incident that, in due course, gave rise to the mustache that is our subject.

A couple of drinks in, Viv and Alex sat down at the table where they’d spotted their friends Josh and Marie. Marie introduced her parents—Dad and Mom, she called them—and explained that they’d driven all the way from Illinois. Small talk followed.

At a certain point, Dad rested a leg on a chair. He asked if it was known that we all have two anklebones. It was not known. Dad explained that he’d learned this fact when the doctors had put stainless-steel screws in his ankle.

Viv saw that he had a tale to tell about his ankle. She asked him about it.

Dad related that he used to be a police officer in Wayne County. He and his partner were called to a domestic altercation. The partner rang the doorbell. A guy came to the door and shot Dad’s partner six times through the screen door. Four bullets hit the partner’s torso, which was protected by a bulletproof vest, and two hit him lower down. He lived. Meanwhile a ricochet struck Dad in the ankle. That was how come they’d implanted the hardware. It was quite the anatomy lesson, Dad concluded.

Good grief, Viv said. What happened to the guy?

Dad smiled—at Alex. At all times, Viv later reported, Dad had been addressing her husband.

Viv said, I mean, what happened to the guy who shot you?

Dad, still not looking at Viv, answered, I already said what happened.

Viv began to explain to him that he hadn’t—and then she stopped. She said, Ah. Okay. I get it. You’re not going to tell me what happened to the guy.

Dad smiled at Alex again. This smile, Viv would maintain, was one of those man-to-man, isn’t-the-little-lady-something smiles that she hadn’t seen in years.

He said, Like I said, I told my story. He gave Alex a wink.

Viv laughed and went to get herself another glass of wine.

The live auction began. Viv and Alex were not planning to take part. At the silent auction, they’d bid sixty dollars for a whisky tasting. Apparently at the whisky tasting you would learn how to “nose” whisky and how to clear your nose by sniffing the back of your hand—interesting stuff like that. They felt confident about their bid. The year before, their friend Krithika had bought the same item for forty dollars.

The auctioneer was expert and funny and gave everyone nicknames. After a little while, he offered for sale the evening’s most morbid item, as he termed it: the services of an attorney to write your will. Everybody laughed.

Dad announced that he was going to bid for this item. He knew for a fact that his daughter did not have a will. He was going to fix that right now.

Marie said, Dad, Josh and I can buy our own wills.

Dad raised his hand. Fifty dollars, he shouted.

Someone bid sixty. Dad bid seventy. It went on until Dad bid one-thirty-five. There was a hush. Going once, going twice, the auctioneer called.

Viv raised two fingers.

Morticia bids two hundred, the auctioneer said with a cackle. Sir? he said to Dad. Two-ten?

Alex whispered to his wife, What are you doing? He didn’t have to tell her that they already had a will.

Two-ten, bid the retired police officer.

Two-twenty, bid the director of an advertising agency specializing in new media.

That’s enough, Vivienne, Alex said softly.

Do I have two and a quarter? the auctioneer exclaimed. I do! The gentleman testator bids two and a quarter! Well played, sir!

Until this moment, Viv had fixed her eyes on the auctioneer. She turned toward Dad. Now he was looking at her. She smiled at him. When asked about Dad’s expression at this moment, Viv would say that he looked confused.

She heard the auctioneer say, Does Morticia respond?

Viv raised her hand in a fist. Then, dramatically, she showed five fingers. A cheer mixed with gasps went up. A few people clapped.

The auctioneer touched his bow tie. I’m bid five hundred, he said, very calm.

There was no movement from Dad.

Going once, the auctioneer cried with sudden violence. Going twice. He paused. Sold to Mrs. Morticia Addams for five hundred dollars, he shouted, and banged his little mallet.

Viv went to the podium to collect her certificate. She waved it in the air to applause. When she got back to the table, she handed the certificate to Dad. That was so much fun, she said.

The next day Alex, hung over, slept in. Viv, also hung over, took the boys to the park. When they returned, Alex was taking a bath.

A little later she became aware of him standing behind her, a towel around his waist. His wet black hair was slicked diagonally across his forehead. His beard had been shaved except for a dark square beneath his nose.

Viv said, Not funny, Alex.

Alex made no reply. In a further break from his routine—it was a Saturday, after all, not a Monday—he didn’t shave off the toothbrush mustache until shortly before he stepped out, a few hours later. It could be said that he shaved it off only after he had first doubled down on it.

I learned about all this firsthand from Viv, over lunch a few days later. The main theme, from her point of view, was her misbehavior at the auction, about which she felt horrible shame. Even allowing for her tipsiness, she could not explain what had possessed her to humiliate this basically harmless and nice man from Illinois whose eye-contact avoidance, it seemed to her in retrospect, had not necessarily been a sign of misogynistic condescension. And even if Dad had been patronizing (and she did think that he had been, in all fairness), surely she could have been a little more sympathetic to a retiree from a part of the country dominated by conservative norms—Let’s be honest, Viv said: dominated by backward, borderline evil norms—that were simply not intellectually escapable by him, undeveloped as he was, like so many members of the American proletariat, in the realm of critical thinking.

I had no insights to offer Viv. She was entertaining me with an anecdote of social catastrophe and mortification, not asking for my opinion or analysis. As we saw it, the vignette about Alex’s mustache was purely laughable. It was his payback for her disgraceful actions of the night before, and Viv herself felt that she deserved nothing less than this husbandly retribution, or lesson. And his pedagogical method was actually typical of him, and sweet and funny too, once you got over the initial shock and revulsion.

That lunch took place seven years ago. Until quite recently, it belonged to the plane of the contemporaneous—to the foreshortened phenomenal mass by which we are surrounded, as if in a forest. But time slowly moves us all upward, into the canopy. With every instant that passes, an imperceptibly changing chronorama discloses itself. The forest floor becomes ever more visible. All that remains is the problem of seeing what’s down there, in the past.

When I mention to my husband that I find myself recalling this episode, or rather that it has resurfaced in my mind with the spontaneity and portentousness of a dream, he only vaguely remembers the whole affair and asks me to repeat the details. When I do, it makes him laugh all over again—laugh even more than he did first time round.

“Good old Viv,” he says.

It must be clarified that Viv and I haven’t seen much of each other lately; our friendship, which has always been deciduous, is passing through a wintry stage. The reasons for this need not detain us.

I say to him, “It doesn’t strike you differently? In retrospect?”

He hums thinkily. “You mean, as some kind of symbol? Some kind of sign of the times?”

That isn’t exactly what I mean. “As a clue,” I say. Because I don’t want to appear odd, or unwell, I don’t reveal that I’m spelling it clew, as in the ball of yarn, as in the labyrinth.

My husband, Jerry, is a very practical guy. For some time he has been urging me to take up meditation. He sees our conversation as an opportunity to again press this idea on me. A dose of mindfulness, he feels, would reduce my stress and do me a lot of good.

Mindfulness, if I understand it correctly, means paying very, very close attention to the continuance of one’s subjectivity. If you do it right, your thoughts circulate before your mind’s eye like the steeds on a carousel. Finally, even the horses and the dragons quietly gallop away.

This is where I must disagree with Jerry—who, by the way, wears stubble. Since when did “meditate,” which in my book means to think something over, come to mean its opposite? He is in effect asking me to perform a renunciation.

This word, “renunciation,” which in one sense is an antonym of “doubling-down,” has fallen into relative disuse. According to graphs charting the occurrence of words in published books, “renunciation” was steadily deployed throughout the nineteenth century (around 1813 especially, for some reason); came into vogue in the late 1920s, peaking in 1930; immediately suffered a crash in use; made a comeback in the postwar period, peaking in 1964; and has been going into ever-deepening disfavor since.

I say to Jerry, “We can’t afford to meditate. This isn’t the moment.”

He laughs. “Who’s this we?”

It’s true: The first person plural usually would refer to me and Jerry. Now it refers to me and some multitude.

So be it. My point is that we must turn our gaze toward Vivienne Ferguson and Alexandre Dubuisson, this married white couple living in New York City, with a special concentration. Certain customary details—the state of their marriage, the particulars of their domestic and professional arrangements, in short the state of the upper-middle-class adventure on which, years before, they jointly embarked—must be driven to the periphery of our vision, if not disregarded. And I say this as their friend. Do we care that Viv and Alex make thoughtful educational efforts on behalf of their firstborn, who faces certain challenges? For our purposes, we don’t. Whether Viv and Alex are or are not sexually contented, to what extent their expectations of personal happiness are being met—these questions cannot be in our scope. Never mind, for example, that not long after the events on which we’re focused, Viv will receive the results of a certain blood test and be forced to think in somber terms about her future and the future of her family. We are not concerned with Viv and Alex as such. We cannot be. They interest us only as creatures in the understory of yesteryear.

And here is Jerry’s hand on my shoulder. “Are you okay, my love?”

I touch his hand. We are high up, on the twenty-second floor. We can see across the river. Clouds—clouds without qualities, clouds that are barely events, clouds no different from uncountable predecessors, clouds that will not figure in the history of clouds—are approaching us from Weehawken, from where they always seem to approach. Although it must be that sometimes they approach from the Tappan Zee or New York Bay or Kips Bay. I’m brushing tears from my eyes, it should be documented. 

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Joseph O’Neill’s novels include Netherland and The Dog. His story “The Trusted Traveler” appeared in the February 2016 ­issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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