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"It's the Mustache": An Excerpt from "Becoming Burt Reynolds"

Amazon Book Review: The Man Who Gave Away OrgansWho says social media invented celebrity? Way back in the 1980s and 90s, the world was awash with celebrity impersonators--and foodies, too. Take a taste of this story--"Becoming Burt Reynolds," from a collection called The Man Who Gave Away His Organs--and learn what it was like to live in a time when everybody wanted to be somebody else. And eat Fusion.

Warning! This story comes with a Strong Language Advisory.


Josh Gottlieb was mistaken for Burt Reynolds for the first time in a trendy restaurant (Burmese-French-vegetarian fusion, no reservations accepted) in the West Village. The year was 1989, when all the trendy restaurants suddenly turned mauve and minimalist, and he and Harriet were out celebrating his fiftieth birthday at a restaurant of his choosing. Rangoon's mauve walls were decorated only with an evenly spaced row of translucent sconces that sent low-wattage fans of light spreading upwards. Although it was the middle of the week the place was full, and as Josh made his way to the reservation desk, he heard the sleek young hostess, an East-West-vegetarian fusion herself, cheerfully tell another couple that the wait would "definitely be under two hours." But just when he and Harriet had decided to go elsewhere, an immaculately dressed and groomed Asian man with a proprietorial air came up to them and announced, "Your table is ready, Mr. Reynolds. Please to follow me."

Josh was about to explain that his name wasn't Reynolds when he felt the sharp jab of Harriet's elbow in his ribs. The owner removed a reserved sign on a table near the front. "It's an honor you with us tonight, sir. Please to enjoy you dinner." He made a small bow and backed away.

"Of course, the guy doesn't give a flying fuck if I enjoy my dinner," Harriet said.

"He was just being polite."

"Not to me he wasn't. He was being an asshole."

Josh could never quite get used to the contrast between Harriet's drill-sergeant language and her demure--sparrow-boned, wide-eyed, ponytailed--demeanor, but it never failed to charm him. They perused the poster-like menus the owner had handed them, with print the size of an eye chart for the legally blind to compensate for the dim lighting. Wasn't the secret of a successful relationship a matter of vision, too, Josh thought--not merely tolerating traits others might fault but seeing them as heart-stoppingly wonderful? Love didn't have to be blind but a little myopia never hurt.

He noticed the delicate stitchery of Harriet's downcast eyelashes across her face as she weighed each item on the menu. "Promise you'll let me know if I get some spinach caught between my teeth." It was something she routinely said before ordering, whether or not she was having spinach, the way someone else might say, "I'm starving." She looked at Josh intently. "It's the mustache. It does make you look a little like him, you know."

"Like who?"

"Burt Reynolds, dummy." She reached out to lift his face into the available light. The dark mustache flecked with gray, which sent tiny tendrils towards the corners of his mouth as if placing quotation marks around everything he said, was still new enough to tickle her when they made love....

"At least he's got a good sense of humor," Harriet said.

"What god-sent rumor?" As if to compensate further for the restaurant's lack of visual stimuli, the noise was definitely not minimalist; sound waves bounced off bare walls to collide in Josh's inner ear.

"Good... sense... of... humor," Harriet practically shouted. Then: "What are you having?," the next step in their dining-out ritual. "I'm leaning toward the Eight Treasure Bean Curd en croute. It says it has ridged cucumber, lizard's tail and hairy gourd. No mention of the other treasures."

"You'd better ask," Harriet said. "Those all sound like edible sex toys." Studying the menu like it was the Rosetta stone, she crinkled her eyes in a gesture of frustration and extended her lower lip to blow a puff of air upward that ruffled her bangs. "The French didn't even rule Burma. The British did, if I recall my Orwell correctly."

Harriet was exceptionally well read but postwar colonial history didn't usually concern her. That was Josh's thing--or at least it used to be. She disapproved of fusion cuisine as a concept even before it was a concept. Harriet was convinced that American civilization wasn't going to die out the way others had from homicidal rulers or moral licentiousness or ecological catastrophe or even the slow extinction of the national will but by a confusion of long-tested general principles like not placing Oriental vegetables inside French pastry. She was a precise and orderly person. She ate ham or cheese sandwiches. If there were several food groups on her plate--and Harriet's insistence on a balanced diet at every meal insured that there always were--she ate them one at a time. The odd thing was that Harriet was a poet. A precise, orderly poet. She liked to use lists in her poems. She was logical and complete. She generally wrote in rhymed pentameters "just like Bill," meaning Shakespeare.

Jennie ("I'll be your server tonight") pronounced each of the specials "totally awesome." Together with all the other servers she was, like the vegetables on the menu, "at the peak of perfection"--lean and lithe and glowing such a distinct shade of orange from beta-carotene overload that she resembled a highway semaphore as she moved about the dimly lit room. She seemed so nervous that the butterfly tattoo on the back of her writing hand stayed in mid-flight.

Harriet kept contemplating the menu, making m-m-m sounds as she evaluated each item. She was also a deliberate person. She made up her mind deliberately, and she moved deliberately. (As a child her parents had nicknamed her "Pokey" and had yelled "Hurry up, Harriet" upstairs so often that those were the only words her parakeet, Keats, ever learned.) Josh stuck with the Eight Treasure Bean Curd. Harriet ended up ordering the Green Mango Salad, with the garlic oil and lemon juice dressing on the side so she could sample it first, and green mint tea. ("Please pour the water over the tea bag.") At least Josh and Harriet never had to agree on which dishes to share, because Harriet never shared. She wasn't selfish. She just couldn't understand why anyone would want a half-portion of two unrelated entrees instead of a whole portion of his or her absolute favorite one. Lately she had joked about starting a countertrend for fission food--heating dishes until they separated back into their perfectly satisfying component parts. Or maybe you had to freeze them until they congealed into their component parts, Harriet wasn't sure. For all her many talents, Josh did most of their cooking.

Copyright © 2015 by Richard Michael Levine

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