Her Name is in the Modeling Handbook
My brother sits in the middle seat at the Lincoln Park, our favorite Manhattan bar, drinking his third Michelob Light of the evening and trying to avoid the peanuts that Ruby, our favorite poker-faced bartender, put in front of him. Me, I’m eating the peanuts because what the hell, they’re free and they’re so much smaller than I am. We’re all settled in and since he’s buying my Brooklyn Lagers, I’m giving him all the attention he needs.
“Janet, I’m going to give modeling a shot. What do I have to lose?” Jake is telling me, and I’m giving him my straightest face, just like I always do when my big brother tells me about his big plans. “I think I can do it. I’m good-looking, right? I’m six feet tall and slender. Everything fits me. So, you know, the designers won’t have to run around screaming and making specially designed sizes for me because I fit everything they’ve already made. I’m average. I am of such average build, they are going to love me instantly. They are going to love my averageness. I even have a great modeling name.”
I say, “Yup. Jake Holt. Great name. Simple, fast, like a punch in the face. Jake Holt!”
“Yeah, it starts, and then it’s over, just like that. Anyway, all I need is an agent to get me into the business. You can’t just walk up to a Ralph Lauren and say, ’I’m available for work.’ Well, you could, but you’d probably be subdued by bodyguards. There are proper channels to go through, just like any business. I know this, so I know I need an agent.”
Ruby wipes off a glass with a rag, and I try really hard to avoid eye contact with her.
“So I figure that hey, I’m already an actor, not that I’m working much. I already have stage presence. You know, the more I think of it, the more I feel like this is a matter of A-B-C, a matter of connecting the dots. It’s not like I’m saying I’m going to be a lawyer. This is modeling. All they want is someone who’s attractive, who fits their clothing, and who can walk up and down a runway without falling over.”
Jake takes a long sip of his beer, tilts his head back to get the last drops, then pushes it forward to be refilled. While Ruby is draining the liquid gold into his mug, Jake checks his cell phone and sees that he has no messages. I would check my cell phone, but I’d broken it into five pieces the other week when I threw it at my ex-boyfriend’s cab.
Ruby lets the foam settle on top of the beer before giving it to Jake and says, “Here you go, pretty boy.” I hold my hand to my mouth and concentrate on my coaster.
“Thanks, Ruby. Hey, I’m serious about this. So Jan, I was reading that book you got me, The Modeling Handbook.”
Oh, no. The book. So this was my fault. I’d created the monster. I’d only been kidding; it had only cost a dollar at the Strand.
“It’s all about what it takes to be a model: about controlling your weight, about rejection, about the stress, the travel, the parties. I read about headshots and tear sheets and testing and go-sees and callbacks and shoots and locations. I learned the places where most modeling work is found. I would love to go to Paris and Milan, but frankly, I live in New York City and there’s plenty of work right here.”
He looks past me out the window, as if to suggest that the modeling work is right out there on Ninth Avenue. All I see is a hot dog guy pushing his heavy cart home.
“And after all, I’m just looking for some work on the side to pay off some credit card debt, right, and maybe buy you a drink now and then. Of course, if I really hit it big with some top agency, I’ll have to seriously consider being a full-time model and putting my theater work on hold.”
Ruby says, “Good Lord.”
“Jiminy crickets,” I add.
“I know,” says Jake. “So I read the chapter that listed the best agencies in New York City. I circled some names. I sent out a bunch of headshots and rŽsumŽs with cover letters to the biggies — you know, Ford and Wilhelmina and Elite. In my letters I pointed out that I’m a professional actor and that I have modeling experience too. I modeled men’s suits for a local clothing store once. Remember that?”
Ruby mutters something to herself.
Jake continues, “I was a natural. So I mentioned in the cover letters that I have no body fat and that I have washboard abs. I even included a little photo of me without a shirt on.”
I choke momentarily. “Please say you’re kidding.”
“I’m not kidding. That’s what this business is, flesh.”
Jake goes on. “I felt confident that I would get a couple of look-sees. You have to feel confident before you can do anything, right? A week after I mailed out my head shots and letters, I got a call from Carol Conover, of Conover Models and Talent International.”
“Get outta here!” I exclaimed, shoving his shoulder. “Really?”
“Yeah! She had a whole page dedicated to her in The Modeling Handbook!”
“Fantastic,” I say, sliding my empty mug over to Ruby. She refills it, bless her.
“You bet. So she tells me she loved the pictures and can I send her a few more so she can start submitting me for things. I figure, all right. Sure, I’ll send the woman more pictures.”
“Jake, that’s fantastic news,” I tell him. “Congratulations.”
“Not so fast,” he says, plucking one peanut from the dish and popping it in his mouth.
“There’s something weird about her.”
“What?” asks Ruby. I didn’t realize that she was still listening.
Jake stares beyond us as he remembers. “Her voice had this fragile, shaky quality about it. She sounded older. She sounded like a grandmother looking back on life, with one foot in death’s limousine, you know? When we were talking, she paused longer than you might expect in a normal conversation. Like the silences were way too long, you know? Trucks are driving through these pauses. Even though her office was in Manhattan, it felt like I was talking to someone far away. I supposed I’d have to get used to that dynamic if I was going to be doing runway work in Milan or Paris. I figured, this is a modeling agent and she probably has lots of things on her mind. In the background I could hear a television. I figured she’s watching some fashion show on VH-1. Then out of nowhere she says, ‘It sure is cold outside.’ She’s just making small talk about the weather, like there isn’t anything else going on! Finally I tell her I’ll send the pictures and we hang up.”
Ruby has poured a drink for herself, and I can’t blame her. She’s swirling it around and around in her glass without drinking it.
“Still,” says Jake, “it’s only been a week, and here I am getting submitted for modeling work by Carole Conover! I reread the section about her in the book on modeling. The book included an actual quote from Carole.” Jake looks beyond us again as he remembers the words. I love it when he quotes things. His memory is phenomenal. Freakish, even. He holds his hand in the air to hold our attention. “‘The Conover look is timeless — beauty, grace, and smiles. Attitude is very important to us. It must be positive and fun-loving, and most importantly, professional.’” Jake looks at us again. “The word professional was in italics, so I knew it was really important. I made a mental note.”
There’s a cute guy at the other end of the bar; he’s maybe twenty-four, twenty-five, a baby, still doesn’t know anything about life, sitting by himself, poor thing. I feel like going over to him and tousling his hair.
Jake goes on. “Two days later, I called Ms. Conover — Carole — to see if she received the extra pictures I sent her. I wasn’t sure, at first, if I should call her or wait for her to call me. Then I remembered reading in my book that it’s good to follow up with a phone call. So I just decided to be proactive and call. I hoped she would see this as a sign that I was serious about my modeling career. She answered on the fifth ring and she says, ‘These sure are nice pictures. I put one of them up on my refrigerator.’”
Ruby laughs. “On the fridge, next to the watercolor drawings from her grandkids.”
“That’s what I’m thinking too. I’m thinking, hey, she really likes me. I wondered if she and I would develop one of these friendships between model and agent that was more like mother and son. So we’re talking, and I hear that she’s watching television again. I could hear a weatherman talking about weather. So I get her to give me a face-to-face appointment the next day, figuring I could maybe schmooze her a little and get her to be more aggressive in getting me work. I confirmed that her address was still the same as the one I’d seen in the modeling book and she eventually told me that it wasn’t. After like ten more seconds, she gives me the new address.”
Jake drains his beer and points at it, and Ruby fills it back up again.
“That brings me to today.”
“Yes!” I say, enthused.
“I get there early. Her office is on Third Avenue between Seventy-Fifth and Seventy-Sixth. I had been expecting a high-rise building; but instead it was in a four-story brick building like mine. It was like my own building’s long-lost twin brother. Her office was on the second floor, above a deli. Next to the deli was a pizza place, then a laundromat, then a video store.”
I say, “What, does she have the whole top floor for the offices?”
“You’d think, right? No. And honestly, I was disappointed that her office wasn’t in a modern high-rise building. But I’m thinking, thanks to temping, I’ve been in plenty of buildings in New York that don’t look impressive on the outside, but that have renovated office spaces on the inside.”
“I press the intercom button next to 2B CONOVER and wait. Nothing. I press it again. Another minute goes by, and finally I hear Carole’s voice through the static of the speaker system. At first she doesn’t know who I am, then she remembers, and a few minutes go by before she buzzes me in, but she finally does.”
“Show time,” I say.
“Rock and roll,” says Ruby.
“Half of the hallway is filled with dark green garbage bags, every one of them overflowing. The smell… it’s like Hoboken at low tide. On one wall is a row of thin mailboxes without doors. There are apartment numbers above the mailboxes, but with no doors, there’s nothing to prevent me or anyone from just taking mail. I hear a dog barking on the second floor. There’s no elevator. I start up the staircase and notice that it’s stained with some kind of liquid. There are cigarette butts on most of them. As I get closer to the second floor, the dog’s barking gets more frantic.”
An attractive young girl wearing tight black clothing comes into the bar and kisses the cute guy on the mouth. So much for that. I wonder if I can still slip him my phone number, tell him to call me in case things don’t work out. Then I remember that I smashed my phone. I consider giving him my home phone number instead but that makes me nervous. I could just give him the number to the bar but I don’t want to imply that I’m an alcoholic. Part of my brain continues working on this dilemma while Ruby excuses herself to take drink orders from them both.
Jake goes on. “I reach apartment 2B and realize that the dog’s in there. This makes me even more nervous. I keep telling myself there’s going to be a completely different scene behind the door, a brightly lit office space with an attractive receptionist and lots of ringing phones. The door opens and I see this midget of a woman. The teeny dog is standing between her legs, growling and shaking its tail at the same time. It takes me three seconds to place the character that this woman reminds me of. It’s Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back. This woman is a younger, less green Yoda. She looks kind of at me, kind of past me, and says ’You Jake? I’m Carole Conover. Nice to meet you.’ She holds out her hand and I shake it. It feels like sandpaper. She steps back and says, ‘Come in.’”
Jake takes a sip and then goes on. “I check out her office. It’s just a crappy apartment. Bookshelves on opposite sides of the one room, overflowing with old books, files, plants, cardboard boxes, rag dolls, and empty flower pots. The floors are wood and uneven. The dog hides under the king-sized sofa bed in the middle of the room. The bed dominates the space. To get from one side of the room to the other, you have to walk sideways between the wall and the bed.”
Ruby has come back and says, “But wasn’t her name in that book? I mean maybe she’s got an office somewhere else. Maybe that was where she lives.”
I say, “But wouldn’t you expect her to live in a high-rise, maybe one of the Trump buildings?”
Jake says, “Exactly what I was thinking. So Carole makes her way around the bed toward the windows, where there’s a desk in the corner overflowing with books, papers, coffee mugs, and more cardboard boxes. I follow her. For the first time, I notice that there’s a person in the bed. A foot sticks out from under the sheets, a man’s foot. The toenails are cracked and the bottom of the foot is yellowed and rough looking.”
Jake shudders and his face winces like it does when I make him do Jaeger shots with me.
“The sheets and blankets are wrinkled the way they get when you don’t make the bed, and now that I’m looking I can make out a body underneath. As I move around the bed, I see a few tufts of gray hair sticking out of the sheets by the head. There’s an old man under those sheets, possibly a naked old man.”
“Best kind,” I say. “Wait. How old?”
“Very old. She says, ’Have a seat, Jake. Boy, you’re even more handsome than your pictures.’ She has some of my pictures out and she’s looking toward them. I say toward them because her eyes don’t seem to look at them, just like they hadn’t exactly looked at me when she opened the door. It’s like it takes her a second to catch up to the image her brain is telling her to look at. I’m thinking oh my God, I’ve found a blind modeling agent.”
“Only in New York,” says Ruby.
Jake continues. “I eye the man under the sheets. I sense no breathing coming from this guy. He doesn’t stir. He doesn’t move at all. Not with the yapping dog, not with a stranger in the room, not with Carole’s crackling voice. I’m thinking, how could anyone sleep through all of this? At three in the afternoon?”
I say, “This was just today?”
“This was only about an hour ago. I hear a television coming from the little kitchen near the front door and off the bedroom-living room. I tell her I really am interested in doing modeling work, commercials, print, whatever. She tells me I’d be great in commercials. Then she asks me to get a book down off a high shelf. It’s an old beat-up hardcover. She opens it and shows me black and white photographs of her father, Harry Conover. Harry with models, Harry with former President Gerald Ford. I don’t know, maybe she’s not totally blind. Maybe she’s only legally blind. She says, ‘And that there is me,’ as she points to a photograph of a young woman in a simple dress standing next to Harry Conover and some model. I study the face and sure enough, it’s her.”
The cute couple is oblivious to us. I’m hoping they have a spat right there and that she storms out in a huff, leaving me to tend to his broken heart, perhaps by suggesting an evening of no-strings jungle sex, or maybe a movie. They kiss again. I turn my attention back to Jake.
“So I say, ‘Quite a looker,’ just to say something, wondering how I’m going to gracefully leave her apartment. I look at the old man in the bed and somehow she sees me looking at him. She says, ‘Oh, don’t worry about him. He sleeps all day.’ I don’t ask if it’s her husband. I don’t ask about him at all. I hand the book back to her. Finally she tells me that she’s sent my photos out to some places. She says, ‘Everyone thinks you have very nice pictures. I put you in for a Calvin Klein commercial and sent some other shots out to some print agencies.’”
Jake takes a long sip of his beer.
“Sure she did,” says Ruby.
Jake wipes his mouth and says, “That’s what I’m thinking, but of course I wanted to believe her. I wanted these people to see my pictures and not judge me by the agency that had submitted them. Then, on one of the shelves by the door, I see a pile of manila envelopes that had been ripped open, some with headshots sticking halfway out like they’d been opened and then stuffed right back in. It’s the only good thing I got from the experience. I’m not the only sucker to mail things to Carole Conover. I get up and say I have to go. I’m real edgy about this guy on the bed. I mean, he didn’t move a muscle the entire time I was there. So on the way back around the bed, I accidentally on purpose bump my knee against his foot.”
I find myself leaning forward in my seat. “Well? What happened?”
“The guy still doesn’t move. And I definitely gave him a solid nudge. She tells me she’ll call me when she hears something. I thank her and take one last look at the body on the bed. I’m wondering now if the guy has died and she doesn’t even know it. But I’m so freaked out; I just get the hell out of there and come here. Now I’m wondering if I should have the cops go over there to check on that body. I can suggest that while they’re there, they can bust up her phony modeling service.”
“Jeez,” says Ruby.
Jake spins his mug in little circles, counterclockwise. Ruby looks at both of us and fusses with the buttons on the soda nozzle.
“Well,” I announce. “I’m just glad I didn’t get you The Porn Star’s Handbook.”
Ruby guffaws so fast that it turns into a snort. She takes Jake’s glass and pulls him another beer from the tap, still laughing.
Jake watches her. He turns to me and I shrug at him.
“I could do porn.”
Ruby, still laughing, puts his fresh beer in front of him and walks to the other end of the bar.
Jake calls after her, “I could. I’m serious. I’d be a great porn star.”
The cute couple looks over at us and I give the guy a little wave.
Christopher Frost Shelley earned his MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. His stories have appeared in Carve Magazine, Apollo’s Lyre, The Plum Ruby Review, Fiction Warehouse, Prose Toad, and FRIGG. Another of his stories will appear in the June issue of Tryst.
Works by Christopher Shelley
Fiction: Her Name is in the Modeling Handbook