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BEAUTY

Rob quickly set the reception phone to voice mail, grabbed his bag and ran for the elevator. He was already ten minutes late.

He ran into the Stop and Shop bathroom to change. He threw on his ragged pants that reeked of rotten food, and a very small, crusty, Ron Jon's Surf Shop T-shirt with the sleeves torn off. He grabbed his harmonica and ran the 4 blocks to Logan Square park. He only had an hour for lunch, and she would be there soon. He sat on the sidewalk, with a open plastic bag filled with coins, and began to play. Eventually he saw her walking down the street.

Rob had watched her for weeks now. She consistently walked the same route for her lunch break; she was absolutely breathtakingly gorgeous, and she always gave money to street performing bums. Rob had a good feeling that this would be his day. According to his friends this was the most elaborate way to get a girl they had ever seen. "But just crazy enough to work?" he would ask them. "No," they'd respond, "just crazy."

As she approached, Rob played like he had never played before. Actually, he had rarely played before. He began practicing the harp for real just to woo this angel of a woman. He had seen her wearing a Beck T-shirt, so as she approached he started bellowing out "Pay No Mind," the only Beck song he could transcribe and make it sound right.

She was literally feet in front of Rob. His heart pounded. She stopped to listen. She was enjoying the music. She even smiled. A smile that made the sky bright and the flowers bloom. As he played he looked up into her face. What he saw, and what he was experiencing, was pure joy. She was perfect. He finished the song and she threw fifty cents into his plastic bag.

"Thanks," he said.

"That was great. I love Beck."

"Me too."

"Maybe I'll get to hear some more tomorrow." Before he could ask her name, she was off. Rob was ecstatic — he would see her again tomorrow. However, for now, he had to hurry and change to get back to work on time.

After work he went home to learn another song. He started off practicing "Devils' Haircut," but it didn't have that same edge to it. Anyway, that song was too popular. He wanted a special song that just the two of them could share. He decided to pick a track off of Beck's new, more underground, "Mutations" CD. She had to be a big fan.

The next day he ran the same lunch routine. The convenience store guy gave him some really bizarre looks. Rob decided to buy something on his way back.

He set up his plastic change bag, got out his harmonica and began practicing. Just as he was about to give up, he saw her coming. He played the song better than ever before — it was like she inspired him. She stopped and listened with that same smile. Rob just soaked her all in. When he finished he didn't waste any time. She threw in the fifty cents and he asked her, "What's your name?"

"Laura."

"Mine's Rob," he said, "nice to meet you."

"Same here. You know I really like to listen to you," said Laura.

"Thank you very much. That means a lot to me."

"It really brightens my day to hear you out here. It makes me happy," she continued.

"That's what I'm out here for."

"Cool. Well I gotta get going. Nice meeting you."

"You too, Laura. See you tomorrow."

The next day, the same routine. There Laura came. She looked like she was in a hurry, though. She walked past quickly, smiled, gave him a little recognizing thumbs up and was on her way. He saw her, and she was gone. His heart sank.

That was it. He had to quit his job. He had to become a full time bum. That way he would find a way to see her three times a day at least, instead of his now measly one.

So he quit and went to the Salvation Army to buy more bum clothes —torn jeans and a couple of old 80's concert T's, REO Speedwagon and Megadeth. He needed to look like a bum. He hoped to collect just enough money to pay rent until he got the girl. He hadn't thought much past that point yet.

Rob set up his stuff in a few different locations hoping to discover Laura's route to and from work. It didn't work. Rob was getting depressed.

One day, as he walked the streets aimlessly he saw an ice-cream man.

"Hey you," yelled the ice-cream man, "get the hell away from my truck. I don't have any money for you, so get lost!"

"Oh, I'm not a bum man," Rob responded. "I'm just dressed like one to get a girl."

"I SAID GET LOST BUMMY! Go back to your dumpster or wherever you're from."

"No, no really... Look, I have credit cards... and a video rental card, and here, even a Starbuck's gift certificate. Plus there's my driver's license, photo ID and all."

The ice-cream man paused and looked hard at the kid.

"I know it sounds dumb, but-"

The ice-cream man interrupted. "Kid, I did that same thing. Except I dressed up like an ice-cream man."

"But you are an ice-cream man."

"Only been one officially since last week. But I've been driving this here truck for two years now posing as an ice-cream man, selling ice-cream, doing the whole thing."

"Damn."

"No man, it's cool. I got the girl. A pretty little lass, too. I saw her every day walking in Logan Square here so I quit my job and changed into this get-up to try and get close to her. By the time I won her, I had become accustomed to this life. I enjoyed it. So, now I'm really an ice- cream man. That girl changed my life."

"Tell me about it. Most people think I'm a jackass. Hell, maybe I am a jackass, but who cares, right?"

"I don't know about that. I'll prove that it was all worth it for me. Here she comes."

Of course, it was her. Rob had seen it coming miles away. Only one girl could have driven men to do such crazy things. That girl was the enchantress these men called Laura.

She approached them both.

"Hi there," she said to them. "Hey, I know you from the street, you played those Beck songs."

"Yeah."

"They were pretty good."

"Thanks." Rob gave the ice-cream man a look. Right away they both knew that this was the woman Rob had become a bum for.

"You gonna get an ice-cream?" she asked.

"Uhh-" said Rob. He was trying so hard to be unshaken, to act upbeat. Trying to hold back the fact that his whole life was melting away, thanks to this ice-cream man.

The ice-cream man interrupted. "Sure. On the house. No problem." He handed Rob a bomb pop and leaned in close, with a serious smile on his face. "But that's all you're getting, got it?"

"Yeah, I got it." Meanwhile Laura had hopped into the ice cream truck.

"Sorry pal, I know it hurts, but I've been an ice-cream man for two years. How long you been a bum?"

"Two days."

"There ya go. Better luck next time. You'll find another girl on the street. Good luck, kid." Rob stood there silently as the boyfriend hopped into the driver's seat. "One more stop, honey. Lunch rush at the financial district."

"OK, sweetheart..."

And eventually that electronic ice-cream jingle faded away into the distance, taking his beautiful seductress with it.

Rob never did find another Laura on the street. Instead he found the street herself. Eventually he stopped envying people with jobs, and a little while later, he even stopped loathing them.

Rob enjoyed his life as a bum. It was such a freeing experience. It made him feel like a real part of the cosmic plan. He felt in touch with his surroundings, and therefore more in touch with himself. He had become a spiritual man, and the streets were his church. He lived life according to his own plan and his own schedule. He made his money on the street and he did OK. Sure, he didn't have all the stuff he was used to, but in exchange he got so much more.

From the day he forgot his lunch and first saw Laura, to desiring a bomb-pop from an ice-cream man, Rob's life had become a blissful ride. He had since moved on to a couple different cities, just roaming, searching and learning. He hadn't seen Laura or the ice-cream man since their last fateful day together, but wherever he found himself, he always kept an eye out for them. They deserved to be thanked, they deserved a return on the love that they helped him to achieve. Plus Rob owed the ice-cream man one anyway, for the free bomb-pop.

      — Mike Betette