Beauty

Phil Smith III

As soon as I saw the subject line on the email, I knew it was going to be one of those days. I really shouldn’t complain. I have it pretty easy. I’m independently wealthy, and my job isn’t that difficult, though it can be unpleasant when I have to turn folks down. Which I do, most of the time.

The message said that it was a woman, as usual, and that she’d be coming around ten. Since it was already 9:30, I figured I’d better shower and throw some clothes on, so I could at least look the part.

Sure enough, promptly at ten, the doorbell rang. I don’t use servants—I’m not that lazy—so I trundled on downstairs and let her in.

“We’re here to see Mr. Holder,” said the man on the lady’s right, whom I immediately knew had to be a lawyer. He confirmed it by offering me his card—So-and-So, J.D., Esquire, Partner, Dewey Cheatham and Howe, or some such. I vaguely recognized the firm’s name, though not his.

“Good morning,” I started. “I’m afraid that lawyers may not accompany—”

The woman cut me off. “But how am I supposed to be represented? And just who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do, anyway?”

They all make this mistake. Since they know I’m (a) rich and (b) have ultimate power over their wants, they assume I should be tall and imposing. Instead, I look like the guy in the corner at the party who doesn't talk to anyone. Actually, I am that guy. Most of the time.

Anyway, it always goes like this, so I raised an eyebrow and introduced myself. “Thomas Benton Holder at your service, ma’am.” I was pleased to see her blanch slightly at her gaffe.

“Oh. Um. Well. I guess …I guess you should wait in the car," she said to her companion, dismissing him with a wave of her hand and stepping forward slightly. I waved her in. As we proceeded to my office, she tried gamely to make small talk, complimenting me on my taste in decorating. I grunted a few times, but felt no great need to respond; this was closer to a trial than a business meeting, and as both judge and jury, I didn't need to make friends with her. In fact, I had a good body of experience that suggested that trying to do so would be a mistake.

“So, how does this work?” she asked, once we were seated in the den. “Do I explain why I’m here?”

“No, there’s no need for that. I really just need to make my decision; there’s no point in any argument.”

“But …but …that’s not fair! I was told that this was going to be a fair hearing!” she spluttered.

“Well, I don’t know who told you that, but it will be objective. ‘Fairness’ is a relative term, and one I’m not prepared to debate at length; I’m sure you understand that.” Actually, I was pretty sure she didn’t understand that, but I wanted to avoid trying to explain it to her. She looked like she was used to getting her way, whether it was “fair” or not.

Sure enough, she started to protest, and then realized that doing so wasn’t likely to endear her to me. Mercifully, that shut her up. And this alone showed me that, appearances to the contrary, she wasn’t as stupid and self-centered as my first assessment had suggested. I decided to try the rational approach.

“So, do you understand what’s going to happen here today, and why?” I asked her. “Well, I understand that you’re going to decide which group I belong in,” she said, carefully. “I guess I don’t really understand why you get to do that. Although,” she added quickly, “I'm sure you’ll do a fine job.”

I love it when they try to flatter me. They don’t realize that I honestly couldn’t care less what they think. But she was trying, and I had time, so I decided I might as well explain it to her—not that it would make any difference if I had to refuse her petition later. “OK, let me give you the short version,” I suggested, settling back in my chair. She nodded.

“Back at the turn of the century, air travel was popular and cheap. You may not remember those days.” Actually, I knew darned well that she had been an adult well before the turn of the century, but it never hurts to let them think that you think they’re younger than they are. She blushed slightly and nodded ambiguously, so I continued. “After 9/11, air security got tighter. And with every moronic ‘terrorist plot’, it got tighter still. After Richard Reid’s ‘shoe bomb’, we had to take our shoes off. After the alleged ‘liquid explosive’ attempt, we couldn’t take liquids on board. After the ‘laptop bomb’, computers were no longer allowed. Then there was the ‘cell phone gun’, and finally the last known terrorist attempt to date: the surgically embedded ‘stomach bomb.’ Of course, none of these actually worked. The stomach bomb might have, if the poor sap hadn’t developed such bad abdominal pain before takeoff that the flight was held while he was removed on a stretcher.

“At the same time, the airlines seemed doomed, partly due to the market and partly due to their own stupidity. First, they eroded service bit by bit: no more meals, then they started charging for checked bags, then for on-board soda and snacks, then for pillows. Some of them even began auctioning off the good seats, and the right to board early—thus alienating their last allies, the frequent flyers, who were used to having these perks for themselves. About the only things they didn’t get away with were pay toilets and charging for oxygen—although one airline did try the former briefly, until the FAA stepped in.

“The final straw came after the stomach bomb attempt. By then, we’d seen massive merger attempts, many of which failed, and several bankruptcies that stranded thousands of passengers. We were down to three ‘real’ airlines and a handful of regionals, all of whom were hemorrhaging money.

"And that’s when good old Uncle Sam finally stepped in and nationalized the lot of ‘em. This was good news and bad: the good news was that they weren’t all going to stop flying suddenly one day; the bad was that we now had to pay realistic prices for airfares, with no discounts, no fare sales. Overnight, flying became the province of the wealthy and the business traveler, as it was in the early days.

"Besides the cost, the other thing that forced Ma and Pa to stop flying was the security crackdown. To avoid any possibility of on-board shenanigans, flyers who couldn’t afford to pay several thousand dollars per year for permanent clearance now have to strip and undergo a CAT scan before boarding. And they can’t take anything on the plane with them other than the electronic boarding passes issued at security.

"The fallout from this policy was a raft of complaints from ‘beautiful’ wealthy folks that they were being gawked at by ‘ugly’ people. While this griping was ignored at first, it garnered some serious attention when a Congressman was seen staring at Paris Hilton, with, um, obvious physical interest.

"And that’s how you wind up here today: the Airline Segregation Act of 2012 states that flyers shall be divided into ‘beautiful’ and ‘other’, shall go through security and board aircraft separately, and be segregated while on-board.” I paused for effect.

“Yes,” she finally interjected. “I was mistakenly classified as ‘other’, and have filed the forms and put up the bond to present my case to you today. I’m beautiful and should be classified as such! I—”

I held up my hand to stop her. “There’s no point in arguing with me, ma’am. All you need to do is remove your clothing and I will make my decision. There’s no need to be modest: this is my job. I have done so for almost a decade now, and have appraised hundreds of folks.” Most of them women, I almost but not quite added.

She looked like she was going to argue anyway, then shrugged and stepped out of her dress. I have to admit, she wasn’t totally nuts: twenty years earlier, she probably would have had a case. But time is unkind to the best of us, and it looked like she had also had several cosmetic procedures, some of which were less than successful. I told her she could dress.

“So?” she asked, anxiously.

I held up my hand and pressed the button that started recording.

“This is Thomas Benton Holder,” I stated, adding my identification number, the date, and her case number. “I have examined the subject and the original ruling stands.” I turned off the recorder.

“That’s preposterous! I’ll appeal!” She started to turn red; if it were possible, I think steam would have started coming out of her ears.

“I’m afraid there is no appeal. My ruling is final. That’s it.” I said it as gently as I could, although I knew it wouldn’t make much difference.

“But you never really answered my question before: why you? What qualifies you to be the ultimate judge of ‘beauty’?” she asked.

“Simple,” I replied. “In fact, you already know the answer. Think: what are my initials and last name?”

She thought a minute; no light dawned. Patiently, I explained: “Beauty is in the eye of T.B. Holder.”


About the Author

Phil is a Mainframe Architect at Voltage Security, an enterprise software vendor. He grew up in a “literary” family, with a linguist father and a polymath mother, and cannot remember a family dinner when the dictionary was not consulted at least once. (This might sound boring, but given his parents’ encyclopedic knowledge of words, anything that needed looking up was guaranteed to be something interesting!) Phil has spent over 30 years doing and managing software support/development. He also creates technical reference books, writes for trade journals, speaks at national and local computer user groups, and tracks IBM evolution. Occasionally, he finds time to write a little fiction.