Friday, February 28, 2014

Poem: The Aging Bachelor Drowns in Memory

The Aging Bachelor Drowns in Memory

Charlie Madsen is deep into hiding, scratching out pages of English to his father, when the pageboy redhead rushes into the café, arms swinging in the backwoods slope of his vision.

Speaking to the room, she confesses that she is late because she lost her way, then goes to sit with her friends at the next table. The tractor beams of recognition stop her halfway there, pulling her gaze on a string to the right.

Charlie, in fact, would prefer that she were not there, has no ready vocabulary for the slick steel chains of attraction buckling his skin, but as she rushes over is overcome by the ice blue cut of her eyes, the severe line of hair shadowing her forehead, Renaissance cheekbones, and blazing youth.

Please, Rodrigo
drive me to my friend’s house
I will show you wide rivers of asphalt
tick-tock fields of suburban streetlights
and one tiny honeycomb cell near
the orchard where I spent
warm, liquid French toast hours
on a couch, with a girl
introducing her to the farther reaches of her body
thin shoulders, blonde hair the scent of
nutmeg, the skin at the back of her neck

(I whispered the word “condom.” She ran.)

And if it weren’t this street
it would be the avenue to the south
the boulevard to the east
and several bipartisan culs-de-sac
my former girlfriends peppered over the landscape like
shotgun roadsigns

Charlie succeeds in blocking out the UV rays from the redhead’s table and finishes his letter, is about to head to the counter for a refill when one of three dozen our-songs sweeps down from the speakers.

The fair-skinned Christian girl with
rotello curls of chocolate hair
a Christmas day two years before when they
danced to drunken country breakup songs
on a moss-green futon
her smooth Egyptian smile snaking its way up his neck

He is surrounded, buried
covered and done
had best just order a poppyseed bagel
stare out the window at taillights and oak trees and
settle in for the long night of forgetting.

First published in Comrades
From the collection Great Showtunes of the American Stage  
Photo by MJV

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Eighteen: Enter Singing

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Moving to a new state, meeting a boy, shacking up. Lots of people do these things, they’re downright ordinary – but I couldn’t believe they had happened to me, and in such a short time. I was also lost in the particulars of the boy – the boy who gloried in slaying imaginary beings, who obsessed over military equipment, who brought me flowers at the least-expected moments and made love more tenderly than I knew a boy could. I pictured myself driving a tractor through the long valley of Harvey – this field with soy beans, that with weeds, tulips followed by brambles, wheat, hard-baked pan. Were all men such checkerboards?
            His first weekend away came at the end of August. I woke to a soldier in my doorway, dressed in jungle fatigues. It repelled me; it excited me. I wanted to run in claustrophobic terror. I wanted to adopt a foreign accent and proceed directly to role-playing. Oh, American soldier boy. Save me from the Cossacks!
            He grinned rather loopily. “I’m off to the front, baby. Tonight we take Tacoma.”
            “You look handsome.”
            “I feel like I’m going to a freakin’ costume party.”
            “You’ll be fine.” I rolled out of bed and slipped my arms around his waist. “One thing, though. That smartass sense of humor that I so absolutely adore?”
            “You might want to suppress that.”
            “Yes, ma’am.” He gave me a kiss, his breath strong with mouthwash. I would have preferred more Harvey, less Listerine.
            “Well! I’m running late. Have a good weekend, darlin’. I’ve instructed the third division to keep an eye on the place.”
            He was off before I could ask. I flopped back to bed for a much-deserved sleep-in. At noon, I drifted into the living room to find two hundred green plastic army men lined up on the mantelpiece.

It was a beautiful, beautiful day. The cap of Rainier poked over the ridge like a monster bicuspid. I felt small and lonely – and what was that about? Had I not left Alaska precisely to be alone? Independent? Reckless? I employed this thought to whip myself into action, scrubbing the kitchen and bathroom till they shone, mopping the hardwood floors, beating the rugs, and generally enjoying the free space left by the absence of one sprawling male anatomy.
            Still, it was a small house, and I didn’t kill half the time that I needed to, so I crossed the street to the bison field, trying for the twenty-third time to tempt them with wads of freshly picked grass. Not that grass was hard to come by, but I was hoping that presentation would count for something. Bessie and Ben moved not an inch from the exact geographical center of the field, and considering the sad history of American-bison relations, I could not blame them.
            I was wandering in the direction of the strip mall when I noticed a man shuttling between Kerby’s Café and a burgundy SUV, toting various large black objects. He had a thick shank of white hair, and wore large, thick glasses that reminded me of Dr. Steinwitz, my pediatrician in Anchorage.
            I had a rather dim view of Kerby’s. The patrons were a rough bunch, and they often kept Harvey and me awake, yelling to their buddies across the parking lot. At closing time, a parade of headlights flashed across our windows.
            But I was bored, so I crossed the parking lot to investigate.
            “Hi! Whatcha loadin’ up for?”
            He gave me a studied look, absolutely nonplussed.
            “Oh! Cool.”
            “Ever try it?”
            “Once. At a birthday party. They only had thirty songs, though.”
            “Ha! We’ve got seventeen thousand. All on a computer.”
            “God! Are there seventeen thousand songs in the world?”
            “I still get complaints about the ones we don’t have. You should sing tonight. We start at nine.”
            “Oh, well… I’m only eighteen.”
            “No problem. If you bring those mic stands in, I’ll make you my official roadie.”
            “Wow! Thanks.”
            “Strictly Coca-Cola, mind you.”
            His name was J.B., which I later found out stood for James Brown. He was about the whitest-looking man I’d ever seen, so I didn’t really see the need for the initials. (One day he met Bobby Vinton at a party and said, “Wow! You’re Bobby Vinton.” Vinton said, “Well what’s it like, meeting Bobby Vinton?” And J.B. said, “I don’t know. What’s it like meeting James Brown?”)
            By day, J.B. ran a computer shop, and he took great pleasure in showing me his high-tech karaoke system. He could hunt for a song using a keyword, then play it with a mouse-click. A window to the left kept a running roster of singers, along with the songs they had picked that night – and, for the regulars, every song they had ever sung. At the bottom was a list of filler songs that came on whenever a karaoke song was over, and he could also play canned applause – or, for the end of the night, the Warner Brothers’ “Th-th-that’s all, folks!”
“I actually helped design this,” said J.B. “I was in a test group for the software developers, and they used a lot of my suggestions. That’s why I like it so much.”
“Is he boring you with his technobabble?”
This came from a woman behind me, wearing big glasses just like J.B.’s. She was short and squat, a bundle of curves with a round, pleasant face. And, evidently, a wry sense of humor.
“He’s more in love with that program than with me. So who are you?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Channy.”
“She’s my summer intern,” said J.B.
“J.B.! Is she underage? You’re gonna get us into trouble.”
“Oh, nonsense. I checked her in with Laura. Nothing but Shirley Temples and Roy Rogerses.”
“Well, okay. Why don’t you sit up here with me, then? I get bored when Mr. Man’s making out with his computer.”
Her name was Debbie – wife and emcee, which meant she had plenty of time to chat between singer intros. You could tell, also, that she took a lot of pleasure in the characters who populated the bar. There was Diana, the archetypal brassy broad, who sang bawdy country tunes like “You Can Eat Crackers in My Bed.” And Cowboy, who wore an old hat covered in patches and pins, and sang nothing but Lynyrd Skynyrd, curled up in the corner with a cordless mic. A plentifully soused blonde named Jolene took great pleasure in singing “Jolene.” And skinny, bald Rory kept trying to do ‘70s rock anthems that were too high for him.
I was really enjoying this – all of it. The way the songs drew instant connections between people. The way the old guy in the beret showed his approval by yelling “Sing that shit!” The feeling of deep history, friendships that had survived decades, perhaps broken apart by crises and fights, but brought back together by the same gravity that created them. And Debbie, who took her husband’s recklessness as a license to be my foster mother for the evening.
“So what’s the story, Channy? Everybody’s got a story.”
“I came down from Alaska last month, and… I met a boy.”
“Oh! She met a boy. I sure know that story.”
“It’s so… unsettling sometimes. Actually, that’s how I ended up here tonight. He’s in the Army National Guard, and this was his first weekend away. I was feeling pretty isolated.”
“Well! I’m glad you found us. Are you gonna sing something?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never done this for real before.”
“Well.” She gave my knee a pat. “Here’s what I tell all my beginners. Pick a song that you know frontwards and back. The song you know best in the world. It’s very important to have a good experience the first time out. Kinda like sex. Omigod! Did I say that?”
The way she put it, my choice was pretty obvious: “Beautiful Day,” my graduation song. The only problem was staying on the melody. I kept wandering to the alto harmonies that James had written (James who just then was headed off to meet his death in Minnesota). But Debbie smiled at me like I’d hit one out of the park.
“That was great!” She spoke into my ear as Rory did battle against Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” “I like those new parts you threw in. Where’d you learn that?”
“Well, it’s a long story.”
She patted my knee again. “I’ve got all the time in the world, honey.”

Sunday evening, I sat at the kitchen table with a plate of cold pork chops and asparagus, watching the sun slanting over the bison-field in tangerine stripes. I was interrupted by my pickup truck, dragging into the driveway with my own soldier-boy at the wheel. He edged up the walk with a limp and gave me a weak smile, his face smudged here and there with camo makeup. I wrapped him in a hug.
“Hi honey.”
“How was it?”
“You remember what you said about my smartass sense of humor?”
“A hundred pushups.”
I couldn’t help but giggle.
“Oh! She mocks my injuries.”
“Sorry, darlin’. But I did tell you.”
“You did. But a hundred pushups tends to drill the point home.”
I ran a finger across his dirty, sweaty brow and down his cute nose.
“Poor baby. Take a shower, and I’ll heat up this food.”
He slogged off to the bathroom, pausing at the mantelpiece to salute the third division. I felt bad for him, but it felt good to be needed.

Photo by MJV

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Poem: Haunt


It’s a common story, me
circling the Union at Stanford, flipping through a paper
sighs pouring from the buildings like black coffee then

Echoing archways near the fountain
meaningless to anybody else but
there you are
Rollerblading by in your little black dress as I
pop you into my camera for Christmas

Ghosts are meant to be cursed
but I have learned to hold my tongue –
you have this habit of bestowing your features on
leading ladies, jewelry shop clerks
high school girls on beaches

I’m sure they’ve spotted my mystified gaze
tossed over my shoulder like a blue scarf at their
shifting triangle smiles, apple-cider eyes
white chocolate dimples, high-wire curls

Come back when you like, shade of my heart
haunt me, shake me, draw me out
no need to call ahead
because these days
when the words pour out of me like silvered breath
I couldn’t bear any less

I look up from the page to find you
framed by the window in a halo of fireflies
a Russian princess in a dark coat
and then, you come in
and sit at my table

First published in Mystic River Review

Photo by MJV

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Seventeen: Bullets

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Ruby’s not five minutes done with her story when her brother walks into the coffeehouse – a retro-funky place in Tacoma called the Blackwater. Steve looks like a run-down house that someone has painted over in the hope of hiding all the cracks. Neat, shortcut hair, spiffy indigo-new jeans, tightly tucked button-down shirt and bright white sneakers. His features, however, are all shaky around the margins – as if, at any moment, he could be sucked into a wormhole.
            I’m cheating, of course. I know from Ruby’s frequent references that Steve has had trouble, that he’s just now working his way out of it. Even as I’m being introduced, I’m running his face through my interior rap sheet: drugs? petty larceny?
            “Hi! It’s great to finally meet you. Ruby talks about you a lot.”
            He unlocks a smile, rising in a wave from left to right. “I hope, um… I hope she’s been kind.”
            “Oh! Always,” I say.
            “I’ve never been to karaoke before. I hear it’s fun.”
            “Oh it is!” says Ruby. “Especially with Channy hosting. She’s the best.”
            “I will not sit here and be flattered!” I complain.
            “Well fine then!” says Ruby. “Let’s go!”
            “Fine!” says I.
            “Fine!” says Ruby.
            We stride out the door, waving to Luna at the counter. Steve trails behind, shaking his shaky head.
            “Man! You two are nuts.”
            It’s a rainy, brooding night, and stormclouds bear down on the Narrows, buffeting my pickup. This does not bode well for my tip jar. People only need two reasons for skipping karaoke, and on Thursday they’ve already got that Friday morning alarm clock.
            I delay our start-time by a half hour, hoping to work up a quorum. To operate at a smooth pace, you need at least three singers. This gives each participant one song to take a breather and one song to pick the next song. Steve’s not going to be much help. Actually singing in front of people would likely give him a heart attack, and he’s already disappeared twice on smoke breaks. (Ruby says this is his first night out in a while, and it seems to be making him very anxious.)
            Fortunately, Harry arrives, still in uniform, grabbing armfuls of Ruby as he enters. Five minutes later, we get a trio of newbies – although they’re certainly not new to karaoke. You can tell by the way they scoop up the songbooks and rifle the pages.
            Turns out they’re also good. The first is John, a tall fortyish white guy who sings R & B ballads with a sirloin-steak baritone. The second is Paul, a bald black guy who’s interested in things further up, whipping out some falsetto doo-wop from the fifties. The blonde centerpiece is Kim, an attractive thirty-year-old who navigates Annie Lennox and Melissa Etheridge with a consummately pitched voice – almost as good as Ruby’s. She comes up for a little side-bar as Harry works his way through “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.”
            “It’s a little deal I’ve got with my husband,” she says. “In order to avoid The Horror That is Dancing with Your Wife, he takes the kids once a week while I go for a trot with my dirty old men. Once we’ve worn out our feet, we hunt down a karaoke bar.”
            “So are John and Paul gay, or just well-mannered?”
            Kim bursts out laughing. “They are my caballeros. I gotta watch it, though. Sometimes they get too comfortable, and start making racy comments about the other chicks in the bar.”
            “Well,” I say. “Even when they’re well-trained, they’re still dogs. So what’s with this gorgeous voice of yours?”
            Kim looks away, a little knocked aside by my flattery. “Tell you a secret: I actually had a full ride to Julliard. Some scout came to my high school for a choir concert. Like I was a quarterback or something. I was pretty blown away. But they wanted me to sing opera and nothing else. I just wasn’t into it. Then I met a guy, had some babies. Old story.”
            “Sounds like you made the right decision. Ruby’s been telling me about life in the performing arts, and it sounds like you’d best be really into it before you enlist.”
            “I knew it!” says Kim. “I knew she was a pro. She’s amazing.”
            “She’s my hero,” I say, only half-joking.
            “So the Mod Squad and I were thinking, if you guys were into it, maybe we could play a little game. First singer does something by an ‘A’ artist, second singer does ‘B,’ and so on.”
            “Tonight I’ll try anything. I’ll make an announcement after Harry, um, gets to Phoenix.”
            Kim smiles and hands me a song slip: “Fernando” by ABBA.
            In actual practice, the alphabet game turns out to be quite fun. Except that yours truly gets all the problematic letters. Q, naturally, which almost always calls for Queen – which, in the world of karaoke, means “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I’m no fool, however – I get Ruby, Kim and John to help out with the goofy opera parts, while Harry throws down some wicked toy guitar.
            A half-hour later comes X, and there’s only one choice: some ‘80s R & B group called Xscape. I vaguely vaguely vaguely recall the song, but it’s not like not knowing what the hell I’m doing ever stopped me before, so I claw my way through, tossing out some Whitney Houston embellishments that may or may not be on-key. I’m much relieved to hand the mic to Harry for “Cinnamon Girl” by Neil Young.
            Ruby’s working her way through “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by Warren Zevon (how does she know this stuff?) when I hear the door and the familiar high-pitched laugh that belongs to Kevin the Cop. And another that doesn’t.
            She is a blonde, in jeans, jacket and a crisp white blouse. She has sly, dreamy eyes that remind me of Lauren Bacall. Something about her entrance has knocked the room off-kilter: troubled brothers, newbie trios, Q’s and X’s sliding around like ping-pong balls in a Bingo basket. Kevin comes up for his usual hug, and I regain my balance long enough to fill him in on the alphabet game.
            “So, if my calculations are correct, you’re ‘F.’ Is your, um, friend gonna sing?”
            Kevin smiles, glances at the blonde and launches into a completely unrequested explanation: “I went to a reading for this ‘how-to’ dating book. Figured I could use all the help I could get. So now I’m dating the author! Diane. She is so funny! I never knew how sexy that was.”
            Kevin finally notices that I’m still waiting for my answer.
            “Oh! No – she’s just here to listen. I’ll go find some effin’ song to sing. Ha!”
            And then he’s off.

            The second time around, we decide that a reprise of Xscape is unnecessary, but the subsequent shuffle lands me on Z. I perform a decent rendering of “Tush” by ZZ Top, and am halfway through loading up when I remember something I have to check with Ruby. She’s still at her table, mooning over Harry. They’ve decided to sleep in their own beds tonight, so they’re extending the evening as long as they can.
            “Hi guys. That was fun, wasn’t it?”
            “Shore was,” says Harry. “Next time, we go numerical!”
            “Three Dog Night,” says Ruby.
            “Four Non-Blondes,” says Harry.
            “10,000 Maniacs,” I say. “Where’s Steve?”
            “Smoke break,” says Ruby.
            “Your brother’s a chimney,” I say.
            “Yes,” says Ruby. “But a functioning chimney.”
            I make a mental note to someday figure out what’s going on with that boy.
            “So Rubbayat,” I say.
            “Omar Khayam?”
            “I’ve got a KJ gig for a holiday office party, and I need a soloist to do a couple of the CEO’s favorite tunes.”
            “What’re you? Braunschweiger?”
            “I don’t need a singer. I need a performer.”
            Ruby purses her lips in a way that probably drives Harry crazy with lust. “Name the songs.”
            “‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and ‘Christmas Song.’”
            “Sold!” says Ruby, slapping the table. “And I also want to marry the CEO.”
            “Hey!” says Harry. “I might have picked the same songs.”
            “My ass! You woulda picked that hip-swingin’ lip curlin’ trailer trash you’re so in love with.”
            “I’m sorry,” says Harry. “I didn’t hear a word after you mentioned your ass.”
            “We’ll discuss my dairy-air tomorrow night, Bubba.” She crawls up his chest for a lingering kiss, then she looks back at me and her face winds down like a clock.
            “Um… Channy? Could I talk to you outside? It’s a feminine matter.”
            “Oh. Yeah, sure.”
            Harry, being Harry, has to throw his two cents at our departure.
            “Don’t tell her any of my secrets!”
            I have no idea which one of us he’s addressing, but I guess that’s part of the joke. We pass Steve just outside the entrance, puffing away, and Ruby says, “Fifteen minutes, hermano mio.”
            “Grassy-ass,” he mumbles.
            The rain has passed, leaving the asphalt clean and slick. Ruby takes me to a seawall overlooking the harbor. Our distance from the bar makes me wonder about the radioactivity of her subject matter. She stops and turns, her breath puffing in the cold air.
            “Okay. I don’t know if my surging hormones are tripping my gyno-radar, but you are transmitting this aurora borealis of sadness that is deeper than Billie Freakin’ Holiday.”
            Little did I know about the hot button lurking beneath my skin, waiting to be pressed in just this fashion.
            “Why are guys such dicks? Showing off their catches like they just landed a marlin off the Florida Keys… What the fuck is that?”
            Ruby reaches to touch me, and I whack her hand away. I’m poison ivy, I’m cactus – no one should touch me. Then I see a line of blood where I’ve scratched her wrist.
            “Oh! Shit, Ruby. My bracelet.”
            “It’s okay,” she says. “It’s nothing.”
            “God, I’m being an idiot. Why am I being an idiot?”
            Ruby pulls out a tissue and dabs at her wrist. “I’ve got a theory,” she says.
            We stop to watch a small boat chug past, a large gray-bearded man standing at the wheel.
            “So,” I say. “What’s your theory?”
            “I’ll tell you if you let me touch you.”
            “Sure,” I say, but her caring tone is sending me deeper into my funk. I set my elbows on the seawall and prop my weary head on my hands. Ruby rubs the back of my neck. It feels good.
            “A guy likes a woman; a woman likes a guy. He asks her out, but she’s too wounded to say yes. Still, she’s kinda hopin’ he’ll be there at the hospital entrance when she finally checks out. But she looks out her window one night and finds him at a restaurant across the street, having dinner with some fucking blonde best-seller.”
            I find my face sinking deeper into my hands. The only way to keep from crying is to continue being a smartass.
            “Put another bullet through my heart, why dontcha?”
            Ruby laughs, and sings a quiet recitative into my ear. “Isn’t that why you gave me the bullets in the first place?”

Photo by MJV

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Poem: Requisite Breakup Poem #3

Requisite Breakup Poem #3

We travel this highway
as far as our maps will take us
sharing the lead
using each other to block the wind

At night we rest by the orchards
I hike between the rows to pull up mustard
for your windshield
your shadow just above me
in the shape of an owl.

One day we come to a T
you roll down your window and say

I want to go this way
the road is straight and clear
the soil is rich and moist and falls apart in your fingers
there are perfect cows and old trees and graveyards
and there is a town where children play on tire swings
where the motels have ice blue pools and queen size beds
and there is a car wash named the Pearly Gates
I know the owner; I know his son.

And I say
I want to go this way
the road is dusty and hard to follow
there are lightning storms and flash floods
but there are canyons the colors of children’s drawings
and at night the sky is wider than time
On top of a mesa there is a coyote sipping cappuccinos
and we will sit and drink and howl
while dead nameless poets play baseball
on the desert floor
hitting the ball hard, reciting villanelles as they run
to first boulder.

And we look at each other

You wave and turn right
your hatchback slipping away in the flash of morning
a period at the end of a clean gray sentence

I wrap you in tobacco
watch the smoke roll of my windshield
check my gas gauge and
turn left.

First printed in Emily Dickinson Awards Anthology
Photo by MJV 

Outro, the Karaoke Novel, Chapter Sixteen: Giuseppe Verdi

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It’s amazing how quickly you can find yourself adopted. But then, I did have a strategy. Before I even finished unpacking. I began hunting down obscure little theater groups, with the object of finagling my way into receptions and cast parties. Which was easy, because I knew the key. There is nothing more life-draining than investing large portions of yourself into a production, only to be faced with some turd at the reception who says, “You know, I’m an actor, too!” And to be forced to be nice to them, because either 1) they’re friends with someone in the company, or 2) they actually paid money to see you.
            The road to popularity, then, was to engage theater folk without once mentioning your status as a fellow traveler. Also, of course, I was one hot little chick. Garnering invitations from men was a cinch – even gay men, who seemed to invest me with a sort of Judy Garland vibe.
            Two weeks after my arrival, I journeyed to this little hole-in-the wall behind a coffeehouse in the East Village, where they were doing a little-remembered surrealist play from the forties. The plot wound around itself like a suicidal passion vine, but the show was intriguing nonetheless, firing along on rapid patter and brilliant illogic, simultaneously seen and unseen, as if you were watching it under a strobelight. In the end, I couldn’t tell you what had just occurred, but I relished having my head screwed with, and my face was warm with laughter.
            The director and lead actor was Joe Green, a strapping young man who was playing (depending on which version of the story you were buying into) either an insurance detective or an out-of-work mailman. His features were extremely Italian: Roman ringlets of black hair, thick eyebrows, dark brown eyes and a generous nose with a boxer’s break. For all I knew, he could be a wiseguy. But he spoke like a director, bits of Bronx breaking through like fossilized ribs at an archaeological dig.
            I cornered him at the reception, which was pretty easy to do. Lacking surplus space, they held it onstage, and Joe had enthroned himself on the central fixture, a turn-of-the-century barber’s chair. As we spoke, I commendeered a straight-razor (which turned out to be plastic) and pretended to give him a shave.
            “I suppose I should tell you about the name.”
            “Yeah? What about the name?”
            “It’s Anglicized.”
            “From what? Salvatore Frangiatelli?”
            “Giuseppe Verdi.”
            I stopped to even up his sideburns. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that name already taken?”
            “Yeah. And my parents aren’t even opera fans. What the hell were they thinkin’? When I entered the thee-uh-tuh, I saw my chance. Stage name: Joe Green.”
            “Chin up, please. But how’d you get from one to the other?”
            Facing ceilingward, he cocked an eyebrow. “You’re a smart girl – figure it out. I didn’t say ‘changed.’ I said ‘Anglicized.’”
            Pretty cocky for a guy with a blade at his throat, I thought. I geared up the brainbox and came up with Giuseppe. Joseph. Joe. Verdi. Verdant. Green.
            “Holy shit!”
            “There you go. Imagine yourself going through life as, I don’t know – ‘Barbra Streisand.’”
            “Okay. I get the picture.”
            “Because you’re a singer, right?”
            Uh-oh. “Nope.”
            He laughed.
            “Hey!” I said. “You lookin’ to get yourself sliced?”
            “Sorry. It’s just so rare to talk to someone who doesn’t have a theater agenda. And an actual personality. So what is it that you do?”
            “Florist shop.”
            (Actually, I was delivering for a florist shop – pretty reckless, considering I had just hit town, and was constantly getting lost. But the owners were my cousins, and I was – Oh God – competent.)
            “God! I love florist shops. That wall of fragrance that just smacks you when you walk in the door. So… if I’m getting this right, when it comes to the stage, you are an absolute layperson.”
            “You got it.”
            “So tell me about the play tonight. Nothing you’ve read or heard. Tell me what you think.”
            I ran the razor along my teeth. “Knock-knock.”
            Joe blinked. “Oh, um… Who’s there?”
            “Surrealist who?”
            That got him. He laughed, and I noticed what a great mouth he had. His lips were thick, like they’d been bruised in a fight. Poor baby, can I kiss it?
            “So. What’s your point?”
            “Surrealism,” I said, “is always just that close to being a joke. One… vegetable… away. So it’s all left to architecture, and delivery. Give it a solid structure, find some good actors to play it – it can be fucking brilliant. Lose either one – it melts like cheese in a microwave.”
            Joe rubbed his freshly shorn (cleft) chin.
            “What about tonight?”
            I used the razor to tap him on the head. “I’m still here, ain’t I? Chatting with the director? If you really need me to spell it out, I loved it, and the best thing about it was you.”
            He hid his face behind his hands – purely an act, because he was fully aware of how good he was. When he peeked out, I could see that his irises had tiny copper-brown chips that flashed when he moved.
            “I need you.”
            Gulp. “Pardon?”
            “I’m workshopping a play. And I have had it shoveling the bullshit from the theater-folk with their aesthetic agendas and secret jealousies. I need a fresh set of eyes. What are you doing Friday night?”
            I unleashed my most devilish smile. “I’m going to a play reading.”

            Joe lived nearby, on 8th Street, a block over from St. Mark’s Place. I was early, so I strolled the cheesy gift shops, sorting through mod sunglasses and dominatrix dog collars (I got the latter for Eddy, betting that he would get some use out of it). I walked into a forest of Indian restaurants, the air laced with curry and tabla music. A dozen locals had set up an impromptu sidewalk sale, arranging appliances and clothing on straw mats and old quilts.
            Finding Joe’s address, I opened a wrought-iron gate and descended to his basement apartment. But what a basement! Joe greeted me with a kiss on the cheek (which I took as a promising sign) then led me through a modest hallway of bedrooms to a cavernous living room. You could have a basketball game in there! The furniture was shoved to the walls on all sides, leaving the center to a semi-circle of folding chairs.
            “Have a stiff, hard seat,” said Joe. “You want a stiff, hard drink with that?”
            A thin, attractive man waltzed in (and I mean the waltzing part literally), his blond hair cut so tight to his head that it could have passed for a shower cap.
            “Stiff? Hard? Who’s using all my favorite adjectives?”
            “Oh!” said Joe. “Marlin, come over and meet Ruby. She’s the non-acting New Yorker I told you about.”
            Marlin samba’d over and dropped a hand into mine. His eyes were swimming-pool blue, parasolled by neat platinum brows.
            “Frankly, I don’t believe you exist,” he said. “Cause girlfriend, every New Yorker is an actor. It’s just that some parts are Equity, and some are not.”
            “Marlin’s my partner,” said Joe. My brain was running down the list - business partner, writing partner, tennis partner – when Marlin kissed Joe on the lips. Joe replied with a half-serious chiding.
            “Marlin! Ix-nay on the issing-kay at the office-ay.”
            Marlin grinned in my direction. “I never know when it’s a play-space. Or a play-space. You look like a tough chick, Ruby Red. I’m guessin’ a Manhattan, straight up?”
            “You’re guessin’ right, Marlin.” I tightened the bolts on my stiff, hard smile.
            Seven actors showed up to read. I was one of three commoners, along with Joe’s banker uncle and Sigrid, a German friend of Marlin’s who turned out to be a high-priced call girl. (And that’s not acting?) When it came time for critiques, I drew on the trinity I learned in college: tough, clear, kind.
            “It’s a frickin’ hilarious play, Joe. I really like the dark place that so many of the laughs come from – that is a sweet trick if you can pull it off. You’ve also got some amazingly good visual stuff. The thing about the artificial fangs – I’m gonna be giggling about that for months.
            “However, I also think you’re missing a major opportunity. This yo-yo thing between Mimi and Kizer is far and away the most compelling relationship in the play – but you’re pulling your punches, and leaving all the conflict backstage. Imagine the juicy battles those two could have; imagine all the juicy sexual tension it would create. And imagine all the meat this would give to your play – which is a comedy, yes, but a comedy with substance. Have at it, man! Take off the gloves.”
            I was right, of course. Joe revisited the whole Mim-Kizer thing and came up with three new scenes (including one in which Mimi illustrates Kizer’s screwed-up behavior using stick figures on a coffeehouse chalkboard). I worried, in fact, that I might have gone too far – that my director skills were bleeding through my carefully painted façade.
            I got my answer a month later, two weeks before Christmas, when Joe asked us all back to try out his rewrite. One of his readers – Jackie, biggest flake, smallest talent (a popular combination) – called at the last minute with some fib about a sick roommate.
            “Ruby?” said Joe. “Could you read Grady? It’s not a big part – you don’t have to be good at all. I just really need to get a full picture of this rewrite before I get obliterated by the holidays.”
            “Sure,” I said. And felt completely unsure.
            Grady was the manager of a coffeehouse – twice my size, with a shitkicker pickup and a seven-year-old son. I tried to read her as stiffly as possible. I was afraid that my little flubs might prove too transparent. Regardless, I couldn’t help enjoying the play, which had achieved a perfect blend of tension, release and laughter. I felt a certain stepmotherly pride.
            Afterward, Marlin rolled out a buffet table of honeybaked ham, sweet potatoes, bread pudding and egg nog. After quite a few drinks and the departure of most of our readers, I met up with Joe at the punch bowl. I had just at that moment decided to begin greeting him with international variations of his name.
            “Jose Verde! Jean-Paul Chartreuse! Yusef Spearmintsky!”
            He responded by refilling our glasses and raising a toast.
            “To you, Ruby,” he said. “You lying little bitch.”
            He said it with a smile, so I guessed I wasn’t in too much trouble.
            “Hmmm. Zee jig eez up?”
            “The second you opened your mouth tonight. You’re not such a good actor that you can hide the fact that you’re a good actor. It was a noble attempt at mediocrity, but you kept getting carried away by the action and turning into Grady – a pretty neat trick, considering. So why all the espionage?”
            I gave him my special squint – the one that’s meant to project extreme distaste. “I didn’t want to be another in the buffalo herd of desperate wannabes. I saw enough of that in LA.”
            That last part slipped out. Joe’s eyes grew wider. “LA? ‘Daughter of Movie Mogul Goes Undercover to Conquer Broadway’?”
            I cringed. “Casting director.”
            Joe held the back of his hand to his forehead, very Scarlet O’Hara.
            “You are a certifiable grab bag, Ruby. If that’s your real name.”
            “Yes it is,” I said, laughing. “I’m sorry. But your play, Joe. It’s fucking beautiful. It’s exactly the kind of thing I came here for.”
            “Well good,” said Joe.
            There was a secret context to those two words, but before I could ask, Joe fled the room. He returned with two metallic skewers and a candle.
            “Good why?” I asked.
            “Good because… I wouldn’t want you to get bored if we have an extended run.”
            “I… what?”
            “We open on Valentine’s Day. And I want you to play Melissa. Do you know why?”
            “No?” I think I was starting to cry.
            “Because Melissa is also a lying, deceptive little bitch. But wait! Don’t say yes. We have a certain way of doing this. It’s kind of gay, but so am I. Take this.”
            He handed me one of the skewers, which was covered with a substance that looked like tile grout. Joe lit the candle, then directed the tips of the skewers into the flame until they began to shoot out sparks. Then he raised his right hand.
            “Do you, Ruby Cohen, vow to play the part of Melissa, in sickness and in health, through good reviews and hatchet-jobs, till closing night do you part?”
            I raised my right hand and gazed into Joe’s Apollonian features through a film of tears and a shower of golden meteorites.
            “I do.”

Photo by MJV