Waltz in Red
In the novel Outro, Ruby Cohen tells karaoke hostess Channy about her life as an Off-Broadway actress in New York – and some of the characters she met along the way.
Three years later, I was still with Joe’s troupe, Greenstreet Productions, alternating between big roles and small, fending off anything that smacked of administrative duties. I displayed my kryptonite competence only when it came to knowing my lines, arriving punctually and performing with every cell in my body. I did, however, have an intriguing proposition in my pocket: Joe had invited me to direct one of the shows for the upcoming season. It was tempting but scary, because I knew I’d be good at it and I didn’t want anything to come between me and the audience.
It was late summer, down-time before the fall opening. I found a flyer for an artists’ collective at a bar around the corner – a place called Savvy’s. When I walked in, the mood was positively Beatnik. The garret from Puccini’s Boheme. Andy Hardy putting on a show in the barn.
I swam through the bar crowd until I reached a wide pit where a funk band was wrapping up “Sex Machine,” a skinny black guy in a British cap spazzing a James Brown shuffle across the floor. Then the DJ called up a slam poet, a short, squat guy with a Fiddler-on-the-Roof beard. He jumped into a piece about trying to eliminate the excess food from his pantry, and instead winding up in an eating competition with Death. The rhythm of his words accelerated with a Bolero graduality until they caught fire and burst into a Ginsbergian inventory of comestibles. People were falling out of their chairs, probably on purpose.
By the time he was done, a reggae band had finished setting up, and rolled into a Jimmy Cliff tune. I took the opportunity to saunter up to the balcony, where a trio of painters were doing “live works.” A large black woman was pressing broad swipes of acrylic across a canvas, setting up the strata for a seascape. A baby-faced Puerto Rican kid scratched at a charcoal portrait: an old drunk leaning against a bar, wearing a look of utter dejection.
The third guy was older, mid-thirties, tall, a head of thick black hair with apostrophes of gray. He looked like he had never made an awkward movement in his life. He was working on a cartoonish, beatific creature with fan-shaped wings – or petals, I couldn’t tell. It stood upon a pedestal-like body, wide as a tree trunk. The background was an intricate network of lines, but looking closely I could see that it was actually composed of faces, their features melting into the mass: an Aztec warrior in profile, an amoeba with misplaced Picasso eyes, a robot alien with a saucer-shaped head.
The man was dipping a terry-cloth rag into a bowl of raw sienna paint, then scrubbing it into one of the petals – or wings. He gave me a quick glance, but kept steadily at his work. For a moment, I felt guilty for distracting him, but of course that’s what he was there for. And, to answer stupid questions.
He looked up with eyes so black you could fall right in. “You want the short version or the Encyclopedia Britannica?”
“Um… I’m gonna go for the short.”
“We begin with a central figure: the ruby-throated angelflower. A profoundly positive presence. I filled in the background with a coterie of beer-coaster creatures, then sort of macramed them together in order to, in order to… Actually, I have no idea.”
“To make them look like a crowd?”
He snapped his fingers very loudly, then stared at them in surprise. “Wow – what’s that about? But yes! A crowd. Out of which rises the angelflower, like the rare and sudden blossoming of the century plant, erupting from the desert of the hoi polloi.
“I have this thing about complicated backgrounds. I get so attached to a project that I hate to see it end – so all this meticulous stuff helps to extend the work. Right now you’ve caught me at the final step, which is frankly like a three-year-old with a coloring book. I like to water down my acrylics, then scrub them in. Gives a nice solid block of color – but transparent, so it reveals the flaws in the canvas.”
“Why do you want to reveal flaws?”
“I like a surface that’s seen some livin’. This one was a dropcloth. Note the little splatters of black at the top of the stem. That was an oil change.”
He took another swab at his bowl and worked a corner of the petal, drawing the paint right up to the thick black line at its periphery.
“I can’t stand art that’s too smooth. If you’re not going to reveal the process at all, then why bother? This notion of creating perfect, untouched forms is riven with hubris. What are you doing after the show?”
He said all of this at a shot, and I wasn’t entirely certain that I’d been asked a question.
“Um, I don’t really know.”
“I have to show you something.”
I laughed. “Don’t think I’ve never heard that one before.”
He took my hand and held on tight, as if we were about to shake on a deal.
“What’s your name?”
He smiled. Large, dazzling teeth. “You see?”
“Ruby-throated,” I said. “As in fate?”
“As in coincidence – which is better, and tastier. You are one of the special ones. You do something creative?”
“So now you’re a psychic?”
He laughed. “Ask the right question in the right milieu, and your odds are pretty good.”
“Yes,” I said. “Actress.”
“Ah – of course. Lots of personalities swimming around in there. When you first came up, I thought there was a whole mob watching me. I’ll be done at midnight. Can I meet you at the bar?”
“What? I can’t watch you?”
“Actually, no. I’d be too distracted. Along with being one of the special ones, you’re enormously attractive.”
Picture me as an LP on a turntable; my needle has just been yanked away. I tried and failed to fight down a goofy smile.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “What’s your name?”
“Scootie.” He shook the hand I’d forgotten he was holding. “And yes, there’s a story behind that, too. But I need to get back to my painting.”
He let go, and I drifted downstairs. I gave some serious thought to leaving – he was entirely too smooth. But this cool punk band was playing, dressed in big chunks of black and white fabric, and a beer sounded really good.
Two bands and a standup comic later, Scootie appeared over my left shoulder, continuing our previous conversation as if we’d never stopped.
“When I was a baby, I had a middle ear infection. It messed up my sense of balance, and I took to crawling sideways, like a crab. So I got my nickname: ‘Scootie’. Have you done any Beckett?”
I fixed him with a look, and attempted to restart the conversation in a more normal fashion. “Hi, Scootie. How ya doin’?”
He blinked. “I’m fine. How are you?”
“Good! Waiting for Godot.”
You could see that little tidbit striking a speed-bump in his head – which was exactly my intention.
“All-female cast,” I said. “We thought of calling it Waiting for Goddess, but we figured we were pushing our luck as it was.”
The bartender raced by, planted a Heinekin in front of Scootie, spoke the words “Jacks and Queens” and kept going.
Scootie eyed the label, said “Ah, Jacks and Queens,” and took a drink. “What did you think of it?” he asked.
“Jacks and Queens?”
I did my best to look thoughtful (I’m sure I did – I had practiced my “thoughtful” look in a mirror many times). “Irrational. Maddening. Plotless. Ridiculous. I loved it.”
“You ought to love me then.”
“Umm… maybe?” Keep it moving, keep it moving. “So where do your figures come from?”
“Oh. I thought Cage was a musician.”
“You thought Da Vinci was a painter. Music was Cage’s day job. When the moon came out, he was a philosopher. And the master cartographer of chance operations.”
Scootie took a pen from behind his ear and flipped over a beer coaster. Then he drew a long line, vaguely ess-shaped.
“I can’t illustrate worth shit. Any time I attempt to pull in something from the real world, it goes through some kind of crippling filter and ends up looking like the work of an unimaginative toddler. So I go backwards.”
He drew a straight line through the ess at a slant.
“I keep drawing lines until something makes itself known.”
A question mark with no period. Three sides of a square, facing down.
“When I arrive at the point of identity, I finish the job with universal signifiers: eyes, nose, mouth – sometimes ears, or hair.”
He gave the question-mark head a pair of almond-shaped eyes, then angled a mouth-line with a small notch for a smirk. The nose was already there, a product of the first two lines. The upside-down square offered a torso; he added long, thin rectangles to imply arms.
“Sometimes they turn out, sometimes not. Sometimes they become ruby-throated angelflowers.”
“This one looks French,” I said. “That smirk might actually be a cigarette.”
Scootie smiled, initialed the coaster SJ and handed it to me.
“Here. Might be worth a dollar someday.”
He had a loft (of course he had a loft). It was pretty bare of furniture, and instead of a rug he had a canvas dropcloth, ten foot square, nailed to the floor. Affixed to the far wall was a canvas, five feet tall, three wide. It appeared to contain a swarm of mosquitoes, but closer inspection revealed words, hundreds of them, written with a black marker. I saw libretto, 1967, and Sutherland.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“Chance operations,” he said. “The human mind craves organization – and that’s the problem. I was in a choir once, singing a piece that called for white noise, within a certain range of pitches. Inevitably, we would gravitate toward consonance – toward chords. So we had to spend a half-hour assigning individual pitches to individual singers. There were some who hated that piece, but I thought it was the most beautifully constructed chaos I’d ever heard.
“The thing is, in order to achieve true randomness, you have to set up some ground rules beforehand. In this case, I determined to take the New Grove Book of Opera – all 687 pages – and extract the first word from each page. On the canvas, I depended on my natural ability to shuffle, beginning with any available white space and not caring if it ran roughshod over other words. I wanted a virtual windstorm of verbiage. Unbeknownst to you, I have already pencilled in the central figure, and will now bring him into being. Please – sit.”
He handed me a cushion, and I sat on the floor, cross-legged. He produced a small housepainting brush, dipped it into a jar of black paint and drew a rough line over the canvas. He began with two lines that started at the top center and extended outward. He drew a vee from one shoulder to another, trailing into a shape that resembled a tie. At either side of the X, he affixed the same almond eyes as his coaster creature, then a wide, flat oval for a mouth, vaguely merry. He stood back for a moment, then dipped the brush, took the tips of the X and extended them to the upper corners. He took a last look, notched a pocket on either side of the tie, then tossed the brush over his shoulder. It landed on the dropcloth with a splat. Then he knelt behind me, gripped my shoulders and said, “So. What is he?”
I took a few moments to study.
“The Creature from the Black Lagoon in a business suit.”
“Or a suit for the opera,” said Scootie.
“But those antennae…?”
“Yes! That popped in just now.”
“Like a cockroach. A giant impresario cockroach, off to the opera.”
“Luciano Cucaracchi,” he said.
I let out a burst of laughter, like a sneeze. “Okay.”
“Hey, I don’t make up the names. They just come in on the satellite dish. Now, take off your shoes.”
There was my decision point. A girl doesn’t take off her shoes just for anyone.
So I did. Scootie disappeared and came back with a pair of square plastic tubs. In one he poured red paint, in the other black.
“It’s just like roullette. Pick a color.”
I stood up and gave them a study. “Dare I ask why?”
“Ask yourself this question: what color do I want my feet to be for the next week?”
“We’ve established that. Now pick.”
“Red. Of course.”
“Go ahead. Do the Hokey-Pokey.”
I knew if I thought about it, I wouldn’t, so I didn’t think about it. I don’t need to tell you how it felt, because you know how it felt. Scootie pushed a button on his stereo and conjured a waltz – that soprano from Boheme, in the café. He rolled his trousers to his knees, planted himself in the black, then left a trail of dance-instruction footprints on his way to the center of the dropcloth. He raised his hands; I stepped forward and took them.
And he could waltz (of course he could waltz). And of course I could waltz – I was a performer. We stopped at regular intervals to reload our feet. After that came Sinatra, “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” and we switched to swing. Scootie’s lead was perfect, all the signals there in his big hands, twirling me one way, wrapping me the other. At the ending, he dipped me so deeply that, the next morning, I found streaks of red and black in my hair.
Scootie pulled me to my feet, kissed my hands and said, “We’re done.”
I stood on red tip-toes, kissed him on the neck and said, “Not hardly.”
Photo by MJV