Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Alcyone, Chapter Fifteen: How Does One Properly Initiate An Affair?

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Coming in from the Pacific, a Cessna pilot would have found Fetzle Mansion a carnival box of black and gold, a thirty-foot banner declaring WELCOME HOME, STEPHEN from the front balcony. The facade was speckled by a dozen giant origami swans (or cranes, as Scootie had pointed out) constructed from gold foil. The windows were covered by six-foot-tall blowups of the Stephen Swan caricature, and high overhead flew a helium-filled blimp, commandeered from a Suzuki dealership and outfitted with feathered wings, neck and head.
The courtyard behind the mansion resembled a polka-dot dress, its green expanse marked off by circular tables striped in black and gold, and every five feet of the arborway sported a giant bow or bundle of balloons.
Seated at the tables were some of the wealthiest citizens of the Monterey and San Francisco bay areas, dressed in their finest rental evening wear as they enjoyed a Mexican buffet and a twelve-piece mariachi band. Jackie and Aggie stood in one of the Mansion’s rear balconies, spying on the festivities as they enjoyed a rare five minutes of peace. Aggie was ostensibly there to give Jackie a box-office update, but really she was looking for dirt on the now-legendary Kross-Jones wrestling match.
“I’ll tell you, Jackie, I’ve never seen anything like this. I was as cynical as everybody else when we still had a hundred tickets yesterday, but that telephone has been shouting its blessed little head off ever since.”
“Pretty sweet,” said Jackie. “Scootie was right on the money.”
“Ah, yes,” said Aggie with a knowing wink. “But you know our valued chairladies will take all of the credit, what with their brilliant last-minute giveaways.”
“Yes, damn their overdressed bee-hinds. That giveaway made about as much sense as an espresso stand in the middle of Death Valley. I’ll bet it did more damage than good.”
“It certainly didn’t help staff-trustee relations,” said Aggie, finally edging around to her real target.
“Yessirree. That was a nasty little set-to. I didn’t think ol’ Juli Kross had prairie oysters of quite those proportions. I keep thinkin’ of the look on that poor boy’s face comin’ back outta that office. White as a vanilla-flavored ghost. She musta given him one horrific tongue-lashin’. And I’ll tell ya, I expected Scootie to go to the mat on this one. It’s not like him to give up like that.”
Aggie let out a quiet laugh. “When it comes down to it, Jacqueline, we are mere employees. And the colors of the monarchy are black and gold.” She waved a pinky in the direction of the courtyard.
“What really grabs my gonads,” said Jackie, “is how much energy them California sharks put out pretendin’ they’re vegetarians. Sometimes I’d rather be a waitress in some greasy-spoon in Austin. At least I’d know where I stood.”
Aggie released an affected sigh. “Yes, and I think about retirement, and working in my garden. For now, however, I’d best get back to the box office, before my assistants go crazy.”
“Why don’t I go with you? I’d like to check out the seating chart so’s I can give the ushers a full report.”
They started down the back steps, slipping under the green waves of wisteria, each of them carrying a private thought she didn’t dare express. For Jackie, it was the sight of Juliana Kross, sitting at her table without her husband. For Aggie, it was the first secret she had successfully kept in years.

Juliana stumbled through the pine trees behind the theater and found the dimly lit stage door. She wandered her way through various autumnal backdrops from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and discovered Dave, the Center’s robust tech director, talking into his headphones.
“Okay, Vijay. Are we set on the mike? Yeah, just for the intro; Swan goes unplugged from there. Yeah, go to black, I’ll fetch the mic stand, then I’ll give you an audio cue. Okay, whoops! Got my emcee here. Be right back. Hi, Mrs. Kross, I’m Dave. I’ll be your host for the evening. Would you like anything from the bar?”
“I’ll take one of each. I’m petrified.”
“Hey, those are your friends out there! Besides, I know your type. Nervous as hell right up to stage time, then you go out there and come back with a belt fulla scalps. Former actress, right?”
“Well, yes, I...”
“Dave knows all.” He put his hands together and performed a swami bow.
“Well, as long as you do,” said Juliana. “Any special instructions?”
“Yeah. I want you to enter from stage right. I’ll be here on the com, and I’ll give you three distinct signals. First, I’ll hold up a handful of fingers at five minutes. Next, I’ll hold up my index finger when we’re down to a minute. Then I’ll give you this traditional theater signal” – he circled his thumb and finger in the “okay” sign – when it’s time to hit the stage. Got it?”
“Got it.”
“Couple other things. The mike is live, so please, none of the old comedy shtick.” He tapped an imaginary mike and said, “Is thing on? Is this thing on? God, I hate that! Just speak in your natural voice, about three to six inches from the mike, and my man Vijay will make the adjustments. Oh... wait a minute.” Dave put on his headphones, exchanged a few phrases, then returned to Juliana. “Hey! Good news. You can forget our first signal. We just hit five minutes. Why don’t you head on over to stage right?”
“Oh, um, yes,” said Juliana, turning to go.
“Oh, and Juli,” said Dave. “I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Stephen wants an indirect intro. He’ll come out a few minutes after you leave the stage. Kind of a theatrical thing.”
“Oh, and one other thing.”
Dave put a hand to the side of his mouth. “Kick some ass, wouldja?”
Juliana laughed and headed across the stage. The stage-right entrance afforded a gap of three feet between the proscenium and the curtain. Juliana lifted her index cards to the narrow band of light and reviewed her notes: sponsors, committee chairs, a brief bio of Stephen. And her real worry, the young man who would be there when she finished, helping prepare Stephen for his performance. How could she possibly face him? If it had been merely a matter of drink and spousal vengeance, it might have been easy enough to set aside, but the visions... Two nights of spotty sleep, a waist-high view of a lanky, dark-haired man, eyes closed tight, body rumbling as he surrendered, the ripening fruit in her mouth spitting out fluid that tasted of mozzarella cheese with a snap of sage...
For Christ’s sake, Juliana – introduction? You’ve got a job to do, girl. Dave leaned in from the other side of the curtain to lift an index finger, and now her inner argument was blotted out by the pounding of her heart. For a second she though she heard Scootis’ voice, lambasting her viciously, but now Dave was giving the okay sign, and everything else cleared out. She glanced in the stageside mirror, nudging a stray hair back into place, then split the gap, whispering Dave’s instructions to “kick some ass.”
It came out exactly as he had said: a bright, fluid moment, over before she knew it, the words escaping her mouth as easily as breath. The spotlight seemed to calm her, bring her back to that 18-year-old Tracy Lord, endowed with all the sureness of Hepburn. Only one thing struck her as odd: the place was packed. And there seemed to be people in the back, standing.
She returned to her spot at stage right, the applause lending a sonic backrub, but she had little chance to cherish it. Beyond the break of the proscenium sat a wretch of a man, charcoal stains spotting his face, his hair a tangled mop strewn with stalks of wild grass. The actor eyed her distractedly, as though he were facing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Juliana was about to say something when Scootie rushed in with a Styrofoam cup.
“Hi Juliana,” he whispered. “Could you stand over there? Thanks.” He turned to the ragman. “Here’s your espresso. Lukewarm. Hardly worth my time.”
Stephen drank it down with a steady swallow. Scootie, meanwhile, was just cranking up.
“Listen, you counterfiet Englishman. You may be a big fucking star in New York, but here you’re nothing! Nada! Zilch! These people knew you when you were shitting your diapers, and they don’t give a good goddamn about your gold statuettes and all those directors you slept with to get to the top.
“You haven’t even bothered coming back for forty years, and believe me, the locals are pretty hacked off about it. They only bought tickets to this freak show to watch the old man crash and burn. Washed up! Ove the hill, baby. Now get your sorry ass out there and try not to fall into the orchestra pit!”
Stephen looked up with a sick, determined smile and said, “I’ll show you! I’ll show you!” And then he was gone straggling into the spotlight. He stopped to take in the audience, as if he were meeting a stranger on the road, then rolled out Shakespeare in dulcet, rumbling tones.
“No, they cannot touch me for coining. I am the king himself... Nature’s above art in that respect. There’s your press-money. That fellow handles his bow like a crow-keeper. Draw me a clothier’s yard. Look, look, a mouse!...”
Scootie stood in the shadow of the wall, letting the signature fray of Stephen’s voice fill his ears like chocolate milk. Then he remembered where his new hearing came from, and turned to find Juliana next to a baffle, looking lost.
“The mad scene from King Lear,” he said. “He took out Gloucester’s and Edgar’s parts, but it seems to work.”
“He’s a... method actor?” Juliana guessed.
“Yeah, sort of,” Scootie chuckled. “Stephen’s eccentricities? The ones you were warned about?”
“He likes to be thoroughly debased before he takes the stage.” Scootie retreated from the curtain and joined Juliana. “When Stephen first went to New York, his career went absolutely nowhere, for three or four years. He was about to pack it in and return to California when he met Matt Sodgkin, a pitcher for the Yankees. When Stephen asked Sodgkin what motivated him on the mound, he said, ‘Fear. A terrifying fear of failure.’ Sodgkin’s pitching coach would psyche him up before each start by denigrating him for a full fifteen minutes, calling him a no-account meat-thrower who never shoulda made it past Little League, that he was one or two losses from going back to Double-A. Made Sodgkin absolutely desperate to succeed, and to prove his coach wrong.
“Before his next audition, Stephen asked Sodgkin to do the same for him. Sodgkin spent twenty minutes in the alley outside the theater, pasting Stephen with every insult he could think of. The stage manager thought they were about to come to blows, and almost called the cops. Stephen got so worked up he proceeded to go in and blow the place down. That was Songs for Scotland, the one that got him his first Tony.”
Juliana was beginning to get the idea, and smiled. “So tonight, you’re Matt Sodgkin.”
“I got a mean fastball.”
Applause poured in as Stephen wrapped up King Lear. He spoke in his regular voice about “the incredible siren call of the stage” as he cleaned himself up – picking grass from his hair, using a towel to wipe the smears from his face. He headed cross-stage to a makeup table, putting on his next face as he recalled that first legendary Lear at the Fetzle Center.
“No matter where I have gone, I have always felt the sand of Hallis Beach between my toes. I realize, however, that this is really only my second run in this town, so I would ask you critics out there to please, be easy on me.” Laughter, then applause. “I would like to continue with something from my first success, a Broadway play penned by the great Ella Masterson and titled Songs for Scotland. I dedicate this to my very best friend, a former pitcher for the New York Yankees name of Matthew Sodgkin.” Stephen donned a tam o’shanter and was off to his next scene.
“Whatever happened to Sodgkin?” Juliana asked.
“Carl Yazstremski hit a line drive up the middle and hit him on the head. He couldn’t quite see straight after that, and he lost his nerve.”
“I guess failure is not the thing he should have been afraid of,” said Juliana, snickering.
Scootie grinned and held Juliana’s eyes in his. She was overcome by shame and turned, shuffling into the darkness backstage. Scootie followed, and found her in front of the dressing room, her eyes fixed firmly on the gold star below Stephen’s name. Scootie stopped short of reaching out to her.
“Juliana? Are you okay?”
“Scootie, I’m so... what I did to you the other night, it was disgraceful, attacking you like that just to get you to give away tickets. I don’t...”
“Juliana, I didn’t give away any tickets.”
“...blame you if you never want to speak to me again. It was an unspeakable use of power, and I...”
“I didn’t give away any tickets.”
This time she heard him.
“You... what?”
“I didn’t give away tickets. I knew you’d be busy, and, well, possibly too disturbed to notice, so I simply refrained from doing anything, in the hopes that no one would...”
“You cur!” Juliana punched Scootie on the shoulder. “You pig! How dare you not...”
She went to push him, but he grabbed her hands and grinned devilishly.
“How dare I not respond to fellatio?”
Juliana looked at her hands, limp rags in Scootie’s grip, and was overcome by laughter. Scootie put a finger to his lips but succeeded only in cracking himself up. When Juliana slipped a hand around the doorknob, they stumbled into the dressing room, landing in a tangle on the carpeting. Scootie tapped the door closed with his foot, then covered her with kisses, roaming freely over her neck and cheekbones. He was undoing the straps of her gown when she formed a “halt” sign and planted it against his chest.
“Scootie... as much as I am enjoying this, there are too many people here, and besides, I think Mr. Swan will be returning for a fresh round of abuse.”
Scootie laughed and assented with his eyes.
“Here’s what we’ll do,” she said. “Take some tissues and clean yourself up in the stageside mirror – you’ve got some lipstick on your right cheek. I will clean up in here, sneak out the back, and take my assigned seat in the audience.” She stopped to consider what came next. How does one properly initiate an affair?
“Do you live alone?”
He nodded.
“Good. I want you to slip out to the employee parking lot during the second act and find my car. Green Volvo, remember? It’s got one of those gas caps that’s hidden under the rear license plate. I want you to write down the directions to your place – only the directions, no names, no personal references – and leave it there for me. I will stay here for about an hour after the show, and then I will drive directly – or perhaps, indirectly – to your place. Okay?”
“Check,” said Scootie. He rose to his feet and pulled her up. He took a box of tissue, and was ready to go, but felt the need to say something in parting. “Juliana?”
“Yes?” she answered, out of breath.
Scootie held her chin and kissed her. “I give you license to attack me anytime you like.”
“Thank you,” she whispered, and he was gone. She walked carefully to the mirror, flipped on the light and went about straightening the pleasantly jumbled features of her face.

Photo by MJV

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