Studio Disclaimer: no crazy old horses were harmed, but one rumpsprung equine ego was stampeded to exhaustion in the making of this motion picture.
Now that the tale has been told by The Idiot, it is my turn and I shall write it down, transcribe it all in loving grisly detail while its barking madness lingers in my head, its panting dogbreath still pricking up my ear, its silky hard fangs still pressing against my neck, nuzzling and drooling as it growls. Why? Why does anyone write their story down? Because it’s there to be written. And in my case, because I love the sound of my own voice.
So bring up the lights on the bare stage of my life. I am illuminated by a pale white special down center where I have always belonged and from whence directors have lost their minds trying to move me. I raise my face to the black expanse before me. When you stand downstage and look into the light you see a black canvas on which the imagination can paint any picture, a darkness in which any memory can come to life in a counterfeit of color that comes close enough to the real thing to pass for true. And that is the key to it all, to stand in the light, look into the black and see what you will see.
In the sandy cool air of my screened-in porch I sat on a cane chair beside the front door of my bungalow. Poised on the rusty metal table to my left was my breakfast, a hard blue pack of Parliaments and a slender tensile shaft of Redbull that reminds me of my chubber when it’s pondering on some snoodoo.
I am much too old to be pondering on snoodoo, but a funny thing happened in my late fifties. Just when I was welcoming the submission of my sex life to the vagaries of the aging process, just when I was able to look at women and see them as people first, sad, thwarted, sympathetic, daily, ordinary; and sex objects, shining, distant, difficult, extraordinary, ephemeral, only second or sometimes not at all! (oh bless that “not at all”!); just as I was welcoming the draining away of the bit torrent that ran along a fat pipe in the fiber optic backbone of my body wide web, starting in the crotch and ending in the pleasure center in my brain; just as I was bidding adieu to the sexual frenzy that had charged itself up in my long ago adolescence and made me as dangerous to the general public as a downed powerline snaking along the pavement on a rainslicked, debris strewn roadway; so that now I could finally look without longing at and think without self-reproach about the tantalizing and troubling women who had plagued my life; just as I could almost completely ignore the many tales of buried sexual treasure accompanied by rumors of the barely decipherable and nearly disintegrated treasure maps needed to locate them; just as all this dissonant modernist symphonizing was resolving uncannily and with somber good taste into a hushed tonic chord of peace in my head; here I was again inexplicably unhappy but smugly triumphant, as I felt the tug of sex once again. Me. Thin flayed grayhaired me. Dusty prickly gauntfaced me with a whisper of white whiskers that seems to throw my face out of focus like the work of a hurried indie cinematographer. Thinlipped gizzardnecked, slopeshouldered me. No longer, at last, a leading man in the story of my wastrel life. Peckerpoor, kneecapped, pickled-livered me. Ancient wandering povertystricken me. Dazed anew by the sheen of young healthy skin. Struck again with the wonder at the round beauty of sharpnippled breasts. Confused and curious once more at the rhythmic sway of pearshaped, heartshaped, muscled and bubbly babyfat asses that swung away wherever I looked on the pedestrian streets of New York City, where inexplicably I walked again in the grace of a sexual reawakening that only a God of Irony, a God of Bemused Cruelty could have chosen to curse me with, as a punishment for a life of excess and heedlessness and a lack of moral introspection.
No it was more than that. It was a naked, unbridled lusting after youth and sexual allure. As if somewhere in the animal, instinctual part of me, in a neurological recess far beyond the level of thought, I had sensed the end approaching, slouching as I was towards oblivion, and my psyche had summoned itself up for one last Herculean effort at procreation, one last clumsy, flailing swim in the river that runs up the thighs of mother earth. I had succumbed to some mocking male equivalent of a biological clock that ticked idiot in my head till I was stupefied.
I lie. I am in my early sixties.
Which only makes the miracle more so.
Prior to this cursed reawakening, some ethological pathway in my brain had quietly atrophied, mercifully, leaving me cool and indifferent to sexual attraction. I had begun to think I had moved to a higher plane of wisdom and maturity, one where I would get a truer picture of the world, especially the sexual commerce between men and women, one where I could look back at my transgressions with equanimity and forgiveness. Without the itch I would laugh at how I had scratched myself raw and bloody. I could examine the scars on my sexual skin like a junky tracing his needlemarks and shake my head in mild, maybe even nostalgic, wonder, and mark with smug tranquility how I had survived to tell the tale.
Ok, let me get straight with this story, as we say in the AAA, and when I say AAA I add an A to confuse the unworthy and the inattentive. My wife left me ten years ago and took my daughter with her. Deftly, delicately, using precision instruments, a steady hand and a deep knowledge of this painstaking but satisfying hobby, I built myself into a horizontal bottle of Jack Daniels Old No. 7, raised my masts, unfurled my sails and sailed away on a sea of alcohol for the better part of a decade. When I finally found myself shipwrecked on a distant shore, dressed in rags, scarcely knowing my name, I found I had exposed my brains to so much weather that I had extinguished my sex life, ruined my career, ravaged my face and lost all my friends. On the plus side I had discovered a dreamlike ineffable God ruling over me from an immeasurable distance with parental misgiving and a benign neglect that allowed for rare, when deserving, intervention, or so they tell me on Perry Street.
Again I lie. I am not so bad to look at. I still have some of the matinee idol about me that plagued my early career. Wide shoulders, long legs, not a scrap of fat, although the fascia the holds me together has loosened and fallen. I sag. I give. But my face has aged well. I still have a ton of hair that never needs ironing, in fact it benefits from the just rolled out of bed, throw myself together and tada! way of facing the world that has always done me well. And I clean up nicely when I have to be nice enough to clean up. Can’t really remember the last time that was. But so what. If you saw me strolling crusty-eyed and stifflegged in the West Village on a Sunday morning in May with my copy of the Sunday Times tucked under one arm as I shambled along in my flipflops or unstrung sneakers, artfully torn t-shirt and jeans, you would probably say I had an ease and relaxation that was attractive to the eye, inviting; you would give me the compulsory once over and your eye would linger that extra unexpected second that professional peoplewatchers so appreciate ( and, fact, all newyorkers are professional peoplewatchers); you might even ask yourself where you had seen me before or who the heck did I remind you of. Yeah I kinda do that to people.
But on the Sunday morning from which this story spreads out like a many-headed hydra I was not walking down West Fourth Street, nor was I lingering at the corner of Bleecker and Perry where wrought iron railing, chalky brownstone, the cement of road and sidewalk and even the self-involved denizens of the neighborhood glow in the dry silky air beneath a yellow benevolent sun. Instead I was sitting outside a bleak and lonely bungalow apartment just off the Dixie Highway where it’s red light-green light all the way up the Florida Coast to West Palm Beach, the Intracoastal Waterway flowing unceasingly to the east of me and the Up All Night Freight Train Line of Existential Angst And Longing creaking and groaning intermittently a few blocks to the west.
How did I get here? Let’s see. I picked up the phone when my agent called… No that’s not right. I was fiddling with the plastic top on my cup of coffee as I slouched outside the entry to the Perry Street AA meeting (so many different ways to secure the top of a cup of coffee, so few to survive the indignities of alcohol)…. No that’s not right either. I got my first professional job when I…. No that’s not it at all. I watched a lot of TV as a kid… Ok let’s forget it. So many conditions, so many of them necessary, no one of them sufficient. You see what I mean? It is difficult to begin at the beginning and not try to go back further. But after all that’s the narrative point: to arrive here by all necessary and sufficient paths and move forward by the one and only they imply. And that will be my story.
I picked a cigarette out of the box of Parliaments. What I really wanted was a neat row of single malt whiskeys. My head was clogged with the debris of a roughhouse night of sullen frighted sleep. The remains of that night included oddly expressionist landscapes and frustratingly small snatches of scenes from a series of stark shimmery dreams, out of which I awoke and to which I returned too many times to count, leaving me with the nagging suspicion they were each part of some all-encompassing narrative, complex and full of meaning, possible even reassurance, a narrative I had neither the mental strength nor dexterity to weave back together, in spite of the tantalizing possibility there might be a comforting truth, a wise and wonderful insight, a prayer of hope on which to build the day. I did try, but it is a maddening thing. Like trying to find the prized familiar sweater in a tangle of frayed and knotted yarns that have been clawed and destroyed by the cat of waking up. Only whiskey could make sense of this mess, but I was not remotely willing. Or able.
There was something from those dreams still rattling provocatively around in my mind, almost making sense. Something about being naked, but more than that. There were sharp flashes of imagery too swift to fix on. It was all just out of reach like something I needed to find but couldn’t.
As I lit the cigarette I thought of Bogie lighting his cigarette in a Paris flat while Ingrid Bergmann smiled at him and glowed uncommonly. I imagined she was there beside me wearing a stylish white hat in the Palm Beach morning where the first sting of humidity was just envenoming the air. Yeah you definitely light your cigarette with a bit more self-conscious flair when Ingrid is watching. I inhaled the first itchy breath and began to cough with a phlegmy rumble that became a dry hacking. My lungs seized up for a moment and I felt I was a VW Bug about to drop its engine on the Pennsylvania turnpike somewhere east of Pittsburgh. My brain went brown around the edges as I gasped for breath. Finally it ebbed into a moment of near silence. I contemplated the asthmatic wheezes and pops that followed on. And then serenity. I smoked in silence. I popped the top on the Red Bull. No association rose to mind. So I just I went ahead and took a sour taste as myself, anticipating the first buzz of activity in my ragged brain. But O that little kick was evil. As I sat in silence smoking I soon began to fidget. Apprehension knit my brow before I could tell what I was apprehending. And then the quiet voice that I associate with me, myself, my continuing presence in this discontinuous world, that familiar speaker who claims to speak for me although I sometimes think he merely speaks at me or to me or about me taking gross advantage of his privileged connection, raised his voice within me and began his incessant daily narration. It was nothing unfamiliar. I might summarize it neatly as follows although it was anything but neat and straightforward in the moment (that’s the advantage of the backward glance; it is much more structured than the events speeding at you in real time):
So strung out again and it is only morning. Have pissed away life, and all accomplishments are as failures. Am baking in the sloppy hot sun of a semi-tropical nightmare. Only the dying and the vacuously unambitious stumble down here to Sunny Florida, stay in Sunny Florida, can’t fight their way out of Sunny Florida. There is no human ingenuity here except among the hookers on the Dixie Highway and the anabolic steroid salesmen who haunt the gyms. There is only the energy to fight off the sun, to avoid the alligators, to ride in cars. Need to get drunk and stoned but can’t. Have a job to do.
If you had seen me that morning on my doorstep taking in the new day, imbibing and inhaling, you might have thought I was just another South Floridian graybeard content to bake his life away in a steamy humid lethargy of existential ignorance, a naïve lifer with no capacity for introspection, no healthy sense of doom. But no, there was this angst that went on with me. Thank god, I say, for the privacy of my inner monologue. Without it, no one could have possibly bear my presence, friend, family, lover or confessor. A little theatrical background.
The finest moment for any actor in any play is the moment when he gets the call that says, Yes! You’ve got the part. That is the pinnacle of his artistic achievement. Because at that moment nothing has gone wrong. All is possibility and promise. All is imagination, optimism, excitement. Then rehearsal begins and reality sets in. The strange surroundings and stranger people. You bang and bang against the limitations of your talent, the script, the director, the other actors. There is the awkward search for truth, the jaggedness of memory as you fight for lines, the questions becoming doubts becoming fears, the black fantasies, the deadlines, the parasitic reviews which are a hodgepodge of guesswork and pedestrian taste. All this awaits you, but you are unaware because you have got the job and this one will be brilliant.
And that is where I still lingered on this day of which I now speak, which was the first day of rehearsal. That’s why I was here in Florida, here in this musty sunny bungalow, here inside my skin fighting off the many temptations of the flesh: brewed, distilled, carnal, vegetable.
Allow me to resume my inner monologue as I watched the lazy intermittent Florida traffic pass by in the halfhearted rush to get to work.
Nothing here but sun. It burns a light into every hidden recess of my fouled soul, scouring and sterilizing every clouded contaminated inch of this blasted heath until nothing can grow, no outraged weed of human resistance to God’s barren will. It sanitizes the mind into a lifeless torpor, a willing suspension of rebellious endeavor. How does one fight back? I shall get me to the sea and douse me in its salted waters, water of life, water of sustenance, teeming with microscopic disobedience to this Nazi Commie sun.
Beneath this is more or less typical trope there was also a taste of the Red Bull starting to talk to me, charging me up for the long day ahead. I was rising out of my rickety chair when I thought I saw something move out of the corner of my eye. The feeling was slightly familiar. I sat back down carefully and considered the possibility that I had been seeing things on the edge of my vision ever since I had come to this bungalow of my semitropical exile; that I had been sensing things scurrying about on the periphery of my consciousness since my inauspicious and even ignominious arrival the day before yesterday, little bitty skittery things, earthbound things of a creeping crawling nature, an apprehension of imagery not unlike the kinds of imagery manufactured in the mind of an alcoholic (not that I would know, I swear) on the verge of delirium tremens. And here was I, longtime AA-I, shakily on the wagon for the last many moons, several years in fact, (I have fallen on and off so many times I am black and blue.), drinker of so much coffee I was more concerned at that point about fibroid breast tumors than I was about pink elephants on parade; here was I, my consciousness surreptitiously surrounded and invaded by an arachnid or possibly reptilian infestation too subtle to see, a shadowy invader who left merely a trace of maybe having almost been seen, something too quick for a turning head or a darting eye to catch. Well what fun.
I cranked myself back up out of my chair, stiffarmed the rotting screendoor and went inside, must and mildew decorating the air, and considered what clothing to wear to my first rehearsal of Lear. Have I not mentioned Lear? That the play was Lear? King Lear? The True Chronicle of the History of the Life and Death of King Lear and his Three Daughters? Have I not mentioned this? Forgive me. So much on my mind this day. But really. The name of the play? What difference? What matter the name of the play? Whether it were Lear, Macbeth or The Odd Couple, it would be me that was required later that morning in the faux cheery, neonlit rehearsal hall, my inmost self, mine, that would be required to show up, to appear, to draw back the curtain and present itself, I who would be required to peel off the veneer of civilization and reveal my discontents. And it was that fact that was uppermost in my mind, not the trivial details of some make-believe character, some mere approximation of life composed by an author for the purpose of telling a story. Because I knew that it was my story, my own sordid rambunctious, haphazard improbable story that I would have to tell to any audience that might come to watch and listen no matter whose words had been chosen for me to speak. And now I feared I was no longer up to that task. More likely that I might swim the English Channel.
No, I never should have taken the job. I must have been an idiot or delusional or willfully selfdestructive to accept such a job. How could I possibly do Lear? I would wreak havoc, my sievelike mind, my meager emotional reservoirs, my loathsome social habits, my remedial interpersonal skills, my dismal personal hygiene? I would make a disastrous Lear, a comically bad Lear, in fact, a kamikaze Lear, a fiery crippled seaplane of a Lear with no airbrakes, no bombsight, a rudimentary rudder, a perfunctory excuse for a map and just enough gas to crash me, bombstrapped, drugged-up and God-indoctrinated, into this aircraft carrier of a tragedy slowly steaming into view off the coast of my desperate starving fanatical island of no-surrender. Why would I ever do such a thing? Because I needed the money? Well yes of course. Everyone needs money, but they don’t blow up banks or shoot pedestrians in the face on dark streetcorners very late at night. Everyone wants to resuscitate their flagging career of disappointment, but they don’t sell their soul to an evil cabal of Wall Street bankers and go rogue trader, losing billions as they double down and double down again on wrongheaded reckless trades. Do they? Do they? Maybe they do.
Maybe I had too.
Or maybe I’d come down to find my daughter Lindy on some unconscious level. Even though I didn’t think she’d ever see me even if I did manage to track her down. Be fun though. See how she’d changed. Had she changed? Had she changed towards me? Might that ever be possible? Not bloody likely. Lindy my darling roughhewn daughter, Type A+ with extra credit for doing the optional end-of-semester essay, how had I ever given life to you? And how had I lost your love and loyalty? Is it just me, or do women always side with their mothers when they divorce? Probably just me because I cannot see beyond my nose, nor have I any desire to. I am after all an actor, a player. I have seen enough of life and now I wish life to see me.
Back inside my dark and dusty bungalow I was dressed. I was so artfully careless that I could only be construed as an utter slob. Or was I artlessly careful? I would have had to think about that and I didn’t have time. I had journeyed south from Manhattan to Palm Beach in my aging faithful Honda Civic, Lucky. I had nearly killed poor Lucky in the process, but not quite. Somewhere between North and South Carolina I felt him slipping away, only the physics of momentum to keep him going south and south and ever south so far from his home at the Houston Street Pier where for twenty years he had watched the Hudson River roil with fury, go clammy flat, slush up, ice over, but mostly flow, a race of waves leaping for the sea. Pozzo to this gaunt, once-gifted Lucky I had driven my poor car on perhaps its final longdistance drive. Merciless and loving, that’s me. Shall I tell you about the two sad souls we met along the way? Would that amuse you? No? Perhaps another time.
I felt the need for a bracer, something to cheer me up and fortify me for the day ahead. I opened the fridge and listened to the compressor labor as a cloud of cold air came at me. I had not been industrious in stocking the wobbly shelves, but I had grabbed a few items to decorate the cold empty thing. The bottle of vodka stood aloof and cool in the back. I knew it would be enough just to look at it and think about the damage it could do. And it was. Sometimes I required myself to pick it up and consider pouring myself a drink. Once in a while I had to pour the drink into the glass Usually it was the reaching out for the bottle that was enough. As my fingers spread and my tongue came uncleft from the roof of my mouth, my arm jerked itself backwards reflexively as if there were a spark of intelligence in the ganglia of my elbow, a piece of my soul that awakened and recoiled. They say the dinosaur had a second brain in his tail. There’s a bit of the old dinosaur in every rampaging alcoholic. Sometimes your reptile brain is the only thing standing between you and extinction. There’s another lesson here: your brain doesn’t have to be big or sophisticated as long as it’s well placed.
The thing about Benny Goodman, the thing that separates him from the merely gifted, is there are no bad notes on his clarinet. He has got rid of them all. There are no fair to middling ones either. Even the good notes he does without. There are only great notes in his bright black instrument. He is a fountain of melody. You know instinctively when you listen to him play that he has chosen the very best from among his array of exemplary notes to play at every moment. So I opened up my Benny Goodman stash on the iPod and let him play hoping he would encourage my sour morning mood hence and move me towards something approaching bonhomie for my fellow man (read actors), whom I was about to meet at our first highly anticipated readthrough of the play. Yes, yes, his spirit began to fill me. I felt it in my gimpy arms. I felt it in my arthritic knees. From both directions it worked its way into my stiff hips. I floated, gamboled and capered around my tiny bungalow until I felt that his music was fingering my very stopholes. Then there came a knocking that made the warped doorframe rattle. I turned and saw a face obscured by the glare of the sun on the silvery screen of the door. I reached for the knob, still trying to make out the face. I wasn’t expecting anyone. Who would know I was here except for the theatre staff? Oh of course. Some inquisitive actor. Some of the cast would be local Floridians (I bore them no malice). Some would be New Yorkers (like me) who had migrated down (like me) to escape the maudlin Fall (whose gross emotional freighting frightens and disheartens me each year) and to get paid for putting on our little Shakespearean skit for the local culturati. And they would be my neighbors in our colony of bungalows, our little theatre ghetto, which the theatre company had wisely purchased in a previous Palm Beach landrush to accommodate its out of town artistes. Yes, it was probably someone come to say hello, to sniff me out and size me up. (A suspect Lear would be a pox, a fatal dispiriting wound to the rest of the cast. The curiosity about me must have been keen.) Or maybe someone had come to disarm me with charm and flattery. I hate charm and flattery. I have done so much of it in my day. I am now a past master of false sincerity, outsized praise, rote commiseration, the gentle stroke of the vulnerable artist’s ego, de rigeur, comme il faut, the precisely offhand compliment to the insecure, the conspiratorial caring word to the secretly wounded. And let’s face it, all artists nurse a deep wound in their art. Would this person at the door display an ounce of wit or irony or would he or she plunge clumsily into fawning praise? I pulled back the screendoor.
“Your biggest fan,” she said with a chilling flat intonation and a mechanical smile.
“No no, you couldn’t be. I am my own biggest fan,“ I said smiling down at her from my strategic height. At 6’2” I had the advantage of the high ground in establishing my defenses. She took the slightest breath of a moment to get my drift. “Aren’t we all,” she then said quickly. “I know I am.” She thrust out a braceleted snake of an arm and waited for me to grasp her ambitious little hand. I did and thought a nice adjustment that. She plays well with strangers, a useful skill for an actress. Why is a pretty face (or a handsome one for that matter) so disarming? Why do we trust it as a sign of a pleasing friendly personality? What could be further from the truth? She bristled in the breathtaking sun. A piece of me knew she would make a formidable foe.
Again I dissemble. She had once been a beautiful girl, that much was clear, but there was a hard life written into her face, and I was floored by her. There was something burnt about her eyes. Were they bored or angry? A mass of unkempt hair, almond eyes, swooping, almost Mongol cheekbones, large pores on thickened skin, worn lips. ‘Striking ravaged beauty’ were the words that came to me. But there was no time to imagine the young unriven face that had given rise to this one, no time to ponder the story left on her face, although it was irresistible to want to. Her jeans and white t-shirt fit her like a dare.
The kind of woman who can raise that kind of ruckus at ten am in the hot sun at my front door should be kept at a distance from all horsedrawn carriages like me, and a man with a red flag should precede her down the welloiled streets alerting all teamsters to take hold of the reins immediately or risk losing control of their teams. This was not what I needed at this precarious point in the day (or in my life for that matter.) I needed to be able to concentrate on the painstaking business ahead, no distractions, no fantasizing in my fantastical head. At least that was my half-formed conscious thought process, like fragments of flashcards appearing in the literate part of my mind. Something more dangerous and substantial stirred in a more primitive place.
What can I say in my defense here? That women lay buried like landmines in the battleground of my life? That periodically I felt the need to step on one knowing that if I managed to survive the blast and the wound healed properly, I would be out of that particular war with a ticket home and a purple heart to pin to my uniform? Until they sent us out to fight again. Shame on me but this was how I thought, a man of sixty some odd years, who had marked the disastrous Napoleonic retreat of his libido; and then its desperate return from exile, with the Old Guard ready to be thrust into battle when the Little General had ascertained its most effective point of entry.
“And who might you be?” I asked.
“Sandra Scuccarelli.” She pronounced it scooch-a-rell-i.
“No not really? Really?”
“Yeah, really.” She gave me a slightly sour look
“Yeah I know. It sounds like some kind of pasta that crawls around in the pasta bowl.” I guffawed at her unexpected sense of humor. And O the strong hint of Brooklynese, that nose-and-throaty song of sex, in her low and sophisticated way of speaking, frank, provocative and irresistible to me after so many years in the city, as if she had risen from the streets and might return there any time she pleased.
“Excellent,” I said. “And I am Stephan with a coy and haughty ‘p-h’ but you knew that already.”
“Yeah. Or I wouldn’t be here to say hello so bright and early.” Am I being a pain?”
“No no no. By all means. Come in. Sit down. Sit a spell.” That word: spell. I wonder if that didn’t suggest unconsciously that I might have already begun to succumb to one.
I have till now refrained from disclosing my own name because I knew this would require a detour. I am in fact Stephan Wilder. Pause for effect. Possibly I labor under the illusion the name is not lost in the mists of history? That is of course not my real name. In those days we exchanged the streeps and crudups for more elegant endings and then a new beginning to match. My real name is Tony Curtis. No of course not. Ha ha. It is Steve Wildbaum. Stevie to the few remaining old friends I have not driven off over the years. But I changed it when I hit the TV jackpot. Does that not ring a bell? Please. I spent my youth in the Old West not far from the High Chaparral and the Ponderosa. Yes now of course it comes back. How did he get all that hair under a cowboy hat? That’s what they used to ask. As I grew up on television, going from boy to man, the 1880’s were my 1960’s. Technicolor was my tintype. A peace pipe was my water bong. I had the run of Hollywood and I fouled that field with all the young dogs that ran in the pack. I thought I would be young forever and I thought I would be rich forever. I had residuals. I had investments. I had a commanding salary for nine years on primetime TV. But I had a fatal flaw. I took my craft very seriously. I took my art very seriously. I took myself very seriously. Well that’s three flaws, but really the wound will do. ‘Tis enough. ‘Twill do. Serendipity in that phrase, for Mercutio was the role I longed to play, he of Queen Mab’s crowd, he of Tybalt’s unseen thrust. I was looked down on by real actors, by which I mean of course theatre actors. I felt their superiority, their haute culture. I longed for their world, their seriousness of purpose, the prestige of their enterprises, the languages they spoke, Shakespeare, Shaw, Williams, the poetry, the passion. It would have taken a person far more mature than me to accept humbly my success and good fortune and leave it at that. I longed to give it all up, to chuck it all, the spurs, the chaps, the soft leather reins in my practiced hand, my wrangled steed (my god I have forgotten his name! her name?), the tumbleweed and barbed wire, all of it, to trod upon the dusty stage, a poor player, humble tragedian.
And so, God forgive me for a fool, I did. I disappeared off the face of the A-list earth.
But don’t weep for me. The true mark of a man is that he grows into the great mistakes of his life. He embraces and then inhabits them, he gives them his all. And as I got further and further into it, it became an obsession and I got poorer and poorer. Kind of like a junky, I got so I’d play anything. But often enough there was good shit to play and I learned how to support my habit. I became what is known in the trade as a theatre monk, a Spartan, worshipful, dedicated monk of holy mother theatre, whose mass was written as a twohander, usually in two acts, performed six nights a week and twice on Saturday. Enough. Shut me up for a garrulous fool.
I denied myself in body like any good monk so that I might devote myself to my proper calling. I took what was given to me in the course of things, like a wandering cynic with rice bowl and staff and I trusted in my Lord. I had few possessions, a table a chair, a cast iron skillet; and fewer regrets, primarily my marriage. I wouldn’t say I ate the air and drank the dew, but I came quite close several times. It felt remarkably good to live like a pauper after the lush years in Los Angeles. I felt clean and cleaned out. For a while it did.
But that is not the tale I came to tell. That would be mere celebrity autobiography if in fact I were one, which I am not; so in fact it would be mere memoir, had I anything unusual to say about those years, which in fact I do not; so instead it would be mere gossip, which if I could really write might well turn into literature, but let us stay the hell away from all that and leave it to the celebrity as-told-to-no-one-in-particular projects that gum up the bookstores and prevent the real stories from flowing. Let’s just say I spent my adult years Crossing Brooklyn Ferrys and crossing Brooklyn fairies instead. And no one could possibly care. And no one does.
And I began to drink, no I mean really drink. I drank myself into the grave, only to climb out because I was not in fact a corpse but rather a Gravedigger with ever a quarrelsome Hamlet to match my wits against.
I wound up in a tiny fourth floor walk-up on a cobblestoned street in cockeyed Greenwich Village. And I did not complain. I seemed to have nothing to show for it, but that was only so to the unpracticed eye. I had my immense pride, my wrecked health, my failed marriage, my estranged child, a scrapbook full of oddly lit production stills I could no longer differentiate among (is that my Captain Hook or my Captain Jack Absolute? Are those the sailorboys of South Pacific or the men of the stokehole in The Hairy Ape?), in other words: a full life.
And I had this thing of acting.
Sandra paused in the doorway backlit for the briefest second, like Maryann or maybe the Movie Star entering my Professor’s hut on Gilligan’s isle. I saw her hesitate as the stale air caught her attention.
“Kind of improvisational in here at the moment I’m afraid. Ha ha.”
“Yeah, hey, mine’s no better.”
“Oh where are you?”
Our little bungalow colony consisted of three or four modest adobe structures, each with a couple of small apartments painted in blues, peaches, mangoes and oranges, and all this on a corner lot paved with concrete and shaded by a small forest of eerie looking trees that seemed to come from another geological age. Sandra looked about for some place to sit. I offered her the only other chair at the wobbly breakfast table. I turned down the music and sat down with her.
“I want to talk to you about the play,” she said.
As she leaned over the table I noticed how her breasts, by which I mean her tits, swung freely within her t-shirt. She placed her elbows on the cracked, discolored Formica and her chin in her hands and shook her hair about. Jesus I was probably half again her age. Why didn’t she pick on someone her own size. This was not fair.
“And you are playing…Cordelia?” I guessed and smiled hopefully crossing my legs as elegantly as Peter O’Toole in his finest tuxedo. I even allowed a trace of Peter’s most condescending and pedantic charm to creep into my voice. But why did I say Cordelia? What could have been more ludicrous, a worse piece of casting? Her neck stiffened, her chin went down, her forehead knit, her lips pursed. Her eyes appeared to smolder. Had I struck a sore spot, or was she just practicing?
“Goneril,” she said. “I’m playing Goneril.” What could have been more obvious? She gave me a cold startled look of mock incredulity.
“My god, Goneril! Of course. Yes. Goneril.” I made a show of smacking my hand to my forehead. “Yes,” she said with a note of pride in her voice and an odd twitch of the chin. Yes indeed, she was well past her Cordelia days, well past her days of playing the simpering ingénue, and on to bigger meatier things. “Yes, I see her very clearly,” she began. “I see the play in a very bold light, my interpretation…well… I am getting a bit ahead, right?” There was a hint of the frank Italian glissando in that, “right?”. Just a shiver of tribal music.
“No no not at all. Let’s steal a march on all the others. Tell me how you see it,” I said like the spider to the fly. Here at least I was on firmer ground.
“I think they hide an incestuous relationship.”
“I think they have a long standing incestuous relationship.”
“Lear and Goneril. I think he has fucked her blind since her childhood. Possibly Regan too. Possibly. But I don’t want to think about that.”
“Yes,” I said. Or was it, “Yes?” I’m not sure. I could hardly hear the word as I squeaked it out. I wasn’t really listening to myself. I was staring at her swaying breasts, mesmerized as she looked heavenward and shook her head of hair free again. There was something sad about her body. Had she bled? I guessed she had. Were there scars? I wanted to see them, I didn’t know why.
“Yes,” I said again, this time a bit more thoughtfully.
We all have that fantasy to get our hands on a wild animal and see if we can hold on to it. We want a hit off its wild thing, if only a brief hit. Most of us go, Oh, but I could get mauled, the skin torn off me, maybe even eaten. Most but not all.
“I think he is a greedy rapacious vital prick of a pagan king.” She continued.
“Yes and so do I, but I am not sure he has….” I couldn’t bring myself to finish the thought.
“And I see her as traumatized and conflicted by sex, full of lust and at the same time shame. I think it drives her rage.”
“Yes!” She was quietly triumphant. “So that is what I want to explore.”
“Yes, I see.”
“That relationship. That damaged ruined sick incestuous relationship.”
“Yes, I see.”
“The sex thing. The sex…. angle.”
“Yes.” I could not have said yes with more drawnout blasé charm were I Sir Peter himself. At the same time I could not uncross my legs for all the world for I was afraid she might castrate me where I sat, my thighs protectively clenched.
“I know, let’s take a walk,” I said. “Let’s walk to the theatre. We have time. We’ll walk and chat and get to know each other a little.” I jumped up surprised at my own inventiveness and she rose instinctively. I held open the door for her, followed her out, stepped off the porch and that was when the sun hit me full on. On the forehead and the face, yes of course, but also it poured into my mouth and went into my lungs. It slapped me on the back and took my breath away, grabbing the scruff of the neck and the seat of my pants and hustling me, as a surly bouncer might, into the street. Maybe not such a good idea, this. “Wow that sun gets right in your face, doesn’t it.”
“Yeah, who needs it. The whole sun thing is overrated down here.
“Not a sun worshipper?” I asked.
“More of a night owl,” she said. “You know you don’t look so good in this light.” She put her arm in mine as we walked. I felt a stern intimacy from her, like you used to get from the Caribbean nurses in the ER at St. Vincent’s before Vince got into the condo game.
“Lear worships the sun, I think.” I was just making conversation.
“Yeah,” she said, ”That’s his pagan religious thing.” She leaned into me as she walked. For a second I thought she was going to put her head on my shoulder. It was beginning to feel like a date and my body and mind grew very confused.
Our little length of roadway was a dismal stretch of rundown bungalows and motels running parallel to the Dixie Highway a block to the west, the bungalows like old men in need of a haircuts and shaves, their illfitting clothes draped carelessly on their bodies. You wanted to go up to them and comb their hair and button their shirts and maybe tell them to stand up straight, don’t slouch like that, it hurts me just to look at you. But it was the motels, one on each block, that had a compelling weathered curiosity to them, as if they had been submerged beneath a mighty tidal flood of all the Floridian elements which then receded to leave them bleached and waterlogged in the sun. The houses, the motels, the apartment blocks, the occasional storefront, the odd professional building, all of this adobe, brick and timber felt like a string of half-submerged shipwrecks rising out of a sandy sea. I imagined the motels might taste of salt if you ran your hand down the sides of their faded pastel pinkflamingo paintjobs. How did they stay in business? What kind of clientele did they have? I tried to imagine their night managers. I pictured a wooden deskchair, its swivel seat on casters, on it someone sitting slumped and dazed with his feet up on the desk and dangerously close to the ink bottle (sometimes an anachronism can be helpful, like in a Coen Bros flick) sitting next to the guest register. When I tried to picture a face all I could come up with were various comrades from various AA meetings.
“So I think the father daughter thing is very important here,” Sandra said gripping my arm a bit more tightly and looking up into my eyes with a steely sincerity . We were passing the Sea Dolphin 5-Star Motel In-Ground Pool And Tennis Court as we waded through the humid air.
“Look at this place,” I vamped. I felt a tinge, a slight ache, for all the felons trying to make bail from this institution. Who might they be? “I have a feeling Humbert Humbert and his little Lolita stayed here once. And if they didn’t they should have.” “Oooooh, Humbert. He was a naughty boy, wasn’t he?”
“Yes he was.” I couldn’t seem to get the subject away from sex. “Now wait a minute. Isn’t that odd? This decrepit old motel…” I gestured vaguely at the dried-out rickety thing. “… and look at the cars parked in the lot.” There was the semi-obligatory Dodge Dart, rumpsprung, its rusty nose pointing skyward, and the rare but familiar Gremlin with a cardboard and gorilla tape rear window. There was a lowslung VW Bug with a nocturnal, primer gray paintjob, looking like a sleeping armadillo who lost his tail somewhere. But lo, there was also a hunter green Jag, a black Beamer and a white Hummer. “Look at that. What on earth….”
“It’s a brothel, Stephan, obviously. The Jaguar and the BMW are clients’ cars and the Hummer is a pimpmobile. Oh my god we have a whorehouse for a nextdoor neighbor!” She seemed so pleased.
One of the Sea Dolphins’ secondfloor balcony doors opened and a tall athletic black woman with a basket under one arm scanned the seaward horizon. What was she looking for? She glanced at us and turned sharply back to the door.
“Still life of hooker with laundry,” she said.
“Very Edward Hopper,” I said, turning away from the Sea Dolphin and picking up the pace of our walk in spite of the fact I had begun to breathe heavily in the heat. Out of the corner of my eye I was able to see a dark dude in wraparound shades, baggy clownlike Levi shorts and a shiny Marlins jersey step onto the balcony.
“Yo, my man,” I heard him shout.
“Who’s he shouting at?” Sandra asked rhetorically.
“Yo, Slim. Yo, my man.”
“Let’s go, Sandra.” I grabbed her arm and we began to walk swiftly, which caused my lower back to grab, but Sandra was not as quick on the uptake as I had hoped she might be. She turned to see who was calling me Slim and as I turned back with her we both saw the guy on the balcony dip his right hand inside the collar of his jersey and reach for something on the left side of his chest. He held his hand there for a moment as he held our gaze. Funny how I recognized this immediately as the universal sign for, “I got me a gun, bro’. What do you got?”
“Yo, Slim, I want you, mothafucka,” I thought I heard him say.
“Come on, Sandra, I really think we ought to ignore this guy. He seems to have mistaken me for somebody else.” We turned up the street and broke into a trot, and I heard a telltale pop in my hip. Dude broke for the stairs where I imagined he would leap into his car, pull alongside of us as we ran and do a drive-by number on some important and sensitive but less than critical part of my anatomy. Instead he scrambled down the stairs and yanked on a bicycle that was chained to a column beneath the balcony. In spite of the adrenaline that was rushing through my system like a thousand tiny bloodborne pinpricks, I laughed. I tugged on Sandra’s arm and started to run, but it wasn’t very long before I couldn’t run another step. I yanked her off the sidewalk and into a driveway. We broke for the back of the house while Dude was fiddling with the lock on his three-speed. As we ran I felt a sparking twinge behind my left knee and I halfhobbled down the driveway. We fell against the wall beside a backyard window and considered the odd thing we had just seen.
“Fuckin’ Pimp My Schwinn,” Sandra muttered with a bit of bravado. Then unwisely she repeated the phrase at the top of her voice. “Fuckin Pimp My Schwinn, dude!”
There was a tiny toolshed in the backyard about the size of an outhouse. I put a hand over Sandra’s mouth to quiet her and indicated the shed into which we stuffed ourselves like little children after she ripped my hand away . Then we became deadly still as we realized we were either safely hidden away or completely trapped. We waited in silence for several moments with only an occasional involuntary gasp of disgust from Sandra and a grunt of pain from me to punctuate the sound of our breathing and the beating of our hearts.
We were scrunched up very tight in a darkness penetrated by slivers of light coming through the slats of the walls to reveal a musty crowd of sharp pointed instruments and bags of chemical-smelling gardening and groundskeeping compounds. Sandra whispered, “Do you always have this much fun on a first date?” I didn’t think she meant to whisper it directly into my ear, but that’s where it went. I felt her slightly damp hair on my face and neck. Or was she teasing me?
“Shhhhh,” I begged her.
“Ok ok,” she whispered again. Her words went in my ear and down my spine. Just then a semi-automatic spray of obscenity reached our hearing. We went completely still. The pain of the yogalike position in which I suffered was getting a bit intense. “Oh fuck, that’s him, isn’t it?” She didn’t hide the fear in her voice. She pressed herself against me with all her might, nuzzling her head into my armpit. If she could have crawled inside me I think she might have. I heard somebody tell somebody to get the hell off their something or other before they did I couldn’t tell what.
“What is with you and this guy?” she hissed.
“I never saw him before.”
“He knows you.”
“He doesn’t know me.”
“Could we not have this discussion right now?” A tactical phrase from the old days of my marriage.
A door slammed. Some further small arms fire of foul language. Then nothing. Except that I was crammed in an outdoor closet with a sweaty panting woman whose face was pressed against my chest and whose wet breasts were more or less in the palms of my hands.
“Is he gone?” she asked in a much younger voice.
“I think he’s gone.”
“Oh fuck,” she said. “Oh fuck this is amazing. My heart is pounding like a motherfucker. Feels like we are out stealing cars in high school. Isn’t this fantastic?”
She wanted me to think she was enjoying this. Maybe she was. I wasn’t.
She must have realized my hands were awkwardly placed. “Hey,” she said. “I can’t move my tits, could you move your hands?”
“Oh sorry. I didn’t realize .”
“Please don’t insult me. Grown men have cried when they held my tits like you are now.” I imagined that might be true, under less hostile circumstances.
“You want to climb out of this thing?” I asked to change to subject.
“You think it’s safe?”
“No I don’t think it’s safe. I think if we could get our asses over to the theatre it might be safe. What do you say?” I peeked out the rickety door.
“You first,” I said.
And this was when she stuck her wellworn lips on mine and for a brief moment licked around inside my mouth looking for my surprised tongue, which cowered in a corner of my skull.
“Hey, I like it when a guy shows me a good time.”
As she pulled her face away from mine and began to extricate herself from the shed I realized my back had seized up fiercely. I gritted my teeth and growled. Slowly I unfolded myself and tried to straighten up. Not even close. My left foot was numb and my hamstring was zinging. There was a knot in the back of my neck. Sandra went over the backyard fence, then she came back and helped me hobble over the bloody thing into the next yard and onto the next street. We were only a block or two now from the inner side of the intracoastal waterway where we found a lonely bike path running along the water. The water! No time to examine it now. At this point my aloof grandeur gave way to undisguised grimace. We hurried but did not panic as we walked along the bikepath to the drawbridge that crossed the waterway. My chest heaved. My side cramped. I felt a stabbing pain in my neck. The sun struck my forehead full on. But my back pain eased a bit as we went.
On the other side of the bridge was the barrier island with its spit of shore that formed the outer edge of the Florida coast, strung out for several hundred miles a few feet above sealevel, mansioned, hoteled and condo-ed within an inch of its life, the Palm Beach Gold Coast. And plunk in the middle of it was our lovely little theatre space. We made our way surreptitiously to the bridge, Sandra leading, I scurrying in the rear like a crippled spider.
We would have to come into plain sight to cross the bridge. I wasn’t sure if my Bicycle Pimp would be smart enough to figure this out and wait for us there. Even if he was, we would be in public at noon with traffic and pedestrians. I didn’t feel safe, but I didn’t think he would be stupid enough to show a weapon in broad daylight. On the other hand I didn’t want him knowing where I worked.
Sandra broke into a run as she crossed the span, then turned and saw me lurching along the walkway gripping the rail as I went. She scanned the road for the Bicycle Pimp as I caught up. I bungled down the street, humiliated and exhausted, to the stagedoor of the theatre where we banged and shouted wildly to be let in. Pressed up against the door we turned to see if we had been followed.
“This is really fucked up, Stephan. Are you always this much fun?”
“Darling, Goneril,” I said, “it won’t always be like this.” I gulped and gasped and waited till I could speak again. “Someday I will rule this land with an iron fist.” Another pause for air. Tiny lights popped on the periphery of my vision.
”I believe the year is 800 BC and iron technology has not come to our little island,” she said.
“Bronze fist, then.”
Good. A quick bit of repartee from the grim and incapacitated but still clever and amusing me. I had recovered a bit of dignity. “There’s something very strange about you,” she said. “Something a little bit bent, isn’t there? You interest me.”
“Call the cops,” I shouted, as the door opened and we fell in through the backdoor to the empty scene shop. “We are being harassed by Dude, the Bicycle Pimp from the Blue Dolphin Motel. He may be armed.” As the door closed behind me I saw The Bicycle Pimp glide past on the other side of the street. He didn’t seem to see me.>
End Chapter One