Oh yes. As an award winning author and director I get letters. Like this one.
Dear Sir, I've always wondered - Do show folks constantly wallow in vanity? I saw one the other day on the street looking at her reflection in a jewelery store window combing her hair and clearing her throat loudly drawing a crowd. How do you put up with them?
Sincerely, Thurber Hobart Sturgeon
Oh yes, People Of The Stage remain buoyant in an ocean of vanity, as it were. But I don't really mind myself if anyone maintains their coiffure in a city street setting. I'm bald and it still makes no difference. But I do say this - I've had it up to my shiny top with these actors and their whining. You see, they all want attention. I once stood before a cast on stage during a rewrite where every confounded one of them wanted a death scene. What is it about death scenes? That was the only way I could convince a Famous Actress to join our troupe was to promise one. During one tour each of them approached me to write one. What am I supposed to do? Kill them all off and then come out on stage at the end and say ‘Ok, folks, show’s over. Go home’? I'd get a tomato splat right in the forehead. Maybe we long to hear the most eloquent and beautiful words from those who are at death’s door. It is said that Confederate General Stonewall Jackson’s last words were ‘Let us cross over the river and sit under the shade of the trees.’ That one gets me every time.
Vanity! I tell you, Mr. Sturgeon. One time a famous unnamed mezzo-soprano refused at the last moment to enter stage right for her solo because somewhere along the tour one of her wings was lost. You see, she was a singing bird. Yeah, not original, but she had charisma to make people forget how she appeared before them. I told her to tuck the wing to one side and maybe it'll appear as two. She has a voice! Even an impatient child sliding down their mother’s lap would sit still with open mouth.(Ninth row, fourth from the left. Amazing) I must mention something, Mr. Sturgeon, about the heart of show folk. This same young woman fell ill during the tour. Couldn't sing anymore. A lump in her throat, a cyst or tumor, we didn't know. We took her to a throat specialist. In fact it was a rather large cyst and there was no way to safely operate without complete vocal loss. Weeks passed. She remained on tour, lending a hand, doing whatever she could, the cast trying to keep her spirits aloft, solitary wing notwithstanding. I walked in on her backstage at The Civic Theatre in Bellfontaine, Ohio, once and she was weeping, curled up in a costume trunk. See was horrified to see me standing over her watching, the scarf ripped in agony from her neck. I said, in my finest Cary Grant imitation what come off the late late show, 'Elizabeth, my love, I'll never get that trunk door shut with those big feet of yours.' She has tiny feet. Well, I can't explain it, but she started to laugh. She laughed so hard she was coughing and that cyst just burst. She could sing again. We hugged. I saw that she had both wings from there on.
It was a wondrous thing, that day, in the last days to fish in autumn, where augering through the ice in the days ahead did nothing more than wind a man, refreezing, drill, refreezing, drill, warm beer, sunset.
He was fishing alone on the calm mirrored lake when she escaped and dove overhead, plopping down into his boat, squirming. He was frightened at first, his breath held, chest tightened in fear. She was rather old for a mermaid, he thought. Her eyes were open, slowly rolling from side to side, seemingly searching. She was alive, so he decided not to roll her back over starboard, imagining an arch enemy hammer head in the deep directly below. He covered her with his old Rough Rider tarp, softly apologizing its roughness. The mermaid's lips moved after its fixed green eyes became still, aimed at his forehead. She moaned in a soft whispering desperate tone like a watered flute. Her silver eye brows knitted into a sharp V when he spoke to her softly, relaxing into a straight line, a laugh perhaps?, when he told her in a shaky voice that the only doctor close was ailing with a broken collar-bone. And besides, he always cured all townsfolk patients with 2 glasses and bottle of spirits, chased down with a little philosophical talk, seated at a wobbly kitchen table in the dubious light of a smoky kerosene lamp. Her breathing slowed. Rowing did not budge the craft. He buried his head into his cold hands. What did the Bible say about underwater creatures? It didn't matter. He had buried his Bible with his wife years ago. His thinking was fragmented as in late night slumber. "This living flesh is not a creature", he said unto his hands. Time passed, but no one could say just how long. It began to snow.
She touched his leg.
He looked at her hand. It was like his, only smooth. She spoke.
"What is your name?"
"Philip", he answered, astonished like he wasn't sure.
She smiled. Her lips and cheeks blushing baby-blanket blue.
"Like the vagabond disciple", she nodded. Her eyes widened. She handed him a small instrument resembling a golden harmonica with a solitary opening.
"I am dying today. Call my two daughters with this. They will stay with you forever, Philip."
He opened his mouth, but no words.
"The only spirits you will ever need", she winked, and then her eyes closed, lips whitening.
He had to hold the gift with both hands, afraid of it slipping overboard. There was sound of thunder in the distance, a sliver of blue sky reflected off the lake, a duet of laughing, all the burdens in his soul eased...in those fleeting moments from the song of the mermaid.
She has this old love letter in a book. The line with 'you are beautiful'. When she is down, mostly blue evenings composed of sour-milk melancholy, she'll go to the shelf and just touch the book enclosing the treasured letter - Hemingway's To Have and Have Not, and her gloom dissipates. It was her husband's favorite book, and it seemed to her the perfect resting place, about mid-way, page 112. He would re-tell the story of not having the illusive penny for postage. The stain of his sweaty palm marks the back, you can see, from when he paced back and forth in front of the postal station kindly asking outraged passerby for a coin to affix a stamp. He was most certainly broke that morning, he'd recount when conversation at holiday get-togethers would lag, anxious to inform his wife he'd secured a printing job, to pack her cardboard suitcase, the future is ours, darling. And she'd squeeze his arm, snug around her as he told the story, laughing through her nose at first, ultimately wiping tears away with her palms. Now he is dead. As many times as the letter has been read, by friends and acquaintances too, she's directed the reader to those three words. They flow easily like the rest, no darker or careful stroke, nor underline. A statement of fact, not necessarily a momentary compliment, written hurriedly with a rapid heart: 'you are beautiful', when she knew she was plain. Knock loudly; give her time to throw the deadbolt. The inviting reach towards the tucked pale-blue brittle paper, a sharp breath, there! - protruding out the top slightly, quick as innocent sunrise, even in winter. I'll let her know you're coming. It'll do you wonders because you've been looking a little pale. Kindly ask her to read it to you in her soft cello tone, free of egotism, passage that gives hope to the hopeless. Be sure to drop a penny in an old pimento glass jar nearby with a slot in the screw top lid.
Danseuse ajustant sa bretelle, 1895-96, Edgar Degas
Dust kicked up all around, but there was a streak of purple in the distant sky like an oil painting, save for a horseshoe orange glow lit by the setting sun, the promise of rain droplets to beat down the horrific dust. He fumbled with his hat when he entered, not quite knowing what to do with his hands, turning the hat in both hands, even after he sat down at the coffee counter. She was beautiful, he thought. The pencil on her right ear should've been a budding flower. She smiled at him, and then she looked down. He was still holding the hat when the coffee was hot, black and strong before him. He followed her eyes to the hat and then he looked down.
"Oh. So that's what coffee looks like", he said.
She laughed silently. He thought Edvard Munch should lighten up and paint her next. And he should do her in pastel, minute black and white, fair chestnut for hair untied, and leave purple for the threatening sky. He would have to apportion blue and silver for her eyes. All tools of the trade could be carried in his hat.
"Let me take that", she said pointedly. She had a brush behind the counter and, delicately at first, brushed with an even firm stroke. Coffee and a brush? He watched her with parted lips.
"You're very kind", he said.
"Oh", she started. She looked at him and just smiled. She breezed out from behind the counter, he marveled at her slenderness, and placed his hat on a high short empty shelf just inside the front door entwined by a green vine plant. She blushed when she saw him watching her, but her eyes were full of humor, she did not look away. A woman expecting nothing in return. A storm hovered, rain pelting the front window. He was in love.
Hell, let me tell you what Pepe Lococo had to endure. First - meet the 'doctors'. Dr. Bela, a man of fifty, cement-colored skin, black eyes, licks his lips whenever the mention of blood rises to the top. Loves the site of blood when he brushes his teeth. Hard-bristled man. Then there's Dr. Boris - Tall, glassy pale eyes, bent over in the middle, broken cement-colored complexion, heavy white eyebrows. His tongue is twice the size of yours, so he sounds elegant as he chooses his words patiently.
Pepe passes through the downhill village of Le Jardin on foot. A woman scurries at the sight of him, spilling fresh water collected all day in a slow drip in a bucket stolen from a neighbor's downspout. Pepe - Twenty and five, with leather skin, pockmarked. Shutters slam shut as he approaches, and dogs howl. Today he's going to learn how to dissect.
Dr. Bela slams the fly swatter on the polished metal lab table. Twice.
"Must you do that so hard"?
"He was in the proximity of my crested turkey on rye".
Pepe turns at the last bungalow, strides the cart path up to the laboratory. A dog bites him in the heel and he is bleeding. He takes his small pencil out of his overcoat and makes a note of it, including a sketch of the animal. Unaware, paying attention to the detailed sketch of the alert ears, a cart scurrying past hits him head-on, killing the intern instantly.
Dr. Bela slaps Dr. Boris square on the forehead with the flyswatter.
"I am sorry". Dr. Boris shrugs his shoulders, calmly walks over to the sandwich and flings it across the floor with a surgical hook. The plate slides under a book shelf. He walks back over to Dr. Bela, lips parted, ready to accept reciprocation. Dr Bela smiles, and after a moment speaks slowly, eying the slabbed outline under the white sheet.
"Perhaps, we should begin".
"Pepe is late. You have time to eat. Although, my friend, your sandwich may be hard to reach".
Dr. Bela is no longer smiling. And then he is grinning before you know it, like a switch has been flipped, or a lever(pronounced by both men: 'leave her') is in the up/on position.
Dr. Bela flings the white sheet back and is horrified and disappointed to find no cadaver, but a model made of sponge-foam. He glares at Dr. Boris as though he stole a kiss from his daughter, thirty years younger.
"It will have to do", Dr. Boris explains, in an extended monologue lamenting the difficulty of procuring a live human cadaver in this day and age. He particular relishes repeating those three words: live human cadaver.
"Yes, I suppose. As long as we can show Pepe how to do a centralized incision".
"Lateral, you fool!"
"I'm no fool!"
Dr Boris painfully lowers himself, stooping, stooping, blindly reaching for the sandwich, searching. He rises out of breath, places the dusty sandwich before his adversary and performs the most expert lateral incision in dim incandescent light wielding his shiny prized bone chisel.
She smiled when asked if all her zippers were zipped. And she winked when I asked did she feel pretty, oh so pretty, witty and bright. 'Yes', she replied, 'but do you imagine I will be getting the key to the city?' I love when girls play along. Alas, there were no zippers present on her stunning white chiffon dress.
I skipped the tux, and went with the serious Autumn-chill John Barrymore motif:
The advantage was her small delicate hands constantly straightened the knot through the whole affair, and it meant no escape for her when I slouched to kiss her lips.
We agreed it would be marvelous if we stopped by to see if the Man With The Trumpet wanted to go to the gala. He did. He bathed quick, skipped the razor, seeing how he claimed a clean face made his sunken temples and cheeks quite eerie, and slipped on the one jacket he possessed. His trumpet was in a chair. I picked it up. It felt warm, and when I turned to him he was smiling at me with his hand outstretched. My date knew all along. She found he'd already been invited by the Grand Hostess. It was under his solitary table lamp:
Natalie kissed his cheek.
We arrived. At the entrance a rather confused Margaret Dumont kept bellowing, 'As Chairman of the reception committee I welcome you with opened arms'! We laughed as we could still hear her echo after we reached the ballroom.
Oh, the setting - the chandeliers, the smart miniature glowing table lamps, and the finest polished silver...so sparkling a good witch could unassumingly fidget with her hair.
And the tables of food; silver trays heaped and steaming, glasses of colored mirth liberally filled and refilled. I let the dead moth sauce pass on by. Once, after helping myself in the kitchen to the delicious burnt remains lining a pan (my favorite food!), I wandered off alone and found a small narrow cobwebbed door and forced it open. Uneven stairs lead to a cellar smelling of mowed grass. It was freezing cold, and shuddering to retreat I thought I heard movement like a scooting wood chair. I turned back and saw a white mist outline of a face. It whispered irritably, 'This is my place!' Although annoyed, there was a tone of relief in the voice as it could finally tell someone. I think I understood before I fainted.
I awakened in the smoke-filled library some unknown time later looking at a ceiling pattern with a small jelly glass of brandy to my lips. People were singing happy birthday off-key. I thought: how could anyone mess that song up? I sat up and it was a chuckling Vincent Price straightening my tie, looking mighty unconcerned about my well-being. I assured Natalie it was nothing after she tore him away from my throat. I told no one what I encountered. Did you see or hear anything unusual?
Well, Chet played wonderfully when the Gracious Host presented him with an introduction that made people weep with joy. After a few nodding whispers with the rotund piano man and a quick wave to the man with drumsticks tucked under his arm, he played and sang effortlessly, causing young barefoot dancer's hearts to ease, and yes, could've made the ghost in the cellar sigh...
The girl clutched close, and accompanied Chet and a milky-white full moon with a soft humming duet. It was a beautiful evening, I had a wonderful time at Willow Manor, and the girl was laughing.
He leaped across the shallow muddy creek, misjudging the water's width and his own beer-bellied girth, falling with the butt of the shotgun pounded into the soft creek underbelly like a stake through a napping Dracula's heart. He broke his fall reaching out to the sharp gravel with his shooting hand, and was bleeding. It made him more furious for the score to settle. He limped with soaked pant legs up to sore knees along the farm-road by the graveyard, past a thick shrubbery full of scattering blackbirds and a tree housing an abandoned hornet's nest. Beyond a splintered white gate he inspected both barrels. Clean for the kill.
Only days before, as the judgement against him for amount due was being read, tears rolling down his face onto a stiff white collar, he saw hope fading, and it reminded him of a line from an old movie for those with their backs to the wall: Do they know what a shotgun is for? Must be a pellet for every one hundred dollars owed, he thought.
The plaintiff stood on his porch, knowing what a shotgun was for. Stood there holding his suspender straps. He had a terrible scar on his chin that made him look as though he was constantly smiling; made you just naturally resent him like you were a clown he was amused by. The sight was raised to his gut, hand with gravel embedded remarkably steady, breathing calm from both fellows. One cricket started to sing, others in the chorus hesitant.
"I got my dog", the smiling man said, fearless.
The sorrowful man relaxed his trigger finger, lowered the sights slightly, and stood listening, scanning the porch, stable, and barn. Satisfied there was no beast he took aim once more. Wait a moment - there came in the silence of the crickets a slight crackling of maybe a trampling of hay, a hurried rustling. He turned his head and looked into the forbidden gentle eyes of the dog behind a narrow broken plank of the barn.
The dog snorted, sounding like farm machinery chugging after a winter thaw. Eye contact set the cast between the hunter and prey. He felt the blood drain from his head, dropped the gun and ran, the dog pounding its head against the narrow opening. That was the last anyone saw of the gunman, wheezing and coughing, a sprint through the woods like a charging elephant knocking down trees. A general alarm was issued for the mad man. People in the village triple-checked their deadbolts at dusk.
Three days later the local constable found the man dead, wide-eyed fright etched into a stone face, sprawled face up in a dry creek bed, the crime scene illuminated in a posse of dim lanterns.
Way back in another time, when you were just naturally polite, women were not suspicious, nor overly cautious with an eyebrow hiked - now, it seems, you may be guilty of felonious flirting. And forget about holding the door open for them. I've been barked at for that atrocity. You are allowed to tip your hat because men don't wear hats anymore.
Eye contact is also scratched from the list. Or so I thought. In a crowded elevator recently I smiled at a woman with serene blue-gray eyes and she smiled back. She did not look away, and I tried to hang on with a natural smile, not something forced like an undertaker, or the grin of a great uncle looking serious in a lost oil painting hidden in an attic.
I couldn't help but notice the gray swimming with the blue in her magnificent eyes, and time stopped, as much as time could stop in a hurling box stuffed with humans. We were the only ones not looking down at glowing little screens full of cryptic sentences, seeming lost as though squinting nearsighted at an old compass in a shrouded fog, frozen with fear, hesitant at a strange pterosaur blocking a path least taken. 'I believe North might be that way', I said doubtfully above a whisper, and she laughed silently, playing along, just before we zoomed past the eighth floor and braked in slow motion with a soft poof at ground level. I held the determined finger-crushing bank vault door for her and she thanked me, adding,'North seems just about right'. I replied, 'you're welcome', and time started once again.
She was small for seven, her brother a sickly nine. They leaped across the small quiet stream, hand in hand, and she hated being tugged along. She looked back over her shoulder at the flowing water thinking of the drifting sail boat he made for her in a mystical blue time, preferring serenity to the threatening sky before them. She said,"stop it", but that only increased his firm clench. In her other hand she held the brown sack with bread and one black bottle of root beer. Muffled artillery fire lit the horizon orange like short-lived matches to their daddy's pipe.
He lead her up the stone path to the bunker before them - an uneven, broken walk-way formed by a rigid foundation of a fortress wall from a long-ago forgotten conflict also scattering the motherless. Inside, the walls had peeled away over the ages revealing make-shift plaster that held its position for an old general with his bunk and binoculars. She fell and tore her knee open on a rusted piece. He licked his hand and wiped the blood away from his little sister's wound. "It'll be alright now", he said, impatient as lieutenant in charge dealing with nuisance. She only stopped crying when he broke open the root beer and let her hold the bottle in both hands. The shelling stopped and he went to where a window used to be and scanned the desolate horizon, his hands cupped into field glasses.
It was dark, raining lightly, and very cold. They were full of stale bread, huddled like dogs asleep. When they awakened at dawn a pale soldier with blackened whiskers towered over them. "What's this then? Are you hungry"? he asked in a language the children did not know. He then remembered an old training pamphlet, and thought it would be best if he smiled at the children. He was ashamed that it wasn't natural like with his own children.
Many years later the girl broke down, wiping tears from her eyes, as she broadcasted from a small studio with lighted dials over the international wireless how her brother was crying, screaming, and kicking the man with the patch of red, white, and blue below his shoulder, and how another large soldier with missing front teeth had his arm around the boy, comforting in a kindly assurance. And she'd tell of the mismatched button-eyed doll under the Christmas tree with her name on it, how they let her keep that doll forever, handing it down to her daughter, soft to snuggle like a feather pillow. She would compose herself in dead static air and repeatedly thank the man, leaning in to the microphone, hoping he could understand her careful english a million miles away.
An old sullen and cobwebbed road side stand selling disfigured tomatoes and puny beans now features neatly stacked bright orange pumpkins ready to be carved sporting mischievous black grins, or buried with crust in dull gray pie tins. And passing by slow on a sweatshirt day makes me feel eleven years old for a moment as one pumpkin amongst the others, already grinning, calls my name in a screaming hush.
The bell of St Ninian's Church only rang once. Only that one time. I wrote down as much as I could remember, and from time to time fragments arise and I recount events to anyone close. We held Holm's Height with relative ease, the ports were ours, and Fauchin House yielded a wonderful lighthouse view as Commander Compton's headquarters. Stores, gun powder, warm clothes, and firewood were well-stocked at strategic inland caves, lees that were faithful defenders of frequent gales. But there was mass desertion as men grew weary of long lonely vigils, some drowning as they tried to escape, swimming against heavy waves in despondent madness.
There were no women on the outskirts. They huddled far inland, hidden in cellars, some deserters hiding in dugouts under the cellars, women arising from shadows to bring in white undergarments and diapers off of clotheslines that managed to avoid wayward cannonballs shot from the coast. Strong winds sometimes tore those clothes away, men on lookout with glasses watching underwear on a lift sail in the sky above and out to sea, a reminder of the loneliness. Compounded with the sheer dryness of no pints of beer to be had, morale was at an all time low. We were strong but there was still no beer, no whiskey. Rumor spread quickly that Father Mackenzie knocked off the last of it, men in small groups looking down at their torn shoes, repeating that it was alright then, it was just and proper it was, Jamie.
Somehow we made it through that terrible ordeal, war ended, a treaty was signed by men with soft hands and powdered faces, all eventually quieted down, no more flying underwear, peace at last, young men wearing their uniforms for weeks afterwards to impress plain-face girls in their villages. The whiskey and beer arrived on a Sunday morning, contracted by fine swirly writing on the last page of the treaty, rattling over the main bridge in a convoy of unmarked carriages directed by right-of-way serious men, and landing on sandy shore, bobbing in cushioned crates by boat. And the church bell rang at last, peeling the clouds away in glorious E-Flat, revealing heavenly lathered mustaches throughout the island Sunday afternoon.
I, for one, wept.