Author: Claude Chabot PM
An actor with a failing career in New York recalls a past he discarded and its impact on his life.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance - Words: 2,723 - Published: 06-14-11 - Status: Complete - id: 2923660
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Tom sleeps with nothing but his blond hair curled around his shoulders in the sultry springs and humid summers of New York. Now during the damp winter he has a soft old nightshirt whose worn flannel soothes and warms his tired body.
Five years ago he came to New York and found his apartment near the entrance to the Holland tunnel, a job waiting tables, and a collection of friends. He scanned the theatre trades for casting calls. He had had the naiveté of young actors who believe that talent, hard work, and perseverance will one day win them success in the theater. The only thing that now remains from his early attempts in New York is this job waiting tables that is stealing his youth and his hope. Drifting more and more, he rarely goes out. He drinks wine and lies in bed under the quilt his grandmother had given him at birth. Quietly, the winter nights slip away and the only sounds are of cars rushing into the tunnel five flights below. He tells himself he only needs to rest and re-approach the game with renewed energy, never asking where this energy will come from, but never doubting that it will come.
On his way to the restaurant one morning, he runs into Stan, a former fellow graduate student in New Haven. They both came to the city the same year. Stan talks, looking beyond Tom.
"…And there's the offer to direct a splatter movie that the network is financing. They'll start shooting out in the Hamptons this summer. I'd like to do it, but Stella tells me I ought to wait for a better offer. If I do take it they'll shoot around my soap and then use an assistant director when it doesn't jive with my schedule. It's a great to chance to show them how I can grind out those dailies! Man, Tommy, on the soaps I've directed I've cut through thirty pages of dialogue in a day. This movie would be a piece of cake and besides, the money's great. Stella agrees with me there." He laughs, delighted by his good fortune, "And they'd use her agency for the principal roles so we win all the way around. So what are you up to?"
He appraises Tom, noting his greasy, badly worn sneakers, the frayed black jeans, and his secondhand leather jacket coming apart at the shoulders. Tom hunches his shoulders a little from Stan's contempt, then stands straight and says quietly, "New York doesn't offer much of the kind of theater and film that I want to do."
"Oh, really? That's too bad. Everyone I know is working. What kind of acting is it you'd like?"
"I'm thinking of going to Europe. Maybe France or Italy. I've never gotten accustomed to New York winters."
Stan slaps him on the back and leers. "You southern boys! I know you find your own way of keeping warm. Anyway, I've got to run, otherwise I'll be late for lunch. Can't keep those network people waiting. You look tired Tommy, get some rest."
After work Tom goes to a movie. Later, walking home from the theater, he skids down the icy sidewalk. He slips into a darkened café to escape the sharp, wet gusts which blow down the street. The tables are all empty, but he hears someone's voice behind a closed door.
The door to the kitchen opens and a waiter strolls in as if making a stage entrance. He carries a soiled rag and sloppily wipes down the table.
"I'd just like some coffee."
The waiter barely nods his head and disappears into the kitchen.
Tom leans back and looking at the driving rain outside remembers the fantasy chair on the verandah of his parents' old house. His collie is sitting beside it as a seventeen year old Tom slumps down in the brittle, musty wicker. Both of them are wet and tired after a run through a storm which falls just beyond them in big, splashing drops. Out of the storm his friend Frankie walks, unhurried, when a flash from behind the mountain lights up the sky. Frankie laughs and starts to run faster. The collie pricks up his ears and stands up, looking at Tom. Frankie jumps the stairs onto the verandah as the rain falls in a downpour and thunder rumbles beyond the mountains. He holds up all the fish he's caught. His black hair streams down his smiling face with the rain.
"Give me a knife Tom," he gasps, out of breath.
They spread out the catch on newspapers as he begins to scale and gut the fish. Frankie is from the North and as he talks Tommy is amused, as always, at the odd blend of Jersey and Carolina accents.
"Did I ever tell you that when I first went out fishing with my father, I couldn't bear to look at the fish and I used to throw them back in whenever I got the chance? Of course, I wasn't fishing. My father was, and when he turned from me to get more bait I would throw the fish he'd caught back into the water. Pop didn't notice until he had caught the next one. Maybe he suspected me, but he really didn't know what was going on until his second catch when he caught me taking the fish out of the basket. He was angry, but I explained to him how I felt. He said he thought I liked going with him. I did. I wanted to every time he suggested it. That's because I liked going out in the rowboat waiting for the first pull on the line. It was so exciting! But watching the fish after it had landed on the boat, struggling for breath, suffocating on pure air, terrified me. I had misunderstood the one time I'd seen a fisherman throw his fish back into the water. I didn't understand that it wasn't what he wanted to catch. I thought he wanted to save the life of the fish because he was moved by its struggle. For a long time I thought my father was terribly cruel to bring it home for our meal.
"But Pop never stopped taking me with him. He let me do new things, like baiting the hook and letting me cast the fly. We didn't talk much, and I didn't say anything when we had caught the first one. The fish flipped around in the boat. He never said anything to me even as he opened the top of the basket that held the catch. Then he asked me to grab the fish. He told me to hold on tight while it tried to escape. I obeyed, clutching the fish with my tiny hands. Pop said, 'Hold on! Hold on tight!" For just a split second, I watched the fish and its struggling gills and the kind of stupid agony in its eye. I held on tight even as it squirmed and writhed in my hands. Then my father ripped the hook from its mouth, held the basket open, and I toddled over and dropped it in. I remember watching the basket move around and then be still." He paused and looked at me, "It was only a little later that I found the world could be crueler to people with less thought than my father gave his catch that day."
Frankie stopped talking and drank from the bottle of whisky he had brought with him. Tom hadn't yet understood what he meant by cruelty.
The waiter sets the coffee down in front of Tom and walks away. Tom shouts to him, "Can you bring me some water?"
"Why didn't you say so before!" he hisses from between clenched teeth.
Tom lifts the coffee to his lips and thinks of the afternoon and evening when he and Frankie fry the fish on the brick grill in the yard of his family's house. The sun is setting, and they are cutting lemons for the dinner. The collie is licking the fishheads that they have put aside. It is clear again and the air is becoming hot and close after the storm. They drink icy beer chilled in a rusty paint can. Tom finishes his and Frankie tosses him another.
The phone rings and startles Tom from his memory. The waiter answers it. "Yeah, we'll be on the road for seven months and I'll be out of here. Honey, I'm not busting my ass in this dump in this cold anymore. You can reach me later in San Diego. Fuck the theater, I'm taking my retirement from New York."
Tom finishes his coffee, pays and rushes out into the dwindling light and down into the subway. He leans against a metal column and feels the rounded bolt rub up against his spine, but he doesn't see the crowds, smell the urine, or hear the roaring of the trains. Instead, he hears the cicadas rise in a strange humming and the nearness of hidden crickets, sees snakes rustling through the grass and frogs by the side of a pond. He remembers Frankie always silently staring at him when he was very drunk. He remembers himself unsteadily walking off the verandah arm in arm with Frankie after they'd both drunk a fifth of whisky and smoked a pack of Luckies. He recalls the deep quiet of those nights when it is fine to be alone with your best friend; eating, drinking, smoking and not saying a word. He remembers thinking that there was no past, no future, only the present. The present is what Tom has somehow lost and is now unable to retrieve.
He gets off at Houston Street and starts to walk home. The rain that started in the afternoon is turning into a gray downpour, like a wash over the speckled dusk of Manhattan. His wet woolen jacket reminds him of shirts pressed with a steam iron, a smell of home and long ago.
The blacks and grays of the night are broken by the lights of traffic moving on Varick Street, red rubies set onto the backs of automobiles. Tom still can take pleasure in a rainy day, the wetness of it all, where everything is oily, shiny bright. The city becomes a blur when a raindrop bits his eye directly, scattering colors and shapes in his vision. Everything softens and runs as in a watercolor or a memory; so many memories.
"No, it's not for you!" Frankie says and pulls the bowl away from the collie who has been licking the chocolate ice cream. He slaps his behind and the collie whines a bit, moving off the steps near the verandah and curling up looks at the boys with hurt eyes.
The rain drums continually against the roof of the verandah as both boys enjoy the forbidden pleasure of run and Coke that July 4th afternoon when Tom' parents have left for the mountains.
Frankie says, "I certainly am tired of this little town. I thought that maybe I wouldn't want to leave for Boston with you come September. I used to hate going anyplace new. We used to move around so often. Now, I can't wait."
They finish all the rum and Coke and now Tom, drunk as he can get, decides to tell Frankie what has been on his mind.
"I think you'll do just fine in school. I don't know about me." He had thought about what he would say for weeks now, but even with the alcohol in his veins he couldn't easily explain it all to Frankie.
At school, he had never been the football team captain or the valedictorian, never excelling at anything or wanting to until Frankie had come along in sophomore year from the Catholic junior high school. Frankie was the outsider, the Yankee, the bookworm, too good looking for his own good as some of the teachers said. And Tom, easy going, out going, popular with students and teachers alike became Frankie's closest friend. He had lost some of his friends doing so, but everyone else had finally gotten to know Frankie and liked him, even if he always remained a little different.
To Tom, Frankie was the universe. He explained all the words he had never understood, spoke French, had lived in New York and Europe with his family and made Tom wake up to his own possibilities and how easily they might be missed. They became inseparable friends and it seemed the best adventure to go onto college together.
"I'm not going. I can't. I'm staying and marrying Laura. You've gotten too weird for me. Why do you insist that we spend all this time together? My father wants to know why I spend so much time with a Yankee wop. College is for you and your kind."
Tom knew that he would never forget the look on his face. He wanted Frankie to hate him. He knew he could never convince him that staying in town was what he really wanted. Tom was frightened by what people thought, and too scared to admit to himself how much he needed him.
Before Frankie turns Tom sees his face, flushed red, contorted and stained with tears.
"He has to hate me or he'll never believe me," Tom says out loud watching Frankie as he runs into the woods. The collie looks at Tom and getting up moves away from him. The sun is almost down and the fireflies glow in the close evening air. The darkness is almost complete.
Tom showers and puts on his old flannel nightshirt. As easily as he slips into this nightshirt he slips into his past. Tom's repudiation that summer had been too successful. He never spoke to Frankie again. But he still dreams of his hurt eyes and his run into the woods so many years ago. He remembers Boston, where he finally does go to school one year later, leaves Laura to eventually have her marry someone else in town. Tom forgets Frankie for awhile, eventually attending graduate school for theater in New Haven. He begins his career acting in stock companies and then settles in New York where, at first, he starts to find work. He recognizes that he has been able to do all of this because Frankie made him believe in his possibilities. Those possibilities were born in his past, one with which he is unable to reconcile himself. And through all these years he is pursued in his dreams. Frankie lives in these dreams in a twilight way, not moving except for the lips that move and talk. This talk is all the things one would ever say to someone who thrilled you, helped you when others couldn't or wouldn't. Tom wakes up speaking the words that Frankie's specter says to him. It is the conversation of a whole part of your life that he been swept away and driven from everything but your dreams.
He sits up in bed, awakened by fear. "I'm trapped Frankie, I can't escape, I can't breath."
He flings open the door, races down the steps and outside into the rain. The cars move slowly into the tunnel in the downpour, and he walks beside them talking outloud, a dim mad figure made invisible to the passengers by the rain and fog. He cries out, his speech slurred by fatigue. "I've lost my way. It was so clear back then, I knew what I wanted, but I was unsure of myself. I left you when it was so much easier. There's nothing left except my dreams of you. They always scare me, but I always want to have them. I needed you Frankie. Why did I let you go? I've lost my way. Why did I let you go?"
Copyright 2011 by Claude Chabot. All rights reserved.