Dedicated to Make Believe
Three things came through the open window that particular morning. First came light. Sometimes the light was yellow tinged taking color from the curtains it passed through. Sometimes the light was just a.m. bright when the curtains stood aside. Next came a breeze. The breeze that brought the curtains to the dance or dislodged a bead of sweat from its hairline harbor. Lastly came the holy chantings of double dutch girls. Clapping, stomping, snapping and singing, even the curtains fell in with the irresistible force of the street songs. Songs of play and summer.
Her syrupy paints were arrayed on a milk box in coffee cups that all concurred, “It’s our pleasure to serve you.” One cup had coffee and that cup revealed in little coffee rings the banging that was the pulse of the renovation from the adjoining apartment. To Celia this was only a part of the ambient music all around her and she just painted away.
Celia was painting lips. Lips on the Statue of Liberty. She dipped, dabbed and detailed and studied the face. Her face. As was the face on Venus d’ Milo, Birth of Venus, Jackie in the stained pink suit, Mona Lisa, Marilyn holding down her dress standing on a subway grate. The walls of the flat were covered with these self-portrait quotations, which is what she called them when the infrequent visitor asked. She did not need a mirror or a photo to create a perfect rendering of herself. In fact, the worrisome pictures were mirrors or so she thought.
It seemed Celia reinvented herself on every available square inch of wall her small home provided. There were theatre bills too, Classical theatre. Top billing or near the top was Celia. Celia Stayavon as Kate, as Nora, as Medea, on and on.
To the uninformed spectator it might appear that Celia Stayavon invested all her time and energy in being anyone but herself. This would not be wholly accurate.
On she painted as if in a trance, grooving with the girls outside and punctuated by the deep thud thud THUD! A sledge came through the wall just two portraits down from where she was painting.
Celia went over backwards with her folding stool, with her paints and coffee and for a time flopped around like a large fish just landed onto the deck of a boat.
“Shit, shit, shit!” she yelled, assessing what had just occurred.
“Oh shit,” said the new face poking through Holly Golightly. “I’m sorry as hell Celia. My frikkin nephew ova heah’s a idiot.
“I tole ya don use a sledge on dees walls! What’a you fuggin stupid Gino?!!” barked Sal the super.
“I tole you you can’t use a fuggin sledge on these walls Gino! What’a you fuggin stupid?” Celia intoned nearly identically.
Sal was as startled by Celia’s spontaneous impersonation as he was by the spectacle of self examination before him as he scanned the room.
“I’m gonna fix your wall right away Celia, soon as I brain my nephew ova heah. I can come in an hour. That work fa you?”
“Nope, gotta go to woik,” she said still employing Sal’s speech patterns. Celia considered how she could jump out of her shoes and beyond the paint puddle she was trapped in.
“Oh yeah, where you workin?”
“Oh yeah, you with the Parks Department now? My cousin Benny got tree more years wit dem den he gets out wit a nice package, yeah.”
“I’m not with the Parks Department Sal,” abruptly in her own voice again, I’m doing free Shakespeare.’
“You know Shakespeare. Romeo Romeo, To be or not to be, My kingdom for a horse.”
“No, wus dat?”
“Fa’get about it,” exhaled Celia back in character. “Tomorrow is good.”
“Yeah, sure thing Celia. First thing in the morning. We gonna fix the wall on this side RIGHT NOW Gino and respeck your privacy.”
“Thanks Sal, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Sal’s face retreated from the wall but most of his voice remained as the tongue lashing of Gino proceeded. Celia surveyed the mess. Then the clock and then herself. Three hours to clean up, get the paint from her hair and get to the park for call time. Phew. Celia took down a Moliere festival poster and remounted it over Gino’s hole not trusting Gino or Sal. Thinking about it a little more she started to move a book case to the spot but gave up almost immediately.
Shower. Eat. Leave. Celia was expected in the 16th century. Phew.
“Gotta move chile, u-huh u-huh.”
A Dark Figure in the Tall Grass
There are such things as wondrous places. Places out of time and beyond reason. Places without cause or effect. It might be as small as a kitchen singing apples and cinnamon or grand as a canyon. Its margins might be rivers or its margins might be walls.
Central Park is just such a place. It is defined and contained by it’s walls except on the four corners where memorialized entrances declare ‘this is an important place’.
On that same particular day, though later, afternoon and a bit, when the light becomes golden on its own and shadows stretch to breaking, the park was throbbing, wonderful. Trees singing the breeze. Horse goes clop. Carousel pipes and distant bongos and laughter from a hill. A small hill which slopes down to the rowboat pond. Any hill is not a theatre but in a wondrous place, well you know. Waves of laughter, tides of joy.
Here is Falstaff and Mistress Ford. Shakespeare in the Park. Golden peoples bathed in golden light. The Falstaff actor is very good but Celia is like lightening. She is her character and the small crowd on the hill hang upon her every word, every gesture and every breath. Light and laughter and air and grass, all contained in this wondrous little theatre.
There is a dark figure who will not sit on the grass. Instead she leans on a tree behind the orchestra seating but she is every bit as engaged by this rolling performance as anyone else this particular day. She is more than engaged, she is almost involved. Were one looking at her yet hearing Celia, you might think the voice belonged to this mysterious and perfectly dressed and manicured older woman. Her lips mouthed every word and pause. Her posture shifted ever so slightly in response to the action of the play. She applauded politely but briefly. She did not laugh but smiled as the moment required. Petra Stayavon knew this role almost as well as her daughter, however performing, for no recompense, for an unruly crowd, who pay no admission to a theatre with no marquee... never happen.
The show has concluded. Cast members scour the hill for litter of which there is little. Falstaff has collected donations in his sack and carefully counts the take in spite of the breeze. 2 sheets hung together like laundry serve as dressing room for Great Ape Theatre Company. Celia is not really waiting for the dressing room. She is happy to be last and receives the attentions of those rare children with an ear for Billy Shakes, compliments and queries about the troupe, and discusses with her mother. How could 2 women so alike in appearance and of one blood be so distant from one another yet close enough to touch.
“Sweetheart, knowing Falstaff as we both do and your boy over there who appears to have ample appetite for himself and Falstaff, well, are you sure he can be trusted with all those dozens of dollars?”
Celia pursed her lips. Hard.
“Do I look worried, Mother?”
“No sweetheart, no you don’t. Celia, I’d like to know, seriously, can a gang, I mean troupe, like this actually survive on what Sir John over there has in his sack. You
know you might have to say good bye to the deluxe dressing room. Have you thought about looking into a grant or maybe, a patron?”
Better than anything, Celia knew when her mother was crouching in the tall grass. Now it was just a waiting game. In time, not much, Petra would attack having identified her likely prey. Celia stood real still, sniffed the air and waited for the charge.
“His name is Brandon. He is entirely trustworthy, Mother. If he is short for his weight, it is because he’s a pastry chef. Very good one I’d say, and who, Mother, wants a skinny pastry chef. Be as useless as a T.V. exec with a broad love of humanity.”
“Now Celia, what did I tell you about baring your fangs?”
“Yes Mother, so sorry. Only when I smile. Only when I smile,” returned Celia watching her mother all over, looking for any tell as to when she might spring the trap.
“Let’s have a truce now dear. How about some supper. You must be running on empty,” Petra intoned with faux maternal concern.
“Sure, truce, okay. Where would you like to eat, Mother?”
“I’ve made reservations at the Boathouse. It was always your favorite, dear.”
Celia saw it coming like a freight train, coming down the track. Once out in the open, she will pounce. Sure as can be. This would not be the first time, but Celia sensed a new magnitude of scale. Something massive. Something meditated.
Lunch by the Rail
Most days after performances Celia might have a hot dog or a pretzel after the show, but on this night she and her Mother were at the Boathouse. You would be hard pressed to find a lovelier spot than this in New York. Sitting by the rail above the water Celia waited for Petra to charge. Tossing bits of bread to the ducks below irritated Petra no end so Celia did just that hoping to slow her down a little when she decided to charge.
“Remember how the maitre d’ used to tell me and Dad to stop feeding the ducks from the table,” recalled Celia as if still that little girl.
“Dad and I. You two would make spectacles of yourselves and then expect me to applaud. Sometimes I wanted to dive under the table and disappear. You two never cared.” Petra crossed her arms and legs. “Where are those drinks?”
The women studied the menus. These were the available props for their back to back discussion technique.
“Where will your merry players go when the summer is over, Dear?” Petra began lightly tapping her knuckles on the table impatient for her libation. Celia sniffed the air.
“They don’t ‘go’ anywhere. This is where they live. A few got picked up for the Renaissance Fair after the summer. They’ll sublet their places and be back in November.” Celia applauded when a duck caught a piece of bread in the air, as deftly as Willy Mays.
“So they come back and turn into, Santa Clauses?”
“No Mother, they come back and get temp jobs and they wait tables and they go on auditions and hustle and survive and hope someone like yourself turns on some spigot of paying work that won’t require them to swallow all their dignity,” Celia knew she erred, revealing irritation. Petra knew she knew, good.
“Oh good, here are our drinks Dear, finally.”
2 double bourbons on the rocks and the smile came right off of Petra’s face.
“We do not drink bourbon with fruit salad young man. Please take this back and bring me a fresh one. Ice and bourbon. That is all. No fruit, no umbrellas, no coconut shell.”
Celia discarded her lime and told Alvarado in comfortable Spanish that her drink was fine. She raised her glass a little and he left with Petra’s drink and the gracious smile of a beautiful woman. One look at her mother glaring and Celia did regret letting that drink get away. Alvarado returned quickly. Petra nodded approval and did not say
thank you. His and Celia’s eye met and he vanished, delighted again.
“Where were we. Oh yes,” Petra watched her ice going circles.“Will your, troupe, perish in light of your rather light box office receipts?”
“Perish might be severe,” Celia studying her ice, “We could go dormant, until an operating budget appears.” Celia knows it’s on the way now.
“Did you say dormant or doormen, Dear?”
“Dormant, Mother, thank you very much!” Ouch, she got me again. Celia pursed her lips, hard.
“De nada carina. Now Celia I want to tell you something and I want you to sit up straight and listen. Now we, well I, we, you know, have a project in development which could be a positive for you and your, outfit.”
Celia stopped twirling her ice and watched her mother carefully. Now Celia was tapping her knuckles.
“Just listen and consider this a minute. You won’t have to wear clothes without holes immediately.”
Celia felt relief come over her. Her mother was out, no longer in the tall grass. Now she could parry. Covering her mouth as if speaking in secret, she turned to the duck in right field and called down, “It’s a twister, it’s a twister Toto.” Toto wagged his beak and made a duck noise.
“Celia surrender, please listen to what we, I have to say, please Dear.” Petra craned her neck once, sipped and continued, “Are you familiar with what we call ‘reality make-over shows’ or don’t they have cable in your century?” Petra waited for an answer.
“No, I don’t watch the shows your ‘gang’ puts out. No, I don’t have cable, though I do have a T.V., in case of some emergency or disaster like that 3 episode hit you had last year about Satan coming to earth to marry a centerfold librarian,” Celia chortled.
“Now just hold on. Critics loved that show. What’s more, it hit number 3 in Russia last month.” Petra pursed her lips. Hard.
“Please continue, Mother,” Celia caught Alvarado’s eye and drained the drink in her hand.
“Thank you. We are looking at a couple of towns, barely towns, hamlets really, out west somewhere. Kansas or Iowa, you know, like that. The plan is to transform, make over, an entire town—completely. We’ll drag it right into the 21st century. The show might be called, Kicking and Screaming or Tooth and Nail, that’s not important. What is important is that we will have different makeover shows competing with each other, for more seasons of existence! Like rats in a barrel!” Petra signaled for a refresh. No eye contact, just the ice cube maraca.
Celia was dumbfounded, slack jawed. “Are you people completely insane!” Folks nearby turned as Celia had un-strategically raised her voice. She breathed and settled back down. “Have you asked if those people want to be transformed for the viewing delight of brain-dead American vidiots?”
Petra tore a piece of baguette off, dipped it in olive oil, took a polite bite and used her napkin. “Celia, graduating from Yale does not give you license to be so insensitive. So condescending, really Celia, I don’t know where you get it!”
Celia turned to Willy Mays for help but no luck, she was alone in a bad dream. She pinched her self, sipped, breathed and the bell rang again.
“Alright. Sooooo, you burn down this town and recreate it in you own image, great, so where do I come in? Do you need me to hold the mayor’s feet over the coals?”
Two similar women twirling identical drinks in different directions.
“Certainly not dear, we’d get the special effects guys for something like that. Your job, ‘should you accept it Mr. Phelps’ will be to go out there—under cover—and find out everything about the town. The locals, everything. Where they shop, churches, schools, how they vote, how they eat, how they breed, everything. We can’t show up some Monday morning and start measuring their inseams.”
“Why do you think these simple trusting town folk are going to roll out the welcome mat for me?” Celia was starting to have fun.
“We will set you up. More than you might imagine. Don’t worry about that. Why don’t you ask me some hard questions darling.” Petra was feeling good again.
“What’s in it for me, to commit treason for you.”
“You will be paid, a lot, trust me. Half when you begin and half when the first show airs. Additionally, your acting company will receive, from an anonymous donor, that operating budget thing you mentioned. Everybody wins. Win win win!”
Petra raised her glass. Celia knew she had not heard it all yet. The food would be on the table soon and Celia hoped she would still have an appetite when it arrived.
“This is a great deal to think about Mother, but let me ask something; what if I don’t want to go undercover for your network, hmmm?” Celia waited for the big one. She flexed her hands and crossed them in her lap. Here it comes.
“Now after your graduation Dear, from Yale, I thought you would take advantage of the opportunities at the network provided by me actively and your late father’s position there. And I knew that people like yourself needed time between school and the workplace to, reconnect with the real world, but I must tell you Dear, in ten years now you have only further disconnected from reality and you have
done this, this thespian nirvana you live, on my, or your father’s money, trust fund whatever. Be it ever so humble your Bohemian life style will have to become self supporting. If this little errand I ask of you is so, so distasteful, getting an allowance at 36 must be an embarrassment and I for one will not contribute to your humiliation. Think about it. The project. Look at the calendar and, maybe, look at your bank balance. Come and see my new office. Monday is not to soon. Sheila will set up all your orientations. Now, could we put this all to rest and share some quality family time. Alvarado ! Dos mas!”
Life on the Plain
In the Sixteenth century European explorers and Conquistadors first stepped out onto the great expansive plains of central North America. So startlingly vast was this place, only nautical navigation technology allowed them to know where they were compared to the day before, or how to return to where they had been the day before. Sun-baked and with few distinguishing features, the Great Plains remains so today and, one might add, in ways other than simply geographically.
A water tower or church spire perhaps five miles in the future could fool you, and then you're driving for half an hour before you realize the spire needs painting. Roads stretch on for what seems like forever with no curve left or right to avoid any obstruction that causes a road to veer. What you do see, and only infrequently, might be a road sign. Except for the road you're on, only a road sign might possibly reveal what century you are in.
Despite the not updated advertising displayed on a roadside billboard, it can be a useful object. A driver racing along some two-lane road—one lane forward, one lane back—might look ahead and say, “Oh look—there’s something,” only to discover after too long an interval it’s just a billboard declaring “I like Ike.”
Shiny black sunglasses, the kind that reflect more of the world than the wearer can see.
On a landscape that at a glance might not show even one solitary tree, a billboard provides an oasis of shade. By this shady backside of Ike can be found a revolting tide of pop bottles and cans and whatever other trash that can resist a prairie breeze. This is a habituated place. Coyotes and Jackrabbits didn’t bring the trash. The predator in the police cruiser did.
A stiff-brimmed trooper hat, too, too hot to wear, sits on the dash board, its state insignia facing forward. Alongside it is a radar device. Thus officer/Mr. Sunglasses is ready to pounce on the next unsuspecting speeder with alien plates.
A toothpick bobs in his mouth, nervous and patient. The face is clean-shaven and perspiring. In the shade and out of the heat are two different things. The sweat that runs from his hairline, down his temples, around to his chin, then on down his neck to find refuge in his collar which is not the collar you might expect on a highway patrolman. It’s a minister’s collar atop a minister’s shirt.
The cruiser is the color of road dust. There might be two colors under there somewhere but you wouldn’t know it. Even the county emblem is obscured by a thick layer of prairie dust. Sheriff/Minister Morrow calls this his “camouflage.” On his breast is an array of military-looking medals. At the apex is a conspicuous gold cross, a Christian cross really. The phony service cross, or the Iron Cross, and the other unearned decorations line up somewhere below, closer to the paunch that conceals the cowboy belt buckle. Bone-handled six-shooters spread out from his hips on the ripped seats of the cruiser. When asked why he carries two weighty antique revolvers his stock answer would be, “illegals and rustlers and sinners.”
Through the concealing understructure of the billboard he sees a cloud of dust way off in the distance. Before the radar gun can quantify what faith has taught well, Morrow knows by the size of the dust cloud that he has a bona fide speeder. The car approaches quickly and passes Morrow’s concealed position. The radar gun flashes 91 m.p.h.
“Praise the lord,” cackling to the roof of the cruiser.
He starts the cruiser, which comes on with a roar, throws it into the wrong gear, spins the wheels creating his own little dust cloud, and backs into a small ditch further enhancing the dust cloud.
Now at an undesirable angle, Morrow feels around for his lost glasses and returns them to his nose in time to watch his prey vanish into the future.
“Thy will be done. Shoot.”
Philly Singer’s Joint
It was evening. Light and breeze did not and could not enter the bar. This was not the sunny open vista of the Boathouse where people went to be seen. Mr. Singer’s was the sort of place folks went to be invisible. Light and air did not intrude here and neither did fashion or struggle or ambition.
Seeing Philly Singer out of his bar in daylight, a sight rarely on tap, was just all wrong. With his big head, big hands, shoulders, waist, and a gait that seemed to test the integrity of the pavement beneath him, he appeared as misplaced in his own neighborhood as a Viking might, sitting on a bench on Broadway.
Behind his bar he seemed to float. His weight and size were just lost, like the duos and trios who became faceless and voiceless in the dark corners and recesses of the establishment. Philly knew them all by name and when he reached over the bar and applied his ten second neck and back massage with a mighty hand and asked, “How’s the folks?” well, you just felt blessed. If he just shook your hand, he’d most likely crush it.
In this microenvironment of antique amenity was a blessing of immeasurable delight. A tuned and functioning piano being played by Harold Vinnoir was the light and breeze that helped sanctify Mr. Singer’s. Playing was to Harold as speech was to anyone else. He did not start or end songs. He changed subjects as if in a meandering conversation. His vocabulary of music was beyond the dictionary. It was the library.
No one ever tired of Harold’s playing. He played for his tab and that was just fine with Philly and fine with Harold. On occasion an older couple from the neighborhood would come to have Manhattans. Harold would play a gentle lilting Anniversary Waltz for them. They would become weightless and glowing, dancing but barely moving, held close by the song from Harold’s mighty hand. On these occasions Philly might turn to tidy the bills in the till.
With her chair tilted back against the wall like a gunslinger, and one foot on Harold’s piano bench, Celia drained a pint, pursed her lips, and stared her pregnant contemplative stare.
“It’s not just that she’s so damn cold Harold, it’s like, she won’t ever show herself, not completely, not at one time. Like a damn iceberg.”
Harold listened intently. This he could do while playing without being distracted. He wondered if Celia’s bitter monologue might escalate to mood-shattering anger.
Celia and Harold were the best of friends.
“You just know, you know there’s all sorts of stuff right there under the surface, but she’s only going to tell you what she thinks you need to know, damn iceberg bitch. All my life, all my life in her damn mazes. So exhausting, and she lives for being in the driver’s seat while you tiptoe through the bullshit. My Dad would just sit down and go to sleep. He had no tolerance for her smoke and mirrors. Icy bitch.”
Harold waltzed into a tune from Pinocchio.
“Tell me again how or why the puppet-mistress can hold so tightly the strings on po’ lil’ you. You know Celia, you are a bit long in the tooth to be crying ‘mommy foul.’”
“M is for the million things you gave me.”
“Harold,” Celia growled.
“Just a thought. Pardon, please, continue.”
Celia returned her chair to the four legs on the floor arrangement, searched the bottom of her mug for one more sip, for naught, crossed her legs, cleared her throat, inhaled, and spoke.
“My Dad died so suddenly. A chopper crash on the job. He wasn’t irresponsible about a will, he just was not that old when it happened and healthy like a guy half his age. My mother took control of everything. Inheritance, pensions, insurance, everything! Cold blooded bitch. It’s a long leash but she never lets it go and she never misses an opportunity to remind me. Now she’s playing nice which is just a tactic. She’s going for the big one. She’s bringing out the big guns and I’m being made to dance. I hate this shit Harold. I know I’ve allowed this to get to this point, but… damn I hate this shit.”
Celia exhaled exhaustion. Her situation was not defensible and her capitulation to her mother seemed imminent.
Harold shifted into a nearly disguised medley from The Wizard of Oz.
The idea that she would be a shill for reality TV was poison for Celia. Though surely a subsidized existence, Celia’s life had been one of pure artistic devotion, a creative life. Now she was being forced to abandon that life as a punishment for having loved it too dearly.
Celia scanned around the bar. She tried to see the faces of the couples safe in their dark corners but could not. Who could not hide here? Who does hide here? Am I hiding here? Is that Jimmy Hoffa in the Hawaiian shirt? Salinger at the bar? Ann-Margaret twisting Philly’s ear?
“Say…you were playing…Ophelia?” Harold began. “Even though you knew her lines and his, you would be listening to Hamlet with all your might and intellect. You’d hear every word, inside and out. Everything said and everything not. Your formidable training has taught you to come to your roles empty. You do not apply your character to a pre-existing portrait of yourself as if you were putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. You—you Celia, bring blank canvas to the role. That’s part of the reason you’re so good on stage. You can’t hear what your mother isn’t saying because you are so afraid of getting beat. Shutting up isn’t enough. You’ll have to stop listening defensively when your mother speaks to you. And anyways, silence scares the bejeezus out of a talker, you betcha.”
Celia re-crossed her legs the other way. And she crossed her arms and pursed her lips. Her chin fell to her chest and bobbed back up.
“You’re right, you’re right. You’re always right. I just can’t turn it off like that, not with her. It’s like losing in chess. You know it’s coming but you can’t see from where (you are?) and let me tell you, I know it’s coming.”
Celia checked again in case any beer had reappeared in her mug.
“You can’t negotiate if you can’t hear the deal. Relax sweetheart. Hear the unheard, the unspoken. Coming to my service in the morning? Mmmmmusic for the restless soul.”
Celia could not remember how he got there but Harold arrived at Sleepers Awake once off the yellow brick road.
“What are you playing?”
“Bach. Ole’ Bach. Just Bach.”
“They sure let you play a lot of Ole’ Bach at your church. You got something on the congregation over there do ya?”
Harold glissed up the keyboard and brought his musical thought to an abrupt punctuated conclusion.
“I can listen and negotiate and get over. Try it.”
Celia saw her friend clearly in the dim light. His light was not dim and it warmed her through with warmth, goodness, and wisdom. She raised her empty vessel in true respect and honor.
“Last call, do it?”
Harold drained his drink and returned Celia’s gesture.
“Sure. You bet. And young lady, my lady, what will be your final selection of the evening upon returning with our refreshments?”
“Hows bout…My Heart Belongs to Daddy?”
Harold rolled his eyes.
“Jeez Celia. Maybe you wanna give that one a rest maybe, ya think, huh?”
Celia pouted considering his reproach.
“Alrightalrightalright yeah, the drinking song from Traviata.”
“Brava my dear,” and the piano exploded as Harold’s able hands seemed to play every key at once. Celia went to the bar with the empty glasses that were filled without asking as Philly sang in duet with Celia. Hoffa, Salinger, Ann-Margaret, and what sounded like the Lost Battalion all sang. The place sang. The wonderful place was singing.
Into the Breach
Celia’s alarm clock shrieked 8 a.m. She knew it was Monday morning 8 a.m. Now began a new adventure with her mother and the network and all included in that vulgar artless maelstrom. So she thought. Celia inhaled and exhaled deeply, threw back her covers, and placed her feet firmly on the ground.
“Let’s do this.”
When does a simple smile reveal insincerity or sincerity? When Celia left the corner store with a small black coffee and two spotted bananas, Nok Sun Kim’s smile displayed abundant sincerity, having received a traditional Korean good morning from Celia. Two long blocks down the avenue and Celia was in the subway and on her way to Network headquarters in Midtown Manhattan.
“Once more into the breach,” ricocheted through Celia’s head as she approached the fortress, visible from a distance by its shimmering corporate logo escorted by stars and stripes.
“The blast of war,” and “lend the eye a terrible aspect.”
She bit her lip and struggled to keep Harold in her ear as she entered the polished revolving door of Network H.Q.
“Ms. Celia, where you been hiding girlfriend?” announced Clarence, the most senior member of the security detail which defended the welcome mat at H.Q. Even the potted Ficus in the lobby envied the depth of sincerity in the embrace sustained twixt Celia and Clarence. True and lasting security.
“How’s the family Clarence?” Celia asked still attached.
“You really gotta get a TV for the bedroom, Clarence.”
“Big screen honey, and a whole lotta channels!”
Celia waved so long as the doors of the executive elevator closed, amputating the holy daylight of the lobby, replaced by elevator glow and a video screen preaching stock reports to the true believers. Two of them, true believers, on either side of Celia watched the screen with intent and surrender.
“That’s what I’m talkin,” or “Come on baby, daddy needs new clubs.”
After 10 floors or so of suit hipster lingo, Celia could stand no more. She took a step back, summoned her thespian might, and impersonated a big wet fart. Talking stopped immediately and the breath-holding began with only 46 floors to go.
“So boyees, Maybe you vant come tonight to beeg Rrrrussian orgy tonight. Rrrrussian veemen love vhen Eemerikansky boyees go down. Dee Rrrussian men vont go down.”
Celia ripped another. Just for fun. Tod and Bif clamped their lips and noses with one hand, their crotches with the other, and tears came from their tightly shut eyes. Their faces were blue, and when the doors opened on 68, Tod ran two steps and collided with a mailroom cart. Bif just collapsed forward and down. Celia kicked his foot out of the path of the closing doors.
“Good morning, Celia dear, your mother is waiting for you”.
“Good morning, Sheila. How have you been?” replied Celia in official politeness.
Celia never liked Sheila at all. This was her mother’s receptionist of many years. A living Cerebus really, Sheila was terrifying. Bad hair, bad make-up, outfits like she dressed in the dark, and she punctuated almost all of her sentences with a high-pitched giggle that could scare a fresh parolee back into the joint. Missing only chain, collar, and dirt, Sheila was a human junkyard dog.
“Thank you for asking Celia, you’re so nice to ask…”
“Please send my daughter in, Sheila, thank you,” the voice came through an intercom. Sheila squeezed out a giggle and Celia moved to the half-open door that was her mother’s lair.
Petra’s office was her crown, her temple, and in it, she was chief priestess and goddess, the jewel in the crown. All her subordinates wanted what she had—a corner office. If there was one thing Petra could be humble about, it was inspiring the envy of the bottom feeders and cubicle rats.
“Good morning darling, there’s coffee on the cart over there, and please close the door.”
Petra stood focused out by her windows, back to Celia, and her hands around a cup of coffee. Celia put down her bag and moved to the cart, never taking her eyes off her mother, who did not turn or even move at all. “I hear you, Harold. I’m listening as hard as I can.”
“I suppose the welfare of the security desk and half the custodial crew is why you are late?”
Celia found a defensible comfortable chair and sat down with her coffee. She was relieved for the easily deflected first jab from her regularly lethal mother.
“You were mightily focused on something down below Mother. Did you see something dead on Madison Ave.?”
Petra turned abruptly, unaccustomed to being sparred with within her own dominion. Both women’s spines arched a little. As so often in the past, Celia froze in the predatory stare of the divinely beautiful and ruthless woman her father fell in love with.
“Must you start to carry on as soon as you get here?”
“So sorry, Mother, good morning, how was your night?” Celia eased back, put down her coffee, and crossed her legs. Mounting her throne behind her desk, Petra eased back herself.
“Great, I should get a trophy. Come to think of it, I think I did. Now, as the poet says, let us get down to it, darling. First order of business, here is the big proposal—Petra flung a big thick envelope onto the table in front of Celia. Must have been 15 feet from where Petra sat to Celia—I want you to look this over thoroughly. It is most of what we invasion for this project.”
“You said—it’s most of what we invasion for the project.”
“Please pay attention, Celia, I said, it is what we envision for the project. May I please continue?”
“Please continue, Mother.”
“You, my dear, are going undercover. I love saying that. We need you to see things through our eyes when you are in place. We would like you to be in place in three weeks. Sooner if you can absorb the orientation quickly.”
“Yes dear, orientation. You might slip into Shakespeare seamlessly, but small town down home back woods howdy do America is a stage I feel you are not prepared for, or am I wrong? Did they teach you to chew cud at Yale drama school?”
Celia got up for a refill and grabbed a croissant. She saw the drink cart behind the coffee cart and wondered, “It must be noon somewhere. This is going to be a long meeting.”
“We have wardrobe people who are going to take you shopping, discount shopping. Please wear these purchases so all your clothes don’t look new when you get to Mayberry. And be sure you get something extra provincial for church.”
“Now hold on a goddamn second, Church? Church? What the hell is this, invasion of the body snatchers? What am I getting roped into here?”
Cocktail was looking mighty good to Celia right about now.
“How’s your hymn-singing lately? We hear the sheriff in this outpost is quite the holy roller. Your religious fervor will move things along nicely, and you do strive to be an effective actress.”
“Well since you have ‘invaded’ the subject, Mother, might I know what my ‘earthly reward’ will be in this church social of yours?”
“Alright, here it is. Once you are on board, say, after this meeting, you’re pulling down $5000 a week, should you accept this mission. I love saying that. If you can provide me statements for all the Orangutang’s outstanding debts, I will see they are expunged.”
“Yes, and Celia, with the first airing of our show, the orangutangs, oh forgive me, the Orangutang will receive $5000 a month as long as the show runs. Our show.”
Celia pursed her lips to one side and then the other, sipped her coffee a bit, and stared at the carpet.
“I know you can spend other people’s money like a champ, Mother, but let’s get down to it. I want you to release to me my portion of my father’s estate without interdiction, handcuffs, or conditions.” Celia dreamed for years about saying that with some kind of leverage.
“It isn’t that much money, dear, but enough to bring Moliere to flood victims across America for many happy years. Let’s do this: two weeks from tonight is the first airing of an award show for reality TV. We are calling it ‘the Laudies.’ If our show wins, not this year but next, in any 1 of the top 12 out of 37 categories, I will, on my honor, do as you ask. Can we get back to business?”
“Yes Mother, back to business, please proceed.”
Petra flung the next envelope onto the table. Swish. Celia picked up her coffee just in time.
“In this package are an assortment of blank evaluation templates for ‘our town.’ People, stores, schools, churches, quilting bees, everything, and whatever occurs to you when you’re on the ground. You are to mail these back to us at regular intervals as quick as you can figure it out.”
“Why snail mail Mother, couldn’t I email it faster? You know, blitzkrieg tactics.”
“Celia, you live in a make-believe theatre world, romping in the park and sword fighting, but this, Celia, is Network television, and spies are everywhere. That bran muffin could be listening. The US Postal service is safe. They’re all idiots.”
“This really is an invasion mon general, uh, herr general. What pray tell, what will I be doing, so not to raise the suspicions of the natives?”
“I love this part darling. We have secured for you, a cushy little job, wait for it, in, the Post Office !”
Celia tossed her croissant into the air. “Hooray, I’m an idiot.” Celia fell back in her chair, covering her eyes with her hand. “Gotta be noon.”
“I thought this would be perfect, dear. You always looked so nice in blue. And another thing, darling, No one in the town will know what you’re doing, no one, and, AND, the crews we’re sending to do this opus magnus, they won’t know who you are either, so you mustn’t look out of place when they get there. You might learn to spit or scratch or something.”
Celia’s mouth hung open and she stared blankly. Shock and Awe.
“So, how will I be included in all of this Mother?” Celia braced herself.
Petra took a seat close to and opposite Celia. Celia looked for seat belts.
“This is great, I love this part. I shouldn’t even be telling you this part. It’s top top secret. All the individual shows have been instructed to shoot as much as possible and amicably. We even worked out bonuses for the director who comes back with the most minutes. Then, we bring back the principles with their footage, and then have a show where the principles are competing live in the studio with their edited footage. A ‘Show of Shows’!!”
Petra stood with her arms spread in triumph.
“The same sort of format as the individual shows, only scaled up, and until this moment, this stage, they don’t even know they’re competing. Then comes the humiliation and getting eliminated and having their guts ripped out and the bitching and wailing so on and so forth. When it’s time for judging, that’s when we’ll out you and, you had better wear a raincoat cause this will get bloody. Doesn’t that sound like fun!?!”
Celia heard the bell, “NOON everybody. Next cart.”
Three weeks went by like a nap on the bus. The Network indeed had created a military invasion scenario in which Celia would play a critical intelligence role. Her training was more than complete.
What was once a hero and soda became a grinder and pop. What do you put on French fries?
And clothes. Celia was brought to a mall outside of Wilkes-Barre accompanied by the 2 most ridiculous people imaginable. It seemed that Gayley and Alaine were attempting to impersonate the ’36 World’s fair with the globe partner wearing a moo moo and flowered bathing cap. They explained things to Celia. The necessity for the ugliest blouse in Christendom was that it contained all the colors used in high school football programs allowing her to attend any game appearing to display team spirit.
There were “personnel department” people who coached Celia in accurate and even psychologically insightful evaluations so that targeted subjects would have bull’s eyes on their foreheads when the makeover crews showed up.
As Harold was, in addition to being hyper musical, a native of the regions to which Celia would be transplanted, he was entirely qualified to coach her in her hymn singing. He knew the whole repertoire deeply by heart. He had trained to be a minister but that didn’t work out. You know how those things go, sometimes, life I mean.
Celia was to be presented as a postal transfer, someone who needed to be removed from a difficult situation, something “postal.” Who would not believe that? For this reason, she received orientation from the U.S. Postal service. In no time she was, from a distance, pitching boxes into those little canvas dumpsters on wheels. Swish!
Then there was the NASCAR crash course.
Yet another night in the bar. Harold, though slightly envious of Celia’s paid vacation to the homeland he missed so dearly, worried more about Celia’s conflict. That she was cornered by her mother to be complicit in the destruction of an innocent and unsuspecting town, and then, to be rewarded for it by saving her acting company. Of course, though contractually forbidden, Celia told Harold everything. Harold advised caution. He told her to be alert, assured her she was not powerless or defeated and if she needed help, he would be there to watch her back.
Strapped in like a crash test dummy, Celia tried to reckon if these small jets were more or less safe than their full size counterparts. Climbing into the clouds, the skyline of New York City vanished from view through the dirty little window.
Are You Lost Honey?
Celia’s face became one with the back of the seat in front of her when the bus skidded to a storm of dust stop. As the dust settled, through a different dirty window there could be seen a different skyline. A water tower, a church spier, a couple of trees and, that was all. Welcome to Ardensville.
The bus driver refused, politely but absolutely, to make the turn from the 2 lane (one lane forward, one back) road down the long driveway sort of road into the town of Ardensville. The last time he tried, he got caught in a rut. Took an entire day to get the bus back on the road.
“Idiot sheriff wanted to give me a summons for parking on a town road.”
He did help Celia get her 2 pieces of luggage from the belly of the bus, tipped his reflecting sun glasses and left, spinning hi wheels in the gravel.
The dust cleared and settled on deserted Celia. She looked up the road to the disappearing bus and down the road to nothing but a roadside billboard too distant to read what or who was displayed.
“What the hell was I thinking?”
Celia turned to look at the skyline of Ardensville not guessing how far the hike would be. Didn’t need to guess. There was a sign:
Welcomen to Ardensville
Lawbreakers and Sinners
Will be Persecuted
Downtown 3.6 mile
“Just fucking great. Yeah. The last refuge of the Spanish Inquisition. Great.”
Celia shouldered one bag, extended the handle to wheel the other and started the 3+ mile trek to her new home, wondering if the circling buzzards new something she did not.
She had perspired through her K-mart fashion collection and the town did not seem to be getting any closer when she heard an automotive rumble behind her. She turned to see an ever more familiar dust cloud approaching a little too quickly so she got off to the side a little of this sorry excuse for a road. The pick-up hit the brakes about 10 feet before her and came to a stop about 20 feet past and backed up, skidding some more. The passenger window rolled down, once the dust cleared of course.
“Ya missed the mall a few hundred miles back honey, are ya lost?”
The pick up might have been blue or green but dirt was the only color one could say for sure. The face not entirely revealed in the half open window was a pleasant face although being eyed like an alien species made for contentious introductions. The face waited to see if the woman would or could respond in English. Celia choked some dust.
“I heard, that the bartender at the Hilton, in that town, was the Mozart of Margaritas in the whole state, yup, that’s what I heard. Do I look lost?”
Both women paused. Celia considered if this person had weapon in her truck.
“Let’s start again cowgirl, you need a lift?”
Both women exhaled some relief and Celia tossed her bags in the back of the truck. As she opened the door she heard the gear engage and with one foot on the running board the truck was spinning its wheels and reached cruising speed before Celia had the door closed shut.
“I need a lift and a margarita but I sure appreciate the lift. Thank you very much.”
Celia paused again. As nondescript and unattended the exterior of the truck was, the inside was opposite. It was a palace in a truck. The seats were reupholstered in beautiful material patches. The dash was decorated in a mosaic of shiny stones and the wheel sported a braid of what she guessed was rattlesnake skins. And the woman driving was attired multiples of wow compared to her truck cab. Celia could not even classify what this woman was wearing. It was like fashion from another planet and yet elegant and it made you comfortable just to look at it.
“It’s not a market eater but it might do the trick till you get to the presidential suite.”
The heavy set driver with vestiges of a southin’ drawl held out a flask to Celia, it too sheathed in a fabulous beaded thing.
The driver watched how Celia would rise or fall to this challenge. Celia did not disappoint, even chasing her big boy tug with her sleeve. She returned the flask saying thank you and the driver took a tug out of approval and politeness.
“I’m Penny, that’s Ardensville and this here’s bourbon.”
Celia paused expecting a yahoo or maybe a rebel yell.
“I’m Celia Stax. I love your seat covers and shouldn’t you be a little concerned about drinking and driving?”
“Noooope, if’n I keep the top on I don’t spill none.”
Penny screwed down the top.
“Oh good, I was starting to worry there for a second.”
Ardensville was close now and its homes and cars and shops were now in sight.
“You got people here in Ardensville?”
The gravel of the driveway reverted to pavement and Penny reduced her speed to a sensible town limit.
“Noooope, I got a job in Ardensville.”
Penny slapped the steering wheel.
“You’re the lucky girl they’re sending to work with Miles, you poor baby. Here, take the flask. This being Saturday, you have 2 days to achieve the state of intoxication needed to coexist at the P.O. with Miles, the dog faced boy, you betcha.”
Penny tossed over the flask. Celia caught it with one hand.
“What’s wrong with Miles?”
“I can’t explain it politely, so trust me and start drinkin’cowgirl.”
“What else do you know about me, while we’re on the subject?”
Penny stopped at a corner, hailed someone on the street and proceeded to hang a right. Celia was carefully comparing what she had imagined to the reality. She took it all in like it would be on the final.
“I know your staying in Irma Willard’s upstairs rooms.”
Celia smacked the dashboard, concealing her annoyance.
“Right again! Is it far? Can you take me there? I have the address right here somewhere…”
Celia fumbled through her pockets while Penny abruptly swung into a driveway, skidding to a stop and acquainting Celia’s face with the dashboard or nearly so.
“Say hello to home darlin.”