Thursday, September 9, 2010

"The Actress" by Kent Cooper

Joyce Chandler was seventeen and worked in the souvenir shop on the Overlook. She would be a senior in the fall and in the spring, after graduation, she planned to leave for New York City to become a professional actress. That was the dream, which kept her going, kept her, studying and being in high school plays and going to movies to learn whatever she could about acting. Joyce was biding her time, secure in the knowledge that one day, finally, she would live her dream.

She had filled out nicely in the last few years. Joyce was pleased with everything except her hips. They had widened on their own, with no input from herself. Joyce realized it was nature’s way of easing childbirth but she had not requested any such aid nor had she any need of it. Joyce planned to live alone, dedicated to her art.

It was evening and the souvenir shop was closed. The doors were locked while Joyce counted out the receipts. There had been maybe twenty visitors all day. Usually people wandered first to the metal fence and looked through the new telescopes, trained on the vast construction site of the dam. Although it would be a year or two before they began backing the river up in earnest, there was enough blocked water now in Lake Sakakawea to reflect the sky for several miles to the north.

After the viewing, many of the visitors came into the shop to look over the souvenirs; T-shirts, banners, Indian headbands and lead replicas of the dam. There were even mementos from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Joyce told her mother it was mostly junk, although she was wearing one of the light blue cotton T-shirts herself. The shirt had a dark blue decal of the dam stenciled across her breasts.

Joyce loved this late part of the day on the Overlook. The sun had settled on the hills of the western shore, its gold light rippling across the lake water. Two evenings before, it was more exciting. The sunset spread over the sky like a glorious inferno, engulfing everything in its fiery wrath. Gradually the flames had shriveled and contracted into a hot red ball that, in the lake mist, seemed to twist and swirl as it fought to remain above the surface. It reminded her of a bleeding giant being pulled beneath the earth against its will. It was sad and touching, even frightening, to watch the violent struggle. She had been unable to take her eyes away.

Joyce totaled the amount of the receipts on a slip of paper and put that and the money into a small safe beneath the table she was working on. She heard a rap on the door and looked up to see a blond woman staring at her through a front window.

Joyce unlocked the door and opened it. Two small boys fidgeted alongside the woman’s stout legs.

“Can they use your restroom?” the woman pleaded, tilting her head cutely to one side.

“Of course,” Joyce said, pushing the door back. She knew it was strictly prohibited to allow the public to use the facilities. She was supposed to say there was no restroom, let the people think she climbed the metal fence and slid part way down the bluff to pee in the scraggly bushes that clung there.

“To the right!” she called. The boys scampered wildly down the aisle. The restroom door slammed shut.

“Thank you so much,” the woman said. “There’s not a single tree out here for them to get behind.”

The woman’s words reminded Joyce of the lady her father brought with him, when he came to visit she and her mother after an eight-year absence. Joyce was twelve then. The lady couldn’t understand why there were no big trees in town and Joyce was too bitter to explain it. Joyce felt a knot of pain slide into her chest at the memory. She wondered where her poor father was and if he had married the woman. Joyce couldn’t think of her name but she remembered how nervous she and her mother were before the visit.

“That’s quite all right,” Joyce said. “The restroom needed using.”

The woman had thick arms, swelling out of a print dress too dainty to accommodate her squat build. Her body looked to be on the verge of bursting out of it. She was probably a farmer’s wife, Joyce thought, the kind of hearty individual who helped to settle this tough prairie country. They always seemed so content in their skin, so able to bear any hardship they might encounter beneath these huge western skies.

“You live in Riverdale?” the woman asked.

The question threw Joyce off. She didn’t think of herself as living here. She didn’t think of herself as living anywhere in particular, she realized. Riverdale was only a stop on her way to other places.

“I do for now,” Joyce answered.

There was a flush in the backroom and the boys came running out to their mother. One was slightly taller than the other. Both of them had blond hair.

“You boys feel better?” Joyce asked, smiling.

The boys hid behind their mother’s legs.

“Answer the nice lady.”

“Yeah,” came the voice of one.

“The dam is bigger than I thought,” the woman said, nodding toward the river. “It must be interesting living here.”

“I think they should have let the river go,” Joyce said, gazing off into the milky sky.

“It’s been getting along okay for thousands of years, doing what rivers do.”

“What about floods and stuff?”

“There’s plenty of space in other areas for people to live.”

“I guess it’s too late now,” the woman said, and something in the steady set of her eyes, made Joyce think the woman agreed with her.

“Yes, I think they’ve made up their minds to do this.”

The woman let go a ringing throaty laughter.

“Let me get these guys something to eat.”

“Take care then,” Joyce said.

The woman headed toward the circular parking area, the boys racing ahead of her.

Joyce stepped outside and locked the door. She walked on one side of the paved road leading into town. The air was turning cool as the sun sank across the river. The lights of the town lay ahead of her. The window shades in one of the construction company barracks were bright orange. Behind the mess hall and treatment plant, loomed a long-legged water tower, an amber light shining atop the red and white tank.

She was anxious to get home and finish reading “Death of a Salesman.” Joyce walked briskly past the hotel and then the movie theater, where “Bus Stop” had been playing for a week now. Joyce planned to see the picture on the weekend, although she didn’t expect much from Marilyn Monroe, who mostly whispered and sighed her way through dialogue. Joyce knew the movie was based on a William Inge play, and that was a big plus. When she got home, she found her mother lying on the couch with a wet washcloth on her forehead.

“What’s wrong?” Joyce asked.

“Just a little headache. How was work?”

“There was no great sunset this evening.”

Her mother smiled. “That’s too bad.”

“Yes, it is. That means I didn’t get anything out of the stupid job,” she said, thinking more about the play she wanted to finish reading, than the souvenir shop.

Joyce started down the hallway.

“Where you going?”

She turned and looked at her mother. “To my bedroom to read.”

“There’s chicken in the oven.”

“I’ll eat later.”

Joyce went into her bedroom and locked the door. Unlike the elaborate lairs of most girls her age, Joyce’s bedroom was quite desolate. There was no pink-frilled vanity cluttered with jars and tubes of makeup. Only a mirror propped on a bureau for last moment snatching at her hair. A thin quilt covered her bed instead of a puffy comforter. Her walls were not adorned with colorful magazine photos of teen idols. Only two photographs were in evidence, taped above a bookcase she’d filled with copies of stage plays. One of the pictures was of Arthur Miller, friendly and intelligent looking, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, his dark shirt open at the neck. The second photograph was of Tennessee Williams, his chin lifted in profile and a stem cigarette tilting up from his mouth. She adored Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” For a while after reading it, she walked with a limp until her mother made her stop.

There was a week’s worth of discarded clothes on her floor that she hadn’t had time to deal with. She was too busy reading.

Joyce stripped down to her panties and a T-shirt and lay on her stomach on the bed. She opened the large book of plays her mother had bought for her in a used bookstore in Minot. Many of the pages had been marked on. Judging by the romantically tinged passages she found underlined, Joyce felt they must have come from a girl much like herself. Joyce liked to know what interested other people, so the marks were fine with her. The large book was wonderful; it had every play in it from Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” to Inoesco’s “The Bald Soprano.” She wanted to read every one of them as soon as possible.

Joyce opened the book to “Death of a Salesman,” from which she had read only twenty pages. She loved it so far. There were photographs of scenes from various productions at the front of the book. As she read about Willy Loman, she could smell the old theatre, sense the wonderful shadows in the ornate walls, feel the people hushed and spellbound by the living presence of these characters on stage. She wanted to have the same kind of audience watching her. She wanted to become other women without the piercing emotionalism she felt in her own life. Oh, what a feeling that would be.

She heard the door handle being twisted. “Why is this door locked?” her mother asked from the hallway.

“I’m reading.”

“Joyce, I want that room cleaned up!”

“What for?”

“So you won’t die in there without me knowing it.”

“Please, mother. I’m reading Death of a Salesman.”

“Can I talk to you?”

“Not if your name isn’t Mildred Dunnock.”

“Who is that?”

“Willy Loman’s wife and you’re disturbing me!”

“Will you clean your room?”

“When I find out what happens to Willy.”

“I’m trusting you.”

“Good. We’re getting somewhere,” Joyce sighed.

“I’m going.”

“See you later.”

By the time winter was drawing near, Joyce had read almost everything in her precious book of dramas. In each play there had been one or two characters she wanted to embody, so she could experience their lives and bow to the applause of vast audiences, springing to their feet in appreciation.

On this calm evening, however, Joyce was sitting in her bathtub in steamy hot water. The warm vapors gave her a pleasant light-headedness. She slowly dipped and rubbed a cloth over herself. Hot water made her pensive. She could sit in the tub for hours if left alone. She’d drain a little and put more nearly boiling water in while her mind drifted in an almost hypnotic state. She was thinking about the small desperate person she had been in her younger years. The hang-ups that plagued her then, like thinking that anyone who she had not seen for any length of time, was either dead or dying. Joyce felt sorry for the small girl and wished that she could help her in some way. She felt the child was probably hoping to be saved by her older self and Joyce realized she could not let her down.

She stood up dripping in the tub, steam rising from her skin. Joyce stepped from the tub and pulled a towel from the rack and began to dry herself. The full-length mirror on the door was completely misted over. In the mirror, she was only a pale, nebulous form. The towel fluttered over her like a white bird seeking a place to land. While dabbing her body with the towel, Joyce promised that she was going to make that little girl into a great actress. And that one-day, in a sense, they would live together in New York City. They would be joined in a way that she would not have to think about the girl and feel sad anymore. The girl would be with her and taken care of, while the dreams of them both were pursued.

Joyce dressed before she was completely dry. The moisture on her skin let her feel her naked body under the cotton shirt and jeans. She slipped into her worn tennis shoes and went into the living room. Her mother was sitting cross-legged on the couch, wearing a faded blue bathrobe, her hair in a funny plastic cap that puffed out on the sides. She was knitting, a past time she did only rarely and never seemed to finish anything—at least nothing that Joyce ever noticed. Her mother glanced up at Joyce, her fingers continuing to guide the cream-colored plastic needles in and out of the yarn.

“Where you going?”

“For a walk.”

“Oh, it’s late.”

“Who cares?”

“Well, be careful then.”

Joyce stepped outside, feeling the slick sheen of frost on the porch boards. A light snow had fallen earlier in the evening, whitening their yard. The snow would vanish in the first sunlight but, having come at all, it would stir longer in the heart. It was the first sign of a change in seasons, a sad foreboding that much of now would soon be gone forever. The feeling of loss, clung in her chest as she strolled up past the darkened school building and then past the lighted rec hall. She walked beyond the brightly lit hotel and crossed over to the road that led out to the Overlook. No cars were around at this hour. It was a cold night, a chill breeze twitching the dry straw in the field.

A bright moon, with only a small slice removed from it, hung part way up the black sky, shining down on the snow. Beyond the bluffs, silver streaks of light beamed up from the basin of the dam, like reflections from an icy canyon.

Joyce halted and stared in disbelief. To the left of the Overlook, on the next bluff, were fifty or so white jackrabbits, frolicking wildly in the snow. Some dashed about kicking up flakes that sparkled like drifting stars in the moonlight. Other hares were bouncing on their spring-like legs, then flipping over on their backs and pawing frantically at the air. The sheer drop-off of the bluffs, made it seem as if the rabbits were cavorting on the very edge of the earth. Leafless brush gripped to the ledges like wire rods, easy prey for the bitter winds that winter would soon unleash.

The jackrabbits’ antics were like the ritual of some strange cult. Joyce wondered what could have summoned them all here at the same hour. They appeared to be undaunted by her presence. Joyce sensed that she could stroll in amongst them, and the rabbits would continue to scamper and frolic as before. She wondered if they were elves or gnomes disguised as hares, drawn here by some ancient spell. Beckoned to revel in the shiny flora of darkness, on just such a night as this.

She wished that someone else was here to witness this astonishing spectacle. She would never be able to describe it in a way that made sense, or that came even close to capturing the enchantment of the night.

Joyce stood transfixed, watching them tumble and dash about in the moonlight. She had no idea how much time elapsed. Finally, she forced herself to turn and face the town, and felt how difficult it would be to leave. Joyce knew that she would never see anything like this again. She probably wasn’t supposed to be here now.

She started to walk toward town. The place looked so much darker than it did before. She wondered if it was because of the night, the brightness of the moon and the snow and the whiteness of the jackrabbits. That it made everything else duller.

Her skin had dried, so she could no longer feel her body. The cold was less cold and the air was remarkably still. Joyce kept herself from glancing back at the bluffs, afraid the rabbits would have vanished. If that happened, she might stop believing they were ever there. And she really wanted them to be real.

Joyce noticed the soft glow of a cigarette over near the barracks. She wondered if someone had been watching her, standing there in the dark.

“Hey, you,” a man’s voice said. The glow moved out from the building and was floating toward her a little more than waist high. “Don’t worry, you know me.”

Joyce stood waiting in the street. The man came closer and then she could see by the streetlight that it was a construction worker she was familiar with. He came often to the souvenir shop but he never purchased anything other except ashtrays.

He was now full in the streetlight, a few feet from her. He was an old man. He had never told her his name and she had never asked, although they had sometimes spoken. She felt sorry for the man from the first time she saw him. He had rheumy eyes that made him appear to be holding back tears. The man had deep folds in his neck, like she’d seen on outdoor workers before, the sun baking their skin into tough leather. He wore a tan khaki shirt and trousers. She had always wondered if the man had any family.

She didn’t think so. How else could he pick up and come to Riverdale and stay in one of those small rooms in the barracks, year after year. There were probably a lot of men like that in construction towns, she thought, who had lived so long alone inside their heads that they couldn’t be with anyone else.

“I saw them rabbits,” he said.

“You did?”

“I started out there on a walk. I seen them and didn’t want to scare them away. So I come back to watch them from here. I thought they’d run when you got out there but they didn’t. I couldn’t believe it.”

Joyce smiled happily at him. “I’m glad you saw them,” she said.

“I’m glad you saw them too because I was beginning to think I was crazy. I was standing over there next to the barracks, trying to decide if they were real.”

“Unless we both have the same disease, they are definitely real,” she said. “What do you think would make them come together like that?”

He dropped the cigarette butt on the road and crushed it out with the front of his shoe.

“I guess the need to be around each other,” he said. “They probably can’t do it much because there’s so many animals out to kill them. Bobcats and coyotes, even hawks.

Maybe just one night they don’t give a shit and come to see each other. Afterwards, they scatter every which way and start doing what they can to stay alive.”

“I like them coming together,” Joyce said. “But it makes me sad that they have to keep worrying about being killed.”

“People ain’t much better, if you read the newspapers.”

“I try not to.”

“You okay getting home?”

“Yes, thanks.”

He reached his hand out and Joyce took hold of it. The skin of his palm was smooth, not what she expected. He shook her hand lightly and withdrew his hand.

“Good night,” he said. “You know where I am if you want to talk about the rabbits again. I know how that feels.”

“Thanks,” Joyce said. “That’s good to know.”

The man turned and began walking toward the dark barracks. Joyce was glad he came out to see her. He solved a lot of things that were on her mind. Next time she’d find out what his name is.

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