Settings

Tell Me How Long the Train s Been Gone 27


  I smiled, and said, “Sorry,” and left the alcove.

  “Nerves, nerves,” said the assistant, and there was a little burst of laughter.

  They started.

  “I got a right to have something out of life,” Barbara said, and she moved, sullenly, restlessly, about the alcove. “I don’t smoke, I don’t drink. So if Sid wants to take me to a dance, I’ll go. Maybe if you was in love, you wouldn’t talk so hard.”

  “I’m saying it,” read the assistant flatly, “for your good.”

  I knew that Jerry had cued Barbara for this scene many times, and yet it was odd to see her play it in a vacuum. I had no idea whether she was any good or not, and the way the assistant was reading the lines made it impossible—for me—to believe in the scene at all. Barbara looked far too young, it seemed to me, to be saying any of the things she was saying; if I had been her brother, I would have turned her over my knee. Still, she was sullen, she was upset, she was terribly nervous; only, I couldn’t tell whether it was she who was nervous, or Florrie. She certainly sounded very close to hysteria by the time she shouted, “Sure, I want romance, love, babies. I want everything in life I can get!” And she didn’t seem so young then. She seemed to know what was in store for her.

  Here came my cue: “… Take the egg off the stove I boiled for Mom.” Then she looked up, and insisted on a rather long silence—long enough to make one wonder. The assistant nervously looked at his—or, rather, my book. Barbara turned away. “Leave us alone, Irv.”

  I stepped into the alcove. The assistant and I stared at each other a moment, and then he disappeared—with my book. Then Barbara turned back, and looked at me.

  “Hello, Florrie,” I said.

  “Hello, honey. You’re looking tired.”

  When she said that, I thought of our walk through town.

  “Naw,” I said. “I just need a shave.”

  And so we hit it. She looked so young, so helpless, and so fair. Sid wants to keep her looking as she looks now forever; but he has nothing to give her, nothing which won’t blast her into some other unimaginable, unbearable condition; he knows this as the scene begins, but must face it as the scene progresses. Barbara, too, was thinking of our walk through town. Finally, she breaks and runs to kiss me. I say, “You look tired, Florrie.”

  “Naw,” said Barbara, holding on to my upper arms, throwing back her head and laughing at me, “I just need a shave.” Then she threw her head against my chest, buried her head in my chest, and held me. This was not the way we had played the scene before. I held her, and I said, “You worried about your mother?”

  “No,” she said. But she had not moved; and I was taking my cue from her.

  I said gently, “What’s on your mind?”

  “The French and Indian War,” she said, and I now understood, holding her by the shoulder, that I could move her slightly away from me and look into her face. “What’s on your mind?”

  “I got us on my mind, Sid.” She looked at me. “Night and day, Sid!”

  Well, now I was in the scene and so I couldn’t know—it didn’t matter—whether we were any good or not. I dropped her shoulders, and I walked away, leaving her standing there. I thought of our morning and I thought of our walk when I said, “I smacked a beer truck today … Did I get hell! I was driving along thinking of US, too. You don’t have to say it—I know what’s on your mind. I’m rat poison around here.”

  “Not,” she said helplessly, “to me …”

  The scene shifts gears around then, it becomes really very propagandistic, and I had always been most worried about this long section, because the boy has most of the speeches, and because it’s hard to speak propaganda while relating to love. But, this morning, it seemed to work; maybe I was still thinking about our walk. Sid starts raving about his younger brother, who has joined the Navy, because he doesn’t know what else to do: “… Don’t he come around and say to you this millionaire with a jazz band—listen Sam or Sid or what’s-your-name,—you’re no good, but here’s a chance. The whole world’ll know who you are—yes, sir, he says,—get up on that ship and fight those bastards who’s making the world a lousy place to live in. The Japs, the Turks, the Greeks.—Take this gun—kill the slobs like a real hero, he says, a real American. Be a hero!”

  I have no idea what I sounded like. The scene drops, then, back into the intensity of the boy and girl. Barbara looked very beautiful, I thought, when she said, “Sid, I’ll go with you—we’ll get a room somewhere.”

  But he refuses this. He turns on the phonograph, and they dance. Then he says good-bye. She doesn’t answer. That’s when I get a chance to do my tapdance routine. And I whistle Rosy O’Grady. It felt all right. Barbara was staring at me.

  “Don’t you like it?” I asked her. It was a real question.

  She stared at me for a long time; which forced me to stare at her. Then she said, “No,” and dropped her face in her hands, with all her hair falling around her fingers. I dropped on my knees in front of her, and put my face in her lap. She held me. And that was the end of the scene.

  I lifted my head, and we looked at each other very briefly, while we listened to the applause, and then I rose, and we sat together on the sofa, facing Saul San-Marquand.

  Saul cleared his throat.

  “As all of you know,” he said, “this last scene is really an audition. That is, neither Miss King, nor”—he considered the program—“Mr. Proudhammer—ah—are really working members of The Actors’ Means Workshop. We consider them both to be—ah—very gifted young people.”

  At this, there was scattered, tentative applause. Saul raised his hand.

  “As Miss King is the lady here, or”—he coughed—“certainly, so to say, represents the female principle, we will interrogate Miss King first. Miss King”—he straightened, and Barbara straightened—“why did you elect to do this scene?”

  “We liked it,” Barbara said. She paused. “We felt that it made a connection—between a private love story—and—a—well, between a private sorrow and a public, a revolutionary situation.” She paused again. Saul watched her. She watched Saul. “The boy and girl are trapped. For reasons that they can’t do much about, anything about—and it’s not their fault—not their fault, I mean, that they’re trapped.”

  “Then, your motives in doing this particular scene,” said Saul, “were personal?” He looked briefly at me.

  “One’s motives,” said Barbara, sitting very still and straight, “are always personal.” Then, after a second, “I hope.” And she lifted her eyes to Saul again.

  “One’s motives,” he said, “may always be personal. But one’s execution, as I believe you have heard us attempt to tell Mr. Parker, can never be personal. One’s motives, ah, that is one thing—but one’s execution of these motives, if one is attempting to work in the theater—these must be quite something else again.”

  “I don’t,” she said flatly, with a certain calculated rudeness, “know what you’re talking about.” And she watched him. The silence, like water, rose.

  “Miss King,” he said, “we are suggesting that your execution of this scene—which is, if we may say so, a very beautiful scene, and we had the distinction of being present the very first time it was ever played, has been somewhat carried away by your motives.” He raised his hand again. “Do not misunderstand us. We admire your motives. We were a revolutionary before you were born, Miss King—and the scene you have just attempted to play is a revolutionary scene. Written by a revolutionary. So, we are in sympathy with your motives.” He paused. “But we must question your execution. That is what we are here for.” He paused. “What were you working for in this scene, Miss King?”

  “I was working,” she said—I had never seen her so arrogant, and I rather wondered at it—“at the truth in the scene. They are probably never going to see each other again. And they both know it.”

  She had left him supposing that she was about to say more. But she said nothing.

  “Excu
se me, Miss King, but do you know the play? Do you know why—it is called Waiting for Lefty? Do you know, for example, that your boyfriend goes on strike? And that this changes everything—that they do not lose each other?”

  “I know the play,” she said.

  The silence rose and rose; and it was going to be my turn next. The silence rose; and Barbara watched Saul. In the silence, Barbara said, “When they’re facing each other in this scene, she can’t know, neither of them can know, if they’re ever going to see each other again. You don’t play what the playwright knows. You play what the character knows.” And then she paused, and marvelously conceded, with a smile, “Isn’t that so?”

  “My dear Miss King,” said Saul, after a moment, “we certainly do not wish to make you feel that our more than forty years in the theater is more valuable than your time on earth.” There was laughter at this, and Saul also smiled.

  And Barbara said, “I very much doubt that anything you can say will make me feel that your time on earth is more valuable than mine.”

  Everyone was now watching Barbara and Saul, as though we were watching a horse race. But Saul, whatever he wasn’t, was shrewd; and his pride had never been a burden. “We like your spirit,” he said briefly, “but your spirit is perhaps more interesting offstage than it is on—what do you know about the girl in this scene?”

  “I know that she has probably just finished washing the dishes, and her hands are probably still a little damp. I know she can’t stand the house she lives in—it makes her feel as though she’s in jail.” She paused. “She’s scared—scared that she’ll never get out of jail. She’s in love with Sid, but sometimes she almost hates him, too, and—well, she’s a virgin. That scares her, too. Maybe that scares her more than anything else.”

  “Pardon me, Miss King. Have you ever lived—as this girl lives?”

  “No. But I’ve never lived the life of Lady Macbeth, either. And no actress has.”

  Perhaps Saul could live without being burdened by pride; but he could not live without his control over that world he had made. And Barbara was beginning to jeopardize it. The interest in the scene was shifting from him to her. He cleared his throat. We waited.

  “Miss King,” he said, “when we said that we admired your spirit, we did not mean to suggest that we approved of bad manners. You are far from being able to play anything at all, let alone Lady Macbeth. If you are here to learn, we will endeavor to help you. If you are here, so to say, to show off, then we must tell you that we cannot tolerate such behavior. We have others to consider, Miss King. We cannot waste their time.”

  Barbara backed down, but not without a brief struggle, and remaining, anyway, irreducibly sardonic. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I apologize. I wasn’t trying to hog the scene.”

  Saul watched her. “You have not given us enough for us to be able to criticize you. We would like you to enroll in the Speech class, and in the Dance class. In about two weeks, we would like to see an improvisation. But we will discuss that with you later.” He turned to me. “Mr.—Proudhammer!” He looked again at Barbara. “You may step down, Miss King.”

  Barbara left the alcove.

  “Mr. Proudhammer,” Saul said, “you, too, are an extremely spirited young person, as you have given us occasion, lately, to realize.” There was some laughter at this. “Unfortunately, in spite of your—ah—spirit, we would say that your equipment for the theater is extremely meager.” He paused, and raised one hand. “This is not said in condemnation. We know of some names in the theater—not many, but some—who seemed to have no promise at all when they first began. If we had seen some very celebrated names at their beginning, we would have declined to teach them. We would have suggested that they were out of place in the theater. We would have been wrong. We do not mind saying so.” He paused. “But we must tell you that these—ah—actors that we have in mind had to struggle for many years against—ah—limits—limits for which no one could blame them, which were not their fault, but—ah—limits which were nonetheless extremely severe, and which handicapped them greatly.” He paused again. “The actor’s instrument, Mr. Proudhammer, is unlike any instrument used in art. A writer’s instrument is his pen, a violinist has a violin, a sculptor has stone and a chisel, an architect has a slide rule, and so forth. But an actor’s instrument is his body, is himself. Paul Robeson, for example, is an actor who was made to play Othello. The instrument suggests it, the instrument, so to say, demands it. Other actors could never play Othello. The instrument will not carry the illusion.” He coughed, and looked around the room. “We do not wish to say that anything is impossible. We know of a great French actor who is—ah—a hunchback. Art, like life, is full of exceptions. But these exceptions—prove the rule.” He looked at me again. “You are certainly an exception. Frankly, we find it difficult to know exactly how to proceed with you. There is nothing to indicate—ah—in our opinion—that you have any very striking theatrical ability. Except, perhaps, for that little dance at the very end of the scene. Then you seemed free, and, so to say, joyous and boyish. We found it your very best moment. And if we decide to continue with you—or if you decide to continue with us—it will be in the hope that we can make such moments come more easily to you.”

  I said nothing with my voice; I hoped I said nothing with my face.

  “This is,” he said, after a moment, “a somewhat unexpected scene for you and Miss King to present to us. Why did you choose this particular scene?”

  “We thought we could play it,” I said. He was making me feel foolish. I had to clear my throat, and I hated myself. “We liked it.”

  “What do you know about—ah—the young hack—Sid—in this scene?”

  I said, “He’s a poor boy. I’m a poor boy. He’s hungry. I’m hungry.”

  “You look fairly well fed to me,” said Saul. This elicited a small wave of laughter. I pressed my palms together. “You do not drive a cab,” he said.

  “I drive the Workshop car,” I said. Then, I wished I hadn’t said it. I’d forgotten about the goddamn car.

  “But you are not, we hope, about to go on strike against the Workshop.” This caused more laughter. “You are not trying to unionize your fellow workers. You are paid a living wage. And you are young to be considering marriage.” He reconsidered: “Young, certainly, that is, from a legal point of view.” He watched me. “We do not think that you have entered into the problems of the young taxi driver at all. We do not think you understood them. We doubt, frankly, that you so much as considered them. You were bombastic, hysterical, and self-pitying. You sounded like a schoolboy who has been beaten up at school. We found it hard to imagine that Florrie would wish to marry you. Frankly, our entire sympathy was with her brother.”

  He had me; he knew it; there was nothing I dared say.

  “As we said earlier to Mr. Parker, there is nothing wrong with aiming too high. Frankly, we think it possible that you must aim too high. We are not here to discourage. But we must tell you when we feel that you are aiming at a target which it will simply be impossible for you ever to reach.” He paused again. “But you are—ah—a spirited young man, and—ah—we will see what we can do. You will enroll in the Speech class. And we will speak with you concerning an improvisation in the next few days.” He looked at his watch. “That is all, for the present.”

  The class applauded. I stepped out of the alcove.

  Barbara had been cornered by Saul. The others did not quite know what to say to me. I walked outside. The car stood in the driveway. Jerry sat in the car.

  I walked over to him. It may be odd, but I felt that he was just about the only friend I had in the world. But we couldn’t be friends, either.

  I stood at the car door, and we stared at each other. He looked very tired. His hair was dirty. He hadn’t shaved.

  “How’s it going?” he asked. His voice sounded dry—light, as though the wind were turning it over, playing with it, blowing it about.

  “Jerry,” I said, “
I’m sorry. I just want you to know I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have hurt you for anything—anything in the world. I swear it. If I’d known—I swear—I’d have gone away.”

  He said, “It’s not your fault. I know that.”

  “It isn’t anybody’s fault,” I said, “is it?”

  “Not that I know of,” he said. He switched the ignition on, then switched it off. “I just mowed a lawn. Now, I’ve got to get to my Life class.” He looked at me. “I figured you’d need the car. I put some gas in her.” He patted the dashboard. “So. I’ll be getting along.”

  “You want me to drive you? I’ll drive you.”

  “They’ll be needing you here, won’t they?”

  “They can go fuck themselves,” I said. I got in the car. He moved over. “Fuck ’em.” I started the car, and we rolled down the driveway. We hit the streets of the town. I said nothing because I did not know what to say. I hurt for Jerry, and I hurt for me. Neither did Jerry say anything. Everything seemed such a waste.

  We stopped before the headquarters of the fig-leaf division.

  “Well,” Jerry said, and opened his door, “I’ll be seeing you, kid. Thanks for the ride.” Then, with his last words hanging on the air, we stared at each other.

  “Jerry,” I said—why was I frightened?—“please forgive me. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I really didn’t mean to hurt you.”

  “It’s not you who hurt me,” he said. He slapped me on the neck quickly, and smiled. “I love you, too,” he said. He got out of the car, and slammed the door. He started walking away, then turned. He said, “You got any money?”

  I said, “No.”

  He walked back to the car and handed me a dollar. “I’ll have more tonight. I guess we’ll be changing rooms.” He smiled, frowned, and shook his head. “I didn’t mean that. I got to be hauling ass out of here. I just don’t know.” He shook his head again, and his tears spangled the air. He turned away. “So long, Leo.”