“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental.
It’s so much like life.”—Arthur Miller
THE VIEW FROM HER BRIDGE
“The doctor left at five o’clock.”
Gaye Cleveland straightens up, avoiding the sight of her voluptuous breasts in the crisp, white tailored shirt buttoned to the neck, as called for in the script. She looks into a mirror. It is stained like a vintage map with the continents of age. It hangs flush to a roughly plastered wall above the bathroom sink no bigger than a bedpan.
Her nose is too broad, her mother’s legacy. She squints cautiously through her mother’s eyes; Native American eyes she cannot remember. Her full lips conceal irregular teeth. When she laughs she has a tendency to raise slender fingers to her mouth in girlish affectation. Her cheekbones are her best feature; high, sculpted mounds of snow-white skin, from her Irish father, that begged protection from the Colorado sun.
Picturing her face on the big screen dispels any illusions of Hollywood. Gaye is meant for the stage.
She repeats the line, shoulders thrown back. “The doctor left at—darn, still not right.” Gaye notices a minute blotch of coffee staining her miniskirt, also white, and huffs. “Darn, darn.” She presses her generous hip, willing the mark to disappear. Her shoulders slump. She has been rehearsing a line—her only line in the play.
In the street below the third floor walkup, a steady tidal swell issues from a procession of trucks heading for New Jersey and beyond along the spine of Ninth Avenue. A bus charges, then gasps under the lead-footed driver hindered by traffic inching toward Port Authority, a couple of blocks away. Always the taxicabs and limousines, and depending on the time of day or night and on how irritated the drivers or drunk the passengers, the accompanying chorus will be angrily convulsed or gleefully unpinned. What they all must have in common are seat belts. Her dad refused to wear one. He simply hacked the buckle and stuck it in the slot, defeating yet another attempt to thwart his freedom. Gaye had left her old junker behind in the care of her one close friend, Dick Hogben. The ’82 Chevy Nova would have trembled to a defeated halt long before Kansas City. New York City was no place for an ancient car named Francine.
Gaye worries the stain, striking it with a damp cloth like it’s an ill-timed reminder. Satisfied, she takes a deep breath, and then, willing melancholy from her, she exhales slowly. Her hero, Arthur Miller, comes to mind: Who can ever know what will be discovered? She peers into the mirror again, pulling a strand of freshly dyed hair from the towel clapped around her head. “Not quite Rihanna, but close,” she decides. She untwists the towel, shaking her head. “I am in New York City. This is why I came here.”
Her grandmother’s ranch—a tenacious ruin—seems very far away, further than Eek, which is her birthplace. That’s the joke she figures will open doors for an Alaskan transplant by way of Colorado. “Where ya from, Gorgeous?” a stranger will ask and she’ll respond with an infectious giggle, “Eek!” She will tell them she came to New York to be an actor. This will lead to an interesting conversation about growing up on a ranch. But no one asks.
Gaye has no memory of Eek nor of her mother. She died before Gaye turned three. Her grandparents took them in at their Colorado ranch. Her father, known only as DJ, didn’t say much, often leaving his questioner to interpret an eyebrow curled like a caterpillar that had been poked by a stick, or a crooked smirk, his miserly response. He hated anyone who wore a suit and tie. “Not my kind,” he’d grumble. “Those people are never up to anything good.” When pressed why he left Alaska, he’d say, “Can’t stand the smell of fish.” A brusque finger tapping on the shot glass before him signaled an end to the interrogation. Soon he couldn’t stand the smell of horseflesh. His mother warned her nine-year-old granddaughter: “Alaska doesn’t grow on you, it just makes you unfit to live anywhere else.” Once, she received an envelope from Fairbanks. No letter, just a worn hundred-dollar bill wrapped in a smudged bit of paper. She tried to guess what he was doing by the smell of his fingerprints. Postcards were infrequent clues to his peripatetic life. The last one was postmarked from Ketchikan. His careless handwriting cramped the punch line of a joke about a bridge to nowhere.
By the time she’d graduated from Wallsenberg High, Gaye knew A View From the Bridge by heart. She’d lobbied hard in her junior year to make Arthur Miller’s play their senior project. Before that could happen, the Drama Club was suspended. After that, she and Dick Hogben clung to each other like refugees from an enchanted garden. They made a pact. They would get jobs, share an apartment and in two years have enough saved to move to New York. Like some alternative Will and Grace, they pictured a life after laugh tracks. Then, before that could happen, September 11th happened. Dick’s fervor waned and reappeared as indecision and then, anger. He moved back in with his parents. A penchant for fabulousness tempered until he was nearly unrecognizable to Gaye. For a while, Gaye was safely undecided; her friend needed time. “Real soon,” became her mantra.
Her grandfather had a sharp tongue and an unwelcome touch. His comments fell like a box on the ear, never unexpected, yet always a shock. He mocked Gaye’s obsession with the Brooklyn Bridge and teased her mercilessly over her airs. His callous reproach was meant to deflate Gaye’s desire: “I know that town, that neighborhood. I don’t like it.” She would be eaten alive in the big city, he sneered. “You can’t be so friendly, kiddo and you can’t be walkin’ so wavy.”
When Gaye’s body blossomed into betrayal, her grandmother intervened. “You’re a big girl now,” her grandmother cautioned, “you gotta watch out, Hon, keep to yourself more.” Gaye’s visits to the ranch lessened.
After he died, relief remained unspoken. Gaye moved back at her grandmother’s urging because, she reasoned, there would be no harm in saving money and the ghosts of his taunts were harmless now. At the wake she’d been told it was too late. Never should have been scared off moving to New York City in ’01, when she was not yet twenty. She was accused of having cold feet. “It’s respect,” she replied.
At her grandmother’s funeral, four months before she set out for New York, it was a sharp comment she’d overheard from one of the regulars where she waitressed that got her moving. “That ass can still twist a guy’s head right offa his neck.” It was now or never she’d reckoned. The ranch would most likely be foreclosed. Only a few riders kept their mounts there anyway.
She found the sublet on Craig’s List in March, a month before she arrived. George Balint, a Hungarian sculptor, insisted on being called by his surname and on cash up front. She, not wanting to be taken for a country mouse, demanded a key from Balint in exchange. She’d arrived breathless at the top of the landing in early April, key in hand. He was there to greet her, a small man with a slight paunch and arms like thickly twisted rope. His teeth were in worse shape than hers. “Too much of this,” he said, tapping his nose with stubby fingers. Bookshelves, crowded into two rooms in dilapidated harmony, were a welcome sight, though it looked as if he had not actually left. Gaye’s unease was put to rest when he explained that he had moved into his studio at the end of the hall. She is to tell anyone who asks that she is a relative.
In a breathless first encounter at the mailboxes in the building’s crabbed and musty smelling vestibule, Gaye met Laurel Bud. She is an exotic combination of races: her father, a French Jazz guitarist, and her mother, an African American singer. Her skin is luminous, like a backlit mochachino. Her smile blazes like a Broadway marquee. Everything is awesome. She tells Gaye to, “Facebook me, Mama.” Gaye had been on the social network for a while—everyone was—but her friend Dick’s 1282 friends, at last count, unnerved her. He had no real friends apart from her. It was just another place to make Gaye feel lonely. “Will do,” she promised.
Laurel exercises her vocal cords directly below Gaye’s apartment. Unlike Gaye’s sublet, which has almost nothing of her present, Laurel’s apartment shouts for applause. You must say, “Gorgeous,” and “Oh I adore that,” in order for Laurel not to be disappointed. Confection pink walls trimmed in wedding dress white, cushiony ruby satin sofas, a massive gilt armoire and silver framed mirrors, and armloads of cut flowers in varying stages of collapse. Madame Butterfly meets Brideshead Revisited. No evidence of books among artfully scattered magazines like Vibe and Vogue. There is an oversized black and white photograph of the Golden Gate Bridge. When Gaye tells Laurel that it is a bridge—the Brooklyn Bridge—that brings her to New York City, Laurel flies off on a verbal tangent. An hour later, Gaye knows a lot more about Laurel and Laurel knows nothing, still, of Gaye. Back home Laurel would be considered rude. Here, she is a singer looking for her big break.
When she is feeling vulnerable and requires Gaye’s ear, Laurel proffers a bottle of wine and a limp pile of slights from the men she dates, “…all the wrong ones,” she moans. Friends betray and auditions don’t bring callbacks. She is older than Gaye by a dozen years. She regales Gaye with excerpts from the script she is writing for what Gaye thinks is an imminent one-woman cabaret until it dawns on her that Laurel has been working on this for a very long time. It steadies Gaye’s wavering confidence that a 40-something-year-old is not necessarily past her prime here. It is also oddly reassuring to catch Laurel on a midday coffee run, trench coat belted tightly over the kind of pajamas a child would wear. Then the gaps in Laurel’s beauty peek from indifferent eyes free of makeup, in the stark dismissal of hair extensions and the scowl she says she reserves for only her closest friends.
But when she is on, which is nearly always, Laurel pirouettes on steel-toed slippers. She wears her clichés with style. Her voice is majestic; the only way Gaye knows how to describe it to her friend, Dick. She is someone to learn from and she has a lot to say. Balint complains that she has too much to say, “…especially when she….” Again, he taps his nose. “She sucks the air right out of a room.” For the moment, though, she is singing Karaoke at midnight and pouring drinks in a sports bar on the east side.
A sound behind her startles Gaye. She never gets used to Balint’s unannounced visits. Gaye fumbles the towel and shakes her head. “You like?” Balint squints, as if in pain, at her newly auburn locks. “Very nice, Cookie. It suits you.” He is agitated. Gaye waits while he paces through the rooms. “She is painting me out of the picture!”
She is Alice Darling, a sixty-something painter with a discriminating generosity. Alice can spot a survivor and quickly befriends Gaye. She is a no nonsense native New Yorker who lives with two cats on the top floor. Slowly and at Gaye’s urging, Alice describes the day she knew she had to quit her job and return full time to painting. “The beginning of the end, for me,” she says. “Bourbon was involved, a lot of bourbon.” Gaye basks in Alice’s bravery, that she could chuck a lucrative career in magazine design for what she loved most. “There needs to be time to waste to make art,” Alice added. “I lost it and I wanted that back. Now tell me about you.” Inhaling benign neglect mingled with oily newness in Alice’s rooms, Gaye feels a sharp increase in growth.
Perched like clues among the detritus of art are miniatures of the figurative sculptures Gaye has seen in Balint’s studio. Alice’s sizeable canvasses depict similar figures. Gaye knows what picture Balint refers to. “You do?” he chokes. Balint scowls and bends stiffly at the waist, arms folded in a now familiar pose. “She is disappearing me.” Gaye thinks about the painting, two figures in a sun baked, striated landscape, and separated by a forbidding crevasse. Gaye offers: “Maybe she’s thinking of painting a bridge between them?” Balint shakes his head. “We’re not getting any younger, Cookie.”
He notices her outfit. “You waitressing?” Gaye tells him she’s scored a role in Chip Rodney’s avant-garde play Nuts on the Hudson. The director, Alfonso Riordan, had spotted her in a neighborhood bar, a few doors from his basement theater near Times Square.
She’d been sipping Dubonnet on the rocks and declined his invitation to something stronger. As they talked, and she understood that he was seriously considering her for a role in his play, she’d deftly shifted her cushioned buttocks on the bar stool when his slight, wavering hand found its way around her waist. He’d hopped off the barstool at nervous intervals. A telling odor of stale cigarettes clung to him. “Bloomberg is like some interfering grandma,” he grumbled. “First they came for the bars and I was silent….” She hadn’t known what this meant, but had nodded her head knowingly. Gaye supposed the white suit and red silk scarf tied rakishly around his neck was what theater types wore. His language was crude but no worse than what she was used to. And he was smart, seeing her potential right off the bat.
“Alfieri who?” Balint asks. Gaye corrects him: “Alfonso. Alfonso Riordan.”
“Never heard of him,” Balint retorts. “Wanna get a bite?”
A ‘bite’ meant the Olympic Diner. Tempting, but she was nervous, too nervous to eat. “See you later then, Cookie,” Balint calls, as he hurries from the room, “Time’s running out. Break a leg!”
On her first night in the city Gaye had been determined to head directly downtown. Balint pooh-poohed that idea. The Brooklyn Bridge was covered in tarps, under renovation, lead paint removal or something and it could go on for years. It was nighttime, he warned. “You’ll get creamed by some crazy cyclist. I’ll take you around the neighborhood,” Balint offered, but Gaye resolved to find her own way. No country mouse, she.
Charging into the theater district, subway map in hand, her thrill was quickly suffocated under a surge of theatergoers crashing toward opening curtain. Gaye clutched her bag and briefly lost her bearings. She was soon on a quieter, darker strip where desultory men demanded spare change. “Looking for something to eat,” one grizzled black man said, holding a grimy hand out to her. Uptown and downtown suddenly meant nothing to her, despite the effort she’d put into studying a map of Manhattan.
She plunged back into the throng until she found a subway entrance. Trains roared in both directions over four ominous tracks, drilling into her bones. She spotted one that indicated the World Trade Center. She figured it would get her close enough to the bridge, but she’d misstepped. The closing doors clipped her hard. She jumped back in fright. Shadows flickered from the grate to the street above and she felt entombed. “Are you pouring on the pounds?” demanded an advert. Disoriented, she stumbled in one direction, stopped by a sign that screamed no exit. Ominous black bins at the end of the platform pulsed with rodents. In a deli window above ground, her reflection—glistening and pale, black hair pressed to her head like a moldy sponge—was a cruel reminder of her naiveté.
The light under Balint’s studio door, the sound of chisel tearing into wood, had been a relief. He was working. She’d slipped unnoticed into the apartment, sliding the door chain behind her. At the flip of a switch mice skittered under a fluorescent scrim in a panic of discovery. Defeated, she gave them back the dark she could still not get used to, a dark that had a light of its own. She crawled into a strange bed and cried herself into an exhausted sleep.
Before Balint could make an appearance the next morning Gaye had set out again. She was freshly determined. It was daylight. She was hungry. She walked through a warm mist in quieter streets, the spent aftermath of an all night party. Tourists rumbled their luggage to waiting taxis or stood silently clutched in end-of-holiday determination to stay the course.
Gaye had wandered aimlessly along the same streets that had crushed her determination the night before. There was that funny little wooden structure that looked like a misplaced chalet. She would ask Balint about it. She’d been surprised at the presence of so many churches. Before the open doors of The Actors Chapel, she briefly considered the mass about to start. But the theater was her real church and her heart swelled at the passing names she had come to know so well in her imagination: The Majestic, Ethel Barrymore, the Booth and the Belasco, Lunt-Fontaine and Helen Hayes. There was The Book Of Mormon at the Eugene O’Neil. And there was the Harry Potter guy in How To Succeed…. Gaye took in the marquee of the Winter Garden, half-laughing to herself, “Mama Mia, I really am in New York.”
She had headed back to the pedestrian mall, which was nearly deserted, set at the bottom of an electrified canyon; the little red tables and gray picnic chairs stood empty and slick with rain. Gaye, thrilled to the core, paused before the statue of George M. Cohan. She recalled Dick’s reluctant farewell: “Give my regards to Broadway, Gaye.” She’d wanted to shout: “Look for my name in lights!” But back home her plans were met with derision. They wanted her to stumble. They wanted her to lose. Better than everyone else, but not good enough for New York. She voices the playwright again: “Who can ever know what will be discovered?”
Her stomach rumbled like an unexpected train. She shook the previous night from her. The Stardust Diner had caught her eye, but she shied from the cost of breakfast. Passing the Hotel Edison, she’d regrouped and found her courage and decided to enter the yellow and beige interior of the coffee shop. Fleurs–de–lys stuck to the walls like cake decorations. The place was heaving and she could hardly tell one language from another that pleaded with boisterous children. Gaye had timidly asked a gray-haired man in a Ranger’s Jersey: “Waiting long?” “Too long?” he barked and barged past her. Gaye headed for the counter and was met by an Italian tourist who’d screamed at her, furiously indicating the handful of empty seats: “Occupado!”
Gaye, defeated, returned to Balint’s paternal scold. “Come with me Cookie,” he’d said, and led her to the Olympic Diner. Waiters called you, “My Fren…” Within weeks she was a regular, often returning on her own. Eggs Florentine. Belgian Waffles. For dinner, burger with fries. She dumped lots of sugar in her coffee, not yet ready to filch a few packets as she had seen others do in her job.
The woman at the register looked a lot like Gaye, rounded, full bosomed and entirely at ease with the aqua and white-tiled world. Around her hung large black-and-white photos of Manhattan at night, the Brooklyn Bridge among them. Gaye took note of the woman’s placid boredom. She was dressed in a long sleeve blouse with lacy turtleneck and cuffs under a double-breasted red jacket, a rhinestone buckle on a generous belt, her blonde hair piled like whipped cream on a pudding, watching everything, every one who came and went.
Gaye loved the camaraderie of the giggling Mexican men, the kitchen workers and delivery guys and the counterman with the salt and pepper moustache, gold chains tangled in a tuft of hair peeking from his open necked white shirt. He always gave her more jelly, and when she’d announced that part, he’d shouted “Brava!” and kissed her on the cheek.
“Hey Girl. Awesome color!” Gaye looks up from a single line in the script highlighted in yellow. Laurel Bud smells like the fresh return of spring, yet it is still October. She looks stunning in a body-hugging leopard print dress, shrinking Gaye’s confidence.
Laurel pushes past her and scrutinizes her reflection. “Do I look hung over?” Gaye ignores the question and murmurs: “Do you really think it’s okay?” Laurel laughs. “Of course, silly pants.” She lifts perfectly manicured fingers to Gaye’s hair, frowning and plumping. “Amaze balls.” She eyes Gaye like she is a misbehaved child. “Tonight’s the night, then? Your first rehearsal?” She is holding a card. “This was under your door.” Laurel roams the apartment, still holding Gaye’s card. “Can I take this?” She waves Gaye’s battered copy of “A View From the Bridge.” Gaye balks, but Laurel slips it into a Kate Spade knockoff. “It’s a lo-o-o-ng ride back from Long Island, Carey.” Gaye looks up, confused. “The Elvis Show. I told you about that, silly pants.” “I have to get ready,” Gaye says. “Me, too,” Laurel sings, “Must fly. I’ll take you out for a drink later on.” Laurel hangs by the door, benevolent. “Be careful,” she warns. “Something’s going on tonight in Times Square.” “You be careful too,” Gaye responds. “Thank you, Auntie Carey,” Laurel scowls, and then flashes her Audrey Hepburn smile.
Carey Gaye. The name change was Laurel’s idea. “Hon, you need to have a stage name. Imagine that name up on a theater marquee. No offense, sweetie, but Gaye Cleveland sounds like Gay Pride Week in Ohio.” A drink with Gaye later on would depend on what better thing came along. She’d no end of advice on what to wear, how to come across at an audition. Gaye always listened—she had to—but shrank from the idea that she could be a telephone fantasy girl if things didn’t work out. “You def have the voice for it, Mama,” Laurel had insisted. “And it’s not like any of those guys can see you.”
She checks the clock above the stove—a relic that she has not put to use—and then warily eyes the perimeter. Mice were a benign fact of life on the ranch. Here, they skittered like criminals. Hairbrush in hand, she returns to the bathroom mirror. She’s from Wallsenberg, Colorado, from one of the poorest counties. She has survived a summer in New York. She’ll need a job real soon. She can always waitress. Now she is meeting the director at his apartment. A dry run he tells her. Gaye thinks about Laurel’s warning, but he has assured her the rest of the cast will be there. She summons her inner Beatrice and speaks to her reflection: “Yeah but who is he in the daytime, though? It’s the same chance in the daytime.”
Gaye remembers a card Laurel had dropped off. She finds it in the place where her copy of Miller’s play had been. It’s from Alice. It’s handmade and covered in drawings of theater masks and they are all…smiling. “Knock ‘em dead,” it reads, “Love, Alice.”
She looks up when she hears footsteps running past her door. Car horns blast and there is shouting in the street below. It’s an unseasonably warm October night and Gaye leans out above the fire escape. People come from everywhere, spilling from the sidewalks into the street, moving uptown against traffic. Some are dressed like zombies, staggering comically among the fast growing throng. Many are carrying signs: We are the 99%, End Corporate Personhood, God Hates Banks. A young man streaks through carrying a flag and a clutch of student types yell in unison: “No truth! No justice! Whose streets? Our streets!” A few are masked in whiteface, and they are wearing t-shirts that say Occupy Wall Street. Cops, clutching their weapons, run in a column, struggling to head off the protesters. Nightsticks flip at their sides like untethered limbs.
The older woman waving to her is Alice Darling. “I’ll see you later,” she hollers, “I’ve got a revolution to go to.”
Gaye returns her wave and lowers the window. She always expected to have a destiny. Who can ever know what will be discovered? Gaye smiles to herself and says softly: “Who can ever know who will be discovered?”
THE VIEW FROM HER BRIDGE is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © FEBRUARY 2012.