Champagne and Balducci’s

Champagne

Illustration by S.C. Watson

by Laurel Anne Hill

 

Real trees didn’t dance in kitchens or anywhere else, so what the hell was going on now? Just five feet away from Warren Lund, a scrawny redwood sapling pirouetted on root tips as though the New York City Ballet had opened a show in Fangorn Forest. The tree wiggled outstretched branches, split its lower trunk to form two timber legs and leaped in his direction.

Warren dodged sideways. The envelopes he held scattered like broken crackers tossed to pigeons. His shoulder hit the refrigerator hard. His dinner sack thumped against the floor. The tree vanished in a puff of cream-colored smoke, as though on stage. A whiff of fresh evergreen lingered.

This prank had to be his roommate’s doing. Arlo, a dancer and magician, was warped. Okay, where had he hidden? The pantry?

But Arlo had boarded a plane three days ago, had even said not to call except in dire emergency. Arlo had too much on his plate to sneak back to Manhattan for a gag. Sweat dripped off the tip of Warren’s long, narrow nose. His damp T-shirt clung to his chest. Another poof and the kitchen filled with lemon-yellow vapor. Who—or what—would he find when the air cleared? Tolkien’s Treebeard or Harry Potter?

The smoke dissipated, revealing a gaunt figure hunched over a three-ring binder, sitting on a wooden stool. The man bore a deadpan expression, like a crafty poker player dealt four aces. A cigarette dangled from the side of his mouth and shed ashes on his black pants and V-necked sweater. Why, this was Warren’s boyhood idol—Bob Fosse.

No way Fosse could have stolen into Warren’s apartment. The renowned director, choreographer and Broadway icon had died over twenty years ago, in 1987. Ghosts—like dancing saplings—existed only in the realm of fantasy. Warren would figure out a reasonable explanation for all this… wouldn’t he?

He rubbed his sore shoulder and glanced at the clock. Two hours before midnight. He had gotten off work at nine, after an ordinary humid July day. Ordinary, that is, until he had returned home, fetched the mail and flipped on his kitchen light. Fosse glanced up, as though in rehearsal for Chicago or Damn Yankees.

“You call yourself a dancer?” Fosse said. “You’ll never land a job on a Broadway stage at the rate you’re going, other than to push a broom. You barely made the chorus of an off- Broadway flop.”

An unruly lock of Warren’s curly black hair hung in front of his eyes. He ought to defend himself but Fosse had pegged the problem. It was time to return to California and become an accountant. Meet the right woman. Get a life. Warren stammered a lame remark, more syllables of sounds than words.

“That’s not good enough.” Fosse peered over the top of his granny glasses and shifted position. “I want more.” A column of beige smoke oozed up from the base of the stool. The icon’s image faded.

A husky, melodious voice called out Warren’s name. What now? A thin young woman with long legs stood in the kitchen doorway, her right leg raised high in a vertical split, toes pointed and ankle at brow level. A maroon leotard and tights, as taut as skin, hugged her petite curves. Where had she come from? Thick cocoa-brown hair draped her shoulders with sensual waves.

“It’s been two weeks since you’ve gone for a jazz class and three since you’ve hit the gym,” she said, still perfectly balanced. “Bet you’d tear a muscle if you tried this.”

How did she know what he did or didn’t do? Warren pressed his back against the refrigerator, studying her wide blue-gray eyes. They looked soft enough to melt. The mixed fragrances of Christmas trees and expensive perfume wafted to his nose.

“Who are you?” he whispered. “What are you?”

“A space alien.” She morphed into a pulsing gelatinous mass—an enormous fluorescent green blob with three maraschino cherry eyes. “Remember when you were seventeen and auditioned for that academy? They told you to pretend to be a bowl of lime Jell-O. If only you’d quivered more.”

A pressure surged within Warren’s head and throttled his temples. The lime Jell-O blurred with the scattered envelopes on the floor. He sank to his knees. Something was seriously wrong. Drugs! Some street wacko could have dusted the mailbox with crack or methamphetamine. Verizon had disconnected Warren’s cell phone yesterday for nonpayment. He crawled toward the living room and Arlo’s land line telephone. What was the number for Poison Control? Or had the government discontinued that service? It didn’t matter. The phone was gone.

The Jello-O giggled with a musical sound and sprouted two maroon-clad legs. “I’m not really from outer space. Now, it’s your turn to do an improvisation.” She balanced on the balls of her feet and rocked from side-to-side, like a metronome on slow speed. “Pretend you’re a ripe avocado or a rotting pear.”

Warren, still on his hands and knees, parted his lips, unable to speak. Nobody knew about his recurring nightmare—being backstage at the Ambassador Theater on Forty- Ninth Street, dressed in an avocado costume with a jammed zipper. Gene Kelly always belted out “Singing in the Rain” from a lamppost in the audience. Fosse always shouted for Warren to get on stage and be a pear.

The mustard-yellow sofa with the flattened cushions drifted in and out of focus. Warren hadn’t eaten much since six in the morning. Food might help. He crawled back into the kitchen and enlisted the support of the stove to stand. The woman in maroon opened the cabinet under the sink and tossed his white plastic sack into the garbage.

“That’s my dinner,” Warren protested.

Was your dinner.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out a large manila envelope and extracted one of the eight-by-ten glossy photos Warren handed out at auditions. She scrunched her face, then turned the picture upside-down.

“Know what this headshot says about you?”

He stared at the lackluster image with the dark complexion, boxy jaw and phony smile. The faint crinkles below its eyes suggested an older age, maybe forty instead of twenty-eight. He massaged his throbbing temples. What was he supposed to reply? That he was black-and-white, tired, and worked for cheap?

“This man,” the woman said, “eats disgusting leftover falafel from a fast-food hole-in-the-wall and lets balsamic vinegar the color of crankcase oil dribble down his arms.” She tapped the tip of her first finger against the photograph.

“I happen to like balsamic on my falafel,” Warren said. “And what do you expect on my income? Champagne and caviar?”

There was nothing wrong with the occupational perk of free food, even if it came from a third-rate restaurant. Okay, he danced rotten. But what right had she to bust into the apartment and pick apart his entire life?

“I can’t afford crab cakes from Balducci’s,” he snapped.

His stomach gurgled as he pictured the wheels and pie-shaped wedges of pungent imported cheeses in Balducci’s. The crusts on the fresh loaves of bread always looked so crisp. A sharp bite might make them shatter.

“It’s time you improved your image and got a real job,” the woman said. Her eyes crinkled to disapproving little slits, like lopsided sections of miniature Venetian blinds. “You can’t mooch off Arlo forever.”

“You think I like living this way?” The warmth of mixed embarrassment and anger spread across Warren’s cheeks.

He glanced at a framed portrait of Arlo in the vestibule, taken by Jason Leigh, one of Manhattan’s finest photographers. Arlo could act, sing or dance his way across any stage as though he owned it. He had just left for a three-month gig in Las Vegas—had even arranged to lease a pricey mid-town apartment upon his return. The photo radiated the image of his growing success.

Warren sat on the vinyl floor and drew his knees toward his chest. What was he doing, carrying on an argument with some phantom dredged from the depths of his own screwed-up mind? He smelled evergreen and recalled an audition for a school play in the third grade. He had wanted the role of John Muir but had been cast as a redwood tree. His hands tensed.

The woman in maroon did a slow horizontal split and landed. She stretched her torso forward until her elbows pivoted against the floor. Her palms rested under her chin.

“Poor dear,” she said, “you were mortified. Muir was manly, the epitome of the rugged mountaineer. And you had to stand at the rear of the stage for twenty whole minutes, decked out in cheap cardboard and waving two funky plastic branches, while some overconfident creep you despised stole the show.”

“I’m dying.” Warren buried his face in his hands. “That’s the only explanation.”

“No, you’re not,” she said. “I abhor trite endings.”

The woman stood and snapped her fingers. She wore a black tuxedo now, complete with gold studs and a rose silk cummerbund. She slung a soiled dishtowel over one arm, with a grand gesture, and opened the refrigerator door.

“My stage name’s Velvet Skye. I’ll be your waiter tonight. Among other things, the specialty of the house includes champagne, caviar and crab cakes from Balducci’s.”

Velvet transferred a plaid liquor sack and a green-and-white shopping bag to the kitchen counter. Warren inventoried the array of delicacies—crispy Roman artichokes and chocolate torte, even buckwheat blinis for the Beluga. The food looked so good.

“The crab cakes are cooked,” she said. “You don’t mind if we nuke them, do you?”

“That… that’s fine.”

He touched the neck of the bottle of chilled Mumm’s with the tip of his first finger. The vessel neither imploded nor vanished in a puff of smoke. He crinkled the edge of a paper wrapper. The wrapper seemed real, too.

“Set the table, or do I have to do everything?” Velvet laughed—a musical laugh, as clear as the tinkle of a glass bell. “Besides, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten in years.”

Warren pinched the skin on his forearm. Nothing worse than momentary discomfort resulted. He grabbed a sponge from under the sink and mopped off the gummy metal top of the nearby card table. He frowned, then rummaged through a drawer. A clean towel would have to do for a tablecloth. He washed two mismatched plates, some stainless steel utensils and a couple of ten-ounce plastic tumblers. Arlo hated to shop for housewares.

Warren folded paper towels for napkins. Blue-and-crimson lights flickered across them, like the images of flames in mirrors. He held linen now, not paper, and faced a mahogany table set with sterling silver, gold-rimmed champagne flutes and china. Velvet tilted each flute and filled the sparkling crystal with Mumm’s.

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Is the pattern on the Wedgwood too busy?”

“Oh, nothing’s wrong.” He swallowed hard, as though trying to clear a lump of meat from a dry throat. Nothing was wrong at all, in a way.

Velvet spread caviar on several buckwheat pancakes the size of silver dollars. She added dollops of sour cream and slid one of the appetizers into his mouth. The mild tang of the blini and cream muted the stronger but pleasing flavors of salt and fish. Warren chewed in slow motion. She had just transformed paper into linen and metal into mahogany. What the hell was he really eating—stale raisin bran and lumpy outdated milk?

“Table setting’s a fake but the food’s real,” she said, as though she had read his mind. She licked her fingers and tapped her crystal flute against his. “Your tax dollars at work. I walked into Balducci’s and the nearest liquor store this afternoon, projected the persona of our dear mayor and charged this whole damn meal to the City.”

Warren chuckled. She was outrageous—totally, wonderfully outrageous. He broke into unrestrained guffaws. Velvet laughed with him, her eyes sparkling like sapphires reflecting shafts of sunlight. Perhaps he was eating raisin bran. He didn’t really care.

After dinner, he and Velvet stood by the open bedroom window, against the backdrop of a wrought iron railing and a graveyard for cigarette butts. They did cold readings of dialogues by Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams. She closed the book and grasped his hand. They sat on his futon and listened to the honks and brake squeals of taxis navigating a Manhattan summer’s night.

“The theater’s a mistress,” she said. “But…”

Warren didn’t hear the rest. She toyed with his curly black hair, twisting the longer strands around her slender fingers. He cupped his hands around her petite breasts, her skin softer than clouds.

They made love on Arlo’s double bed, dancing an ancient dance on white sheets as though every movement had been choreographed anew. Velvet was Eve, Juliet, Helen of Troy—then Delilah afire. She ignited her Samson until his strength was consumed. A warm breeze slipped through the window, too humid to evaporate sweat from sticky flesh. A phantom light from the outside world played on the ceiling. Warren stroked Velvet from her head to her toes, afraid she might vanish.

* * * * *

Warren awakened to the annoying pulse of his digital alarm clock. Daylight streamed through the window. Morning was here. Velvet wasn’t. He called for her several times. Perhaps she was hiding, playing another game. He checked under the bed and dug through the closet. Had she turned herself into a piece of clothing or an umbrella? Warren sniffed Arlo’s leather jacket and inspected a polished loafer.

He stumbled toward the kitchen. Where was she? He noticed the cabinet doors under the sink, ajar, and flung them open. The shopping bag from Balducci’s was tucked inside of the plastic garbage pail, beside the empty champagne bottle. The trash smelled of Christmas trees. The aroma faded. Warren slumped to the floor, cradled the pail in his arms and cried.

The telephone rang. Velvet? Warren scrambled to reach the phone, hoping to hear her laugh. The male voice on the other end was effeminate and unmistakable—his agent, Larry. Warren tried to conceal his disappointment.

“I just lined up an audition,” Larry said. “Next Friday morning at ten sharp.”

Warren opened a drawer and grabbed a pencil and pad. Of course, he wouldn’t get a private audition. He never did.

“Another cattle call?”

“One for blue ribbon stock,” Larry gloated. “We’re talking best of Fosse.”

The new restaging of Fosse’s most spectacular musical numbers? The show scheduled to open soon? The pace of Warren’s heartbeats quickened.

“You mean,” Warren said, “on Broadway?”
“Well, I don’t mean the Brooklyn Bridge. Listen, an unexpected slot turned up. Not principal, but good. I talked you up big, okay? Said Bob Fosse was your idol and you could dance his routines in your sleep. The Broadhurst at ten—no, nine-thirty’s safer. And, for godsakes, don’t let me down and dance sloppy, or my reputation’s dead meat.”

The phone call ended. This was the potential break—the big one—and Warren had skipped jazz class for two weeks and dropped his membership at the gym. His credit cards were maxed. His headshot looked stupid. An eighteen-wheel truck might as well flatten him right now. Warren pounded his fist on the counter and swore. His dream girl had just gone virtual unreality and now this.

Warren needed coffee. He brewed the last of the house blend he had filched from the restaurant. Flashbacks of Velvet blazed through his memory like fireworks in a cloudless night sky. Could even a wacked-out imagination create a fantasy that real? The weak coffee tasted lousy. He downed it anyway and decided to audition.

Warren piled his meager supply of cash on the kitchen table and found his checkbook. It would take money to make money. He hunted through Arlo’s closet and dresser drawers, unearthing a MasterCard, two fifties, seven tens and a dozen twenties. Arlo’s money went on the left side of the table. His own stayed on the right. Warren put on his leotard and sweats, stuffed thirty right-side dollars into his pocket and caught the subway uptown.

The dance studio occupied the third floor. He plunked down the fee on the registration table and signed in. The instructor was new. At least the guy wouldn’t make any cute remarks about why Warren kept missing class. Warren cut to the rear of the room to warm up muscles stiffened from neglect. The ninety-minute ordeal seemed endless.

* * * * *

The next morning, Warren felt like a hood ornament after a head-on collision. He soaked in a hot bath. It didn’t help. His dancing sucked. He’d totally blow the audition. Larry would dump his portfolio into the East River.

He mushed some stale raisin bran with water. Arlo’s portrait seemed to watch his every move. Arlo had said not to call except in an emergency, would go postal if Warren woke him up to beg for money. Warren slurped down breakfast. How could he afford new shots? He covered Arlo’s photo with a dishtowel and checked the listings of photographers in the phone book. His guts ached, as though two hands twisted them. He’d never stolen money before.

It was Sunday. After jazz class, Warren headed for the Jason Leigh Studio near Grand Central Station. The steel gate was open but the place looked dark. He prayed and turned the knob. The door creaked open.

The proprietor’s bell tinkled with an old-fashioned sound, straight out of a Forties flick. Warren stood motionless in the doorway. A balding man wearing narrow-rimmed glasses emerged from the back room. His tight black turtleneck and jeans accentuated his broad shoulders and flat gut. The diamond stud embedded in the lobe of his left ear glittered. The man matched Arlo’s vague description of Jason Leigh. He coughed as though he smoked too much and cleared his throat. An air-conditioning unit, wedged in a small window above the front door, rattled.

“I need a decent headshot,” Warren said. “At least two copies by Thursday night.”

“Are you kidding?” Jason flipped through the appointment book on the counter. “I can’t even guarantee a shoot by then.”

“You did as much for Arlo Brandon last year,” Warren said, unsure if the guy would wink or throw him out.

Jason’s gaze shifted, obviously scrutinizing Warren from head to toe. Warren fidgeted with the lower edge of his sweatshirt. He dug out Arlo’s credit card and two fifty-dollar bills.

“I’ve got an important audition Friday morning,” Warren said. “The shot I’ve got won’t do. And Arlo claims you’re the best photographer around.”

Jason removed his glasses and rubbed his right eye. He squinted at the lenses, then eradicated a smudge with a linen handkerchief. Would he agree?

“You just can’t charge something to somebody else’s account. I don’t know you from beans.”

Warren offered his California driver’s license. Maybe he should have phoned Arlo. Too late, now. The photographer studied the license in the light from a goose-necked lamp. He ran his finger across the hologram of Warren’s picture and the State of California seal. He inspected the two fifties. Probably thought they might be counterfeit. Jason smoothed back the thinning black hair on the sides of his head, then gestured toward the back room.

“Put on the white polo shirt at the front of the rack,” Jason said. “Let me do your makeup, though.” The air conditioner seemed to rattle louder. “If you’ve stolen that card—if you’re lying—you won’t perform for anyone in New York again. Understand?”

Warren understood all too well.

* * * * *

Warren returned to the photographer’s on Thursday at three o’clock. The studio was dark, its steel gate locked. Where was Jason? Warren needed those new shots for the audition tomorrow. He rattled the bars and pounded his fists against the sun-warmed metal. Two middle-aged women in chinos and floppy blouses walked by and stared.

“You don’t have to bust my place in,” a voice said.

Warren faced the photographer. Jason frowned, the skin on his forehead as rutted as a ploughed field. He set a small paper sack on the pavement and dug a single key out of the side pocket of his white Dockers.

“I skipped lunch to finish your pictures,” Jason said. “A man has to eat.”

Warren’s mouth froze in neutral gear. A taxi driver wearing a turban wove his cab through traffic, leaning on the horn. A pigeon flapped by and landed on a discarded donut. Was Warren the only New Yorker who didn’t express himself worth a damn or know where he was headed?

Jason rolled the gate aside. He motioned Warren over to the counter and disappeared into the back room. He emerged carrying several eight-by-ten glossy photos stacked on a sheet of white mounting board.

“This is the real you,” he said. “I mean, if you ever grow up and calm down.”

Warren focused on the image of a soul in black and white. The eyes in the photo looked alert and sensual—almost alive. The lips were slightly parted, curved in a natural smile. The overall combination radiated artistic sensitivity… success.

“How can I ever thank you?” Warren’s tongue felt thick, as though he’d been drinking.

The photographer placed seven photos into a shallow nine-by-twelve-inch cardboard box. He rested his hand atop Warren’s, his palm warm.

“Get a good night’s sleep,” Jason said. His voice sounded genuine and kind. “You’re prettier than Arlo but you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Warren returned to the apartment. He left the box of photos on the living room sofa and hit the sack by nine. His brain chanted the photographer’s advice like a television set blaring an obnoxious commercial. Warren listened to the sounds of traffic for two hours. His leg muscles ached. He stumbled toward the kitchen to down his last three Advil.

One of his new headshots sat on the kitchen counter. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood as though spray-painted in position. The image of his eyes sparkled with an intense crimson light. Warren blinked. The light vanished. The room spun. He awakened in Arlo’s bed at sunrise. What the hell had happened the night before?

* * * * *

Warren arrived at the Broadhurst Theater at nine-thirteen. The shocking-pink lettering on a promotional poster challenged him from behind a brass-framed plate of glass: Sexy! Hot! Go! He stepped onto the green-and-white floor tiles in the foyer, his tongue daubed with a metallic taste. Apprehension always wacked his taste buds before an audition. He glanced up at a crystal chandelier, then entered the main theater and stretched his muscles to prepare for the test.

A thin, sandy-haired man with a clipboard set up a card table near the front row of seats. Warren signed a roster, filled out a card and placed his headshot on the table.

Eight other men arrived and registered, dressed in sweatpants and T-shirts. Several limbered their legs. A chestnut-skinned man with a stubby ponytail stripped down to his black leotard and tights. He practiced the splits in the center aisle, his thighs taut, and his movements smoother than a Teflon-coated zipper.

“You look terriff, Barry,” a dancer with one pierced ear said, obviously trying to ease the surrounding competitive tension.

Warren’s stomach churned, as though he was about to drill his own teeth. The other guys all seemed to know each other. They probably attended classes together or had worked some of the same shows. Only one person in Warren’s jazz class was employed as a dancer—the instructor. Warren exercised his feet and calves with a therapeutic stretch band. These guys looked so damned professional. What chance had he to get the part?

A high-pitched feminine voice drew Warren’s attention. A willowy brunette in stretchy white slacks strode down the center aisle toward the stage, accompanied by a man in his forties, probably a choreographer. They sat in the second row of seats. The brunette crossed her legs. A teal polyester blouse clung to her flat chest. The man with the clipboard handed her the stack of glossy prints, then turned toward the assembled group. He rattled off a string of instructions for the dancers. Each would cross the stage one at a time for a warm-up, doing steps from “Steam Heat,” a Fifties showstopper—sexy, smooth, precise and classic Fosse.

Warren and the others lined up single file by height in the wing at stage right. At five-foot-eleven, he stood third from the rear of the line. He breathed in, mentally counting to four. He counted to four again and exhaled. If only Warren were two inches taller, he’d go last.

The first man in line, the Barry guy, danced across the stage sideways, on his knees, facing his audience of three. Both his hands clutched an imaginary bowler. His arms—and the hat that wasn’t—drew a large, continuous circle in the air as he moved. Warren could almost hear the click of an advancing locomotive’s wheel against steel rail. No way for Warren to beat that.

Barry reached the opposite wing, stood and gave his name. The second dancer crossed the stage. The third. The fourth… Warren’s turn arrived. His heart pounded like a lead drummer high on drugs. Then the image of Bob Fosse, clothed in black, appeared in the opposite wing. The other dancers didn’t seem to notice. Fosse pushed a derby down over his brow and gestured toward center stage.

“Get out there,” Fosse called. He took a long, hard drag on a fresh cigarette while he stubbed the butt of the previous one in a translucent bucket of sand. “Be me and give it all.”

The theater darkened. Beams from twin spotlights pierced the blackness. Their golden pools hit center stage and flared. Velvet posed statue-still in the far beam, her sequined crimson tuxedo glittering like a chain reaction of light.

Warren’s skin tingled at the sight of Velvet. Was she truly there? She faced him, her knees bent and legs apart. Her pelvis rocked with sensuous thrusts. The red bowler in her right hand accentuated the suggestive rhythm. Her eyes glistened, pupils sparkling like two ruby sequins.

“Come on,” Velvet called to him. “Get hot.”

She belted out one of yesterday’s songs, as though she could be heard and seen by all—as though her song resonated fresh and new. Even her verbal mechanical sound effects, her banging-on-the radiator clicks and steam hisses, swelled fresh and new.

Warren moved onto the stage—cool, slow, sharp and very Fosse. Velvet might vanish in a minute, but for now she was vibrant and real. The center spots blazed red. She switched the step. Warren did, too. He entered the crimson beam beside hers.

They danced side-by-side across the other half of the He stage, under the hot lights. The mingled odors of woman, sweat and redwood permeated Warren’s nose, mouth and mind. Just short of the wing, Warren called out his name, facing a standing ovation from the packed house that wasn’t. He was Fosse, Arlo Brandon, John Muir—everything he’d ever dreamed.

The rest of the audition simply happened. Nine male dancers faced their critical audience of three. No one actually told Warren, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” No one had to. Warren read the expression in the choreographer’s eyes. Barry would get the part.

* * * * *

Warren walked away from the Broadhurst, the pack containing his dance gear against his back. He let the hot, wet midday air numb his feelings as it sapped his strength. He passed a closed theater. A cardboard-and-newspaper bed blocked the boarded-up stage doors. Was that his fate?

A sidewalk vendor hawked rice and kabobs. The smells of grease and chicken nauseated Warren. Water flowed along hosed-down gutters. He purchased a bottle of Crystal Geyser and sat on the stairs leading to the subway downtown.

He should have hunched his shoulders more during the audition and snapped his fingers less. His movements should have been more angular and clear. Warren gulped down the cool water, as though the liquid might evaporate. He fished a subway token from his pocket, hoping Larry, his agent, wouldn’t call today.

The stifling underground station appeared unusually empty. Warren mopped his forehead and gazed down at the tracks, then into the blackness of the bore. He had stolen Arlo’s money, couldn’t pay it back. The rumble of an approaching train drew him closer to the edge of the platform. He could smell the stink of his own sweat. The rumble intensified. A yellow ball of light hung in the tunnel, like a coastal beacon in the fog. His left foot inched into the void.

“I abhor trite endings,” a voice said.

Startled, Warren teetered backwards to safety. The train emerged from the darkness. His heart pounded. What the hell had he almost done?

“The theater’s a mistress,” the voice said, “but she demands all and belongs to all.”

Warren recognized the voice now. The words and inflection were Velvet’s. The voice was his own. He boarded the train and slumped in an empty seat, struggling to solve the intangible puzzle of Velvet’s identity. A boom box thumped rap ten feet away. A swarm of squealing kids buzzed into the car at the next station and out, two stations later. The train picked up speed again and swayed. Who was she? His inner self or some sort of muse? Nothing made sense.

Warren stepped off the subway and climbed the stairs toward daylight. A humid draught hit his face and a sharp click caught his attention. A translucent image of Fosse, holding a leather case, stood on the sidewalk. The gaunt icon lit a cigarette, coughed, and opened the case.

“You almost killed yourself down there,” Fosse said. “If you really want to dare the Devil, do it right, the way I did.” He offered three plastic vials of pills in his outstretched palm. “Poppers, Dexamil, Seconal, everything you need.”

The world undulated around Warren, cold as a dead halibut packed in ice. A ruby-red neon arrow flickered across the street, pointing toward the parking lot below. He smelled evergreen, then dug his hands into his pants pockets and walked away from Fosse’s image.

* * * * *

The telephone rang an hour later in the apartment. Larry must be calling. Warren should admit failure and accept the consequences.

“I know you didn’t get the part,” Larry said. He sounded as wound-up as a coil of wire humming with electricity. “Hey, sit down if you aren’t already. Madison and Moore—that hot new ad agency—wants you to do a commercial.”

“What gives?” Warren hadn’t auditioned for any commercial in months.

“Christine Phillips—one of their managers called,” Larry said. “Her younger sister was at the audition this morning. Christine wants to meet you Monday at eleven and offer a contract. To do a wacky commercial for the next Super Bowl.”

“The Super Bowl?” Had he misheard?

“A beer commercial,” Larry gloated. “Something woodsy with a tree dancing a pseudo-Fosse routine. Christine’s sister swears you’d be perfect. Claims she saw you on stage and could even smell pines.”

Warren’s elementary school play. The message hit as though a giant sequoia had crashed-landed beside him. The whole blasted country would watch him dance—and he’d be a damned tree? What would they have him do, hand Mean Joe Green a can of carbonated sap? Warren stifled the urge to deliver a sarcastic quip.

“That’s fantastic,” Warren said. “What’s the address?”

Warren hung up the phone five minutes later and burst into unrestrained laughter. Life had typecast him as a tree. He pretended to wave two funky plastic branches at the choreographer, Barry Ryan and the brunette in the teal blouse. He did the splits, his arms raised in mock triumph.

“Warren Lund,” he announced, “a dancer who puts his best root forward. A redwood for all seasons.” He laughed a hard, bitter laugh. “The theater demands all and delivers squat.”

Warren inhaled the odor of an old wooden stage sprinkled with sawdust. Images of him and Velvet dancing “Steam Heat” flipped through his mind. He recalled his own voice reciting her words with her inflection. He turned a mental key. Velvet had known he wouldn’t get the Broadway part. She had inspired him to dance his best for the brunette—the Phillips woman. Had somehow convinced the brunette to hire him. Why hadn’t he seen the whole truth before? Velvet really was a muse yet so much more—a little bit of him, Fosse and Broadway.

Warren rested his palms against the smooth vinyl floor. An ache of loneliness seared his mind and soul. The feeling retreated to the pit of his stomach and gnawed with the blunt teeth of emotional distress. Velvet didn’t belong to him and never could. She belonged to art, was the substance and illusion of theatrical art.

The front door opened with the sound of rushing wind. Velvet appeared in a puff of crimson stage smoke. The shopping bag she clutched bore the green-and-white Balducci’s logo. She uttered a strained giggle, then pinched her lips between her front teeth. Warren turned away. Should he order her to leave or beg her to stay?

“The theater could use a few good trees,” she said.

Velvet opened a bottle of champagne. The cork bounced off the kitchen ceiling. She jabbered about imported cheeses and beer commercials, her words all strung together, as though her voice were a recording played at high speed. She twisted a lock of her cocoa-brown hair around her slender fingers and laughed.

 

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