The Bus to Betelgeuse

Photo by Robert McFarlane

He disliked buses, their narrowness and heaviness, built with two skimpy rows of seats crammed against moving walls, the invasion of strangers’ bulk and breath so close to his space. The walls looked stationary but trundled through the mayhem of city streets while stale air blasted. Still, they were indispensable.

Cars weren’t much better, just smaller. Michael hadn’t owned one that had run more than a few months at best. Taxis were worse with tons of humans occupying the same places day in, day out, and being trapped with a driver who couldn’t bear to stop talking or wouldn’t answer one question decently. He’d relented and taken buses for three years now. And this one would be carrying him along with other restless or drowsy people for the next two hours, a marathon in his view. He didn’t know if he was up to it and stared ahead into the unspooling velvet of darkness, half-wondering if there was a stop where he could still jump off.

Elena had never understood Michael’s attitude about public transportation, but there were plenty of things she didn’t get yet.

“What’s the big deal? You’re picked up and moved from point A to point B for less than you’d pay for a crappy car’s maintenance and insurance or a parade of taxis. You can chat with neighbors or not. You can read or sleep. You don’t even have to pay attention to the driving. It’s perfect, really.”

Michael waited for the final word. She had one more often than not. He knew what this one was.

“Besides you’re an actor, you should be grateful for the chance to study human nature closer-up. You can even be anyone you want for the ride and no one will know the difference.”

“It’s mostly tolerable and does the job,” he said and kissed the top of her head. She came up to his shoulder but she always seemed taller–until she leaned close. He put his nose to the crown of her head: a minty-herbal scent. It was as much her signature as the sheen of long auburn hair or the pale dash under her chin, a reminder of a fall at two years old.

They’d been together long enough, three years now. Each morning she went off to her computer programmer job and he–if he got lucky and his agent called–showed up for a couple auditions and tried to impress. He was moderately well paid for acting the last twelve years, which said something. Commercials and the stage, a bit part in a couple of indies. The first had been his bread and butter but lately he’d been hired for fewer.

George, his agent said: “Frankly, being thirty-eight doesn’t help; each year you’ll be older, less handsome, it’ll get harder. What’s your back-up plan?–not too early to get that going.”

It shouldn’t have shocked him but it did. He didn’t look old according to Elena or those who did hire him. His resonant voice was in strong and elastic form. His looks were as useful as ever, good enough like his physique. But it all could be crumbling under his feet, he being the last to know. Michael had no “back-up plan.” He wasn’t counting on Elena, of course, it wasn’t her responsibility to uphold his financial health. Though she did, at times. He didn’t tell her much about his bank account; it was one of those topics he intended to continue to avoid.

So when the final paycheck from Tiptop Organic Jams and Jellies covered his portion of rent in their Chicago flat, with only five hundred left over, he started to sweat. Nothing else materialized the next three weeks. He had a little in savings but it wouldn’t be savings if he spent it all now. It was his rule to forget about it. Only a dire emergency could make him ransack that little nest. It wasn’t to that point. Yet.

Then his cousin called. A fill-in plan presented itself.

Leon was Michael’s only male cousin. He’d inherited four car dealerships his father had begun and built to sterling success. Then he managed to run them even more profitably after Uncle Craig dropped over from a heart attack. No one missed him –a loyal friend, a bulldog of a boss–nearly as much after Leon got hold of the business and upped their salaries.

Though they talked every three or four months or at least texted, the last time Michael had visited (with Elena) his bigger-than life cousin was at a New Year’s Eve party a year and a half back. It was held at the overly grand (“mammoth cracker jack of a house” Michael warned Elena, giant-sized to fit his cousin’s personality) in the ‘burbs. Three young ones and a Labrador running riot over expensive carpets and hardwood. Leon’s wife, Meadow, smiling as if her mouth was wired open. It was likely to show off the blinding white capped teeth. But Michael missed that crooked front one; there was something endearing about it all the years he had known and cared abut her. Everything was overdone, reflective of Leon’s fortune. Michael tended to feel as out of place as a beat up tan Ford truck in a showroom full of gleaming Aston Martins. It could have been much worse, this was his cousin, after all, nothing was big news. Elena went into social shock.

Leon–affable, expansive, hyper as ever–was too busy wheeling and dealing in the back so-called game room to talk more than a moment. The booze didn’t just flow. It had started to transfuse guests’ blood by eleven o’clock. Troublesome mischief percolated under the surface, you could see the looks, feel the air crackle with a hilarity that veered toward old insults or fresh complaints or ill-mannered desires. He wasn’t delicate of nature but Elena paled, the combination of such affluence and drama was too much. They left shortly after midnight though they’d been invited to stay overnight. He might have done so but she declined by abruptly leaving while he was trying to decide, coats on his arm. He felt he had little choice but to follow her. He was disappointed that his cousin’s life seemed drowning in ostentation. But it was his money, his choice.

“So, I’m thinking I could use you this summer, Bro,” Leon confided after they caught each other up the first five minutes.

Michael felt suspicion rise up as he poured an oily cup of late afternoon coffee. “Bro”–a blast from the past. He sank his teeth into a third chocolate chip cookie. He could hear Leon chewing gum, a habit since he’d quit smoking. His cousin had an obnoxious talent with gum since he was a kid. The more agitated, the more snapping and cracking. Leon once could  blow bubbles like nobody’s business.

“That right, Cuz? What’s up?” He took another small bite.

“Well, you know Amy and Ian are natural hams like you… but I can’t get them to go to the children’s acting school out here. They’re eight and ten, why wouldn’t they want to play make believe with other kids, learn the skills if they like it so much? They think it’ll be boring, of course. So I was thinking that you’d come out for the next few weeks, get them going so next fall they’d be primed, set to go to the after school program.” He paused for a breath. “You working now?”

Michael stopped chewing, crisp cookie turning to mush as he looked at the street scene below. A bus stop was at their corner and all day people clustered and broke apart, gathered then disappeared inside cranky city bus doors. He wished they’d move that stop so he could get some relief from it all when at home.

“I’m not a teacher, as you know, and certainly not of children. Never taught a kid one good thing on purpose, anyway. I’m just taking a break between jobs.”

Did his cousin really think he’d throw away summer opportunities trying to teach his kids acting–a little family fun?

“Aw, you can do anything you put your mind to, teaching kids is nothing. They look up to you, Michael, they point out your commercials every time like they were Oscar winning moments. They think you’re famous, friends find you impressive. If you taught them fundamentals, they’d be motivated as heck to learn more.”

“Nice. But unfair, Leon, to put me on the spot. Besides, ever think I’m out there, doing my best footwork every single day? Or do you think I get good jobs waiting around for the phone to ring, one solicitous summons after another for my rare talent?”

Leon laughed. “You and those words. Naw, of course not, but I’ll bet you have a spare couple of weeks, at least. I know you aren’t in any plays for now–Meadow keeps up with Chicago theater gossip, we donate money everywhere… We’d try between your jobs. Twice a day classes or one long one, a big performance at the end….we could have friends over, make an occasion of it, opening night sort of thing!” He covered the phone with a hand and spoke rapidly to someone in his office, then returned. “Think about it. I’m too busy to talk more but wanted to put it out there–”

“Where would I live, Leon? In your servant-supplied guesthouse? Or would Meadow deliver breakfast in bed with a blue-black rose in a crystal vase?” It came out sharper than expected. The imagined scenarios were weird and ridiculous and he was verging on rude. He was ready to say “thanks but no thanks” and just hang up, sit on the back balcony and while the time away until his agent called. “I take that back, really uncalled for.”

But Leon erupted into a chortling; likely whoever was there looked his way. It took a second for him to start again. “Michael, we have this house with seven spacious bedrooms and only four are occupied at the moment. Your own room, en suite. The one at the back facing the pool as you like it. Come on, man, what a deal. You can swim and tan and teach my kids how to make more drama and I’ll pay you a couple grand, okay?”

Michael’s eyes locked on the next bus coming to a halt. “What’s that?”

“More, then? I doubt you could top that right now.”

“Two weeks, huh? I might have to come back to the city for jobs, you never know.”

“Three weeks at minimum, okay, plus add a few days for rehearsals, right? We’ll revisit the money later.”

“I’ll think it over,” Michael said, considering his bank account, how it longed to tally greater numbers.

“You do that, Bro, talk soon,” he said cheerfully and rang off.

******

Elena came in and let the door bang shut, then dumped a bag of groceries on the kitchen chair. He told her what Leon had said.

“You’re not even close to him, Michael, you hated being out there last time. You talk on the phone, what–twice a year?”

“A lot more than that if you count texting, which we do. Hate is a very strong word, I found it discomfiting. You hated it. Anyway, I’m the poorer one in this flat. The fact is, I can use that money.”

“You don’t need money right now, I’m working, you’ll get more jobs. You always do.”

“That’s yours. I make my own. And it’s been a bit of a dry spell…I’m getting older, maybe that’s the slow down.”

“Oh, poosh-wah, you’re the perfect age.” She kissed him as he freed the carrots and potatoes from plastic bags. “So you’re going to the hinterlands to teach your niece and nephew– what? How to pretend more? Do they even have talent?”

“I don’t quite know. Amy sang pretty well even at five and has taken loads of dance. She’s ten now so odds are she has more going on. Ian may or may not, he’s been into skateboarding…It doesn’t matter. I can use this money so I should do it.”

She took a jug of milk from one hand and then an egg carton from another, appraising each as if she wasn’t sure what it was, then crammed them into the refrigerator with a  shake of her head. “Seriously? Odd idea, but it’s your family. And bank account.”

But Michael had decided. A couple of weeks in the suburbs might even do more good than harm. Maybe he’d re-think his career. He might even be a good teacher–a whole new option if needed. Then a cringe ran up back and neck, transforming into a furrowed brow. He didn’t even like kids much; he was awkward around them. He was an only child, himself. Even being around Amy, Ian and little Leon II, well, he never knew just what to say or do, though he loved them. They were family, after all. He repeated to himself four times, as if a mantra: two grand–that’s to start. But he felt less excited than before. He felt something else altogether, a hint of shame, a sense he was doing the wrong thing here, after all.

Michael was accepting money from his family to…what?…have a good time with and share his calling–that’s what acting was for him–with his niece and nephew.

What was wrong with him? And what was Leon thinking–first, asking him to do this but second, offering to pay him? Perhaps bribing him, if you wanted to call it like it was? What was he expecting of him? And then he considered. His father had died early from heart disease. He was not even sixty. Leon had just turned forty-one but maybe he, too, had felt the passage of time like a blemish upon the present.

And then it occurred to him that they both had careers that depended on selling. Cars or one’s own self, it was still a sales job so Leon was as much an actor as was he. It must run in the family.

******

It was getting dark, and a nighttime phantasmagoria of lights, moving and still, provided hypnotic relief as he settled in his seat. Michael had packed a bag in the morning, then attended an audition that went poorly at the Moda Nouveau Theatre. The play was stilted and ironic, not enough action or–dare he admit it–heart. The director was not one he’d have even enjoyed. It was work, but he wished he could find an old-fashioned meaty role.

He had met Elena for mediocre Italian before the bus left at eight-thirty. They’d talked about her coming out the next week-end, but they both knew she’d rather be at home or with friends than at his cousin’s. She’d only met him that one time and it had bombed. It was okay; he could always go back to the city to see her. The first night out he’d be staying at a good hotel to help ease him into Leon’s world. Elena’s generous treat, her way of trying to be more supportive, he guessed. But when they parted it was like she just floated away and he was left on his own for once. It didn’t feel bad.

When he had to embark, she had held on to his neck longer than usual, smoothed his forehead, hair. Kissed him twice, gently. He wondered if she was trying to tell him something but they had noting more to say. He’d call when he had something of import to hare.

The bus was nearly empty. Well, who else was going to head out to East Norwood this time of day on a Thursday night? What would be the point unless returning from an event? But despite the hard bench seat, he relaxed. His head filled, then emptied of miscellaneous things as miles ticked by and the road and country turned ebony. The visit might do him good or it might not but he couldn’t dispute right timing due to the need of monetary infusion. He suspected Leon would pay him more if the kids liked him, if it worked out well.

But as he watched dark shapes outside the window morph and recede he also saw Leon and himself racing down the big hill by his uncle’s older but big colonial house. The yard alone made every visit a joy, such private acreage. There were two rope swings hanging from tall trees and even a trapeze. A flower and kitchen garden that overtook a portion of land. A kidney-shaped pool in the back with a yellow canopy sheltering chairs and a round table. A fire pit where they roasted hot dogs and made S’mores.

Michael could make out the Big and Little Dipper without any trouble. His dad pointed out a few more constellations, including Cassiopeia and Orion–the last Michael’s favorite. Orion was a superior hunter whom he felt was a nighttime guardian, even a slayer of monsters. And there was Betelgeuse, the cool red star with the silly name. A supergiant star beaming from Orion’s shoulder. Michael longed to see that red star up close. He thought it a powerful amulet captive in the sky, it was so bright, the ninth brightest they could see with their eyes, his dad said. He secretly felt its light pulsed at him so he made his own small pulsing, open-and-closed-fingered motion back at it, like a lighthouse beam flashing on and off. If, that is, no one saw him. Once Leon did but said nothing, just waved at the star, then ran off into circles, yelling at nothing.

They had freedoms at that house, in that yard, that Michael didn’t experience any other place. The expansive space and open air were like a drug before he knew what that really was. Everything seemed more fascinating, intense. He and Leon were “thick as thieves” as his mother said laughing, getting into minor scrapes, mapping out escapades. His cousin followed his lead back then. Michael always had a story plotted, an adventure outlined. The summer visits at his cousin’s was shaped by happiness. Even when he broke his arm falling out of his own measly tree so was half-lame all summer–Leon showed him things he could still manage. Even when Leon got tonsillitis so was bedridden much of the summer. Michael told him stories until he fell sleep, face pressed against the damp pillow, drool slipping from his thin lips. Or he’d bring him a worm, a frog, a colorful rock or piece of moss for the terrarium in his vast blue bedroom, anything to make him smile weakly.

Even when Michael’s mother and father divorced the summer he was eleven, almost twelve. They still went, his father and himself, but it was different at first, painfully quiet. No one knew what to say. Michael headed to his usual room  to stare out the window at the sparkling pool. Then Leon burst through the door, yanked him right out of his gloom. They went swimming and diving for hours, skin like glowing. Later, they sought crickets’ hideouts. Pretended to hunt with the dogs and makeshift bows and arrows.

Leon didn’t have to ask Michael anything. He saw what the divorce was doing to him. So he was just there.

Nothing was hardly ever worse–maybe some hot headed fights he lost to him,  a few bad mishaps they still didn’t tattle on each other about but maybe should have–when he was with Leon, and usually things were much better. Back then, anyway.

Why and when had they left all that far behind? Money interceded. Ambitions of different sorts. They’d grown up, that’s all, and then time started to dribble away and then it somehow was on its way to running out, so many grains of sand piling up at the bottom of the hourglass. Pathetically small, those grains.

His phone rang and he, half-dozing, started; it was George, his agent. The bus was approaching its final stop so he let it go to voice mail. Michael grabbed his bag and got off the bus. The sudden cool of deepening night swept across his face. He breathed in as though starving for oxygen, walked at a brisk pace three blocks to the boutique hotel.

Before slipping into the big empty bed, he remembered to check his message.

“Michael, good news. You aced it! Interlake Transit Corp. wants you for their commercial. Maybe an employee training flick, as well. The one in Wisconsin, remember? They pay very well. Call me back tonight so I can get back to them bright and early.”

Michael dialed his number; it went to voice mail.

“George, really, the transit people?” He snickered to himself. “Sounds excellent! But not until I’m done with my family business. If they can’t wait a couple weeks, I’m not their man. Not even kidding.”

He turned out the light and stared at the ceiling awhile, wondering what lay ahead. He drifted off. And in the theater of sleep he saw Leon running along the creek behind his mammoth and overwrought house and he was trying to say something, his hand gesturing to hurry up, to follow him. He was calling with lighthearted urgency, shouting out Michael’s name, so Michael flew toward the creek to catch up with him. Rammed right into him so they tumbled into the shining dark creek, then rose drenched and howling like happy fools, like common kids, while Betelgeuse threw its distant but fiery brilliance–perhaps a signal—upon them.

Mae Lynn’s First and Last Drive-In Movie

Photo by Stephen Shore

The Sunset Drive-In looked harmless enough but worn out at best. Verging more on ugly, some thought. It’d been there so long, and in nineteen ninety-eight there was talk of tearing it down, building cookie-cutter townhouses or duplexes. But Mae Lynn would be the first to take a bulldozer or even an ax to it. Most citizens of Beauford had gotten used to it over the last thirty years, hardly giving it a second glance as they sped down Raymond Road toward Route 31. One movie a week played now from June through August. It wasn’t worth keeping open for that but once it was a huge draw for miles around, the only place to go on week-ends. Now, twenty miles away, there was a four theater movie complex in a much bigger town.

The Sunset was a matter of serious discussion when it first went up, many against it but just as many for it. Mae Lynn Jarrett remembered its beginnings very well. She operated the Tank and Tobacco Stop just a quarter-mile from its entrance. When it was approved, the kids and their parents would stock up on plenty of cheaper pop and snacks and sneak it into the drive-in until Mae Lynn got wise and raised her  prices. But for the most part she was against it’s very existence.

“See that movie screen over there? It was doomed from the start, if you ask me.”

She pointed to the Sunset as if accusing a criminal and shook her head with creased lips pressed hard together. There was a For Sale sign at the entrance the last two weeks.

Strangers as well as Beauford residents stopped for gas and a pop or beer. Their gazes followed her costume-bejeweled index finger as the guzzled from sweaty bottles. They were willing to listen while benefiting from an industrial-sized fan. This afternoon two women and one man said they were coming from Nashville, on their way to California. They didn’t much like Missouri so far but Mae Lynn was a hoot.

“Old Man Harrison did that. He’d argue he’d none of it but the fact it, it was his land, and then it wasn’t so he must’ve agreed. His family had held that land for three generations but he said it wasn’t no good after the Four Year Drought. He never did try to plant corn on that piece again; the other acreage was kept in hope of better grazing acreage. It gets rented out now. But he was just getting worn out with it all, like lots of folks out here. So when the land development company–land crooks, we call ’em–offered Old Man Harrison a good bit for just ten acres–he bit good and hard. Never did tell a soul how much. Up and left for Florida.” She planted her hands on skinny hips. “Huh!” She laughed like she had a cough. “We ain’t seen or heard from him since. ” She rubbed her scarf-covered head. “Set for awhile, I guess.”

She paused to help another customer, a local who hurried out again, shaking his head in pity at the captive listeners. They winked at each other–best to just humor the lady.

“Anyway, there was this ugly cracker-box subdivision getting set up out here. So Old Man Harrison’s land was gonna have a strip mall, you know, a couple of good clothes stores for the ladies, a family shoe shop, a small restaurant with overpriced Italian food. Maybe a pharmacy, that woulda been good out here–first aid supplies, all the medicines, a quick birthday purchase of perfume, a rack with sports and news magazines. But no, they had a change of mind at the last minute. Just put in that thing, sold off the rest again and it stands empty. Don’t get it.”

She shook her finger at it, then her whole hand balled up. Mae Lynn caught herself just as a splotchy red crept across her cheeks. She released her fistful of anger to the air; the red receded.

“Plays good movies, though, I hope?” the short-haired blond asked, eyes blue as cornflowers smiling at the store clerk. The younger woman’s dress was about as tight as you could make it and still get into it. It was a soft mint green color, good with her coloration. Her older companion–a sister?– wore coral pants and a blousy white top.

Mae Lynn had from the start thought this gal looked as if she ought to be a model at least or even the film racket herself, and the very idea made her cross. She didn’t show it; her business didn’t thrive on bad manners. No, she smiled right back. They were passing through.

“Wouldn’t know. I don’t see them. When they first opened up I joined the herd to find out what all the fuss was. Uncomfortable as all get-out sitting in the cab of our truck next to my Joe and Howie. Having to adjust the speakers just right. Noticing other people doing things in the next cars that you don’t want to see. Howie, my boy, he always wanted a huge drink or more popcorn and it got spilled over the seat–it’d take days to find all the squashed kernels and wipe down sticky soda pop. Joe would fall asleep, anyway.”

She paused long enough to ring up another gas customer, Tate from the feed store with his delivery truck. She’d  have liked to catch up with him but the three strangers were waiting. She bet the two gals were sisters, they shared that papery skin and those large eyes. The man might be their brother, older, none of their charm. He seemed at odds with himself, big and sort of floppy, like he hadn’t yet grown into himself, couldn’t hide it for all he tried with a nice shirt and pants. They were just curious. Looked okay, polite enough, a little rich for her blood but she wondered who they were, what they were off to California for, anyway.

So many still wanted to go as far west as possible, it seemed. It was discouraging. Not her. Mae Lynn had no desire to leave her store or town. She had never even left Missouri, a fact she emphasized when those passing through inquired.

“You been here long?” the big man asked as he eyed chips and beef jerky. The second woman put her hand through the crook of his arm, then closed her eyes while the fan’s wind rushed over her neck and back. Her hair–light but not white-blond like her sister’s–was in a pony tail that flipped up and around in the draft.

“Yes sir, born and raised in Beauford. A decent small town, top-notch farming land. Own the business with my husband, Joe. He’s in a wheelchair now. Got through the Viet Nam war, then got himself a stroke, go figure.”

“Sorry to hear it,” the man said and she nearly believed him. “Well, I never heard what the first movie was that you saw. I’m a movie buff, you might say, so I’m curious.”

Mae Lynn thought a minute; she’d no desire to recall it. But she’d humor him a nit more. “I tend to forget things that don’t deserve a second thought.”

“How long ago was that?” the man prompted. “Nineteen sixty? Nineteen sixty-five?”

“Sixty-nine, maybe?… It was one of those action features…Joe and Howie liked it….the guy was driving a fast car…oh, he was one homely man, hardly moved his face…”

“Steve McQueen? In Bullitt?”

She closed one eye and looked into the distance, trying to pull the movie it from the past. “That’s it, I think. Fancy, fast cars, Ford–”

“Mustang 390 GT! Charger 440 Magnum!” The first woman had spoken up; her perfectly manicured hand pumped the air hard once. “Yeah!”

The big man looked at her fondly while the sister rolled her eyes.

The trio was driving a spanking new Dodge Charger, an alarming red, so they should know. Mae Lynn also knew something about cars, though Joe was the professional mechanic. Or was. Howie had long ago learned the trade and always had more work than he could manage alone. They’d have to hire someone else soon unless Joe miraculously stood up and jumped right into all the work. Not likely after all this time. She winced at her attitude. Howie was a blessing to them even more in middle-age now.

“I’m Delilah Miner, by the way,” the Mustang enthusiast held out her hand, “and this is Marietta, my older sister, and my fiancé, Sam Harking. This has been very interesting”–she looked at the name tag on the woman’s large bust as she squeezed her hand gently–“Mae Lynn. But I’m more than a little wondering why you dislike the Sunset Drive-In so much.”

“I don’t know. It does bring us more business. The last twenty-five years have been good to my family…”

She turned toward the garage where she heard Joe and Howie loudly differing on mechanical problems and repair costs. How would those sleek young adults even know what such a drive-in  meant back then? What it could do to people, a town? “Why do you say that, anyway–that I hate it?”

Delilah raised one feathery eyebrow. “Oh, I didn’t say you hated it. That’s a very strong word for a simple outdoor movie theater. Maybe you are…religious? I don’t meant to offend you.”

“Maybe we should move on, Sis.” Marietta placed her hand on the other woman’s arm and left it there, giving her a warning look.

“Yes, time to head out, honey,” Sam agreed, and picked beef jerky, lay two packages on the counter, then hurried over to the cooler to get another orange soda pop. “You ladies want anything more?” he added as he came back.

“We’re good. Come on, Delilah. Nice meeting you, Mae Lynn. You have a nice place.”

They went out to their fiery fine car, chatting with and letting Howie get in and check it out.

But Mae Lynn saw Delilah’s eyes widen with a hungry look, a big curiosity getting the better of her. She thought she might tell her more… if she got her own questions answered. Why not? They’d never see each other again. People came and went all the time that Mae Lynn wished she had talked to even more. But it was business, not a social occasion, Joe reminded her with irritation if she talked too loud or much. He didn’t like people taking up big amounts of time and space (unless it brought income) since he returned from the war; less so since he’d suffered the stroke at forty-nine.

She tried to be patient but the best things about her work were the new and interesting people. The rest of her labor was numbers, which were fine on their own, but they couldn’t hold a conversation worth a damn–and neither, God help them both, could Joe. She felt like she had actually been somewhere else after folks talked with her. Mae Lynn learned things. She found out about other states, the weather, their cities and differing ways. How other people felt about the day or night, how they managed. All she had to do was be herself and ask a few questions. She got skills out of it, like how to calm someone down if he felt he’d been gypped out of a couple dollars on gas or how to make someone smile if she was wrestling with a cranky child. With Joe, anything might happen, but often nothing much or very different, after all. Which could be good. Or could get on her last thin nerve. His silence was a deep reservoir that went dry long ago. Mae Lynn waited, still holding out for hope, and meanwhile chatted up customers.

Mae Lynn leaned on the counter and looked straight into Delilah’s quick, sly blue eyes. The cornflower color had changed to a swampy blue in a shadow cast by passing clouds.

“I’ll tell you what. You let me in on what’s in California and I’ll share why the Sunset Drive In drives me crazy as a buggered loon.”

Delilah’s laughter spilled into the room like silver spangles, her chin up, her open mouth showing off bright, expensive teeth. Then she leaned her elbows on the counter, too, her face a few inches from Mae Lynn’s. She joined in their conspiratorial exchange.

“Why, the movies, of course!” She felt Mae Lynn shrink back, saw her face go a shade paler, then tighten. But the woman had asked. “Sam is a young and brilliant up and coming producer. I’m a stage actress ready to try the big screen. Marietta is a talent agent–mine, but also others’. We thought it’d be a hoot to drive out to LA in Sam’s newest car, or at least for a few days. Marietta and I might catch a plane in Vegas, we’ll see. But we have our ducks in a row so we’re good to go. Sam also likes this locale for another project he’s in talks over.” She considered the soft featured, fine-lined face of the person before her. How still she had become. “So I naturally wondered about the drive-in… why you hold a grudge against it.”

Mae Lynn felt hot, too hot, and weak. She sat on her stool, pulled off her scarf and ran her fingers through grey and brown curls, letting the fan’s wind toss and turn them, cool her neck.

“Okay, I’m fine,” she said.

“You want water?” Delilah tentatively asked, baffled. “Look, we can just drop this.”

“Yes, water would help.”

Mae Lynn smoothed her forehead and retied her scarf, then took the bottled water and drank. She put it on the counter and pressed her steaming palms on the scratched greenish glass counter.

“Candace, it’s about her, you see. My daughter. She had such a thing about movies, said they changed everything, even maybe the world, she kept on and on about it. Drove Joe and me near up a tree, back down and around, kept us awake with worry. As if they were like some magic potion, they were so powerful to her, maybe even like a religious experience to her, because she stopped doing much of anything but reading about them, sneaking out to see them even when we made it clear: no more. It was so easy, the drive-in just a fast walk down the road, meeting up with friends and then we couldn’t find her in that crowd, so why even try? It was everything to her.”

Delilah felt confused, then a small horror crept up her chest and she fought it off. “But, wait, they’re just stories, that’s all, tales brought to a big screen rather than flimsy pages of books. They come alive with good acting, right costumes, great scenery–the movie projector gives it all to us–”

Mae Lynn slapped the counter top once. Silence, then her voice was so soft beneath the noise of cars and trucks whizzing by and the fan’s whir that Delilah had to lean close in. She could hear Sam laughing and it tugged at her. She wished she had not said one thing.

Mae Lynn seemed suspended in time a moment. Joe felt her and rolled his wheelchair around the bumper of a VW van and peered at the women, then rolled away. Let his wife be, she was good at managing whatever it was, she’d find him if need be.

“No. They take away, they don’t add one blasted useful thing. How many boys are drawn to battle by war movies? How many girls are drawn to some wild idea of love that’s just no good? How many people are given the wrong idea about life just because they get lost in a moment, that bigger-than-life hour or two that they think offers something more important than what they already have? Then nothing else can compare, can it? Nothing is as thrilling as that made up nonsense…and real life looks too damn hard. It is hard. It takes stubbornness and, oh, I don’t know.”

It was like she’d run out of steam. Mae Lynn sat back and held up her hands in surrender. She had nothing more to say to her.

Delilah felt her spine tingle all the way to her brain. This ordinary woman was amazing, such energy pulsed in every word, look, pause. She had seen the hunched, somber man in the wheelchair and guessed he was her husband, and the young man, her son, covered in grease, a good whistler, a shyness in his eyes when he glanced Delilah’s way. Her family leaned on her and they loved her.

But Mae Lynn hurt beneath the banter and the talk. She had been hurt badly and so had her family.

“She’s gone, isn’t she? How did she….pass?”

“What? No, no, Candace is alive…as far as I know as of last month she’s still kickin’!”

But Mae Lynn closed her eyes against the sizzle of pain in her heart, willed herself to sit still and strong. What did this awfully shiny Delilah know? What could she understand of her one and only gullible, lively daughter, of her forlorn husband, their smart-as-a-whip son now trapped here with them in their difficult need? And her good gas station business, how much it meant to her–to them–despite the other hard facts. Because of them.

“Oh! I thought she…you spoke of her as in the past. So it had to be the movies that made things happen, right? She felt dissatisfied and restless, they filled her up with such dreams and so Candace up and left the family, Beauford, all that you care for…is that it?”

Mae Lynn held her breath. She held her tongue. When her heart settled and began to hum again, she looked at the other woman. There was one tear trickling down her cheek. Was it a true tear? Perhaps. It touched her. Delilah wiped it away.

“Mae Lynn, I’m sorry we both had to go. That we fell in love with those damned movies and left our mothers, our families behind. But everyone needs to follow a dream!”

“Sure, I know.” Maybe she really didn’t know. This was her true life, this keeping things moving along. What mattered was her family. And this little business.

“If I meet anyone named Candace…”

“Candace Jarrett–”

“I’ll tell her you and I met. Help her if I can, I promise.”

“Sure, sure.” She smiled tiredly at Delilah. A lovely young woman, but there was work to be done.

Sam laid on the horn once. They were impatient to get to LA. Or first, Las Vegas. Somewhere even farther away.

“I have to go Mae Lynn but thanks for talking with me.”

“Thanks for telling me some of your story, Delilah.”

The young woman came behind the counter and suddenly threw her arms around her. She could smell the metallic sharpness of the garage, tang of sweat, ancient rich dirt, sweet hay. Her strength was like the earth’s and she wanted it to  be in her some day, too.

Mae Lynn could feel Delilah’s fears flitting about like ghosts playing tag and she knew it wasn’t easy on her. Such deep hopes and her own private aches were taking root in blood and bones, as happened with all as time went on. She patted the-movie-star-in-the-making on her tender, bony back, then let go. Mae Lynn smiled into her limpid, vulnerable eyes and turned away.

The Charger fired up and squealed out of the station as a cranky old truck lumbered in. Mae Lynn stood up and straightened her blouse, tucked a stray grey curl back under the scarf, wagged her hand in a cheery greeting as she walked out to the pumps.

Hair@2, Tailor@3:30, Reading@7

Moon-Flower2

As Eva stared at the cracked ceiling, her throat tightened but it was not her soft navy plaid scarf pulled too tight. She was feeling things. She’d so regretted that her very grown up children had never seen her act, specifically not in any role other than that of “mother.” And, of course, that was not an act but a daily devotion, a way of living, a tale made of scenes whose very genesis was unknown to any of them. They had not witnessed her life on any stage other than the most pedestrian, the household on Tremont Street. It had often worried her, that the three of them wouldn’t realize how she loved being an actress long before they came along. But now instead of regret, a chill along her spine telegraphed terror to her crowded consciousness.

Eva lay with neck against the cold curve of a shampoo sink at her favorite salon. The stylist’s gentle massage of hair follicles loosened a few memories, emotions she had kept at bay for weeks. It wasn’t meant to be so important. It had started out as a whim, this foray into drama, a silly bet between friends. She had seen the ad for auditions at the community theatre, then her best friend had challenged her and Eva had tried out. And gotten a small part. But no one knew about it except Nils and he thought it was just for fun, too. Until she ended up liking it far more than any of them had planned. Well, Eva knew better. She knew that once she got out there, the passion reignited as she felt the heat of the lights and heard that applause, it would be too late to turn back.

She remembered how the two boys, Dean and Todd, and their sister, Cam, had made up plays, dragging out her scarves, a box of old clothes kept readied for donations to charity, odds and ends they pulled from drawers and closets to design a set. It might be a remake of a fairy tell one week, a story of their own making, often confusing and lengthy, or a puppet show. Eva always jumped right in, trying to improve on their designs or themes, employing her sewing skills at times, showing them how to tweak a walk or speech until finally, when Cam was ten, they forbade her to take part. When Eva, astonished by their lack of gratitude, asked why, the answer was simple: “It’s our’s, mom. You get to watch, though.”

And they were right. It wasn’t her story or mini-production, nor her privilege. So she never told them she used to act, how she had left southwestern Michigan for Chicago and took acting lessons and began to get good parts. How she had been planning on succeeding as she knew well she had a strong will, even at twenty. And then she’d met their father’s eyes across a gleaming lobby, then across a dinner table at a restaurant, then… Well, in due course, Nils and she made changes they could not have foretold at that initial eye-to-eye rhapsodic moment.

Her head was swaddled in a fluffy white towel and she was led to a swivel chair. The wind rattled the building’s ancient windows and she imagined it might snow, luxurious, dangerous drifts of it covering roadways so no one could get to the theatre. It would be a reprieve if nature intervened. This was not feeling wonderful, not at all. What had she been thinking?

Vi, her hairdresser, smiled at her in the mirror. Eva tried to avoid seeing herself; she looked like a cousin to a wet chicken. It was her eyes, looking too small, unblinking as mild shock registered and her public persona vanished. The washing always erased part of her protection and left her vulnerable to random pricks and pinches of life, she thought, and so she looked down. She felt too much, that’s what it was, and she couldn’t hide it without help. A lifelong problem.

“So, the usual?”

Eva nodded, tried on a smile.

“Even with the big to-do tonight? I thought you’d want elegant or daring. You still have pretty, long hair. How about an updo? It’s soon to be New Year’s Eve!”

Eva froze. “Grey hair, long or not, is still grey hair… don’t change anything, Vi. There’ll be enough for the family to contend with as I step on stage. They may slink out as soon as the lights go down as it is.”

Vi put hands on hips and cocked her own pink-haired head. “No way! They’ll at least be happy for you. I’m happy for you, girl. Not a bad move at all, you trying out for that play and now this–what is it? Some reading, you said?”

“Reader’s theatre. We read from scripts on stage, but not with scenery and all the frills. It’s…well, spare, which can make a story more intense.”

Vi snipped locks here and there, then turned the chair. “I never saw anything like that. Might be interesting. Like radio? You see it in your head? No, that’s not right, you’re on stage…well, the important thing is it’s you, their mother, up there.”

“It is rather like radio, how smart to think of it. But what is something is that my husband will be coming. He didn’t get to the play.”

“Really? Why not?”

“He was away on business.”

“Ah.” Snipsnipsnip. “He’s always on business, isn’t he? I mean, so you say, often.”

Eva was spun back around to face the mirror. She could barely see herself through long bangs she had grown out.

“Yes, nothing new.”

“Well, this will be a change, then.”

Eva thought, yes, that’s the problem, we are not about surprises, but gave a half-smile from beneath the fall of hair and fell silent.

After her hair was dried and Vi had convinced her to try the updo and Eva saw it suited her well, she left and headed to the tailor’s. The new dress she had splurged on didn’t fit quite right on the curve of the left hip, the curve that she found more generous than she had expected. She pushed open the door and a pleasant bell announced her arrival. Mr. Avanti rushed forward.

“Mrs. Wainright, hello. Your beautiful raspberry dress is ready. Let me get it so you can try it on.”

In the dressing room she shivered and held the fabric up close–her dress was burgundy, so why the dreadful comparison to a child’s crayon? But once she stepped into the flourescent light, she saw what he meant. It looked like a somewhat deeper raspberry sorbet that she sometimes indulged in. It wasn’t quite what she had wanted but it was unique.

As she stepped up and before the mirror, Mr. Avanti shook his small, neat head, a grin changing his face from merely lined and pallid with weariness to nearly incandescent.

“You see, it fits well now, just skims the body, and how right for you, this color!”

Eva looked at the three-view mirror, saw her left side (the seam corrected so it fell against her full thigh without any error), then her right (quite the same as the other), then full-on. Was she like an ice cream cone turned upside down, perhaps?

“The color, a little young? A little garish?” she asked.

“Lively, good drama, if you are asking, Mrs. Wainright.”

“I wonder…Nils likes me in classic clothing, you know, neutral shades. Mostly navy, grey, ivory, black. Or tweedy, even, if you recall his taste…” She made a little face, then laughed to herself.

“Yes, ma’am.” His own expression was replaced by a pensive look.

“But it’s for an event, did I tell you?”

“Yes, New Year’s Eve tonight. In an hour I go home to prepare for mine.”

“How lovely. You and Mrs. Avanti going out dancing?”

He blushed, enough so that Eva felt foolish being so personal.

“Yes, true, we are going to the ballroom, we love to dance all night.”

Eva studied him, then the dress and murmured, “Wonderful, you are probably very good at it.” She ran her fingers over the draping neckline, thought it a bit low. The jersey fabric was silky, graceful.

He nodded, then rechecked seams, hem, the fit of shoulders. “All perfect, and the color…may I say, he will like it.”

Eva turned to him. “It’s for a performance I am in. A sort of theatrical thing, you see. He hasn’t seen me in something quite like this, at least not for decades! And my children will even be there.” Eva felt the sudden pulsing pressure of tears against the rims of her eyes so turned back to the mirrors, then composed herself, stood taller, head up, lips pressed together until they were pale and thin.

“That is remarkable, performing! Very good, Mrs. Wainright, no worries, you are a vision!” He cleared his throat. “I mean, a good dress, very well-made for you.”

“Yes, perhaps.” She breathed in and out slowly, commanded the tears to recede. Her reflection nodded gratefully back at his reflection. “You did such a fine job. I must hurry now.”

“Indeed, big night. A new year!”

Eva changed back into black jeans and boots and sweater and sat on the little bench. Her heart was fluttering. Was she having stage fright before she even got there? No way was that going to get her. She exited fitting room, and paid for the alteration.

“Happy New year, Mr. Avanti!”

“Happy New Year, have a splendor night!”

Eva sat back in her car and chuckled at his kind error of speech. Splendid, not splendor, yet maybe that’s what he meant. It would be above and beyond her hopes to have any splendor happen, to feel like it was a risk worth taking, that her family would truly appreciate it. Even find her good enough to be proud.

But this performance was first and last not even for Nils, not for Todd and Dean and Cam. It was for herself. It was her desire to act, her dream reclaimed. She hoped it was a real thing, something she could pursue even now, in a small way. She had started off in the community theatre, down this acting path, a few months ago. Had said nothing to most people, not even her children. Until last week.

Of course, Nils had been informed early on, as he would notice her absences–when he was around. At first surprised and annoyed that she’d be gone much more often, he finally said it was a relief that she’d located an outlet for her “restless energy, for all those latent creative tendencies now that you are in retirement.” Which meant he’d missed the point, didn’t understand her so well as she thought, and had seemed to forget what real acting had meant to her long ago. But at least he hadn’t complained. He uncharacteristically held her close more than a moment and even kissed her before ambling off in search of his new pipe.

It was an early performance, as it was dinner theatre. There would be drinks and appetizers at the forty-odd scattered round tables as the actors gathered on the smallish but atmospherically-lit stage. They were reading an assemblage of poems about winter, the tendency towards rest, the hibernation that precedes transformation. Changes that cannot always be named until they are upon us. The new year rising up in the deep, wide wake of the old, the future unfolding even in the passage of this moment.

Eva had loved this idea from the start, even suggested a few poems and prose excerpts. Since she was on the board of All Girls to Women, the charity to which they were giving all donations, they had encouraged her to participate in the development of the program. At least she suspected that was it at first. But in time she heard some good words, even encouragement to pursue more acting possibilities. She had grown under her new friends’ tutelage and support. But that didn’t mean she felt perfectly prepared. Freed of queasiness that dogged her right up to the last minutes.

The boys were coming from the north end of town, Cam from the east and would meet Nils there. Eva left long before Nils, after he had admired her in the raspberry dress and new heels, an unusual purchase. She’d felt relieved, a little more confident. She could do this thing ahead of her, then maybe more. But she was happier leaving the house than she was upon entering the restaurant. It seemed insane that she could allow herself to be made a fool.

Any second thoughts were dispersed as she waved at her cheerful cohorts. They circled up and headed to the dressing room to do some relaxation exercises. Everything was set; she was as ready as she would be.

They soon gathered together back stage and waited for their cue. The crowd beyond coughed, chattered, sipped and ate while they tried to steady their heads and hands. Recessed lights dimmed above the tables and spots of blue and silver bloomed on the small stage. The MC introduced the group and the crowd welcomed them as the four of them walked on, then sat on stools set before podiums. After relative silence settled about them, the first reader, a man, stood and let his baritone voice tell of the strange richness of winter nights, the brittle brightness of its mornings, the way we wrap ourselves up in comforts and people and wait out the waiting, the lengthy and trying drear of the season.

Eva was ready for her turn in the sequence of poems and prose. She saw nothing, no one beyond the stage. She leaned forward into the faceless space, spoke deliberately, then let emotion mold each phrase as she surrendered to the poetry: a prophecy of new beginnings amid tenacious remnants of the past, every syllable a promise of more enchantments, the soul of each stanza a fragrant balm. She closed her eyes and it was as if her powerful voice rose from a place too long forgotten, from a life that was bigger and far better than she was. And she again fell in love with this, the longing to act, even as it fell for her.

And so it went, forty-five minutes of readings, the audience responding, clapping and whistling, then again silent and breathless, then erupting once more.

Backstage, Eva found herself not wanting to emerge from the tiny room where they had prepared. The others rushed off after congratulating each other, gone to loved ones and other special affairs. But then a sharp rap landed on the door and she opened it.

“Mother, that was lovely, really good!” Cam hugged her quickly and tightly.

“Great stuff, I had no idea!” Todd, more reticent, patted her on the back, then put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed a second.

“Mom, why have you hidden such talents from us all these years?” Dean lifted her nearly off her feet with his bear hug, then stood back a few paces. “Is that why you were so attentive to our make-believe?”

Eva felt herself unwind under their fondness and laughed and talked with them readily. It was good, such appreciation, their coming to witness her efforts and finding them acceptable. She knew they wouldn’t have hurt her for the world, good work or not.

And then she caught sight of Nils at the door.

He stood motionless, not watching their family, not speaking, but simply staring at her as if she was a rarity, a ruby throated hummingbird right next to him, a night-blooming moon flower, an exotic jewel. Eva stopped talking, let their three lively adult children chatter on. She crossed the room and stood before him, just a foot between them, warm breath mixing with his. He took her forearms in his hands and slowly pulled her to him.

“Hello, Eva,” he whispered in her ear. “Dear, darling Eva, so glad to have you back.”

“Yes,” she whispered back, “hello, Nils, here I am.”

It seemed they stood together with eyes closed an eternity in that embrace, and it must have been, for when they looked around they saw the room held no children, and the dim hallway was empty. Eva put her arm around Nils’ waist and he, hers, and they walked out, closing the door firmly behind them.

Moon-Flower-in-Full-Bloom