Character Work

My dad moved out of the house on January 1, 1990. He’d packed up numerous cartons of books and records and stacks of  old New Yorkers from the shelves built specifically to house them  and left his study, my favorite room in the house, mostly vacant. I’d largely accepted my parents’ separation and forthcoming divorce. I wasn’t Haley Mills. I had neither a twin nor a plan to get them back together. I don’t remember exactly how I managed his departure, except that the first night he was gone, really gone,  I lay in bed, reading Anne Rice novels and listening to The Beatles on my Walkman, thinking my mother’s claims that nothing would change, everything would be the same and we’d be all right had a fine whiff of bullshit about them.

About ten days after Dad moved out, my maternal grandfather, Poppy, an otherwise healthy, recently-retired, sixty-seven year old, had the first of several, sudden back-to-back strokes that left him unconscious in some liminal state that none of us had the words or will to describe.  My mother left us with my father and rushed to Virginia, packed for a morbidly indefinite stay.  My sister and I found ourselves immersed in paternal custody with a lot of takeout, now whats and dreadful anticipation of each fraught telephone call from Mom.

I loved Poppy. He was patient, wise, kind, selfless, impossibly generous, almost saintly at times. I didn’t know exactly we’d get on without him, or more specifically, how my mother and grandmother would get on without him. Even over long distance, I could hear mom’s fear and bewilderment, the vanguard of the vast and looming grief that I was as terrified of, maybe more terrified of, as I was of actually losing my grandfather. I had no idea what to do with it. The thought of having to address it directly, to comfort my mother, to make her feel safe, secure, understood . . . that was some advanced level shit. I was thirteen. I was barely passing Algebra.

When the funeral came, as it did, my grandmother opted for an open casket which sort of freaked everyone out. I went with my father. We sat several rows back  I could make out Poppy’s profile from my seat. I tried not to stare, but I kept trying to work out how that body, that small, pale human body, could contain so great a soul. I said something about it to my distraught grandmother. It didn’t go well. Years later, long after I’d forgotten the exchange, she told me it took her years to forgive me for what I said that day. I was a child, discombobulated, in a January graveyard. I didn’t know what else to say. You should have known better, she told me.

 You’re pretty bad at funerals, my mother said afterwards, which I thought was a funny thing to say to a person. I thought I did okay. I cried, but not too hard. I laughed, but only when no one could hear me. I never said, I saw my first dead body. And it was the body of a man I loved. I never said. I don’t want to be good a funerals.

 ii.

Dad’s apartment was on the second story of a recently renovated building in downtown Asheville full of other divorced parents and distracted weekend children. In the weeks following Poppy’s funeral, when my mother was back and forth to Virginia, the custodial schedule felt dreamlike. I spent a lot of time wandering then-empty downtown Asheville. I might have stumbled into the sort of trouble  that would have made me cooler in high school. But like most red-blooded American teenagers, I was really into Latin and Architecture and Renaissance politics, so I spent a lot of time at the Basilica, where I pined after rosaries as jewelry, accidentally stole candles[1]  and visited with the priest, a good-natured, quiet man, who perhaps recognized that even pious adolescents don’t spend whole Saturdays alone wandering around a drafty church if they’re even remotely happy. I’m sure I needed answers to a lot of the Big Metaphysical Questions life had served up over the last few months, but mostly we talked about the Grand Central Station Oyster Bar and why my nascent atheism would be a real barrier to entry if I ever wanted to convert to Catholicism.[2]

One Saturday, Dad took my sister on one of those guilt-fueled, divorced parent shopping benders. When she returned, flush with toys, new stereo equipment and a pair of hamsters, Dad handed me a blank check to take to the Public Library and pay my king’s ransom in overdue fees. I filled it out at the circulation desk under the twitching eye of the upstairs librarian, who basically told me that if it ever happened again, she’d make sure I went to prison or the firing squad or both.[3] On the way out the door, I caught a passing glance at a yellow flyer that read AUDITIONS TODAY: YOUTH THEATRE COMPANY SEEKS YOUNG ACTORS.  Finally, I thought, a reason not to find God.

I hadn’t curled my hair or put on lip gloss or prepared a song from “Les Miserables” that was hopelessly out of my vocal range and life experience. But I needn’t have worried,  I made the company in about thirty seconds. I was flattered and impressed. I didn’t even have to act. They could just see the talent emanating right off of me.  The director said she’d see me at orientation the next week at the theatre Your new home away from home!

Afterwards, I stood on the sidewalk across from Dad’s apartment building, January sleet silvering down on me and glanced up at the basilica. I thought That poor priest is going to have to find someone else to talk to.

My mother took me to the information session. Unlike my father, who’d met news of my professional theatre career with a Great job, bud  and a nod back to the golf game, Mom found the whole turning your kids into professional actors pitch to be suspicious, at best. I couldn’t figure out what her problem was. I mean, sure, the audition process was unconventional. The theatre, in name only, was a filthy warehouse filled with giant spiders and dingy whitewashed brick, with ancient wooden plant floors so bowed and worn you could pass notes through the cracks to the cellar. The next production was an Irish play, you know, for St Paddy’s that had yet to be written seven weeks out from opening. My fellow young thespians were mostly the home-schooled children of hippie parents and a handful of tough girls with skinhead boyfriends,  lipstick the color of bruises, and pack-a-day smoking habits at thirteen. My closest peer was coincidentally the daughter of my father’s divorce attorney. I couldn’t exactly figure out what she was doing there either, but I was glad she was around.  Driving me down the then-derelict alley to rehearsal past pissing winos , my mother found the scene mildly upsetting. I thought it was Bohemian, you know, kind of punk rock. Though I would never have said the latter aloud for because tough girls would punched me in the arm and called me a poser.

I think it’s possible the owners of this company are running a con, Mom would say.  I would tell her I was sure I was not being conned. I mean, they hadn’t asked me for a dime. And she was like, yeah, well, they’re charging me several thousand dimes for you to be involved in all this. I felt kind of guilty about that, but I also knew that because of the weirdness of the time she probably wouldn’t say no.

iii.

Afternoons at the theatre company started after school. From Dad’s house, it was a quick walk through the echoing emptiness of old Asheville. I felt tough on the streets by myself. My mother had hand-me-downed a long black and white tweed coat that, pre-10th grade growth spurt, hung to my ankles. I thought I looked romantic and edgy. The wind would whistle up between the buildings on  the steep hill of Walnut street, as I walked down, the back of the coat would trail out behind me like a cape. I’d clunk down the alleyway, through broken bottles and cigarette butts and try not to make eye contact with people.

Rehearsals, though we had no play to rehearse, consisted of a lot of tongue twisters and pantomine. Sometimes we would sit in a circle and report on what new plays we’d read each week. I brought in Eugene O’Nell and Shakespeare, trying to win over the director. She was unimpressed. After script study, we were handed off brooms, mops, sponges and various chemicals and sent to scrub. The director told us it would build character, as she sat at a table  by the front door, smoking cigarettes and Miss Hannigan-ing he way through improv games to enliven our mold removal. Various infractions could score extra chores. Most of these fell under the aegis of “Failing To Pay for Things” like a company-branded notebook, new company t-shirt, a second company t-shirt to wear when the first was dirty, a “professional” head shot shot by our director, a “professional” resume edited by our director.  After a few weeks of steady work, the upstairs of the theatre started to seem less like a place where you could catch cholera so she sent us to the crypt-like cellar–dank pit, accessed by a trapdoor–and instructed us to sweep out the giant beetles and haints and shards of Mad Dog 2020 bottles so we could build out a new dressing room and costume shop.

The tough girls figured out how to unlock the back door of the cellar and stood out in the alley smoking and talking about getting fake IDs to get tattoos. Over time, most of the rest of us did started going outside too. The director send us down with paint and we’d just leave the cans at the bottom of the stairs, confident she’d never come down after us. Sometimes we’d send someone off through the warren of alleys to Lexington Park to buy snacks or meet friends. Sometimes we’d just stand out the cold, a shivery archipelago of adolescent angst.

Sometimes we’d be called upstairs to do more improv exercises, stretches or what the director called “Broadway Dance,” which was not at all what that sounds like.  She brought in a dialect coach to help us hone our Irish accents for the yet-to-be written play. He ended up being the genial Irish-born father of one of our fellow cast-mates, who started every sentence with “Well, I’ve never done this before and I haven’t lived in Ireland in twenty years, but sure, why not, let’s give it a go.”

After about a month or so, we were greeted one afternoon with a  half hand-written script loosely based on Irish folklore and a couple of bland looking twenty-somethings, in fresh company t-shirts. They waved awkwardly. The stars of our play, said the Director.  We just kind of stared back, because we’d all thought maybe we’d be the stars of our play. She posted the rest of the cast list by the cellar. I’d be playing the elderly mother of the hero. I had five lines. Divorce lawyer’s daughter, cast as my elderly neighbor, had three. The tough girls were cast as witches. Everyone else was a fairy.

iv.

I could have quit. My mother would have supported it. But I didn’t so much quit as fade out of things. I was Not Pictured in yearbook group shots.  I was sick a lot. I always missed close enough to the max amount of absent days in the year that I’d usually get called in for at least one conference with an administrator. We would discuss my attendance. We would discuss the mediocre grades I’d settled into in every subject but English and Latin since 6th grade. We would discuss my test scores. The word “potential” and “underachiever” would be bandied about. They would threaten to remove me from the Gifted classes. They wouldn’t.

Despite sort of hating the company, going gave me a thing to do instead of sitting alone at Mom or Dad’s, snacking  and worrying about snacking too much and why it was that everyone else suddenly emerged from baby fat with a perfect bikini body and I looked like a greasy lard thumb with bad hair and ill-considered harem pants. I read a lot of books about Marie Antoinette, who I kind of identified with until one of the Tough Girls reminded me that I was not , in fact, the rich beautiful princess, but the blubbery peasant at the gate that would have been told to eat cake, but maybe a smaller helping, Cherie, you could certainly stand to lose a few pounds.

I celebrated my fourteenth birthday at the end of February to absolutely zero fanfare. Mom gave me a clock radio with a piece of cheese toast at breakfast. Dad forgot entirely until  I called him the next day, and he dropped off a New Yorker cartoon and a twenty dollar bill in the mailbox. I’d always ascribed some importance to age fourteen. Like I would feel like a real, honest-to-goodness teenager. My life would be a Molly Ringwald movie.

“At least, I’m not thirteen anymore” I told Divorce Lawyer’s daughter backstage, during rehearsal, “But, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, how am I to survive all the horrors of fourteen?”

“Hey,” she said. “Your Irish accent is actually getting pretty good.”

I blushed.

The bland twenty-something hero of the play saw us talking and told us to get back to work sanding the make-up table. I thought, fifteen, maybe fifteen will be something to write home about.

 v.

We were handed reams of flyers for the Irish Play and instructed to paper the town, if possible while wearing a Company t-shirt. We were told to  tell our parents to buy tickets, our teachers, our friends. Make sure they know how good this show is. I told each of my parents to buy  as many tickets as possible and not come. Mom bought two and sat in the front row. Dad bought four or five tickets and obliged me by not showing up to any of the performances.

The opening would be on St. Paddy’s, which fell on a Sunday that year. The director informed us we’d be promoting the show by participating in the local Parade, in full costume.

Divorce Lawyer’s daughter and I came in early to apply age make up and spray our hair white. We stuffed our “traditional” Irish folkloric apparel—hand me down flannel nightgowns paired with hippie skirts and psychedelic 1970s-era knitted afghans worn as shawls – with a white sale’s amount of throw pillows stuffed into the waistband because the director thought it would be hilarious if I were even fatter than I was. Most of the other girls were costumed as fairies, well-glittered and made up with lipstick and tulle. The one tough girl that showed up for the parade refused to wear costumes at all, and no one was brave enough to convince her otherwise.[4]

The weather on parade day was the most credibly Irish part of the event. We lined up between the Irish-American, Vietnam Veterans Harley Davidson Club of Western North Carolina and a bunch of Legalize Marijuana activists dressed as the Grim Reaper. The director instructed us to frolic and suggested we do the parade route barefoot for authenticity’s sake. The homeschooled kids hadn’t worn shoes to rehearsal ever so they went their black-soled merry way down Patton Avenue, but the rest of us gave her a look of such pure mutinous rage that she actually backed down without first threatening to make us clean the crawl space behind the boiler.

It’s hard to frolic in a cold wind and rain. I endured, perversely relieved that I looked like a garbage bag, because unlike the fairies, I was not getting heckled by the green-beer drunk onlookers.

The idea had been that crowds would join us in our frolic and follow us back to the theatre for the show. No one came, save our parents and some friends of the Director. We’d been promised three weekends of performances, but after opening night, the Director revised it to three performances. No one seemed to mind.

vi.

I faded out of rehearsals. I claimed illness. I claimed poverty. I’d only gone back to say goodbye to Divorce Lawyer’s daughter when the director pulled me aside and said. There’s an audition. They’re looking for girls like you. A TV movie.

I was dubious, by this point, of anything the director said and definitely still scared of the tough girls, but I hated junior high school and the audition would allow me to miss a day of it. I asked Mom. She hesitated but ultimately agreed. I curled my hair. I wore lip gloss. I practiced my tongue twisters. I rode down in a rented van on a Thursday, with the Director, the tough girls and a chain-smoking redhead with  frosted eye shadow and a shiny lavender suit who said she was my agent.

The casting call was held in an office park in midtown Atlanta. The waiting room was full of teenage girls that all looked a little like me.  A casting director came out and told us the movie was about a poor white girl befriending a nice black man in the Depression-era south. The poor white girl was the teenage lead of a popular sitcom. The nice black man was an Academy Award winner. We’d be reading  for the girl’s racist schoolmate. We’d be reading for the star’s schoolmate “an overweight, unattractive adolescent girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior with a thick southern accent. I stung a bit, and looked at the other girls. I looked at myself in the mirror. I told the red-haired agent I wasn’t even sure I still had a southern accent.  She was all, just wing it. You probably won’t get the part anyway.

 I thought, Acting. It’s just acting.  

I read a few more lines. They were sexually provocative and horribly racist. I tried to imagine myself saying them. I thought, I don’t want to do this. I said, “I’m not sure I want to do this.”

The agent, on her way out for another Capri, patted me on the knee. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “You probably won’t get the part anyway.”

But at the end of the day, after four or five cycles of reading,  it was only me and one of the tough girls left in the waiting room.

We’re probably going to want to see you both again, said the casting director.  We’ll be in touch.

 The director and the agent celebrated. I didn’t know what to think. I still wasn’t entirely sure it was real. I rode back on the van listening to “Revolver” on my Walkman, while the tough girls insulted each other. I kept rewinding  “I’m Only Sleeping,” the part at the bridge where the chorus yawns out and Paul McCartney comes in to duet at keeping an eye on the world going by my window. I rested my head against the van windows, shiny with spring rain, and  thought the harmony was transportative, the musical equivalent of a door in the back of the wardrobe. I imagined going back in time. To the 30s in the south. To the 60s in England. To my life, like, six months ago.

The next day, the Casting Director called to tell me they wanted me back in ten days for a screen test with the sitcom star. They wanted to talk to my mother. I handed her the phone and went up to my room to eavesdrop on the other line.

My mom was not a stage mother. She’d drop us off at the theater. She’d buy tickets for the show. She’d bring a bouquet of roses and lilies on opening night. That was as far as it went. There were no videotaped performances, no acting coaches, no “talents,” no tiaras, no tap-dancing. She had reservations about the movie. She didn’t much like the script. She hated the part. She didn’t think they would pay me enough money. She worried that the role might damage my reputation. That people might forever conflate the role with me. That I might end up a washed up child actor. That I might end up like Linda Blair.

I told her the script didn’t projectile vomit or demonic possession. And I wasn’t an idiot. A tv movie wasn’t going to be “The Exorcist.” But she kept mentioning it, even after we’d talk to an attorney, even after we’d met with the vice-principal at my junior high to clear my yet-theoretical absences. After I made her run lines with me at night. I knew she saw the  overweight, awkward pre-teenage girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior written at the top of the page. She heard her daughter affect a thick southern accent to spout off poorly scripted racial slurs. I said, if this works out I’m not going to be typecast forever as a fat racist. I hoped that was true.

The day of the screen test. Mom drove me to Atlanta. We signed in with the receptionist and sat in the same empty waiting room. The tough girl went first. She came out, grinning and flushed. They called me next. My mom squeezed my head and told me I was beautiful and to be yourself.  And I thought, But mom, I’m an actor. I’ll be whatever they want me to be.

 The sitcom actress smiled and shook my hand. I remember thinking, this is the most famous person I’ve ever met in my life.[5] We sat in two metal folding chairs in front of the camera. She asked if I was ready. I said I was. We did the scene. Then they changed the camera angles and did it again. They thanked me.

We waited.

When, the casting came out beaming at me, I let myself believe it was real, that I would be in a movie, that I would be a working actor, that I would be on tv and all the people who hated me in the eighth grade would see it and then I would be in other movies  and I could hang out with my new best friend Winona Ryder and date John Cusack and buy a house in LA or New York or maybe London and everything, everything little single solitary thing wrong with my life wouldn’t matter because I would be famous and famous fixes everything.

Then the casting director’s smile changed, slightly, up close. I knew it wasn’t me. It wouldn’t be me. She thanked me again for coming in. She wished me the best of luck.

I think I was a good actress. Maybe not the one they wanted. But good enough to smile placidly and congratulate the other girl. Good enough to leave the waiting room head held high not overweight, awkward pre-teenage girl, “white trash” in looks and behavior, but a motherfucking Amazon Queen.

I started crying in the car. Mom drove through five o’clock and pulled off at a fancy hotel in Buckhead. We went into the lobby. She ordered a drink for herself and a ginger ale for me. It wasn’t quite May, the hotel pool was open, but chilly for swimming. Mom and took off our shoes and sat on edge, bare feet suspended in cool, unnatural blue.

She told me she was sorry it hadn’t worked out, acting was a tough business, and  if it was something I really  cared about, this wouldn’t be my only chance. It just feels that way. She told me about in time in college, when she was writing folk songs and had been invited to Richmond to record a demo—do you know this story?— I did but I let her tell me anyway. Her father wouldn’t let her. He forbade it. So I didn’t go. And I’ve always wondered.

 I didn’t know why she didn’t defy him. I mean, Poppy was being unreasonable. Poppy, the kindest, gentlest, a real saint of a man. He was being mean, Mom. I mean, you should have gone anyway. You might have been famous.

 She might have. She might have cut a single and opened for Joni Mitchell. She might have recorded an album. She might have drunk mimosas with the ladies of the canyon and maybe written sad songs about love to the sound of the Pacific tide. She might not have finished college or met my father or had me or my sister. And I don’t regret any of those things.

 Even though, my parents were splitting up and my dad was living in an apartment downtown and everything felt like a muddle?

Even though. She said, even though.

We sat by the pool until we could see the rising moon reflected in the surface.

I told Mom it had been a sucky year.

She agreed. She apologized. I apologized for making her feel like she had to apologize. I told her I loved her. I told her that she was maybe my best friend.

The bartender came out to ask if we wanted to book a room for the night.

We said no, because I think both of us just wanted to go home, and for the first time in months, that felt like where we were really going.

_________

[1] I thought if you put a dime into the little black box you got to keep the candle. I’d empty dad’s change drawer and fill the pockets of my  coat with votives (later used for various experiments with Wicca). I was later embarrassed to learn I had unintentionally stolen several dozen or so prayer candles.  Mea culpa. But let’s be honest, I was already headed to hell anyway.

[2] At the time of my basilica loitering, we spent the odd Sunday at a new age church, close to Dad’s apartment, where the youth group discussed Existentialism over brunch and the average service consisted of working out stress with modeling clay while we sang Let it go in the chorus of “Let It Be” accompanied by my eighth grade crush’s psychiatrist father on bongos. This absolutely happened, by the way.

[3]It did. She didn’t

[4] At least one of the tough girls had quit the week before, following a knock-down, drag-out with the director in the alleyway behind the cellar. At some point one of them used the b word and the other used the c word and our bland, twenty-something leading man said something about “it was a wee bit of a donnybrook, begorrah” in his stupid Lucky Charms voice and almost got punched in the face. And as Tough Girl walked off cursing down the alley. The Director was like, you’ll regret your decision to leave, but I won’t have you back until you adjust that attitude. I don’t know if the Tough Girl ever did adjust her attitude , but the last time I saw her she was wearing leather pants and straddling an amp at a Guided by Voices show around the turn of the millennium. She didn’t look like she had any regrets about youth theatre.

[5] Arguably this wasn’t even true. I’d met George HW Bush, a couple years  before after he delivered an address at Warren Wilson College. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a Republican, maybe it was because George HW Bush didn’t seem like a famous person when he was president, but even then I was like, “He doesn’t count.”

Standard