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As a little girl growing up in Boston, Miriam Bluestein fantasized about a life lived on stage, specifically in a musical. Get married, have a family?sure, maybe she?d do those things, too, but first and foremost there was her career. As a woman, she is both tormented and consoled by those dreams in her day-to-day existence with her family, including a short-tempered husband, a cranky mother, and three demanding children, one of whom, Ethan, ...
As a little girl growing up in Boston, Miriam Bluestein fantasized about a life lived on stage, specifically in a musical. Get married, have a family—sure, maybe she’d do those things, too, but first and foremost there was her career. As a woman, she is both tormented and consoled by those dreams in her day-to-day existence with her family, including a short-tempered husband, a cranky mother, and three demanding children, one of whom, Ethan, shows real talent for the stage.
It is through Ethan that Miriam strives to realize her dreams. As she pushes him to make the most of his talent, the rest of her life gradually comes undone, with her husband becoming increasingly frustrated and her other two children—Sam, a mass of quirks and idiosyncrasies, and Julie, hostile and bitter—withdrawing into their own worlds. Still Miriam dreams, praying for that big finale, which, when it comes, is nothing that she ever could have imagined.
Broadway Baby marks the fiction debut of a nationally acclaimed award-winning memoirist and poet, “an acute observer of moments, people, art and language [who] packs even seemingly simple stories with many layers of meaning” (Publishers Weekly, starred review).
Clutching her playbill she followed the usher through the golden doors and down the carpeted center aisle. She looked at the big stage, the gold-tasseled burgundy folds of the massive curtains, the gigantic tableau of dead stars in postures of woe or ecstasy on the ceiling; she felt enveloped by the excited murmur of the audience all around her, the lazy chaotic sounds of the musicians tuning up. The usher led her toward the stage past row after row of the most elegant people, all radiant as celebrities, maybe some of them were celebrities, who knows?—they all could see her being led to even better seats than theirs, the seats her son had reserved for her. The stage grew larger with every step; she could see the heads of the musicians in the pit, the wrinkles in the back of the conductor's tux. Their seats were three rows from the stage, dead center, right in front of Mayor Guiliani!
Her younger son said, "Ma, stop looking around, aren't these seats good enough for you?"
"Miriam," her husband said, "you'll bust a blood vessel if you don't relax. You're embarrassing us. Just look at the playbill."
But she was too excited to look at the playbill; besides, she wanted to maximize the surprise!
After all those years of training, her dragging him kicking and screaming to dance lessons and voice lessons, all the struggle and disappointment he had endured when he was starting out, and that she herself had endured for his sake, here he was at last, her son, on Broadway, just as she had always dreamed. Maybe now he'd thank her. And if he didn't, so what? His having gotten here, his happiness, was thanks enough.
The lights dimmed. When the orchestra struck the first note, and the audience applauded, she was leaning forward; even as it started, she wanted the overture over with already, she wanted the curtains to part and her son (whichever character he was) to appear. She could hardly breathe; it was as if her heart were beating somewhere outside herself and she couldn't get it back. At first, she thought maybe she was too excited and that's why she didn't spot him right away when the curtain finally opened on the bright stage and the actors playing actors hurried every which way before her ("gotta run, gotta run, let's have lunch"). He wasn't Joe, he wasn't Artie, or de Mille, or Sheldrake, not even the least of the lesser characters ("I'm shooting a Western down at Fox" "How can you work with Daryl?" "We should talk"). Where was he? She couldn't spot him, not even when the whole ensemble divided into different groups, and each one in turn was singing "gotta run," "gotta run," "let's have lunch," "gotta run." Had she missed him? She turned to her husband and said, "Did you see him?"
"What?" he said.
"Did you see him?" She was almost hyperventilating.
Her younger son put his hand on her arm and squeezed it. "Ma," he said, "take it easy; he's one of the cops, he's there, right there, to the right of the star, a little behind him."
People were turning around and scowling. She heard someone behind her, was it the mayor? say, "Lady, keep it down, will you?"
"One of the cops?" she said.
"One of the cops, yes, right there."
She said, "There must be some mistake!"
"Lady," the voice behind her hissed, "If you don't shut up, I'll call the usher!"
Center stage, Joe Gillis ended the first number with, "Come to get your knife back? It's still there, right between my shoulder blades."
One of the cops, one of the nameless cops! Was he even mentioned in the playbill? But she had twisted the playbill into a crooked stalk and her hands were shaking too much to untwist it.
"Is that it?" she said out loud to no one.
"Ma," her youngest said, "Jeez, will you just stop?"
"There he is again," her husband said. And he pointed, but by the time she looked the stage had gone dark, and then the second number started, "Every Movie's a Circus."
Now she was trying to thumb through the playbill, to smooth out the pages, looking for her son's name in the darkness and so again she didn't see him when he came on stage in the role of an actor telling another actor about a role he's landed in a new blockbuster picture; he said, "I'm a policeman. 'Hang up punk!' That's all I say." And that's all he said. He didn't appear again in any other scene.
She looked up when her husband nudged her.
"What?" she said.
"Your son," he said.
"My son? He's here somewhere; just give me a minute." And she looked back down at the playbill on her lap; she was carefully stretching it out with her fingers, smoothing it out, searching for her son's name. It was somewhere in the playbill. It had to be.
"Tomorrow I'll be ten years old," Miriam Bluestein told herself as she sat in the bathtub. Ten years old, and in a few days her mother would be taking her to New York City for the first time. She looked out the bathroom window at the bright-lit billboard on the rooftop of Fleischman's Bakery, where all the way from Broadway and the Ziegfeld Follies, Fanny Brice looked in at her, at Miriam, here in Mattapan, the singer's shining arms held out, her face smiling, as if to welcome the little girl, now that she wasn't so little anymore, into the company of stars. How many nights during bathtime had she stared at the great singer, the great Jewish performer her grandparents especially, but everybody really, up and down the street and throughout the neighborhood, revered and talked about. How many evenings before bedtime did they listen on the radio to the Follies coming to them "from the Ziegfeld Theater in downtown Manhattan," and every time Miss Brice would sing "My Man," or "Second Hand Rose," she and Bubbie would sing along, and afterward Zaydie would look at Miriam and smile a smile that she was sure was saying, imagine the joy she gives her parents. What a blessing such a child would be.
Miriam looked out at Fanny looking in at her, and thought, who knows, maybe in a few days she'd be watching Fanny Brice herself. Maybe someday that would be Miriam up there on a billboard looking in on some other little girl who in a few days would be ten years old and coming to New York City for the first time. Mattapan, Manhattan, they were practically the same word. Only two letters made the difference. Only two letters turned the every day into the never before, the just here into the far away. How had she never noticed that before? Maybe this was what it meant to be ten, almost a teenager, almost an adult. What other new things would she soon be noticing?
Next week she'd be someone who had been to New York City, who'd been to Broadway. No one she knew, not one single person beside her mother, not any of her friends, could say that. Not Zaydie and Bubbie, and certainly not her father, no, not him.
Mattapan, Manhattan. She wrung the sponge out over her head and laughed as the water cascaded down over her face. It wasn't too long ago that Bubbie used to bathe her. Bubbie would lather her up until she wore an ermine stole of suds along her arms and shoulders, and a white tiara on her head, and she would call her "a regular little star, a little Fanny Brice, a Sophie Tucker." Now, of course, she bathed herself the way grown-ups did. It was a funny thing to think about, to try to remember, the last time Bubbie bathed her. There had to have been a last time, though she couldn't recall it, a time like any other time that she and maybe Bubbie, too, believed would just go on forever, and it did, or seemed to, until it didn't, and now she couldn't even find the memory of it. That must have meant there'd come a last time, too, to play with all her dolls and who knew what else. Now that she was older, how many things every day would she be doing for the last time without knowing it, things she would not recall until too late when whatever it was was beyond recalling? Mattapan, Manhattan, Manhattan, Mattapan. She dunked her head under the water and opened her eyes. The blurry shapes of the drain with the white plug in it, her hands, her arms, all of her on the eve of her tenth birthday, a few days before her trip to New York City, were wavering with water shadows, shadows that the bathroom walls and ceiling would later seem to swallow as the water twisted down the drain.
The next day, she was walking home from school down the alley that ran behind her block of buildings when an orange kitten ran out from under a parked car.
Overhead laundry flapped from clotheslines on the back porches in the cold November air. She could hear a baby crying and someone shooing something off a porch. She imagined someone in one of the windows looking out at her, seeing what they thought was just a little girl walking home from school, not realizing what today was or where she'd be come Friday, or who she'd see.
She followed the kitten to some nearby trash bins. It must be hungry; it must be looking for food. "Here kitty, kitty," she called, kneeling on the gravel. She tried to make herself sound younger than she was, the way adults did when talking to little babies, like Fanny Brice as Baby Snooks. But the kitten dashed out and slipped under a neighbor's roadster and out the other side and leaped onto the far corner of a fence, behind some scraggly bushes. She could see it among the leaves, its paws drawn under it, its tail pulled round like a moat. She said, "I won't hurt you, kitty. It's my birthday today; you'll be safe with me." Up and down the alley, dogs were barking; she could hear old Mrs. Leavitt, their next-door neighbor, yelling at her twenty-year-old nephew Joey who'd come to live with her after his parents died of influenza so many years ago. "Maria, Joey? Maria? She's not for you. Maria?" The tabby meowed and kept meowing but it wouldn't budge, and after a while Miriam gave up and went home.
"Bubbie," she asked her grandmother. "Bubbie, there's a lost kitten out back; since it's my birthday, can I keep it?"
"No alley cats," Bubbie said. "I don't care what day it is. The filth, the stink—I don't have enough to do already? Call your big-shot mother at the store, maybe for the rats she'll want it."
"Tula's," her mother said, in the cheerful voice she used at work, only with customers.
"Ma," Miriam said, "there's a kitty out back and, um, well, it's my birthday and ..."
"Miriam," her mother said, "how many times have I told you not to call me at the store, I have a business to run, and what does your birthday have to do with anything?"
"Well," she said, "Bubbie says we can't keep a cat here but I was thinking maybe at the store I could keep it; it might help with the mice."
Her mother said, "If you want a cat, just ask for a cat. Don't give me a song and dance about your birthday."
"So, can I have a cat?"
She decided to keep it anyway. It would be her secret pet. She left a bowl of milk out, near the fence, tucked under the bushes, and an hour later the bowl was empty. But the kitten was still there, still crying, so she brought out a bowl of little bits of tuna and crackers. The kitten still would not approach. It cried as she knelt there, calling to it, and then after a while it simply watched her. But it never consented to be touched, to be petted, which was all that Miriam longed to do. Miriam told herself that eventually the cat would learn how kind she was, how mistaken it was to fear her. She was ten years old. Then she shook the bowl to show the kitten that it was full and not a trap; she shook the bowl, calling out sweet names. But the kitten wouldn't budge, and when she edged a little closer, it just retreated farther back into the bushes, its green eyes glaring at the little girl calling kitty, kitty, come here kitty, holding the bowl out and shaking it, shaking the bowl as if asking for alms.
Excerpted from BROADWAY BABY by ALAN SHAPIRO Copyright © 2012 by Alan Shapiro. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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