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By Peter Cameron
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Peter Cameron
All rights reserved.
It all started at the airport. My mother had promised to pick me up, but she wasn't there. Then I was informed that the airline had lost my luggage somewhere between Zaire and New York, and right after I finished filling out a three-page claim form my younger sister, Daria, and her boyfriend, Charles, appeared and told me that my mother had become a performance artist and sold her apartment, and that I could stay with them for ten days, and after that I'd have to find my own place or go to L.A. and live with my father. Then Charles and Daria had a fight about how to get home from the airport: Daria wanted to take a cab, but Charles thought we should take some special express bus. They were so angry at each other that Daria got in a cab and Charles got on the bus, and before I could get in either they were both gone. I met an Argentine businessman, and we shared a cab back to the city; halfway there he asked the cabbie to pull over, and in the parking lot of a mall in Queens he and the cabbie snorted coke the man had just smuggled into the country. It was then that I started missing the Peace Corps.
The coked-up businessman got out of the cab at the Waldorf-Astoria. He invited me up to his room, but I told him I had contracted a disease in Africa and been sent home to die. I gave the driver Daria's address and we headed downtown. He dropped me off on a very odd street. It was made of cobblestones, and it didn't have any cars parked on it, or sidewalks. None of the doors was numbered, and they weren't normal, friendly looking doors: They were steel doors with no handles or anything on them, the kind you can only open from inside. I was about to go find another taxi—I hadn't figured out where I was going to ask it to take me—when one of the doors opened and Daria and Charles walked out.
They had changed. They were obviously dressed to go out someplace fancy. Daria saw me standing in the street and said, "Oh, Lainie, great, we left a message on our machine telling you to meet us at Minnie's, but now you can just come with us. You probably never would have found it yourself, anyway."
"Who's Minnie?" I asked.
"Who's Minnie?" Charles laughed. "I know you've been in Africa, but really, Elaine. Who's Minnie?"
"Minnie's is a restaurant," Daria said. "Charles, go fetch a cab."
Charles, apparently chastened, looked down at his shoes for a moment—they were patent leather cowboy boots—and then trotted up to the corner.
Daria waited till he was out of earshot before she spoke. "I'm sorry about the airport," she said. "I know you probably think I behaved terribly, but this is a new relationship, and I think it's important to stick up for yourself right from the start, otherwise things just get so helplessly spastic...."
"Do you think I could use your bathroom before we go anywhere? And shouldn't I change?"
Daria, who had been watching Charles's receding back, looked at me. "Well, you do look awful," she sighed. "We'll run up and see what we can do."
At Minnie's we found Charles sitting at a table on its own little platform, drinking a glass of champagne. Most of the tables were on their own platforms, so walking across the restaurant was a sickening experience: You kept going up a few steps, then down a few.
"Oh, champagne," squealed Daria, helping herself to a glass. "What a good idea." She kissed Charles. Charles grinned and raised his glass.
"Cheers," he said. "To a new career." He turned to me. "Welcome home, Elaine."
Even though I didn't have a glass of champagne or a new career, I thought this was awfully sweet of Charles, so I just smiled and lifted my water glass.
"Charles, you jerk, give her some champagne!" Daria said. She hit his still upraised arm, spilling some of the peach-colored liquid.
"Oh, sorry," Charles said. He reached into the bucket, extracted the dripping bottle, and poured me a glass.
"Don't you want to know what my new career is?" Daria asked.
"Oh," I said. "I thought ..."
"No, no, guess," Daria said. "I bet she can't guess," she said to Charles.
After she was graduated from college, Daria had gotten a job as an assistant buyer at Bloomingdale's. The last I had heard, she was manager of Men's Notions: umbrellas, wallets, and sunglasses.
"Are you still at Bloomingdale's?" I asked.
"God, no," said Daria. "Really."
"Look at her face," said Charles. "It shows on her face."
I looked at Daria's face. She was flushed, and I noticed her eyebrows were unnaturally bushy and dark. Had they been dyed?
"Are you an actress?"
"Close," said Daria. "A model. I've already done two shows. One was a designer showcase."
"She wore underwear," said Charles.
"It wasn't underwear," said Daria. "It just kind of looked like underwear."
"Are you tall enough to be a model?" I asked.
"Well, not really. But it's mostly in how you carry yourself, how you move. I move very well. They're very excited about the way I move."
"Have you told Mom?"
"It was her idea. This guy who is acting as her manager also books models, and she showed him a picture of me, and we all had dinner, and he got me the shows. The first one was a little skeevy—they still haven't paid me—but the second show was completely legit. I got five hundred dollars, and they had a big buffet. Caviar. Everything."
In the ladies' room, Daria filled me in on Charles. She had met him at Bloomingdale's, when he special-ordered a sharkskin wallet. He was only nineteen, but he was very rich, and he wanted to be an actor.
Daria was applying black lipstick with a little paintbrush, peering into the mirror. I was standing next to the sink, my back against the cool tile wall. The floor and ceiling were made of mirrors, so I felt like I was floating. I was starting to feel jet-lagged, and trying to remember the last time I slept.
"Do you like Charles?" Daria asked. She looked at me in the mirror.
"I'm not sure," I said. "He seems pleasant."
"Pleasant?" Daria said. "Pleasant? Well, that's a new concept."
"Can we go home soon?" I asked. "I'm a little exhausted."
"Oh, take one of these," Daria said. She opened her bag and took out an aqua pill. "They gave us these before the show. They animate you. They aren't harmful."
"How do you know?" I asked.
"How do I know?" Daria gave me a despairing look. "Elaine, just look at me," she said. "Do I look harmed?"
We were dancing at some club. Or rather: Daria and Charles and a boy with aluminum foil gym shorts and no shirt were dancing together, and I was sitting on a chair that was shaped like a hand, sitting in the palm and leaning back against the fingers. The pill Daria had given me was having an odd effect. I kept forgetting I was myself, drifting off somewhere, only to suddenly find I was back in the hand chair. This was not completely unpleasant.
Charles and Daria trotted off the dance floor, leaving the blond boy dancing alone. He didn't seem to notice.
"Is that your beer?" Daria asked. She pointed to a Rolling Rock on the table—a little, upturned hand—next to my chair. It was half full.
"No," I said.
Daria picked it up, looked at it, then drank from it. She handed it to Charles.
"This is disgusting," he said. Nevertheless, he took a slug and offered it to me. I declined.
"Charles wants to go to Mars," Daria said. "But I want to go to Des Moines. You decide."
"Can't we just go home?" I asked.
"Home?" asked Charles, as if this were the name of some new club he hadn't yet heard of.
"But Lainie, this is your first night in New York. We wanted to make it special."
"It's been very special," I said. "I'd just like to go home."
"I suppose we could go home," said Charles, turning the idea over in his mind.
Daria took the beer bottle from him and finished it. "All right," she said. "If it's what you really want. We'll go home. But we'll stop on the way for breakfast: French Toast! Eggs Benni!"
The next morning, while Charles and Daria went to an acting class for models, I began my job search. I went out to get a newspaper, but I got stuck in the elevator. I couldn't get it to move. After about twenty minutes it started to ascend on its own accord. It stopped, and the door opened. A woman stood there with a little piggy-looking dog on a leash. "Are you going down?" she asked.
"I'm trying to," I said. "I don't know how to work this."
The woman gave me an unfriendly look and got in the elevator. She cranked some strange handle and the elevator started to descend none too smoothly. The dog stood on the floor, snorting, and looking up at me.
"What kind of dog is that?"
"What?" the woman said.
I repeated my question.
"This dog?" the woman said, pointing to the dog, as if there were several in the elevator.
"Yes," I said.
"A bull terrier."
The elevator landed with a thud and the woman opened the gates. We were about a foot below the main floor. I stepped up and out, and so did the woman, but the dog stayed in the elevator.
"Spanky, I'm not going to pick you up," the woman said. She pulled on the leash and dragged Spanky out of the elevator. This experience didn't seem to help his breathing problem.
"Is there a paper store around here?" I asked the woman.
"A paper store?"
"To buy a newspaper? I'm looking for a job."
"Well, the last place I'd look is in a newspaper. Don't you have any connections?"
"Not really," I said. "I just got out of the Peace Corps."
"What's that?" the woman asked.
"You've never heard of the Peace Corps?"
"Is it a band?"
"No," I said. "It's this program whereby Americans are sent to help people in developing nations."
"Help them with what?"
"Different things. I helped people in Africa on a cooperative farm."
Spanky started to eat a Coke can that was lying in the gutter.
"You don't want a dog, do you?" the woman asked. "This was my ex-boyfriend's dog. The meanest thing he ever did to me was leave Spanky. Actually, it was probably the meanest thing he ever did to Spanky, too."
I felt kind of sorry for Spanky, despite his general awfulness, but I didn't feel in a position to take him. Plus, I felt as if we were digressing. "Is there a place to get a paper?" I asked.
"A paper," the woman said. "Well, I usually just grab one from outside of someone's door. But I suppose you could buy one at Igor's. For about ten million dollars, probably."
"It's on the corner. The purple awning. Would you buy me some cigarettes while you're there? Igor won't let me come in anymore. Spanky messed on his floor."
"Number two," the woman said.
"No, I mean what kind of cigarettes?"
"Oh, that. Gauloises."
It was when I got back in Daria's apartment with a copy of Backstage—the only paper Igor's carried—that I started to panic. The paper was full of ads, but they all seemed to be people advertising themselves; the only real jobs were word-processing jobs for actors "between engagements." I could type about three words a minute. On the second-to-last page was an ad that said: "NO ACTORS ... JUST PEOPLE. No Equity, No Experience Necessary. We just want YOU. Pilgrim Acres, Massachusetts' newest theme park, needs all types for recreational acting/being. Excellent pay, benefits, more. Call now."
I called the number. "Hello," a man said.
"Is this Pilgrim Acres?" I asked.
"I'm calling about the ad in Backstage. For people?"
"Do you have jobs?"
"What's your dress size?"
I told him.
"Are you reasonably attractive?"
I said yes.
"Then we have a job," he said. "If you get here by five o'clock."
"Five o'clock when?"
"Tonight," he said.
When I hung up I was elated, and only a little scared. I had never been to Boston, but my mother, who grew up there, had always said it was a "small, manageable" city, and I was sure there couldn't be as many creepy people there as there seemed to be in New York. And I was proud of myself for having gotten a job in what must have been record time. I packed some of Daria's clothes—winter clothes so she couldn't accuse me of taking things she needed—and wrote her a note and went to Penn Station and took a train to Boston. I arrived at Pilgrim Acres at a quarter to five.
The next day I started work. Mr. Antonini, the man who ran the park, said Elaine wasn't a good Pilgrim name and gave me a list of suitable names to choose from. I selected Ann, but he said they already had six Anns, so I picked Clara. First I was assigned to the Apothecary's, but then two women fainted in the Bakery, and since I had been in Africa, Mr. Antonini thought maybe I'd do better in the heat and switched me.
A few nights later I was sitting on the back steps of a row house in Medford spraying a hose at a baby standing up in an inflated swimming pool. The baby's name was Dido, and I was living with his mother and father, Louisa and Curly. Curly taught American history and lifestyles at Medford High School, and Louisa was going to a school to learn how to install cable TV in people's houses. I had met Curly—he was named after the cowboy in Oklahoma!—at Pilgrim Acres. A lot of teachers worked there in the summer. Curly suggested I rent their attic instead of staying in the barracks-like dorms at the park. The only problem was that I didn't think Louisa liked me very much. Either that or she couldn't speak English—she spoke only Spanish to both Curly and Dido.
Dido was shrieking from pleasure (I think) as I ran the hose up and down his pink little body. Louisa was at school and Curly was in the kitchen, fixing dinner.
After a few minutes Dido's pink little body started turning blue, so I took him out of the pool, wrapped him in a towel, and took him into the kitchen. I put a fresh diaper on him, then sat him in his high chair.
The phone rang. Curly picked it up. "Hello," he said, and then, "No. We have no Lainie here. No Elaine, either. You have the wrong number."
"Wait," I said. "I think that's for me." I took the receiver out of Curly's hand. He shrugged.
"Hello," I said.
"What was that all about?" asked Daria.
"Daria," I said. I had left a message on her machine telling her where I could be reached, but I hadn't expected to hear from her so soon.
"Who answered the phone?" she asked.
"That was Curly," I said.
"Doesn't he know your name?"
"I changed my name," I said. "I'm Clara now."
"Why did you change your name?"
"It's a long story," I said.
"Well, then, some other day," said Daria. "Listen, Elaine, are you all right? I'm worried about you, just taking off like that."
"I'm fine," I said.
"Are you sure? I mean, I'm sorry if I seemed inhospitable before. If you want to come back to the city, you can stay here. It's no big deal. Why don't you come back?"
"I don't think so," I said. "I like it here."
"Well, Edith called." Edith is our mother. "She wanted to know what was happening with you, and I told her about this Pilgrim thing and I think she's coming to see you. She's performing at some hospital or something. So be warned."
"Oh, no," I said. "I don't think I'm ready for her yet."
"Are you really O.K.?" Daria asked. "Who's this Curly person?"
"He's my landlord," I said. "He works at the Pilgrim Acres."
"Oh, speaking of jobs, make sure you buy next month's Glamour. I'm in it."
"Congratulations," I said. "That's great."
"Yeah, well it could have been better. I'm a DON'T picture."
It was warm in the Bakery, especially in the long Pilgrim dresses we had to wear, but I liked the job. I started to forget all about the Peace Corps and indigenous fertilizers and New York and Daria, and the simple routine of bread baking—mixing the dough, letting it rise, punching it down, shaping it, setting the moist unbaked loaves out on the paddle, pushing them into the oven, removing them an hour later, and then selling warm slices to the tourists for a quarter—seemed like the best job in the world. Some mornings I'd take an early bus out and just walk around the deserted village, up and down the wooden sidewalks, past the herb garden and chicken yards, across the dirt road and around the Village Green, past the Butcher's and the Seamstress's and the Blacksmith's and the Apothecary's, then into the Bakery, where I'd start sifting and measuring the flour. Then I started staying later at night: The Bakery closed at 4:30, but I'd walk around in my Pilgrim costume, smiling at the tourists, sitting on the benches, letting them take pictures of me holding their fat fragrant babies, waiting for dark and the fireworks display they had every night. And I'd ride the late bus home, still dressed like a Pilgrim, and walk to Curly and Louisa's house, and inside they'd be lying on the couch, watching Spanish TV, and I'd walk upstairs past Dido's room, where he slept in his crib, softly illuminated by the Virgin Mary night-light, up another flight past Curly and Louisa's room, up, up into the dark, hot attic.
Excerpted from Far-Flung by Peter Cameron. Copyright © 1991 Peter Cameron. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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