The basement room was a long, narrow space, mirrored on both sides. The floor was white oak, shellacked to a high gloss. The high ceiling was soundproofed, lest the tortured sounds that emanated from here worry anyone above.
Jane Sailor leaned back against the wooden bar that ran the length of the room at waist height and tried not to notice the reflections of endless Jane Sailors stretching off into infinity in front of her. Each of them had the same flat chest, the same pale blue eyes, and the same white hat as she did.
"All right," she ordered in a cold voice without a trace of mercy. "Let's do it again."
R. J. Hickey nodded happily. He was not much taller than Jane's five feet six, a scrawny man in his mid-thirties who favored the Gas Station Attendant lookbluejeans with a pack of Camels twisted into the sleeve of his T-shirt. He squared his shoulders, shook his greasy black hair in some kind of primitive pump-jockey ritual, then slapped Marcia Lee across her perfect face.
The sharp smack of flesh hitting flesh echoed off the cinder-block walls. As Marcia reeled from the blow, R.J. caught her with a vicious backhand. The lovely little blonde staggered backwards, but R.J. wouldn't let her get away. He grabbed her by the arm and hurled her down with such force that Marcia literally flipped over and landed on her back at his feet. R.J. reached down and grabbed a hank of flaxen curls in his fist. Marcia's hands clamped defensively around his wrist, but to no avail. Though she tried to scramble away from him, itwas a losing battle. R.J. dragged her by the hair across the hardwood floor as far as the narrow dimensions of the room would allowabout fifteen feet.
"Good," said Jane when it was over.
"I hate this," muttered Marcia, not getting up from where she had skidded to rest. "I hate working without the mats. He keeps knocking my head on the floor."
"Did not!" exclaimed R.J.
"The reason you're knocking your head, Marcia," said Jane, pushing herself off the barre on which a thousand dancers had steadied themselves over the years, "is that you're afraid to let yourself roll all the way. The fleshy parts of your arm and your back will absorb the impact if you just let yourself roll. Remember: the floor is your friend. You can't be afraid of it. The floor is your friend. Now, let's do it for real. Full out."
"O-kay!" said R.J., rubbing his hands together in what looked like glee.
"Tech is at six," said Marcia with a whine and a pout. "I need to go home and take a bath. I'm going to be black and blue."
"Last time, I promise," said Jane. "I want to see you and your friend the floor get that roll perfect. You'll thank me Thursday night. You'll steal the show."
Marcia massaged her head with her fingers but didn't move. Jane's own poor scalp itched something terrible, but she suppressed the urge to take off the stupid white hat that was plastered on her head and scratch. She felt funny-looking enough beside this beautiful actress without displaying the bleached disaster that was presently serving as her hair.
"All right, all right," said Marcia, struggling to her feet and walking back across the narrow room to where she had been before. "But you be careful, R.J. I'm a woman. I'm delicate."
"`She walks in beauty, like the night,'" said R.J. with a sigh, placing his hand over his heart. "`Of cloudless climes and starry skies ...'"
"Oh, please," said Marcia with a look of long suffering.
"`... And all that's best of dark and bright/Meet in her aspect and her eyes.'"
Marcia studied her flawless reflections in the mirrors of the dance studio they were rehearsing in and didn't argue. She was still for an extended moment, then placed her hands on her hips, fixed R.J. in the dark and bright aspect of her eyes, and spoke in a low, ugly voice with a hint of a southern accent.
"You're a liar, Billy Tutridge. You're a liar and a fool. You're not half the man your brother was. As far as I'm concerned, you're not a man at all."
"Shut up," screamed R.J. happily. "Shut up, you harpy!"
Then he slapped her in the exact way they had been practicing for the last half hour. His hand never actually came closer than a foot from Marcia's face, but to the audience, who would be seated behind him, it would look like a direct hit.
Marcia spun to one side for the seventh time this morning, her hand appearing to come up uselessly to fend off the blow. In reality, as her hand passed her face it met her other hand, producing a sharp smack of flesh hitting flesh that echoed off the cinder-block walls. This time, Marcia added a convincing shriek of pain.
R.J. replied with a roar and a vicious backhand. As before, his hand never came anywhere near her face, and the sound of impact was produced by Marcia's own clapping hands. Then he pretended to grab her by the arm but actually just lightly touched it, paralleling her movements as Marcia threw herself down in a controlled roll onto her friend the floor, absorbing the impact with the fleshy parts of her arm and back. When she landed at his feet, R.J. reached down and put his fist against the back of her head.
"I'll show you the kind of man I am!" he screamed.
"No!" cried Marcia, clamping her hands around his wrist. "Billy, no!"
"I'll show you, damn it!"
Though it appeared as if R.J. were dragging her across the floor by her hair, Marcia was actually holding onto his forearm and letting him pull her. Nor was she really trying to scramble away in the opposite direction. With her knees bent and her feet on the ground, she was actually helping to support her own weight while pushing herself along backwards toward him. This time she added some miscellaneous kicking and screaming, which made the illusion complete.
"Perfect, wonderful, fantastic," declared Jane, when the routine was done. Then she clapped her hands, stamped her feet, and added a piercing, two-fingered whistle for good measure. A little positive reinforcement never hurt when you were dealing with performers.
Marcia grinned sheepishly and took a little bow. R.J. shook out his arms and flexed his muscles, clearly pleased with himself. Jane hadn't met an actor yet who didn't get a charge out of dragging a member of the opposite sex across a stage by the hair, even if only in simulation. Perhaps it said something about the species.
The door of the basement studio opened and Sigrid Orthwein entered quietly. A tall, steely-eyed woman in her late thirties, Sigrid was the director of the play they were rehearsing, and the guiding light behind the Cincinnati Repertory Theatre. It was Sigrid who had hired Jane to direct the fights in this production of Hale Lumley's Eventide in Gilead, CRT's final play of the season.
"Greetings, Fearless Leader," said R.J. with a flourish and a bow to Sigrid, not having yet recovered from the hormones that flood every man's system when he's pretending to beat up a woman.
"I need to speak with you, Jane," Sigrid said, her voice less imperious than usual. Her gaze was almost sympathetic. "Are you guys finished?"
"Just now," said Jane.
For Sigrid to interrupt one of Jane's rehearsals was unusual. Though Sigrid was responsible for the whole play, the fights were Jane's domain. Sigrid was not one to hover nervously. Tonight was the technical rehearsal, when the actors would try out their costumes for the first time and the light and sound cues would be plugged in. Sigrid had no time simply to drop in and visit. What was this about?
"I'll be watching tomorrow at dress, folks," said Jane, trying to appear unconcerned. "If you have any problems, we can work on Thursday before the opening if you want."
"I don't want," said Marcia, scooping up her backpack and heading for the door. "I hate this play."
"Wait till you see me explode in naked fury tomorrow, Sigrid," said R.J. proudly. "Like you saidBilly Tutridge is a sexual time bomb, just waiting to explode in naked fury. I'll be great."
"Just don't forget your cross in Act Three again or something really will explode," said Sigrid. She waited until the two actors had left the room before she turned and spoke again.
"I'm sorry to barge in like this, Jane, but there's a call for you in the office. It's important."
"What now?" muttered Jane, her eyes rolling upward.
The whole month had been a disaster. First Jane had somehow gotten the notion that, being out here in a city where nobody knew her, this would be a good time to see what she would look like as a blonde. The ensuing experiment with hair color had resulted in a shade somewhere between Golden Egg Yolk and Day-Glo Taxicab. It would be months before her ends unsplit, her roots unfrizzled, and she could come out from beneath the cover of a hat.
Then the entire summer had fallen through. Jane had turned down several other offers to take a position directing fights for the Denver Free Theatre. It was going to be a gloriously violent seasonCyrano, Titus Andronicus, West Side Storybut two weeks ago the theatre had suddenly declared bankruptcy and folded. It was now almost June, and Jane's chances of finding another fight-directing job at this late date were close to nil.
But these catastrophes were nothing compared to her having slept with Dale Kupkin, the lead of Eventide in Gilead, the night before rehearsals began.
It had all happened so quickly. Jane didn't have much experience with margaritas. Dale was tall, gorgeous, and charming. The night had been young and the music hot.
In Jane's twenty-nine years there hadn't been many leading men who plied her with compliments and alcohol and asked permission to compare her to a summer's day (did every actor in the world quote poetry?). Between stints of collecting unemployment insurance, Jane spent her life going from production to production at regional reps and summer stock theatres, rarely spending more than a month in any one cityhardly enough time to form lasting relationships.
Lately, the loneliness had been getting to her, bad. After years in which her only physical contact with men was demonstrating how to flip them on their backs and kick them (in simulation) in the crotch, she longed just to touch one of them gently for a change and to be touched.
Then suddenly here was the opportunity, with this big, beautiful specimen who said he wanted her more than life itself. Heart thumping, head spinning, Jane had somehow found herself at Dale's apartment, taking off her clothes within a few hours of meeting the guy. Everything except her hat. Nothing like this had ever happened to her before.
Nor would it again, she vowed. The next day, Dale had treated her like a total stranger. Jane had spent the past weeks of rehearsal squirming and miserable, as he worked his way through practically every woman in the cast, crew, and cleaning staff. How could she have been such an idiot?
"I'm afraid it's bad news," said Sigrid.
"Bad news?" asked Jane. What could be worse than comic-book hair, looming unemployment, and total humiliation? They couldn't very well fire her two days before the play opened, could they? Dale had used a condom. What kind of bad news was left?
"It's a doctor in New York," said Sigrid. "It's about your dad."
"Is he okay?" said Jane quietly. She had known this call would come one day, but there was no way to prepare for it. A strange numbness swept through her.
"I think he's had some kind of accident. They need to speak with you."
Not waiting for Sigrid, Jane grabbed her notebook and raced out the door, then down the narrow basement hall and up the stairs to the office where the business of the Cincinnati Rep was conducted, a small cluster of rooms at the rear of the theatre complex. Aaron Sailor could hardly have had an "accident." Jane braced herself for the worst.
"There's a call for me?" she said, opening the door to the little reception area.
"You can take it in Sigrid's office," said Helen, the theatre's combination secretary, receptionist, and grapevine. "Line one."
"Bad news?" called Helen eagerly as Jane went into the first room on the right and closed the door.
Sigrid's office, like all the rooms at the back of the theatre, was a windowless cubicle with beige cinder-block walls, most of them covered by bookcases jammed with bound plays and theatre texts. The floor was stacked with manuscripts.
Jane picked up the phone, took a deep breath, and punched the blinking yellow light.
"This is Jane Sailor," she said, suddenly feeling strangely calm, almost detached. "Did my father die?"
"Oh, my goodness, no," came a round voice with a hint of a chuckle in it. "Dr. Contino, Miss Sailor, Benton Contino. From Royaume Israel, I'm the new director. Didn't mean to alarm you. No, your father just had a little accident, that's all."
"What kind of accident?"
"A bit of a fall, actually."
This was too much. Jane pulled off her stupid hat and furiously scratched her poor, bleached-blond head.
"How could my father have fallen, Doctor?" she demanded angrily. "It's not like he can walk around and find things to trip over."
"This is true," acknowledged Dr. Contino. "It was most unfortunate. One of our new aides was rotating himwe like to rotate the patients several times a day here at Royaume Israel. Turn them over, you know. That's why the safety braces on the bed were down. She's a very capable young lady, fully qualified, but these things happen. I'm sure you can understand."
"Just give me the bottom line, Doctor. You wouldn't be calling me if my father just fell out of bed. The aide would have put him back in, and nobody would have been the wiser. Did he break his leg? An arm? Jesus, as if the poor guy doesn't have enough troubles."
"No, no, Miss Sailor," said Dr. Contino with another annoying little chuckle. "You don't understand. It's nothing like that. It was just a little bone in the wrist."
"Oh. Just a little bone in the wrist."
"We're terribly sorry, but it really isn't very serious at all. And it seems that the incident actually has had some therapeutic effects."
"Therapeutic? That's rich."
"Yes, indeed. You see, your father has begun to talk."
Jane nearly dropped the telephone.
"You mean he's conscious?" she exclaimed.
"Well, not exactly. The brain is a very mysterious organ, Miss Sailor. Sometimes it's hard to know exactly what's going on in there."
"What is my father saying?"
"That's rather hard to describe," said Dr. Contino carefully. "I would hate to characterize it as delirious ravings. He has mentioned your name several times. He repeats certain words, phrases."
"Is he waking up? Do you think he's going to wake up?"
"I don't know, Miss Sailor. Even in cases where there has been substantial brain damage, surprises can occur. It is conceivable that your father could awaken, but then he may also quickly relapse into his previous state. If he does wake, it is likely that he will be profoundly handicapped, but it's impossible to know for sure. Miracles are known to happen, even at Royaume Israel. As your father was not expected ever to speak again, already we are in unknown territory."
"I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Oh, how nice. I'll look forward to meeting you."
Jane hung up the phone. Then she sat in Sigrid's big chair, trying to feel something.
Tears used to come easily for Jane when she thought about her father. When Aaron Sailor had fallen down the steep stairs of his loft building in SoHo eight years ago, Jane had still been in college. She had come home and gone through the horrible process of American medicine in a state of panic and determination, barely able to fight down the emotions roiling inside her and articulate the decisions that had to be made. Many nights she had just sat by his bedside weeping, overwhelmed by it all.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to years, Jane had had nightmares and their daytime equivalents, haunted by her father's blank face, his sightless eyes, his broken mind. The loft and all Aaron Sailor's possessions had had to be sold to satisfy medical debts before he could be taken into the Royaume Israel nursing home. Only Jane's scholarship and the salaries from two jobs had enabled her to finish college.
Now virtually nothing of her father remained except his paintings. These had been in the basement locker of Jane's Manhattan apartment building until a few months agohis most precious possessions, ironically judged to be worthless by his creditors.
But now Aaron Sailor was speaking for the first time in eight years. Though the doctors had said that he would live out his life with no more awareness than an eggplant, he could even be waking up.
Why, then, didn't Jane feel anything? She had loved this man more than she could dream of loving another human being, and she had cried her heart out for him over years and years. Was her father already so dead in her mind that there were no feelings left for him? What would happen if he did come out of his coma, if he spoke to her again as he used to, in that kind voice with his roguish smile? Or would he just drool and make noises like an animal? What would she feel then?
Jane rose from the chair. If she gave herself the rest of the day to tie up the loose ends here, she could be on a plane back to New York tomorrow morning. There was no real reason to stay in Cincinnati for the dress rehearsal. The fights were in as good a shape as they were going to get. The last class in stage combat she had agreed to teach at the University of Cincinnati had been yesterday. Sigrid would understand, Jane told herself. She might even prefer that Jane bow out now and go to her family medical emergency rather than stick around like a good trouper, making everyone uncomfortable.
Besides, Jane had no choice. She had to go home and see this man who had died, yet lived on. After all the years and all the heartache, her father still had no one else, and she had no one but him. Once again she would have to look upon the shell of his body. This time, she would also have to hear the echo of what had been his voice.
Whether she could find anything left to feel, however, she did not know.
WHY ELEPHANTS HAVE BIG EARS
UNDERSTANDING PATTERNS OF LIFE ON EARTH
By Chris Lavers
St. Martin's Press
Copyright © 2000 Chris Lavers. All rights reserved.