After an insightful remark from his brother, Paul Motley begins screenwriting after a move to Manhattan. There, he meets an attractive and childish actress and waitress. After taking a job at the same restaurant to be closer to her, Paul is forced to get his priorities straight or risk more then he'd care to.
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About the Author
Tor Seidler has written several books for young readers, including the sequel to A Rat's Tale, The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, and Mean Margaret, a National Book Award Finalist. He lives in New York City. Fred Marcellino (1939–2001) wrote and illustrated many books for children, including a Caldecott Honor Book, Puss in Boots. He began his career in illustration with A Rat's Tale.
Tor Seidler has written several books for young readers, including the sequel to A Rat's Tale, The Revenge of Randal Reese-Rat, and Mean Margaret, a National Book Award Finalist. He lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
Take A Good Look
By Tor Seidler
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1990 Tor Seidler
All rights reserved.
PAUL MOTLEY sat on his stoop with the Sunday Times in his lap, eyeing the third-floor windows of the brownstone across the street. It was a breezy morning in May — "changeable," according to the upper-right-hand corner of the front page — with pudgy clouds ambling down the aisle of sky over his block. It was only eight-thirty, easily the earliest he'd been up on a Sunday since he'd moved to the neighborhood, and weirdly peaceful. When the light at the park end of the street changed, one or at most two cars went by, sometimes none at all, and except for an occasional siren in the distance, the only sound came from starlings and English sparrows in the newly leafed-out sycamore in front of the building next door. Of course, the second-to-top step of his stoop was frosted with pigeon droppings, and since coming down, he'd seen two bums with stolen grocery carts make sweeps of the block's garbage, and three gigantic cockroaches — water bugs, actually — emerge from a grating in the gutter like the mutant monsters in a fifties horror movie. Still, things seemed almost bucolic.
At a little after nine o'clock, S. Farr's blinds went up. S. Farr was the name on the 3F mailbox in the foyer across the street. She had been haunting him for weeks, ever since a freakishly late snowfall in early April. That night he'd worked till ten on some ad copy for Ruth Frumkin, then ventured out to a bar on Columbus Avenue. He half hated the place — it had overblown, parvenu decor and simpy soft rock on the sound system — but it attracted good-looking women, and in the last few months he'd become somewhat addicted to the smoky atmosphere of infinite possibility. That night he'd caught the remarkably blue eyes of a brunette in a tie-dyed paratrooper suit across the shiplike bar. She had two dumpy sidekicks — a not uncommon gambit, he'd been finding out — but he managed to waylay her on her way back from the ladies'. Up close, he saw that her complexion was porous and that the surprising blue of her eyes was the result of tinted contact lenses. But it turned out she was visiting from Los Angeles, a new interest of his, and besides this, she had a slight stutter, which touched him somehow. She'd been East only once before and was amazed at the snow, so when they got up to his place he didn't bother turning any lamps on, confining the lighting to the amber glow from the streetlamp-struck snow. This was not only quite romantic, it hid a multitude of housekeeping sins. But when the zipper stuck halfway down her paratrooper suit, he had to maneuver her over to the window to see.
The two windows directly across the street — the third-floor-front apartment of the brownstone opposite — were ablaze with light. A young woman with long chestnut hair was painting the back wall of the room peach-colored. As she turned to dip her roller, she flipped the hair off her face with the back of her wrist, and Paul's heart caught at her beauty. Then the zipper gave, and the surfer girl let out a squeal at the cold.
A few days later, after a dinner at the Blumens', Paul stopped in at the Korean greengrocer on Seventy-third and Columbus to pick up a grapefruit for the morning. The first thing he saw when he walked into the place was the beautiful housepainter standing by the honeydews in a vintage ski sweater with a reindeer on it. For a moment he felt a little dizzy. She looked even more perfect closeup than from across the street. Her face was softer and more rounded, fuller and riper somehow, than the kind purveyed on the covers of current fashion magazines — more like the kind the Old Masters went in for. Her luscious hair was trapped in a ballerinalike chignon, but you could tell even through the lumpy sweater that she wasn't in the ranks of the neighborhood dance mafia, that her body was fit but not self-consciously sculpted, natural and slightly, disarmingly gawky — the product, he would have bet, of good genes, good nutrition, and summers spent on tennis courts and sailboats. Though she didn't remind him of anyone he knew, he had the weird sensation of having known her a long time. All his life, even.
He took a deep breath and, passing up the grapefruits, walked straight over to the honeydews.
"I guess they must come from New Zealand or something," he speculated, testing one with his thumbs. "You can't freeze them, can you?"
She turned and walked away without even glancing at him. A breath of cold air hit the back of his neck as the door opened, but his cheeks felt so hot he wanted to scoop some of the chopped ice out of the broccoli bin and press it to them. When his blush died down on its own, he looked around. He was alone in the place with the young Korean woman at the register and an ancient Korean man, her grandfather probably, who was perched on a crate picking through bunches of green grapes. The old guy grinned a knowing, simian grin at him.
A few minutes later, after checking the mailboxes in the brownstone across from his, Paul was up in his apartment, scrutinizing a postcard on his bulletin board, Murillo's Girl and Her Duenna, from the National Gallery. But while the girl leaning in the window in that painting did bear a resemblance to S. Farr, he decided that the feeling of recognition he'd experienced went deeper than that, had to do with S. Farr's correspondence to an ideal form that was printed on his genes. This was a comforting idea, as the premium he put on looks sometimes disturbed him a little. Jenny Briggs, for example. After Amherst, all he'd wanted to do was write poetry, so he'd moved back in with his father in Northampton and taken a part-time job as a bookstore clerk. Jenny worked in the Burger King where he often ate lunch. They had almost nothing in common. She was a high-school dropout. However, she was also wonderfully nubile, with lush brown hair and big, insouciant brown eyes, and he'd wriggled out of his involvement with his bright Smithie girlfriend in her favor. But if Jenny had only been a way station on a quest foisted on him by his genes, there was no reason to suffer pangs of conscience about being superficial.
Since the mortifying honeydew incident, Paul had spent a lot of time in an easy chair salvaged from a dumpster behind the Dakota, staring across at S. Farr's windows. By daylight she was only a ghost figure, and when she turned on lamps at dusk, she rarely forgot to lower her Levolor blinds. But when the slats weren't closed all the way, he got striated glimpses of her, and even when they were closed, there was something heartening about the Jacob's ladders of lamplight that leaked through. He also poked his head into the Korean market every time he went by, but he hadn't seen her again closeup until one evening a couple of weeks ago. He'd just taken the subway back uptown after a meeting with Ruth about a new cosmetics account. On his way out of the Seventy-second Street station, he nearly bumped into S. Farr, who was on her way in. He did an abrupt about-face and jumped on the token line, then watched, strangely panic-stricken, as she slipped through a turnstile and headed for the downtown side. Trains were rumbling in by the time he got his token. Breasting the geyser of humanity down to the platform, he saw that the downtown local and express were both there, the conductors' miked voices exhorting people to watch the closing doors. He guessed local and just made it in. But there was no sign of her in that car. As the train pulled out, the mangy black bum who played earsplitting notes on his saxophone till people paid him to stop began his wheedling spiel. Paul stared out through the girdered darkness at the express, which had pulled out simultaneously but was accelerating slightly faster, its windows flicking slowly by. There, in one of them, was S. Farr, her left hand lifted to a metal strap, her right pulling a Samuel French playscript from the inner pocket of her beautiful suede jacket.
He'd walked home cursing fate, which seemed intent on keeping two panes of glass between them. But the subterranean wild-goose chase added the playscript to his mental picture of her, and the idea that she might be an actress and thus take a special interest in his screenplay — which was nearly finished — was incentive for staying home nights and working on it. Discouragingly, her windows were dark at least four evenings a week, though he never caught so much as a glimpse of a man over there. And what's more, it was hard to believe that destiny wasn't involved in this paragon's moving into the apartment directly across the street, the twin to his.
A few days ago, things had come to a head. As soon as he'd finished his screenplay, he'd given a copy of it to Charlie Blumen, who taught the night class in screenwriting he was taking at the New School. At the same time, he'd mentionedhis scheme of going to Los Angeles to peddle it. Charlie had lived out there for fifteen years, writing for TV, and he called Paul the next day to tell him that a publicist friend of his was spending July on location and needed a house-sitter for his place in Marina del Rey. It sounded ideal. The house even had an ocean view. But Paul had procrastinated, tortured by the thought that S. Farr might really be as perfect as she looked. If by some miracle she was untaken, wouldn't it be lunacy to go away and leave the field to the competition for a whole month? Of course, she'd never even spoken to him, so it was all a little absurd, but he couldn't help trusting his premonition. Charlie's friend wanted a decision by tomorrow, Monday: thus the desperate measure of setting his alarm on a Sunday. He often saw S. Farr's lights come on late Saturday night, but by the time he got up on Sunday, usually around ten-thirty, her apartment had a definite aura of emptiness. Whatever she got up to do, this morning he was determined to follow her, to cross her path somehow and try out the truthful "Haven't I seen you on my block?" approach. It really shouldn't be that hard.
When he'd been on his stoop about an hour, a pair of identical Russian wolfhounds emerged from the brownstone next door. They pulled their master, a middle-aged man with incongruously boyish blond hair, down the steps; as they dragged him off toward the park, the guy gave Paul an incongruously boyish smile. Soon more dog-walkers appeared. Other people shuffled to the corner of Columbus for their Sunday papers, some coming back lugging both the Times and the News, whole tree limbs' worth of pulp. A fat, fiftyish man came waddling along munching a Danish, a piece of which fell onto the sidewalk at the foot of Paul's stoop. Till then, the only birds he'd seen were the real ones in the trees, but suddenly half a dozen pigeons emerged from the stonework, and within fifteen seconds the dingy urban creatures had pecked the crust to nothing.
It was nearly ten o'clock, and a sporadic migration was starting in the direction of the Universalist Church around the corner. A pair of old ladies crept down the street arm in arm, one trembly with Parkinson's disease, followed by a black family in their Sunday best, then by a sleepy-looking woman with two boys in polyester suits. Paul began to wonder if this was going to be the one Sunday S. Farr would decide to stay home. He knew her phone number by heart — S. Farr was in "new listings" — so he could always call and have one brief conversation, pretending a wrong number. A few syllables could be pretty revealing. But what if he liked her voice? Would that be sufficient grounds for turning down a rent-free month in Los Angeles?
He flipped back to the travel section of the paper, as if it might contain some kind of hint, but the lead article, about skin-diving for tropical fish at the Great Barrier Reef, didn't seem very helpful. When he glanced up, he saw a young woman in a white blouse and faded jeans jogging off down the opposite sidewalk. She was cinching a beautiful suede jacket around her waist as she went — and yet, for a second, he refused to believe it was S. Farr, running away from him. It was, though. He ditched the Times in the garbage and hustled after her.
When he got to the corner of Columbus Avenue, she was already climbing into a cab. He watched incredulously as it pulled out into the sparse traffic. Could she have seen him down on his stoop and somehow wanted to escape him? An hour and a half he'd waited, and she'd managed to lose him in thirty seconds! Or had she? He'd stupidly forgotten to go to his cash machine, but he had eight or nine dollars. He raced across the street to a taxi waiting for the light and, diving in the back, told the driver to "follow that cab," just like in a movie.
Her driver wasn't one of the usual maniacs, and once his had run the light in the messy intersection by Lincoln Center, they sailed smoothly down Ninth right on her tail. His cab didn't have a Plexiglas divider, so he leaned on the back of the front seat, and though the usual two layers of glass divided him from the back of S. Farr's head, having a bead on her filled him with nervous optimism. She couldn't have been trying to escape him: it made no sense. And as for his plan, he could still find a way to spring his opening on her. The only disaster would be if she ducked straight into a building with an awning — meaning a doorman who would bar his entrance.
Her cab turned left on Forty-sixth Street. As his rounded the corner, hers pulled up at a burgundy-colored awning. She hopped out and rushed in the door.
IN FACT, the awning didn't belong to an apartment building. But in a way it was worse. Against the burgundy, in cursive gold script, was the word Flo's. Though Paul hadn't been there, he knew it was a pricey theater restaurant, and desperate as he was to meet S. Farr, he had no desire to sit watching her and a rich boyfriend dawdle through their Sunday brunch. He would have to go home and hope to snag her somehow later in the day.
He didn't have enough money to take the cab back uptown, so he got out there. He couldn't resist peering over the old-fashioned half curtains in Flo's windows. What he saw was a dim expanse of white-clothed tables, all, curiously, empty. He moved along to the tinted-glass door and opened it. An identical inner door was locked. He stood there in the glass booth for a few seconds, feeling like Alice chasing the White Rabbit.
Then the inner door swung open. "Here about the job?"
The willowy guy in the doorway had blow-dried hair with oddly orange accents. He was clearly a waiter — he had on black pants, a pale-blue shirt, and a narrow black tie — and Paul nodded enthusiastically, struck by the possibility that S. Farr might be waiting tables here to support her acting career. This would not only eliminate the rich date but provide a wonderfully innocent explanation for all her nights out. And there was even a job opening: the perfect opportunity.
Paul followed the willowy waiter — he looked like a Della Robbia angel with a sneer — into the restaurant. The place had dark wainscoting, heavy silverware on the white cloths, and linen napkins folded like fleurs-de-lis. But the elegance of the atmosphere was contradicted by the sound of an old man croaking away in the background in Eastern European New Yorkese. Following the sneering angel around a partition in the rear, Paul was surprised to see that the croaky voice actually belonged to a woman, a to a dish creature with loose, sallow skin and big, vulgar rings. Hunched in a cocoon of cigarette smoke at a round, unclothed table, she was scolding S. Farr for being late. The other waiters and waitresses sat bunched together on the other side of the table, as far from the ogre as possible.
"I took a cab, Flo," S. Farr said, draping her jacket over the back of a chair. "The phone rang when I was halfway out the door."
Her tone was rather flat, as if she didn't really care to exert herself in her defense, and unmistakably cultivated. She was wearing hardly any makeup but was even more beautiful than Paul remembered. The old toad — Flo herself, apparently — gave a dubious grunt, but S. Farr just walked over to the waiters' station at the back of the partition, a yard from where Paul was standing, and poured herself a cup of black coffee.
Excerpted from Take A Good Look by Tor Seidler. Copyright © 1990 Tor Seidler. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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