Almost twenty years ago I crossed the Mason-Dixon line for only the second time in my life to visit Crossville. It was a job, a great role in a quiet play, but I had no idea it would change my life. Things don’t always work out in reality the way they do onstage, but if we are lucky and good sometimes we get a chance at it, and those opportunities are to be treasured.
She came at me across the stage, eyes alight, and I felt her approach as much as saw it, as if a pool of heat surrounded her and flowed with her measured steps. The focus was perfect, electrical, and I knew that if I slipped, even for a moment, the audience would feel pity for the actor who could not keep up. Bless his heart. He’s trying so hard. She’s awfully good, isn’t she?
When the play began the characters were nineteen and sixteen, and the dialogue rose and fell—fates and fortune, business and buildings—as the marriage took on solidity like blocks sliding into place.
“Have either of you been married?” Abby asked us one day in rehearsal. It was often only the four of us in the rehearsal room: Abby and Tracey, myself and the beautiful young woman playing my wife. When Abby thought we might be paying too much attention to her reactions she would cover her face with a silk scarf.
“No,” we chorused, too quickly, not looking at each other.
Curtain on opening night. The shoes the costumer had chosen hurt my feet. I picked up the carpetbag stuffed with scraps of cloth and moved to center stage in darkness, automatically straightening the tassels of the prayer shawl where they emerged from under my vest. The grand drape rolled apart. Sound cues: galloping horses, Cossack shouts over screams. Then the sea, the clanging of a bell and endless slap of water against a crowded hull. Lights up on the scrim between me and the audience, projections of old photos, a village, a ship too small to cross an entire ocean. Harsh voices at the docks. I gripped his bag, heavy with all of his possessions, his money hidden in his shoes. The scrim flew out and the audience saw me.
The solo scenes rolled past like more slides, setting the place, introducing me as the man they would follow for two hours and sixty years. Her picture floated above me on the screen as I wrote letters, but I would not look. The primary image of her rose in my mind as I spoke the words aloud, told her to wait another year before coming.
Then it was time for her entrance, and I faced out and allowed them to see her first. Audience members seemed to think that they’re invisible, but of course light reflects from the scenery to illuminate the seats nearly to the back of the house. I saw the late couple forcing their way to seats in the fifth row, saw the expensive watch on the man’s wrist and the annoyance of those they passed. An old gent scratched, contented, as his wife nodded off.
She came from upstage right, entering from behind the second leg, the vertical curtain hanging down to mask the wings. To break a leg is to make an entrance, and I watched hers take place on the face of the audience.
I turned and saw her, and the stage caught fire in a line between the two of us. I could no more have turned away than I could have flown to the moon. Stepping carefully—the foot, the arch, the pointed toe that spoke of a dozen years of ballet—she saw her husband for the first time in two years and came to me in a rush and I bent and met and carried her off her feet to spin her to the stars and back to earth. I could see, in my peripheral vision, women, long-married, each reaching for their husband’s rough hands.
The years passed with the hours. A baby was born, stores built, hair grayed and shoulders stooped under the weight of twenty thousand days. My hands drew in to clasp in front of my stomach, the habit of decades, tying the nineteen year-old to eighty.
I looked into her face, and saw the young girl with whom I had fallen in love. We faced out, looking over their yard, full of strangers who had become family, witnesses to their lives.
Before each show we would go somewhere to run lines: a boulder in Cumberland Mountain park, the top of Ozone Falls, or just a blanket in the back yard of the actors’ house. As the run went on we played pass-the-penny onstage, handing a coin back and forth without the audience knowing it. Whoever held it when the curtain fell was the loser.
Spring stretched into summer, and the scenery for the next show began to take shape in the shop behind the stage. I did not open the script that had arrived in the mail from the theatre out west.
The music of the balalaika that accompanied the final opening plucked at my concentration. On her entrance I dropped a line and then held her too long in the embrace. Her heart pounded against my ribs.
She squeezed my arms, and the audience faded. The lights captured us center stage together. I performed for her, and she for me and for two hours and sixty years the world was only what we made of it.
© 2015 Jim Walke
Used by Permission