S H O R T S T O R Y
TUXEDO BIRD SPRING
b y r o b e r t p o p e ~ a k r o n , o h i o
IT MAY surprise you to know that my fortune is in the size of my head. My head is larger than normal, which works out well on stage or screen. I don’t mean my head is so large as to draw attention when I walk into a restaurant, not at all; where the astute observer of human anatomy might notice oddness in the proportion, the average man will do no such thing.
The effect is to make the casual observer believe he has seen me somewhere before, on television or movie screen, in the role of politician, athlete, or spokesman. I tend to the business of my head—hair, complexion, and teeth—so the observer may idealize me. My hair I keep moderately long, never below the collar. My nose, slightly equine, my eyes, distinctly blue, and my lips I shade to suggest the oriental without losing the occidental.
Grooming extends to the hands, the feet and the clothing, though nothing about me should seem tailored. I strive toward the ancient, as I think of it, toward that which appears never to require refreshment. Some have said I am fragile and enduring, as natural in a toga as a tailored suit, in loincloth as in jeans. I am the sort of man who must emanate, even naked or on the toilet. I sound appropriate in dulcet Shakespearean tones or American Southern dialect. I slip into the role of Christ or Capone with equal ease. I am, body and tongue, the crystallized physical form that has gathered around my talent as a snowflake does about a speck of dust. I walk into any audition and draw attention to myself as an admirably adaptable talent.
So much of how others think of us has to do with pure physiognomy, the mere appearance of nobility or churlishness. People think of me as brilliant, even in situations where I am abysmally ignorant; in whatever activity I engage, those who observe seem to think I know far more than I do, based solely on an appearance of brilliance. By a natural progression, this led me to acting, where I experienced such great and immediate success I began to believe I deserved it. In a field based on appearance, this may be close enough to actually deserving it.
I discovered a facet of my talent for acting that continually widened and deepened the breadth of the original germ: I could memorize lines without effort by simply opening my mind to them, setting no impediment to their absorption. They became implicated in my being, taking root as part of my identity, as words I had myself conceived. I began to think of myself as nothing more than spun air, a price worth paying if I wished to become in a world of becoming.
Of course, the sense that some have, to wit, that they have seen me before, is often accurate. I am however convinced they would experience this déjà vu even if they had not. We could test this in the laboratory by gathering a roomful of cretins who have been kept pristinely naïve of theater, film and television and set them in a restaurant into which I would enter. My spiritual understanding, however, leads me to the conclusion that such a procedure is not only unnecessary, it verges on blasphemy. A necessary faith requires that it not be put to unnatural tests.
But as you asked about the nature of my success, and the nature of success in my chosen field, before I evaporate before your eyes I would like to tell you ever so briefly the story of a man who came to his success by a very different means. The poet has said success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed; though I am proud to say that I have had some small role in his rise, even I find it odd to hear his name now on the lips of so many. It is a strange tale, worth hearing. I knew him years ago, when I had, because of a penchant for good theater and a minor downturn in luck, accepted yet a second role in a celebrated independent theater now called The Sennet, attached to The Sennet School and Workshop.
Let us call him Jay, short for James. He was somewhat taller than I, but blunt and undeveloped. He had an unfinished quality to his visage, not a whisker on his chin at that time. The hair on his head was a coarse brown, with a hint of red, and the thick, matted look of a cheap wig. He did not yet have the distinguishing scar on his cheek. What was he like, as the interviewers are fond of inquiring, back then? What did he do?
Well, he did anything he could, by which I mean he built sets in spite of the fact that he had no natural talent for carpentry. He could bang a nail acceptably, but, what is more important, he could be counted on. To clean dressing rooms, put away costumes, apply make up, act as dresser, fetch food and drink. Thank you, Jay. Thank you, Jay, or, more often, nothing.
I remember an incident during my first performance at The Sennet. I had left a pistol that had been cocked in the first act in the dressing room and was about to go on stage without it. I am afraid I had been practicing unnecessary quick draw methods for the amusement of my fellow actors and left it on a chair. Jay materialized at my side, slipping it in my jacket pocket as I strode onstage, narrowly averting a disaster of enormous proportions. He said he always noticed the bulge of my pocket when I went on; when he saw none, he made a dash, figuring he had perhaps a minute and a half before I went on.
That was Jay. I didn’t thank him until next day, when he appeared before me, checking my garb before I went onstage. “Good Lord,” I whispered to him, “you saved me yesterday, didn’t you?”
He simply smiled and said, “All’s well that ends well.”
“Exactly,” I said, but I never forgot that incident. By which I do not mean I was eternally grateful, just that I began to see Jay as a necessary commodity, one that could be used effectively to save one’s ass. I became more dependent on him though I saw him less, for he lost corporeal reality. He became to me an invisible presence; Shakespeare’s Ariel, a spirit freed from a tree that must serve me to gain his freedom.
The same was true for every actor, I am sure, but I had a certain notoriety that entitled me to special attention. I asked after Jay the second time I played The Sennet and made use of him again. He was everywhere useful. Never once did he ask to be noticed, never once did he request or receive the applause he deserved for the services small and large he performed every day. I don’t believe anyone knew him as anything but his name and his usefulness.
I was spending time with a beautiful young woman named Sparrow Winter who had performed at The Sennet off and on for several years out of a deep affection for the old theater. Flame-hair, I called her, and Willow, a sight to behold. Each breast fit comfortably in one of my hands, so white, the nipple so pink it seemed the quintessential, the archetypal breast beyond which there is no desiring, each one resting in the palm like a happy, tame bird. For an actress, her breasts are part of her vehicle; it is not size that matters, but shape and suggestion. Her breasts suggested so much to me, and I mated with her on every possible occasion.
Her eyes were pale blue. Or blue green? Or sea green?
I seem to see them in every possible hue, brown, perhaps gold. Her little nose, her lips, a melody without parallel. I could have lifted her in my arms without effort, but what fortitude! She could stomach anything and nothing made her blanch. Therein lay her strength, a startling admixture of feminine repose with the underlying suggestion of a limitless power to sustain, to do, and never to yield. We hit it off right away, as why shouldn’t we? It would have been crystal clear to anyone that we belonged together and no one could claim her but myself.
Did I love her?
What a charming, lovely, charming question.
I am an actor. Is it for me to love anyone but myself?
I do not mean to sound vain, but the poet has said, I contain multitudes, I am a cosmos. So too the actor. I contain her still, may even present her to you through my own body, such as it is, made of spun air and whipped tears and flung laughter! I tell you, I could make you love me right now.
It wouldn’t be so hard, would it? When yearning for love is lodged so deeply in every breast? When even hate becomes a form of adoration! Ha-ha-ha! Look at you.
I am a cat’s whisker from breaking your heart.
One evening, after dress rehearsal, Sparrow and I sat in the dressing room letting words flow from our mouths.
I said, “What a funny name you have, a bird and a season!”
She said, “Everyone is a bird, and as for seasons, we all have one.”
We sat in two large wooden chairs. Around us, four walls of mirrors repeated our image, save where a door intruded. On the back of this door hung the jacket of an old fashioned tuxedo, black with a split tail. Above this a top hat on a nail. She addressed herself to this figure as if it were another being, calling it Tuxedo Bird Spring.
I wore nothing more than a white leotard and the black bow tie to the outfit on the door. She wore the pants and nothing but suspenders, pointing here and there with the stick or cane that accompanied the outfit. On every counter lay canisters of make up, jars of cold cream, and stains of color splashed the mirrors. Hanging on every chair were the articles of clothing actors had left dangling, trusting it would all be there, or somewhere else, when they returned. In the midst, the Egret king and queen, as we called ourselves, held court on a roomful of our own reflections!
Of a sudden, the tuxedo danced, the hat fell on the floor, and Sparrow emitted a squeal. The door swept in upon us and there stood Jay, though not stood. Bowed inward toward us, picking the hat up off the floor. He did not realize we were in the room. We became quite still, a prank on him. He saw us in the glass to his left, his right, behind and before, gasping as he reeled. We laughed heartily, she as well, for neither of us retained the slightest shred of modesty. He tried to avert his eyes, but we were everywhere.
Dear Jay, Thank you, Jay. We must have been in high spirits, for we laughed at his blushing. He held the hat before him and lowered his head.
“Please, forgive me,” he said, “I only meant to tidy the room.”
“Jay,” I called to him. “Look at me.”
He looked slowly into my eyes, nothing so much as a peasant of another time, humbled before his Lord’s pleasure. His cheeks were streaked a red so deep it purpled. He wore the white shirt and dark pants of a servant, as always, and kept his eyes on mine, awaiting some instruction.
Why had I called his name? What would be expected of him?
“Jay,” I said.
A shiver ran all through my body as I stared at him.
“Jay, what are you?”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“What makes you so attentive? Why do you do what you do?”
It must have been a fine rehearsal. High spirits carried me away, but I had never experienced him so real, so palpably, outlined, as it seemed, in red before me. The only way I can explain myself is that I had never seen him as another human being, a creature that took up space and must have some sort of active principal inside, intelligence, mind, or a heart. I had never considered the man before me as a man. It was perplexing. I was, frankly, stumped. Jay remained as he had been when asked to look at me, Sparrow silent at my side and all around me in the mirrors. He was looking at me now, a twinkle in his eyes, a smile just crossing his face. I would have screamed if I had been alone.
“If you want to know,” he said, “I love the theater. I don’t have the talent either of you possess.” He continued to avert his eyes from Sparrow’s breast. “The joy I get from working here in any capacity is greater than any I know, except for taking care of my younger sister Mynah, which I have done since our mother died.”
For the first time I noticed a stout, pigtailed child of twelve at his side.
“Hi, Mynah,” said Sparrow.
“Hi, Sparrow,” the child said.
Why had I never noticed this child before?
He put his arm around his sister.
“Fortunately for me, Mynah enjoys it as much as I do, and we come in together to clean up some evenings.” He beamed at her. “Mynah puts on costumes and make up and practices lines she has memorized from the plays we have performed.”
Mynah reached gracefully toward me and said, “The koala tea of Mercy is not strained!” She and her brother laughed. I watched the child go around behind Sparrow and ask if she could braid her hair.
“Of course, dear,” she said.
I stood up and went to Jay, overcome with emotion.
“I must apologize,” I said. “I have never truly looked at you before.”
“That’s all right,” said Jay. “I’m glad to be of service.”
I took the hat from his hands and set it on my head.
“You are of inestimable service. What I would do without you!”
He smiled broadly. “I have admired your acting for so long. I have stood in the wings, near tears, holding back laughter or horror as I watched you perform. I have never understood how you managed to contain so many people.”
I looked in his eyes at something I had never seen.
“Jay,” I said. “You are a Servant Bird.”
“That is for you to say,” he said with real pleasure. As he took my hand in both of his, his face took on an aspect of simple wisdom.
“I have so little life of my own, I am pleased if you think of me as Servant Bird.”
“But is there nothing else you want? Nothing that drives you?”
“There is my sister, of course,” he said, and then he added wistfully, “and I sometimes dream of writing plays, perhaps directing them, but I know this is little more than a fancy of mine.”
“Do you have something you have written?”
He blushed deeply at this suggestion. “I would be embarrassed to show you.”
“Why, may I ask? Why would you be embarrassed?”
“It has been a dream of mine so long.”
“Well, then, do it. Write me something. Sit down at the counter there. Let me clear away a space. I believe I saw a notebook and a pen.”
“Mynah sometimes does her schoolwork here,” he said.
“Then she won’t mind your using them. Will that be all you need?”
He looked around the room, at the scattered clothing, make up and disorder.
“Sparrow and I will clean up, won’t we Sparrow?”
She was dazed with pleasure. The child had done her hair in a fan on top and a single braid down the back. It was lovely, but everything was beautiful on her.
“What is it?” she mumbled.
“Jay is going to write,” I said. “You and I and Mynah will clean up while he does. He must ignore us. When he has finished, we will perform whatever he gives us.”
“Please do it, Jay,” Mynah said, jumping and clapping.
“You must,” said Sparrow. “Mynah and I will shout encore and bravo!”
“I don’t know what I can do on such short notice,” said Jay, but he sat down at the counter, notebook open, pen poised. “But perhaps I need an idea. Do you think I should have an idea to start? Maybe just a title?”
“I have one,” said Sparrow, and she leaned over him lazily and wrote, at the top of the page,Tuxedo Bird Spring. “That will do as well as the next. And everyone has to have a bird name!”
Jay nodded at it a moment. “Let me have a go at it,” he said. He glanced up at me. “You say you’ll perform it?”
I held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor,” I said. We all laughed.
“Well, then,” he said. He looked back at us again, but we pretended not to notice, engaged as we were in a kind of May dance.
He laughed, but I warned him, “Go on, go on.”
“But the room,” he said.
“Sparrow, Mynah, let’s get to it,” I commanded.
We picked up clothing, cleaned counters and mirrors, put away tins, swept the floor while Jay wrote feverishly. Perhaps an hour passed, or more. We lost ourselves in our roles, The Silent Spirits! The room fairly sparkled, yet we found more to do, amazed at our own prowess.
Then Jay looked up and smiled feebly.
“I think I have something here,” he said. “It could use a little more work, but take a look, see what you think.”
I took the manuscript from his hands and Sparrow and I pored over it, reading aloud now and again, mumbling to each other. Mynah watched beside her brother, leaning with her arm around his shoulder.
“I believe,” I said to Jay, “this is a monologue of sorts.”
“I suppose it is,” he said.
“Let me see.” I cleared my throat. “It may surprise you to know my fortune is in the size of my head.”
Sparrow laughed abruptly. I gave her a mock glare, then winked at Jay.
“It’s true,” I told him. “Which is to say,” I said, “that I have been as successful as I have because my head is larger than normal, which works out very well on stage or screen.”
Mynah’s happy laughter encouraged me. I set the notebook down.
“Wait,” she said. “Let’s make a spotlight!”
She and her father took a goose neck lamp from the counter and set it on one of the chairs, training it on me as Sparrow helped me slip on the tuxedo jacket then went to stand by the door with her hand on the switch.
“Lights!” said Jay.
The room fell into darkness.
“Spot!” he cried.
I blinked into the light.
“I believe I have this,” I said, still blinking a bit. “But will you mind so much, Jay, if I change a word here and there? Make it my own, or part of me, so to speak?”
“Not at all,” I heard him say.
I cleared my throat again, preparing myself to take on this personality.
“I don’t mean my head is so large as to draw attention when I walk into a restaurant; where the astute observer of human anatomy might notice oddness in the proportion, the average man does no such thing.”
I heard them laughing and plunged ahead.
“The effect is to make the casual observer believe that he or she has seen me before, on television or movie screen, in the role of politician, athlete, or spokesman. I tend to this business of my head—hair, complexion, teeth—so the observer may idealize me.”
Something quite extraordinary was occurring.
The hair on the back of my neck had begun to bristle. I stood alone on a darkened stage, in the disk of my own illumination. Where reason told me there was only Sparrow, Jay and Mynah, I felt an audience accumulate before me like so many stars seen from a mountaintop or the lights of a populous city below.
“My hair I keep moderately long, never below the collar. My nose, slightly equine, my eyes, distinctly blue, and my lips I shade to suggest the oriental without losing the occidental.”
Words came as if my own. I wanted to explain to everyone: “Grooming extends to the hands, the feet and the clothing, though nothing about me should seem tailored. I strive toward the ancient, toward that which never requires refreshment. I am fragile and enduring. I must emanate, appropriate in Shakespeare or Southern dialect. I slip into the role of Christ or Capone with equal ease.”
Tears hung in my eyes.
“I am, body and tongue,” I declaimed, “a crystalline form gathered around my talent as snowflake about a speck of dust.”
The tears fell. Our paths had crossed forever. Neither would ever be the same, servant and master, saint and sinner. Mynah and Sparrow, there at the inception, became the minor stars of this new constellation. I grew larger than my own life. I was blind. I couldn’t see. I sprouted wings and flew away.
The applause was deafening.
We stood there laughing in a new geography.
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