A Family Act
The next day, Frank arrives at Ellie’s Treat Street flat to work on the multi-generational Abrams Family Clown Act. He’s barely in the door when Ellie says, “Would you hold Havvy so I can get in costume?”
Frank takes the six-month old who is dressed in a tiny, two-toned yama-yama, the old-fashioned one-piece clown costume with a ruffle neck and three pom-poms down the front. Haviva is sucking a big round red binky. She looks at Frank’s face, trying to decide whether to scream or not. Frank lifts her up over his head and lowers her slowly down until they are nose to nose. Haviva’s eyes get big and happy. This game lasts until Ellie comes out of her bedroom in a matching clown suit and a big red nose.
“Don’t we look cute? I made the costumes myself.”
“A little retro, aren’t they?” Ellie face clouds so Frank adds, “And very cute.”
“You’re damn right we’re cute.”
Ellie puts Haviva on her hip, walks Frank through the street-level flat she shares with a roommate and out into their small, square yard. A rough wooden stage takes up the back quadrant. Ellie, still holding the baby, jumps onto the boards and says, “Here’s the idea. Nefertiti will be holding Havvy in the wings and…”
“Nefertiti? Who’s that? Did you hire an Egyptian au pair?”
“Don’t try to be funny, Frank. I’m not in the mood. You know I’ve given my mom a new name.”
“Ah, no, I didn’t. You’ve renamed your mom Nefertiti?”
“She’s a different person, Frank. I can’t call her ‘mom’ any more or even ‘Zip,’ because that’s not who she is. So I decided to call this new person, who looks like my mom but isn’t, Nefertiti. It’s been a while, Frank. Where’ve you been?”
The only answers Frank can think of are sarcastic so he says, “OK, Nefertiti is holding the baby in the wings. What happens next?”
“You can be with her, right?”
“Jackie is going to stay with your mom, Nefertiti, for most of the show so she'll be there.”
“That’s OK. Havvy loves Jackie. Don’t you, sweetie?” They nuzzle, red nose to red pacifier. The baby laughs and Ellie is entranced. Frank watches them, the mother he held when she was the daughter’s age, and he gets sad. He remembers Ellie’s baby laugh. He feels himself holding her. He feels Magda holding him as a baby. Time passes, people age – sometimes that’s sweet and sometimes that sucks.
“OK, Frank, you stand over there, like you’re Nefertiti in the wings, and hold Havvy.” The baby hand-off goes smoothly and Ellie jumps back on stage, “Tina Edgars says she up for doing the old mirror routine with me, the one you guys used to perform back in the day.” Ellie’s voice gets young and misty. “I remember seeing you and Tina do it out in Dolores Park years ago, when I was, like, five.”
“You’re making me feel old, Ellie. You don’t want a fossil holding your baby.” Fear flits across Ellie’s face; the baby is too young for jokes. “Just kidding. Haviva’s safe and sound. Aren’t you?” Frank lifts the baby over his head and does the nose-to-nose game again. Haviva giggles and the world is right.
“Good move getting Tina for the mirror gag. She can show you all the little tricks, especially for that big Geary stage. I take it you're making another costume for her?”
“And one for Nefertiti!” Ellie the clown is back and excited. “See, me and Tina will come in from opposites sides…we’ll need an empty mirror or a door frame or something like that, They’ll have that at A.C.T., won’t they?”
Frank sighs. Ellie has never worked in a big theater and she might have an over-optimistic view of their resources. “I’ll check with the stage manager and then try to find two people to bring it on and off stage.”
“OK, good. Anyway, me and Tina come on and I’ll play your part, the guy who gets fooled, and Tina will play her old part, my fake reflection. We’ll do all the mirror images of each other, the stuff where Tina raises her hand with me, we pretend to clean the mirror then all the silly walks back and forth and the pirouette. Then I’ll decide to get a hat, to trick her, and she’ll get one too. We’ll do that stupid bit where her hat ‘accidentally’ falls, I reach through the mirror and hand it back to her and we go on like nothing happened.”
“Hey, that’s not a stupid bit. We got it from Groucho. A little respect for your elders.”
“Whatever. In the end, I’ll catch her by dropping my hat so she drops her hat on purpose, trying to be my reflection, only her hat lands on the stage and mine is attached to a rubber band so it bounces back into my hands.”
“Sweet. That’s how Harpo and Lucy ended the gag. You better work on that move – it’s hard to drop the hat so it comes back clean. You don’t want to ruin the blow off.”
“But that’s not the blow off! See, here’s the best part – after I trick Tina with the hat, she jumps into my arms, through the invisible mirror, and then Nefertiti walks to the other side of the mirror holding Havvy. That’s the final picture – me holding Tina, the mirror image of my mom holding Havvy, all dressed like old-time clowns. The past, the present and the future. Perfect, right?”
Frank hears Ellie call Zip “mom,” decides not to mention it and says, “You think Nefertiti will be able to do it?”
Ellie screams, “What the fuck, Frank? I tell you my brilliant idea and you gotta shoot it down? All she has to do is walk on stage holding her granddaughter. She’s not a moron, you know. God! Some friend you are. You’re killing her off before she’s dead.”
Haviva wails, Frank hands her back to Ellie, who squeezes the baby tightly to her chest and walks inside. Rehearsal is over.
This whole big shot producer thing is going too well for Virginia Barre. She knows it won't last but it sure was sweet booking The Geary and then selling it out in no time flat. For the last few weeks, she’s been the hottest impresario in the Bay. “Impresario.” She likes that word. Is a woman an “Impresaria?” She likes that even better.
But now the details are piling up and time is closing in – box office, programs, ushers and managing all the friends who are so deep in grief, and even deeper in denial, that their offers to help are as useless as they are relentless.
The most relentless is Zip’s husband Luca Cancio, who wants to give a speech in the show. Frank Singer is dead set against it – “This is not a memorial, this is a celebration of a career and an era. We’re not doing speeches. Everyone in the show is a professional performer, that’s the whole idea – an amazing evening of circus, theater and music with Zip as the star. This is how we all want to remember her, not as the subject of soporific speeches. Besides, Luca has never been in front of a big crowd in his life so you know he’ll have a couple or five beers to relax and then ramble on for half an hour. Not in my show.”
This is why Virginia is parking her Mini Cooper on a quiet Excelsior street, a block from Zip and Luca’s bungalow. She’d wrangled an invitation to dinner in order to convince Luca not to speak at the show. She only knows Zip’s husband from backstage visits and cast parties, where his enthusiasm can become bombastic after a few drinks. As big and burly as he is, bombastic can be a little scary. But kids love Luca – she’s seen him playing soccer with a dozen tweens in a Bay View park while she and the rest of the circus were tearing down the show. And he is so sweet with Ellie and Haviva; Luca’s a great dad and grandpa.
“Well, if it isn’t Virginia Barre, world famous aerialist, here to grace our humble abode.” A bear hug, thick white arms going one way, sinewy brown arms going the other, each squeezing a little too hard. As he holds Virginia, Luca Cancio whispers, “You better not ruin my homemade manicotti with any talk about Frank’s god damn show. I’m doing a speech. Period. Family first.”
Before she can respond, Virginia sees Zip Abrams’s open, smiling face over Luca’s shoulder.
“Zip! So good to see you.” Virginia escapes from Luca and hugs her friend and mentor. She feels Zip’s body and it’s barely there, a shadow of her once solid self.
“We sold out the Geary for your show!”
Zip smiles and hugs her again. Virginia realizes Zip doesn’t recognize her and doesn’t know what they’re talking about. She might not even remember that the Geary is a theater. Virginia puts her hand on Zip cheek and Zip leans her face into the younger woman’s palm. Zip is happy to see her. She feels the love even if she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.
“Chow time, girls. Virginia, would you get the table with Ziporrah while I get the salad tossed?”
The meal is a heavenly mix of ricotta and pasta and lettuce and chianti with Luca talking non-stop about life on the waterfront while Zip smiles silently and picks at her plate. Virginia’s taste buds are happy but her body aches from the tension of not saying what she’s there to say.
Finally, Zip goes to the bathroom and Luca stops talking long enough to take a big saucy bite. Virginia warms him up for the big question.
“Luca, you’re a hell of a cook. I ate so much I’m not going to be able to train tomorrow.”
Luca is still chewing. “Wait ‘til you taste the dessert – you won’t be able to train for a fucking week.”
“Oh, man. I don’t think I can cram in another bite.” They’re quiet for a moment. Now is the time. “Look, Luca, I have to talk with you about the show. Can you write a piece for the program instead of doing a speech?”
Luca’s fist hits the table hard enough to splash marinara sauce onto the white tablecloth. “Damn it, Virginia. I’m giving a speech at my wife’s benefit. Family matters, even though you hot shit performers don’t seem to think it does.”
Virginia takes a deep breath. Sitting with a big angry man who thinks he’s being denied his due, his family’s due, is not what she signed up for. This whole thing of giving back and supporting the people who supported you and becoming an adult is way overrated.
“Luca, that’s not true. I know family matters. I did my homework in a hospital, at my mother’s bedside, every day for a year. And then she died. Why do you think me and Frank and all those other ‘hot shit performers’ are busting our butts to do a show? Because Zip is family and family matters.”
Luca’s shoulders sag and he looks away. He knows she’s not the enemy but he’s too sad and scared and hurt to back down. “I’m giving that speech or Ziporrah isn’t coming to the show.”
“What? Luca, she’s the star of the show. That’s why we put it together so fast, so Zip could still perform. It’ll probably be her last show, ever, and you’d take that away from her just because you…” Virginia decides that, as an impresaria, it is bad strategy to finish that sentence.
Zip wafts back in the room, oblivious to the argument, and stands behind her chair smiling. Luca gets up to clear the table, kissing Zip on the cheek as he walks by. Virginia isn’t going to let him just walk away so she stacks the dirty plates and carries them into the cozy kitchen. Without a word, Luca hands her three clean dessert plates and forks. His face is softer. She might be getting through to him. A little.
Now she needs a new idea, a plan C, because there’s no way he will back down and write something for the program. Not after pounding the table.
Virginia eats some too-good-to-skip panna cotta and racks her brain, Zip smiles and Luca chews. Only Zip is happy.
The second wine bottle is empty and the sink is full. It’s time to leave. Virginia hugs Zip good-bye, holding on for a long time, soaking up the love from Zip’s skinny arms. Virginia goes to hug Luca but he sidesteps, ushers her out the door and joins her on the porch. “Someone from the family has to talk ‘cause the audience needs to know that Zip has a history, that she has people. She’s not just some clown.” Luca’s voice is soft, almost sweet. Virginia holds her peace. “It doesn’t even have to be me but I don’t know who else could do it.”
They stand quietly in the warm fall air. Luca has a point. He’s being reasonable but he’s the kind of guy who makes reasonable sound wacko most of the time. Virginia tries to remember why Frank is so opposed to Luca speaking and a light bulb goes off.
“Luca, what about a video? What if we get a good videographer to tape your speech about family and history and Zip’s people? That way, we can play the video at the show and you can just relax, have a couple of beers and watch the acts instead of having to be backstage, getting ready to speak and all that.”
Luca looks like he’s going to argue but what comes out of his mouth is, “OK, that sounds good. When do we make the video?”
Relief washes through Virginia’s body. “Let me do a little legwork and get back to you. I’ll call in a couple of days. Thank you for the wonderful food.” She gives him a peck on the cheek and races off towards her Mini Cooper before he can change his mind.
©2020 Jeff Raz | ISBN 978-0-9979048-3-3