“Warning main curtain. Warning house lights.”
John Quan pauses as the band leads the entire theater through a final chorus. He lets the last note echo off the gilded walls, waits one more second and shouts, “Black out! Main curtain in! House lights to full!”
John covers his headset mic and turns to his light operator. “That was a hell of an ending. And I’m still going to kill that rat-dog.” Into the mic he says, “Thank you all. Good work. It is 9:38 so we have seven minutes to clear the stage and thirty-seven minutes to clear the theater.”
As soon as the big curtain hits the floor, Frank makes sure Luca Cancio is holding Zipporah’s arm and then walks off stage. Frank’s job is done. He’s done. Finished. Exhausted. His hands are shaking. He wants to get out of the dress, wash the make-up off his face and go to sleep for a week.
On the way to his dressing room, Frank hears his name called in a stage whisper. He keeps walking. Aleksander “AKA” Aagbergsdotter-Schwartz, his Mohawk barely clearing the door of the green room, calls out, “Hey, Frank, want to see my drawings? I got all the performers and a bunch of Haviva.” Frank stops, reluctantly, and turns. “We gotta be quiet ‘cause Havvy is catching some z’s.”
Aleksander leads and Frank follows him, holding up his dress and walking on the heels of his flap shoes. Haviva is wrapped in an old black hoodie, probably Aleksander’s, fast asleep on the couch. Frank smiles. A tired baby can sleep through anything.
“Here’s my favorite one.” Aleksander holds up a pencil drawing of a baby surrounded by faces and bodies. The whole cast. Frank’s family. “That’s beautiful. Nice work.” As Frank admires the drawing, Aleksander stares at him, a big man in a pink dress and flap shoes with the bags under his eyes starting to sag through his make-up. AKA has never been in a fancy theater before and he’d always thought clowns were freaks out of Stephen King movies. But even from the green room he’d felt the tension and joy and pain coming from the stage. The life of the theater. Real life.
“Did you always want to be a clown?”
Frank looks up and smiles. Aleksander has caught the circus bug. Amazing. “When I was a chubby little kid with too much energy and a smartass mouth, yeah, I wanted to be a clown but then I saw the Marx Brother’s movie ‘At the Circus.’”
“Is that some kind of horror movie, like ‘It’?”
“Not exactly like ‘It,’ more of a comedy, an old comedy. Older than me, if you can believe it. Anyway, there was this scene in the circus train after a show and the clown was in full make-up. Being a smart kid, I figured out it must have been tattooed on his face. Pretty clever, right?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“I went through a deep crisis of faith in my eight-year old heart about whether I could make that kind of commitment. Even then I knew permanent clown face meant never having a girlfriend.” They both laugh. “It wasn’t until I saw Bob Meadows and Zipporah Abrams doing their act – so funny, so graceful, so cool. I figured I could be a clown and have a sex life.”
AKA doesn’t say anything; old people talking about sex makes him a little nauseous.
“Why’d you ask, Aleksander? Thinking of donning the motley?”
“Uh, no, I don’t think so. Whatever motley is. Just wondering.”
“Well, if you are, I have to warn you that at this exact moment, I don’t have a career and I have absolutely zero sex life. Maybe I wasn’t such a smart kid after all.”
Aleksander blushes and gets very interested in sorting through his drawings. “Here’s another one of Havvy.”
As Frank takes the picture, Ellie walks into the green room and stops at the doorway, “Oh, look at my little angel.”
Aleksander whispers, “She cried a bit but I got her back to sleep.”
“AKA, you’re so good. When are you going to have a baby of your own?” Ellie winks at Frank and the young punk blushes crimson.
“Never did it before. Took care of a kid, I mean. Not too many people look at me and think ‘primo babysitter,’ ya know?’”
“Well, you are. A primo babysitter.” Ellie leans over and gives him a kiss on the cheek. “Gotta go. Thank you, thank you.”
Ellie lifts the baby, who squirms, squalls and settles in. Mother and daughter are halfway to the door when Aleksander says, “Want this picture of Havvy?”
“I gotta…Oh, man, that’s good!” In one move, Ellie puts the baby in Frank’s lap, takes the drawing and sits on the other side of Aleksander.
Frank feels Haviva’s cheek on his bare shoulder. He smells the baby’s head, sees the baby’s body breathing. He breathes with her. He smiles. He’s calm for the first time in, what, a year? Two years? Forever? He keeps smiling, even as Haviva starts twisting his chest hairs onto her tiny finger.
Frank could sit on this couch in this green room in this theater forever, a big sweaty clown in a huge pink dress holding a tiny baby, skin to skin, and listening to the next generation of artists forge a friendship that might last the rest of their lives; that might last the rest of their deaths.
Home Sweet Home
Frank Singer kicks the door closed behind him and puts the last of the paintings down in the middle of the floor. Now he has to figure out how to cram twenty-five of Magda’s masterpieces into Jackie Amarillo’s tiny apartment. Luckily, he’s got some time since Jackie told him, as she left the theater an hour ago with Isabel Sanchez and Tina Edgars, “Don’t wait up for me, roomie. We’re going to party all night!”
Virginia Barre had tried to help Frank take down the paintings from the lobby of the Geary but too many people wanted to talk with her. The audience didn’t want to leave, didn’t want the magic to turn, as it always does, into harsh, sad reality. Frank would have stayed in Virginia’s glow, soaking up the beauty and strength of a newly powerful young woman, but he was too tired. The last he saw of her Bob Meadows was gently leading her back into the theater. It was her time, not his, and he felt more relief than jealousy as he drove away in his Datsun crammed full of surplus artwork.
The paintings had generated some interest but no sales. It didn’t matter -- “Zipporah Abrams, The End of an Era” made a boatload of money, thanks to Virginia’s skill in getting people into the theater and John Quan’s skill in getting them out, avoiding a big overtime bill. Frank figures they pulled in enough for at least six months of round-the-clock care. They made that goal, and their other two: Zip felt the love from the sold out house and the audience saw the Great Clown Zip, not Zip the Demented Old Lady. Most of the time.
Frank sits on Jackie’s couch, his temporary home, and stares at the remnants of his mother’s vivid imagination. He thinks of her memorial, when everyone took a piece of Magda’s art. That was way back when Willa was still alive and Zip was still lucid. He thinks about washing his mother’s body and sitting shiva with Berit.
And sitting with Willa, in their kitchen, in the hospital, sitting next to her deathbed. He tries to remember when Willa was still up and about, still useful, directing Hetty de Brun’s memorial, commanding the rehearsal stage, bringing lights, music and human bodies into harmony, but his mind keeps slipping back to the day Willa died, while he was in the air, and then driving around the Bay trying to ditch her drugs and ship her brain to Boston.
Frank shakes his head, struggles up off the couch and starts to lean paintings against the walls. He picks up a colorful collage full of skulls – big ones, tiny ones hidden in the design, silly ones, scary ones. His mother loved skulls. Zip took Magda’s biggest skull painting, the one with flames behind it licking at its occipital bone. Frank wonders if Zip still looks at that fiery skull, if she can remember the feelings that made her pick it out at Magda’s memorial.
He puts down the painting, leans his back to the wall and slides down until his butt hits the floor. Zip doesn’t remember much anymore. Ellie doesn’t even think Zip remembers that she’s Zip – Ellie calls her Nefertiti and Zip doesn’t seem to mind. Zip’s mind has changed. Her body has changed, too, changed from buff to scarecrow. Frank almost puked when Zip fell tonight. He feels nauseous just remembering. And then she lay on the stage, gone somewhere else, disconnected and resigned to lie there, maybe to die there. Thank god for Bob Meadows and David Carter. And, begrudgingly, Sparks. Thank god for music.
Frank remembers the moment, standing in the wings at Willa’s memorial when he knew Zip was the next to go. He’d suspected there was something wrong with her for a while but Zip was always wild and funny and unpredictable. But the moment she lost her lines and then spouted a hodgepodge of sentences that had been lodged deep in her memory, he knew they were losing Zip, too.
Frank remembers the end of that show, two memorials ago now, the moment Virginia Barre softly landed in his arms, warm with sweat and taut with effort, and then limp with death. Stage death. He remembers his tears in the blackout that followed and Virginia’s face as the lights came up and how she tried to pull herself back together for the bow.
And he remembers tonight’s bow, with 'Amazing Grace' echoing through the big gilded theater, then, when the curtain closed, hiking up his dress and feeling the weariness deep in his bones, feeling dead inside.
Love Death Circus
“Good morning, Sunshine the Clown! I brought you coffee and...wow! Look at this! Frankie, we’re an art gallery!”
Frank Singer fights through sleep and muscle aches, trying to remember where he is and who’s talking at him.
“Frank, did you bring all these painting home to me? You’re such a cutie pie.”
A big wet kiss hits Frank’s lips, the sting of vodka hits his nose, followed by the smells of whiskey, then tequila and finally rum. A Texas Tornado. This must be Jackie Amarillo. Yes, of course, he’s in her apartment. He lives here now. Temporarily. And he passed out last night and didn’t get the paintings stashed before Jackie got home. Damn.
“Here, smell this. It’s Peet’s French roast – it’ll put hair on your nose…or somewhere on your body.”
Without opening his eyes, Frank reaches up both hands to take the to-go cup from Jackie. He blows over the hole in the lid and sips. It’s cool enough not to scald so he gets half of it down in one gulp.
Black and bottom-of-the-pot strong, thank god.
Frank finishes the coffee, opens his eyes and sees Jackie, still in her skintight red party dress and matching heels that are taller than most stilts. She’s holding the skulls painting up on the wall above his head. Her dress is riding up high, high enough that one peek clears Frank’s head before the caffeine has a chance to kick in. “Hold this for me, Frankie, so I can see how…oh, my, you’ve got quite a view from down there. I still look good, don’t I? How about if I hold it with this arm? That give you the full monty? Or maybe if I lifted my leg…”
Before Jackie does an entire strip tease, Frank painfully peals himself off the floor and takes the painting. Jackie pulls her dress down over her hips, kicks off her shoes and sits on the couch.
“It needs to be a little higher. No, no, not right. Try that wall. No. Maybe we need a different one.” Jackie starts grabbing paintings, holding them up on different walls then handing each one to Frank.
They do this dance of the paintings around the apartment for a full 20 minutes before Jackie looks at the clock and screams, “Fuck! I gotta get to work. Six classes back-to-back. Unicycles and stilts. Here take this one – I love the way your mom hid faces all over it. Be a dear, would ya, and get out my equipment while I change into sweats?”
Frank puts the paintings down and starts maneuvering the first unicycle out of a small closet next to the even smaller kitchen. Jackie yells from her bedroom. “You forgot to ask me if I had fun tonight, or, technically, last night.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Damn, yes! Tina split early, had to catch a red eye to Anchorage for some gig, so me and Isabel partied! I mean really partied.”
“Nice. It’s about time you had some fun.”
“About time I had other things, too, if you know what I mean.” Jackie peaks out through the doorway, wearing only sweatpants, wiggles her eyebrows ala Groucho and ducks back in her room.
“Oh, I see. I didn’t know you and Isabel were item.”
“We are now. Thank you, Zipporah Abrams!” She peeks out again, struggling into a lacy black bra, “Is that bad to say?”
“No, I don’t think so. Zip loves playing matchmaker. That doesn’t change just cause her memory’s shot to shit.”
Jackie jumps across the room and onto Frank, straddling his waist and giving him a huge kiss. “I’m going to miss living with you, Frank Singer.”
Frank stiffens and helps Jackie back to her feet. He hadn’t put it together that if Jackie and Isabel are now an item, he was the odd man out. He’s got to get his own place, and soon. He’s got to get a life, soon. A life without Willa or Zip or Hetty. A life without his mother. A life right here in San Francisco because he’s too tired to go off on tour again, too damn tired to run.
Jackie, now fully dressed, changes the subject as she gets a pair of stilts out of the closet. “Hey, did you hear about Virginia?” When Frank looks blank, Jackie says, “She texted me. Bob Meadows wants her to produce his new play, here in San Francisco. Something experimental. He talked with her after the show.”
“Really? That’s great. From kid aerialist to big time producer in a couple of months. An impresaria, Thank you, Zipporah Abrams.”
“And thank you, Hetty de Brun and Willa Woods. That’s why Virginia came back from Europe, you know? To take care of Hetty and Willa.” She stands still. “I miss Willa. A lot.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Silence. They hide their tears by getting to work loading Jackie’s rattletrap Toyota Corolla hatchback with the stilts and unicycles.
“Frank, I’ll miss you, too.”
“Jackie, I’m not dying. And I not going anywhere, just off your couch so I don’t have to endure nights of surround-sound lesbian porn.”
“Actually, that would be pretty hot. You know…”
“I’ll find a new couch to surf in a couple of days and then get an apartment. My own apartment.”
“OK. I’ll still miss you.”
They both smile and Frank puts in the last stilt while Jackie goes inside to get her backpack. She comes out with a pile of Magda’s paintings in her arms. “For the school. They need some art in that dead-ass boring gym.” She puts them on top of the circus equipment and closes the hatch.
“OK. I’m ready to go raise me up a new crop of clowns.”
“Text me when you’re done; I’ll have hot burritos on the table by the time you walk through that door.”
“Oh, Frank Singer, that is love!”
© 2021 Jeff Raz
©2020 Jeff Raz | ISBN 978-0-9979048-3-3