Posts Tagged ‘A Thousand Clowns’

The Screw

Monday, September 24th, 2018

elk cloud

Elk Cloud photo by Todd

in the spirit of Isaac Bashevis Singer

In the large coastal town of Croft’s Landing, Oregon, there are three hardware stores: Anderson’s, Pirelli’s, and Lowenstein’s. Each of the owners of these stores has a twenty-seven-year-old son who has been in love with Josie Parsons since at least high school, and in the case of Noah Lowenstein, since kindergarten.

Josie, who is also twenty-seven, was queen of the Senior Ball and valedictorian at Croft’s Landing High, attended Yale on a full scholarship, graduated summa cum laude in Drama, and moved to New York to take the theatre world by storm, only her storm never gathered much strength because she was forever falling in love with charming louts instead of pursuing her career and she eventually ran out of money and maxed out her credit cards and came back to Croft’s Landing to live at home, get a job, and pay off the staggering debt she accrued while living in Manhattan for five years.

Josie’s mother Constance is fifty-four and nobody’s fool. Born and raised in Croft’s Landing, the oldest of five farm kids, Constance turned down a full scholarship to Harvard and chose instead to attend nearby Oregon State. Upon graduating summa cum laude in Business, Constance returned to Croft’s Landing, married Jerry Parsons, had two children, Everett and Josie, and when Everett was in Third Grade and Josie was in First, Constance started helping people with their computers and now she has more work than she and her three employees can handle, the name of her business: Computer Help.

Josie’s father Jerry is fifty-seven, kind and generous and forever forgetting who he loaned money to. Born in Astoria, Oregon, Jerry was a commercial fisherman until he was forty-five, quit fishing when the catch became too iffy, and thereafter drove a school bus for six years before buying Zebra, a failing copy shop and stationery store. When Zebra continued to flounder after four years of pouring Constance’s hard earned money into the business, Jerry gave Zebra to Everett who was at loose ends after graduating summa cum laude in Studio Art from Evergreen College.

Everett added art supplies and a café component to Zebra, business boomed, and today there are seven Zebras in towns throughout Oregon and Washington, with three more Zebras opening soon. Jerry now works part-time in the original Zebra as a barista and recently began propagating cacti he plans to sell via his web site Gorgeous Glochids.

Josie works for Everett now, too, scouting locations for future Zebras, overseeing inventory in the seven shops, helping with in-store design and lighting, and producing radio and television spots. She has her eye on the vacant and decrepit Avalon Theatre in downtown Croft’s Landing and dreams of starting a collective of actors and dancers and artisans who will renovate the Avalon and perform original cutting-edge drama and dance there to be broadcast globally via the Internet.

However, pursuing theatrical glory pales next to her burning desire to get married and have children.

Everett, tall and lanky and red-haired like his father, sharp-witted and no-nonsense like his mother, his hair a few inches shorter than his sister’s shoulder-length auburn locks, gazes across the kitchen dining table at Josie and says, “You never finish one thing before you start another. That’s your lifelong pattern. Why not get out of debt and then buy the Avalon? Pay off the Avalon and then have kids?”

“And live at home until I’m fifty?” Josie glares at her brother. “Men can make babies until they’re eighty. Women have much smaller windows of optimal opportunity.”

“A baby at eighty,” says Jerry, contemplating his spaghetti. “Can you imagine?”

“Who do you want to marry?” asks Constance, renowned for cutting to the chase. “Are you in love with someone?”

“I fell in love three times in New York,” says Josie, closing her eyes and shaking her head. “I wouldn’t want to marry any of those guys, let alone have kids with them.” She opens her eyes. “No, I think the Chinese and Indians and Africans and Jews and just about everybody else in the olden days had it right. Let the wise elders find the best man for the job.”

Jerry, who is never immediately certain when his wife and kids are being facetious, looks first at Everett who is gazing in horror at Josie, next at Constance, whose mouth is open in disbelief, and lastly at Josie, who seems as forlorn as Jerry has ever seen her.

“I nominate your mother,” says Jerry, raising his right hand. “She’s never wrong about people.”

“I second the nomination,” says Everett, his horror changing to delight. “This could be good. We should film this.”

“I accept the nomination,” says Constance, gazing in wonder at her daughter.

“All in favor say aye,” says Josie, her eyes full of tears.

“Aye,” say Jerry and Constance and Everett.

“I have narrowed the field to three candidates,” says Constance, sitting down across the table from Josie at Chish & Fips, their favorite seafood joint, renowned for stupendous food and a maddening menu. “What are you having?”

“The cham clowder,” says Josie, despondently stirring her soup. “Let me guess. Brett Anderson, David Pirelli, and Noah Lowenstein.”

“They were on your approved list,” says Constance, opening her notebook. “Nobody else I’m aware of comes close to those three.”

“Hi Constance,” says Susie Kwong, the one and only lunchtime waitress at Chish & Fips. “Coffee?”

“Yes, please,” says Constance, perusing the menu. “What’s your Datch of the Kay?”

“Sned Rapper,” says Susie, serving Constance a cup of piping hot coffee. “On a bed of Rasmati Bice.”

“I’ll have that and a small Cesar salad,” says Constance, adding cream to her coffee. “Thanks.”

“Be just a few,” says Susie, sauntering away.

“I can’t marry Brett Anderson,” says Josie, shaking her head. “He’s like a second older brother. I would feel incestuous every time we had sex.”

“Then I’ll take him off the list,” says Constance, her pen poised above Brett’s name.

“No, leave him on,” says Josie, anguished. “I’m still holding out hope I’ll meet some guy in a bar. I’m going to Portland next week. Who knows what might happen.”

“Wait a minute,” says Constance, closing her notebook. “I’m taking time off from work to do this, Josie. If you’re not serious about me finding you a husband, I’ll stop right now.”

“Don’t stop, Mama,” says Josie, shaking her head. “I want you to choose my husband. I really do.”

“Okay,” says Constance, opening her notebook again. “So…Brett, David, and Noah are all healthy, smart, personable men with good jobs, and they’re all madly in love with you, so much so they’ve all stayed single despite numerous opportunities to get married. Also, I get along well with their mothers, which is no small thing since we’ll be sharing grandmother duties.”

“Are you saying Brett and David and Noah are still single because of me?” says Josie, outraged. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“How else can you explain it?” says Constance, looking at her notes. “Brett could have married Allison Cromwell or Tina Martinez in a heartbeat. And David? Half the women in town shop at Pirelli’s just to be with him for a few minutes.”

“What about Noah?” says Josie, remembering how much she loved playing guitars with him in high school.

“Who knows about Noah,” says Constance, shrugging. “But this is what some people do, Josie. Not just men. Women, too. They wait as long as they can, sometimes forever, for the loves of their lives to choose them. And you, so far, are the love of these three men’s lives. Has a day gone by since you came home from New York that they haven’t called you or come by the house or dropped by Zebra to see you?”

“Brett and David, yeah,” says Josie, sighing. “Not Noah. He’s too proud to chase me, or too shy, though he did ask me to go to the play with him on Friday. That should be fun. A Thousand Clowns.”

“My point is they are all viable options.” Constance closes her notebook. “The question is if you had to choose one of them, who would it be?”

“I don’t know,” says Josie, despondently. “That’s always been the problem. I never wanted to hurt any of their feelings, so I never chose any of them. They’re pals. They meet for beer and darts at The Raven every Thursday night. They play basketball together every Saturday morning. We should take them off the list.”

“Okay,” says Constance, nodding her thanks as Susie serves the snapper. “That leaves Mike Soper and Tom Rafferty.”

“Oh God,” says Josie, gnawing on her thumbnail. “Put Brett and David and Noah back on. And you choose. Okay?”

“Okay,” says Constance, her heart pounding. “Give me a few days.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “Honey? You awake?”

“Huh?” says Jerry, waking up.

“You awake?”

“I am now.”

“Do you have a preference?”

“For what?”

“Brett or David or Noah. For Josie.”

“Honey…you know me. I like them all. I’ve known them since they were little boys. How could I choose? What does Everett say?”

“He says Josie needs therapy.”

“Wasn’t she crazy about Brett in high school?” asks Jerry, yawning. “Senior year?”

“Yes. After he made that interception and won the homecoming game she was crazy about him for a few weeks and they did some heavy petting and then she was in The Taming of the Shrew with David and was crazy about him and they almost but not quite went all the way, and then in the summer before she went to Yale she and Noah were together every day writing songs and going on long walks and who knows how far they went and then she left for college and Brett and David were devastated.”

“What about Noah? Wasn’t he devastated?”

“No, because…I don’t think he ever thought Josie would choose him, so he had no hopes to be dashed.”

“That’s very poetic, honey.”

“What’s poetic?”

“He had no hopes to be dashed. That’s beautiful.”

“You’re so sweet,” she says, snuggling with him. “I never wanted anybody but you.”

Constance visits her mother Erma, a spry eighty-seven, at Pine Cone Valley Senior Community on the northern outskirts of Croft’s Landing. They have lunch in the cheerful dining hall and Constance updates Erma on the search for Josie’s husband.

“The three finalists are Brett and David and Noah. But I’m having a terrible time picking a winner. Any suggestions?”

“Well,” says Erma, cocking her head to one side as if straining to hear something, “if this was a fairy tale they would have to prove themselves with feats of strength and intelligence and…like that.” She returns her head to an upright position. “Some sort of test that two fail and one passes. Right?”

“Some sort of test,” says Constance, the back of her neck tingling. “Like what?”

“Maybe they have to solve some sort of riddle,” says Erma, looking out the window at wisps of fog blowing by. “And the one who solves the riddle is noble and good. Right? That’s how he knows the answer.”

“Because he’s noble and good?”

“In fairy tales,” says Erma, nodding. “Yeah. Something in his character allows him to solve the riddle.”

Brett Anderson, tall and broad-shouldered with a heroic chin, his blond hair in a ponytail, is standing behind the checkout counter in his father’s hardware store watching football highlights on his phone when Constance gets his attention by knocking on the counter.

“Oh, hey, Mrs. Parsons,” he says, freezing the highlights and pocketing his phone. “What do you need?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, holding up a wood screw, three-and-a-quarter-inches-long and a bit less than a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“Um,” says Brett, wrinkling his nose, “those would be in the screw section. Aisle Eight.”

“Can you show me?” asks Constance, nodding hopefully.

“I would,” says Brett, grimacing, “but I’m totally swamped right now. Hold on a sec, I’ll get somebody to help you.” He picks up the in-store walkie-talkie. “Yeah, customer needs help finding a screw. Thanks.” He sets down the walkie-talkie. “They’ll meet you in Aisle Eight.”

“Who will meet me, Brett?” asks Constance, sounding disappointed.

“Um…” he says, shrugging. “Gomez probably? I’m not sure. Why? Did you want somebody in particular to help you?”

“Yes, I wanted you.”

“Why?” he asks, scrunching up his cheeks. “What difference does it make?”

“I know you,” she says, turning away. “Makes the experience more enjoyable for me.”

“Next time,” he says, fishing his phone out of his pocket and unfreezing the highlights. “When I’m not so swamped.”

David Pirelli, olive-skinned and rakishly handsome, his black hair long on top, the sides shaved, a small diamond embedded in his right earlobe, his forearms tattooed with Chinese dragons, is loading cans of paint into the trunk of a car when Constance pulls into the adjacent parking spot.

After shutting the trunk of the paint buyer’s car, David opens Constance’s door for her and says, “Welcome to Pirelli’s, Mrs. P.”

“Thank you, David,” she says, beaming at him as she gets out. “How gallant of you. Do you open doors for everyone or just for Josie’s mother?”

“You get special treatment,” he says, winking at her. “What brings you here today?”

“I’m looking for one of these,” she says, proffering the slender screw. “Fixing an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

David takes the screw from her, studies the old thing and says, “I’m pretty sure they don’t make these anymore, but come with me and we’ll see if we can find a close facsimile.”

In the screw section, after a quick search in a few of the many little drawers, David declares, “As I suspected, we don’t have anything this small in diameter that’s also this long. I doubt they make them anymore. Does it have to be this skinny?”

“I would prefer it to be that skinny,” says Constance, opening a drawer of long thin screws. “It’s not one of these?”

“No, those are eighth-of-an-inch in diameter,” he says, handing the screw back to her. “I told you they don’t make long screws that thin anymore.”

“So what should I do?” she asks, feigning helplessness.

“You could use a larger-diameter screw. Pre-drill the hole to make it bigger so you don’t split the wood when you put the screw in. That should do it.” He shrugs pleasantly. “I don’t know what else to tell you, Mrs. P.”

“You did the best you could,” says Constance, nodding. “Thank you, David.”

“My pleasure,” he says, accompanying her to the exit. “Sorry we couldn’t find the exact same one.” He stops abruptly. “Hey you know what I just thought of? Antique furniture stores. They might have boxes of old screws you could look through. Worth a try.”

“Good idea,” says Constance, going out the door. “Thanks so much.”

Noah Lowenstein, a soccer player in high school and now an avid playground basketball player, his brown hair longish and curly, is in the lumberyard behind the big hardware store helping Chico Alvarez select the very best twelve-feet-long redwood planks for a deck Chico is building.

Constance stands twenty feet away from Noah and Chico and watches the two strong young men search through several stacks of planks until they find fifteen beauties, which they load onto the lumber rack of Chico’s pickup.

“Muchas Gracias, Noah,” says Chico, shaking Noah’s hand before turning to Constance and saying, “Hola Señora Parsons. This is the best place to buy wood. They don’t let you hunt for the good ones at those other places.”

“As my grandfather used to say,” says Noah, greeting Constance with a little wave, “picky customers are better than no customers.”

“Did he really say that?” asks Constance, impulsively taking Noah’s hand.

“He really did,” says Noah, walking into the store with her. “He also said, ‘Customers who hold your hand get a ten per cent discount.’”

“He didn’t say that.”

“No, I made that up. But it’s not a bad idea for a promotional gimmick. Come into Lowenstein’s, hold our hands, and we’ll give you a ten percent discount.”

“Needs work,” says Constance, surprised that Noah seems in no hurry to let go of her hand, so she is the one to let go.

“Let me guess,” says Noah, striking a thoughtful pose. “You’re picking up more potting mix for Jerry’s cacti.”

“No,” says Constance, bringing forth the ancient screw. “I need to get another one of these. I’m restoring an old table my great grandfather made for my grandmother when she was a little girl. Precious old keepsake.”

“This one fell out?” asks Noah, taking the screw from her and placing it in the palm of his hand.

“No, “says Constance, watching Noah’s face to see if he believes her. “One was missing, so I took this one out to show you what I need.”

“I see,” says Noah, carefully scrutinizing the screw. “Well…these are not mass produced anymore as far as I know, and maybe they never were. Are you in a hurry, Constance?”

“No,” she says, wondering if he senses something more than buying a screw is going on. “Why do you ask?”

“I need to do a little sleuthing,” he says, bouncing his eyebrows. “You’re welcome to come with me, but if you’ve got other things to do, you could come back in an hour and I’ll have something for you.”

“Another screw like this screw?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding confidently.

“You think you have one? Here in the store?”

“We will either have one,” says Noah, beckoning her to follow him. “Or we will be getting one. About this I am confident.”

Constance follows Noah through the store to a double metal door that swings open into a large storage area beyond which are three offices, one the domain of store manager Guillermo Macias, one the den of Noah’s sister Brenda Lowenstein-Adebayo, assistant manager, and one Noah’s.

“So,” says Noah, ushering Constance into his cluttered office, “I will make a quick phone call and then we’ll go from there. Have a seat.”

“Noah?” says Constance, sitting down. “This seems like an awful lot of trouble for one little screw.”

“On the contrary,” he says, picking up his old landline phone. “This is my favorite part of the job.” He taps in a number and waits a moment. “Sven. Hi, it’s Noah. Got a minute? Great. So here’s what’s happening. I’ve got an old steel wood screw. A little longer than three inches and not even a sixteenth-of-an-inch in diameter. Almost a fat needle with threads. From an old handmade table.” He listens. “At least a hundred years old.” He looks at the screw. “Yeah. Could be. You have anything like that?” He listens. “Sure. I understand. Thanks so much.”

“No luck?” says Constance, enjoying Noah’s performance.

“Sven suggests…Sven is in Portland and knows absolutely everything about screws and nails and bolts and nuts and hinges and so forth…he suggests that this screw was probably not manufactured in the United States, but more likely was made in England or Germany or Switzerland.”

“How interesting,” says Constance, frowning. “My great grandfather was German.”

“That is interesting,” says Noah, raising a knowing finger, “but it doesn’t alter the fact that these kinds of screws are probably not made in Germany anymore, unless somebody is making them by hand.”

“So what do we do?” she asks, holding her breath.

“We make one by hand,” he says, winking at her. “Follow me.”

On their way to the machine shop at the west end of the hardware store, Constance says, “May I ask you something, Noah?”

“Of course,” he says, turning to her.

“Are you going to all this trouble for me because I’m Josie’s mother?”

“No,” he says, reddening and laughing. “I would do this for anyone, though it is more enjoyable doing this for you because I’m…I’m comfortable with you because…I know you like me, so…but I’d do this for anyone because that’s how we do things here. That’s the mission, as my father likes to say.”

“What is the mission?” asks Constance, gazing in wonder at him.

“I imagine it’s the same one you have at Computer Help. Helping people achieve their goals.”

“Yeah,” says Constance, trying not to cry. “You’ve certainly done that for me today.”

Late Friday night, Josie comes home from her theatre date with Noah, and finds Constance and Jerry sitting together on the sofa in the living room, a fire blazing in the woodstove, the house toasty.

“Hey,” says Josie, quietly. “I didn’t expect you guys would still be up.”

“We have something to tell you,” says Constance, taking hold of Jerry’s hand to give her courage.

“You made your choice,” says Josie, placing both hands on her heart. “Oh, Mama, I’m sorry, but Noah just asked me to marry him and I said Yes before he could even finish asking me and I realized he’s always been the one. I just needed some time to grow up, and so did he.”

“Jerry?” asks Constance, unable to sleep. “You awake?”

“What?” he says, waking from a dream. “What happened?”

“Are you awake?”

“I think so. Talk to me.”

“Do you think Noah asked Josie to marry him because I went to see him and he intuited what was going on and…”

“Yes. It’s all because of you.”

“Not all,” she says, snuggling with him. “But partly?”

“All,” he says, drifting back to sleep. “Everything.”


The Play’s The Thing

Friday, April 1st, 2011

(This essay first appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser March 2011)

“More relative than this—the play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” William Shakespeare

Yes, it will only be a staged reading in a tiny theater on the fringes of civilization, but I feel like my play Milo & Angel is about to open on Broadway. And you’re invited! When I was sixteen years old, I decided to try to make my way as a playwright and actor amidst the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, but other scenarios intervened, other roads were taken, and all the plays I wrote remained hidden from public view.

True, the actors will be sitting in chairs and holding scripts as they perform, and they will only have rehearsed a few times under the inspired guidance of Sandra Hawthorne, but they will be on a real stage in a real theater (not a living room or a café) imbuing my lines with character. What an amazing process it has been so far, the blessed night still to come—April 13, a Wednesday evening at 7 PM at the Helen Schoeni Theater at the Mendocino Art Center—mark your calendars.

“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.” George Bernard Shaw

I wrote the first act of Milo & Angel in 2005, the year before my father died. The moment the play began to speak itself, I knew it would be both homage to my father and an attempt to exorcise his terrible power over me. Thus I was not surprised when my muse fell silent at the conclusion of Act I, for my father was still alive and I was not sufficiently free of his influence to reveal the darker story I knew Act Two must contain.

Then a few months before my father died, when I knew his death was imminent, I concocted a second act. But a poem or a story or a play that I consciously invent, rarely rings true for me; so the truth of this play, the tender truth, remained waiting in the wings, waiting for my father to die before she felt safe enough to emerge and speak her lines.

“Truth is truth, to the end of reckoning.” William Shakespeare

In 2007, my second year in Mendocino, I completed a draft of Milo & Angel that I felt was good enough to send out to the tiny number of theater companies in America who at least pretend to consider plays from writers without agents or influential friends; and this I did. I received a few kindly rejections and little else. I also gave copies to people connected to the Mendocino Theater Company, but got no response from any of them. So my ninth play seemed destined to suffer the same fate as my previous eight.

Then I gave a copy to Kathy Mooney, my friend and counselor, and she shared the play with Valerie McMillan who oversees play readings at the Mendocino Theater Company, and Valerie gave the play to Sandra Hawthorne, and after a time it was decided that Milo & Angel would be one of the plays in this year’s reading series. And I tell you honestly, I am as excited about having my play read in front of an audience—I hope you’ll come—than I was when they made a major motion picture out of my first novel.

Sandra took the helm, as it were, and from the pool of available and willing actors hereabouts cast the six parts. As of this writing, we have had three rehearsals, the cast has changed three times, I have rewritten the play with Sandra’s guidance four times (some scenes seven or eight times), and we only have two more rehearsals until the blessed night befalls us.

The cast members, barring further changes, are Alena Guest, Ruby Belle, Garth Hagerman, Todd Walton, David Woolis, and Julie Burns. I am told that such staged readings hereabouts usually only require of the actors two rehearsals, and this one will have five, so I intend to shower these generous volunteers with gifts (when I see who is still standing at the end.)

“The theater is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life.” Arthur Miller

The most exciting aspect of this process so far has been conferring with Sandra after each rehearsal, when the flaws in rhythm and flow, and in my choices of words, are still fresh in our minds, and then figuring out how to fix the problems. With each new draft, the play improves and the emotional content deepens; and if the entire cast quits tomorrow and the reading never happens, I will have been the beneficiary of a priceless collaboration.

I have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of creative collaboration, which is why nowadays I mostly work alone. My more successful collaborations have been with women, whereas the old maxim Never Go Into Business With A Friend rings true as a summation for all but a few of my collaborations with male friends. And what is far more interesting to me than why those attempts at collaboration failed is why I continue to try to collaborate after so many dismal failures.

Having recently had a marvelous musical collaboration with my cellist wife Marcia, and now this excellent writing collaboration with Sandra Hawthorne, I am sorely tempted to say that the problem lies with men. However, I am a man, so perhaps it would be truer to say that the problem lies with me in relation to other men, which brings us, inevitably, to my father, my first and foremost male role model with whom collaboration of any kind was out of the question because he despised everything I loved and thought everything anybody else said about anything was stupid and wrong. Hmm.

I think the rehearsals we’ve had of Milo & Angel—actors sitting around Sandra’s commodious dining table—would make a wonderful basis for a play: people shifting out of their public personas into their characters in the play, their play characters changing as the playwright and director give them feedback, which changes in their play characters impact their public personas—characters quitting, switching parts, new actors coming in and interpreting their characters in ways so unlike the previous interpretations that the play (and the play within the play) shift from comedy to tragedy to farce to…it’s just an idea.

“You need three things in the theater—the play, the actors, and the audience—and each must give something.” Kenneth Haigh

I am one who laughs uproariously at things in movies and plays that other people tend not laugh out loud about. (I am thinking of movies such as Young Frankenstein and A Thousand Clowns.) Combine this tendency with the fact that I am my own biggest fan—I just love what I create—and you will understand why I have several times boldly proclaimed to Sandra, “Oh, that will get a big laugh.” To which she has wisely responded, “Audiences for staged readings tend to be small, and small audiences tend not to laugh very much.” Darn. Even so, I feel Milo & Angel, for all the tragedy it contains, is very funny, too. Just like life.