Summer Solus

March 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

I leave Sandra in Kansas to pack up and sell our trailer home while Didi (the dog) and I look for a pet-friendly place in Austin for the fall, until which time I plan to live in my hippie bus, bathe at the theatre, save money. Sandra takes in (first name) Mike, the incompetent CTC TD, to cover the loan.

Ominous Beginning

The first disaster happens when I let off two hitch-hikers I’ve picked up outside of Wichita in Oklahoma City, who’ve shared some wondrous weed. I haven’t gone five miles before I think about the dog, and by the time I wind by way back up to the can-of-worms intersection of Interstates 35 and 40, he’s nowhere to be found. I walk all up and down the greenway for an hour calling, but he never comes. I grieve for days. I can’t tell Sandra. (We don’t talk much.)

The second is the heat. I develop a terrible rash that keeps me awake all night in the bus because rehearsals (and other distractions) keeep me from finding a place to live. After a week or so, my fellow actors realize my discomfort, and several volunteer their couches, which I graciously accept on a rotating basis until the end of the season, buying groceries now and then, or beer, pitching in. I do sign a lease for a house, but I can’t occupy until September 1. Thanks guys.

E. P. Conkle Playwright’s Workshop

The gig is the first annual university-sponsored E. P. Conkle Playwrights’ Workshop, named for the beloved teacher and Broadway playwright who retired the year I arrived, leaving second-rate, alcoholic Webster Smalley to oversee both the workshop and my academic tenure. The season is eight weeks: two rehearsing, then two for each of three conseutive world premiere productions of plays by emerging playwrights. I’m cast as the artist Chaim Soutine in Dennis MacIntyre’s Modlgliani, a significant experience that channels the next few years of my life. I also play my first preacher in an uninspiring Dinner on the Ground. What the third play is (and whether or not I’m in it) doesn’t come to mind.

Soutine-Hen and Tomatos

Hen and Tomatoes, 1924

Soutine is a wild and deeply troubled artist whose metier is meat, in our play a chicken. Texas law prohibits the display of poultry with heads and claws, but I’m a devoted method actor and insist on authenticity, arguing (as Soutine once argues with the French police) that art is more important than hygiene. The director agrees, impressed by my passionate conviction, and convinces mousey Web to go through channels for a waiver, granted on the condition that we keep it cold and locked up when it’s not performing.

Peter & Nancy

Soutine

Soutine w/ Chicken

The director is Pater Frisch, the man for whom I will name my son, a recent Carnegie MFA who later becomes that school’s Dean of Drama; who teaches and directs at Juilliard, Carnegie Mellon, Harvard, Cal Arts, and BU, writes a musical with Studs Terkel, produces a season of The Young and the Restless, directs several movies, historically restores, manages, and produces plays in Santa Barbara’s Granada Theatre, and launches The Frisch Studio in Los Angeles, where to this day he coaches stars and wannabbes.

Younger by a year than I, but totally bald on top, a fringe of longish curly locks, long sideburns framing a Jewish face with piercing, beady eyes; about as tall, but lean, athletic; he plays tennis. Brought up wealthy in the Bronx, a prodigy in theatre and music, he’s studied with celebrities. I’ve grown up the same way on a much, much smaller scale, which he appreciates. We tak about Grotowski—he’s seen The Constant Prince at Spoleto (Italy)—and Strasburg, theatre in the world, the world itself, and about ourselves. He says it’s a shame I’m not going to CMU, and by then I know he’s right, and David too. He says I could find money, he knows ways; it’s too late. My slot’s been filled. The die is cast.

Present at these conversations, now and then engaging, is Nancy Huston, Peter’s hauntingly lovely young lover, fresh out of High Mowing School in New Hampshire, enrolled at Sarah Lawrence for the fall and off the following year (alone) to Paris, where she remains to this day, having learned the language well enough to author 45 books, many of which win prestigious French and international literary awards. I adore her. I don’t see it at the time, but surely I’m their Nick Carraway, a bumpkin.

Peter and Nancy leave the day after the show opens for a romantic month on the coast of Maine, inviting me to visit, never dreaming I’ll show up with Sandra three weeks later; nor that I’ll write lengthy literary letters to Nancy that she answers for a while; nor that next summer the Grays will share a house with Peter and produce a show in Boston; nor that Nancy comes to Hull before she leaves for Paris; nor that five years later still, Peter is a central figure in the incredible sequence of bizarre coincidences that makes me rethink the universe. All that comes later.

Reprieve

Meanwhile, miracle of miracles, halfway throught the run I get a call from Sandra who’s heard from a man in Oklahoma City who’s seen Didi by the highway every day, still waiting, leaves him food until he’s trusted well enough to see the tags; so I take off up the highway for a blessed reunion. For the remainder of the season he’s the company dog.

The Bad Trip Home

There’s a party closing night that lasts til 3 AM, at which point I take a hit of orange sunshine (laced with speed) and light out with the dog for Kansas, Blood, Sweat, & Tears blasting on the 8-track, stopping in the hills to pee and gaze up at the stars, so many, so bright, so close, the Universe! (The acid coming on.) Back on the road, the acid takes over: physical tremors I can’t control, startling and terrifying hallucinations rising from the road ahead. It’s a bad trip—the only one I ever have; the rest are all exhilarating Sysiphustian panoramas, filled with insights.

Farewell to Joanie

At least I have the sense to stop and try to sleep, and I try until the sun came up, and can’t, so I sojourn on—I haven’t gone a hundred miles! The sun warms up the bus, which calms the tremors, and the psychedelic world is easier to deal with in its light; but by the time I hit noon traffic in Oklahoma City (“Does my Didi know where he is?”) it’s a hundred degrees and I’m all in. I try again to sleep, but it’s too hot, so I drive on, into Manhattan as the sun goes down, just in time to spend one last exhausting night with Joanie on a mattress on the floor, both of us in tears, before she leaves for home and our year ends. She makes me promise not to write. She’s in love with Tom.

I never see her again, although I break my promise and write a time or three, and once or twice she answers (maybe someday). Then, just after Christmas, she calls from New York, on holiday, remembering her first trip just last year.  She’s dropping out of school to be with Tom, who’s living in a commune in Wyoming.

Surrogate TD

Utterly exhausted, I arrive home to find the trailer unsold and Sandra utterly exsaperated by the incompetent Mike, who is far behind schedule constructing the sets she has to paint to complete her contract; so after I sleep many hours, I bargain with Wes to build those pieces if he’ll cut her loose when her they’re done, and we work night and day to finish in a week—two weeks before the end of the month, three before school starts.

Bait & Switch

We pack everything we own into our two cars and head back down I-35 to our new life, zipping along through the level plains until we hit the hills, which my poor overloaded bus (4-cylinder, 40 hp engine) speeds down at 70 and slows to 10 in low gear on the way up, barely topping the crests.

Disaster Three oocurs when we pull up to our nice two-bedroom house six blocks from campus and learn not only that we aren’t expected until the first of the month (according to the lease), but also that he’s installing new carpets and no longer allows pets. Son of a bitch.

He does let us unpack and store our stuff there while we find another place, which we do right away—a one-bedroom apartment of a dozen or so in two long one-story brick buildings in a blue-collar neighborhood several miles away—available the first of the month. What to do for the next two weeks?

Road Trip

In the squareback, with Didi the dog, Maggie the Cat, and her suckling kittens, we drop in for a night with David and Nancy Chezem in Galveston; then a day in New Orleans, a night with my sisters (April visiting Mary) in Atlanta, brief visits with both families (one night), dropping off the cats; a day and night with Pat Moline in Atlantic Beach (watching her play a role she landed on our NC road trip); up the East Coast through DC for a night with friends in New York City (but no show); the next day up through Boston on to Maine. Roughly 2,500 miles.

Peter & Nancy (and Didi) in Damariscotta

Damariscotta

Peter and Nancy put us up (put up with us) for three memorable days and nights, mostly talking, eating, drinking, smoking pot, in their big old Victorian getaway rental on (I think) Paradise Lane, on the banks of (I think) Muddy Pond. One day we all go to the Olsen Farm in Cushing, where Andrew Wyath painted Christin’s World, where Sandra poses; another day Sandra and I explore the rocky cliffs alone, the deep blue ocean, white waves crashing, Didi barking down below.

Most memorable by far is our last crazy night.

Boothbay

It starts with the notion that a psychedelic trip would be the icing on our cake, so that afternoon we all four venture down to Boothbay to find “something for the head.” I think in the back of our minds all are thinking sexual. Ironically, our visit coincides with the annual lobster boat races, ending just as we arrived, and for all the multitudes of beer-drinking boatmen and their families, celebrating or drowning their sorrows, not one likely hippie shows a face. We wander around the harbor, browse the shops, drink a few beers, mingle with the crowd, reluctant to divulge our quest until the sun sinks low, the streets begin to clear—at least we’ve had a festive afternoon. We’re just about to leave when Nancy falls into conversation with a young woman and her husband, big and burly, slightly tipsy, runner-up in the slow boat race (coming in next to last), who asks point blank what brings us to Boothbay. We all look at one another, and Peter spills the beans, at which the guy (no names) says they’re on their way to a party where we might find something, maybe even better, come with them; so we do, the four of us, down to the dock, onto a fishing boat to join a dozen or so of their friends and neighbors, and out to sea into the coming dark. What have we gotten ourelves into?

Nobody has any dope, but there’s a full keg of beer, and we partake, four strangers among lifelong friends who talk and laugh among themselves and let us sit there wondering. An hour passes and it’s dark, just enough of a moon to see an island looming, an abandoned lighthouse on a hill and, beyond it, a many-windowed mansion, all the panes smashed out, our host informs us, by the island’s rich, eccentric owner, a lifelong birder who goes bananas in his old age and wills it all “to the birds.”

We land and all come ashore except the boatman and a partner, who pass off the keg and sail back out to sea. What’s going on? No one tells us. Smiling hush-hush. Secret. Have a beer. Enjoy the party. They begin to gather driftwood, half-fill a 50-gallon drum with salt water and seaweed, build a fire around it (are they cannibals?); we all drink more beer. Just as the pot begins to boil, the boat returns with rustled lobsters, dumped in alive to fill the drum. We crack the shells with rocks, pick the meat out with out fingers. No plates, no lobster forks, no salad or side dish, not even melted butter; just all the lobster we can eat and (mystery solved) convivial companionship.  All things considered, it may indeed be better than LSD.

Tragic End

The return trip is without incident until the end—unless one counts the bug-storm we drive through in Louisiana that coats the windshield, forcing me to stop at a station and get out among the swarm (my eyes, my mouth, buzzing in my ears) to scrape and wash them off (at least they don’t bite or sting). We drive fourteen hours straight to pick up the cats in Greensboro, visit a while, spend the Dad and Ellen (or Mama); then eighteen hours straight to Austin.

The final disaster of the summer happens as we drive into Austin, the windows open (no air conditioning). Maggie the Cat, who never travels well (why we park her with her folks), spooked the whole trip, panting in the heat, annoying kittens pouncing, sucking; suddenly something prompts her (maybe she’s just had enough) to leap out, run along the sidewalk by a building, up a stairway. By the time I park the car and race back, up the stairs and down, all around, the city has swallowed her up.

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