ISSUE THREE
May 1998

Douglas Thornsjo


THE CORTLAND REVIEW

INTERVIEWS
 
R.T. Smith

POETRY
 
R.T. Smith
  Muffy Bolding
  John Kinsella
  Richard Foerster
  A.F. Moritz
  Miriam Levine
  Louis Armand
  David Shevin
  Stellasue Lee
  Adrian C. Louis
  David Sutherland
  Gregory Djanikian
  Paolo M. Bottigelli

REVIEWS
 
J.M. Spalding
  R.T. Smith

ESSAY
 
William Heath

FICTION
 
Douglas Thornsjo

photo unavailable Douglas Thornsjo reports: My short story The Death's Head Man was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  Nine chapters from my novel Persephone's Torch have appeared in The North American Review, Three Speed, The Pikestaff Forum and Kinesis. My other short fiction has appeared in The Nightshade Press Nightstand Reader, Kinesis, Millennium, Art Times, and on National Public Radio.

The Paper Age    Read Along with the Author


Whenever Mrs. Templeton traveled there was always a rolled tube of paper sticking three or four inches from the top of her carpetbag. She would sit with the bag on her grey-coated lap, the tube almost touching the back of the seat ahead, and on bumpy roads or on crowded streets she would cradle it all up against her broad body, lowering her shoulders over the paper to see that it would not get crushed. Once, sitting too close beside her in the stuffy cab, midway along the drive from Nashville to Tell City, I got a good look at the paper and saw for the first time how old it was, how it had been rolled and unrolled so carefully and so often that it had taken on the suppleness of leather, had turned under her fingers into something more permanent than Paper: aged oilcloth at its wrinkled edges.

I never did find the courage to ask what it was. It was for the same reason that I could never call her by her first name, always Mrs. Templeton when to everyone else she was just Ruth, who never played a leading role with the Jones Company, though she carried something of the Leading Actress about her, some of the quietude, the authority. She was a small woman who had filled out some with age, who favored plain blue dresses and who managed to keep her dignity without also being aloof. Oftentimes, when the cast met in the shreds of their make-up for a late-night dinner in some cafe, I would sit beside or across from her and listen to the steady turn of her voice, and think: she is friendly enough. Maybe I can ask her now. But she would never meet my eye when I thought I had screwed up enough nerve; instead she would start in with Lon or Mary or Jones about baseball, her favorite subject, or about radio dramas, which fascinated her, or movie dramas, which didn’t. That would draw me into the conversation just as she intended, and before long she could look at me again without risking any more serious question than her opinion of Laurel and Hardy. Then she would sit back and grace me with the faintest smile, and make her harmless reply.

And so the Jones Company had played in more than fourteen little towns before I had a chance to see the poster, or learn about it, and the man it pictured her with. It was in that quiet interval following the rehearsal when everyone, even Mr. and Mrs. Templeton, went their separate ways, to read, or sleep, or drink, or just to be alone. Mrs. Templeton came out of character into the cramped room behind the stage, where I waited alone with two trays of cold food and the echo of their voices rising and falling from the stage beyond. “Winston,” she said, not looking at me, as she put the water on for her afternoon tea. One by one the others spilled out on her heels through the stage door. “Could I have a word with you?”

It had been a good reading, the first ever for Excavation, and spirits were high; for a time all but Lon stood by in a close, informal group, laughing and working on the stack of apple danish that I had brought from a local bakery. Then Mrs. Templeton set out a prop teatray, filled the company’s battered old silver pot almost to the rim, and added some pastry to the setting, enough for two. She took the whole arrangement into her hands, and pointed at me with her nose.

Her dressing room was a few steps down the hall. I held the door open and she went rattling through into a cramped, sunlit cubbyhole with off-white paint peeling from the walls; once inside, I saw the poster for the first time. It was hanging where the wall jutted inward to make room for a small closet, close by a plant stand supporting a fluted vase filled with the petunias she had picked a few days before, along the road. Unrolled, it was at least four feet tall, reaching almost to the floor so that the figures inside might almost have been life-sized: the youth in military clothes hunched in the dark grass with a yellowing skull cradled in his lap, in his long fingers; a wisp of humanshaped fog circling up from behind him, eyeless, one bony transparent hand caressing the youth’s shoulder; and beyond them both, far across the field under the black arms of a dying tree, mad Ophelia crushing flowers to her breast, her purple gown whipped up in the grip of the night air. Above, in liquid letters woven into the sky, it said:

The Montgomery Playhouse

THEODORE BAXTER

And below the youth’s bended knees, simply:

*HAMLET*

and the playdates, hand-lettered in black there along the bottom edge of the paper: August 20, 21 & 22, 1910.

Mrs. Templeton set the tray down gently on her dressing table, stood with her back to me and filled one cracked cup and then the other. “This new play of yours,” she said, lifting the tray again, offering it out until I had taken a cup and one of the pastries. “It has one or two very clever ideas behind it. I can see now why Jones wanted you along. You have a feeling for that dark sort of fantasy she likes.”

She sat in the room’s only chair and took the remaining cup, sipped from it, then broke her danish into three crumbling pieces over a paper napkin that she had laid out on the dresser top. “It has a good central vision. That’s your strength; a real sense of the mystery of life. But for some of us in the supporting roles...”

I stood with the teacup in one hand and the apple filling dripping onto my fingers. There on the poster, the brushstrokes under cooling blue leaves were so graceful, a single line shaping the youth’s jaw, his golden hair rising like vapor, like undersea grass, his dark eyes almost like Saint Jones’ looking out past my shoulder. But it was Ophelia, far off behind the central image, the lurking, salacious ghost, who held my attention: her face was not as round, her neck thinner and longer somehow, her cheekbones just a bit more prominent, but it was still her, wearing the same expression even that I had seen under folds of fat as she stood out under the light, on the stage.

Mrs. Templeton sat looking up through her glasses, her legs crossed at the ankle. “I’m not asking you for a larger part,” she said softly. “It isn’t that. There was a time when I would have mounted an elaborate campaign to get a more important role, or a few more moments under the light, or a good line. But that isn’t me, now.”

“It’s you,” I said at last, not looking at her or even at her likeness of twenty-eight years before, but at the youth, the Hamlet with the face sculpted from fairy tales. “But I don’t know him. A man like that can’t have existed; he’s too pure; he’s impossible.”

There was no sound in the little room but the touch of china to china. Mrs. Templeton sat up in the chair and looked over at me with the most intent, curious little expression; then she settled back and smiled, and made a pantomime of throwing aside an invisible script. “Mr. Baxter did look like that,” she said, “once long before. He always looked well. But by the time I took Ophelia, when Olivia Baxter got too old, he was nearing sixty, he hadn’t looked like that for two decades, and the picture had to be idealized some. It wasn’t lying, exactly. His Hamlet was beautiful, even then.”

She drew herself so close to the dressing table that her legs disappeared as she slid open the topmost drawer on the right side. There was an old book of poems bound in marbled paper with leather along the spine and across the corners, a sad, dogeared copy of Measure For Measure, and a brown envelope large enough to hold legal papers, but now nearly empty, nearly flat. It was held fast with a strip of black cloth looped around rusting clasps; she lifted it out under the light, uncurled the cloth ribbon to its full length, and reached inside.

There were three photographs, printed on thick yellowing paper, the size of lobby cards. She propped them up on the teatray, against the pot, the cup, and the mirrorglass. “There,” she said, lifting them one by one so that the lightglare rode down the figures and then vanished. “Here I am as Medea. My first leading role. And Olivia and Theodore Baxter both here in Macbeth, and Mr. Baxter and I in Hamlet. That was our last production.”

It was like looking back into another age, into some frozen pre-history of the theater, all ancient yellow figures posed in the most piercing harshness of light, haloed with their faces painted and lined, black lipstick on their mouths, kohl smeared around their eyes. There was Mrs. Templeton, so much younger, her body thin as rope, standing bloodless and terrified over a rag-covered corpse. There was a tall, vague woman dressed in black silk; she might have been better suited to a Titania, Queen of The Fairies than to the spitting, snarling Lady Macbeth she played here, a Lady Macbeth who could not even be troubled to wash. And the Hamlet, Theodore Baxter, the face from the poster all right, huge and fervent, but spreading out now into a man no amount of make-up could have made young again. Though still handsome in his long military coat, he had gone harsh, the skin more like wax than ivory beneath the curl of golden hair that was not even his own anymore, and the black lines painted onto his eyelids only added to the touch of the unnatural that rose from off of him.

“What made him stop?” I said. For the man in the picture, though old enough to be ridiculous in the part, looked as if he would be content to play Hamlet forever, well on into his nineties.

Mrs. Templeton gave me a look from over her shoulder that was not quite bitter and not quite amused. “It was the poisoned sword,” she said. “His wife. She couldn’t stand to be alone, and she would not abide the nurses. He went back to the house to care for her, and he closed the theater down.

“The next day I came down for work as usual, all in my hat and scarf. I had forgotten about it, or put it out of my mind. I came under the marquee and didn’t even see that the signs had been taken down. I didn’t remember until I gripped the doorhandle and pulled. And I felt so cheated. No final moments, you see, no last walk out onto the stage. Just a door that wouldn’t open.

“Wistfulness,” she said, and without looking at them Mrs. Templeton snapped up the photographs and tucked them into the envelope again and then into the drawer. “It’s not the approved method of building a character, but it will do in a pinch, it’s better than nothing.”

“Mrs. Templeton?” I said. My hands were empty now but for the empty cup. My fingers were sticky with the remains of apple filling; I stood and tried to keep from wiping them on the back of my pants.

“Your play. It’s true that we are an improvisational company, we do work without a net sometimes. But you will be a better playwright if you think some more about the small characters. Round them out, or, if they must be flat, give them sharp edges. Especially for poor Mary, she’s a singer you know, she isn’t used to coming up with her own dialogue. Just hold them in the back of your mind; don’t force anything on them that they don’t seem ready to take. And if you can’t work them into anything more than setpieces, get rid of them. Better not to be on the stage at all than to be there and have nothing to do.”

I looked into Ophelia’s painted eyes, into the bottom of my cup, and then back. “Why is she having you tell me this?” I said. “Why doesn’t she tell me herself?”

But Mrs. Templeton only turned her face down and away. Her eyebrows climbed well above the rim of her glasses; she asked if I would like some more tea. As she was filling me up she gave me a look that suggested she had once played Lady Macbeth herself. She topped off her own cup, set the pot back in its place. When she had taken a sip and swallowed, she said without looking at me, “Do you know, I never was the sort of girl who took things quietly, who stood around mooning and looking out of windows.”

“I didn’t think you were,” I said.

“No? Well, I did that for a week. I did a lot of mooning and looking out of windows and that sort of thing for the first time in my life, and I decided soon enough that it didn’t suit me. There was nothing else in town, no other company at all, much less one that needed an actress. The nearest other big town was, oh about fifty miles away. I could not think about moving. I had family, then. Well, in the end I did the only thing that was open to me, the only thing I could think of to do. I borrowed my brother’s car and I drove out to the old Baxter house, and I begged him to re-open the theater.

“Oh, I thought it would be horrible. It was, at first. The Baxters had retired to a beautiful Victorian mansion, a place all of brown brick surrounded by about twenty acres of gardens. In the summer of course there were men who cut the hedges and mowed the grass; it would have been all abuzz as they went out over the grounds, but when I came up for the first time there wasn’t a soul about. It was the dead of winter, all of the little pools had been drained, everything lay still, white and grey along the pathways. They’d had it fixed so that guests had a long silent walk that ended under a crumbling archway at the bottom of the lawn, with a fine view of the house. It had great grey windows like those on a greenhouse. When I came up closer I could see inside. It was all dark and empty, stone floors, sheets thrown over every scrap of the furniture. But there was one lighted room far in the back. So I put my feet very close together, squared my shoulders just as I always did before the curtain swept open. And I gave a tiny little knock.

“All the time that I waited I worried about my costume. I had chosen a colorful paisley dress with a belt and a matching hat with a flower in it, much brighter than anything I was used to, but nothing too grand. I had taken particular care to look modest without being drab; now I wasn’t certain but that drab mightn’t have been the better way to go. Because I knew what I was going to be asking for, and, now that I had seen the house, from whom.

“Before very long, and without any sort of approaching sound from inside, the door was opened, and there was Mr. Baxter himself. It had only been a month since I’d seen him, but he had so changed; his hair was snowy white now, and uncombed—he had just stopped dyeing it, I suppose, though I didn’t think of that at the time. He was wearing spectacles at the end of his beautiful nose, and an old, tweedy sort of suit, like a little professor-man. And he was so happy to see me. He held out his arms to me and took my freezing hands in his, and I was drawn inside.

“It was a cozy, low-ceilinged living room deep in the house. Mr. Baxter had a fire going, which was very nice because of the way it lit some of the small pieces of his collection, his theatrical bric-a-brac, masks and prop swords and a few exotic, jeweled costumes that were set about there. We sat together and talked for some time over tea, just as you and I have done. And he never said no when I asked him, which was more than once. But after twenty minutes or so there came an awful rattling, banging sound, and when I looked up I saw that Olivia had come into the room.

“She had been strapped into an awful old wooden wheelchair, and was pushing herself along on the bare floor. She had lost quite a lot of weight, her arms were so very thin, yet she managed the chair well enough. But I believe the worst of it was the wig and the make-up. She mightn’t have seemed so pathetic if she hadn’t insisted on that. Well, she made no great secret of the fact that she was not happy to see me. ‘Ruth,’ she said, and put out her hand like this. She would not look me in the eye. She sat and shook, and worked her mouth silently, as if she had bitten into something awfully sour and could not politely spit it out.

“‘You see how it is,’ Mr. Baxter said to me, quite softly, as he led me back out along the dark hall. ‘You see it cannot be any other way than this.’ And I agreed as well as I could, but I was feeling sorry and blubbery for myself and it came out as something like a stage whimper. We had reached the front hall. It was time to say my goodbyes. But when I looked at him I found that I could recognize his ruined old face for the first time, even under that lot of white whiskers. He said, ‘Perhaps there is something I can show you.’ And he turned away.

“I followed him through into the east wing of the house, where everything was closed off and unheated. Throughout the afternoon I had done nearly all of the talking, he had hardly spoken, but now as he went he called back to me from over his tweedy shoulder. ‘Of course it won’t take the place of the real thing. No applause, for starters, but no booing either. And it might keep you in practice until something better comes along. I can’t think of any other way that a man my size could have got to play Puck.’

“I thought, ‘Puck? Puck?’ And I was led through a white doorway into what must have been the largest room in the house. There were great, sheeted dinosaur shapes huddled together from wall to wall, so close that we had to turn sideways to pass between them. When he pulled back the curtains from the east windows, a shower of dust fell into the sunlight and floated in the beams.

“Under the sheets there were long rows of worktables, and on the tables were dozens of antique toy theaters. Some were quite large, made of wood and metal, but most were of paper or cardboard lithographed with the brightest, purest colors imaginable. I looked in through their roofs, down behind their shrunken prosceniums. They were perfect in so many ways, to the smallest detail; it was like looking into a forgotten age. There were models of the great houses of the world, and wholly imaginary, fanciful houses with cloth curtains and gargoyles above the stage. All were frozen in mid-act. They held orange-and-yellow jungles that seemed to go back and back, and cold palaces, and marketplaces and ships at sea, balconies and peasant cottages, and more than a few of the darkest dungeons I had ever seen. They were set out with hundreds of little flat figures, so expressively drawn, frozen in moments of passion and folly and danger. There were harlequins and beasts, maidens with the whitest skin, magicians of all types, blue knights, pirates, winged fairies, royalty and common folk. They loved and postured, murdered and bowed as Mr. Baxter and I passed along before them. We saw tableaus from Red Riding Hood and Beauty and The Beast as well as Julius Ceasar and Othello. The characters could be moved with wires or sticks; my favorite was the house playing The Casket of Elaine: the figures had metal bases, they could be moved with magnets from under the stage, so that no control rod would be visible to an audience.

“There were more than eighty houses, each playing something different, each with a full script laying out in front. I said ‘Puck?’ again, and Mr. Baxter took me to a model of the Globe theater. As I watched, he lifted a back painting, added three sets of wings; the house in Athens was transformed into a dark, enchanted wood. At the end of a wooden stick, a little, leafy creature entered, and spoke:

How now, spirit! wither wander you?

When I looked up there was Mr. Baxter with a Puckish grin on his face, holding out a green-printed fairy on the end of another stick. So I took it. I made it enter from the tiny stage right, and I said,

Over hill, over dale,

Thorough bush, thorough briar,

Over park, over pale,

Thorough flood, thorough fire,

I do wander every where,

Swifter than the moon’s sphere;

And I serve the fairy Queen,

To do her orbs upon the green.

and I clutched my sides and laughed and laughed.

“And that was all. I came out to the Baxter house, not every day, but once or twice a week. Mr. Baxter had complete sets, actors, scripts for all of the great plays, and many not so great. I would take entire productions—not just the leading roles; I would be them all, men and women, children, animals supernatural beings, the entire cast—there in that big quiet room with only Mr. Baxter listening, and sometimes the family dog. ‘There was I, and little John Doit of Staffordshire, and black George Barnes, and Francis Pickbone, and Will Squele, a Cotsol man: you had not four such swinge-bucklers in all the Inns o’ Court again; and I may say to you, we knew where the bona-robas were, and had the best of them all at commandment.’”

Now Mrs. Templeton put her head down and laughed so hard that she shook. She rubbed the bridge of her nose with two fingers, turned and laughed sideways at me; her eyes were wet, her lips pulled back so far that I could see where her teeth ended. She was sitting in shadow now; the sun had passed around the buildingedge long before, and I remembered how she waited in costume at the edge of the stagelight, in the shelter of the wings. She never looked at a script, yet always in those moments offstage she would stand in silence, moving her lips so that the voices of Jones or Moscow or Templeton seemed to come out of her as they spoke their lines under the light. Then she would see me and smile, and touch her breast, whispering: “I carry them all. In here. Every word,” just before she darted out onto the stage.

“Mrs. Templeton,” I said, and she faced me now with that same embarrassed smile.

“Ruth,” she said. “Please.”

“You never played another lead again? I mean a real one, out there?”

“Oh no,” she said. “My parts are just paper.” She lifted a spoon in the tips of her fingers and maneuvered it lightly like a control rod dancing in the air. “Only paper.”

She sat for a moment mopping the stray crumbs up into a little pile with a napkin and the edge of her hand; then she took the tea-tray by its handles, stood with it and turned away from the mirror. “There’s one of these rolls left,” she said. “Would you like it? One was more than enough sweetness for me...”

 

The End.

 

Douglas Thornsjo: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue ThreeThe Cortland Review