The Little Friend
"You really are a gorgeous man."
Ben scratched an eyebrow.
"Marcia . . ."
I've made him self-conscious, Marcia thought. A good beginning to what she hoped would be an even better weekend. She pulled a leather-covered flask out of her bag, spun the top off and took a swallow, then dangled the flask at Ben.
"I'd better not," he said.
"A sip? A sip. Ben . . ."
She snatched it back, laughing, as if she'd never meant to let him have it. "First thing we do when we get there, is get you good and drunk." From the back she heard David mutter something in his sleep.
Ben parked his Saab very carefully in a municipal lot across the street from the theatre even though there were plenty of spots on the street.
"Just being extra cautious," he told Marcia and David.
"An admirable thing to be," David said.
"Sometimes," Marcia added and laughed as if she'd said something witty and wicked. She got out of the car, took Ben's arm, linked her other arm in David's, and guided the two men across the street.
"You guys talk," Marcia said as they entered the lobby, and moved through the crowd of early arrivals to the ladies room. A few people greeted David, who nodded his head to them or opened his mouth and said "ah." "My public," he said to Ben with a shrug. He didn't seem particularly interested in speaking to them nor did he introduce any of them to Ben. He finally lit a cigarette and went off in the direction of the bar.
After a slow examination of the photo display of past productions--The Glass Menagerie with the very young Marcia and David, The Three Sisters, Marcia and possibly David again in the background, Henry IV with the great Richard Goode as Falstaff--Ben took up a position on the bottom step of the flight to the balcony and watched the crowd. There was no chance he would know anyone or that anyone would know him. He had been in one play in New York but no one would have seen it unless they'd made a special trip to see Marcia, who'd played the lead. It was so far off Broadway, though, Ben doubted anyone here would have heard about it unless Marcia'd told them, but if she had, and if they'd come, Ben had not met them. Although they could have seen it and him and now be too intimidated to speak to him; this thought gratified him and made him feel quite relaxed.
Are you an actor? Someone might say, to which he'd reply: Why, yes. And then they'd say, trying to place him: Weren't you in that play in New York with Marcia? And Ben would say: Oh! Did you see it?
He assembled the muscles of his face to represent a simple member of the audience. He was here with a couple of actors who were once the stars of this company and though it was perfectly OK not to be recognized, Ben knew it would not be OK for much longer.
He saw Marcia and David on the far side of the lobby surrounded by admirers. He wanted what they had already given up. It was as simple as that. Their invitation to join them on this weekend trip, he suspected, was partly predicated on his infatuation with their success, partly too on his willingness to drive, and partly on Marcia's attraction to him.
He didn't mind. His appeal for Marcia was none of his affair. Nothing was going to happen anyway. Marcia didn't seem to have any idea that he was gay and there was no point quashing someone's interest in him by eliminating his potential interest in her entire gender. That could be perceived as downright insulting. He could certainly flirt with her, or at least let her flirt with him, without any revelation of sexual preference. It was all just a game anyway, wasn't it, so what was the point of getting serious about it? Marcia was trying to get a rise out of David and nothing was going to happen as long as David was around. Ben thought that neither of them seemed really interested enough in each other to have much in the way of a dramatic response to anything the other did.
Why do people bother to get married at all? Ben wondered.
"There you are," Marcia said, sidling up to him and pressing her head to his shoulder. "You weren't lonely, were you?"
"I amused myself," Ben said.
Marcia took his arm. "I'll bet you did."
The bell rang to take their seats.
"Curtain up!" Marcia said gaily. As they took their seats Marcia whispered in his ear: "Richard is supposed to be magnificent in this. Wait till you meet him."
David sat sunk deep in a velvet sofa in the downstairs lobby, half listening to the young man who'd played Edmund talk about the size of his dressing room. He ran his hand ruminatively over the back of the sofa as if it were a peacefully sleeping dog. His fingers touched a rough spot on the velvet and suddenly David sat straight up. The young man jumped back.
"I'm pretty sure I've thrown up on this sofa," he said, examining the rough spot. "Right here. Look. Last year. Or maybe . . ." He studied the spot for a moment longer then, with a sly wink at the young man, added: "I won't be doing that particular party trick again."
He leaned his head back; he was very dizzy. "This is not to say that I am not very drunk. Which I am."
When he opened his eyes, the young man was still there, perched on the edge of the sofa, eyes darting nervously around the room as if signaling for help but afraid to get up and desert him. David took pity on him. "Get me a Pepsi, will you?"
The young man smiled, relieved, and jumped up from the sofa. "Right!" he said and was gone.
"Don't forget me," David said. He closed his eyes for a moment and when he opened them Marcia and . . . what was his name? Bob? Bob. Marcia and Bob were standing over him.
"Richard's invited us over," Marcia said.
"Ah yes. The shining example to us all."
"Do you want to come or are you just going to--"
"I'm just going to," David said as he hoisted himself off the sofa. He reached out to Bob to steady himself.
"Richard went on ahead, but Ben doesn't mind driving," Marcia said. Ben? Oh yes. "Ben isn't hopelessly drunk."
"Ben is a paragon," David said and threw a heavy arm around Ben, drawing him close. "Watch yourself, my friend."
David watched Marcia thread a protective arm through Ben's.
"He's teasing you."
It had become his custom during the run of this play to leave immediately afterwards--that is, after the congratulatory visits to his dressing room had been gotten through--without even taking off his makeup. Richard just wanted to go home. Each performance was more draining than he remembered a performance ever being. He had looked forward for years to playing this role, dared not even suggest it to the artistic management until he was positive he was ready and finally, when he had, all had cheered the very idea of it, the triumph that lay in store. The exhaustion of actually playing it, along with the knowledge that there was no going back to a time of hope, had frightened him: a future barren of hope when all his life it was what lay in store that had kept him going.
And yet he had succeeded, he had triumphed. Or so they said. After all, he was an institution at this theatre. The audience had watched him as the decades passed, until he had behind him enough years to play this ultimate role. No one was about to tell him he'd wasted his time; they had something to lose as well as he.
He set three wine glasses on his dining room table and opened two bottles of Merlot. They like their red, those two, he thought, and their little friend probably does too. There had been a time when their little friend might have interested him, even if just for the evening, even if just to bask in the admiration of the little friend, even if just for the touch of his young flesh.
He slid open the glass door to the deck and looked out past the sloping lawn, past the rocks to the sea, which was very black tonight and which he could not distinguish from the starless sky. He knew he had come to the end of something. When he was taking his bow tonight, he knew. As he accepted praise, as took off his costume: he knew. This would be his last play. This was it. He'd told no one, not even, until he'd gotten home this evening and had emptied his first tumbler of gin, himself. He had thought he knew what it would take of experience with betrayal, with deep disappointment, with rage and forgetfulness and the specter of death to play the part. At another time he would have laughed at himself for the finality of these thoughts, for he was not and had never been a deep thinker and was suspicious of himself whenever his mind opened up to any dark revelation; but now, when he tried on the familiar cloak of that ironic, saving laughter, it no longer fit--or rather it did, for the first time.
And more than this had come to an end. He wanted no more of the world. He would be content to withdraw. He had no conversation left. He'd never thought of himself as possessing a real intelligence but instead a mind with a grab bag of exotic trivialities that, without his status as a beloved figure of the stage, would be of interest to no one. He was not nostalgic for his youth and did not want the attention of anyone who was. He'd already heard himself telling the same stories to younger and younger people, seducing younger and younger men. But no, really, the young men were not younger. The young men simply stayed young men.
He would not tour with the play as the management hoped he would. He would not see Italy again. He would let go. He would know no new love. He would stay here--and how relieved he was that he'd been wise enough years ago to follow the advice of his accountant and buy this house--he would stay here and though the end would likely be protracted, would likely involve the inevitable wearing of the suit of Grand Old Man, it would still be the end. He had already had his bedroom moved downstairs: his books and his bed, his cases of red wine. The telephone stood on the nightstand, for emergencies now where it once had been for midnight calls to lovers. The emergencies would come, perhaps only one, perhaps only once, but he'd want a telephone there then.
The road was very dark on the way out to Richard's, and Ben kept a tight grip on the wheel to negotiate the unexpected curves. Marcia was raving about Richard's performance; David was muttering, whether in agreement or disagreement was unclear. Ben didn't say much; each time he was about to venture an opinion or ask a question, his concentration on the road wavered and the car would suddenly be hurtling toward a tree or a fence or a startled animal and he'd have to jerk the wheel fast to avoid disaster. If Marcia and David noticed the danger avoided, they made no indication of it; hymns to Richard's performance filled the inside of the Saab.
"There!" Marcia cried.
Ben pulled off the paved road onto a dirt path bordered by low bushes which Marcia said were rose hips. The outline of the house was barely visible against the dark sky. A few windows were lit downstairs, and as the car approached Richard could be seen silhouetted in an open doorway, waving; when the car headlights flashed on him he executed a series of deep bows.
The moment Ben pulled to a complete stop, Marcia jumped out and ran at Richard, applauding. "You genius!" she screamed and embraced him.
David clapped Ben on the shoulder. "You've been warned," he said and got out of the car, leaving the door open.
Ben was excited and nervous to be here. Marcia and David were one thing, he'd grown accustomed to them; their theatrical manners and personal games were obvious to spot and easy to handle. Richard Goode was something else. Richard Goode had a national reputation. Richard Goode was an institution. Richard Goode was the real thing.
Though Ben had not completely thought it through, his senses told him that something might come of this meeting--an invitation to something, an introduction to someone--and so he was nervous, yes, but he was nervous most of the time when confronted with opportunity. Nerves are OK, he thought. Nerves keep me on my toes. He closed all the doors and locked the car.
Richard handed him a glass of wine as he came in the door. Marcia and David were already sprawled out on a rug in front of a large stone fireplace, drinks in hand.
Ben took the wine. "Your performance . . ."
Richard patted his shoulder; Ben felt the touch linger a moment. "Yes, yes. Now let me show you the house."
Ben didn't know anything about architecture or décor but knew enough to murmur his appreciation at the warren of bedrooms upstairs and the newly renovated bathrooms and the cleverly hidden staircase to the attic. When they returned to the living room, Marcia and David were nowhere to be seen. Richard smiled at Ben and slid open the doors to the deck. Ben followed him outside.
"I wonder where they are," he said.
Richard smiled at him again and at that moment he heard the sound of laughter coming from somewhere in the dark beyond the spill of light from the house. "You know them," Richard said, and shrugged. "Can't keep their hands off each other."
Ben nodded slowly as if to say "of course," but in fact the Marcia and David he knew acted for the most part as if they didn't even like each other. He thought Richard might have mistaken them for the way they'd been before they left, when they were still young. Or maybe Richard was joking. Maybe they were so obviously . . .
The laughter erupted again.
"Perhaps we shouldn't be listening," Richard said. "Shall we go inside?" He put his hand on Ben's neck and guided him through the doors and across the living room to the study, passing the fireplace where the flames, unattended, were sputtering out. The study walls were covered with photos of Richard Goode as Hamlet, Richard Goode as Richard III, Richard Goode with Darryl Zanuck, with President Reagan, with Lucille Ball. Ben was suitably impressed and intended to show it. When he turned from the wall, he saw that Richard had seated himself on a leather sofa.
"Let me tell you something about Marcia and David," he said.
Ben glanced at the open door to the study through which he could see the fireplace. "They might come back in." He indicated the open door. "Shall I . . .?"
Richard shrugged. "If you like."
Ben closed the door softly, holding on until he heard the little click. A leather chair stood at a right angle to the sofa; Ben sat down in it, reluctant at this point to sit next to Richard on the sofa itself. There would be time for that, he thought. He did not want to overplay his hand.
"So you're an actor," Richard said, in a tone as flat as if he'd asked Ben to pass a copy of Time magazine.
Ben soldiered on. "Yes. Marcia and I just did this play where I--"
"Marcia was once a very impressive Ophelia," Richard said. "She was also a very impressive Saint Joan. She had a place here, in this theatre, in this town. She was assured of leading roles. She would graduate from ingénue to leading lady. Her future was assured. All she had to do was . . . stay. But . . . she felt compelled to go to New York. She had ambition. And David. Well, David didn't quite have what she had, but Marcia needed an escort and he was dutiful."
"But what's wrong with ambition?" Ben indicated the wall of photos. "Isn't all that a testament to ambition?"
Richard looked at the wall as if he hadn't seen it in a very long time. "That?" he said. "That . . . that is a simply an incomplete record of the number of times I've made a fool of myself in public."
Ben held his breath; he wasn't sure if he was meant to laugh and if so at what. He looked at the wall of photos again. All those famous people. "Are you being cynical?"
Richard looked at him for a very long time, shaking his head slowly. "I'm too old for this."
With greater effort than it seemed to Ben it should take, Richard hauled himself off the sofa and moved unsteadily towards the door. Ben stood up quickly, before Richard could get very far.
"But then what's the point of it all?" he demanded.
"The point of . . .?"
"This. You. Them. Everything."
Richard didn't turn around. "Feeding the hungry," he said, then opened the door and left the room.
Ben felt his face flush; he knew he'd badly fumbled his moment. He heard the sliding glass doors from the deck slam open and Marcia and David shuffle back into the house, heard David demand more wine, heard Marcia scold him, heard David plead for the corkscrew, heard Richard tell him he should know where it was, then low, murmuring voices and a sudden outburst of harsh, barking laughter.
Ben was reluctant to join them, though he knew at some point he would have to. For now though, he turned for comfort to the wall of photos and imagined his future.
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