Category Archives: Short Stories

The Audition – Short Story


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‘The Audition’ is a short story that was published by a number of literary magazines.

 

The Audition

by

Gary Beck 

        

“Next,” the stage manager called. I looked around to be sure it was my turn, and she repeated impatiently: “Next.” I took a deep breath, put on my combat face, stood up and walked to center stage, struggling each step of the way to control my nervous trembling. Only the work lights were on, so I could clearly see the people running the cattle call. There were five of them. Why did they need five? Could this be one of those democratic collectives, where everyone argued instead of working? The stage manager handed what I assumed was my resume and head shot to who I assumed was the director. He briefly scanned it, then passed it onto the others.

I waited until the last person was finished reading and comparing me to the picture, trying to appear cool and confident. The director had been looking me up and down, lingering a moment too long on my breasts, which I resented, even though I should have been used to the unwanted attention by now. “Sing,” he said. I looked at him in surprise. “I was told that I only had to prepare a monologue,” I said. He ignored my feeble protest and said: “Sing.” “What kind of song would you like?” “Anything.” I took a deep breath and sang the first two lines of ‘Greensleeves’. I thought I was pretty clever, since I was auditioning for a Shakespeare play and it might impress the inquisition panel. A lot of good it did. They stared at me blankly.

“Dance a beautiful dance,” he ordered.  “I’m not a dancer. I’m an actress.” Once again he ignored my objection. “Dance a beautiful dance.” I briefly considered telling him to shove it, but I hadn’t done Shakespeare since college and I had learned that there were very few opportunities. So I did a beautiful dance. At least I thought so. It was some kind of cross between a waltz and a fox trot. It was the best I could do. There was no reaction from the inquisitors and I was beginning to get pissed off.  If they wanted a prima ballerina they should have said so in the actor’s call in the trade papers. Part of me wanted to walk out without saying a word, but another part wanted to do the show. Besides, I didn’t want to give the assholes the satisfaction of watching me slink off, tail in the traditional place, another defeated actor.

By now I knew that something unexpected would be next on the menu, so I smiled pleasantly at the inquisitors. I got a quick rush of pleasure when some of them looked surprised. After all, it was obvious by now that they were trying to freak out the auditioners. They probably assumed by this time that the auditioners would be agitated and in the process of losing their stage persona. I had no idea why they devised this torture session. It was different from any audition process I had been through. Maybe they had already cast the show and were getting their rocks off by torturing some needy actors. Stranger things happened in theater. Whatever. I was here and I certainly wasn’t going to break down for their viewing pleasure.

The director gestured to the stage manager, who handed me a sheet of paper. It was in French. The director said: “Read.” I knew what he would say if I told him I couldn’t read French, so I read. Maybe Charles Baudelaire would have objected strenuously about my pronunciation, if he was there, but I was beginning to enjoy myself. “That’s enough,” the director said, staring at me expectantly. I guess he was waiting for me to ask how I did. I just stood there silently. He looked me up and down, again lingering too long on my breasts. “We’ll call you.” I just nodded and left. I knew they would call. I had seen that lecherous look before. Now it would be up to me to decide whether or not to do the show. Part of me was hungry for Shakespeare, but these were weird people. I wasn’t sure if I was up for any more bullshit in my life. Then I laughed. I didn’t have to worry about it until I got the call.

###

Dogs Don’t Send Flowers

When my dog was a year and a half old I discovered that he needed sex. Like a good master, I tried to obtain female services for him, but my efforts resulted in failure. My frustration level was probably growing higher than his, but it was hard to tell. After all, Pard didn’t look up suddenly from gnawing a bone and say: ‘Master, master, this deprivation is killing me.’ In general, though, our relationship was satisfactory. Pard followed the basic hygiene rules indoors. He even allowed me to slip newspaper under him outdoors, when he squatted for doggie business. I expressed my appreciation for not having to carry a cumbersome pooper scooper, or messy plastic baggies, by liberally distributing dog yummies whenever he cooperated. It was an excellent arrangement that benefited both of us.

Pard was a medium size, brown and white, haphazard mix of terrier and shepherd, with trace elements of other breeds. He was a clever dog, a valid testimony to the melting pot theory. I often took him to my drama classes at Gotham University’s School of the Arts. Sometimes I would challenge my well fed student actors to display more facial expressions than my dog. Once the initial humiliation of their acting skills being compared to a dog was over, some students showed a keen zest to prove themselves. If one came close to rivaling Pard’s expressiveness, he blew them away with the ‘sad look’ of woeful eyes, sagging mouth and drooping ears. To date, no vanquished young thespian, resentful in defeat, had complained to the university about my unorthodox teaching assistant. When I brought Pard to school I always wore sunglasses. If security tried to prevent our entry, I told them I was blind. The underpaid guards of the sons and daughters of prosperity, weren’t about to be politically incorrect and deny admission to a blind man and his faithful seeing eye dog.

I first met Pard in the 6th floor hallway of my east village walk up, one of the few remaining ungentrified buildings on East 9th Street. The tenants were under constant pressure from the landlord to vacate the premises. His goal was to replace them with yuppies. He knew yuppies would eagerly pay seven or eight times more for the privilege of living in a chic ex-slum. The Olmedos, my neighbors across the hall, were the current target for eviction. We shared a bathroom in the hall. Their courteous apologies for its frequent use by their four children had led to friendship. The Olmedos still believed in the American dream, despite being persecuted by the landlord. Raul and Elena left the Dominican Republic to build a better life for their children. Raul worked long hours as an orderly in the psycho ward at Malvue Hospital. Elena sewed in a sweatshop. I became fond of the oldest son, Armando, a bright youth who I tutored in English. Armando got a puppy from a friend and kept it in a cardboard box in the hallway. His parents wouldn’t allow Perro in their tiny, three room, vastly overcrowded, but spotlessly clean apartment.

The Olmedos finally tired of the landlord’s harassment and purchased a house in the South Bronx. It wouldn’t be ready for a few months, so they temporarily moved in with relatives. Naturally, Perro was unwelcome. Armando begged me to take care of him for a few days, until he could make other arrangements. It seemed simple enough to give him food and water, and to change his newspaper toilet once a day. I agreed and the Olmedos departed, leaving Perro behind. That night the landlord pounded on my door and demanded to know who owned the dog in the hall. I told him it was ‘the Olmedos.’ He got furious and said he would have it removed. I requested a few days’ grace, but was refused. After two lawsuits and one personal confrontation that almost became violent, we were in the midst of a temporary truce, but it was fragile. I saw no other alternative, so I gave Perro sanctuary.

My efforts to reunite Perro and Armando were futile. Raul politely but firmly rejected my request to bring them the dog. “I am sorry, my good friend, but it is impossible for us to take him. My sister-in-law will not allow it. I will call the pound and they will take him.” An image flashed into mind of the tiny cells that held the prisoner dogs and cats, until they went to the gas chamber at the A.S.P.C.A. I was trapped. “There’s no need, Raul. I’ll see if I can find another home for him.” “Thank you, my friend. You have been a good neighbor. As soon as we move into our splendid new house, you must come to dinner.” I promised to come to the housewarming, although the thought of going to the Bronx was intimidating. All I knew about the Bronx was from horror stories in the media: fires, drive by shootings, crack houses. Well, that was in the future. Right now I had to find a good home for abandoned Perro.

I put a notice on the school bulletin board: ‘loving puppy seeks adoption.’ No response. I asked all my friends. They said no. I phoned my ex-girlfriend, Anitra, a flighty painter who knew every artist in Soho and requested her help. Her suggestion that I keep the puppy, since it would teach me to be more caring, wasn’t appreciated. I tried animal adoption centers, but they were overpopulated. Meanwhile, Perro was transferring his affection to me. He followed me around the apartment, tripping over his large paws, wagging his tail vigorously when I set him on his feet. He would flop down when I was working at my desk and send ESP messages, until he attracted my attention. I would look down into those large, soulful brown eyes and they beamed rays of unmitigated adoration. The ruthless manipulator worked his way into my heart.

I never had a dog before. Throughout my childhood, my parents had opposed anything animal, vegetable, or mineral that I brought home. I vaguely knew that dogs had to be trained, so I visited the Tompkins Square library and browsed the dog book section. One unexpected side benefit was that I picked up a great looking girl. She was impressed that I was sheltering a needy puppy and we arranged to get together later that week. I took two books home, read them carefully and concluded that it didn’t seem difficult to train a dog. Then we began the next phase of our relationship. First, a new name. Perro no longer seemed suitable for my best friend to be. In the back of one of the books there was a list of the twenty most popular doggie names. They were even more vapid than the twenty most popular human names. I considered several literary candidates: Patraclos, Horatio, Uncas, but rejected them. I thought of the old western heroes and their loyal sidekicks, and came up with Pard. I told Pard his new name and he wagged enthusiastically, confirming the wisdom of my choice.

Pard’s debut at the Tompkin Square park dog run was less than distinguished. He was attacked by the male dogs and ignored by the females. He tried everything in his meager repertoire to make friends; groveling, whining, following, sniffing, wagging and crying. None of his displays made the other dogs relent. My human debut wasn’t much better. I was scorned by the males and ignored by the females. We obviously hadn’t obtained the right passports for the land of dogwalkers. It was a strange world indeed: pretentious maidens with overbred companions; macho men with vicious killers; weirdos with surrogate children; fascists with obedience school compulsives. All of them, human and canine, primped, preened, posed and role played. This wasn’t anything like the dogdom I imagined. The main dog walking sessions were at three fixed times: before work, at 7:00 AM; after work, at 6:00 PM; late night, at 10:00 PM. Due to the vagaries of my schedule, the only regular session I could attend was at night. This was a coincidental consolation, since the dogs and humans were more relaxed, whether from combat fatigue after a taxing day, or gentler moods fostered by lunar tides.

It was painfully clear that I had no practical alternative to the Tompkins Square Park dog run. The only other nearby park, the East River park, necessitated walking through public housing to get there. It was a hazardous passage past urban pueblos, mostly inhabited by Hispanics, whose endurance of poverty had been shattered by yuppie wealth flaunting. If I survived the obstacle course, I would have to cross a walkway over the East River Drive. My silhouette at night would provide the murderers, perverts, muggers, junkies and mentally ill homeless with early warning identification of a high priority target. I had always been a loner, which partially explained my lack of advancement in my chosen profession, theater, a networker’s orchard. Now I was compelled to become a socializer for my pal Pard.

When Pard was approximately three months old, we started training sessions in the park. They were periodically interrupted by bullying dog attacks, which I had to fend off by myself. The instigating owner of Thor or Fang would accuse puppy Pard of provocation. What was more obnoxious was that everyone urged their dog training methods on me, from nazism to Zen. There were two main types of advice givers: those who sent their dogs to obedience school, and therefore had no idea how to do it yourself; those who championed the natural system, and whose dogs were always out of control. This group was the most amusing, since they invariably had to chase their dogs to take them home. This was always an entertaining spectacle of impatient vocal exercise and inept pursuit. But Pard and I gained a modicum of acceptance from the less socially scrupulous night crowd. I did notice, however, that the dogs of the daytime princesses never had to do doggie business at night.

I used the K-9 obedience training system and Pard quickly learned ‘sit,’ ‘come,’ and ‘heel.’ It took longer for ‘stay,’ since he got nervous when he saw me walk away. We got over his insecurity, added several more commands and by his sixth month he was a reasonably well trained animal. It was during this training period that he began to reveal his true nature, that of a hedonist pig who wanted his pleasures. Whenever I left the apartment he scorned the comfortable doggie mat that I had purchased for him, climbed onto the bed, pulled the covers into a nest and snoozed underneath. I never caught him because he always met me at the door, wagging a loving greeting for my safe return. He countered all my attempts to break this habit, including liberal admonitions of ‘no’, ‘bad dog’ and ‘disgusting swine’, with looks of innocence, confusion, or hurt. I resolved to catch him in the act. After I left one day, I waited, then quietly snuck up the stairs and threw open the door. Pard was sitting there, wagging cheerfully. I went to the bed and it was still warm where he had been nesting. In this struggle between man and beast he was as stubborn as the Viet Cong.

Many dog owners warned me about psychos who went around the city poisoning dogs. I could believe almost anything in this shared habitat. I trained Pard not to take food from others and not to eat anything on the ground. Pard complied willingly, but compensated by helping himself to food in the refrigerator and the cabinets at home. He would gorge on delectables like roast beef, breakfast cereals, cooked vegetables, baked goods, fresh fruit and any leftovers. He developed a fondness for Chinese food, especially tofu and shitake mushrooms, in garlic sauce. Fortunately for both of us, Pard had a cast iron stomach and digested these non-traditional dog foods without the inevitable belching, burping, gaseous emissions, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or unscheduled bowel movements. I figured out how he opened the refrigerator and cabinets. He hadn’t figured out how to clean up the spill from the ravaged containers. This was becoming a growing issue between us, until his heroism earned him full dining room privileges.

We were leaving the park a little later than usual one night. I had indulgently left Pard off the leash until we crossed Avenue B. Two junkies darted out from behind a tree and demanded my wallet. One of them waved a knife in my face. I was terrified. My entire body started shaking, but a portion of my mind still functioned. I said soothingly: “Sure. Sure. Be cool, man. I’ll give it to you.” Before I could even reach for my pocket, Pard came out of the darkness, growling ominously, looking twice his size. He lunged at the surprised muggers and one of them turned and ran. The knife wielder threatened Pard, but then saw large fangs snapping menacingly and fled. The barely out of puppyhood Pard had saved me. I petted and praised him lavishly. When I stopped shaking we went home. I couldn’t find a suitable commendation plaque, so I gave him all the leftover roast pork lo mein. I decided to rethink my bodyguard’s household rights.

Pard made his first friend, Boris Yeltsin, when he was nine months old. Boris was a devilish mix of labrador and coyote. He and his master had been exiled from the day sessions because Boris nipped the little lapdogs. Boris appointed himself Pard’s mentor and began to teach him adult dog values. Pard was a quick study and a bond rapidly formed between them. When they met, they would exchange formal stretch bows, then run and frolic. Pard couldn’t keep up with the nimble Boris at first, and he would trip over his big paws trying to wheel and turn. As Pard grew stronger and more agile, they would play fight. Soon it was all out combat training. They would duel as they ran, slashing and parrying, stop abruptly, reverse direction and continue the running battle, attacking and defending. They would take turns lying down, while the other practiced the coup de grace. They growled, snarled, snapped and foamed ferociously. People would scream for us to stop them. When the demand for intervention reached its peak, the two dogs would get up, shake off and trot off happily together, leaving the agitated spectators completely confused. But dog friendship is even more ephemeral than human friendship. Boris moved, Pard was on his own again and he couldn’t e-mail.

The tutorial months with Boris had built skills and confidence. Though just a yearling, he tolerated no more bullying from other dogs. The masters reluctantly accepted this emancipation and sought easier victims. One vicious obsessive stalked us for a while, egging his dog to attack, but we learned to avoid him. Then Pard started training me. When he wanted dog biscuits, he would suddenly raise his hackles, growl, run to the door and bark. If his reward for defending the castle wasn’t forthcoming, he would come to me, poke me with his paw to get my attention, look me in the eye, then turn and stare at the cabinet with the biscuits. I generally gave in first. He used different expressions to fulfill his needs. My favorite became the forlorn look of dejection when I left him at home. I finally realized the range of his talent and I trained him to show happy, sad, angry, perplexed, loving and other expressions. One day in class, exasperated with a student as emotive as a middle class zombie, I said: “My dog is more expressive than you.” My challenge was accepted, Pard appeared on the field of honor and vanquished his opponent with the poignant ears of ‘sad.’

Pard’s excursions to school entertained both of us and dog/human relations were at an all time high. Then something changed. He reacted strangely to my selections of female companionship. One night I was making love with the current girlfriend in my apartment. He lay down nearby and watched. When he heard the animal sounds of our sexual encounter, he jumped on the bed, mock growling and demanded to play. He scratched the girl with his pawnails and she departed in a huff. A little later, I was standing near the window and Pard stood on his hind legs, wrapped his front paws around my leg and began to push against me. I didn’t feel like playing so I started to push him down. He growled, held on tighter and rhythmically pumped my leg. I noticed that his red, shiny thing had emerged from its sheath and I realized that I was being sexually abused. I don’t know whether it was because of my example, or normal hormonal stirrings, but doggie sex had reared its head.

I went back to the Tompkins Square library, but none of the dog books discussed sex. I went online, assuming I would find the ubiquitous know-it-all, whose moment had finally come on the World Wide Web. The only response was from a disgusting degenerate, who wanted to do vile things to my innocent dog. I browsed newspapers, magazines, periodicals, but there was no helpful information. I tried radio call in shows. One host called me a pervert and disconnected me. Another thought I was cleverly disguising my need by pretending it was for a dog. She requested explicit sexual details and I disconnected her. I phoned my ex-girlfriend, Anitra, the flighty painter who knew everything about anything, without ever studying. Her suggestion that we both practice abstinence, since it would teach us self-control, wasn’t appreciated. I thought wistfully that if Boris had only stayed long enough to lead Pard through this vital coming of age ceremony, things might be less stressful.

I spent hours thinking of schemes to relieve Pard’s tension. I considered adopting a comely female dog at Bide-a-Way, letting her service Pard for a few days, then returning her to her cell. But the cruel deception of her feeling rescued, then being subjected to sexual exploitation, deterred me. But it was a tempting idea. I knew there was a time honored philosophy of love them and leave them. There were ample historical precedents for abduction and rape. Sexual predation has become a recognized, contemporary urban activity, especially near bus terminals. The thought entered my mind that Pard and I could lurk at Port Authority, swoop down on some country bitch right off the bus, abduct her, let Pard have his way, then abandon her on the street. I didn’t feel comfortable with that plan, but it started a new trend. For a few days I got caught up in a fantasy about a doggie cathouse. The girl dogs lounged around in provocative garments, while the doggie madam, a blowsy old Irish setter, negotiated with the customers. I began to think I was losing it.

I learned one critical fact about canine sex from a wolf documentary: the only time bitches respond to sexual overtures is when they’re in heat. The rest of the time it’s tough nuts for the guys. I spent hours comparing bitches to human females, who did not come into heat. Did this explain why human females were always, never, often, seldom, sometimes responsive to sexual overtures? I was getting confused. When wolf bitches put out it was only to mate. They didn’t engage in casual sex. They didn’t require a wedding ceremony. It was man who went rim-ram, thank you ma’am and departed. Did that mean that the only way to provide Pard with sex would be for him to get married? Would that make me a beastial procurer? Would I be up to my ass in puppies, since I didn’t think Pard could use a condom? I kept coming back to the fantasy of the doggie cathouse. I staffed it with working girl dogs from the Tompkins Square Park dog run. There was this beautiful, standard size, black French poodle. I visualized her in red lingerie… I definitely had to get things under control.

It was easier said than done. Pard’s urges were occurring more frequently. I approached the late shift female dog owners with various proposals. I tried simple requests for sexual accommodation, pleas for compassion for a sex-starved pooch, offered to share his talented dog genes and reminded all and sundry that females had obligations to fulfill male needs. My entreaties were rebuffed with scorn. However, I didn’t let my personal discomfort deter my efforts for my best friend. I offered cash for services rendered, but was refused with complete contempt. I wasn’t even allowed to raise the offer. The owners were not simpatico. Out of discretion, I avoided the dog run for the next two weeks. Pard’s attempts to satisfy himself on my leg were becoming more demanding. He had already torn one pair of my pants and scratched my leg twice in his progressively more urgent sexual assaults. I don’t know why he made my leg a love object. Perhaps he was confused about his needs, but it was becoming more difficult to fight off his advances. I was getting desperate.

During my self-imposed exile from Tompkins Square Park, I took Pard to other neighborhood dog runs. We went south to the Mercer Street run in Noho, where I surveyed the new prospects like Kublai Khan, seeking a suitable concubine for the crown prince. But the dog walkers at Mercer Street were more pretentious than the Tompkins Square crowd. They had even better radar for possible threats to their dogs. I didn’t conclude that it was class snobbery, pedigrees looking down on mutts, though I harbored my suspicions. There was just something about the quest for doggie sex that immediately alerted all owners to danger, as if by ESP. We went north to Madison Square Park, where we lurked in the shadows of trees, waiting to spring on the unwary bitch who might wander too far from the protective eye of the master. We never got lucky. I filibustered to approachable dog owners, hoping to distract the custodian, while Pard would snatch the booty. We both failed dismally.

Months passed in fruitless endeavors. My life was unraveling. My students were feeling neglected. My department head, who I nicknamed ‘Ernest the emoter,’ reminded me nastily that ‘Adjunct instructors can’t slack off.’ My latest girlfriend left me because she felt I was more concerned with Pard’s sex needs than hers. Pard was growing increasingly impatient and had nocturnal emissions that I had to clean. He howled during the day when I was out. This annoyed the landlord, who was already yearning for my departure and the subsequent gentrification of my apartment. I had temporarily exhausted all resources while I reassessed the problem. I succumbed to fantasy again. There were hundreds of dog owners out there with horny dogs. Maybe thousands. We were victims of a pernicious system that denied sex to male dogs. This was an issue that should concern others. I imagined filing a class action suit against the A.S.P.C.A., on behalf of the horny dog class. It would compel the A.S.P.C.A. to provide requesting dogs with sex partners, selected from their female prisoners who were confined on death row. Perhaps the females who serviced a certain number of males could win a pardon. The legal procedures were becoming too tedious, so I pictured Pard as the Scarlet Pimpernel, rescuing condemned bitches who would gratefully reward him with their favors…. I was in trouble.

We went back to the after work session at Tompkins Square Park and managed to conceal our crass motives for a few days. Our subterfuge went up in smoke when Pard mounted a pampered fluff ball a fraction of his size, the spoiled pet of an indulgent princess. His extended member rubbed her head and he ejaculated all over her well groomed coat. The shrieks of moral indignation and disgust were deafening. The howls of accusation were daunting. It looked as if a lynch mob was forming. I had a dreadful vision of Pard and me dangling side by side, at the end of a rope, on a shabby sycamore tree. I pleaded innocence, endured the threats and abuse, collected the lugubrious culprit and dejectedly headed out of the park. I petted Pard reassuringly. “Don’t worry. I won’t give up trying.” One righteous defender of the violated fluff, currying favor with the pretentious princess, called after me: “You should keep that mutt away from purebreds. We don’t want his kind here.” If I kept my big mouth shut, we probably could have returned to the after work session in a week or two. Instead, I had to be a smartass. “You wuss. What do you want him to do, say it with flowers?” As we crossed Avenue B, I looked back at the scene of our debacle and rededicated myself to finding a solution to Pard’s sex problem. My only consolation was that at least this time I didn’t have to clean up after him.

An Actor Prepares

‘An Actor Prepares’ is a short story about a self-centered actor that will be familiar to theater people. It was published by several literary magazines.

An Actor Prepares

by

Gary Beck 

“Not like that, Andrew,” Eliot whined for the fourth time. “You’re supposed to be having a nervous breakdown. You have to look it, not just say the lines.” “I’m working on it, Eliot,” I replied, in the tone that I knew would piss him off. “I’ll get it. It just doesn’t come as naturally to some of us as others,” and I looked at him suggestively. Eliot glared at me impotently, a look that I was used to, since he resorted to it frequently. We had been at loggerheads from the first day of rehearsal, when I took exception to his request to keep working past the contracted time.

  “Eliot,” I said in a patronizing tone, “Union regs don’t let us rehearse more than six hours a day. This is a showcase. You were told the rules by the union rep. If you like, I’ll show you the handbook. I didn’t make a fuss when I didn’t get all of my allotted break, but it’s time to respect Equity rules. You don’t want me to file a grievance, do you?” I scornfully dismissed his silly appeal for me to forget the regulations for the sake of the show. That was when he glared for the first time. As if he cared about anything but his dumb concept. Then he babbled to us about the need to work hard to produce art. The other actors nodded solemnly, but I laughed in his face. “This isn’t art, Eliot. It’s like a meat market with talent for sale. If you want art, you shouldn’t be doing a showcase.”

I must admit I enjoyed watching him squirm when I reminded him in front of the others that the showcase system was designed primarily to allow actors to demonstrate their talent to agents and producers. I didn’t bother pointing out that actors couldn’t demonstrate very much with minimal rehearsal and three weeks of performances. But that didn’t bother me. I mean it’s not as if we’re trained like dancers, with all kinds of different skills. I had a different agenda. I wasn’t really interested in theater, though I knew I could do the classics if I wanted to. I wanted a career in television. A part in a long running show was my goal, with the accompanying rewards of fame and fortune.

Unlike many actors, I had disciplined myself to put on a good front and always look confident, even when I felt like crapping in my pants. The truth was that I was meant for the showcase system that encouraged surface skills and facility. It was an ideal vehicle for me to display my confidence, relaxed ease and magnetism. I hoped that by doing showcases I would land an agent and maybe even get a commercial. That would pay my freight as I worked my way up the ladder to a big time tv show. This was my fourth showcase and nothing had happened yet, but I was still hopeful.

I hadn’t bothered explaining the plan to Eliot. He wouldn’t see the logic of it.  He was another dumb liberal arts grad with a degree in directing. He’d have a better chance for regular work if he became a traffic warden. At least he’d be able to direct motorists, who might listen. He had no real idea what he was doing and his selection of the play further indicated how dumb he was. Nobody would stay awake while a young man had a nervous breakdown in front of his father, mother and older sister, just because he was turned down by the college of his choice. Well, maybe the playright’s mother. And Eliot didn’t even know how to block properly. He kept putting people in front of me, so I couldn’t be seen while I was doing my lines.

To make matters worse, Eliot had cast a retired insurance executive as my father, and a retired school teacher as my mother. I never understood what prompted these greyheads to suddenly try a second career in theater. These retreads took everything very seriously and went about their business as if they were preparing for a Broadway opening. They even supported Eliot when he demanded that I learn my lines. I tried to explain that I would know most of them by opening night. They got real nervous when I said it wouldn’t make much difference, since the audience didn’t know the script, so they wouldn’t know if I dropped a line or two. But they kept hassling me. Mr. Insurance company mumbled over and over: “How will we know our cues, if you don’t say your lines?” They freaked out when I said: “Just wing it, pop.”

Eliot had cast a slightly overweight, nervous girl as my older sister, but she wasn’t bad looking in a fleshy sort of way. I figured to slip her some unbrotherly love, once she got to know me. There was nothing better available. I never seemed to meet anyone at my waiter job at the restaurant, an untrendy hamburger joint, where the female customers kept their legs tightly shut. So I had no where else to meet women…. But sis turned out to be an ingénue, trapped in a bulky body and I was just too crude for her. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the playright showed up and droned on and on about how we were missing the real theme of the play; ‘the breakdown of high expectations’. Give me a break.

Well I can get through two more weeks of rehearsal. Maybe the show won’t be as bad as it sounds. And if they give me a hard time, I can always walk. That’s the beauty of the showcase system. An actor can leave the show anytime for paid work, or an audition for paid work. And what would these losers do, bring a lawsuit to the union? Fat chance of that. If things go bad and I decide to split, I’ll just pick an audition from a trade paper and say I have to prepare for it. But it may not come to that. If I don’t have anything better, I’ll stick it out. Maybe I’ll get lucky this time and I’ll get discovered. You never know.

Intrusion

Corinne Jones’ legs ached as she trudged through the cold evening rain to the bus stop on Third Avenue. The poorly designed bus shelter only partially shielded her from the slanting downpour. She waited like a weary farm animal whose labor was done, yet the barn was still far away, for the bus that would take her uptown and across 125th street to Harlem. She held the bag of leftovers under her porous old blue cloth coat in an effort to keep them dry for her granddaughter, Sharina. The thought of that beautiful child helped her endure the life eroding fatigue that was washing over her as relentlessly as the rain.

After a twenty minute wait that seemed forever the bus finally arrived. Corinne hauled herself up the steps, swiped her fare card through the slot and looked for a seat. She started up the aisle and saw Betty Ann, an older black woman who worked as a maid for the Swintons, a wealthy white family who were friends of her employers. Shortly after she went to work for the Pardees she met Betty Ann when they shared duties at an open house party. Betty Ann hated her employers in particular and whites in general. She tried to infect Corinne with her prejudice and started to tell her how to steal from her employers. Corinne stopped her abruptly and refused to have anything to do with her after that. Over the years Betty Ann had forgotten what caused her enmity, but she loathed Corinne and insulted her whenever they met. They often took the same bus home at night and Betty Ann would greet her each time: “You old bitch. Fuck you.” And Corinne would respond: “You mean old hag.” The ritual concluded, they would ignore each other the rest of the way.

Corinne said a silent prayer of thanks that she got a seat, because she didn’t know if she had the strength to stand all the way to her stop at St. Nicholas Avenue. She took the bag of leftovers from under her coat, made sure it wasn’t wet, then stared out the window into the glistening city night without seeing anything. She remembered when she first started working for the Pardees as a maid and Mrs. Pardee would inspect the leftovers bag to insure that Corinne wasn’t taking unauthorized cuts of meat. The degrading search after the humiliation of being given leftover charity still pained her. She shook her head to clear it of the unwelcome thoughts and focused on Sharina.

Corinne had been taking care of her granddaughter since she was seven, when her father was killed in a drive-by shooting. The unfairness of her son’s death was still an ache in her heart. Leshaun had been a good boy, then a good man, raising his daughter after his wife died of cancer. He was on his way home from work, just passing the corner where the drug dealers distributed the poison that was destroying so many of her people, when a car pulled up and gangbangers began firing. According to the policeman who told Sharina about her father’s death when she was the only one he found at home, he died instantly. The police assumed that Leshaun was there for a drug buy and remained skeptical of Corinne’s claim of his innocence, no matter how much she insisted that her son didn’t use drugs. The awful memories were beginning to overwhelm her and she said a silent prayer that sent them away.

She sat there stolidly for a few minutes, as the bus rolled past the luxurious shops and restaurants that mocked the economically challenged who couldn’t afford the prices of the new economy, or the old for that matter. She had willed herself long ago not to want things that she could never have and that way she was never tempted to steal. She didn’t know if this made her a good person, but it made her an honest one. She had also learned to accept the unacceptable for the sake of her beloved granddaughter. The bus passed 96th street and the shabbier stores and buildings sagged drearily in the corrosive rain. Corinne brooded about the last minute instructions she received from her employer just as she was leaving. Mrs. Pardee told her in that false friendly tone of equality that she always used with Corinne:

“The family will be going to Westhampton tomorrow morning, so you’ll have to be here early. We’ll come back Sunday evening, and we’ll drop you at 125th street where you catch your bus.”

Corinne had assumed since it had been cold in early October that they wouldn’t be going to the house in Westhampton again until spring. The Yankee weatherman betrayed her with a treacherous forecast of temperature in the 70’s. She hated going to Westhampton. She had to sit in the front seat with the chauffer, Reggie, who listened to ‘gangsta rap’ on his headset and never talked to her. Her only day off was Sunday, so now that was lost. To make it worse she couldn’t bring Sharina, because she had a karate tournament on Saturday. The endless demands of the weekend sent a shudder of dread through her. The Pardees didn’t bring the cook on weekends, so Corinne had to help in the kitchen and clean up afterwards. Between the Pardees and their guests they soiled more dishes, cups, glasses and silverware than an army battalion just off field rations. And Reggie, who did the lawns and pool, would never dream of helping. Her only consolation was that Sharina would start college next September with a full scholarship. Once she was away at school, maybe Corinne could think about another job.

The bus started up the long hill to Harlem. Sometimes she wished that the hill was much higher, so they could look down on the rich folks below. Maybe then if there were race riots the hooligans could roll things down on the rich and not just destroy the poverty community. She shook her head and sent the bad thoughts away and pictured her granddaughter. Sharina was the light of her life, a wonderful girl who bubbled with joy, who was bright, talented and an honor student bound for Harvard and a better future. The bus turned on 125th Street, stopped and some noisy black youths wearing red bandanas on their heads swaggered on, shaking raindrops on the other passengers, daring them to object. Corinne looked straight ahead when they tried to meet people’s eyes and they went to the back of the bus, boom box blasting curses and anger.

Corinne knew about gang colors. Her daughter Tabitha had run with a gang. Corinne had tried to stop her, but couldn’t overcome the violent gang allure that eclipsed her dull, demanding days of school. In a desperate effort to stave off the inevitable, Corinne sent her to stay with relatives in North Carolina. Run-ins with the law and confrontations with the neighbors brought her back to Harlem, where she was beyond control. Her boyfriend turned her onto drugs and when her habit became too expensive he put her on the street as a prostitute, to pay for the white powder of obliteration. Sometime between tricking and shooting up, AIDS arrived and Tabitha slowly rotted away, decayed within and without, giving the gift of death to anyone who entered her wasted body. Then one day she didn’t come home and was never heard from again. Corinne never found out what happened to her. She said a silent prayer for her lost daughter, pushed the stop signal and went to the rear exit so she wouldn’t have to see Betty Ann.

Just before she got off the bus, Corinne risked a glance at the gang boys sprawled in the back, echoing the rap lyrics, yelling and cursing. Their red cotton bandanas reminded her of the field hands picking cotton who her mama had told her about. They were called handkerchief heads because of the cloth they wore to protect them from the sun. She couldn’t help thinking that these violent boys were just as much slaves as the darkies of the past they so despised, except their master wore a different suit of greed. One of the boys noticed her staring at them. “Watcha lookin at, ole black lady?” She turned away and scuttled off the bus, afraid that they might come after her and hurt her. As the bus drove away, the boy raised his middle finger at her, but she ignored it and quickly walked home.

The climb up five flights of stairs was more tiring than usual, but as she got to her door the image of her granddaughter raised her flagging spirits. Sharina was there, safe, sitting at the kitchen table doing her homework. Corinne’s usual fear for the girl’s well-being evaporated temporarily. “Hi, gramma. You look tired.” The kiss and loving hug rekindled her energy. “I’m all right. Mrs. Pardee told me we’re goin to Westhampton in the mornin an it just wore me down a bit.” “Why can’t that woman hire someone out there for the weekend? She couldn’t care less about your welfare.” “There are worse employers than Mrs. Pardee. At least she pays me for the extra day now.” “It’s not fair, gramma. You don’t get any benefits and if you get sick they won’t help. They’re so selfish. Why are they always intruding in our lives?” “It don’t do no good to fret about them. I brought your dinner. Why don’t you eat and forget them.” “I hate eating their leftovers.” “I know. But it’s good food. Next year you’ll be away at college and this’ll be over.” “You’ll still be working for them.” “We’ll see. Once you’re taken care of I can do somethin else.” “Oh gramma, you’ve done so much for me.” “You’re a treasure, chile. Now eat while I go lie down.”

The warm glow of Sharina’s appreciation revived her and instead of going to bed she turned on the television set. It was the one month anniversary of the World Trade Center disaster. She said a silent prayer for all the people killed that terrible day. The news was mostly about the bombing attacks on Afghanistan. After a humorous commercial that didn’t amuse her, the big story was the third case of anthrax in Florida. It had become a criminal investigation, since they discovered that the source was man made. All the talk of biological attack by terrorists was scaring her and she hoped that the government would capture or kill the terrorists before they killed more Americans. She understood that the people in those Arab countries were poor and oppressed, but they shouldn’t be allowed to murder innocent people. Her neighbor’s husband died in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th. He worked in the kitchen of that famous restaurant that was so high up and he didn’t come down. He never did anything to Osama Bin Laden.

Sharina finished her homework and came in and sat with her. “What are you watching, gramma?” “One of those blond haired ladies on CNN is tellin us that we don’t have to worry about anthrax. Now she’s really got me worried.” “There’s nothing much we can do tonight. Tomorrow I’ll ask Dr. Fairstone about it and he’ll tell me what we should do. Now let’s talk about something else.” Corinne nodded agreement. “I was just thinkin about how I used to take you with me to Westhampton when you were a little girl.” “I always hated going there,” Sharina said. “Those Pardee kids were so stuck up that when their friends were visiting they’d just ignore me, or order me around like a servant. But when they didn’t have anyone else to play with, they’d behave as if those other humiliating things never happened. Sometimes I wished they drowned.”

She looked at Corinne as if expecting her to be shocked, but she just smiled sadly: “I know they didn’t treat you right, but I couldn’t leave you alone back here in Harlem. You were just too young. I didn’t like it any more than you did. Those Pardee kids are as selfish and inconsiderate as their parents. But I had no choice.” “I understood that even then, gramma. And it wasn’t always awful. Sometimes Wesley behaved all right when no one else was around. It was that Amelia who really got me mad. One day she decided to play ‘Gone With the Wind’ and she wanted me to be Mammy. When I refused she complained to her momma who told me I was being uncooperative. I told her that it was racially degrading for me to play Mammy, but I’d play Scarlet O’Hara if Amelia insisted on playing.” Corinne laughed. “I remember that. It was one of the few times when Mrs. Pardee was at a loss for words. How old were you then?” “I was eleven.” “I was so proud of you when you said that.”

Sharina smiled. “Thanks, gramma. Things got worse when I was thirteen and my body started developing. Reggie was always watching me. Even Mister Pardee looked at me. And Wesley was always trying to touch me when we went swimming.” “I saw that. I was so happy when Doctor Fairstone got you that assistant counselor’s job at the girls camp the next summer.” “Me, too. I wasn’t going to let any of them near me and I know it would have cost you your job if there was an incident.” “We would have managed, chile.” “I know, gramma, but it would have been a problem and I’m glad it worked out. When Dr. Fairstone hired me next year as a part-time assistant after school, I started learning so much about medicine that I decided to be a doctor. I’m so grateful to him.”

Sharina didn’t want her grandmother to feel neglected because she praised the doctor and said lovingly: “You’re the best gramma in the whole world. Someday when I’m a successful doctor, I’m going to take care of you. I’ll buy you a beautiful house, and nice furniture, and nice clothes….” “I don’t need those things, chile. I have you and the lord.” “But you’ve helped me with everything. You got me the job with Dr. Fairstone and the job at Wendell’s Funeral Parlor.” “I’m still sorry I did that. I don’t know how you can work at that nasty place. The thought of you handlin all those dead bodies makes my skin crawl.” “It’s safe, gramma, and what I learn there will help me in medical school. Now let’s talk about something else. I want to do something wonderful for you.” “Well there is one thing.” “What?” “When I die, I want to be buried someplace special.” “Oh, gramma, you’re going to live a long time yet.” “That may be, but that’s what I want.” “Then that’s what you’ll get.” “You’re an angel. Now give me a kiss and let’s go to bed. It’s gettin late.”

Sharina didn’t think of their conversation again and her senior year of high school sped by in a welter of activities. Between school, her two part-time jobs, karate practice and her new boyfriend, Sharina was too busy to spend much time with her grandmother. Soon graduation day arrived and former president Bill Clinton, in a gesture to his Harlem neighbors, was the guest of honor and handed out diplomas. Corinne almost burst with pride when Sharina delivered the valedictory and President Clinton shook her hand. Then Sharina was off to Harvard for the early access pre-med studies program that would put superior students on a fast track. Sharina’s scholarship covered dorm, board, books, fees and tuition, so Corinne didn’t have to worry about how she’d manage away from home. For the first time since the death of her son, the burden of responsibility for her precious granddaughter was gone. She could even start to think about what to do with her life.

Sharina wrote often for the first month or two, but when the first semester started her workload was enormous and she added to it with a part-time job in the anatomy lab maintaining the cadavers. She thrived on the challenges and loved the sheltered enclave of the university. She wrote Corinne that she had enough money to come home for Thanksgiving. She took the train from Boston on November 21st, avoiding flying like many Americans. She got home about 9:00 PM, unlocked the door and found her beloved gramma lying on the floor. She screamed: “Gramma,” and rushed to her, but she was dead. Corinne’s body was cold and stiff, so Sharina knew she had been dead for a while. She gently placed the lifeless head in her lap and cried silent tears that burned her cheeks.

As soon as she was able to stop crying, she phoned Dr. Fairstone and told him the sad news. He said he’d be there right away and the sound of his kindly voice set her crying again. He got there in five minutes and quickly examined Corinne. “She’s been dead for about ten to twelve hours.” “My poor gramma. If only I was here for her. I might have gotten her to the hospital in time.” Dr. Fairstone shook his head. “It wouldn’t have helped. She had a massive coronary that killed her instantly.” “Did she suffer?” “No, dear. She didn’t feel a thing.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” He covered Corinne with a blanket and turned to Sharina: “What kind of arrangements do you want to make?” “I don’t know. I don’t have any money.” He patted her arm reassuringly. “I’ll have Mr. Wendell take her to his funeral parlor and we’ll work the details out later.”

Mr. Wendell agreed to pick up the body at 9:00 A.M. Dr. Fairstone made sure that Sharina was all right and offered her a sedative. “I don’t need anything, thanks.” “Then I’ll see you in the morning. Call me if you need me.” Sharina sat there quietly for a while, then walked through the apartment, idly touching some of her grandmother’s things. She noticed the red light flashing on the answering machine and retrieved the first message. “This is Mrs. Pardee, Corinne. I’m very disappointed that you didn’t come to work. We have so many preparations for Thanksgiving that I really can’t manage without you. Please call me.” Sharina wanted to scream, but controlled herself and listened to the second message. “I don’t know where you are, Corinne, but it’s very irresponsible of you to leave me in the lurch like this. Call me at once.” Sharina felt a blaze of hate rush through her and she dug her nails into her palms until her hands turned white.

It took Sharina a few minutes to bring herself under control, then she played the third message. “I realize you just don’t care what happens to us. After all the years you worked for us, I expected a little more consideration.” The rage she felt was ice cold as she reached for the phone and dialed the Pardee’s number. When Mrs. Pardee answered in that detached, haughty voice that always suggested tennis whites, she said: “This is Sharina….” Before she could say anything else Mrs. Pardee interrupted: “Where is that grandmother of yours. Doesn’t she know how important this holiday is?” Sharina took a deep breath. “My grandmother is dead, Mrs. Pardee.” “I really don’t appreciate your humor at a time like this.” “Listen to me, you spoiled, self-centered….” “What did you call me?” “I told you she’s dead. She died of a heart attack. Now do you have anything to say?” There was a brief silence, then Mrs. Pardee said: “Well that’s too bad. I guess I’ll just have to call a temporary agency.” Sharina slammed the phone down in disgust.

She didn’t sleep at all that night. Every few hours she went into the living room and looked at the face of the only person in the world who loved her. Corinne looked older than she remembered, but more at peace, as if the stress of her responsibilities was over. Sharina whispered lovingly: “You were so good, gramma. I’m so sorry that I didn’t have the chance to do things for you.” She cried for a while, then lay down to rest. Her thoughts kept coming back to the telephone messages from Mrs. Pardee and the infuriating phone call that followed. She knew what the Pardees were like, sheltered by wealth, insulated from the economic pressures that ordered the lives of the less privileged, and unaware of the needs of others. It wasn’t that she expected them to be moved by the death of a black servant, which she now understood was only a mere inconvenience to them. It outraged her that Mrs. Pardee couldn’t acknowledge that a person who worked for her for so many years had some significance. She decided that she’d give Mrs. Pardee another chance and call her in the morning, once gramma was at the funeral parlor.

Mr. Wendell came for Corinne in the morning and invited Sharina to ride with him in the hearse. She declined and instead walked the few blocks. She felt remote from the people around her who were going about their business as if the best person in the whole world hadn’t left her. She couldn’t tell if the isolation she was feeling was from loss or numbness, but she seemed to be moving invisibly through the life around her. Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell were waiting for her when she got to the funeral parlor. Mr. Wendell led her into the Heavenly Rest Chapel. “You just sit here and I’ll bring your grandmother in.” “You’ll treat her nicely, won’t you Mr. Wendell?” “Yes, dear. She was my friend. Why don’t you think about what you want done with her remains.” She turned to Dr. Fairstone in despair: “I don’t know what to do with gramma.” “There. There,” he said. “We’ll put our heads together and figure out something.”

She sat there in a daze without any sense of time passing until Mr. Wendell wheeled in a gurney. On it was one of his showroom coffins that contained her tiny gramma. She walked to the gleaming mahogany casket and looked down at the face that would never smile lovingly at her again. Tears gushed from her eyes and she silently vowed: ‘I don’t know how, gramma, but I’ll find some way to make your burial special.’ Dr. Fairstone waited patiently until she stopped crying: “We have to talk about the burial now. Did Corinne have any insurance?” “No, sir.” “Does she have any family or friends who might help?” “I think we’re the only ones.” “What about her employer?” “You mean the Pardees?” “I didn’t know their name.” “Mrs. Pardee told me that it was very inconsiderate for gramma to die at holiday time,” Sharina said bitterly. “Perhaps they’ll help with the funeral expense.” “I don’t think I can count on them for anything.” “I’ll contribute a coffin and the hearse to the cemetery,” Mr. Wendell said, “but I can’t cover the expense for the plot and headstone.” “Thank you for your offer, but I don’t have any money.” “What if we cremate her? I’ll do it for free.” “I couldn’t do that to her,” Sharina said. “I’ll call the Pardees again and ask for their help.

She phoned Mrs. Pardee, who sounded impatient at being bothered. “My gramma didn’t have any insurance, Mrs. Pardee. I wonder if you can help me with the funeral expenses?” There was a long silence. “I don’t think that will be possible.” Sharina tried to contain her indignation. “She worked for you for a long time. Don’t you feel any sense of obligation?” “We’ll be happy to send flowers,” Mrs. Pardee said coldly, “once you tell us where the service will be held. That’s all we can do.” “But I don’t have the money to bury her properly,” Sharina confided. “I’m sure you’ll manage. There must be some place you can get help like the welfare bureau, or the NAACP.” Sharina felt like strangling the ignorant, condescending woman. “You’re some piece of work, Mrs. Pardee. My gramma slaved for you for years and that’s all you can say? You can keep your stinking flowers.” She hung up the phone without waiting for a reply and pounded the wall in frustration, while tears of rage poured from her eyes.

Dr. Fairstone and Mr. Wendell found her in the office sitting on the floor, slumped against the wall, crying. “I guess they wouldn’t help you,” Dr. Fairstone said gently. “We’ll think of something, my dear. Why don’t you wash your face and meet us in the chapel.” Sharina went to the bathroom, rinsed with cold water and pulled herself together. When she rejoined her friends they were discussing the funeral options. “Mr. Wendell has outlined the most practical arrangements,” Dr. Fairstone said. “Cremation or burial at Potter’s Field.” “What’s that?” “It’s where indigents are buried in a cemetery on Staten Island,” Mr. Wendell answered. Sharina was horrified. “I can’t do that to my gramma.” Dr. Fairstone tried to reason with her. “I understand that this isn’t desirable, but there don’t seem to be other choices.” “I won’t do that to her. I promised her something special. Let me think about it.” “I have to get back to my patients. I’ll come back when office hours are over.” “Thanks, Dr. Fairstone. I really appreciate your help.” “I wish I could stay with you, but my patients are worried about anthrax or other biological attacks. I’ll see you later.” “I’ll walk you to the door,” Mr. Wendell said.

Sharina sat in the chapel, brooding about her lack of choices and looking at the coffin that held her beloved gramma. She couldn’t come up with any solutions to the problem. Every time she tried to concentrate, hateful images of the Pardees kept intruding. Mrs. Pardee’s callous indifference was ripping through her with stabs of rage. A cold fury channeled her thoughts and helped focus her mind. She remembered a Pardee family funeral that she went to when she was a child. Her gramma was compelled to give up her Sunday and attend, and she took her along because there was no one to leave her with. She vaguely recollected a long ride to a Long Island cemetery that seemed like an enchanted forest, with clumps of large old oak and maple trees that lined the walks. She had asked wonderingly: “Who lives in those big stone houses, gramma?” She understood now that her gramma had carefully considered her answer: “Some people are put there by their families when they die.” “Will we go there when we die?” “No, chile. Only the rich people go there.” “Where will we go, gramma?” “We don’t have to worry about that for a long time.”

The picture of her gramma’s sweet, loving face when she said that brought more tears to Sharina’s eyes, but her mind was crystal clear. Suddenly a wild idea flashed through her; ‘I’ll put gramma in the Pardee family mausoleum.’ At first it sounded crazy, but the more she considered the idea, the more comforting it became. She basked in the wave of pleasure that rolled over her as she imagined gramma resting in the splendid family tomb of the rich Pardees. After a few moments, more practical thoughts seeped in. How would she get gramma to the cemetery? How would she get her into the mausoleum? Did she need a coffin? She had never been in a mausoleum, so it was a place of mystery. Did the bodies lie around in piles? On tables? In boxes? Frustration raced through her for her ignorance. She tried to control her swirling emotions and decided to ask Mr. Wendell about mausoleums, but not tell him about her far-fetched idea right away.

Mr. Wendell was on the phone when she walked into his office and he gestured to her to sit down. She fidgeted tensely as he wheedled someone at the medical examiner’s office about the interpretation of his contract to inter John and Jane Doe bodies for the city. When business was slow he was eager for the extra income from indigent funerals. If business was good he didn’t want to waste time on the low-fee jobs. His special efforts to befriend the clerks who assigned the jobs included cash, gifts and other incentives. He began to trust Sharina after she had worked for him for a while and he kept few secrets of his day to day operations from her. He made exaggerated funny faces for her benefit as he talked and she managed a weak smile of appreciation for his efforts to ease her sorrow. He finally hung up the phone, and shook his head. “My mama would turn over in her grave if she heard me arguing all the time about dead bodies. Hee. Hee.”

She looked at him intently, considering how to present her wild idea, but he made it easy. “Have you decided what to do about your grandmother yet?” he asked in his professional voice of comfort. “I’ve thought about it and I’ve come up with a plan that I want to tell you about, but please don’t interrupt me ‘til I’m done. Okay?” “Sure. Go ahead.” “I considered the choices and couldn’t accept them because I promised gramma a special burial and at first I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t have any money and I got madder and madder at the Pardees for not caring about her and I remembered they had a big family mausoleum and I decided I want to put gramma into their mausoleum without their knowing, and…” “What?” “You said you wouldn’t interrupt.” “Where’d you get this crazy notion?” “Can I finish?” “Yeah.” “Well I need your help to do it.” “Girl, you’re outta your mind.” “That’s the only way I can think of to do something special for her.”

He stared at her strangely, then burst into laughter. “In all my years in mortuary science that’s the craziest thing I ever heard.” “Why? Once she’s in there no one will know. It’s just a matter of putting her in there. You should know how to do that.” “You want me to do it?” he asked in amazement. “Who else? You’re her friend. I’ll help you. Nobody else has to know.” “Do you have any idea what you’re asking?” “Yes. If I had another choice I’d do it.” “What about Dr. Fairstone?” “I won’t tell him. He’s a wonderful man, but he’s set in his ways and I don’t think he’d approve.” “Are you telling me I’m not ethical?” “No, Mr. Wendell. He’s old and wouldn’t understand. You’re a smart businessman. You know how complicated everything is.” “You’re a cunning devil. You think some flattery will get me to do it?” “I’m asking you as her friend.” He got up and paced behind his desk. “Let me think about it.” A wave of gratitude raced through her. She rushed to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Mr. Wendell. I knew you’d help.” “I didn’t agree yet. Now be quiet and let me think.”

He sat down at his desk and leaned his head on his hands. She waited quietly until he asked: “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” “Do you have a better idea?” “No.” “Then this is what I want.” “Let me tell you what’s involved. We gotta get the death certificate from Dr. Fairstone and tell him you decided to cremate her. The next day we go to… what’s the name of their cemetery?” “I don’t know, but it’s the Pardee family mausoleum.” “That’s all right. I can get the information on the internet. Then we drive there in a private car, hope one of my batch of keys will open the mausoleum door, find a good shelf, put her in, then get out without anyone noticing us.” “That doesn’t sound too hard.” He snorted. “Right. And what if we get caught?” “I’ll take all the blame.” He shook his head. “You’re as hard headed as your grandma.” Then he laughed loudly. “But I like the idea of double dipping. I’ll do it.”

Now that she had help and a plan, a feeling of euphoria took over and everything seemed dreamlike and remote, as if it were happening to someone else. When Dr. Fairstone came back that evening she told him that she had decided on cremation. He sat with her for a while and his presence was comforting. She hugged him when he said good night and thanked him for being a good friend. Mr. Wendell suggested that she go home and sleep for a while, but she said she was too revved to leave. She looked over his shoulder while he searched the net until he located the cemetery. He explained to her that they couldn’t put Corinne in a coffin because they wouldn’t be able to manage it by themselves and they might be noticed if he brought extra help. He went to put Corinne in a plastic body bag and Sharina said she could do everything else, but she couldn’t put her gramma in the bag. Mr. Wendell left her in the office while he made the final preparations and she dozed off.

She woke up in the morning with that odd sense of detachment that sometimes occurs when waking up in a strange place. Mr. Wendell brought fresh coffee and a donut for her that she devoured voraciously. They left the funeral parlor for gramma’s last ride at 10:00 A.M. The traffic was light and within a few minutes they were crossing the Tri-Borough Bridge. The day was warm and clear and the sun glistened on the dirty face of the East River, concealing the detritus and pollution bequeathed to the waterways of America. She looked without seeing as they rolled along the Long Island Expressway and barely noticed when they turned into the cemetery. It took a few moments until it registered that they had arrived. She looked around curiously and found that the fabulous burial ground of memory was just another cemetery.

Mr. Wendell consulted a map of the cemetery that he had downloaded from the net and drove straight to the Pardee mausoleum. No one paid any attention to them. He got out of the car, walked to the massive metal door with his large ring of keys, tried some and in a few moments he swung the door open. He looked around carefully and made sure no one was watching them. He went to the car, motioned her to come help him, then opened the trunk and removed the body bag. They carried it into the mausoleum and put it down on the stone floor. Mr. Wendell checked the shelves and found one that contained Beatrice Pardee, 1882-1957. He opened the decorative marble panel, then the wooden door. They picked up the body bag and slid it behind Beatrice’s coffin, where it couldn’t be seen. “If you want to say anything, do it quickly,” Mr. Wendell said urgently. “We need to get out of here without being discovered.” She stood there silently and finally whispered: “Goodbye, gramma. I love you.”

Mr. Wendell closed the shelf door and quickly replaced the marble panel. He rushed her out the door, locked it, hurried them to the car, then drove out of the cemetery. Once they were on the highway, he yelled triumphantly: “Nobody saw us. Whatta ya think of that, kid?” “I don’t believe how easy it was.” “It’s like anything else in the world. If you know what you’re doing and go about it naturally, as if you belong, nobody notices.” “I’ll never forget this, Mr. Wendell. If there’s every any way to repay you I will.” “That’s all right, girl. It was a rush doing that. You don’t owe me anything.” For the rest of the ride he babbled on, keyed up by his adventure and didn’t notice her silence. She sat there quietly, locked in memories of her beloved gramma. Just as they got to the glittering bridge that led back to Harlem, she thought: “I did it, gramma. I made your burial special. Now you’ll rest in that grand stone mansion for the dead with the Pardees and not have to clean up after them. I hope you won’t mind being there. It’s the best I could do.”
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