Kate, here's one I just now wrote especially for AT THE BIJOU. It's called ~
By ~ Salvatore Buttaci
The old woman in the wheelchair sits staring out the barred window, nodding a straggly white head. Now and then she speaks, but because an attendant or a doctor or another patient is not standing at her side, the words are inaudible. The mad monologue of still another poor soul at Wallingford House.
Some feet away Clotilda the day nurse says to Dr. Burson, “She caused quite a ruckus last night, Doctor. Kept most of the women up from their beds. Chickens without heads is what I call 'em. Runnin' around cacklin', each of ‘em puttin' on a show to play down her performance. Enough to wake the sleepin’ dead!”
Dr. Burson wishes life could be different. Somehow a magician’s wand could touch the heads of all these misfortunates. Make them whole again.
“She seems calm now,” the doctor says, pointing towards the old woman by the window.
Clotilda first snickers, then says, “She oughta be. Last night’s show took the life outa her. Carryin’ on. Bendin’ into those little-girl curtsies and nearly topplin’ over and breakin’ a hip again.”
Now they watch her wrinked-paper hands at the wheels, turning the chair and slowly rolling it towards them.
“Deaf, am I? You might want to believe that, but you’d be barking up the wrong oak tree. I heard every damn word!”
“Miss Barrymore. ‘Ethel’ to my friends, and God knows for sure the two of you are not.”
“Miss Barrymore. Nurse Clotilda informs me you were naughty last night.”
“Naughty, huh? I could teach you a thing or two about ‘naughty’ and believe me, it wouldn’t be yours truly re-enacting a scene from Rasputin and the Empress.”
Doctor Burson lays a gentle hand on the old woman’s bony shoulder, which she shrugs away.
“Don’t touch me, you hear? I will be the judge of who lays a hand on me.”
“Doctor,” says Clotilda, “I need to wake the patients still sleepin' and administer their medications. They were up all night. Please excuse me.”
“Please excuse me,” mocks the old woman. “Now that’s stage-acting if I ever heard it, and I’ve heard plenty. I was the queen of the stage and the film and I don’t mind boasting, the queen of all Hollywood!”
The nurse quickly walks away towards the infirmary. On her way some of the patients scream obscenities at her. One slaps her buttocks. Another calls to her, “Mama, when you taking me home?”, but Clotilda is a seasoned nurse who has been living this drama for nearly thirty years. She knows when to respond to patients. When to keep walking.
“The boys used to slap my bottom too back in the old days,” Mrs. Harris, who thinks she’s Miss Barrymore, tells the doctor. "Why, once my brothers John and Lionel kicked the crap out of one of those ass squeezers, then when the play ended, we three went and celebrated with a few bourbons at the bar. Of course, John had more than a few, but that’s another story. A very sad one, you ask me. It was hard for John to be “The Great Profile,” the handsome rage of all women out there, and at the same time not pour himself a few drinks.”
Dr. Burson laughs. “Quite a story, Miss Barrymore.” Again he touches her shoulder. Again the old woman shrugs his arm back to where he lets it hang at his side. “Have you heard from your son?”
“My son?” Her dark eyes squint. Her thin colorless lips purse. “I have no son, Doctor. I never married, didn’t you know? And as far as having a child out of wedlock,” (the old woman covers those deflated lips with a cupped arthritic hand), “that would not be proper now, would it?”
But Dr. Burson insists. “Has Stephen called you?”
The old woman cackles. He notes the empty spaces in her pink mouth, the two or three teeth that manage to survive years of dental neglect. With the back of her hand she swipes away the spittle hanging like a white thread from her lips.
Then she breaks out into song. “Even Stephen, Lord Almighty, even Stephen can be flighty!”
“Please, Mrs. Harris.”
“Please, Miss Barrymore,” she corrects him.
“What did he say?” asks Dr. Burson, not because he doesn’t know what transpired in their phone conversation, but he wants to hear it from her. “Did he tell you he loves you?”
The old woman fidgets with her wheelchair, grasping the wheels, yanking them this way and that until Dr. Burson steps back from the angry circles she is spinning. Finally he steps forward and stops her to a standstill.
“Only the theater loves me. The theater and the film. This stage,” she says, motioning at the wooden floor of the huge mental institution hall where around them the mentally ill run through their charades, their faulty ballets, their assaults on pillows, their litanies to empty chairs, their question-marked voices, chilling and sad. “This is my life, Doctor. I am dearly loved.”
The doctor smiles in defeat. He has failed again to bring a ray of real sunlight into the eyes of Mrs. Harris who has managed to place her total being, all her trust, in the artificial sun of dazzling spotlights, the false thunder of remembered applause, the make-believe stars in a heaven that extinguished itself long ago.
“I don’t visit,” her son told Dr. Burson. “What’s the point? She calls me Lionel. ‘Do you know why Father named you Lionel?’ she asks every time I come there. ‘After the trains. The trains!’ No, I can’t put myself through that. I have a weak heart, Doctor. Two heart attacks already and I’m sixty-one.
"Do you know what seeing her does to me? This is the mother I loved and still love. The mother who gave me money every Saturday to go see a movie. And I would come back home and tell her all about what I saw, from beginning to end. She loved the movies. She loved my father. She loved me. And now she doesn’t even know who she is. When my father died. That was the start of her decline. She knelt before his coffin, reached over and touched his face. ‘You sleep,’ she said, loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘I will wake you in the morning.’
Over the phone Dr. Burson could hear Stephen inhale deeply, then sigh. “I can’t drag her out of the world she’s made, Doctor. Neither can you. She’s happy being Barrymore. It doesn’t matter that I am grieving a mother who’s alive but gone from me. No, I won’t telephone her again. ’I love you, Mother,’ I say and she replies with that affected theatrical voice, “Who is this? How dare you! I am going to hang up now.”
He clears the image of Stephen and turns to Mrs. Harris with a smile.
“I played the czarina, you know. All around me Mother Russia was falling down and I walked through the palace in my beautiful blue gown, my crown of diamonds. The czarina.”
Now, her back to the doctor, she wheels herself slowly back to the window. He follows with small slow steps. When she arrives there, she waves at the empty snow-covered grounds of Wallingford House. “My loyal fans,” she says without turning from the window. They want to say how much I deserved that Oscar for None but the Lonely Heart. But no matter how they coax me, I shall not speak one kind word of Cary Grant. Nor will I confess that once upon a time Winston Churchill asked for my hand!”
Clotilda now stands again beside the doctor. In her hand she holds a paper cup. In the other, a few of Mrs. Harris’s meds.
“Miss Barrymore,” she calls to the old woman at the window. “The gentleman who sat in the front row of your play tonight asked me to give these to you. ‘A toast,’ he said, ‘to your greatness!’”
Eyes still riveted on the outside world, Mrs. Harris extends her hand, allows the colored pill and the two capsules to fall into her palm, swallows them, and still not taking her eyes from all her imaginary fans out there, she reaches for the paper cup, raises it high in toasting, then drinks it down.
(c) 2010 ~ Loveable Author Salvatore Buttaci
First Run ~ AT THE BIJOU!
SAL: Thanks, Kate. If you have bio room, you can include this:
Salvatore Buttaci is an obsessive-compulsive writer who plies his craft many hours a day. His poems, stories, articles, and letters have appeared widely in publications that include New York Times, U.S.A. Today, The Writer, Cats Magazine, National Enquirer, Christian Science Monitor, Harbinger*33, Six Sentences, Pen 10. He was recipient of the $500 Cyber-wit Poetry Award, 2007.
ABSOLUTELY*KATE: Hey Sal, of course we always have room AT THE BIJOU for your praises being refrained. Did you want me to mention that you live in West Virginia with the love of your life so that Sharon smiles all the more at you . . . and that folks can find your writings at the outtasite site ~ SALVATORE BUTTACI?
SAL: Why yes Kate, that would do me mighty fine. Say, where did you learn to promote so well?
ABSOLUTELY*KATE: Why, from YOU and Music Mike Whitney and Paul Brazill and P.T. Barnum of course, Sal. Only the best to show me True Hyping Showmanship!
SAL: You said it Kate!
to a legendary great
as AT THE BIJOU
salutes that Oscar Guy!
and our fine staff of renown