Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10
Interviewed by James Lipton
(When) my parents would take me to visit family, they’d offer me a cookie or a piece of fruit, but no one spoke to me, because they knew I had nothing to contribute. I wasn’t offended. I just thought it was the accepted norm. And that led me to believe that I was somehow invisible . . . . To me, invisible seemed the greatest thing you could be! If I could have one wish, it was to be invisible. First of all, you could go to any baseball game you wanted to. Free. You could go into any girl’s house and watch her get undressed! But it works another way too. It means there’s no responsibility. You don’t have to integrate, to contribute. This becomes a part of your personality.
I’m not quite sure who I am besides the writer. The writer is expressive, the other person can sit in a room and listen and not say anything. It’s very hard for me to get those two people together. In the middle of a conversation or a confrontation, I can suddenly step outside it. It’s like Jekyll turning into Mr. Hyde without the necessity of taking the potion. It’s why the Eugene character speaks to the audience in the trilogy—because in a sense he is invisible. The other characters in the play don’t see him talking to the audience. They go right about their business. As I wrote it, I thought, I’m now living my perfect dream—to be invisible.
In all three of my marriages I’ve been accused of this separation: You’re not listening to me . . . . I could be looking at (my wife) and not thinking about what she’s saying. It’s rude. It’s selfish, I guess. But it’s what happens . . . . one of the worst and most frightening examples of that was the first time I was ever on television. I went on the Johnny Carson show . . . . I walked out and froze. I thought, My God, I’m out here, I’ve got to deliver something, I’ve got to be humorous, that’s what they expect of me. I sat down opposite Johnny Carson and he asked his first question, which was fairly lengthy. After the first two words I heard nothing. I only saw his lips moving . . . . When Johnny’s lips stopped, I was on. But I had no answer because I’d never heard the question. So, I said something like, That reminds me . . . and went into something completely irrelevant that fortunately was funny and we just seemed to move on with the conversation. It happens while I’m speaking to students at a college or university. I’ll be talking. I’ll look over the room and see one face not interested, and I’m gone, I’m lost. I wish I were out there, sitting among the invisible, but I’m up there having to deliver . . . . In a sense, being in this office, I am invisible because I can stop. When I’m writing, there’s no pressure to come up with the next line. I always need that escape hatch, that place to go that’s within myself. I’ve tried coming to terms with it. I feel, as long as it doesn’t bother someone else, I’m happy with it. When it does bother someone else, then I’m in trouble.
If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.
Part X of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.
By Susan Middaugh
The dress hung in my mother’s attic for over 20 years and in my basement for nearly a decade. The heavy plastic, which protected the gown after its one and only wearing, had collected dust and grime from years of neglect. But the contents of the plastic bag, sealed tightly by a local dry cleaner, who may have been a curator in a previous life, retained the same winsome appeal that had attracted me in the first place. It was still a pretty dress, simple but elegant, with a single row of flowers down the front and along the bottom edge. The dry cleaner had even taken the trouble to shape the dress in a female form and fluffed it throughout with pink tissue paper, visible at the neck.
After my parents died, my brother and sisters and I divvied up stuff that had accumulated during our parents’ 45-year marriage. One of the items I became the custodian of was my own wedding dress. Although divorced for many years, I couldn’t bear to toss it. Maybe my teenage daughter, Liza, would want to wear it someday. When I got home, I threw the dress — gently — giving it plenty of room, into a basement closet, containing extra leaves for my dining room table, some curtain rods and an old suitcase, and promptly forgot about it.
With the approach of Liza’s 25th birthday, it was time for me to take stock of this still lovely size-nine dress that had hung in a closet for nearly 30 years. Although there were no nuptials in Liza’s forecast, the prospect of revisiting “something old, something new, something borrowed . . . ” was in my mind, if not in hers. Looking around for a family precedent, I found there was none. My own mother, who had married during the war, wore a suit, flowered hat, and modest furs for the occasion. Mom did not save her wedding garments for me and my four younger sisters — except in black and white photographs. What about my grandmothers, one married twice, the other dead by the time I was seven? With Mona and Nana, the subject of wedding dresses never came up.
As a rule, the women in my family don’t like hand me downs. Except for me, they don’t buy at thrift stores or consignment shops. They like to open a gift and see the tags. They like being first. They like new. Hand me downs weren’t an issue for me as a child because I am the oldest. As an adult, I like finding something of value in a second-hand shop — whether a sturdy bookcase for my office, a sweater in mint condition or a Dana Buchman skirt at a considerable discount. If in the first or second wearing, the clothing still carries another woman’s scent, I don’t mind. I breathe deep and for a moment pretend to be someone else — a woman from a different century perhaps, another race, thinner, younger, wiser, funnier. For whatever reason, this woman has cast off and recycled this garment instead of tossing it in the dustbin or wearing it herself till it is threadbare. I am the beneficiary. Secondhand is not necessarily second best so long as there is life and laundry detergent.
Given my own family’s preference for new, who are the women who pass down their wedding dresses to daughters, granddaughters or nieces and do so with an expectation of receptivity? Certainly there are practical aspects to this tradition. An obvious one is that the wedding garment fits or may be altered to fit the bride; another that she likes the taste or style of her relative. A more subtle consideration and perhaps the overriding one: was the donor’s marriage essentially a happy one? Did the man and woman truly love one another? It seems to me that women who have had happy marriages are more inclined to want to share those feelings in a symbolic way – through the gift or loan of a wedding dress.
What then of former brides like myself whose marriages ended in divorce? According to the statistics, we are one out of every two. Do we do our daughters a favor, do we have their best interests in mind if we expect them to clothe themselves in our past? Because I hope my daughter will fare better in affairs of the heart and in matrimony than I did the first time, I chose to donate my wedding dress to charity. It is my hope that a stranger will see the dress for what it is — gently used and with some history, but no baggage.
I can see her now, a young June bride very much in love and with high hopes, as she raises the plastic covering. “What a pretty dress. Simple yet elegant. Let me try it on.”
Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.
Susan Middaugh is a self-employed business writer in Baltimore who also writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and on the website New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Her personal essay, Turning Green, was published on this blog on April 21, 2009. To read it, check out the April archives in the sidebar. Also in the sidebar, under the blogroll, business and writing labels, there are links to Susan’s Have Pen Will Travel website.
Photo Illustration Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.
Short Fiction/Part One
Ronnie claimed he learned to lie good from crime movies. “The best way, Andy,” he said, “is fast and furious with a straight face. Do it speedy so they believe you believe it.” He was perfect at it. When Ronnie said bats were just short fat snakes with wings, I bought it. Later, he got me again saying bats were night birds grownups don’t like ’cause they don’t sing. Yeah, Ronnie loved bats. He had stacks of bat books all over his bedroom. “I worship the god Zotzilaha,” he said, “human body and the head of a bat.” That was pure bullshit of course, but I let it roll off me like it would a duck’s back. I had to sleep in the same room with the jerk. See, Momma sent me to live with Ronnie’s mother, my half-sister Alice, while Momma ran off someplace else. And since she had kicked Daddy out—I didn’t know where he went, or why—I was sort of an orphan. Anyway, after supper Alice was mad about who knows what and made us come up to Ronnie’s room. He was on his bed with a book about zoos, Fred Waring music on the radio. I sat on the edge of the army cot Alice put in for me and used the seat of a wood chair to draw on, trying to make the picture I’d promised Ronnie. Now and then I heard snatches of Alice and her husband Ted come up from down stairs, all hollow and bent out of shape. Ronnie made out he didn’t hear his folks fighting and kept at me with, “Andy, you can’t fool an animal.” That statement was just to hear himself talk. I went on about my business. “Now you take Tarzan.” Right there Ronnie made a big pause for me to say something back, like I was fool enough to bite. He knew Tarzan was my all-time favorite, but I stayed quiet. “All the animals,” Ronnie said, “they love Tarzan. So you know he’s a good guy. A chimp like Cheetah, or an elephant—a man can’t bullshit ’em.”
More talk from downstairs. “Yeah, and then what?” That was Alice, her voice soft, mostly mumbles.
“If Tarzan wasn’t a good guy,” Ronnie kept on, “animals wouldn’t rescue him from quicksand.”
“More gratitude!” Alice again, loud and sarcastic to beat the band. Ted said something back I couldn’t make out, then Alice said, “Easy for you, you don’t have to put up with—” something, something, “—or wash his stinky socks, or—” then she said something else I couldn’t make out, talking about me, I figured. Ted came back at Alice with something.
“Now, you take a baboon,” Ronnie said. “Big exception. Ain’t seen one yet gives a damn about any human.”
“Yeah, Ronnie, you’re the expert.” I said it just to be mean so a normal person would notice, but not him.
“My house always looks nice!” Alice again, hollering. Ted came right back at her, but real low—some stuff about money, I think.
Alice yelled, “Not if I can help it!”
“A baboon’ll screw his girlfriend in public,” Ronnie said. “Then he’ll throw shit-balls at you, then turn right around and play with his food. Then he’ll look you in the eye—no blinks—like he’s saying, ‘I’m having a good time!'” He laughed. “Man, baboons don’t give a damn!”
Ted’s voice came upstairs strong but not loud. “Yeah, well, I’ll be here ’til the last dog dies.”
“Can’t have it both ways, Mr. Man,” Alice said.
“Gorillas are almost human.” Ronnie still ignored his momma and daddy. “Same family arrangements we got. Apes use eyesight for identification, like us. Four-legged animals, they use scent markers.”
Ronnie tapped his book. “What it says. Apes tell different individuals by eyeball, not like a dog who looks for assholes to sniff.”
“Go ahead!” Alice hollered. “Get gone!”
“How long’s my leash?” That was Ted.
Then something slammed downstairs and Ronnie cut his eyes at the bedroom door, but he didn’t say a word, didn’t lift his head, just eyed that door like he had Superman’s x-ray vision. Then he went back to his animal book, quiet for a change.
Meanwhile, the naked fat people I was drawing for him, they were giving me stagger-fits. Some parts didn’t look right—legs, mostly. Pretty soon I got disgusted and tore the picture into five hundred pieces. More like five thousand pieces. Ronnie looked up, surprised. I just shrugged at him. “Didn’t look natural.”
“Lousy pose,” I said. “They just stood there all stiff.”
“You had ’em holding hands!”
At first I thought he was going to bust out crying. “I’ll start over, Ronnie. Make ’em move. Maybe have ’em dance around some kind of way.”
“Shit, shit, SHIT!”
“You’ll get your picture before school starts tomorrow. I’ll come up with some kind of idea.”
Ronnie hollered “SHIT!” one more time.
Right there I got my idea, it popped into my brain like it was hiding in there the whole time and too shy to come out. The picture was going to be three fat women and two fat men, a whole bowling team, and ever one of them naked. The picture wasn’t just for Ronnie anymore, but more for my own sake. It was something I just had to try and see if I could draw it. But not right then. Right then I was tired, so I put the pencil down and pitched back on the cot. My eyes went out like one of those movies where the person’s in a daze. I saw pictures in behind my eyelids—balloons and clouds and Army trucks—big faces of girls came and went—voices, too—all of it in my brain somehow. At first I couldn’t tell who was talking, but pretty soon it came clear, like when you tune a radio around the dial. Those voices got to be my own Momma and Daddy somehow—and those sounds?—they were ghost sounds.
Did I mention that Ronnie was some kind of crazy and stupid at the same time? Like, he collected yo-yos and empty cigarette packs and special rings. He’d wear two rings on the same finger and change them every week, to show off. His main ring was the Green Hornet one that his daddy gave him when Ronnie was still tiny. It was Ted’s from when he was little, and it had a secret compartment for magic codes. Also, it glowed in the dark. You couldn’t get them no more. The Lone Ranger atom-bomb ring was Ronnie’s favorite that he sent away for off a corn flakes box. It cost him ten cents plus five box tops and he stole the money from Alice’s purse. I had Ronnie in my brain ‘way too much. See, he was this momma’s boy who couldn’t do any wrong and he knew it and took advantage of it. Meanwhile, Alice was my half-sister but old enough to be my momma and liked to remind me of it ever chance she got. Sometimes I’d tell lies on Ronnie to get back at the both of them, but Alice, she’d never bite. She’d just smile and shake her head and move on. What Ronnie got away with was no fair. Alice trusted Ronnie just because he was her precious son, without any sense to it, and him lying with every other breath.
When we were done our homework and such, Ronnie got his cigarette’s from under the mattress. Had them stuck up in the springs so Alice couldn’t find them. He brought the “Lucky Strike” pack to me cupped in his hands like it was pure gold. Right, like I never saw Luckies before. I just nodded. “Try one?” he asked. I shook my head. Ronnie went to the window and pushed it up as far as it would go. “C’mere,” he said. I didn’t move a muscle. Ronnie tapped the pack on his hand and a cigarette popped out. He tilted the table lamp on his night stand and reached up under it, undid the bottom and pulled out his Zippo. He held the lighter and cigarette up and smiled his evil smile. Then Ronnie motioned at me with both hands to come on, like Dracula in the movie where he meets the Wolf Man. Another dumb temptation. I shook my head again. “Don’t know what you’re missing, kid.” That last word was a sneer like I was pure pussy. Ronnie tossed the Luckie in the air and caught it in his mouth. He looked to see if I watched— which I did, couldn’t help myself. He flipped the Zippo lid and stuck sparks against the night sky out the window. The flame flared up yellow-orange five inches high, seemed like, and he had to come at it sideways or burn his face off. Ronnie pulled the first drag real big, then let part of the smoke come out and go up his nose. His tongue sucked the trail of smoke back in like a frog catching a fly, and his head jerked back with such pleasure I never saw before or since. He made a click-noise too, just like a frog. Beautiful. Ronnie kept at it—pulled big drags, inhaled, smiled. He blew the smoke out the window and watched me out the corner of his eye. He knew he had me hooked. After a while Ronnie said, “Andy, you seen any Alan Ladd movies?”
“Nope.” That was a lie. Alan Ladd wasn’t no favorite of mine—too sissified—but I did know his stuff.
“Best smoker there is,” Ronnie said. “Watch this.” He hit the Zippo with the back of his hand, which somehow flipped the lid and struck a spark to light it, all in one slick move. He smiled and closed the lid over the flame. “Alan Ladd,” he said. I kept quiet. “How about Dark City,” Ronnie said. “Seen that, with Lizabeth Scott?”
“Nope, ain’t seen it.”
“She’s good too, great smoker for a woman. Stupid mouth, but she’s special. The best smokers are movie stars and sluts.” Ronnie took another fancy drag on his Luckie and blew perfect smoke rings that floated out the window. The warm breeze bent and smeared them in with the dark. He flicked the cigarette outside. “See how I did that?” Ronnie smiled. “Pure Alan Ladd.”
He tapped another Luckie out of the pack and offered it to me. I felt how crinkly and stale it was, but when he went to light it I said, “Later,” and stuck it in my shirt pocket. There was a loud bang downstairs. The front door? A ghost? Whatever it was, the sound made me jump. Baby Elizabeth started to cry. Ted’s old dog barked. Ronnie kept quiet. Finally I said, “What was that?”
“What was what?”
“You know damn well, Ronnie.” He just shrugged. Right. He knew it wasn’t Baby Elizabeth or the dog did that. Ronnie knew a noise that loud had to be Alice or Ted.
Part two of The Last Dog will post tomorrow.
Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.