Juliet and the Cowboys
by Chris Sharp
Entrance in fifteen minutes.
Acting for Leah was like a travel agency taking her to Verona when she could have died ... died ... in Los Angeles County. Then she reminded herself that 20-year-old Californian women were always dying, especially when they were classical theater actresses playing roles such as Juliet Capulet.
"Fifteen minutes, Juliet, my dear," said Jacob the stage manager, whose red beard and blue eyes were as relentless as a police light.
"Thank you, Jacob, and I am no one's dear," said Leah from her dressing room
Before Leah had been so rudely interrupted by this Satan, she had been seriously trying to understand the confused young Italian countess who shared her dressing room. How could this young Juliet so carefully wrap herself into Renaissance flounces and yet have nothing left for her face except utter confusion?
"Juliet," Leah half-whispered, half-hissed to that young noble woman in the mirror. "Listen to me, you bad girl. You've got just fifteen minutes to put yourself together so you can be some kind of person when you hit those footlights."
She moved closer to the mirror so Juliet could not possibly misunderstand her.
"Countess, you've got to make the audience out there believe you're crazy in love with our Romeo tonight, even if he needs a dozen blood transfusions."
"You are still rehearsing your lines, Juliet?" said the stage manager, from just outside her door. "Oh my heart, you have just twelve minutes before you're on stage, Juliet."
"Thank you, Jacob. Leah thanks you, too," she said, in Juliet's impassioned voice. "Isn't that right, Leah?"
Entrance in twelve minutes
Several years before Leah Constantine's father passed from the mortal part of his life, Leah had begun the process of toughening herself for a life that would go upward even if it wasn't getting much lift.
At one time a handsome young Hollywood actor, Carlos Constantine appeared smilingly in a never-fading black-and-white photograph on his daughter's bed table. She had placed the smile where it was supposed to be the last face she saw before falling asleep.
This old Kodak picture had also helped memorialize the contrasts her father would juggle for dramatic effect. His baggy white shirt pushed into perfectly creased dark pants while it thoroughly threw itself over his heart. Beyond his theatrical elegance, he sat in the middle of Santa Monica Beach with people behind him wearing only swimsuits.
He had performed most regularly as a staff actor on the set of the old "Bonanza" series through the late Fifties and early Sixties, sometimes with two or three lines in a single scene. "Enter Carlos Constantine," he would say to his young daughter, when one of his old shows would show up on "Nick at Night." By a benevolent act of cinematic magic, Carlos Constantine would be reinstated in a rehabilitated young cowboy, galloping on horseback with an extra shotgun to finally tell Lorne Green, panting as good as it is done, "I thought you might find this useful, Mr. Cartwright."
Carlos worked in Hollywood for over five years at what the Screen Actors Guild would call being an "acting professional." He got married before he turned thirty, and he quit his low-harvest acting services to immerse himself into a better-paying job as a fine furniture salesman. Seeking to support a growing young family, he felt by the time he had passed his 30-years-old threshold that things were quickly forming normally and that he was living in life at last.
Entrance in ten minutes.
One good thing about playing Juliet, Leah decided, was the extra space they give to you in the dressing room for all of your scene changes.
Then Nadine who played her nurse rushed into some of that space.
"The Times critic is here," said Leah dramatically, talking to her own actress face in the mirror. "How is Juliet tonight?"
"I don't know, Nadine."
"But the L.A. Times is about to write you up for the ages."
"The problem is Juliet's her own person, and I can't make her love a Romeo she doesn't love."
"You have less than ten minutes and you're on stage, Juliet," said the omnipresent bearded stage manager.
"I can't make Juliet love his guy this on stage" said Leah, in hushed voice only to Nadine. "That's the issue, Nadine."
"I'm pretending I'm not hearing you," Nadine told her. "Please be a saint and love the poor schmo for my sake, okay? Make this night a social statement about all the poor babes who fall in love with Mr. Wrong and maybe the Times will write a big social-conscience essay about it, you know?"
Entrance in five minutes.
Leah's father had sold so much fine furniture one year that his store awarded him a week of an all-expense paid family vacation anywhere in the U.S.A.
One thing Leah would always remember was how her parents were smiling that Christmas over dinner when they talked about this prize, and how her father kept up the grin even as a tear fell from his eye as he talked of "locations."
"Daddy, why are you crying?"
He just kept smiling and touched the tear to remove the evidence.
"I was just thinking I kind of miss some of those cowboys I used to ride with at my old locations," he said. He took out a cigarette and pushed it into his gritted teeth, but with his promise to never light up with family around he put the cigarette in his coat pocket. "I even miss some of those old directors."
The one thing Leah would never forget was how his tears seemed to drop into his voice, making his next words sound like they came from a person she had never met before. "I just think about it sometimes," he went on, forcing himself to say it, but turning his face away from everyone. "Like, riding herd with Michael Landon and Dan Blocker and some of the bad guys."
As Leah was about to step onto the wings of her stage, pulling the practically invisible and inert Juliet with her, she collided with Romeo's own Mother Montague, who then turned into the huffy actress named Andrea who just wanted to sit down in a dressing room and look at herself.
"Andrea," said Leah. "You know I can't do a scene with a dead man. Do you see any sign of life with Romeo?"
"I don't know," said Andrea, each word jerking her lips and her jaws for the sake of her mirror. "I only play his mother. If I were actually his mother I would take him to the emergency room."
"Why,"said Leah, "is he turning such a dead guy on opening night, of all nights."
"Hah. Welcome to a life in the live theater."
"Is he sick, or something?"
Andrea seemed to be gaining strength, now that she saw how beautiful she looked in the mirror when she fully smiled.
"Leah, please don't worry me now. Have you ever been on stage when the lead actor is drunk on opening night? It could be worse, a lot worse." Andrea offered up her hand, which seemed to change at once from a tiny fist to a kind of small flower. "Lawrence knows so much about Romeo, and even when he's experimenting at showtime, so what. He's such an artist, you know." Andrea smiled so much even her hind teeth were getting into the act. "Such an artiste."
"Why would George let him get away with this?"
"Because George is such an artiste, too. They're all such a bunch of beautiful artistes in this company. Damn, damn, it's time to go back to Verona."
"Juliet," said that stage manager again. "You have five minutes to wake up this so-called audience."
Please remember there is no smoking in the theater.
Leah's father spent his life chain-smoking so he could blow out his frustrations through his face instead of his fists or his feet. Leah decided that was why he could be so nice to everyone on his furniture store, because he had used up all of his anger beating himself up with cigarettes.
The routine of smoking followed by thinking of smoking finally darkened his face. By the time he was fifty, his angular face began to look like the scene of a nicotine crime. He learned how much a fresh and healthy face meant to the world of fine furniture when he began to only get work at discount stores.
Then, suddenly, he started visiting an oncologist.
"Dad, I have to ask you a question," Leah said, visiting him as he lay in a bed in a hospital.
"Are you giving up on yourself or something?"
"Everyone has to die, if that's what you mean."
"That's not what I mean. Dad, you know what I mean."
"I don't know anything now, but I will soon know everything."
"Huh," he said.
"Dad, I'm old enough to make money now. You can go back to the movies and just be an extra. They need extras that can ride a horse like you can. Don't you think you'd like to do that again?"
"Yeah, I would."
"Okay. Are you serious, Dad?"
"Yeah." He made an ultimate effort to smile.
He died a month later when the cancer had taken out the rest of him.
Just minutes before Juliet's stage entrance, Elizabeth playing the Capulet mom became the latest refugee to run into the dressing room. Thanks to the shockingly weak attack presented by Romeo, the rest of the players were running in full retreat.
"Chaos, chaos," said Elizabeth, aiming her black-widow eyes at Leah.
"What is happening?" said Leah.
"It's so bad, the audience is getting more interesting than us. Now they've got three good old cowboys in the orchestra with their goober hats on who are making smart remarks and people want to listen to them talk."
"What do you mean, cowboys?"
"They've got their big cowboys hats on, and no one can see anything from behind them hats."
"What else is happening?"
"What do you mean, what else is happening?" Elizabeth stepped away to make sure, and came right back. "Lawrence isn't really here happening tonight. Tonight's play should be renamed 'Juliet and Romeo's Imposter.'"
"At what point," said Leah, suddenly finding that she had to breathe and talk at the same time, "is our director going to see everything that is not happening."
"Juliet." Suddenly Jacob the stage manager jumped in front of Juliet with the airy agility of a satyr, especially with his red pointed beard. "You'll be out there in three minutes. You can do it."
"Do what, Jacob?"
"Put something into this miserable show. Do whatever you want."
Entrance in one minute.
At last, the director himself arrived, suddenly appearing at Leah's side on the wings of the proscenium as if he were the answer coming out of nowhere.
"George, George," Leah said.
"What? What?" said George.
"What is happening out there, George?"
"A modern version of 'Romeo and Juliet.' Go do it, Leah."
"Why do you say that?" George said, looking as if terribly offended suddenly.
"How am I going to play Juliet when Lawrence has taken Shakespeare's Romeo out of the picture?"
"Romeo is very much in the picture. Lawrence had merely decided to play Romeo with a version of post modernism as a subtext."
"Why didn't anyone let me in on this crap?"
"They say true theater gleans from the element of surprise,"
"Oh baby," said Leah. "Maybe I should pull some surprises myself, and turn Juliet into the Bride of Frankenstein"
"How about Natalie Wood in 'Rebel Without a Cause' instead? Think about it. For one minute."
She decided not to say anything more to George after that. In fact, Leah decided never to say another word to George for the rest of all time.
Then as if things were not bad enough, Jacob bounced by like the proverbial bystander who has heard everything. "You're on in one minute," he said, "Natalie Wood."
Leah could hardly remember what distinctive qualities Natalie Wood had brought to "Rebel Without a Cause," as Wood seemed to simply hang still for James Dean in every scene, like a silvery cymbal Dean would gong when he needed her. But there was one brief scene where Natalie Wood was suddenly by herself, when she was insanely leading Dean and another yahoo to accelerate their juiced-up cars into a violent fall.
Okay, thought Leah. It took no great detective work for Juliet to see that in the foreground of all the dead people in the audience, there was the life-killing Lawrence with his old forelock suddenly brushed up into a James Dean bouffant and drool on his lips. The only thing missing was a cigarette.
"If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine," said Lawrence, spitting at her.
She had to back away from him as he spoke and when it was her turn to speak, she turned away from him again. "Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much," she said, straight to the audience.
"Have not saints lips, and holy pilgrims, too?" he said, like he was talking to himself.
"Ay, pilgrims lips that they must use in prayer," she retorted, like she was talking to the biggest yahoo in the building.
She heard a "yeow" from the audience, as you might hear from a cowboy at a rodeo.
"Oh then, dear saints, let lips do what hands do," said Lawrence, finishing in a murmuring, "ah."
He looked to her so out of order she decided to run over his lines with her own.
"Yeow," someone from the audience yelled again.
When Leah took her exit from the scene, she at last felt some energy coming from the audience. It was the worst possible form of energy -- laughter -- but at least it proved that someone in the audience was awake.
"George," she said to her director, who kept watching everything from afar. "Tell Lawrence if he pulls this stuff for one more scene with me, I'm pulling out his eyes on center stage."
"Be kind to the young man, Leah," said George.
"Sure," she said.
ACT IV, Scene IV
In Lawrence's next scene with Leah, it seemed he was cutting away to yet another Actor Studio prototype, Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalsky.
"That I may touch that cheek," said Lawrence, as if he were telling Stella and Tennessee Williams he was talking about her butt.
Meanwhile, even after Leah had clenched her fist for the purpose of destruction, Lawrence's face stayed still like a duck ready to be turned into a dinner.
When Leah's knuckles slammed into Lawrence's cheek, they seemed to crash right through his face. As Lawrence's head swung back from the blow -- "A good right cross," someone said from the audience -- the audience behind him suddenly saw his head turn around toward them and then watched his eyes roll.
While Lawrence struggled to keep from stumbling, Leah felt better energy wiggling from out of the audience. "She dinged that boy's dumb head pretty good," said one of the three cowboys who had been stirring up the crowd the best they could.
"Yeah," said another cowboy. "The little gal realized that she had to make this guy cowboy up before she would go for him, and it's like he got kicked in the head by a horse he wasn't respecting."
"So now he'll either be punchy for the rest of the play," said the third cowboy, "but if comes back from that blow, he'll have learned a good lesson about life."
"Yes sir. Look at the boy now. He stopped the drooling with his spit already. Now we don't have to duck everytime he talks"
Lawrence was just standing still for all this discussion, holding his head and rotating his eyes.
"Ay me," said Leah at last, giving her line a minute late.
He took some time also in responding to her, after staring at her intently.
"Be my love, and I'll be new baptized," he said at last, in a new angry voice that made his eyes blaze at her.
The audience all breathed together at entrance of this Voice. It was the voice of a man, arriving into the theater at last.
At the curtain call of "Romeo and Juliet," the audience refused to stop standing and clapping, even as Romeo and Juliet left the stage.
They had to come out for two more curtain calls before everyone would let up.
"Juliet," said a middle-aged pearly lady, touching Leah's wrist to stop her from crashing through the audience in full regalia. "My husband's never seen anything like Romeo being changed into a true man with one true punch. It looked so real and psychological. What a crafty idea."
"Thank you," said Leah.
"My husband's reviewing this for the Times," said the colorful lady, and she winked. "He's off to write the review that will wake up all of Los Angeles to true Shakespeare surprises."
"Thank you," said Leah, and before she left the elderly theatrical lady she said it again, "Thank you."
She caught the three cowboys in the audience just as they were ready to escape from a side door.
"Excuse me. I want to talk with you," Leah said, because it seemed she had to say all of that to make them stop.
"Hey," said the biggest cowboy. "It was a good show, real good show."
"I wanted to thank you for coming out and I wanted to thank you for something else, too."
"No problem," said another cowboy, the smallest one. They were all continuing to make their way toward the darkest parking lot.
"Thank you for doing something to help wake that audience up," Leah said. "I don't know how you did it. Just by being cowboys, I guess."
"That was you," said the medium cowboy. "Way you slugged that sugarfoot, turned him into a man in one split nano-second."
"My name's Leah Constantine," she said. The more obvious it was the cowboys were running from her, the more she wanted to chase them down to clear them up.
"Hello, Leah Constantine," said the most medium cowboy, dipping his cowboy hat.
"You cowboys got names?"
"I'm Little Joe," said the smallest cowboy.
"I'm Hoss," said the biggest cowboy.
They both tipped their cowboy hats in turn. Under their hats, they didn't look too happy about all the togetherness she was forcing on them.
At last they had walked to the end of the darkest parking lot.
"You boys come in a car?" Leah asked.
"We don't drive cars," said the smallest one, talking very quickly, very nervously. "Horse is what we take."
"I didn't get your name," she said to the medium cowboy.
"My name is," said the medium cowboy. That was all he said, "is."
"Did you forget your name?" she asked.
"Deadeye," said the cowboy at last. But his eyes reached for something in the stars. Then his left hand reached for something to hold, followed by his right hand. At last, as if he had tried everything else, his hand reached into his shirt for a pack of cigarettes that were not there.
"Deadeye?" said Leah. "It sounds like 'Daddy,' doesn't it?"
"I said 'Deadeye,' Leah. Foolish girl."
"You guys are ghosts, aren't you?"
"Oh boy, that's a good one," said Little Joe.
"You really are the ghosts of Michael Landon and Dan Blocker, aren't you?"
"If you say so," said Little Joe.
There was no one near them at the parking lot, which left Leah free to say all that was on her mind, even, "I'd just like to know how you and Michael Landon and Dan Blocker got sent back here to do the work of angels."
"I'd like to know how that is, too, how we could all get stuck in this" said Little Joe, biting his words off bitterly, obviously with enough experience in a womanless Cartwright home to hate being cornered by a young woman."Dad, I know how you loved being in those old Ponderosa shows, riding with Little Joe and Hoss. This has to be your heaven, to be back in the saddle again. What great disguises, all of you, but do you think I wouldn't recognize you under all that pancake makeup?"
"I don't think," said the cowboy. "I'm an action cowboy." The other two guys gave back-up smiles.
"To think you're violating the laws of heaven and earth, to chase me down like this because Dad got you on a special secret assignment in cowboy heaven for my sake." Her voice was breaking so much that she was wondering whether it was even her own. "I'm counting the days when we can be together again as a family. There's just a bunch of things I want to accomplish in this world first, Dad."
"I don't know what you're talking about, young lady. Have a good night, young lady Leah."
His whole large back was turned to her.
"Please come back and see me when I'm acting in a on Broadway show," she said to him. All she could see was her father's back. After a time, with as great an effort of will power as anything she did in her life, she turned from him and went back to the theater. But she looked behind her again once and then twice a minute later.
Because looking back is what you do in an acting family.
© 2009 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was Special Effects, another story that combines ghosts and the theater (but in daylight, on a beach!). Chris's story "Jeanne Marie Has Left You" is currently online at the German-based English-language site Kalkion in its "Latest Fiction" slot. (Stories by Aphelion authors Richard Tornello and Ilan Herman are also listed under "More Fiction"...)
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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