Jackie Davis Martin’s most recent stories appeared in Flash, Flashquake, Enhance, Counterexample Poetics, Fractured West, Bluestem, and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and are included in several current anthologies: Modern Shorts (ed. Michelle Richmond), Love on the Road (ed. Sam Tranum), Life is A Rollercoaster (ed. A. J. Huffman) and Out Past Loves (Spruce Mountain). A memoir, Surviving Susan, was published in 2012. She teaches at City College of San Francisco.
“Tevye” One Afternoon
by Jackie Davis Martin
Carla lets the auditorium doors slam shut as she runs down the dark aisle. Larry, the lead, is scheduled for four o’clock and it’s already ten minutes to. She sets her tape recorder on the stage’s edge and unlocks the sound and light booth, throwing the levers for the proscenium lights. In two months she’ll watch the show from here—the cage, it’s called—watch the students carry on without her. She switches on the aisle lights for atmosphere. In the backstage dressing room she gropes for the lipstick she keeps on a high windowsill. The place reeks pleasingly of old makeup and hairspray; mirrors are wide and illumined by large round bulbs. Carla climbs onto the makeup table and shimmies, practicing the routine she’s worked out for Larry. “Larry,” she whispers to the bulb-lit mirror, her lips now painted, and slides off the table, tucking the lipstick back.
She almost collides with him in the stage wings.
“Mrs. Hughes! Hi. I’m early.” He is tall, his light hair is tightly ringleted; he doesn’t seem to shave yet although he’s a senior. He takes a step forward, unfurling the script of The Fiddler on the Roof.
“Well.” She has a full hour with him. “Want to find some chairs?” While he searches in the curtain folds, thwack, thwack, like a modern bushman, she stoops at the edge of the stage to stretch for the electric socket just over its edge, finally flattening herself against the stage floor to reach it. Larry’s there, his loafers near her face. He drops a chair in an effort to assist her up and blushes. “Where do you want these?”
Carla indicates center stage, patting off the stage dust from her jeans and tee shirt—a gesture that seems too sensual—and suggests they talk about the song first. “If I Were a Rich Man.”
“If you were,” he says, smiling, waiting for her to sit before he does. “I mean, if you were rich, would you still be doing this?”
Carla smiles too. Students were often dismayed to learn she was paid for after school coaching. “But you’d do it anyway,” they said, presuming her love for them. And it was true; love was there, in varying degrees: the girl who’d played Adelaide, for instance; the Harold Hill boy; Curly with the straight hair that Carla tortured with her curling iron; both Nancy and Fagin. And now this boy, this Tevye, especially this boy. She is twice his age; she takes a little breath. “Would I still do it,” she repeats. “Some of it, sure.” Carla plays along and asks what he would do if he were rich.
Larry’s father is a minister who last year let him have the cast party. The rectory house was almost Shaker in its simplicity— stark wooden furniture and bookcases, no rugs. It seemed to be love uncluttered. The father, tall and gray, ladled pink punch; the mother offered heaping trays of cookies. “I guess I never thought about it,” he says.
“Oh,” she says, feeling she’s pried. She pictures the rooms off the upstairs hallway—she was looking for the bathroom—the beds made up with cord bedspreads, their corners sharp, like stage sets.
Larry adjusts his glasses by grasping the edge of their frames, a gesture she finds thoughtful, mature. “I have the song memorized,” he volunteers.
“Good. I thought you might.” He was brilliant in English class, when she was first taken by him. But this isn’t class. She gets back to Tevye, why is it Tevye wants to be rich.
The stage is silent. Carla looks toward the band room where the orchestra should be rehearsing, but she can’t hear any music. Her script slides to the floor.
“Tevye wants to be recognized,” Larry says, retrieving the script and placing it across her knees, his wrist brushing a knee briefly before he sits back. “He wants respect. I don’t think he feels he gets it as a dairy man.”
She nods, her lips parted. Her ex-husband told her he liked the way she looked with her lips parted a bit—softer, he said. She met her boyfriend Chad over a year ago because she’d sat behind a gin and tonic at the singles bar and met his gaze with this exact expression. He had walked towards her with a square confident swagger, but their relationship—an affair, really—is going nowhere.
“Don’t you think it’s about respect, Mrs. Hughes?”
Carla closes her mouth. She remembers feeling the opposite—actually shame—two nights ago when her ten-year-old daughter Betsy met her at their front door. “Mom! You said nine. It’s ten fifteen.” Betsy was in her pajamas, a scarf of Carla’s fancifully tied around her middle—probably dancing to a song in her room. Carla wanted to hug her but was afraid she reeked of Chad’s aftershave, or even more telltale signs of recent sex. Brooke, a few years older, squints up her eyes when Carla leaves for a few hours, and isn’t much happier when Chad shows up for dinner. “You shouldn’t be out,” Betsy chided. “It’s a school night. Brooke already went to bed.”
Now Carla walks pointlessly to the tape player, distancing herself from who she was two nights ago. “Respect. Yes. Is that why Tevye wants to be rich?”
Larry peers over the tops of his frames—a gesture she found disarming in class—and says that Tevye probably wants his Dad’s life, that all his Dad does is pray and meditate. He tells about their vacation in the mountains where his Dad studied all the time. Carla detects a tone of pride and wonders whether Larry wouldn’t rather have gone swimming or fishing, and then he says, “Except when we went fishing. My Mom was always reading, too.”
The mother—having raised three exceptional kids—is back at college. One of Larry’s sisters is in Carla’s English class; the other, in the Fiddler chorus. The family seems as wholesome and unified as the von Trapps of The Sound of Music. Her own feels disconnected, like the characters in A Chorus Line, lined up and waiting for something to happen.
Carla suggests starting with Tevye’s meditative mood. What does she know of meditation? “Tevye is quiet in his reflection—but then, when he thinks about wealth, he dances with joy.”
“I don’t think I can dance,” Larry says.
She assures him he can, although she can’t imagine Larry’s thin hips gyrating like Zero Mostel’s or Topol’s.
Larry says he’ll try, standing tall and rotating his shoulders to show he’s ready.
Carla drags the chairs back and says to pretend they’re the bench outside the barn. “I’ll give you cues, from the house. I’ll be Golde.”
“My wife.” He smiles; he looks pleased.
“Right.” She points to the piano. “And that’s their house.” She almost says “our.”
“I like the way Tevye talks to God, like God’s right up there.” He gestures toward the prosceniums and they both look up; the lights are so intense they can smell the heat. Carla considers supplications she’s made over the past year: Dear God, let Chad call, please dear God. Dear God, let me be a better mother. Nothing’s changed, though. Chad takes advantage, she neglects; it’s been going on too long. “Let’s start,” she says to Larry, walking to the piano and consulting her script. “I’m in the house. You’re over there. ‘Tevye enters, pulling his cart.’”
Larry arches forward with feigned labor and trudges center stage clutching imaginary poles, to sink with weariness onto the chairs. Carla walks toward him reading the lines of the carping Golde, then returns to the wings.
“If I were a rich man…” he begins to sing. His tone is longing, his eyes are half-closed; he seems lost in the dream. “All day long I’d biddy- biddy-bum…” Watching him, Carla also feels a longing. He continues, “I see my wife, my Golde, looking like a rich man’s wife…”
She’s fallen in love before. Two years ago she sat at the stage’s edge for the dress rehearsal of Pajama Game as Babe and Sid turned their heads slowly to one another in the final duet of “Hey, There.” Am I not seeing things too clear? Is it all going in one ear and out the other? Carla felt an emotion deep in her stomach for both her teenage leads and the poignancy of their staged love, felt it tug, like a real pain.
“Larry!” she calls out now, catching herself and stopping him in the song to tell him to keep rhythm with the deedle-daidles, like one of those neck-loosening exercises. “Get caught up with your dream.” She wants to sit next to him, be part of what he is being, the old feelings rising, more so, because he’s Larry. “Walk around!” she directs.
Larry drifts randomly around the stage, drawing the staircase of the lyrics in the air, throwing grain to the imaginary chicks and turkeys. He stops and looks at her hopelessly. “It’s not together, is it?”
“It’s getting there.” She turns on the taped music and demonstrates, walking with exaggeration—a pretend Tevye—swinging her arms. Larry is watching her breasts. She remembers Hugh Baxter’s comment last Monday, when, after the faculty meeting Larry suddenly appeared at her classroom. She’d been standing at her doorway, clutching her folder like a schoolgirl, listening to Larry’s story, when her papers suddenly slipped and fanned across the floor. She and Larry were both on their knees, gathering them up, bumping heads, laughing, then, oddly, just leaning back and looking at each other before he helped her up. She’d then rushed off down the hall, past Hugh Baxter’s room. Hugh, who taught history and was on a second or third marriage, called out, “And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson!” Carla forced an acknowledgment, as though he had been witty.
Now she stops her strutting and talks louder than she needs to. “We really need movement in the next sets of ‘daidles.’ Let’s do a step-bounce. C’mon!” She takes Larry’s hands, pumping the beats so he’ll move with her, leading him across stage in her rhythms. If I were a rich man, the tape recorder sings. “I move well with you!” Larry exclaims above the music.
Oh God, she thinks: Chad’s words. Two nights ago Chad had said something similar. Shortly after, he confessed he’d been sleeping with another woman. Wouldn’t have to work hard, daidle deedle daidle…, the recording sings. It had been awful; she’d cried into the pillow, feeling used. She was used. Daidle daidle daidle deedle dum!
She and Larry, their clasped hands held high, pantomime a courtly sort of dance across the stage. “If anyone could see us now,” he says, delighted. But he continues to hold her hand until she pulls away to crouch over and hit the stop button on the machine.
He is next to her, extending his hand to pull her up. “What else?” She shows him the arm movement, thinking she should have pummeled Chad. She should have walked out.
“You’re going to expect me to do this while I’m doing that funny walk, right,” Larry is saying. His arms are still bicycling the air.
She laughs. “And wiggle your hips. And sing.”
“Of course you can do this,” he says. When she says she can’t sing, Larry says he will. He squares off and takes a step back. “I’ll sing and you’ll show me what it’s supposed to look like.” He feigns a cavalier bow toward center stage.
She hesitates; to perform while he watches seems too bold. Larry tilts his head in question, waiting. “Okay,” she says and steps forward.
As he sings, Carla improvises a rhythmic walk, then adds a gentle rotation to her hips; she lowers her arms and gyrates her shoulders, shoulders and hips both, her head thrown back, feeling like Salome without her veils. Larry, who has been singing and observing, is now lumbering behind her imitating her movements. Then his voice stops and he darts to the tape recorder to click at the buttons, adjust volume; she waits, arms in the air. Music fills the space, and they start the refrains again, stepping around and circling each other in a strange ritual. Larry attempts the gyrations, his thin hips grinding back and forth, his arms writhing in air; Carla adds her dressing-room shimmy, tossing her head back and peering at him over her shoulder, until the final lines, where they bump hips, stomp with deliberation, shout together: “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan! If I were a Wealth! Thee! Man!” and they wave wildly at the air, loosening shoulders and bobbing heads until they collapse in the chairs. His legs are thrust out next to hers; they breath heavily.
Her voice is a whisper. “I think you’ve got it.”
The Fiddler tape has launched into the next song, “Sabbath Prayer,” and Larry jumps up to silence it. He slides back in his seat, smiling. “I feel a little insane,” he says with satisfaction.
If they were to kiss, she wonders, would his lips be warm and firm like Brian’s, her boyfriend from her high school days? Larry’s mouth is slightly open. She asks if it seems right for Tevye. His eyes are watching her lips. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess so. Like—what was that word? Hamlet’s line.” He tilts his head, searching for the word and finding it. “Oh! Apoplexed. Like my ‘sense is apoplexed.’ Is that it?” He is back to looking at her mouth.
“That was Gertrude,” she says. “Hamlet was talking to Gertrude. He was saying that her sense was.” Larry says he remembers.
He’d called her at home last year. He chose for his assignment Hamlet’s lecture to his mother about her sexual behavior. What does ‘And reason panders will?’ mean, Mrs. Hughes? She had to explain that will meant sexual desire, too, and that Gertrude had sold out her sense of reason to her desires. Or so Hamlet thought.
They are sitting too close. She should get up. Larry places his hands on his thighs and pushes them toward his knees. He looks at her, then smooths his hands back. It’s so silent she can hear the fabric. If they kiss, he won’t tell anyone, she is sure of that. He’ll be flattered, maybe embarrassed. “Larry.”
“Yes?” He leans forward, toward her; it is so quiet. She sees he does shave.
“Mrs. Hughes?” His voice, his face, is intense, eager. When she says What, he reminds her she said his name. “You said, ‘Larry.’”
His face is right in front of hers—but he’s a boy. She could say, Larry, it’s just this once—just once! But, what is she doing, thinking? She’s in charge here. She sits a little straighter. “The song, Larry,” she says, shifting her chair barely an inch. “The song—the final part—has got to be melancholy, almost painful.” If they were to kiss, there would be no going back, nor any going forward, for that matter. How could they even get through the run of the show? And suppose—well, there was no supposing. “It’s just Tevye’s wish,” she says.
“I know that,” he says. He seems hurt. Their heads are twelve inches apart.
Dear God, don’t let me do anything stupid, she prays, eyeing the proscenium lights. It would be so tempting to at least hold him. She says, evenly she hopes, “Tevye experiences the delirium, the joy, the apoplexy—if you want!—then the letdown. He is Tevye the dairyman, after all.” She is a teacher, a coach; she has daughters. She reaches for her script on the floor.
“Mrs. Hughes.” His blue eyes are searching; he’s not used to getting answers wrong. When she says Yes, he slouches back. “Nothing. I think I can do it.”
She stands and takes a deep breath. Her mouth feels dry, she wets her lips. “What time is it?”
He checks his watch. “Ten after. My mother’s picking me up! I mean, she’s bringing the car by, then I have to take her to her class.” He looks as though he has been caught drinking wine in the church sacristy.
Carla says she has to leave, too. She feels eager to get home, to assume a real character, like a Mom who returns early. She’s heading toward the cage to lock up when Larry says, “Do you love me.”
“What?” She drops her keys.
Larry emerges from the curtains’ folds, having returned the chairs. “Isn’t that what we’re rehearsing tomorrow? Tevye and Golde?”
He means the song! “No,” she says, “that’s next Monday. Luann can’t make tomorrow.” She pulls down the levers for the lights, slams the cage door, and takes a deep breath.
“I think you have a sense of the scene,” she says as they walk up an aisle together, although as she says the words she is not sure what scene.
But she’s going to tell Chad that it’s over, that she deserves better.
Larry stops at the auditorium’s heavy door and waits. “We’ll darken your hair,” she tells him. “Give you a beard. You’ll be great.” There’s nothing she can say to him that won’t complicate things more. She indicates the door, which Larry pushes. She will hug him after each show, as she does the others.
“Thanks for your help,” he says, now in the lobby, where, through the huge glass windows, they can see an old station wagon out front. The real light of early spring reflects off its back window. Larry hands her the tape recorder, then he is out the glass doors, running across the school’s front lawn. His mother walks around the car to get into the passenger side and waves cordially in the direction of Carla and the lobby, although in the bright sun they’re probably not visible. Still, Carla moves away from the large windows, keeping an eye on Larry. He stands at the driver’s side and gestures across the roof of the car. His hand arcs from his face to where he assumes she still is. At first she thinks it’s a salute because it couldn’t possibly be—? But maybe it is. Carla touches her own lips and blows a return kiss, safe on her side of the glass.
Copyright 2015 by Jackie Davis Martin