Archie did a double take when he stopped at the edge of the boardwalk. Marcy’s beach house closer resembled a bungalow or even a low-lying tree house. The chafed scraps of wood that comprised the deck fused into an ugly gray mass and made it appear more like a sidewalk in Jackson Heights, one off 37th Avenue. He was expecting to see his girlfriend when he got off the ferry. The pier was littered with huggers and smoochers, but no Marcy. Instead, he hauled his gear in a red wagon and was summarily greeted by another red wagon when he’d made it to Marcy’s. This red wagon had traded in the hauling life. Azaleas and soil spilled over the sides, making the rusty old clunker seem both pampered and pitied.
This was the perfect place to crash for the weekend. Archie had it all mapped out. He’d get in some snorkeling, jet-skiing, and maybe even a little trout fishing. He’d make love to Marcy in the dunes under the moonlight while the wild beach grass tickled their naked bones and the ocean music filled their ears.
Archie dozed up the warped plank onto the deck and peeled open the screen door as if he owned the place. The musty stink of a giant barrel slapped him in the face and he swerved his head to avoid a mussel shell mobile. Over by the kitchen sink, stood a late middle-aged man pressing a butter knife to the spout of a coffeemaker. He held his Macintosh-shaped head in studio model repose behind a blinding white refrigerator, his hazel eyes squinting as a jeweler examining a rough-cut. The man noticed Archie breaking the plane, of what might have been construed, “the living room”. He waved Archie over as if he’d been waiting hours for his fill-in. Archie, the good sport, slid the tote off his shoulder and rested it beside a straw basket filled with navel oranges. He went over to shake hands, but the man finagled Archie’s grasp onto the butter knife. Then he ducked away for a moment while Archie ended up dripping coffee onto his bony knuckles.
The savage slam of drawers, from the other room, nearly shook Archie out of his sandals. He had half a mind to drop this charade and find this kook who left him to do his dirty work. The fresh whiff of coffee did smell great and he percolated with the rhythmic drip. He regarded his task with the utmost sincerity and aplomb. Then he heard the ambush of heavy, sockless footsteps.
“Give me that,” the man said.
He snatched the pot and poured his morning joe into a coconut shell. Too much time had passed to make an introduction, but then Archie recalled he’d offered his unshaken hand.
The man ripped through the cupboards like a Cokehead, sniffing sandwich baggies full of who knows what. Archie got the impression he’d better skedaddle when the man found and kissed his bag of wheat germ.
“Grab yourself a cup,” the man said.
Archie considered the offer, but when he saw another one of those fuzzy coconut shells he figured it might be off limits and kept his eyes peeled for a regular mug. He took the shell after it was whumped into his hands.
“Archie, right?” the man said.
“Yes, and you must be—”
Archie was a bit relieved that this man wasn’t Marcy’s dad, but then again he was a relation. Maybe Marcy’s dad was an even bigger kook.
“Gingersnaps is getting in a run.”
“Wouldn’t mind going for a dip.”
Uncle Jeb broke from the table as if Archie spit in the man’s coffee. He went over to the refrigerator and pulled out a bakery box. Archie suspected a chocolate-dipped almond horn or birthday cake.
“Hamantash,” Uncle Jeb offered, tipping the box.
Archie appraised the pastries feeling equal parts hassled and curious the way he imagined library security guards did after getting flashed the contents of an unzipped backpack.
“We got prune or apricot.”
Archie half-heartedly pointed to the one with apricot filling.
“If you don’t chill them they taste like diner mints.”
Uncle Jeb resumed his seat and stretched his neck until it popped. He satisfied a brief finger-squiggling exercise, raising his thumbs to the ceiling fan as though it was the god of yoga withdrawal.
“Gingersnaps told me to keep an eye on you.”
“Fine by me.”
“So you’re the chess nut,” Uncle Jeb said.
Archie began to snicker when he heard the unforgivable pun, played it off instead as a sinus tick. He rubbed his nose for emphasis.
“I could show you a thing or two,” Jeb said and cracked his knuckles. “Pawn to queen’s bishop four.”
“Knight to king’s bishop three,” Archie lobbed back.
“Pawn to queen four.”
“Pawn to king three.”
They traded about a dozen more moves before any head scratching ensued. Then Uncle Jeb bailed. He bumped coconut shells with Archie and coffee spilled down the hairy sides like beer foam. Archie wondered just how much Marcy told her uncle. It puzzled Archie she hadn’t said a word about Uncle Jeb.
“You’re not too shabby,” Uncle Jeb said.
“Maybe we could dig up a board.”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
“My brother doesn’t go for this mental judo.”
“Is he running too?”
“Ha. Loved to see Stu putting a sweat into his sweatpants.”
“Not much in the exercise department.”
“Too busy cutting up Sheba.”
Archie gave a blank look.
“Come Back Little Sheba. We’re theater people. Didn’t Gingersnaps mention it?”
“Figures. She’s always lived two separate lives. When she was seven, she wore a pink feathered boa everywhere she went. She took baths with it. Anyway, this one time she was walking with it draped across her neck and this shrew-faced woman stopped Gingersnaps in her penny loafers as if she were a school crossing guard. She put out her traffic-keen hand and declared, with all her killjoy might, that good little girls didn’t go prancing around in nightclub attire. Well, Gingersnaps took one look at the shrew and said, ‘For your information this is a prop. I use it to get into character.’ Then the shrew said, ‘Who are you playing?’ and Gingersnaps said, ‘Norma Desmond.’”
“From Sunset Boulevard.” Archie said.
“We were leaving Pot Belly Stove and heading to the Grove Street Playhouse when we were accosted. She had the well-tuned instrument of an actor even back then. More coffee?”
Uncle Jeb left the table to obtain his liquid lust. Archie culled through his time with Marcy and lingered for a moment when she made him wear a clip-on mustache to a dinner party. The nostril plugs never kept the fuzzy thing in place. Had he been so obtuse so as not to recognize the signs? They never saw a play together and the only movies they’d gone to were half-baked comedies. Maybe she was slumming it with him.
Archie had always, almost wanted to act. He never figured he had the elastic sensibility he assumed actors were born with, but he thought he’d be a better man if he uncovered his hidden talent. The chance to reinvent himself had Archie reappraising the relationship. He grew antsy and he got up to join Uncle Jeb by the coffeemaker.
“Wait here, I’ve got something.” Uncle Jeb said and made a brisk exit, stage right.
This time Archie heard the familiar drop and shove of dumped boxes, a sound he’d grown to loathe from the moment he worked as a stockboy, two summers ago. His eager ear competed with his sour memories. He expected Uncle Jeb to return in costume, perhaps as The Scarlet Pimpernel or Ben Hur. He returned with a scrap album and a dozen Playbills stacked on top like a chimney.
Archie got the weird impression he stepped into some kind of memorial. A glimpse into one’s pictorial past struck Archie as an egregious violation. Marcy wasn’t even there to cover-up, address or yank away any unflattering images. Archie looked on with fear and shame as if it was his paper childhood on display. Uncle Jeb licked his finger after turning each page. His character now carried the distinct air of a yacht seller showing a bunch of dinghies and gradually moving toward his coup de grâce.
“She may have landed Summer Stock, but they’ll chew her up alive. She’s a swan swimming with sharks. You’ve got to bring her back!”
“What makes you think she won’t come back?”
“She’s stubborn and cocky. You’ve got a mountain of a mission. Win her over and talk from your gut. Remember, you’re not close enough with her yet.”
“The hell I’m not close. I took her temperature when she had the flu.”
Uncle Jeb clapped bravo with opera buff élan.
“Look, this is no time to get defensive. You want her back right?”
“I never lost her.”
“Oh, wake up and smell—”
He stopped there and flipped through the scrap album. He skimmed over a bunch of tutu shots and rested his thespian finger on a carefully snipped news clip where the freckled wunderkind poured out her twelve-year-old heart as Emily in Our Town.
“Gingersnaps caught a string of challenging roles. She made Joan Plowright progress. Then her ego stole the show. Before anybody could whisper a Danish King’s curse, she was driving stage hands, directors, and whole repertories bonkers. Her understudy, for the part of Frankie in Member of the Wedding, became bulimic. The poor girl stuffed her face with yodels and ding dongs, day and night, and she dropped to ninety pounds. After that, to drown her sorrows, she hit ninety proofs. Don’t get caught up on the photographic precision. Those were taken long before digital.”
“So you were her acting coach.”
“You have a plumber’s way of putting things. I was her confidant, gatekeeper, stylist, and pin cushion when she needed one. I was between jobs so I could afford to show her around.”
Archie’s putty cheeks showed a raspberry spot on the side as if he’d been sucker-punched. He had been, sort of. He’d slacked off in making this relationship work for so long that now, faced with the prospect of losing Marcy, he was mad at himself for being lazy and letting her cut him loose.
Across the table, Uncle Jeb huddled over his paper menagerie of memories and Archie saw the coffee buzz wearing off his face. His glory days reduced to a thumblick of yellow news copy and a few dozen photos. Sure he must have had a wardrobe of costumes and characters he could slip into in a pinch, but he didn’t have a stage. He didn’t have Gingersnaps. Archie saw Uncle Jeb’s plea as a pitch to get back into the act. The only play ever written, ever lived was about somebody new coming to town and Archie was that somebody— a foil perhaps, but if he could bring back Gingersnaps he’d set the spark.
Uncle Jeb scratched onto a napkin, an address.
“Potsdam,” Uncle Jeb said. “There’s a bus at Port Authority that’ll take you there. Here, take the whole box.” Uncle Jeb handed over the Hamantashan. “You’ll need all your strength.”
He did as the worry pot had said. Archie got up from the table and finally shook hands with Uncle Jeb. He’d never carried out such a vital mission, the future of two men riding on his shoulders. He embraced this new part with all sincerity. First, he needed to pass the first audition— win Gingersnaps trust. Archie treated the screen door as a curtain and dropped the bakery box into his red wagon and pulled his load across the long narrow stage. The sweaty bulk of his aimless life came into focus and Archie Mullins churned with a leading man’s purpose.
John spits wine for a living. He enjoys spelunking, Cary Grant flicks, grilled cheese sandwiches and a good game of Mancala (preferably in sand). His work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Summerset Review, Apt, and Writer’s Digest. His debut novel Shades of Luz is published by All Things That Matter Press. He snagged his MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University.
Check out John’s blog, Paper Cut, a blog that covers lit, pop culture, and all the cracks in-between: http://jgpapercut.blogspot.com.