With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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“Go on up there and sing the hell out of that song, Shiffler,” Marva said, and then she hugged me, and I could feel the underside of her breasts brushing my shoulders.
I can think of many things at the same time. Right then I was thinking about the music — where the high notes were, how to pace myself, where to breathe — but I still noticed her beautiful teeth and long, slim legs. I was also a little nervous.
I would have preferred to sing some old warhorse of an operatic aria, but this audition was for a Sondheim show — more of a pop thing — so I had prepared something from Sweeney Todd. It turned out to be a little tougher than I had expected, but my teacher helped me until I had it down pretty good.
They called my name again, so I climbed the steps to the stage and handed the music to the accompanist. That’s the part I hate most, the walking out there. I always imagine the director saying to his assistant, “He’s too short.” Once I start singing, I’m OK.
The accompanist skipped half a bar of the introduction — like I say, Sondheim is harder than you think — but I jumped right in there anyway. While I sang, I remembered everything my teacher had told me, but I also thought of what Marva — she’s a soprano — had said to me once: “You lucky guy, you don’t even have to sing at an audition. Just stand up there and say the magic words: ‘I am a tenor.’ ”
I guess she’s right; good tenors are rare. I got the part.
It wasn’t exactly a part; they had already cast out-of-towners in the leads. They were auditioning locally for the chorus. But it paid pretty well and it would get me onstage and my name in the program. Something else for the old résumé.
My mother keeps my résumé updated for me. She saves everything that has to do with any show or concert I appear in. She has I-don’t-know-how-many scrapbooks full of every program and newspaper clipping from my musical career dating back to high school, some twenty years ago. There are a few photos, too, but not a lot. My dad was quite a photographer, but he moved to Pittsburgh years ago, and took the camera with him.
The first rehearsal was in the basement of a local church. The director grouped us in sections because some of Sondheim’s rhythms are tricky, and quite a few of the singers couldn’t read music all that well. I never understand how people like that get hired; it seems to me that the singers who get the jobs ought to be professional musicians who study regularly like I do.
After rehearsal I mentioned this to Marva, sort of sotto voce, and she and I talked all the way to the parking lot.
“Shiffler, you know who gets hired for these things,” she said, leaning against her car. “It’s always the same people. It doesn’t matter if they can read or not. If they study at either Phil’s music school or his wife’s music school, they’re in.” Phil was the director.
“What about you and me?” I asked. I knew what she would say but I wanted to make our conversation last.
She laughed this breathless little laugh and her teeth shone white by the light of the street lamps. “You got the job because you’re a tenor, Shiffler. Me? I think he’s hot for me.”
“Did he ever make a pass at you?”
I studied fashion design for a couple of months, so I always notice people’s clothes. Marva was wearing a very short black skirt and sheer black stockings, a black-and-orange-flowered blouse, and a black tweedy jacket. Most women wouldn’t know that the flowers and the tweed go together, but she did. I imagined her getting out of bed in the morning, going to her closet, and picking out the blouse and the jacket. I imagined her back in bed.
I had been interested in Marva for a long time. But I make it a policy never to go out with someone that tall. So we said good night in the parking lot.
When I got home, Leon was there. I had forgotten that he was coming — God knows how, because Mom had been complaining for a week. She called him my guru and made it clear that she didn’t like him, but she let him stay in our apartment whenever he was in town to do his workshops. I would have let him have my bed, but Mom insisted that I needed my rest. He slept on the hide-a-bed in the living room.
“How’s Cleveland’s answer to Pavarotti?” he said when I came in. He got up from the couch and gave me a big hug. Leon and I were close. Mom was in the kitchen cooking dinner; I could smell the fried chicken.
“How’s Dayton’s answer to Billy Graham?” I shot right back. Leon wasn’t a reverend at all. He was a philosopher and a teacher. But he helped people the way a reverend would, and I always teased him about someday filling Cleveland Stadium, just like Billy Graham.
His workshops were for people, mostly women, who couldn’t get along with their spouses or their bosses. He taught them how to communicate more effectively. I pretty much get along with everybody, but Leon helped me with my inner conflicts. For example, he told me that there’s no such thing as fat. I may weigh more than I would like, but I’m not fat, he said. There’s no such thing as short, either. His teachings are very deep.
He laughed at my Billy Graham joke, and then I told him about my getting in the Sondheim chorus. Mom came in and kissed me. “Your dinner’s ready, Bobby,” she said. She acted like Leon wasn’t even there, but if Leon hadn’t been there she wouldn’t have made fried chicken.
When they first meet her, people never believe that she’s my mother. She’s this skinny little thing with wiry blonde hair (what hair I have is very dark), and she chain-smokes. I don’t smoke at all because it could damage my voice.
“What wonderful concoction do you have for us tonight, Madge?” Leon asked.
“What do you care? It’s free.” If he hadn’t been so skilled in conflict resolution, I would have worried about some of the things she said to him.
“I am truly grateful for your hospitality, Madge,” Leon said. He walked into the kitchen and began helping himself. In addition to the fried chicken there was macaroni and cheese, but I got my usual rabbit food from the refrigerator.
Leon and I ate off the coffee table while Mom smoked and told us about her terrible experience that day at the supermarket. The way she told the story, it was all Leon’s fault, because if it weren’t for him she wouldn’t have had to go shopping.
“So you and the produce man really had it out,” Leon said.
“You ought to go to one of Leon’s workshops, Mom, and learn how to deal with people like that,” I said.
“I know how to deal with people like that,” she answered, and blew smoke into the air above our heads. It settled around us like a fog. “I know how to deal with people like Leon, too. Poison their dinner.” She laughed.
“Sounds like you’re annoyed that I’m here again, eating your food and dirtying your sheets.” Leon smiled in an understanding way, as if he were talking about somebody else.
“You damn betcha,” Mom answered.
“You would like me to get an honest job like your son here and rent a room and eat in restaurants,” said Leon.
“Bobby’s got two jobs, not one,” Mom said. I was nervous the first time Leon and Mom went through this routine, but that was before I became conversant with Leon’s communication techniques.
“Well, I’m feeling a little frustrated,” said Leon, “because I offer my workshops to people who can’t afford to pay much, and I just manage to make my travel expenses. Your hospitality makes it possible for me to bring my message to a lot of people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise.”
“I could care less about them,” Mom said. “But you can keep staying here as long as Bobby benefits.” Whenever Mom got around to admitting that Leon had helped me, she relaxed and treated him pretty good until the next time. I had to hand it to Leon, the way his communication techniques defused her anger.
She sometimes had a hard time admitting that he helped me, because she didn’t like to admit that I needed help. But I had been in the hospital a couple of times for depression.
Leon teaches that there is no such thing as depression.
Leon and I met a few years ago when he did a series of workshops at the neighborhood center where I work. I drive the van, picking up the senior citizens, so they can get decent meals and play bingo and have other socialization experiences. The neighborhood can be dangerous, but I don’t have any trouble; I just drive around like I know what I’m doing and no one bothers me. Besides the actual driving, I am responsible for figuring out the most efficient route, which can be tricky when, say, Mrs. Hrstic calls in sick on the same day that Mrs. Figueroa has spent the night at her sister’s. I also have to take care of the paperwork.
It’s a good job for me because I get off at three o’clock and that leaves my afternoons and evenings free for lessons and rehearsals. I have to pick up the van at seven a.m., though, and that can be tough when we’re in performance week and I’m getting home after midnight.
I just happened to go to one of Leon’s workshops, even though it was after three, because nothing was going on in my musical career right then. I right away summed him up as a man’s man — not tough or macho, but with good self-esteem. He wasn’t all that much taller than I, and wore jeans and a red flannel shirt.
Not many of the social workers went to this workshop, even though it was for them, and I started out feeling sorry for Leon. But he just sat up there talking and singing and playing his guitar like there was a huge audience. As a performer, I know how hard that is.
“So, would someone tell us about a person in your life whose behavior you would like to change?” Leon began.
“I’m married to a jerk,” said a woman in the front row.
“You’ll have to help me with that one, because I don’t know what a jerk is,” Leon said, and everybody laughed. I had a little trouble concentrating on what he said after that, but mostly it was about how we shouldn’t label people, but instead tell them how their behavior makes us feel.
Several people left before it was over. Because I felt sorry for him, I went up to him afterward and offered to help him with his music. He mostly talks in his workshops, but every now and then he sings these songs he’s made up about expressing feelings, and accompanies himself, like I said, on the guitar. He must have had some help with his arrangements, they weren’t half-bad, but his breath control and pitch needed a lot of work. So I invited him to our place and pretty soon he was staying there, even though some of the social workers must have had big old houses out in the suburbs, and he could have stayed with one of them.
Later I learned how he could talk and sing as if the house were SRO even though there were only a handful of people there.
“Bobby,” he said, “when there are eighty chairs and eight people, I could do one of three things. I could get angry at the person who set up the workshop and call him or her incompetent. Or I could take it personally and decide if I were any good, a lot of people would have come to my workshop, and therefore I must be incompetent.” He stopped talking and strummed his guitar. We had been working on his intonation.
“What’s the third thing?” I hoped he would say it, not sing it.
He put his guitar back in its case. “I can feel joy and appreciation that the eight people who did come are there, and just have fun moment by moment as I get to know them and maybe offer them something they will find helpful. It’s easy to do that when you realize that nobody is incompetent, because there’s no such thing.”
“What about when somebody really screws up?” I asked. I was remembering when a late dress rehearsal had made me fall asleep the next day in the van waiting outside Mr. Morton’s house. I’d forgotten that Mr. Morton had passed away the previous weekend.
“ ‘Screwing up’ is not in my vocabulary,” Leon said. “Every time I wish I had done things differently, I see it as a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow.”
It’s not an idea that you grasp all at once, but after that conversation with Leon I began to understand the major concept. I started concentrating on not labeling anybody, which is really difficult because that’s what everybody does. Especially in show business. What’s an audition but a chance for the director to label everybody who comes onstage? But if you stop labeling, pretty soon you can learn to see yourself not as a short, fat tenor.
Most of this I learned privately from Leon, because I only went to one other workshop. It was at some other neighborhood center, not ours. Leon had said that the woman in charge might need help setting up, so I got there early. She was in her fifties. She was about my height, heavyset, and wearing a salmon-and-jade-striped blouse. It looked like a maternity top, but you knew from her age that she wasn’t pregnant. I offered to help any way I could, so she sent me into the kitchen to fill the coffeepot, put out the cups — the whole nine yards. She seemed real appreciative, especially when I said I’d stay afterward and help clean up. I started wondering if she might not be attracted to me. She had a nice shape, a little on the heavy side — but who was I to mind? And she wasn’t that old.
Only I couldn’t find any cups in the kitchen. I went out to my car and got some cups I had bought for my mother. She hates to wash dishes so we use disposable. I planned to donate these cups, you understand. But as soon as this woman saw them, she said, “We can’t use styrofoam. If we’re going to learn to resolve our conflicts with each other, first we have to learn to live in harmony with the environment.” I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I knew she was putting me down. I didn’t even stay for the workshop, much less to clean up afterward.
Leon never asked me what happened or why I never went to any more of his workshops, but he and I had a lot of meaningful conversations after that. I don’t think I would react today to the cup situation the way I did then. I think today I wouldn’t take it personally, I would just shrug my shoulders and go put the cups back in the car, and then stick around to see if she’d go out with me afterward.
After dinner that night, Mom washed and I dried. She never had Leon eat off disposable. He often helped with the dishes, but that night he had a workshop.
“I just might go to one of Leon’s workshops one of these days,” Mom said.
“How about tonight? It’s at that Lutheran church right around the corner. I’d be glad to finish up here.” I pointed to the pile of dirty dishes.
“Oh, no, not tonight,” Mom answered quickly. “I’m too beat from cooking all day. But sometime. There must be something to what he teaches. He did more for you in a few days than that snotty little lady shrink at the hospital could in months, and she cost us an arm and a leg.”
I had liked my therapist at the hospital, but I didn’t feel like arguing with Mom, so I just nodded and dried.
“Maybe it took a man to help you since it was a man who messed you up,” Mom said. She was talking about Dad. I really hoped she wouldn’t get started on him, so I changed the subject by urging her to go to Leon’s workshop.
She told me again how tired she was and took a drag from her cigarette, which was all soggy from her wet hands. It sizzled and went out. While I was looking around for her pack and lighter, she said, real softly, “He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s always welcome here.” I’m pretty sure she meant Leon, not Dad.
David Marks, one of my singing buddies who was in the Sondheim, was my partner in crime (another tenor). David is real tall, black, and good-looking; I guess he’s gay. We never talk about it, but being in show business I’ve met a lot of gay guys, and I’ve learned to recognize some of the mannerisms. After the second rehearsal, which went no better than the first — it was clear that no one had bothered to learn the music — he and Marva and I went out for coffee.
Marva told us about this young composer she was seeing, probably so I wouldn’t get any ideas — she knew she was safe with David — and then we started talking about the other people in the chorus. “I don’t know that contralto, that heavy black woman, do you?” David asked.
“Marcia Lander,” said Marva. “She’s very talented. Too bad about her weight problem. I bet she’s been passed over at a lot of auditions.”
Before Leon, I would have had trouble saying what I said next. “I wonder if I’ve been passed over because of my height and weight.”
David and Marva got embarrassed.
“You’re not heavy like she is, Shiffler. She’s really huge,” Marva said, patting my back. “They’ll have to have costumes custom-made for her.”
“Shiffler, think of Caruso, think of Pavarotti, think of Jessye Normous!” David said. This was an old joke and I hoped Marva wouldn’t laugh, but she threw back her head and howled. I could see that her beautiful teeth were full of silver fillings.
“Jessye Normous — what a woman! What a voice!” David laughed. When they realized that I wasn’t laughing, they stopped, and David added, “But seriously, in opera it doesn’t matter what you look like. Talent is all that matters.”
I sat there drinking my coffee, thinking two things at once. One, I was going to have trouble getting to sleep tonight after all this caffeine; and two, I may not have been as fat as Jessye Normous, but I may not have been as talented, either.
When I got home that night Mom was already in bed, and Leon was at the desk in the living room, working at the lap-top computer that he took with him everywhere. He was trying to get all his ideas into book form.
He stopped when I came in. “So, Pavarotti.” He got up from the desk and went over and stretched out on the couch. “That was a long rehearsal. Got any voice left?”
I explained that I hadn’t been rehearsing all that time, and told him about my conversation with Marva and David. Leon empathized. He teaches that empathy is central to effective communication.
I told him how worried David and Marva had made me feel about my career. He reminded me that short and fat don’t exist.
“OK,” I said, “there’s no such thing as short or fat, or stupid, or any of that. But what about good things, like talent, or being attractive?”
“They don’t exist, Bobby.”
For a minute I didn’t say anything, and he didn’t either, and then I asked, “Is there such a thing as a star? Because that’s what I want to be.”
“That’s what you want very much, isn’t it? You’ve worked hard with that goal in mind.” He was still empathizing. He didn’t answer my question.
“Isn’t that what you want, too, Leon?” I asked. “You stay up late working on your book and all, you pay your own expenses. You’re a kind of performer. Every performer dreams of having his name up in lights.” That was the first time I had ever asked Leon about his feelings.
He didn’t answer. I noticed he was wearing that same old red flannel shirt. He needed a haircut and a shave. He was looking kind of shaggy, like a street person.
In a couple of minutes his eyes began to droop and then he was breathing heavily, almost snoring. I think he had heard the question and didn’t want to answer it. I was so nervous about what the answer might be that I didn’t ask it again. Or maybe it was the caffeine that made me nervous, but I was sitting there shaking.
It was real tough getting up the next morning, but I made it. The only thing that kept me going all day was that after work I could go home and sleep. No rehearsal, no lesson.
But too much was going on at home that afternoon. Leon was having some kind of meeting in the living room with this guy, and Mom was in and out serving them sodas and cookies. She used real glasses. When this guy asked Mom not to smoke because he was allergic, she put out her cigarette and left the room without a complaint.
I followed her into the kitchen. “What’s going on, Mom?”
“That man is really loaded and wants to give a lot of money to Leon,” Mom whispered.
I listened by the swinging door.
“Well, I have been appreciative of Madge’s letting me sleep on her couch here,” Leon was saying, “but your offer is mighty inviting.” Now I understood why Mom was being so cooperative.
After the man left, Leon took us out to dinner — even though he didn’t have any of this guy’s money yet — and explained that this man was on the board of the neighborhood center. He had been to a lot of Leon’s workshops and thought that what Leon had to say was important. He wanted to help Leon establish a national training center and who knew what else. And, he wanted Leon to stay in his big, fancy house the next time he came to town. Leon would have an office with a fax machine and a computer.
“How about that, Madge?” Leon said, grinning like a kid. “No more thugs sleeping on your living-room sofa or emptying your refrigerator!”
“I’ll drink to that!” Mom said and emptied her wine glass. She filled it again, which emptied the bottle. Leon didn’t order more.
“I’m going to miss you,” I said.
“Not a chance!” Leon said. Then he talked about how they were going to need a governing board and a network of committed people, and how much help I’d be because I know so many people at the grass-roots level, but I stopped listening. He hadn’t offered empathy.
Right as Leon was leaving town, saying that when he came back he’d be staying with the rich guy, I started getting real busy with the Sondheim.
We had worked for weeks with Phil, and the chorus was shaping up pretty well, I thought. Then the musical director, the one who would actually be conducting the performance, came on the scene the week before we were to open. For some reason, he didn’t like me. He kept saying he could hear individual voices in the ensemble, and then he’d stare at me. At the first dress rehearsal he even yelled, “Shut up, Shiffler!”
That made for a difficult performance week. I actually missed a few days of work and got docked, which I really couldn’t afford.
What got to me, though, was the tenor they imported for the lead. Nice, looking guy, of course, and a nice guy, too, with a hilarious sense of humor. But you couldn’t hear him past the third row. So you know what they did? They miked him. So there I was, getting yelled at for drowning out ten other people, and there was the lead tenor, crooning into a lapel mike.
I had never told Marva about being in the hospital or any of that, but she seemed to understand that this kind of treatment might be hard on me. She took me aside and she really empathized. She didn’t do it the way that Leon would have; she labeled. She called the director an asshole and the lead tenor a no-talent. She made me feel a lot better.
I thanked her for her support, and then I started talking about Leon’s method. I said I wouldn’t judge anyone, but instead try to get in touch with my own feelings. I thought that made me sound kind of noble. It wasn’t exactly true.
She seemed intrigued. “After this show is over and we’ve had a little time to recover, you and I will have to get together so you can tell me more about your philosophy,” she said. She was wearing a white silk shell with just a shadow of lace underneath, charcoal gray slacks, and a pink-and-fuchsia scarf. She smelled of that perfume she always wore. When she talked, I could even smell her toothpaste. She kept talking and smiling, with her hand softly resting on my arm, and while I listened to everything she said, in my head I was talking to Leon. “Leon,” I said. “Look at this woman, smell this woman, and tell me there’s no such thing as beautiful.”
But the show must go on. I pulled myself together and made it through all six performances. Marva moved in with her composer a little after that, so I had to take a rain check on that date she promised me.
After things got back to normal, I thought about how I might approach Leon and question him about some of his ideas. He had helped me a lot, and I didn’t want him to take it personally. I never got around to it, though, because the next few months were tough for Leon. The rich guy sort of lost interest in him, and the training-center plan fizzled. Leon managed to get his book finished and published, but then it fizzled, too.
For a while he was on local talk shows, but it was clear his book wasn’t selling. I did my part. Whenever other singers would start crying the blues about somebody with terrible pitch who got a part that they didn’t, I’d advise them to read Leon’s book.
But the book never made it big, not the way that he must have hoped. It did bring in enough workshop jobs so that he could afford to stay in hotels. He never forgot us, though. He called us every time he came to town. Mom started a new scrapbook with his book reviews in it.
I keep auditioning. I keep studying. I keep getting in shows. There’s a woman, a mezzo, in the chorus I’m in right now who I think may be interested in me.