Over the next week, they practiced each day for an hour. Veronica had a car and picked Elena up each morning. Ron was always there waiting for them. He measured out a stage area on the floor and marked it off with strips of packing tape. They worked on the number of props that they would need and what props they would pantomime.
The scenes of the play consisted of a scene between Ferdinand and Miranda from The Tempest. Ferdinand had been given the job of moving wood by Miranda’s father, a wizard named Prospero and she had come to watch him work. Next was a scene from Henry the Fifth where Henry attempts to tell the French princess Catherine that he wants her. This scene was complicated by the fact that she did not understand English. Luckily, Elena had taken French and could read the lines very well. Ron marveled at her fluidity, thinking that she now spoke three languages as well as he spoke one. Then there was a scene between Petruchio and Kate from The Taming of the Shrew. The next scene was from Richard the Third when Richard tells the widow of a man that he has killed that he is going to marry her while she is on the way to bury her husband. Finally there was the scene between Othello and Desdemona, where he strangles her.
They would need chairs. They would need a couch. They would pantomime the wood. Each morning they read through the scenes and Ron timed them. There were also five connecting scenes where the two actors would tell the audience what it was that they were going to see.
Elena said, “Mr. Tuck, what are we going to do about costumes?”
Ron was silent and thoughtful.
Veronica said, “I was thinking that I would tape my chest with an ace bandage. You know so that I don’t show.”
Ron smiled and said, “That’s a good idea, Veronica. He didn’t say that she was flat-chested enough so that it would not be necessary. Ron noticed that Grace Scarpelli began arriving and watching some of their rehearsals as she drank her morning coffee.
“Well,” said Ron. “I think that black tights for all the scenes with the actors between the Shakespearian scenes and then we can just add some things to that foundation for the scenes. Do you think that we should give you a moustache or a beard, Veronica?”
She nodded. “I think it would help me to feel less like myself, Mr. Tuck.”
At the end of the week, Ron said, “Ok, we have a feel for this but we can’t really start to act until we memorize the lines. So, let’s try to have the first scene ready to recite on Monday.”
Ron watched as both girls’ mouths fell open. He said, “You didn’t think we were going to use the books on stage, did you?”
The girls couldn’t seem to close their mouths as they shook their heads no. As they were leaving to go to classes, Grace said, “Ron, I need a favor from you now.”
Ron stopped. The girls left the gym. Ron stood there holding is over the shoulder army field pouch that he used as a book bag. “Sure,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“My older brother is a fund raiser for the Georgetown School of International Law,” she said. “He needs me to go with him tonight to something at the Metropolitan Opera House.” Ron listened. He was baffled. Did she need him to cover some kind of game or dance for her? She watched his confusion and took a breath and said, “Would you go with me?”
The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was an Opera in English by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Ron had never been to an Opera before. As he got dressed he felt, for one of the first times that he could remember, like a pauper. His suit was a hand-me-down from George. It was too big on him. He shoes were scuffed and he owned no shoe polish. He searched for socks that were not threatening to produce holes from their next wearing. He needed a haircut. None of his ties seemed to match the suit.
He tried to avoid the mirror as he tied his default light green tie around his neck. At least it didn’t completely clash with the brown suit and a white shirt always worked. He avoided looking down at his scuffed black shoes that shabbily projected like loaves of bread sticking out of his pockets. He told himself that it was not like this was his idea. He tried to get his hair to stay behind his ears, but the bulk of it only caused his ears to project out more and to his thinking completed his image as Howdy Doody getting ready for church.
The directions to Grace Scarpelli house were easy enough. She lived in Maplewood. It was a huge brick place that must have had fifteen rooms. Grace met him at the door and said she really appreciated him doing this for her. She looked very different than the way that she did in her track suit at school. She wore a low cut blue evening dress and pearls around her neck and at her ears. Without thinking, he slid his arm around her waist as they walked to his car and she turned to him and smiled a freshly scrubbed and warm grin.
Located in Lincoln Center, The Opera House sparkled like a jewel in the early spring evening. Water gushed up in elegant torrents from a round fountain that was set in the middle of an immaculate square. The glass of the Opera House behind the fountain and the soft lights caught caused the water to also appear as if it were a flowing of jewels that was being puddled at the feet of some thirsty, other worldly creature. Ron felt like a dung beetle as he crossed the square.
Harrison Scarpelli and the six contributors to the University’s School of International Law seemed to arrive in the limo as perfectly timed as if it had been arranged by some punctual concierge. Stupidly Ron tried to polish the tops of his shoes on the backs of his calves as they stood waiting.
The entourage met Grace and Ron like a wave of fur and diamonds. Harrison kissed his sister and shook Ron’s hand. Ron was relieved that he had at least remembered to clean his fingernails. Grace seemed relaxed and oblivious to his fidgeting discomfort as they all made their way up low flat stairs that to their table for ten on the Vilar Grand Tier. They were seated in front of an incredibly large painting by Marc Chagall. Ron wondered if they would have time for dinner before the thing started. He turned to Grace and whispered, “Do you think that we’ll be late if we eat?”
She moved her mouth to his ear and whispered back. “They time the meal to the Opera.”
Ron felt like a blackhead. Harrison began the introductions, “This is my sister Grace Scarpelli and her date Ron Tuck. With a slow sweep of his arm he said, Mrs. Witherspoon and her cousin Mrs. Ravel.” The two ladies nodded and smiled. “Mr. and Mrs. Sithe.” Mrs. Sithe smiled but Mr. Sithe seemed to ignore the introduction and was moving his head above theirs as if searching for a waiter. He magically appeared at his side dressed in a white serving jacket and carrying a leather bound wine list. “And now, Mrs. Oglethorpe”
“Everyone please call me Bunny,” said the large silver streaked woman with a diamond clutch bag that she laid casually on the table. Ron glanced at it and wondered how much it would bring in at a pawn shop.
“Last and most certainly not least are two of the University’s oldest and dearest friends, Mrs. Singletary and her mother, Mrs. Gregory Winterhintz.
There were two waiters dressed in white jackets, and they moved around the table taking dinner orders. Other waiters served dinner rolls, using silver tongs and placing one roll on each person’s side dish. Small pats of butter were also placed next to the rolls and then salad dishes with spring greens were given to each person. Ron and Grace each ordered the prime rib entrée.
The early talk was about the weather and what a mild winter it had been. Ron was quiet and tried to listen attentively and smile. Grace was making smooth conversation and Ron noticed that she seemed as at home in this setting as she did in the gym.
Harrison Scarpelli was leading the conversation and warming the table with the confident expertise of a professional who knew how to put everyone at ease, and at the same time make everything seem completely casual. Ron watched him with admiration. He was wearing a gray suit with a light pinstripe and a darker gray tie that was tied in a perfect Windsor knot. His dress shirt sported square silver cuff links that projected at his wrists in perfect length. His hair was razor cut and seemed also perfectly in place. Ron wondered if a man like this ever had feelings that were similar to his. He doubted it. The man was at least twenty years younger than any of the others with the exception of Ron and Grace and it seemed to not matter at all to him or to them.
Finally someone asked, “Where is your family from, Ron?”
In the past, he had always made a point of saying that they were all from Newark, but this time he felt himself saying, “Glen Ridge.”
“Oh yes,” said Mrs. Gregory Winterhintz. “I have friends from Glen Ridge. It’s very small isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Ron. “I think that adds to its charm actually.”
“Well, of course it does,” said Bunny Oglethorpe.
Then there was a soft chiming of bells and a flickering of lights. It seemed to come on cue, just as they were finishing their salads.
The interior of the Opera house seemed to stretch up into the sky where a large, round, lighted globe of a chandelier looked down on the proceedings like a friendly sun. They were led to their seats, which were located in the President’s box at the center of the Golden Horseshoe. As they sat, Ron noticed that there was more than ample room for their legs. In small pockets in front of each seat were opera glasses. Grace showed him how to open them. The lights dimmed and the opera began.
Ron was immediately struck by the richness of costume and the way that his eyes could not leave the stage. The Opera was one of the few that was in English, but he still could not really make out the words. The singers were incredible and the orchestra was impeccable. Sitting back, he wondered if he could have had this life if he had made different choices. A voice in his head told him that he would not have been able to appreciate it if he had not made the choices that he had made.
The story was easy to follow. Criminals set up this city based on lust and greed and invite others who want to partake in these pleasures to join them. Ron listened to the voice of Jenny Smith, enraptured by the angelic quality that the whore had as she sang about whiskey and pretty boys. As their fortunes rose and fell Ron realized that he had forgotten all about his dinner. At the conclusion of the first act, as the characters waited for an approaching storm that threatened to destroy the city, the house light came up and Ron realized that he was very hungry.
Again, Ron was dazzled by the soft lights on gold and the glittering glass that was everywhere as they moved. It was a very short walk back to their table, but he kept waiting for Julian T. Willy to pop out from behind a white marble column and explain to Ron that the service entrance was in the rear.
They sat at their table and simultaneously waiters lifted stainless steel covers from off of their plates and there was their dinner, hot, perfectly timed to be eaten right now. It surprised Ron that his prime rib was quite ordinary. He had expected something of a heavenly quality that matched the surroundings.
Bunny Oglethorpe was explaining that her niece was going to boarding school in France and that she had gone “hither and yon” searching for the proper attire that was required to fill the girl’s trunk.
“Isn’t it ridiculous that they have lists of what is required?” said Mrs. Singletary. “They treat you as if you are going to send the girl away with plaid shirts and blue jeans.”
Mrs. Winterhintz turned to Ron. “You are in education, aren’t you Ron?”
“Yes, I’m a teacher at a small Catholic school in Newark.”
“Do they enforce a rigid dress code as well?” said Mrs. Oglethorpe.
Ron finished chewing and swallowed. “Our girls wear uniforms.”
“I do expect that would be best for them wouldn’t it?”
“I hadn’t thought about it,” said Ron.
Mrs. Oglethorpe said, “Well, someone has to teach them as well, I suppose.”
“We try our best,” said Grace, coming to his rescue.
Ron had the distinct impression after that that these people, far from being admirable, were cartoon characters. He began picturing Mrs. Oglethorpe is large floppy pink ears, and when he looked at Mrs. Singletary and Winterhintz the Bob Dylan line “Jewels and binoculars hang from the head of the mule” repeated in his head. He began to wonder if she brayed when she had orgasms.
Harrison Scarpelli said, “I would like to recommend that each of us have the chocolate sulfate for dessert. It really is quite good.”
“I’m all for chocolate,” said Mrs. Sithe.
Mr. Sithe looked at his watch. Finally he said, “They do have this well-organized.”
It was his only comment of the evening.
Back in their seats Act 2 began. Again Ron found his eyes drawn to the stage, and again the voices of the singers so astounded him that he wondered why he had never heard opera before. He realized that it just would not sound the same on a record. Then he was struck by the idea that his students needed to actually see one of the plays that they were doing. They didn’t sound the same on the recordings as they would appear in a theater.
In the second scene, a man ate himself to death and he was lauded as a man without fear. Ron wondered if the people in the theater found the message about excess to be quaint. He began to watch their faces with his opera glasses. They looked universally glum and bored. He wondered if this was not a very good performance or if that was their default posture.
As was expected, one of the characters, Jimmy, was in love with the whore Jenny. He sang of his love for her while men waited on line to pay to fuck her. At a boxing match, one man beats another to death. Ron wondered if these people would enjoy the show more if someone was actually beaten to death. The answer came back to him like the thud of a fist. No, they did not like things to be real. They preferred them bloodless and appreciated from a distance with a good view and opera glasses.
As the second act ended, Jim is arrested for not being able to pay his bar bill. He appeals to Jenny for help and she turns him down in a song called “Make your own bed.” More and more, Jenny reminded Ron of Robin. Jim ends the second act chained to a lamppost singing a ballad that pleads for the sun not to rise for the day of his trial. He saw himself as the stupid sap who got in over his head and now had no way out.
As they forked into the waiting sulfates, chocolate scented whooshes of steam came out of them. The fork fills melted in their mouths and Ron watched as the diners smiled to each other and then secretly smacked their lips.
During the third act, Jimmy is convicted and sentenced to death for the crime of being broke. The line, “In the whole human race there is no greater criminal than a man without money,” reverberated in Ron’s head.
Ron turned his glasses on the crowd as they watched. It was the one line that drew smiling nods from the men. Ron was surprised that they had actually been listening closely enough to make it out. He found himself smiling when Jenny testified against Jimmy.
The opera ended, quite simply with Jimmy being hanged. Then there was a postscript about how the city finally tore itself to pieces because of its greed and corruption. Ron thought that was gratuitous.
As the crowd filed out that sat at their table and had coffee. These people would never be caught leaving with the herd. Ron remembered the line, “all that glitters is not gold” but it sure was here.
In his car, Grace took his hand and said, “Thank you so much for doing this. You were fabulous.”
“Did you like those people?” said Ron.
“Oh god no, but that table gave Harrison about $50,000 tonight.”
“Why did he want you there?”
“There was a cancellation and it is not considered good form to have an empty seat at the table.” said Grace.
Ron wondered if that was why no one had bothered to say good night to them. After all, they were just props.
He kissed Grace good night and she pressed herself to him. Ron did not harden but knew that he would if she worked at it hard enough. Was it access to this kind of life that we wanted for his students and for himself? He didn’t want it but some of them would, and they should have the right to choose.
As Ron drove home thinking about the evening that had passed, Robin sat curled in her reading chair with a pad on her lap. It was to be her last night in this apartment that had taught her how to be alone and she wanted closure. She had not lived with anyone except for Ron, and the assorted people that he had run in and out of their lives, for eight years.
“Dear Ron,” she looked at the page crumpled it and threw it away and began again. “Ron, you wanted to know why I wouldn’t marry you and I did not want the argument of trying to explain it to you, but it stays on my mind and I want to be free of it. So, here goes. I don’t trust you. I don’t believe that you would have ever been faithful to me. I do believe that there is a good chance that you will become an addict. I never really cared about your teaching or the joy that it gave you and that just showed me that I really was not in love with you anymore. I don’t think that you are a bad person, but I do believe that you are lost and damaged and will never be whole. I believe that you will spend the rest of your life in New Jersey, and that is not what I wanted. It never used to be what you wanted either. I knew that after you asked me to marry you that we could never be friends, but the idea of being your wife made me cringe. I know that you think that you love me, but what you loved isn’t there for you anymore. I tried every way that I knew to tell you that, but as usual you would not listen.”
Robin reread the page. It made her smile that she didn’t feel anything. She started to put it into an envelope and then a thought struck her. Why should she? She crumpled the page and through it into the waste basket next to the blank page that showed at the top, “Dear Ron.”