Jack Coey is a seventy-two year old grandfather of two who has experienced most of life’s events, and survived them not only, but without hurting anyone else which he would say was a good life. Writing satisfies him like nothing else and he works as a cashier to eat and writes to love.
The seventy-two-year-old Percy Endicott got off the bus on a breezy summer morning in Keene, NH. He got on the bus almost seven hours ago in New York City where he’d been cast in a play titled Roger’s Gambit to play at the Colonial Theatre in Keene for a two month run with a Boston option. He had to audition three times to get a part he didn’t want. He wanted to play the father but was cast as the salesman. He had two scenes in the third and fourth acts which, when he thought about it on the trip from Manhattan, maybe was better after all. The director, Orson, knew he was disappointed and asked him if he would understudy the father. That got him another thirty dollars in his paycheck. It took him some moments to figure out where Main Street was, and with the wind blowing his white hair, he carried his suitcase to find the theatre. He saw the marquee a block off. He entered a dark lobby and saw the young girl in the ticket booth. He told her who he was, and she said they were in rehearsal in the theatre. He entered the auditorium with the house lights up and saw Orson on stage talking with the cast. On cue, the cast looked back at Percy.
“Hello Percy!” exclaimed Orson. Percy waved in acknowledgement and took a seat leaving his suitcase in the aisle. Orson gave Percy a quick re-cap before going on to talk about a man named Solomon who was a theatrical producer in Boston who was coming to see the show, probably the second week, and if he liked what he saw, he would move the show to Boston. Percy heard all this before. There wasn’t a show he’d been in, except for two shows on Broadway, when the variation on the theme was a movie, where there wasn’t a mythical producer who was going to change the careers of the actors by his embracing the show and taking it where it couldn’t have gotten otherwise. Percy learned this was a directors’ bag of tricks to motivate his actors. One time there was an alcoholic actor who jumped out of a nine-story window when he realized he’d be duped. Percy shifted his weight and looked up at the ceiling. He remembered twenty years ago when he was on Broadway in a good comedic role that got him good reviews and several commercials which earned him a lot of money. He was married to Sylvia who was doing well in her modelling career until she ran off with a dress designer. He remembered the explosion of laughter from the house and smiled. His memory was interrupted by Orson’s voice.
“The rehearsal schedule is two rehearsals a day. Acts One and Two starts at nine in the morning and Acts Three and Four at one in the afternoon. Saturday mornings are optional for problem areas as they arise. Sundays are open for rest and meditation. I would ask that everyone be off book by Monday, and I will begin blocking. Trevor?”
Trevor was the stage manager. He talked about setting up appointments with the costume designer to take measurements for costumes. Percy thought about a good bar to go to after rehearsals, and knew, of course, there would be nothing like an Eighth Avenue bar in New Hampshire. His attention was back to Trevor when he announced that the company would be staying at the E.F. Lane Hotel on Main Street, and not to leave before getting a room assignment. He talked to Orson and Trevor about a single room given his age and they promised him he could have that. Over the years, Percy had aggravating experiences with roommates on the road, and wasn’t going to do it anymore. There were many times when cast members showed up at three in the morning, drunk, with groupies with whom they wanted to have sex. It’s not like Percy didn’t do it himself, but he tried to find another spot to bed his quarry. One time, he was surprised by a roommate he thought was straight showing up with a man who wanted Percy to join them. Percy spent the rest of the night sitting in the lobby reading out-of-date newspapers. Trevor hesitatingly told Percy his room number was 03, and when Percy stared at him for an explanation, he said it was a maid’s room off the lobby. He apologized that it would be noisier, but he would be alone. He said a single room on one of the floors would cost the company fifty dollars more a night. Actors were behind Percy, so he moved on. As he walked the two blocks to the hotel, he looked at the store fronts and saw “Lindy’s Diner” as a place to eat. He’d been given complimentary meals before when the owner knew he was an actor or recognized him from his TV commercials. People believe actors were somehow different from them, and he knew the truth. He still took advantage of being recognized and given privileges. Especially with women. He was ashamed of himself when he thought of how many husbands he cuckolded. He couldn’t keep a woman but there was always the next one. Some women got really insulted when he wouldn’t spend any money, but there was always another.
He was lonely but couldn’t say no when a woman presented herself. It was a funny life: adored in public, lonely in private. A lot of actors worked really hard at showing how much fun they were having: the big houses, swimming pools, fancy cars, and beautiful women, but Percy knew it was an illusion. He envied common people who realistically lived. They didn’t have all the material props, but they had genuine connections and a meaning to their lives that was missing in his. He got to the hotel and went inside. He went to the desk and the clerk gave him a I Know You smile. The clerk was taken back when he saw the accommodation.
“So I can bunk by myself, you see?”
The clerk handed him the room keys.
“The other side of the lobby, through the double doors, and your room is the second door on the right.”
The room was small, and his first disappointment was, the bathroom was in the hall. There was room for a cot and a dresser, and Percy thought maids weren’t very well treated, and why was he being treated the same way at his age and accomplishment? Having a roommate would be worse, he thought. Maybe it’s time to stop going on the road? He put his suitcase on the cot and opened it. There was the script and he was reminded he had to memorize over the weekend. He lifted the suitcase to the floor and lay down on the cot and fell asleep.
He woke from a knock on the door. He was disorientated. Then he caught up to where he was. He lunged toward the door and opened it. It was a cast member he didn’t know.
“Hi, I’m Shelly Faber and we have a scene in the third act where you try and sell me shares in an Alaskan oil rig, and I was wondering if you wanted to run lines?”
“Geez, I haven’t even looked at the book yet so I don’t think it would do much good for now.”
“Okay! Thought I’d ask.”
He looked at her. She played a teenager even though she was older.
“Well, what about tomorrow afternoon? It’s Saturday so we have the time.”
“Oh? I don’t know. I might be going to a picnic.”
“Could you leave me a note in my mailbox? Room number 03?”
“Ahh, yeah, I guess so.”
“We can sit in the corner of the lobby.”
“Why? The town common is right down the street.”
“My Dear, I’ve been in this business longer than you, and if you think you’re going to sit outside and not be bothered by street people and drug addicts which has been my experience, then, you are gifted in ways not given to me.”
“In Keene, New Hampshire, right?”
“That’s true. I’m still on New York time. Anyway, leave me a note and I’ll get to work on the scene.”
The door closed. He lay down on the cot and heard the clinking of glasses from the lounge.
Percy knew it took him twice as long now to memorize lines. That was why he was thankful not to be cast as the father. Not only that, but he noticed he had a harder time remembering lines than he used to. On his last commercial, they had to do another take which didn’t make the director happy, and he knew that wouldn’t have happened when he was younger. As far as he knew, he had Orson fooled about his capabilities, but he would have to work twice as hard to keep the deception. Friday night with the jukebox and chatter as a backdrop, he sat on the cot, and went over and over his third act scene.
In public, he was recognized about half the time he went into a store or restaurant. If he was addressed as “Freddie the Flower Man” one more time he’d scream. That was from a Benson’s Nursery ad that ran on TV for months. He knew what it was like for singers to sing songs they grew sick of ten years ago. But more than that he knew these were his fans and it was important to be likeable. In New York, performers said,
“Be nice to the people on the way up cause they’re the people you see on the way down.”
He went into Lindy’s Diner for breakfast on Saturday morning, and a woman named Wilma waited on him and the first thing out of her mouth was,
“Freddie the Flower Man!”
Percy sickly smiled.
“That’s me,” he said.
“You must be in the show?” Wilma’s jaw moved up and down on gum.
“I got tickets for opening night. What’ll have, hon?”
“Two eggs over easy. Coffee.”
She walked away. She came back and poured coffee.
If you want your flowers to grow bright,
You gotta know how to treat ‘em right,
Benson’s Fertilizer is the product you need
To bloom your flowers from their seed, she sang in a singsong.
Percy pretended to enjoy this.
“Golly, you remember after all this time?”
“I was pregnant with my daughter and I saw that commercial a thousand times if I saw it once.”
“I’m flattered you remember.”
“Don’t be. My boyfriend was controlling, and I stupidly listened to him and didn’t go anywhere.”
She walked away.
There was a note in his mailbox: Meet you at one on the common to run lines, Shelly. He felt confident; he worked on his lines the night before. They met and sat on a bench underneath the Civil War statue. When they started, he was slow picking up his cue.
“I’m not used to having a partner,” he explained. Shelly slowed down to adjust to him until she became impatient. On the third read through, Percy got better and Shelly more relaxed.
“You know, timing is everything in comedy,” she said. Percy resented the comment.
“Jokes work in three’s and five’s – set up, set up: punch line. Set up, set up, set up, set up: punch line. See? Once you get the rhythm, it’s not that hard.”
“I don’t need to be lectured,” coldly said Percy.
Shelly inquisitively looked at him. She was passionate about the work to where she couldn’t help herself. They sat in sun and silence.
“One more time,” said Percy.
The scene took off. They were exhilarated at the finish of it.
“ALL RIGHT!” said Shelly standing up and throwing her arms out wide.
That night, he lay on the cot listening to the muffled conversations and tinkling of glasses from the lounge and thought about how hard he had to concentrate with Shelly to get the scene to work. Did he have the energy to do seven shows a week? He hadn’t had these thoughts since he was a young actor probably fifty years ago.
“Maybe it’s cyclical. You end up where you started,” he thought.
Rehearsals started Monday. Orson blocked the scenes. Percy was nervous and that didn’t feel good. They started their scene and Orson stopped them to place them or move them. Percy was slow in picking up his cues and Shelly was annoyed. Orson was concerned with blocking, so he didn’t pay attention that the pace was off. Shelly saw a concerned look on Trevor’s face. When the rehearsal was over, everyone was silent. Percy left the theatre, and Shelly said,
“He’s slow with his cues.”
“Can you work with him? We’ve got three days to opening and to make any changes now would be a disaster,” answered Trevor.
“I know he can do it. He did it great over the weekend.”
“He brought it during his audition so maybe he’s tired or something.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
Percy went back to his room and listened to the muffled sounds of the lounge as he lay on the cot and stared at the ceiling. He knew others saw his weakness. Maybe the pressure of live theatre is too much for him? he considered. Much less stressful doing voice overs for commercials: he could read the copy. He questioned again if he really concentrated himself, he could get through this commitment?
Shelly, Trevor, and Orson vacillated between admiration and annoyance at the sometimes good, and sometimes slow, performance of Percy. Sometimes he’d start out slow, and finish strong, or start out strong, and end up slow. He was a director’s dread: never knowing what you were going to get.
“You know, sometimes when there’s an audience it all comes together,” said Trevor, “I’ve seen that happen.”
“If this show bombs, it will set my career back five years,” moaned Orson with his head in his hands.
“Oh, Orson, even if Percy lets us down, there’s still plenty of wonderful work that any theatre person can see.”
“Five years….at lest five years,” wailed Orson
“Drama Queen,” thought Trevor.
Percy was in Lindy’s Diner for breakfast one morning and heard some gossip from Wilma.
“I heard their having trouble with the show,” she said her jaw going up and down.
“Bruce Greenwalt comes in here and he’s a local realtor who’s put some serious bucks into the show, and he said they’re not happy with some of the performances. I thought you might want to know.”
“I’m sure they’re not happy with me but see what happens Opening Night.”
“I have tickets. Me and Wayne.”
“Good. I told you first, Wilma.”
“The Flower Man will blossom!” joked Wilma.
Percy forced a smile.
Both Percy and Wilma and Wayne for that matter made good on their promises. After keeping the cast in uncertainty during the rehearsal period, Percy was consummate on Opening Night. The play ended in exhilaration with an, at least, eight-minute standing ovation which included a man named Solomon. Wilma and Wayne had never experienced anything like it and thought Percy’s ability to create a reality mystical. It took everything Percy had. The cast surrounded him in the dressing room praising and congratulating him. His acting wasn’t over as he played the part of the appreciative performer. He was spent and he knew it.
It was later that week when there was a cast meeting called for Wednesday afternoon, and Orson announced that the show was being moved to Boston for a two-month run at The Emerson Colonial Theatre. A gasp went through the cast at the unexpectedness of the good fortune. There was silence as the players processed the significance of what they heard, and, as if on cue, they looked at Percy who had his head down.
“I can’t do it,” he moaned.
“What are you talking about?” shrieked Shelly. “After all the work we’ve put in – never mind the anxiety you cause by your erratic performance, and now, after all that, you want to walk away just when you’re needed to make this the best it can be. This opportunity puts many of us in a completely different place in our careers, and you may be washed up, but how can you turn your back on the rest of us?”
The question hung in the air like a fog.
“Shelly speaks for all of us, Percy,” said Trevor, “think about it and give me your answer tomorrow.”
Percy slowly nodded, stood up, and walked up the aisle.
He sat at the bar of the lounge. He was recognized and couldn’t pay for a drink. Some half-drunk guy asked him for an autograph. He felt lightheaded from booze and emotion. He was disbelieving when Wilma was standing there.
“Buy me a drink?”
“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.
“Gin and tonic.”
“The rumor is you want to quit.”
Percy looked down at the floor. She watched him and saw the sadness; not just momentary sadness, but implacable sadness that no words could alleviate or dispel. She reached out her arm and took the drink and sipped at it through the straw. Percy briefly made eye contact before he went back into himself. Everything she thought to say sounded like a Hallmark Card – empty and hollow. She left and the next morning the diner was open twenty minutes when the firemen came in talking about the hotel guest who jumped off the roof.