by Steve Gaines

In the late winter of nineteen ninety-eight
I am setting out on a long and curious journey
across the mid-western States of this country
flying out of Omaha early in the morning
stepping into a new world
leaving behind a large and gathering family
about to descend on us for a Christmas reunion
just one year into my brand new retirement
making for the shores of a Great Lake Erie
heading for Buffalo, New York
going out to test the lake effect snows
my absence making a hole in the family
but ready to go
in the resiliency of my sixty-something resolve
looking for an late “adventure”
no longer nailed down to a day job
wearing the brand new label

Actor!

with my conservative past well behind me
and the unknown tomorrows all in a diminishing line
quivering before me like significant questions exploding!
stretching out invisibly over the fields and farms
of Nebraska and points east

being called into the “battle” at the last moment
having recently become this itinerant performer
a body for hire
“call if you find work.”
that’s what we all say on the way out the door
actors with friends knowing where there’s work
knowing who might be able to do it

and someone having remembered me
vaguely from five years before
calling me in the middle of nowhere
while I am scrambling for something to do
with my copious spare time
something “artistic”

“interested in doing a play???”

sure!

all they want me to do is
replace an actor in a show ready to open
step into a role off the edge of the actor’s dream
like I do it all the time
the consummate character waiting constantly in the wings
somewhere
in Nebraska assuming the world’s out there
waiting for me
to be “discovered!”

Right!

but here I am somehow in spite of it all
living the “fantasy”
suddenly under contract and bringing with me the
fragile promise to fill the bill

devouring the lines as quickly as I can
hoping they somehow coalesce in my aging brain

beginning to consider a new life on stage
and far in the back of my mind the doubts and questions
unasked
and “black thoughts” of why?
and thinking about the considerable risk of
stepping inside an already prepared character
simply hoping to remember most of the words
and some of the places I’ll need to be
being in the “right place” as often as possible
but staying “out of the way”
simply being somebody else for a while
a mimic with words and actions
all these imponderables swimming in my brain
thinking:
“you had to wonder about this sort of thing didn’t you?”

I’ve been playing this imaginary game my whole life
scoring the final touchdown
the winning basket
all the grand scenarios of childhood
more than sixty years old and still hanging on those
crucial moments of truth
like they really were the truth!

I had said yes without the blink of an eye
without the least rational thought of saying no

“what have I done?”

inventing something to prove I guess
probably looking for some sort of accolade I’ve never received
probably risking the modest reputation I’ve gathered around me
way out here in the “sticks”
biting off way more than I can probably chew
always the way I have done it before
taking chances not so commensurate with any kind of reward
arrogant and unprepared for almost anything
but taking on all comers like a barnstorming boxer
like a carnival con man
chasing peas under a nut shell
pulling out all sorts of impossible solutions
scared of my own shadow but unable to refuse
any sort of challenge

nothing new I guess.
nothing I hadn’t “fantasized” about over many a fallow moment
doing my “day job”
aging in the provinces
waiting out the “big chance”
never really expecting it to materialize

And here it is!
here it is!!!

flying into the face of common sense
off to do a job I had no idea of attempting just yesterday

what fun!

the bad news
that I might be “bringing down” the house
already teetering on the shaky foundations of having to “lose”
a valued actor and friend to the vagaries of a serious illness
my acceptance thrown out as some kind of guarantee
that the ship won’t sink
arrogantly saying
“I can handle it.”

and what if I can’t?

not all that solid on the ground myself
constantly doing battle with the “old age” enemy
mind and body sagging under the weight of too many past battles

telling these people that I was up to it
and silently looking for one last miracle to “get me by”
letting myself be ruled by the impossible hormones bursting under my skin
needing to accept one last moment
for my resume
hoping it really isn’t the last one!
being run out of town in the wake of some total disaster
tarred and feathered!
and shredded on the sharp edge of all local critics

am I playing games with real money here?
putting the entire project at the mercy of my curious and overextended energy?

probably

ah well!
never look back

I can do it!
besides there’s that rock at the other end to tie myself to
that solid family of actors awaiting me
not about to let me fall through the cracks
not about to let my little “failure” tarnish their honest hard work

and less than a week later:
they haven’t let me fall through the cracks
they’ve held me up
and pushed me here and there
convinced me they “trusted me!”
kept me glued to common sense and propped me up
on their uncommon patience.

“Children!” all of them
young folks at any rate with the one exception
and she’s the mother figure of us all
holding things down
and evoking the ultimate challenge to do no less than perfect
able to accept any adequate attempt
at something like real moments
but still pushing for the perfection they have come upon
long before my coming on the scene
still able to knock me up side the head with common sense
still able to focus my concentration
in whatever the moment is meant to be
assuming that I will reach those moments on my own
somewhere down the long road before us

actually all the “help” scares me more than failure!
surely it might have been easier to crash and burn
than to find the energy to re-invent
this character on such flimsy underpinnings
easier to accept an impossible hope
in its lack of happening
than to do nine shows a week
without the three weeks of rehearsal backing me up

but they keep me distracted long enough
and now Walter begins to show through
at the thin spots of my own invention
I begin to feel out the man in the part
and sense a new beginning
begin to fill out the Polish bartender along the near edges
wish I were him a little more vividly
but Nebraska beginnings don’t add up to Buffalo
without more than a little “practice”

yet at least I’m the right age
I can walk on stage in my own sixty some years
and be reasonably right
before I open my mouth
reacting in the often panic I have decided
to substitute for any reasoned response
missing the logic of a linear memory of this part
saying something anything making a noise
to keep the action moving forward
giving everybody little frights to sharpen their “perfect” edges

but in the end the play’s the thing
and it begins to work
a little
and I’ve stopped worrying
when maybe a little worrying might not be a bad thing!
because I mistake memory for sense
and too often leaving Walter hanging out there
like a two dimensional shadow in the wings

because then there is Pittsburgh!

and my nice little world goes bump
for a day or two
and strange missiles fly about
on the winds of little changes
moments slightly reinvented to pick up the first act
and curious instructions
and necessary new philosophies
scattering about in the breeze
and I get my chance to “rehearse”
and feel the sharp edge of a director
pushing at my complacency
me teetering on the narrow ledge of self-doubt
sitting in my nearly vacant apartment
on the odd afternoon wondering and waiting
thinking dire thoughts about going back to my
“easy yesterday” and living on the odd dream
of some impossible hope
devouring all the lost chances like cotton candy dreams
and never having to “do” this again
in the heat of the doubts
being put on the spot like a child

but I watch the mountain come rushing toward me
the recalcitrant Muhammad
warnings and expectations come freely
to which I listen attentively
and try to react
and try to discover the moments in some believable way
silently wishing for the old bombast
with which I’ve been comfortable
but Walter is just Walter no screamer he
just an uncomplicated guy who isn’t me

of course this isn’t a play about me is it?

just a good role to play
the best I can!
so I shut up and open my eyes a little wider
and try to learn something
and do!

then we open again
then we run
then we aim for the finish
and the moments find their own reasons
and the discoveries fly out of the woodwork
all new moments in a new place
from far away

and we run.
and the play becomes its own inertia
the downhill motion of February plows along
and I find myself waiting through long days
of not being home
where I had things to do
and other moments to wait for
and disappointments of the old man I had become
waiting for all those young roles
I never was young enough to play
and Walter is just around for the ride toward the end
misgivings and the inevitable doubts
waiting for me tentatively
in the empty apartment each night
but washed away on every new nights sleep

wanting it to be over
wanting it to last forever!

this has been good for me
“has it been good for you?”

all the empty moments I spend seeming to add up to
what?
patience for the long haul I suppose
proving that I could endure the romance of it all
Show Biz and all its glitter

watching re-runs of old TV programs
I hadn’t watched the first time by
always waiting for something it seems
two and half hours eight times a week
surrounded by the ennui of “doing for myself”
not something I was ever trained to do
and still not taking the time to properly measure it out
like lessons in the life of an actor off stage
thinking: “I’ll think about it later in the quite of my real life.”

I wonder
will I? think about it later do you suppose?
or will I just forget these empty parts
remember the moments
every night before my first entrance
the energy building
the concentration beginning
to screw me into the character
stirring up that first line on stage
trying to make in “new”
will I put it all on the back burner and think about
only the next time it happens again

maybe in Buffalo in the Spring?

probably!

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