Because of the number and severity of the stab wounds and the disorder of his room, which indicated a violent struggle, the death of Horton Smith Juaire Jr. was at first listed as a homicide. It was not until after the autopsy and a detailed forensic investigation that Horton Smith Juaire Jr.’s death was officially reclassified as a suicide. Even hardened homicide detectives (and there were few unhardened homicide detectives in that part of Oregon, or for that matter, elsewhere) were shaken when they realized that Horton Smith Juaire Jr. had stabbed himself eighteen times with a fish-boning knife and then placed a plastic dry-cleaning bag over his own bloodied head to ensure the end.
A few thousand miles away on the upper West Side of New York, Ben Calendar did not know that there had ever existed such a person as Horton Smith Juaire Jr. He knew only that there was an award given in that name to the author of “the most promising unproduced play in America.” The award carried with it a cash prize of $3,000 and the offer of “a full production” at the New Playwrights Theatre of Nugent, Oregon.
Ben Calendar had applied for the Horton Smith Juaire Jr. Award—as he had applied for perhaps thirty other prizes—and he did not expect to win. When the letter arrived, he first thought that the acceptance of his play, The Misbegotten of Mosholu must be a misprint.
It took him a moment to accept the glad tidings that “from over 465 candidates,” he, Ben Calendar, had been selected as the first winner of the Horton Smith Juaire Jr. Award. Ben buzzed the intercom to announce the news to his wife, Eileen, upstairs in 6R. Eileen had claimed to believe in him, but in the past few years, she had come to believe in the impossibility of success in the theatre even more. After seven years in “developmental” theatre, Ben’s plays had been given hundreds of staged readings, even workshops, but not a single bona fide production.
“They produce only the junk,” Eileen said, offering her anger as sympathy.
He rode, his spirit ascending with the creaking automatic elevator, to 6R. There, he found Eileen within, rinsing fusilli. For the past three years, they had eaten little but pasta and chicken wings. With the new visual acuity given to him as a winner, Ben saw how his wife had aged. She looked as if she had been flash-frozen: Her hair and face were oddly blanched. A white stripe, skunk-like, parted her once-shining black hair. She stared at the letter and said, “I’ll believe it when I see a check for $3,000.”
Ben was bitter. He breathed his bitterness back at her, tasting bile and the espresso that was his main sustenance. She had failed to believe, while others, in Nugent, Oregon, had faith in him. He was a winner now, the winner; his luck had been reversed. He did not have to be dragged down by Eileen’s bleak view of life, instilled by her nominally born-again grandparents, who had lost their business, a string of gas stations, during the Great Depression.
With her eye for the deflating detail, Eileen pointed out that the postmark was over two weeks old. Ben read aloud the final sentence: There had been an “open call” announced in the Nugent newspapers, and the casting process was already under way. He would have to fly out west, tonight, tomorrow, at the latest. The theatre would reimburse him for his travel expenses.
“Reimburse?” Eileen almost spit the word into the kitchen sink.
“If I won the Nobel Prize, would you ask if they were going to reimburse me for the trip to Stockholm?”
“You can’t take the money for the trip out of our joint account,” was her rejoinder. “I forbid you to buy a round-trip ticket to Nugent,” said Eileen.
“You forbid?” he repeated. “You forbid me, a man of thirty-seven, your husband of eleven years . . . You forbid?
Eileen’s wintry face tightened, shattering into myriad fine lines. At once, she appeared as if fashioned from the same distressed “crackleware” china as the café au lait cup she held to her now-shriveling lips. She showed gum above her teeth, which had yellowed and appeared pointier (although there was no denying that she was still a beautiful woman), as she answered, “Yes, I forbid. I forbid you to throw away money that I worked hard for, at a job I hate.” She was referring to her job as art director at a bridal magazine, a position that inflamed her as “day after goddamned day.” She was forced to stage fluffy brides in idyllic settings when, as she put it, she “could have been the next Diane Arbus.”
“If you go . . . ,” Eileen enunciated with care, “If you go, do not come back.”
That night, Ben bought a nonrefundable round-trip ticket to Portland, Oregon, the city closest to Nugent. He flew on the red-eye, afire with conviction.
At Portland Airport, a representative of the theatre was waiting to greet him. She was a middle-aged woman who struck Ben as formally dressed, in a royal blue suit and matching hat, an ensemble which would not have been out of place on the Queen Mother, whom she somewhat resembled. The woman introduced herself as “Judy LeClerq, assistant to Guthrie Graham, the artistic director of the New Playwrights Theatre of Nugent.” Judy LeClerq had been assigned to drive him to Nugent and would be chauffeuring him to and from the theatre. Did he want to see his accommodations or go straight to the theatre?
“Straight to the theatre,” he answered without hesitation. What difference did it make where he stayed? He had been heartened by a fax sent by the theatre that had asked his preferences—did he like modern, motel-styled accommodations or antique-filled Victorian inns? He had puzzled over the queried details—“Will you require air-conditioning? Do you have allergies? Do you like dogs?”
As they drove the two hundred miles across Oregon, ever ascending to a woodsier, mountainous terrain, Ben reflected that his driver, Judy LeClerq, was not at all the person he had envisioned. When he read her faxed reply to his acceptance of the award, he had pictured a Judy LeClerq who was more Cher-like, a lean half-breed in deliberately torn jeans with a tattoo or a piercing or two. Ben had to concede that he took a bit of comfort in the actual Judy’s almost forceful ordinariness. She wore two pairs of plastic framed eyeglasses, one propped atop the other, through which she regarded him with a magnified milky blue gaze. Popping Mylantas, Judy drove well under the speed limit in her late-model Buick. She confided that she had taken time off her regular job as an operating room nurse in the urology department of Nugent Hospital to manage the theatre festival.
“We wanted to rent a larger space,” Judy LeClerq said as they pulled into a parking spot in downtown Nugent. Nugent appeared exactly as Ben had imagined it: a rustic Red Grooms collage of covered sidewalks, two-storied porches, and the occasional hitching post. The local mountain, Mt. Nugent, rose white-capped to crown Main Street. Country music spilled from every open shop door, and men wearing red diesel caps could be seen popping in and out of the swinging saloon doors. There was a “ya-hoo” in the air.
Judy LeClerq continued, “The Ibsen Festival has taken everything.” She led him through a saloon-styled swinging door. “This venue is great and the ice cream parlor will open for fifteen minutes during intermission.” At the back door, he saw a printed poster that proclaimed: “New Play Fest! Double World Premiere of Two Exciting New Plays: Cry of the Gerbil and The Misbegotten of Mosholu.” Even in his daze at seeing a second play listed, Ben noted it was subtitled “An Incest Drama.”
A flight of stairs led to the theatre. As he followed Judy LeClerq, Ben heard himself say, “But there’s only one winner, right? And I’m the winner?”
Judy LeClerq stopped in mid-stair. “Oh, what you must be thinking! Of course you are the winner. Cry of the Gerbil was the second-place finalist. But Guthrie Graham was excited enough about Suzan’s play to say it merited a full production, too. So we’re doing the two plays in rep. We had an open call and they were cross-castable, which saved us a bunch of money. We were able to get a dream cast that can double for both plays. So the daughter in Gerbil will be the mother in Mosholu, and the father in Gerbil will be the young boy we assume is really you, forgive me if I’m wrong about that.”
By now they had reached a second floor, where a short cardboard sign forbade entry with the Magic-Markered message: “Gerbil rehearsal. Quiet.”
Sssssh. Judy led him into the theatre that was a black box, a style that could not have been more apropos—as the moment he stepped inside the small square room, he felt his expectations compress into a cube of dread. The place was less than miniscule; twenty-four chairs arranged around a crude-cut lumber stage. A shower curtain had been rigged so that the actors could make entrances and exits. The artistic director, Guthrie Graham, was a slight figure, clad all in black, chain-smoking and addressing his cast in the cracked rising inflections of late adolescence. Judy answered Ben’s unspoken question regarding Guthrie Graham: “He’ll be eighteen in October,” while adding her own assurance, “but he’s a genius.”
Ben could not fault the boy’s artistic directorial manner, or lack of manners—Guthrie Graham ignored Ben’s entrance while affecting a sustained absorption with only what took place onstage. His cast, a boy and girl in matching plaid shirts and jeans, writhed on what struck Ben as a rather formal green velvet fringed chaise lounge, considering the play was taking place, according to Judy’s whispered aside, “right here in Nugent at the end of the Vietnam War.” All the furnishings for the festival were on loan from the resident Ibsen Company, and both plays would be performed on the sitting room set from Hedda Gabler.
Ben was going to ask about a return ride to the airport when Judy LeClerq hushed him. “Ssssh. It’s the incest scene.”
Onstage, the boy finished writhing on top of the girl. A chattering mechanical mouse suddenly scooted across the stage. The girl sprang up from the chaise, tucking her shirt in her jeans and said in an important, husky tone: “And the gerbil was the only witness to what my father did to me that day.”
“Better, Suzan,” Guthrie Graham intoned. “Tom, you could appear more tortured. Your face should reflect the self-loathing and that you are flashing back to atrocities you committed in Nam. And Judy . . .” Guthrie Graham spun around to address Judy LeClerq. “Can somebody get something better than that thing? You can tell it’s not a gerbil; it’s a mouse.”
“I can get you a real gerbil,” Judy volunteered. “Why don’t we just use a real one?”
“Because,” Guthrie Graham answered in his high but authoritative whine, “the real one will do doodies.” Without missing a beat and regarding him only in his peripheral vision, Guthrie Graham acknowledged Ben—“Love your play, so glad we’re doing it,” as he passed him en route down to the parlor. Then in his truest artistic directorial delivery yet, he turned before exiting and said, “And the prize money? You’ll be given it on the last day of the festival. We’ll have a ceremony. Open to the press.”
And then, click, click, Guthrie Graham tapped the heels of his riding boots and was gone.
Ben stood in the center of the black box. He could overhear the actors talking among themselves, and it was clear from their conversation that they had taken leave of their more usual occupations in Nugent’s two industries: pear packing and logging. Ben squinted at the boy and girl, Tom and Suzan, and imagined them portraying his middle-aged Jewish parents, on the set of Hedda Gabler, altered to evoke apartment 17K at 2367 Mosholu Parkway, the Bronx, circa 1991.
Ben accepted his fate. He was ready to check into his room.
“You’re sure you don’t want the modern motel?” Judy LeClerq asked again, as she drove up to the Victorian-style inn. She had been silent as they pulled up to the well-kept gingerbread mansion with its tended hedges and close-cropped lawn. “You’re absolutely sure?” she said again as she left him, standing with his suitcase, at the door to Juaire House.
Night had fallen, with violence and seemingly too soon, as it does on steep mountain streets. It was only four o’clock, but a shadow descended upon Ben as he waited for an answer to his ring of the door buzzer. He noted the lace at the windows, the still-flowering geranium and blue lobelia. All bespoke a neat, pretty, well-run establishment.
Then the door opened. She stood there, backlit by a chandelier. She was immense, giving new meaning to the old expression, “big as a house”. She seemed wide, unbelievably wide, as wide as her center hall. Her face, however, was not fat but thin, the head appearing to belong on a different body. As if the woman knew this, she seemed to continually swivel her neck to achieve a better fit.
As a boy, Ben had nightmares that if he were to open the closed door to an unknown room, he would surprise a monster in there, an amorphous black shape that would swell to fit any dimension. Meeting the proprietress of Juaire House was the closest he had ever come, in life, to encountering such an apparition.
“Hello,” she said in a flat voice. “I am Helene Juaire.” She waited a moment, swiveled her neck, and said in a level tone, “Horton Smith Juaire’s mother.”
“Oh,” said Ben, smiling. “The award I won.”
“Yes,” she said, “it’s my money.” He followed her through a well-waxed hall, past several rooms lit and aglow, prepared as if for guests. They passed a dining table, set for ten. Silver shone and crystal glittered.
She moved fast for such a heavy woman, and Ben followed her massive, shelf-like rear end, which was encased in a shapeless white garment. Her rear was so massive, so oddly shaped that Ben almost doubted its credibility. The woman seemed to inhabit herself as a costume, her hips functioning as the hoop skirt. Helene Juaire led him past a second floor, lined with prepared bedrooms. None appeared occupied but Helene led him to a second flight of stairs, narrower than the first, and said, “I’m putting you in Horty’s rooms.”
As he ascended the stairs, Ben detected an odor, not overpowering but pervasive, and then a second scent, a chemical floral that must have been used to mask the first smell. Then he heard them, their nails scratching the wooden floor as they scrambled to the door at Helene Juaire’s approach.
“They are hairy dachshunds; the girl is Mitzi and the boy is Astro. They are brother and sister, but they may try to mate. Don’t worry, though; they’re fixed.”
Astro and Mitzi had been Horton Juaire’s pets, and they had outlived him by two years. Helene Juaire gave Ben complicated instructions as to which rooms on the third-floor apartment the dogs were allowed to use and which they were not. Ben noted the rooms were hot and close, stale with doggy odors and room freshener. He eyed the dormer windows and saw that they were kept shut. The heat of the vanished day permeated the attic-like space.
Otherwise, the rooms appeared fine. There was a good-size bed, an easy chair with reading lamp, a computer, a desk. An open door gave way to a small blue-tiled bathroom, spotless, with a ridged blue mat. The dogs’ room was similar; the dogs shared a queen-size bed. Their names were embroidered on the pillow shams. Dishes of water rested on the scrubbed linoleum floor. Ben noted one wall was stacked to the ceiling with towers of thin magazines.
He thought of the bedrooms on the second floor, with their tucked comforters and ruffled shams. He was about to request a room change when Helene Juaire said, “I made this apartment for Horty after graduation. It gave him a feeling of independence to be up here, in his own apartment. Almost like going away to college, like all his friends did. He had terrible asthma. He was twenty-two when he died.”
“It’s a very nice apartment,” Ben heard himself say.
She broke off and asked if he wanted any supper.
Ben said thank you but he wasn’t hungry. He wanted to get in some work on the play. “You always have to revise a lot when you go into rehearsal,” he told her.
“You’ve written a ‘new’ play?” Helene Juaire confirmed.
“Yes,” he said.
“Good. There are enough of the old ones,” she said and then left him alone in the apartment with Astro and Mitzi. Ben ran to the window and tried with all his might to open it only to find, that like all the windows in the apartment, it had been nailed shut.
It was a reflection of his own deteriorating mood that he was, after a few hours, glad that the dogs were there. He opened his manuscript of The Misbegotten of Mosholu, but it seemed irrelevant in this setting. Instead, he began to search every drawer and closet in the room, not knowing what secret he hoped to uncover. The first tower of magazines stacked against the wall turned out to be adventure journals, chronicling the exploits of men who braved jungles and staggered across parching deserts. In the closet, Ben found model airplanes, suspended as if in a holding pattern. He saw a manual on fish-boning but did not yet connote its importance. He did find the young man’s play. A massive asthmatic son lives with his massive mother after the father deserts the family. The son has difficulty breathing in social situations. He seldom goes out except on errands, often to obtain toiletries for his mother. Their entire lives are, as the play describes them, “a stasis.” Act One shows Howard, the boy protagonist, lying in “an emotional coma.” The mother is heard only as an off-stage voice telling him to get up, not to lie there “vegetating.” The boy never moves and the lights rise and fall on his inert form.
A single diary entry was also found on the desk: “Mom bought me a laptop for my birthday. I know she meant to be nice but I can’t work. The words are like little black soldiers, and I can’t make them go where I want . . .” There was nothing more. Ben found a second stack of magazines, taller than himself, this time the entire collection of People, dating back to the initial issue. These bore labels addressed to Helene. Ben read the magazines, year after year’s worth, noting how ill-fated so many of the celebrities seemed to be when you read of their romances in reverse. Burt and Loni for example. Two decades of People magazine gave one perspective, Ben noted, before he fell into Horton Smith Juaire Jr.’s bed and an anguished sleep.
He was awakened by the creak of the stairs outside his door and the heavy footfalls of Helene Smith Juaire. He knew it had to be Helene. He heard her breathing outside the door. His own chest froze, and he felt an electric prickle at the nape of his neck. Hairs really do stand on end, he observed. What seemed like many minutes passed, then he heard her moan, and in a cracked voice, ask, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
His heart began to hammer, and he thought of home, of Eileen, of their king-size bed with the cd player next to it, of the twinkle lights in the Japanese restaurant across the street . . . What had been so terrible at home? Maybe he should call Eileen. He tapped out his home number on his cellphone and held it close so he could concentrate. Ben pictured the phone, in his New York living room, near his worn leather armchair. Be there please, he prayed.
The machine picked up; the recorded announcement was not his own voice, or Eileen’s. It was an electronic voice, belonging to no one but a new machine. “Eileen McCracken cannot come to the phone. Messages for Ben Calendar will no longer be accepted on this line.”
In a few minutes, he heard the sound of Helene Juaire’s steps in descent.
He rose from Horton Smith Juaire’s bed. Obeying some instinct, he flipped the mattress. He did not know what he was looking for, but he found it: a simple laminated card with the insignia of the cross and a lily, the kind handed out at a funeral. The name Horton Smith Juaire Jr. was printed above the 23rd Psalm.
“He leadeth me to lie down in green pastures, beside still waters . . . I shall fear no evil for the Lord is with me . . .” Ben tucked the prayer back under the mattress and tried to sleep. He gripped his penis for a while but only as a handlebar.
For the next three weeks, Ben commuted between the blue rooms with the dogs and the black box theatre with the actors. As he commuted daily to the ice cream parlor, he was also traveling between his present and past. Ben had not foreseen the effect the “set” of his family’s Mosholu apartment would have upon him, when it was finally assembled. He had to hand it to the set designer. She had masked the Ibsen parlor with oilcloth and squares of linoleum. Every prop—from the Welch’s grape jelly and Skippy peanut butter jars, to the peach-colored chenille bedspread—was perfect. Suzan had created the costumes, and Ben could have sworn it was his own mother’s red rickrack apron that she wore.
Ben began to tremble as the rehearsals became more polished. Oh my God. What had he done? He was back in 1991, while his mother and father tore at one another in their checkered kitchen. “Here,” Suzan-as-his-mother said, “Here is the knife. Why don’t you just finish me off?” “Oh, you’re so crazy,” said the actor playing his father, “You make me sick; I’m getting the H out of here . . .”
Ben’s stomach seized up; he could hardly listen to the kids as they recited, in their unmistakably Oregon-teenaged voices, the series of deceits that had torn his parents apart. When his father stormed out, screaming, “You’re both maniacs!,” Ben identified, as Suzan cradled Tom as his younger self, and rocked him back and forth. He was mesmerized by the distortion that somehow let the truth rise, like a bas-relief. He recognized his desirable but moody mother, his violent, sad father, his own frightened self. He relived the Act One finish, which left Ben/Tom clutching Suzan/Mama as they both stiffened, listening for his father’s final slam of the door.
“We’re finding incredible moments,” Guthrie Graham reported. “I’ve invited the critics.”
On opening night, he dressed down: a plaid shirt and jeans just like the kids who played his parents. He walked into the ice cream parlor with a light step. The audience was made up of all familiar faces: the staff and parents of the New Playwrights Theatre of Nugent. There was a single stranger, a red-bearded man in a black windbreaker.
“No,” said Guthrie Graham, “I can’t believe it. The audacity. The Nugent Snake River Gazette sent their sports writer to cover a double world premiere.”
Ben felt the opening night performance was “representative” of what they had achieved in rehearsal. He waited, with the cast and their parents, for the review. When a stack of fresh-inked Nugent Snake River Gazettes was tossed into the entry of the ice cream parlor, Ben used his apartment keys to slash open the bundle. He yanked the first copy and read the headline that would be set in bold type in his brain forever: “Misbegotten Aborts Despite Talented Cast.”
“Take me to the airport,” he said to Judy LeClerq and Guthrie Graham.
“Sleep on it,” Judy said. “There are no flights until tomorrow anyway.”
Back at Juaire House for his final night, Ben discovered that Astro and Mitzi had panicked in his absence and chewed through nineteen years of People magazines. Then, in their distress at not being walked on schedule, they had squirted on the scraps.
When Ben bent over to collect the urine-saturated “People’s Picks and Pans,” he almost toppled over into the blue-frilled wastebasket. He had never before felt the accumulated sadness of existence with such force. It was as if he were mugged. Ben hurled himself onto Horton Juaire Jr.’s bed. He did not so much sleep as stiffen into position, still dressed in his Oregonian jeans, shirt, and boots. A tattoo of rain began, and an end-of-world lightning show played like strobes across the slanted ceiling of the sealed room.
A weight settled onto Ben’s back. His bones seemed to cave into the mattress. The rhythm of the rain beat a near-verbal refrain into his racked brain: Why bother, why bother, why bother. Then more urgently, kill self, kill self, kill self. Death comes to us all; why procrastinate?
Ben rose, took off one boot, and smashed the heel into the windows. They shattered and a wind whipped through the rooms, propelling the torrents of rain inside . . . He fell back onto the now soaked mattress and into a clammy sleep close to coma.
He was awakened by the thud of Helene Juaire’s step upon the stairs. The door opened and he was aware of her wide shadow falling across the room, engulfing him and the bed. She yanked a cord, and blinds fell across the shattered windows.
“What are you going to do? Lie there, vegetating?”
Then to Ben’s shock, Helene burst into tears. The tears cascaded down the front of her caftan, wetting its silver and gold threads. He had never seen so much fluid stream from anyone’s eyes. She wept like Niobe, who in mythology became a fountain.
He forced himself to rise and embrace her. His arms could not encompass her girth, but the contact warmed them. She shuddered with volcanic grief. “I think people do come back; I think we all get to live again,” she said. “I’ve lived before. In most of my past lives, I was a man.” She shook herself, almost like a dog, drying.
“It’s okay. Go on, go back, go back to the theatre. I want you to . . .”
He knew she spoke not to him, but to her dead son, Horton Juaire Jr.
Ben did return to the theatre, where he found the “cast party” in progress.
Suzan relayed the details of Horton Juaire Jr.’s death. The stab wounds, the fish-boning knife, the plastic bag. Later, she took him—they were both drunk—to the shore of the silvered Snake River. They watched as by moonlight a thousand salmon swam upstream to mate and die.
Perhaps inspired by their sexual urgency, Ben reached for Suzan, who was suddenly naked and able to sustain herself in a squat above him for almost an hour. The storm had passed through, and they were joined under a night sky sparkling with stars. She had pendulous breasts for such a slim girl, and it seemed to Ben, in this midnight delirium, that she could toss her breasts backward over her shoulders. There was something adorable about that, like the overlong appendages on a lop-eared rabbit. This was the single, carefree romantic encounter in Ben’s life, and it didn’t diminish when Suzan cried out, at climax, calling him “Sonny,” his name in the play.
After years of therapy and then the glum avoidance of treatment to work out his love and resentment toward his mother, this may have been as great a prize as the $3,000 that was indeed awarded to him, on the last day of the run, in a ceremony conducted by Guthrie Graham and Helene Juaire.
Ben rose to the stage after the performance of The Misbegotten of Mosholu and shook Helene’s hand as she handed him the check. He dared ask if she had liked the play.
“It was different,” she said.
He left Nugent the next day. He returned to New York, to his apartment, to Eileen, whose bitten lips refused to utter forgiveness but who didn’t ask him to leave. He never again stayed home for long. He followed his play, from small town to minor city. He went wherever they would produce The Misbegotten of Mosholu. He usually made love to the actress who played his mother and fought with the artistic director. He always received, at best, mixed reviews, but he knew in his heart he was a winner.
Laura Shaine Cunningham is a memoirist, novelist, playwright, and journalist. She has just completed a third and very timely memoir, Forbidden Russia, An American Playwright in Moscow, Belarus, Ukraine and Beyond…Her work, Sleeping Arrangements and A Place in the Country, has been hailed by critics, and excerpted at length in The New Yorker and the New York Times. Her memoirs and plays received many awards, including several NEA Fellowships in literature and theater, two NYFA awards, and a Yaddo Fellowship. Her short stories are currently published in many fine journals, including The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Columbia Journal, Potomac Review and others.
“Open Call” appears in TLR Granary.