Spring/Summer 2006, Volume 22.3
Speak Up, Voice
Sarah Sarai has worked as a file clerk for warrant officers, caretaker for a Quaker meetinghouse, assistant to casting agents on the lot at Paramount, high school English teacher in L.A., and college lecturer at Antioch's Seattle campus, and Fordham, Pace, and BMCC/CUNY in New York. Her formal education is unequally divided among Cal-State, L.A; St. Johns in Santa Fe; and Sarah Lawrence. Currently, Sarah lives in New York City. Her stories have been published in Tampa Review, Antigonish Review, South Dakota Review, Webster Review, and others.
The voice kept its distance from Phifee when she hitched from Buffalo to Santa Fe, and even that summer she spent in the rocky comfort of the Sangre de Christo mountains, cooking and washing up for a group of vintage hippies, the nicest being Glenda who'd been born once and then again. Phifee scraped plates over a mulch pile while Glenda told her stories of L.A., of martyrs to the as-Glenda-called-it industry and Phifee, who was now scouring burnt beans from a pot, looked up to witness in Glenda's face the sadness and mistakes of those people. She knew that she—Phifee—was different enough to withstand L.A.
And the voice—L.A. could be the springboard.
New Mexico has places to stay, still there; she decided to leave. As Phifee squeezed dry a sponge, Glenda hugged her and promised their souls had connected. Phifee figured it was possible. She considered driving a cab in Boston where she had a friend, or going to see the Dead in the Caribbean, but finally she helped a man in Albuquerque take care of business, and pleased herself by buying a bus ticket to L.A., city of the industry.
She rented a room at the Edna Flambeau Apartments for Women on Sunset Blvd., a section of Sunset she hadn't anticipated, close to Vermont Ave., in a nameless neighborhood. At the fading Edna, she shared a hot plate with a roommate who showed her classified ads. It was the acting workshops that drew Phifee, although, as she was determined not to return to Buffalo, she entertained a theory that L.A., plain and simple, might be okay regardless of a person's industry. But she didn't need a theory; Phifee had purpose, and L.A. wasn't plain or simple.
And there was the voice—as yet unheard.
Ink from the classifieds smudged Phifee's hand, and the coins felt smudged on her palm as she punched numbers into a phone in the hallway. The first number was answered by a machine booming out more height and breadth than she had, not that she was much: five-foot, with blond hair in a braid down her back. She hung up. Roland answered the next number with "So you're new to L.A.?" His acting studio on Melrose was a room painted gray, at the end of a narrow, dark hallway; it had a couch that was once a Plymouth's back seat. There were stools, pillows and boxes.
His hair was black, thick and curly like his beard, and his soft lips were such an embarrassing shade of red she couldn't stop watching them as he talked. He repeatedly copied the same few paragraphs from Stanislavski in a journal: an acting technique. Roland was tall but his body had a funny contour as if he were once fat. While stroking her hand, he lisped possibilities. They were intimate for an afternoon, after which Phifee knew he wasn't waiting to hear a voice, at least not anymore.
Marla Sangria of MS Studio, Phifee's third call, exuded rightness and vigor with a sultry underlay when she provided directions. Phifee was wary of being crushed; she'd had nightmares of her mother Agnes rolling on baby Phifee like she was biscuit dough. When Phifee shrugged a hello, Marla crisply shook her hand, pointed out a row of movie theater seats and suggested, "Sit, watch a class, get to know us and let us get to know you." Life decisions, according to Marla, were delicate, and there were no rights or wrongs as long as decisions were made. Indecision was an enemy. This made sense to Phifee. She gripped her seat.
"Acting...," Marla's long, thin fingers stroked her maroon hair, as if it could purr, "is getting in touch." Her students lay on the floor, accepting light into their bodies, foot by foot, ankle by ankle, shin by shin, calf by calf, right/left, right/left on up. Marla's soothing timbre directed the energy and turned crisp when she reprimanded for lack of concentration. Eyes were closed. She was zeroed-in, Phifee decided, to notice wavers in attention. After the warm-up, volunteers enacted impromptu scenes.
"Why don't you listen, Mom," one student improvised, mingling passion and gloom in the one-syllabled Mom. "This is the last time I'll ever see you," etc. He'd been speaking to an answering machine, and the applause was thunderous after he mimed shooting himself. His tears were real, but it was hard to say if he'd heard the voice. Phifee thought not.
During the break, Lila, who'd studied with Marla for eight months, welcomed Phifee and revealed that she fought her training as a dancer. "Makes me look unnatural on stage." Actors can't be too rooted as, yes, Phifee learned, "Acting is a flexible, fluid art form—but a rooted one." Lila confided a name producer was scouting a part for Marla. She was a hot property, and Phifee believed she would get cast and take Phifee along, up up up, with her. If there was a voice—if?—Marla would hear it.
So Phifee enrolled and the next day applied to be a waitress at a big name club, rock and folk, on Santa Monica Blvd.—but the manager didn't like her look. Next she tried a nearby breakfast and lunch cafe, a nook, really, not a big name or a small one, but just a place, an eatery, where it was her great fortune to get hired. So what if big name club rock and folk passed on her. Less than a month in L.A., and she had employment and
Someone or something wanted to tell Phifee something about someone. Once Phifee called "Hello?" late at night. Her roommate gurgled in her sleep.
When she'd been in L.A. for six months, entrenched in the workshop and analyses of her goals and ultimate purpose—fixing in the clay-like cosmos an indentation for herself—she phoned her mom. She wanted her scrapbook with its early signals of her net result, snaps of her in the university stage crew that one semester before she realized the futility of surrounding herself with people without a direction, people who couldn't strive except to climb the insides of the box. She wanted the high school year book, of which she'd been editor.
"I'll send that and pots, pans, blankets, your sewing machine, the Time/Life book on plumbing and Quirk." Her cat.
"No, Mom." There was no room for Quirk at Edna Flambeau.
"You damn kid." Agnes's voice was gravel on a back road. "Treat me like shit. That's the last time I help you." Phifee hung up so softly neither of them was aware of it, and after a second's contemplation, during which she refused to believe she was in this scene, Phifee lifted the receiver to tell her mother good-bye—she heard the sound of Agnes hanging up. It had taken Agnes a few moments to realize her daughter wasn't listening. Phifee cried, but was grateful she didn't hear her mother's tirade, bitter like an apple seed.
Residents at the Edna weren't supposed to be permanent, but no one asked her to leave and Phifee felt it important to remain on "Step One" for a full year. Everything takes time in L.A., even if one is on the rise—assured one is on the rise—and she knew better than to cheat herself of participation in a necessary process. Life's gentle, intelligent currents propelled her, from 1 to 2 or C to D, at the right time.
By the end of that year she was ready to advance from beginning to intermediate workshops—and she was ready to move. She found an apartment farther east, off Vermont Ave., near L.A. City College. The room had a Murphy bed, an almost extinct sleeping device, and a kitchenette. Then, an agent, Al Maraschino, signed her. "You got something, doll," Al said, dunking his plain bagel in his almost-white coffee. "They don't know from bagels," he complained, "but from stars, this city knows." He winked nicely, which made Phifee blush, bite her upper lip and smile so her dimples showed. While Al's office was on Hollywood Blvd., and Phifee was by this time aware that Hollywood Blvd. did not align with its mythic reputation, she felt Al, too, was on the rise, part of the golden web she was weaving about herself, outside to in, like a spider. Al—and Lila—and Phifee had not risen to the top. Still she realized the inviolable necessity of patience and its increased magnitude when jointly experienced, as at a prayer meeting or a séance where the energy expands multifold, not simply that her and him and him and her equal four people laying in wait, but all of them participating in a chemical reaction which causes a wholly new creation, fluid and smoking.
She got wind of an opening at Laytner and Hovel, Casting Directors. Shirley Laytner needed help until her niece arrived from the East Coast. Phifee quit waitressing at the cafe to work with Shirley—a woman who knew how to look. Shirley took in Phifee's person with such completeness Phifee was reminded of Quirk, her cat, who would look at her like that—look, proceed with his business, start and look again as if he'd caught and questioned Phifee's current thought. Quirk and Shirley. Both could interrogate without saying a word.
Laytner and Hovel was hopping, and when Phifee occasionally lost a call or didn't hand over a phone slip with daredevil speed, Shirley had a tantrum. She was not an uncommon phenomenon in the industry, a suspicion confirmed by Lila: "The whole town is a prima donna."
Both of the TV series Shirley was casting were canceled after six shows, but Phifee knew Shirley would get more work and would remember her after she left, which Phifee would do—leave Laytner and Hovel, Casting Directors, because of Shirley's histrionics. Still she felt she owed Shirley money for the education, the lesson being that casting agents eyed you.
Unlike the voice which would talk to you. Or not?
Phifee ordered a photo resume with different poses conveying her range. Slicker composites were available, but it was about the feelings sparked in the viewer, not the quality of paper. Her upward journey was not diminished because she quit; in fact it went up a notch because she'd met important people.
"When they want you, they're the soul of forgiveness, trust me," Al reasoned.
The voice didn't chip in an opinion.
In early June, Marla left for Mexico, telling students to call her service on the 30th for the date of the first class in July. Phifee didn't call until the end of July. She got distracted.
Not by the voice.
But by Vernon, an L.A. native who wanted to manage a group. They met in Lila's kitchen at a party. "I've invited my neighbors so no one complains about the noise."
Vernon lived in the one bedroom apartment directly below, and he talked up most everyone, but was taken with Phifee who out of kindness handed him a cold bottle of beer. He invited her to little clubs and medium-sized clubs and even big clubs, and at each one hustled to win the musicians' trust. Although he hadn't been a manager, Phifee saw he was on the rise—he had push. Vernon would call club owners, projecting his singular rasp from his deep chest and large, hard belly, call and talk plans, and somehow, when Vernon and Phifee showed up, they got in gratis.
Marla had assigned an exercise, before leaving for Mexico, to rephrase song lyrics and present them as a monologue in July; but Phifee didn't make it until August, when she brought Vernon.
"Honey," Marla took Phifee's chin in her hand, "I've seen so many fall away." She got her eyes on a direct line with her student's. "I want you to trust me." Phifee mentioned Vernon might manage her, and Marla gave her a look that made her feel like a plant wilting before a camera. "You're letting him take you over. You didn't forget about the workshop. You made a choice. You chose to forget."
"There's only so much anyone can teach you." Vernon clasped Phifee's upper arms and squeezed.
Although Phifee dropped out of Marla's workshop, she knew she hadn't wasted time memorizing "Many a New Day" from Oklahoma. There were many new days in life, she philosophized.
"You're living in a dream world." Far way in Buffalo, Agnes was harsh. "You've been there over a year. Nothing's going to happen to you. Get out and earn money. Grow up." Phifee stood as still as Quirk getting ready to pounce on a kingfisher; she waited for guidance, but nothing and no one spoke up.
The voice certainly knew how to play dumb.
Vernon ran a finger down her forearm. The couple had rented a courtyard apartment, made plans, settled in. He monitored machines in a vibrating room in a security systems company next to a freeway overpass; all four walls and a center aisle were lined with electrical indicators of disruption and trouble. When the boss transferred him to the p.m. shift, Vernon quit; he needed his nights.
On her own, no Marla, no voice, Phifee found a showcase theater and memorized two monologues. Unfortunately, she shook when she was on stage. After each of her five tries Vernon took her back to their apartment and sat on the couch, close, so she could feel the push between their bodies. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to," he reassured her. "If you don't want to go on that stage, don't."
Al Maraschino met her for decaf. "You'll know. When it's time, you'll know."
"Take it easy," Vernon cautioned. "I'll always be here for you. I'll always love you." He rubbed her back and brought her to the bed to lie down with him, close, like two people in a bunker, intertwined and protective.
L.A. suffered rough weather for a season, rain and more rain, with daily reports of mud slides and lost homes. The city was not just a desert. Phifee saw a green patch on the wall one day. Vernon told her it was mold and washed it off, but her skin felt prickly. They scrubbed the bedroom walls. Rain kept coming. Vernon pointed to an area of slack under their bungalow, still water with no run-off, an incubator for mold. The landlord stopped by.
"Your boyfriend's check bounced," he complained, "and this is the second time." Phifee didn't know about the first time, so she didn't say much. She shut the door and went to lie down. She itched. Vernon didn't understand. He understood the events—the landlord and his perturbation—but he fogged over on the subject of his check. Once trouble begins, it doesn't stop. Phifee answered the door another day, and the man with the bulging muscles, the man who always told her "You're my delight to help" when she bought cottage cheese or tomato paste at the little market, said Vernon's check bounced twice. Phifee stumbled onto the mattress and realized her skin was getting worse and that all this was pulling her from her purpose by loading her heart. Ida, who owned a pet shop in a green wooden building, low and one-story like a gas station in the desert, phoned. Vernon had showed up at her store for conversation regarding memories of childhood dogs, and he had written a bad check for cash.
Vernon assured Phifee. "Things will look up; they are already, looking up. Can't you feel it? You feel it, you do, I can tell."
Phifee hadn't heard from Al Maraschino, and bussed to his office. The door was locked. As she walked down three flights to avoid the creaking elevator, Phifee composed several messages. She achieved clarity. On the lobby's marble floor lay a discarded take-out menu; she scribbled she was ready to move, and walked back up, knowing each step was a signal of her resolve. She slid the menu under Al's door.
"Listen, doll." Al didn't say hi on the phone. Phifee described her career stall, Vernon, and the mold. "Sublease," he instructed. "But in the meantime…" He told her about another client, Wade Sand, who was back in Dayton on family business, and offered her the key to Wade's house.
Vernon was surprised Phifee was leaving.
But she left. Lila's boyfriend drove her and her army green duffel bag to Wade's little guest house, a distance from the main house on a lot up Beachwood. A Nicaraguan family had squatted while the owner's divorce was in arbitration. Neighbors complained to the realtor, and now it was empty.
Phifee scrutinized everything but heard nothing from the voice.
Al abandoned his office and moved to Pacoima, way out in the Valley, far from the hub, a move not merely coincident with Phifee's. She was
thrilled he too was approaching his career from a more subtle vantage. They were ready. Wade wrote a post card from Dayton, telling her to stay. The realtor forgot her. She secured jobs down the hill, first at a switchboard, then at a quick-stop copy center. She counted pages and ran them off. She thought. She counted. Counted. Thought. One day she walked past her lot to the crest of the hill to look down on L.A. "I'm there," she pointed, in case the voice didn't know, "halfway down the hill, a guest in a house behind a house." Marla's advice had been, "Never let them know you're hungry." Phifee said what she said and returned home.
"Hey, hang in there." Al called. "Rome wasn't built in a day." She repeated the words she'd announced to L.A. and the voice. "I like what I'm hearing," he said. After they hung up, Phifee whispered "I'm here" ten times, treating the two words like song lyrics, shifting between iambic and trochaic interpretations.
Although her mother didn't know where Phifee was, Agnes' words were insistent: "Get real."
"I am." Quirk heard Phifee's answer. Quirk was back with Agnes. Phifee knew that, but her sense of Quirk was real.
One morning she woke with dreams scrambling in her head. Everyone in Tokyo was fleeing. Silent hordes of Japanese people were on the run, looking back, mystified, and in terror. By the time Phifee was alert, the earthquake ended. In the bathroom she noticed a tube of mascara on the floor—not her brand, Maybelline, or color, Sable.
"Doll, you okay?" Al asked. "I saw King Kong when I woke up. Doesn't sound like there's been much damage anywhere. But, kid, exercise caution."
Phifee squeezed her eyes and curled her hands into fists. Still no message. And what was worse was Agnes, who was now in L.A. "If you won't come home," she threatened, "I'm staying in this dump with you." She'd hired a detective to find Phifee, then flown out to induce her daughter to return to Buffalo. They'd been together six days.
Surely this was the time for the voice to make itself heard.
Lunch on day seven was Danola ham sandwiches and pickles. After eating, Phifee led Agnes to the top of the hill, hoping for intercession from Martians or Crips. Extraterrestrials or gang members. No luck with either. Agnes had a look on her face.
"What is it, Ma?" Phifee moaned.
Agnes clapped her hands in front of Phifee's eyes; a slap would have been easier to tolerate.
"Why'd you do that?"
"Because I think I heard something." Phifee's mom, shorter than her
daughter but strong as a village of marauding peasants, held up her hand like it was a landing pad for a hummingbird; shaded her fierce blue eyes. Phifee rubbed her cheek and followed Agnes' gaze, ears ringing. She couldn't be sure. Was it a motor revving that she heard, or a mob? Phifee believed it was drawing nearer. She clasped her hands to her heart and waited while Agnes' eyes narrowed to slits of contempt.
Nothing—and no one arrived.
"Ma, don't you miss Buffalo?"
Many of Phifee's peculiarities were quickly and loudly listed. She cried into cupped palms.
"Do you understand, you ungrateful child, this is it, do you understand?" Agnes stormed into the guest house where she broke a lamp.
Soon after, Phifee was out back. Sweat beaded on her brow. Her armpits were sticky.
Phifee heard the voice, not loud, but clear.
She heard: "Kill your mother." Her heart beat like a puppy's tale. "Kill Agnes."
"Yikes." She rummaged the grounds for a weapon and found a machete in the Fiberglass tool shed. Who knows how it got there. She liked its heft and experimented with whishing the blade, decapitating a red bottle brush plant. She heard a rustling behind her, but she didn't turn around. Her spine was the surface of Lake Erie in winter.
"What are you doing, Phifee?" Agnes demanded.
This was Phifee's moment, and she waited, testing the power of the voice, its commitment to her.
"Your mother…," the voice repeated, "do her! You don't owe that woman anything."
Phifee's shoulders dropped; her neck felt loose and easy. What a deliverance it was to hear those words. That woman. Don't owe. The machete fell from her hand, and she crumpled to the ground. She felt many eyes upon her. Marla was there, and Lila; they observed and noted her technique, the realness of her manner, the newly discovered authority.
"Could you leave, Mom?" Phifee asked, raising up, one elbow on the dried scrub grass. "Could you move out of here?"
"You're breaking my heart." Agnes' face crumpled. Grief?
"I know a guy, he can help you find a place to live, unless you want to move back to Buffalo." Phifee heard hope in her own voice.
Later, she descended the hill to scrounge around the club scene for Vernon, who wanted to start up again. She responded, "No way Jose." Who knows what he thought, but he found a place for Agnes who had money and helped him out while he was helping her.
One day while studying a movie poster at the Los Feliz Theater, she realized Glenda was standing next to her. Glenda—from Santa Fe! She was wearing an Ankh instead of a cross, and her hair was now short and black, with a Cleopatra-look. It was the thick bangs. Very even. Glenda listened to Phifee's story about Agnes which she proclaimed "liberating," adding that Phifee looked good and that Glenda, for herself, had decided to give L.A. another try. "Look, you've survived." Did Phifee want to room with her? "Yup," Phifee decided.
"There's always a next step." Al thought she was ready to climb the stairway leading up; he threw some money on new glossies. "You're gold, doll, total gold."
And from Marla, who she ran into on Rodeo where she, Phifee, applied for a job which she, still Phifee, almost got: "You didn't let him take over." Close enough to the truth, just as Phifee was close enough to a serene disinterest in audible signs and a solemn desire for a stationary life. She would write her cousin to send Quirk. The arrangements would take some time, but when Phifee, at last, collected Quirk from the airport, she apologized to the feline who hissed and jumped from her arms, streaking across the parking lot, stopping, as if to see if she would follow.