Eight lines lit up and Tracey reached for the phone. Aurelio pushed her hand away. “Watch me,” he said. He started with the top blinking light and worked down—“Good morning, The Adrienne, please hold. Good morning, The Adrienne, please hold. Good Morning, The Adrienne, please hold,”—until all eight were quiet, pulsing lights.
“Sorry,” Carol said, her guitar case bumping Tracey while maneuvering the small room.
“Gig after work?”
“No, the open mic. Never know who’s gonna be there.” Carol sat on the only other chair, a metal folding one they’d pulled up off the street. They shared a cigarette.
“I should quit,” Tracey said. “It’s killing my voice.”
Carol was a few years older and had given up acting to write songs. “It gives mine character,” she said, inhaling. A mutual friend hooked them up as roommates. Tracey wasn’t crazy about Carol’s long curly hairs clogging up the shower drain, her guitar picks on every surface, or her late night phone conversations with someone named Zofo, but she wasn’t home much and they got along. Besides, you couldn’t make it without a roommate.
It surprised her how few opportunities there were for auditions if you didn’t have an agent or weren’t in the unions. Still, Tracey diligently highlighted potentials in Backstage as instructed in her Success in Auditioning class at college. She mailed out headshots to casting directors, agents, theatre companies. “Take advantage of everything,” her teachers had said.
“Showcases, student films, readings.” She’d gotten an A and was proud of her organized, black, three-ring audition notebook containing three 8×10 headshots (comic, legit, commercial), five monologues, and several 16-bar selections from Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim. She had one good audition outfit, a flower-print dress belted at the waist, low heels, simple gold hoop earrings. She was ready.
“Did you find any good listings in Backstage when you were acting?” Tracey asked.
“No. Backstage sucks.”
The listing read, STUDENT FILM: Two females, 25 yrs. Close enough. Script provided. That was all it said. It was for that afternoon. She’d go before her evening shift.
She exited the subway at W. 110th, holding down her coat and flower-print dress. Wind pummeled her legs and face. She carried her audition notebook even though the ad said a script would be provided. Preparation = Success, her teachers had said.
She didn’t know this neighborhood. She’d never seen Columbia or been above 96th street or auditioned for a film. She was early and had a nervous stomach, so she walked. She ducked into a phone booth to check her service. Hi! You’ve reached the phone service of Tracey Hecker. Please leave your—she pressed the asterisk. No messages.
On Amsterdam Avenue, she found herself looking up at an enormous cathedral. St. John the Divine, the sign said. She’d never heard of it. Immense and otherworldly, its shadows spread over the surroundings like dark fingers. She admired it from the sidewalk as others rushed past, bumping her shoulder.
She found the address and walked up four filthy flights of stairs, where forty girls waited in a hall that smelled of plaster and urine. They were wearing jeans and smudgy black make-up. She felt out of place in her flower-print dress, but she reminded herself that she was a professional and had gotten an A in her Success in Auditioning class. She addressed the line with authority. “Is there a sign-in sheet?”
“Up there,” answered a girl with intentionally messy hair.
Tracey flounced up to the list and signed her name on the sheet, practically ripping the paper under the ballpoint.
“Is there a script? The listing said they’d be a script.”
The girl shrugged.
Two hours later, they called her in and asked her to have a seat on a pink velvet divan. A man’s voice called from the back. “Tell us a little about yourself, Tracey.” Three of them sat against the wall, a woman and two men. The camera rolled.
“I’m Tracey Hecker. I have a degree in Theatre. I have summer stock experience in New Hampshire, and this past summer, I was in “Callin’ Up Country” at the theme park, Colonial Adventure, in Virginia. Six shows a day, six days a week. I had two solos. Never missed a show.”
“Alright.” They spoke in whispers to each other. Tracey squinted into the light. “Anything personal you’d like to share with us?”
She went blank. Wasn’t what she said personal? “I had a cat named Piggy growing up.” She lied. The cat’s name was Peanut Butter, but now it seemed she was going to have to be interesting. Oh no, what if they asked her why she named him that?
“Are you from the Midwest?”
More whispering. “Tracey, this twelve-minute film, although not yet written, is going to be about the transformation of a young woman.” The young man was walking over, twisting his mustache with his fingers. “A bildungsroman, if you will. Do you know what that is?
“Yes.” She didn’t.
“The character’s been a good girl, following the rules, but life isn’t working out, and now, she is very angry. Yes?” He tilted forward, his bushy eyebrows raised. Tracey nodded. “We’ll keep the camera rolling, and we’d like you to say one line five different ways: Karen, you’re not even going to offer me a glass of water? Ready? In five, four, three, two, one–
By the fifth time, Tracey was shouting the line–Karen, you’re not even going to offer me a glass of water?—to a clock on the wall.
“Good. We’ll bring in Nina now. We’d like to see the two of you improvise a scene. You’ll each have a goal to work towards in the scene that the other will not know about. Your goal is to kiss Nina. Deeply. Passionately. She’s going away, and you may never see her again.
“Should I call her Nina or Karen?”
“Nice connecting. Very sharp. Call her Nina. Let’s keep it real and intimate.”
Tracey slid her audition notebook underneath the pink divan. They brought in Nina, an Asian girl with long, black hair to her waist. The woman from the casting table walked over to Nina and whispered something in her ear. Her goal.
The camera rolled. Nina walked in circles on the wood floor. Tracey patted the divan. “Nina, we need to talk. Come sit.” Nina went up and down on her toes, pretending not to hear. “Come sit by me, Nina.”
Nina finally walked over and sat, but before Tracey had her opportunity, Nina reached down, snatching Tracey’s notebook.
“What are you writing about now, Tracey? You’re always writing in this book.”
“Give that back!”
Nina jumped up with the book. “Night after night, writing your lies!”
“That’s my personal—”
Nina opened the binder and ripped out the first page—Shakespearian sonnet, number fifty-eight—crumpling it up into a ball in her shaking fist.
“Don’t!” Tracey grabbed a fistful of Nina’s hair and made her sit on the divan. Then she planted her full mouth onto Nina’s. There was a little clinking of teeth. Tracey gave a sharp tug to Nina’s hair and she dropped the notebook. “I love you, Nina.”
“Cut! Great job ladies. You’ll get a call tomorrow if we’re interested.”
Tracey took the wrong subway downtown, then got turned around and had to walk thirty blocks. Finally she arrived at her corner, 1st and 74th. Why hadn’t she brought sneakers to change into? Preparation = Success. And she’d have to stand all night at The Adrienne.
“Good afternoon, The Adrienne, please hold. Good afternoon, The Adrienne, please hold. Good afternoon, The Adrienne, please hold.”
Tracey shifted in her cheap pumps. Third Avenue blurred out front. “I can’t believe they think they can get reservations for tonight. Who do they think they are?”
“You’re officially a jaded member of The Adrienne. Welcome,” Aurelio said. “Only fifteen taps to right–dog. One hundred and two to left-dog. What is it about left–dog? For over eight years I’ve been trying to figure out why they love left-dog.”
It was that quiet stretch of day between lunch and dinner when The Adrienne was closed and waiters began to arrive for the dinner shift.
It became clear; hosts were at the bottom of the English-speaking restaurant hierarchy. Waiters walked right past without a nod. Or they might say, “You have the easiest job.” But they were all smiles when they wanted the count. Everyone wanted the count.
Tracey’s first week, Chef had asked for the count, and she quoted the lunch numbers. “Eighty-five?” His eyes lowered, seeming to rest on her cheap shoes.
“Uh-huh.” The sound of her high voice surprised her.
“Really, eighty-five?” A heat came off him through his white coat. His face was always some shade of crimson.
She nodded again. “Yes, Chef.”
He stepped around the host stand to view the page. There, in the top corner of the lunch page, was “85.” He looked at her, licked his index finger, and turned several pages ahead to dinner reservations. Where the count would normally be, there was nothing—just a grey smudge from the number being erased over and over.
“Oh,” she said, “You meant dinner.”
He pulled on his ponytail. “I always mean dinner.”
“I’ll count it right now, Chef.”
Aurelio was returning, and quickly, when he saw Chef with Tracey. “Good afternoon, Chef. We’re currently at 192 this evening, sir.”
“Thank you.” Chef trudged up the staircase to his office.
“How did you know that?” she asked.
“I don’t. But it’s a good guess. I was just about to do a recount. Doesn’t matter, he’ll ask again in thirty minutes.”
“He gets so mad.”
“He’s a Chef. Chefs are always mad.”
Then there was Gary, the maître d’, an obsessed neurotic who would call on his days off.
“Good Morning, The Adrienne, how may I help you?”
“What’s the count?”
“Are we up from one-sixty-three yet?”
He sighed into the receiver. “I heard Michael called out sick. Oh, god.”
“Enjoy your day off, Gary.”
A bum walked by and rapped on left-dog’s nose, then smeared something on the tail. “I don’t get it either,” Tracey said, “Why do they love left-dog over right-dog? They’re exactly the same. Just once, I wish right-dog would win. I’ll wipe him down before break.”
Aurelio grabbed a line. “Good afternoon, The Adrienne, how may— Non preoccuparti, è tutto OK. Relax, Papa. Vorrei essere a casa presto.” He hung up and straightened his tie. “If you get a call from a crazy man yelling at you in Italian, pass it to me. My father has Alzheimer’s. He lives with us.”
“Sure.” She imagined Aurelio taking the long subway ride to Brooklyn. Climbing dimly lit stairs to his apartment, his wife stirring a pot of lentils for dinner, his father, a large elderly man with an overgrown mustache, standing in his underwear yelling into a telephone. “Sorry,” she said. He nodded.
They stood in silence staring out the glass doors at the blurred traffic.
“I think I should change my name. For my career.”
“Hecker is not bad.”
“It sounds like heckle. What about Tracey Haddonfield? Or…Tracey Haddington?”
“Sounds like a character on Dallas. You’re probably too young to know Dallas.”
“My parent’s watched it. They always made me go to bed.”
“For Nashville, you could change your first name. Like, Dakota. Lucinda. Or Bunny.”
Was she considering Nashville? She’d mentioned that. She’d told Aurelio about George, the guitarist in the “Callin’ Up Country” show, who she’d been seeing all summer. George had talked about moving to Nashville to pursue a music career, but he was still living at his parent’s house in Virginia.
“If I go. I mean, I just got here. I want to do the New York thing.”
“What type of actress do you want to be?”
“…Everything? We’re supposed to be able to do it all. At school, they wanted us to be well rounded. Castable. I sing, but I love doing straight plays. Stepping out into the dark, becoming somebody else. A Soap is a steady paycheck. The movies would be fantastic.” She ran fingers through home-dyed yellow hair.
should focus on what you do best. I like to paint, but cartooning is my thing. Forget about what they taught you. Find your thing.”
“I’m not sure what that is. I just know I’m supposed to be here.”
The Amtrak train inched out of Penn Station into the outside train yard, the winter morning, grey and filmy. Tracey sat in the smoking car, looking out the window. The yard was quiet and still. A few lonely lights, green and red, blinking. Doesn’t feel like New York here, were her last thoughts before the train was swallowed by a dark tunnel, taking it down and under the Hudson River to the mainland.
Tracey hadn’t seen George since their goodbye at Colonial Adventure, months ago.
They talked on the phone once a week, unless he was busy. She asked if she could visit.
“Sure. I guess you could stay here.”
She told Aurelio the day before, “He wants me to meet his family. His mother!” Aurelio winked, giving her the thumbs up while simultaneously answering the lines.
She lit a cigarette in the smoking car that she occupied with one other gentleman who sat in the very back, lighting a new cigarette every twenty minutes. George didn’t like her smoking, and in fact, insisted that she double gargle with Listerine before he would lay a hand on her. He was very serious about it. One time, he’d already gotten her T-shirt off when he stopped and ordered, “Gargle.”
Out the window, the underbelly of Baltimore passed. She smiled thinking of George and his round metal glasses. There were no people in view, just the backsides of crumbling apartment buildings. She’d never been with anyone like George before. A military type. Countless lines of gray laundry blew stiffly in the winter chill. George’s father was the musical director of the Air Force military band. George was expected to follow that path, although Tracey knew he had dreams of Nashville. “Militant military musicians,” she’d teased George. He didn’t find it amusing. George’s playing was also a bit mechanical, but he could play anything. The Baltimore ghetto seemed endless, as the train passed more piles of trash, broken fire escapes, burned out windows. Here and there, a few doors were painted in distinct bright colors. So they can find their way home.
Nine hours later, she arrived in Virginia, gargled and perfumed. On the platform George embraced her, then backed away.
“There was this horrible man who smoked the entire trip. There were no seats in the other cars,” she said, as a tiny group of people exited the non-smoking cars.
He laughed, “It’s OK. It’s good to see you.”
They arrived at the house, a modest three-bedroom brick ranch. No one else was home. He took her straight to the guest bedroom where they tumbled violently around the room naked. Five minutes in, her ankle knocked a small pelican figurine off a shelf, and it shattered.
“It’s OK-it’s OK-it’s OK,” he said.
She was still naked, kneeling over the broken bits sweeping them up into a magazine with her hand. “Will your mother notice it’s gone?”
“Not for awhile. When she does, I’ll make something up.” He looked at his watch. “You should get in the shower. She could be home soon.”
She looked up at him, surprised he’d taken such a chance knowing his mother might be home soon.
George’s mother made baked chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and canned peas for dinner.