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  The Loose Fish Chronicles
  Excerpt From a Memoir in Stories  by Beverly A. Jackson
 
  •  The Green Dress — 1960
    Fancy Soaps — 1961
  •  Dreams and Dreads — 1961
  Sleeping With Marilyn —1961
  The Bermuda Triangle — 1963
  Old Bucks and New Wings — 1964
 
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Old Bucks and New Wings — 1964

As newlyweds, we move from Tom’s Jane Street studio apartment to a one-bedroom in the same building. My new husband, I discover, has a love for Early American colonial-style furniture and wants to furnish our place with antique pieces which he hunts down around the Village. I know nothing about antiques, so I acquiesce, letting him shop and choose our decor. He converts an authentic narrow rope bed into an uncomfortable sofa. Delivery men unload simple square chests, unadorned bureaus. The oak claw-foot table and chairs and the Tiffany style hanging lamp are the only things I love in an otherwise puritanical tableau. Then he buys an upright piano. He plays. The things I don’t know about my new husband are many.

His interests are wide. A philosophy major in college, he recites Ludwig Wittgenstein quotes, like “An inner process stands in need of outward criteria,” which is, well, Swahili to me.

Our wedding bands are silver, set with lapis lazuli stones, all because of a poem by Yeats named “Lapis Lazuli” which I do not understand nor can I figure out what it has to do with our marriage, but I’m too intimidated to ask. When I do find the nerve to ask for definitions or explanations, he admonishes me for intellectually “not really trying.” He effortlessly quotes poetry from Yeats and Keats, leaving me impressed, feeling inferior and suspicious. I do believe he married me to torture his father, who disapproves of him (and me) in every way.

Tom ‘s about-to-be-published book of poetry is a fabrication. There is no publisher. I answer our phone one day while he’s waiting tables at the Bistro, and it’s a theatrical agent, telling me that he has an audition set up for Tom.

“An audition for what?” I ask, confused.

“An off-Broadway show.”

It takes a few seconds for the truth to sink in.

When I confront my husband with this information, he admits that he’s an out-of-work actor slash waiter like everyone else in New York.

“I didn’t think you’d marry an actor,” he says, looking down.

I just shake my head. He’s so crazy.

He grins and shrugs. “I’ve always wanted to publish a book of poetry. It’s been a dream of mine.”

Shortly after that, he announces he’s got an understudy role for the road company of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff.” I can’t believe he’d actually marry me and leave me behind to go on the road. He’s super excited about going, and I sulk.

“Why don’t you take a couple of acting lessons, and come with me?” he suggests. “I’ll get them to audition you for the understudy of the girl, Honey.” I agree, and a young director friend of Tom’s comes to our apartment and gives me a few basics. I start to get excited about the trip, and about acting, but oops, the road show is cancelled. Probably another lie. Who knows?

Tom gets an understudy job in a Broadway show, “A Case of Libel,” starring Van Heflin, Sidney Blackmur and John Randolph. (It turns out that Heflin is the same hulking type as Ed Shelton and also drinks as much.) The show runs for a few more months, and then closes, leaving Tom unemployed once more. My steady paychecks support us. I change bookkeeping jobs, from small ad agency to jewelry company to import/export company. This is for an infamous old Socialist, a drunk around the Village, named Edward Fitzgerald. In his day, he says he was a newspaperman for the Daily Worker, a close confidante of Walter Winchell, and a force in the Communist Party USA in its glory days. He says the FBI infiltrated the organization and everyone fled. This, even before the McCarthy hearings. Now he runs a small, seedy company that does business with Red China, importing all kinds of small products from satellite regimes, like paprika from Hungary, and exporting all the free government brochures that can be gotten from the State Department. I peruse the literature on chicken farming, chemistry, and animal husbandry. I have no idea if it’s legal or not, but it makes me uncomfortable. Also, he’s never at work, so I spend long days by myself, in a warehouse near the river, depressed.

I start job hunting again, and with great excitement, land a bookkeeping position with the American Heritage Publishing Company. Their offices are in the Fred F. French building on 45th Street and Fifth Avenue. Uptown, corporate and prestigious. I pinch myself. Things are taking a turn for the better. I share the accounting with a dour faced woman who resents the work being split up, and soon quits. I am almost immediately promoted to Accounting Department Manager, given a raise in salary and I’m delirious with joy. At last, a job worth doing. And they let me do it all, alone. I learn to live in an uptown world, wearing grown up clothes and honing accounting skills I never knew I had. My old Marilyn Monroe image is no longer appropriate so I begin to tame my hair color with a beige toner, and change the style. Since Marilyn offed herself, she hasn't been as popular. People just see her as sad, and that's not how I want to be seen. 

James Parton, the President of American Heritage, spends most of his time behind large ornate wooden doors in the executive offices. He always dresses in three-piece suits and is formal to a fault. We are shocked when, in November, he suddenly pops out of his office without vest or jacket, wearing red suspenders. He strides up and down the halls, tears running down his face, yelling “Go Home, Go Home, Everyone, Go Home!” We look at each other bewildered. My phone rings just as Parton passes my department and it’s Tom on the line.

“The President has been shot and killed,” he says.

I can’t take it in, not all at once. If James Parton hadn’t confirmed it, I’d think Tom was making up one of his compulsive fish tales again.

Out on Fifth Avenue, there are throngs of people, a tsunami of humanity with tearful faces, some sobbing openly, all moving toward bus stops and subways, scurrying to get to their television sets.

It is an eerie funereal pandemonium, with bowed heads and hushed voices. I think to myself that everyone will remember where he was on this day. It’s unbelievable.

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There has been little sex since our courtship, and Tom and I both stray back to the bars, to our own single lives, while sharing the Jane Street apartment, more like roommates than spouses.

I catch Tom in the No Name buying drinks for a woman I never saw before. We have a scene. I am not really jealous, but feeling that I should be.

Tom takes a job in a regional theater somewhere down south. He calls me long distance. “What do you think about getting unhitched.”

I’m not surprised, and a little relieved. We’ve been married less than a year.

He gets a quickie divorce in Arkansas on the uncontested grounds that I “fuss and nag.” We both laugh at that, and I move to a studio apartment on Bedford Street.

Ironically, I start taking proper acting classes with John Lehne. Tom studied with him and thought he was terrific. Once I am good enough to audition, I give up my American Heritage job (where I am told the door is always open to return) and wait tables at night, so I can make rounds during the day. I am tired of being the responsible citizen while everyone around me pretty much drops out and does what they do.

A neighbor gets me an invitation to a party at James Baldwin’s. He’s a charming man who holds court seated at his dining room table. “Call me Jimmy,” he says. They are casting for his production of “Blues for Mr. Charlie,” so I tell him, heart beating out of my chest, that I’d like to audition. He cocks his head and agrees that I might be right for the Jo Britten role, and gives me a copy of the script. The next morning, I show up at the ANTA theater with little sleep, but lines committed to memory for my audition scene.

When my turn comes, I set up two chairs to represent the other characters in my scene. I cannot see the audience behind the bright lights, so I ask “Shall I start?” “Yes,” someone calls out. I do the scene with the passion of all my training. The house lights come up and a short, jaunty man walks up to the apron, and says “That was quite good. What was your name again?”

“Badge Jackson,” I say. (I have taken a childhood nickname as a stage name. Initials on a baby cup “BAJ” quickly became Badgy.) I feel my knees go to jelly as I recognize the giant celebrity before me. Burgess Meredith, in the flesh.

“What have you done?” he asks.

Done? My mind races. What have I done? The world seems to implode. I look out at the audience and see Cheryl Crawford from The Actor’s Studio. My God, why didn’t Jimmy tell me who was holding the auditions. My voice quakes as I say, “Uh, Mr. Meredith, I’ve done a lot of scenes in my acting classes and ...”. My god, I can’t lie to Burgess Meredith. Besides I have no photos, no agent. What have I done? I say, “But otherwise, uh, er, nothing.”

He smiles. “Thank you, Madge.”

The thing about acting jobs is that you can’t get them if you haven’t had them. Who knows how you ever get them? But Burgess Meredith said “That was quite good.” Joy!

Tom leaves the Village, or so the gossip goes, and I don’t even get the chance to tell him about my big audition. Ann Wedgeworth is the name of the unknown girl who gets my part.

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There’s rumblings about Viet Nam and the possibility of a war coming on. Everyone discusses whether there’ll be a draft. I have no idea why Tom is 4-F, but most of the arty Villagers joke that they will claim everything from flat feet to mental disabilities to keep them out of combat. Nightly, TVs in the corners of dark bars broadcast ominous reports until someone drowns it out with jukebox music. A possible war is the elephant in the corner of every saloon. For me, it’s a daily reminder of my dead war-hero father. The father I try not to think about, who I never got to know. I am furiously anti-war. We all drink hard, feigning apathy, but the political rhetoric gets louder as the nights wear on, and I medicate my own inner wars.

I am doing just that at the Bistro when a voice behind me says, “Hey, you grew up!”

I turn, looking into the face of Ed Shelton. He looks older, or maybe it’s just me. It seems a lifetime has passed since last we met. There’s a jackhammer jabbing from inside my chest, but I assure myself that I’m no longer star-struck or naïve, just happy to see him. I can barely contain my glee, but pretend indifference.

“It had to happen,” I say.

He orders a martini, and tells Jim Butcher to get me a fresh one.

“I hear you got married.”

“Yeah, well, now I’m unmarried.”

“Did you get the soap?”

“Fuck you,” I say grinning. He leans in to kiss my mouth. And just like that, we are together. For real. It’s like some emptiness is instantly filled. This man is my father, friend, lover. It’s just meant to be. It’s in the stars. It’s destiny. Some people never find it. I can’t explain it, or want to. I love him.

He needs to find a show and is close to broke. I let him move into my one-room apartment on Bedford. Ed’s mother lives on the Lower East Side, and for years he has used her spare room for storage, so he doesn’t need a lot of closet space, and I don’t have much. We get a double bed at the Salvation Army to replace my single.

I have the day shift at the Ninth Circle, an upscale Village steakhouse, waiting tables, making decent money, so I handle the rent and bills while Ed looks for work. He quickly resumes his post at the pay phones. I soon discover the enigma of Ed’s telephone addiction. It’s true that stage managers have to hustle for “the next show” and half of Ed’s phone calls are job searches. I listen as he leans against the booth, the receiver cradled head to shoulder.

“Hey, how are you, man? It’s Ed Shelton, just back from a road gig.” He winks at me. “Oh nothing you’d care about, a non-equity thing for a little cash. What are you up to? What have you got for me?” His voice is strong, urgent, upbeat. And then the heavy sigh as he hangs up the phone, slumps and downs his drink.

But the rest of the calls, at least half of them, I find out, are cross town to East 9th Street where his aged mother, Eunice, lives and whom he seldom visits. He speaks to her several times a day. A widow, she is lonely, he explains. He warns me that it’s no-one’s business. I keep his secret but am mightily amused.

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I find new celebrity being Ed’s Woman. Suddenly I am privy to the inner circle of the saloon cliques—included in conversations, let in on jokes, and invited to private parties. Jim owns the Bistro, and Ed is one of his best friends. What Diana has enjoyed for years, with Jim, is now suddenly mine too. I didn’t realize just what a close knit group they are until I am included. Bar and restaurant owners in the Village keep close associations to fend against or cooperate with the forces at their door: Mafiosi, liquor vendors, local police and politicians. It is nice to feel included.

The Corner Bistro customers, our old gang, are gradually morphing from their bohemian roles however. One passes the Bar exam. Another gets a novel published to great reviews. I start to see our crowd taking on grown up problems, bearing children, and leading adult lives. The freewheeling days and drunken nights recede slowly in front of my eyes. Diana announces she and Jim are talking marriage.

However, Ed does not slow down his pace. I can’t keep up with his drinking, and if I don’t, he continues on his nightly rounds without me. He has trouble finding work. His first job after months, a non-equity revival of a vaudeville show, “Old Bucks and New Wings,” closes after eight performances. He has even more trouble getting paid for the few days of rehearsal. While I am working, Ed is at the Bistro, regaling anyone who will listen with funny stories of the buck and wing comics, and overweight strippers—doing impressions, and cadging drinks. When I meet him after work, our drinking goes on into the night. We don’t eat proper meals. We don’t spend much time alone.

A sex life is almost non-existent. He is either too drunk, or incoherent to make love. If I complain about it when we draw sober breaths, he resorts to his ardent performance of cunnilingus.

I finally push him away. “Stop it. I want us both to make love, “I say. “You never let me love you.”

He sits on the edge of the bed, his body jack-knifed, his head in his hands. He shakes his head but says nothing. What can he say? It is a breakthrough in my self-denial to accept that my super-masculine, charming lover is impotent. Has been so for years. As that truth comes to light, for me, Ed’s disposition begins to darken. Drunk, he will lash out in angry sarcasm if I cross him in any way. I seem to bitch constantly about everything but sex. Fuss and nag.

I see him very differently now, but there is still some strong draw to him that I can’t stop. It’s not what he says or does, but the way that he carries himself, dramatically, proudly, like he owns the world. Like he owns me. Every time I decide to end it, I feel his power over me. He knows how to endear himself, but Diana insists that I just like bad boys. I figure I must be equally bad in her estimation, for she clearly doesn’t think much of Ed. She claims he’s a bad influence on everyone she loves. She has caught Jim out drinking with him when he’s supposed to be working or doing chores. She has seen me falling down drunk too many times.

Peter Coley comes into the Bistro and announces that Bill Kirkaldy (the painter who slept on my couch) went down to Mexico, got drunk and waded into the ocean fully dressed. The customers stare at him blankly. Is this going to be a funny story?

“A fisherman found him floating dead.” Peter’s voice catches.

Bill’s only 36 years old. A tragic waste of extraordinary talent. The Village goes nuts. Weeks of nightly discussion ensue as to whether it was undertow or suicide. Jim and Ed are both devastated along with all the patrons that knew him over the years. It’s surreal. Everything about my life feels surreal. In my acting classes, scenes seem more real than my life.

The serious fighting between Ed and me starts around the holidays. His mother Eunice begs him for a visit. Ed insists I go with him to meet her. I resist but end up going against my better judgment. After a serious argument, I give him money for Eunice’s Christmas gift, which he drinks up before he reaches a store. I end up buying a coffeepot, gift-wrap it and entrust it to him only on the day of our visit. I have to work a partial shift, and meet him at the Bistro at three in the afternoon. He is already bombed, and boisterous. The coffeepot has been left behind at one of his many bar stops. We have our very worst fight on the way to his mother’s.

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At her front door, Eunice looks at me like I am a bug.

“Hello,” I say, extending my hand. Eunice scowls, rushes past me and throws her arms around Ed. He stumbles up against the wall under her considerable weight.

“Hey, Ma,” he says, his words slurred, pushing her off him. She leads us into the apartment.

The living room is crowded with overstuffed furniture. Every surface in the room is covered with squares of aluminum foil on which sit fat little blobs of dark chocolate. There’s no place for us to sit. It looks like little curls of dog shit, hundred and hundreds of them.

“I make candy every year,” Eunice explains. “Don’t touch, it’s drying.” Her housedress, draped over her big frame, is streaked with chocolate stains. Her hair’s uncombed around the beefy face of a truckdriver. This female version of Ed is almost a caricature.

Ed reels around the house, looking for liquor.

“Where’s the booze, Ma?” he says. I stand holding my purse. I’ve just gotten off work, tired, hungry, and wish desperately I was any place else.

“Did Ed tell you we were coming today?” I ask, ready with an apology.

“Sure, my boy calls me every day. He didn’t tell me you was coming though.” Her voice is harsh and loud.

“Booze, Ma. Goddamit.” Ed is slamming overhead doors in the kitchen.

“You settle down, Eddie. Got nothing here.” She follows, pushes him away from her cabinets. “Stop it now.” Ed senselessly empties a silverware drawer onto the floor. Metal clatters on the linoleum.

“Stop it,” Eunice roars, pulling his arm to get him out of her kitchen.

Without warning, he cocks his fist, draws his arm back and in a sickening second explodes with a clumsy blow that just glances off the side of Eunice’s shoulder. The old woman topples like a Christmas tree over the kitchen threshold, and grabs at the back of a chair. I scream. Chocolates from the tabletop and chair fly through the air, scattering over her, the linoleum and the dirty carpet.

“Get up, Ma, get up,” Ed says, trying to help her rise. She struggles against him, dazed, a look of bewilderment on her face.

“How could you?” I scream. Out of control, I dance across the carpet. “Your own mother! You filthy drunk!” He kneels, red-faced and belligerent, trying to lift Eunice.

She’s on her knees now. Chocolates fall off her like surprised roaches. Her eyes narrow and rivet meanly on me.

“Get out of my house,” she says. “Don’t you talk to my boy that way. You get out!”

Trembling, I leave. Tears freeze on my face in the cold December air as I walk cross town on Fourteenth Street, going fast, cold and desolate.

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I am resolute, ready to demand he leave, but he doesn’t come home for two nights. Then it is with roses, and sober. I see that his only good jacket, one that I bought for him, is now dotted with dropped cigarette burns.

“I’ll change, you’ll see,” he promises. “We’re good together, Bev baby, give it a chance.”

His eyes brim with tears which in turn wrench me with pity.

“I can’t handle the pain, Ed,” I say, shaking my head. But his big bear arms are already around me. His face nestles in my neck, that familiar comfort of his size. I forgive him. At least a little.

We are never really close again, but he staggers home every night, sometimes clasping wilted roses for me in his drunkenness which always hurts my heart. We have two more months together. But I am busy waitressing, acting lessons every week, and keeping my distance from the bars where Ed drinks. We go about our lives, skating on superficial civility, avoiding the inevitable, but I give him no more cash. I still pay the rent, but he finds his daily sustenance elsewhere. God only knows where. Rumors abound about other women, none of which I doubt.

One spring night he comes home after closing hours, around four a.m., and I am sound asleep. He leaves our bed to go to the bathroom, takes the wrong door and ends up in the hallway. The door locks behind him. I awaken to loud knocking at five a.m. It is the police, with Ed in tow. Apparently he had wandered down the stairs and coming back up, had tried to enter the downstairs apartment by mistake. He’s stark naked. The old woman beneath my flat called New York’s finest who are not too gentle with an uncooperative, unclothed drunk. Ed insists that he lives there. When the neighbor finally puts it together, and the cops are able to stir me from sleep, I come to the door in a bathrobe, confused and exhausted.

“Does this belong to you, Lady?” a Sergeant asks, a sneer on his mouth. Ed, a fleshy travesty, his hands over his genitals, cowers behind him, gripped by another uniformed cop.

He is pale, unshaven and red-eyed. I stand there looking at him for the longest time. Through my tears, his face mutates and dissolves like one of Kirkaldy’s paintings. I think of poor drunk Kirkaldy’s descent into the black undercurrents of the Pacific when all the tequila, senoritas and self-deception couldn’t ease his pain. The dark undertow always waiting. I shall not drown. Not even love will bring me down. Ed winces as if he can read my thoughts and drops his head, hangdog.

“No, Officer,” I say. “He lives here—temporarily, but he’s definitely not mine.”

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  © Beverly A. Jackson, 2011
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