Wednesday 31 July 2019

The Bookmark

by Mike Lee

cool beer

Thomas stared at the laptop screen as the news appeared on his Facebook page that Maurice had passed away. He let the news sink in, and became unresponsive, though not from surprise. Thomas knew Maurice was fading and was not expected to make it through the weekend. He scrolled the comments of mourning, and attendant accolades on the page, until he clicked away, and shut down. After closing his MacBook, he rose to go into the kitchen and make a fresh pot of coffee. After pouring a cup, he sat on the couch and contemplated his past with Maurice.

Thomas remembered when they worked together at the café, the one a block from Union Square that had closed nearly a decade ago. Shortly after he moved to the city Thomas got the job as a waiter.

Thomas arrived in Brooklyn with resumes and a charcoal gray suit purchased at Goodwill, with an obsessive-compulsive girlfriend and what turned out to be a delusional belief of a career in editorial during an economic recession.

Maurice trained him as a waiter. He was in a similar situation; he came to the city to be an actor. He was inspired to go into theater by his mother, who worked the stage when she was young, mostly dinner theater in the west in the late 1950s and early 60s. Maurice had laminated a newspaper clipping of her last theater notice, which he used it as a bookmark to honor her and inspire his own endeavors in the field. Thomas watched him stare occasionally at the bookmark; pulling it from whatever book he was reading. Thomas assumed this was a ritual—a good luck talisman.

The play reviewed was a production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and the visiting professional actor was Keenan Wynn. When he was a child, Maurice told Thomas that he used to spend the evening watching television with his mother. One night, during an episode of The Odd Couple, his mother gasped, pointing at the screen.

“There he is!” She shouted. “I worked with him before you were born!” 

Spotting Keenan Wynn was a personal connection to the entertainment industry, to dramatic theater, in the years before her son’s existence, a life raising him while working as a medical assistant and transcriptionist, the latter position she held until she had a stroke.

While cleaning up the house after his mother died, Maurice found her theater notice performing Ibsen with Keenan Wynn in the Catholic Bible she kept on her nightstand. The following year, Maurice moved to New York to pursue his dreams of acting.
He sometimes wondered if they had dated. Mom did date a lot, supposedly, before she met his father several years later, in Las Vegas. The father wasn’t Keenan Wynn. Maurice didn’t know much about him other than he was an asshole and a criminal, and his father only saw him once when Maurice was a baby.

He held him briefly before handing him back to Mom and left shortly thereafter. His mother told him that she put Maurice in his crib, gathered all the photographs of his father and burned them with the fall leaves in the backyard of the house they shared with Maurice’s grandparents. 

Maurice resembled his mother, so other than a vague description that he had sandy hair; he knew nothing of his father’s appearance. Maurice did admit he shared his rage, but his dreams of fame coincided with Mom’s. Therefore, he was an actor.

These stories he told Thomas after the lunch rush, while sitting in a booth, both counting up their checks before clocking out and leaving the restaurant.

Like his mother, Maurice did a little dinner theater, performing in productions in Westchester County and Long Island, returning to work at the restaurant after the season ended.

*  *  *

Thomas got a full-time editorial job and quit the restaurant. Several months later he broke up with his girlfriend and found a sublet in the Lower East Side. Maurice helped Thomas move. It was a hot June afternoon, hauling boxes of books and record albums up the flight of stairs to a shotgun apartment in an old tenement building on Ludlow Street. Thomas paid him a hundred for his help, which helped cover some debts Maurice had. He seemed to owe someone something. Usually it was not a lot, but enough of a burden for him to notice by how desperate Maurice overworked when carrying the boxes up the marble stairs into his new apartment, and the gratitude he showed when Thomas handed him the cash.

In September of that year, Maurice stopped by the apartment and absent-mindedly left the book he had been reading behind. Thomas meant to return it, but Maurice missed the get-together, and at the following meet, Thomas forgot to bring the book. Later, Maurice was offered another part in a community production of a Tom Stoppard play in Poughkeepsie, and for reasons unknown did not return to New York. He drifted off without leaving a forwarding address. It wasn’t until months afterward that Thomas found out from a mutual friend that he called from a hospital in Cleveland. This was the last he heard about him for years.

In the meantime, life moved on for both, a Palo dug between them, uncrossed. Thomas found another girlfriend. Got married and had a child. Moved up the employment ladder, eventually became a senior editor at a men’s magazine. He continued to write, publishing a few short stories and for two years had an agent and a novel making the rounds of publishers. There was promise to be had, though opportunities turned out to be badly aimed arrows.

Eventually the couple divorced. Thomas moved to Brooklyn, with weekend visits, support payments by check on the fifteenth. Kid grew up, went to college. The ex-wife moved to California. They no longer spoke; there was no longer anything to talk about.
When he and Maurice reconnected online, Thomas offered to mail it to him. Maurice politely responded no. Life had changed, he said, but Maurice noted the thoughtfulness in Thomas holding on to it. Later, Maurice revealed the extent of his illness, wishing Thomas well.

Thomas went to the bookshelf and retrieved the bookmark, placed in a trade paperback of Hermann Hesse’s Beneath the Wheel. This wasn’t the book Maurice had brought with him, and Thomas no longer remembered what it was. 

Thomas stared at the notice he held, contemplating how significant this old theater notice was for Maurice, and earlier for his mother. For Thomas, the bookmark was a reminder of why he came to New York, where his own aspirations were eventually sidetracked. Despite some occasional successes, they were not the ones he initially wanted. He dwelt on the notion of a mother and son eventually crushed by the demands of the life they were handed by fate and decision to have him instead of the one they wanted.

He placed the bookmark down beside the computer at his desk and went back to work writing another story. He paused to glance at the bookmark: I think Cheyenne, Wyoming. Ibsen, A Doll’s House, starring Keenan Wynn. The reviewer noted Catherine Lyvere’s role as Nora. At that, Thomas returned to work.

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