issue twenty-nine
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(2470 words)
Gay Baines
A Twenty-Minute Novel
       Elinor's clothes were always neatly pressed. She lived with her father, Casimir, in two rooms behind his dry cleaning shop. Her mother was dead. One day as Casimir was ironing a dress so she could go to fifth grade, Elinor said, "Stop ironing. My legs hurt." She became very sick, then got better. The school doctor pursed his lips and said, "Polio. Lucky it wasn't her lungs." Elinor didn't let her limp hold her back. She went to the race track and picked up tickets people had dropped. Casimir cashed them in and gave her the two dollar bills and fifty cent pieces. In one three week racing season Elinor raised $127.60. She put it in the Triangle Savings and Loan, where it earned 3½ percent a year. (This was back when banks were trustworthy.) She collected bottles and returned them to Gorman's Fine Groceries & Meats. When she got older she babysat, sold candy in Fishbein's Five and Dime, ushered at the Tivoli, and helped out in Duarte Photography Studios. One day Mr. Duarte asked her to pose so he could test some new film. The pictures of Elinor were so good, he put them in his display windows. People lined up to have him take their portraits. "Your daughter, she's beautiful," Mr. Duarte told Casimir, who said he knew that.

When Elinor was a senior, the guidance counselor told her, "You should be a model." But Elinor had other ideas. She went to the Catskills and worked as a waitress. It was awful work, tiring and boring, but it strengthened her leg so her limp was less noticeable. She also saved enough money to go to Syracuse University on a scholarship to study Theatre Arts. While in college she played fifteen Ladies, four Maids, The Nurse, Mrs. Baines, Hippolyta, Perdita, Laura, Nora, and Hedda. She went out steadily with Chuck, Stu, Bruce, Jeff, Rog, Lou, and Jack, but didn't let them touch her below the chin. She pledged Alpha Omega Pi but left when she found out they would not admit Jewish girls. After graduating from Syracuse she went to New York. Casimir closed his dry cleaning establishment and went with her. They lived in two rooms on Hudson Street. Casimir pressed her clothes to perfection so she could go out and look for work or wait in line to become an actress. Here I am, starting all over again, she thought.

Eventually she got a job in Flossie's Hat Shop around the corner from Grand Central Station. One day she discovered a hat with a broken straw. "Keep it," Flossie said. "It looks nice on you." The hat had a wide brim and bunches of sticky red cherries attached to the navy blue grosgrain band around the crown. Elinor fixed the broken straw with Elmer's glue and wore the hat to her next audition. The director of Over the Primroses took one look at her and shouted, "Perfect! You're hired. Be back next week." The part was Second Chambermaid. "Here I am, starting all over again," she said to Casimir. Three weeks later Hesione Balthrop, the star of the show, fell into the seal tank at the Bronx Zoo, where she had gone to pose for publicity photographs. Elinor was the only woman in the cast who knew Hesione Balthrop's lines, so she went on in her place. After reading Elinor's enthusiastic notices in the Herald Tribune, Miss Balthrop decided to resign from the play.

After Over the Primroses closed, Elinor got the role of the Gentlewoman in the "Scottish Play." "Here I am, starting?" she began to say, but Casimir shushed her, saying, "This is Shakespeare." So she shut up and went on. This time she had some lines, and got to wear a long velvet costume and pointed hat, but it still wasn't much of a role. She had to fight off the advances of the distinguished actor who played the Doctor. He tried to ravish her in the dark while the audience was gazing at Lady Macbeth. She couldn't avoid the advances of Hector Harnish, who played Macduff. Later he played Benedict to her Beatrice, Soames to her Lesbia, Hamlet to her Ophelia. In what seemed like just another costume role, she walked down the aisle of St. Bartholomew's with him. After the twins were born, Hector had a great success in The Playboy of the Western World. Not to be outdone, Elinor revived The Barretts of Wimpole Street in modern dress, playing Elizabeth Barrett as a sexy (though tubercular) twenties flapper. She took the twins and her scrapbooks and ran away with her leading man, Jason Hurtubise (who played Robert Browning as a lounge lizard "to perfection," according to Wilhope Stanford in the New York Times). They settled in the Hurtubise country mansion in Pound Ridge. One night the twins tried to roast marshmallows in their bedroom and burned the house down. Fortunately, Elinor and Jason were able to move, with the twins, two dogs, and three cats, into the back rooms of Casimir's dry cleaning shop, which he had opened on the main street of Pound Ridge "just to keep his hand in." He no longer pressed Elinor's clothes. She had a dresser who did that for her at the theater. When Casimir ironed her long red hair she said, "I'm starting all over again," and he said, "Look on the bright side."

Jason decided to quit Broadway and go to Hollywood. Since Elinor was about to open in Candida, she returned to her New York townhouse and found Hector in bed with Ferdinand Glossop, a lead dancer with the New York City Ballet. Despite this minor setback she patched things up with Hector and they cohabited grimly until Jason phoned her collect from L.A. and said, "You must come out here, darling, it's marvelous." Elinor cried in the airport. She hated to leave the twins, but Hector promised to take good care of them. Two weeks after she had gone, Hector ran off with the au pair girl, taking the twins with him.

Elinor was distraught. Her family was flung to the winds. She and Casimir were camping with Jason in a tiny apartment in Burbank. They had no kitchen, just a hot plate and under the sink fridge. Jason said, "Never mind, darling, you'll see: it's marvelous. I've got you a part." He was right. The part was Second Attendant in Cleopatra. "I'm starting all over again," Elinor said to Casimir, but he shook his head. "You're going abroad," he said.

While Elinor was in Rome filming her three lines, she met Bruce McGuare, an Australian rancher. He was enchanted by her. "Let me take you back home," he said. "You'll love the simple life." The simple life turned out to be a quasi-Victorian farmhouse on a yellow plain with no view except a frieze of cattle and a sky full of dust. There was no indoor plumbing. Bruce did not approve of using the meager electric power for anything but work. So Elinor had to toast her buns in the fireplace, read by candlelight, and go to bed when dark fell. She was allowed to have an electric iron, but, as she told Bruce, "I'm not good at this." To Casimir she wrote, "It seems I'm starting over again." From the head office of Casimir's Cleaning Company, he wrote back, "Persevere."

Elinor bore Bruce two children. One day, after scrubbing their overalls on a washboard next to the well in the farmyard, she packed her clothes and limped to the nearest town. There she caught a ride to Sydney with friends who thought she was going for a medical checkup. Casimir wired her enough money to fly back to California. He had prospered, but she would not stay with him in his ten room house in Santa Monica. "I'm grown up now," she said. She went to LA and Burbank and hung about the television studios. A new soap opera, The Beautiful and Bland, was going into production. She obtained the role of Jessica Vicious, a red headed anchorwoman heavily addicted to several drugs. In three months her face was on the cover of TV Guide, People, and the National Enquirer.

The Beautiful and Bland was a great hit, but Elinor was not satisfied. She wanted Jessica to grow, to change, to give up drugs, to marry, to have children, to go to veterinary school. The writers tried to persuade her, then they insulted her, then ignored her, and finally killed Jessica off. When her agent tried to get her new parts, she was told that Elinor was now a character actress and would be limited to roles like Sardonic Neighbor or Feminist Professor or Mother of the Groom Who Wears a Black Dress to the Wedding. Or, if a remake was done, Glinda of Oz. Since no remake of The Wizard of Oz was in the works, Elinor was limited to taping intros to reruns of The Nutcracker and Christmas Carol, or hosting the Rose Bowl Parade.

"I feel that I'm, like, starting all over again," she said to Corazon, her housekeeper, who said, "Qué?" Soon, however, Elinor was hired for the leading female role in Greenhouse Effect of the Planet of the Apes. This required her to spend seven months in Utah. While she was away Hector sent the twins back so he could go to Vienna. Elinor scarcely knew them. They were teenagers with funny hair, and disapproved of her because she did not belong to the Actors Studio. She enrolled both of them in the Mission Academy of Liberal and Performing Arts. On the first day of school, she sent them off in the limousine, watching them wave nonchalantly in the back window. A shadow, probably the bougainvillea, fell on the glass that screened their faces. She had a moment of uneasiness, then told herself to knock it off. Fifteen minutes later the gravel under her running shoes trembled, and she saw cracks open up in the pink wall of her house. There was no electricity for three days. On her transistor radio they said the quake was not the Big One, just One of the Pretty Big Ones that precede the Big One. Nevertheless, the twins had been swallowed up quite as if they had been driven into the Pacific. For the rest of her life, she pretended that they had swum out to a tramp steamer bound for Sri Lanka.

Because of the quake, all of the movie and television industry moved to Dubuque. "Only temporarily!" they said. Elinor did not want to move to Dubuque, so she stayed in her cracked pink house with the bougainvillea. She did voice overs for local television advertisements. "Come out to Soft Spot," she cooed, "and take advantage of our once in a lifetime mattress sale! Choose from Squashtronic, Lily Pad, or Deltapedic. Buy two, get one free. Twice the comfort, half the price!" On another day she read, "Come to Brite Shop and save! Felbwein's Kosher pickles, value two nineteen, just one sixty nine this week only. Bright shoppers buy at Brite Shop!" "Come to Vinny's Values, just off I 992, for the lowest prices in latest model TVs and smartphones…"

"I feel I'm starting all over again," she said to Casimir's telephone answering machine.

"You'll find your niche yet," he said to her answering machine a few days later.

Greenhouse Effect of the Planet of the Apes was a sleeper. It did well at first in Hoosick Falls, King of Prussia, Painesville, and Albany, then gradually did better and better all over the country. Elinor was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but lost to Ellen Burstyn for her role as Beth in Beth and Axel.

Two weeks after the Awards ceremony, Elinor discovered a lump in her breast. While driving to her doctor's office, she had a heart attack and crashed into a lamppost, fracturing her skull and crushing her right leg. When she woke up in intensive care six weeks later, the doctor told her she was wise to have come to the hospital since her biopsy was positive. Her left breast had been removed, her right leg amputated below the knee, a quadruple bypass had been performed, and fluid drained from her skull. When she was well enough to hold a mirror, she saw that she was bald. "Only temporarily," the nurse said cheerfully.

As a result of the skull fracture, Elinor could not talk unless she laced every sentence with profanity.

"Goddamn it. I'm bloody starting all over fucking again," she said to Casimir when he came bearing roses and stephanotis.

"This time you may be right," he said.

"Well, this fucking time I'm bloody hell going to fucking do it fucking right," she said. She couldn't act, couldn't do voice overs, couldn't walk (her limp had returned, worse than ever), so she decided to write her life story. Casimir bought her a word processor. She wrote five hundred pages. The manuscript was bought by Vane, Sleason and Traphagen, who published it under the title Star Crossed. Elinor hobbled or was carried across the country on a publicity tour, which was unnecessary, because Star Crossed was a runaway best seller. After a year, Elinor was approached by Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, and Carrie Fisher, each of whom wanted to star in a movie version of her life story. Elinor turned them down, borrowed fifty million dollars, and made the movie herself, starring herself as herself, Jack Nicholson as Hector, Jeremy Irons as Jason, Richard Farnsworth as Casimir, and Paul Hogan as Bruce. Sigourney Weaver played her sardonic best friend Angela (a fictional addition to her autobiography, put in at the suggestion of her agent). The film was a worldwide success, and won several Academy Awards. Elinor hobbled onto the stage to accept her Oscar, leaning on Casimir and Jason.

Two days later her overstrained heart burst. Her sorrowing family (including her forgotten ex-husband Bruce and their two children, flown all the way from Sydney) sent her remains back to the small upstate New York town where she had been born, and where Casimir had his first dry cleaning shop, now marked with a brass plate. Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth McGovern all spoke eloquently of her beauty, her talent, her luminescence, her screen presence, her generosity to other actors.

While all this was going on, Elinor found herself in another world. It was a bit like her life in New York before she became famous. She sat backstage with a lot of other young women (for she seemed to be twenty again). They were all waiting to read the part of Fifteenth Handmaiden in Act Three, Scene Twelve.

"I feel like I'm starting all over again," she told the woman next to her.

"You said it, honey," the other woman said.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Gay Baines. All rights reserved.