Donna Baier Stein >

Vice President of Possibilities

 

Alison Montvale grew up in Americus, Iowa, not talking about God. She listened to music instead, mostly original cast albums on grooved black 33 1/3 LPs: South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, Carousel. The last had stripe-shirted Gordon McRae as Billy Bigelow, a Budapest bouncer turned Yankee barker by Oscar Hammerstein, and round-eyed Shirley Jones as Julie Jordan, shyest and sweetest of the small-town girls. It may have been Alison’s favorite. All her life, Alison had wanted to work in musical theatre—to weave something of the deep magic she’d experienced listening to those shiny LPs as a child. But she’d let herself be sidetracked, as grown-ups sometimes do.

The job took that most of her adult time and energy was marketing. She’d finally, in her late thirties, started hanging out on weekends backstage at a local dinner theatre in Dedham, just a few blocks from where she lived. There, she learned how to: attach ropes to flying lanterns, move scaffolding towers, run a fog machine, make sets from cardboard, follow spot lighting, build women’s 19th century costumes from metal boning, and more. All the nitty-gritty, delicious ingredients that had to be just right if magic were to occur.

One day, the director at Showstoppers fell ill. Chicken pox. Bart Warmfield would be laid up, completely out of commission, for two weeks. And the show—this time Same Time, Next Year—simply had to go on.

Heart racing, Alison pushed herself forward to volunteer.

But what now?

To avoid her own guilt at sidestepping the fate determined for her in childhood, Alison had spent years blaming her father, who was, on almost all counts, a wonderful man. But somehow she’d managed to persuade herself that it was his fault she didn’t do the work she truly loved, his fault that her first and only marriage had failed, his fault that she’d spent so long ignorant of God and empty of magic.

It was in her father’s home office, of course, that she had first heard those long-ago LPs. She would curl up in her father’s black leather chair, which swiveled so she could look out the windows to the dense hedge of emerald arborvitae that separated the Montvales’ ranch house from Fair Acres Drive.

The stereo system with its lift-up dust cover, state-of-the-art receiver, and maze of connection cables was stacked neatly on shelves in the corner closet. The records with their Spectra Sonic Sound were then the ultimate in high-fidelity. One album jacket even boasted that although the full spectrum of sound might not be evident to the human ear, audio engineers had proven these shadings were, in fact, sensed or felt, and keenly missed when absent.

Her father’s desktop was always immaculate, as were its drawers. Beyond the far corner of the leather-bound blotter, a glass bowl shone with silver-wrapped Hershey’s kisses. This bowl was always full, at least before the accident, when Alison’s mother was still alive. Alison had coveted those candies.

As a grown-up, Alison’s desk at the environmental organization where she worked as development director was piled high with stacks of paper. As was the floor.

It was definitely far from Iowa. But they had all—Alison, her brother Matthew and sister Caroline—fled the cornfields and Amana refrigerators of their home state as soon as they were grown. Carolyn landed in New York, where over the course of years, a plastic surgeon repaired the side of her face that had been disfigured in the accident, and she became senior vice president at a large advertising agency. Matt, bespectacled and thin as an oar, now sat in a small log cabin in New Hampshire, a flesh-colored leg prosthesis roosting on the footstand of his wheelchair. He could leave the chair if he wanted to but rarely did.

Of the three, Alison was the only one who had ever married. Her ex-husband had forsaken her for a Core Energetics therapist he’d been seeing, a woman who urged him to hit a tennis racket against a padded hassock to “kill” anyone toward whom he harbored angry feelings, including Alison for withholding sex from him. It had been two years since the divorce, and the only man Alison had thought she loved since was Anthony, her assistant director at Showstoppers, because his eyes held hers when they talked. But Anthony was gay.

“Bare bottoms AND fronts,” Anthony suggested now, walking into Alison’s small office at the theatre. He carried the day’s hot lunch special from The Busy B Pub down the block, a small carton of milk, and a large peanut butter cookie.

“No way.” Ordinarily, Alison supported Anthony’s out-there suggestions to liven up their shows, even for dinner theatre standards like Same Time, Next Year. But not tonight. This would be the first show she had ever directed, the first time she had seen her family in over a year.

She started to roll back in Bart Warmfield’s desk chair, its seat dented to fit his wide bottom. The chair’s wheels rolled over Anthony’s bare toes and Tevas.

“Ouch!” he said, and then quickly, so as not to make her feel too bad, “A little goosey about tonight, are we?”

She refused to answer, instead squinting at the three new silver ball earrings that had appeared overnight in Anthony’s right lobe.

“Like it?” he asked.

Alison spun around so as not to see him. Anthony’s face was beautiful—honeyed brown eyes; fine, high cheekbones; a tease of stubble along the chin. He knew she loved him. And she knew he couldn’t love her back.

Looking at the mess on the desk—it was constant, horrible, following her even into someone else’s office!—she thought of the bowl brimming with chocolates.

As a child, whenever her father sat working at his desk (even on Saturdays and Sundays), she had hoped he would tell her to help herself to a handful of them. But he never did.

How hard he had worked! Especially after the accident, it seemed. It happened when Alison was twelve, and it had killed her mother, crippled her brother, and scarred the entire right side of her sister’s face.

Her father’s efforts had paid off financially; he’d become a millionaire years ago, selling antennaes for the new color TVs that were suddenly appearing in homes, even in Americus, Iowa.

But late at night, after the children had gone to bed, he’d stop working, go down to the panelled basement and play the trumpet. It was an odd choice of instrument for him, and he didn’t play well. Lying awake in her lollipop-wallpapered room, Alison would strain to hear the tail ends of dark, blue screams that came from his horn. It wasn’t a musical instrument her mother would ever have allowed in the house.

“So when does your family get in?” Anthony held out half the peanut butter cookie to her.

Alison wolfed it down before answering. “Five o’clock. I told them to take a cab from Logan. I can’t leave the theatre then. Not when the show starts at 8:00. Can I?” She looked at Anthony for reassurance but he was busy wiping crumbs from his chin.

The shrug he finally offered could mean either, “Jeez, how could you do that to your own family?” or “You’re right not to pick them up, you’re a silly for even worrying.” She couldn’t tell.

Anthony was close to his family, spoke to them on the phone every day. There’d been a rough spot when Anthony told them about his sexual orientation, but everyone had rallied.

When she thought about it, Alison realized that her older sister Caroline had certainly managed to thrive despite their father. She had a good job, beautiful apartment, and didn’t seem to need anything more. Or at least nothing that Alison ever heard about. The sisters spoke on the phone once a week, and occasionally Caroline would send a friendly, not too revealing, e-mail from her office.

And then with Matt, nobody had ever expected success of him anyway; he was too headstrong as a child, too troubled after the accident to even seem to care. The first time Alison saw him clamp on that smooth, pink leg, she was shocked to feel something like relief. How natural it seemed, how fitting that he wear such a perfect, visible excuse. Nothing more need ever be expected of him by their Dad or anyone else for that matter.

“Look, before you start obsessing about family wounds again,” Anthony said. “we’ve got to change the lighting on George. The guy’s skin is green, for heaven’s sake. How attractive can that be, even to a bored and horny housewife?”

“Use the heavy backlight. Warm tints on the face.”

“Right. And while we’re on it, Stan’s lobby photo looks like it was taken in a wax museum.”

“Well we can’t re-shoot that now.”

Real theatres have crews for all this, you know,” Anthony said.

“Don’t remind me.”

Doing what she was doing tonight was what Alison had wanted to do all her life. This might be as close as she ever came to that childhood dream. For a moment she wondered if getting part of the way “there” might sometimes be even more uncomfortable than not getting anywhere at all.

And, right or wrong, part of her still blamed her father. If only he’d been more, different, other. If only the accident hadn’t happened.

For now, Alison was frantic. Knew for certain the curtain wouldn’t open at the right time, the actors would never remember their lines, props would collapse. The whole play would end in disaster, and Alison would know once and for all that she simply couldn’t cut it. Even in this podunk place.

She hadn’t ever really understood the play anyway, had a terrible block against it. Why wouldn’t the affair these two people had spill over more into their regular lives? Wouldn’t Doris miss George when she didn’t see him for 12 months? The audience would know as soon as the actors opened their mouths that this novice director didn’t have a clue. Theatre should never have been her life’s work anyway.

Her father had never retired. He wrote books, taught classes, lectured. His work was his passion. At least Caroline shared that common bond, and even Alison had to admire their single-minded focus.

“He’s a man who never listens,” Alison had told Anthony on more than one occasion. “Not to be mean, but simply because he has too much he has to say. He’s very smart.”

She’d grown up in a mixed religion household—her mother Jewish, her father Christian. Another reason she feared the glass bowl might empty. No one in her family talked about God; no one read the Bible. At first, Alison thought it might be because the whole subject of faith seemed too flammable to touch for her parents. Coming from different camps as they were. Later, she feared it might be simply because neither cared.

God, in Alison’s childhood, was a high patriarch existing “out there,” distant and so far removed from the Montvales’ lives and thoughts as to seem immaterial.

Now, during their one-sided phone calls, Alison’s father enthused about new speaking engagements, the latest book, the ways the computer had helped him organize his life even more. Sometimes lately though, he’d started taking Alison by surprise. Reading a new book about the Bible Code, another about communication with the dead.

“He’s an old man,” Anthony had protested the night before at The Busy B. “How frightened of him can you be?”

“I’m not frightened. He’s not a bad man. Just wait. You’ll love him. Most people do.”

He’d been nice even before the accident, Alison remembered. They had all been nice, and certainly more hopeful then.

It happened one night when the family had gone to the Americus Country Club for dinner. They’d eaten thinly-sliced, perfectly pink roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, served to them by the only black people Alison had ever seen in Americus, fresh in their starched white coats. After dinner, Daddy placed his linen napkin on the table, stood and took their mother’s hand. Smoothly, he raised her to her feet. Their mother was petite, pretty, always perfectly coiffed and manicured. That night, she’d worn a sleeveless lime-green dress, v-necked with a wide belt in matching fabric.

Alison remembered seeing her father’s fingers resting on the back of that dress as the grown-ups stepped onto the dance floor. The band in the corner played “Taking a Chance on Love.” Alison thought her parents looked as elegant and right as Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner swirling in the courtyard in Siam, or even Shirley and Gordon right before Billy Bigelow enters the back door of Heaven.

Caroline wasn’t teasing her; even Michael was being polite. The evening was perfect.

Until later, on the road heading home, when they were blinded by the lights of an oncoming car. It was so bright! Like nothing Alison had seen before or since, and until the collision, seemed almost welcoming.

The other car approached from the right, heading directly into Mom in the front passenger seat, and Michael behind her. Caroline was sitting on the hump in the middle, about which she’d complained as the children struggled for seating positions in the country club parking lot.

Mom died; Michael lost his right leg from the kneecap down; Caroline’s right cheek had been crushed. Only Alison and her father seemed to escape with only bruises and scratches and cuts.

“How long’s it been since you’ve seen him?” Anthony had asked last night.

“A year. When Caroline got her last promotion. Daddy was so proud of her: the Herman Miller desk, mauve carpet. The important things she had to do.”

“Stop it,” Anthony said. “You wouldn’t have wanted to be a businesswoman anyway. You wanted to work in the theatre. You do work in the theatre.”

“I am a businesswoman, in a half-assed way. I dabble in the theatre.”

They were seated in a vinyl padded booth. She waved her arms, dismissing not only The Busy B, but the thin white tablecloths, plastic bud vases, and blue upholstered chairs that circled tables back in the dinner theatre. Everything she saw every time she peered through the curtains that shielded the Showstoppers stage.

“OK, so it’s not Broadway,” Anthony said.

“Not even off, off.”

“Well.” Anthony bent the corner of a jelly container back and forth in his fine, long fingers. Once, he’d rubbed them along Alison’s neck, in front of her ears, and up to her temple to ease a headache.

“Well,” he said again. “Not everybody becomes famous. And success means different things to different people. What’s the point of fame in today’s world anyway? Monica, Bobbitt and Jon Benet. I mean really.”

“Fame’s not the point. Doing what we’re supposed to do is.”

“Look, we all want to please our fathers. Don’t worry so much about what he’s going to think. Let go of the cord.”

“Right.”

 

<>

 

Miraculously, the curtain rose on time. The seats Alison had reserved were empty, though the others at the table were finishing their dinners. Roast beef? Steak? It was too dark for Alison to tell.

She was sure they wouldn’t have forgotten to come.

During the first ten minutes, Alison listened for the final clinks of forks and knives, remnants of conversations. On stage, the inn where the married people who were about to begin an affair took shape, though Stan was no Alan Alda and Betty no Ellyn Burstyn. From the corner of her eye, Alison saw Anthony cross himself. Twice.

She looked out into the audience again and there, perhaps another miracle if she thought about it, her father sat, sliding a dark wool coat from his shoulders. He smiled at his table mates, his white hair gleaming among the shadows. A waiter crept close to see if another dinner should be served, but thankfully her father shook his head no.

As far as Alison could tell, he sat mostly unmoving, fingers forming a tent in front of him, through the entire first scene. By the end of Act I, he appeared to have fallen asleep.

When the curtain closed for intermission, Anthony tapped her knee impatiently. His headset circled his neck. “Why don’t you go sit with your Dad? Wake him up before he misses it. I’ll handle everything back here.”

But Alison shook her head no.

“So where are you—we—taking him after the show?”

“Busy B—where else? You won’t back out on me, will you?”

“Wouldn’t think of it.” And he brushed his fingers down her cheek.

When the play ended, Alison listened to tepid applause, then headed to her father’s table. He was awake by now, smiling as she walked toward him.

He stood, his coat slumping on the chair seat behind him. He’d aged: fewer white hairs haloed his head, more obvious melanin lesions on his face, shoulders lower.

“Daddy.” Alison leaned forward to kiss him, inhaled Old Spice. “I’m glad you came.”

“Of course I came,” he said. “You invited me. I—“

He wouldn’t say anything specific about the play; Alison had already prepared herself for that. But what was it she wanted from him?

“I thought we might walk down the street for dessert,” she said. “Coffee. It’s not fancy, but it’s close.”

“Great show, Al,” Jeremy, still in costume, yelled down from the stage.

She nodded back. Behind the actor, Anthony pretended to gag himself with a finger.

“Oh Anthony!” As though this were a spur-of-the-moment decision on her part. “Why don’t you come with us to the Pub?”

Her father peered up toward the stage then quickly back at Alison. “I—“

“Your coat—“ Alison interrupted, picking it up for him. “You’ll need—“

“Wait!”

Sometimes after the crash, he lashed out at her. Just her, not at Michael, not at Caroline. He could tell just by looking that they’d already suffered because of him.

“Wait,” he said again more quietly. His arm in its dark blue suit swept toward the corner of the dining room. Then Alison saw who was coming toward them.

The wheelchair came first, huge and ungainly. Michael sat in it wearing a red plaid flannel shirt and tan pants. Then Caroline, beautiful but holding herself as though she were not.

“What are you doing here?” Alison cried.

“Daddy wanted to surprise you,” Caroline answered, parking the wheel chair by the table. “He had a driver in a white limo pick us up. So we could come see what our baby sister’s done. I’m so proud of you, Ally.”

Alison hugged Caroline and bent to kiss Michael on the mouth.

“I’m proud of you, too, Ally.” When Michael reached up to squeeze her hand, the strength of his grip surprised her.

Just then Anthony jumped off the stage, eyebrows raised.

“Don’t tell me.” He gave bear hugs first to Caroline, then Michael in his chair, then their father, who looked less uncomfortable than Alison expected him to.

“Food,” Alison said. “Let’s get something sweet to eat.”

“Scituate’s finest,” Anthony said, “though I’m sure our group will class up the place even more.”

They sat in the same vinyl booth she and Anthony had occupied the night before. Alison next to her father, Caroline and Anthony on the other side, Michael in his chair at the end of the table. People brushed past him without really looking down. The metal contraption semi-blocking the aisle was all they could handle.

A waitress with a triangular green hanky jutting from her pocket took their orders—bacon cheeseburger, fries, and beer for Anthony; house white for Alison and Caroline; black coffee for Michael and their father.

Alison took a big first sip, like water. Caroline was the easiest to look at, so she started there first.

“How’s the job?” Alison berated herself as soon as the words left her mouth. Montvale conversations were always about work; even she couldn’t stop the family pattern.

But Caroline jumped in right away: she was flying to New Zealand next month to give a speech at a seminar in Auckland; her agency had just landed the direct marketing portion of the Sony account, which by this point basically meant every advertising dollar the corporation spent. While she talked, she ran her fingers through her unflattering haircut and shifted the shoulder pads under her navy suit.

Their father interrupted a lot, like he always did. But he was fascinated, Alison could tell by the feel of his body next to her. She watched his hands on the white porcelain coffee cup. His fingernails were too long, as usual. He was far from untidy; he was simply too busy to remember to cut them.

Anthony ordered a second beer, and Alison took a second wine though Caroline hadn’t finished her first.

When the waitress brought the drinks, a little gold cross swung out from the v of her uniform, dangling like a pendulum over the table.

“Well,” Michael said, “I’ll tell you what’s new with me if anyone’s interested.”

“Sure we are,” Anthony said. Alison wanted to reach out and hold Michael’s hand, but her father was between them.

“I just started attending a Methodist church in Lee,” Michael said. “And I met a woman. A newspaper reporter with eight-year-old twin girls. Kayla and Kaycee.”

“Kaycee?” Their father asked. “What kind of a name is that?”

“She’s from Kansas City,” Michael said. “Their mother, I mean.” He blushed. Then, as if suddenly remembering something else he’d been meaning to say, “Remember the plays we used to put on when we were kids? My girlfriend’s daughters do that. In their mother’s house.

“I remember once, Alison, you and Caroline and I had gone to the neighbors—the Hornes—for the afternoon. For once, we didn’t want to go because we’d started playing already. We had that big velvet curtain in the basement. The one Mom sewed for us.

“But something had happened. I think Mom had gotten a phone call or something, and she climbed down the basement steps in her high heels and told us to go to the Hornes’, just for a few hours, she said. She had something she had to do.

“I tried to talk her out of it. Usually I could do that pretty well. But Mom wouldn’t take no so we left. I climbed up on a file cabinet and unhooked the curtain. Caroline and I folded it, and I carried it to the neighbors’.

“You’d written the play we were putting on that afternoon, Ally. But somehow you’d managed to give Caroline and me the best parts. You only realized that when we got to the Hornes’ and started rehearsing again with them. We were all supposed to be working in a high-rise office building. And it was supposed to be taller than any building we had ever seen in Americus.”

“Like the Worldwide Wicket Company,” Anthony said.

“Right.” Michael laughed. Alison felt tears come to her eyes. Maybe because Michael’s laugh was so wonderful and deep, and she had heard it so few times.

“Caroline was President of the company. I didn’t want a title, but after we started saying our lines with the Hornes, you realized you did. We all wanted to go on and rehearse some more, but you started to get really upset. You started wringing your hands and sniffling. And then you started to actually sob.”

“I remember that,” Caroline said suddenly, turning to tell Anthony. “I’d never seen Alison act like that before. I asked her what was wrong, but she wouldn’t answer.

“She ran upstairs from the Hornes’ basement. I heard Mrs. Horne’s radio playing loudly up in the kitchen. Paul Harvey was on. Since I was the oldest, I figured I was in charge so I ran upstairs after Alison. When I saw her go outside, I ran back and got Michael to come with me. We ran down the street toward home, even though Mom had told us not to come back til 5:00.”

“You were teasing me for being a baby,” Alison said. “You were calling out ‘Come back, crybaby.”

Caroline looked down at her plate, and Michael picked up the story. “You got inside the house first, Alison. You left the front door open. Caroline and I took off our shoes, like Mom always told us to, but you’d forgotten to. We could see the prints of your sneakers on the carpeting on the stairs.

“Mom must have had her period or a migraine or something because when we got up to her room, she was lying in her bed with all the shades drawn.”

“And when we walked in,” Caroline interrupted, frowning as though suddenly remembering something she hadn’t wanted to, “I thought I saw Daddy—I thought it was Daddy—scooting into their bathroom. I heard the door lock shut behind him.”

Alison looked at her father’s fingers gripping the white cup.

“I don’t remember this,” she said slowly. “I don’t remember this at all.”

“But it happened,” Michael insisted. “It happened a few days before the accident happened. It was near the end of summer, 1963, and we were all feeling cranky about having to go back to school soon. At first, I thought that’s why you were crying. We wanted to get the most out of the happy days we had left.”

“But there weren’t any happy days after that,” Alison said before she could stop herself.

Now all of them were looking at their father. But his face was turned toward the bubbles coursing through the rainbow lights of an old-time juke box set up across the room.

“Whoa,” Anthony said, reaching across the table to pat Alison’s father’s shoulder.

Across the room, a CD dropped down in the juke box: “Honky Tonk Woman.”

“Perfect,” Anthony said and pulled Caroline to her feet. Laughing, she slipped off her suit jacket and draped it on the seat. Michael rolled his chair back so she could get of the booth. She followed Anthony onto the dance floor, unbuttoning the top button of her white blouse.

“But don’t you remember?” Michael said, tapping the slick bowl of his spoon on the placemat in front of him. It was a map of Massachusetts. “Mom yelled at us to get out of her room, right away, and you ran out of there sobbing even more. You ran past me down the stairs, and I think you went into the kitchen, but I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember what Caroline and I did. God, I don’t remember anything!”

“I do,” their father said. Even though his face was still turned away, Alison knew he was speaking mostly to her. “You called me at work. You were crying on the telephone, and at first I couldn’t understand what you were saying. You were telling me about a play you had written, but you couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t understand what was wrong except for the fact that you had this play, and Caroline had a title and you didn’t, and Michael didn’t care whether he had one or not.”

“What did you do?” Alison whispered.

“I told you that you could be the Vice President of Possibilities.”

“Oh.”

The three of them turned to stare at Anthony and Caroline dancing. Caroline’s cheeks were flushed. Her skirt flipped up to show a flash of lacy white slip. Anthony’s cowboy boots were stomping on the floor.

Then there was another song, a slow one. Caroline pushed a piece of loose hair behind her hair. Anthony nodded at her, and Caroline walked back to Michael and held out her hand. Michael stood up. With difficulty, but he stood up. His khaki pants leg shook down over the prosthesis. Limping only slightly, he followed Caroline to an open space on the dance floor. He put his arm around her waist, and with Caroline doing most of the leading, they began to dance.

“Golly,” Anthony said. “I’m going to apologize already for this line, but I really do think I seesomeone I know.” He hurried over to a tall denim-shirted guy at the bar.

Alison felt sweat-sticky vinyl on the back of her thighs. What would have happened if her mother had lived? She stared at her father’s profile, then he turned to meet her gaze. Somewhere in the silence between them, there had to be something to be heard.

From the far side of the room, a flash of lime-green caught Caroline’s eye. She turned quickly to look, but it was only a t-shirt on a pot-bellied motorcyclist.

What if she’d been wrong, worried the glass might be half-full? Maybe it really was filled to overflowing. And meant to stay that way.

Alison’s father was first to speak.

“Would you like to dance, sweetheart?”

Of course she would. So she let her father take her in his arms.