Main > Series > Chapters > Fame Book 1 > Chapter 28

Coco was late getting in on the morning after her screen test. The appointment had been at the old Astoria Studios across the East River in Long Island City; originally built for the East Coast production of silent movies in 1919, the semi-abandoned buildings had been taken over and refurbished for the production of The Wiz. The movie had bombed, but the studio was into a new lease of life. Now everybody was watching for Coco and waiting to hear what the experience had been like. The test was one of the worst-kept secrets in the school's history - although of the staff only Reardon knew anything, and he was staying silent.

Doris was back, and looking better. She took Julie Miller down to Wardrobe with her to sort through some racks of old costumes. Julie asked what had happened after her horizontal departure from Sherwood's class two days before.

'My mother made me go to Doctor Zolen,' Doris explained. 'I hate going to Doctor Zolen. He's known me since I was a baby and he still calls me Dodo. How can a grown man talk like that to a modern woman?'

Julie couldn't help but smile. 'What did he say?'

'First, he gave me a lecture on the four . . . or was it five? basic food groups. Then he gave me a diet that's just dripping with health. He also said I was anaemic. How can a person be pudgy and anaemic?'

'Doris Zolen told you to say that, huh?'

'No-one told me anything. Like you not telling me what it is we're looking for in all this junk.' She held out one of the costumes, a 1920s flapper dress for somebody with the figure of a shotgun barrel. It looked pretty ratty.

'We're looking for something that will fit me,' Doris said, discounting the flapper dress immediately. 'I sent all my fat clothes to my aunt in Seattle. By freighter. I'll be lucky to get anything back by Christmas.'

Next in line was a shepherdess costume that would have made a hooker blush. Doris was going to make a comment, but a fast lead-in of running footsteps ended in one of the dance class girls bursting into the room.

'Coco just got here!' she said breathlessly. 'She's out in the lobby telling everybody about the screen test! Sounds like it really went well for her!'

She was out of the room again almost before she'd finished; she obviously didn't want to miss a word of Coco's adventures. Julie seemed to vote right along with her.

'Come on!' she said. 'Let's go see what happened!'

'Right behind you,' Doris said as Julie went out into the corridor. Julie was in such a hurry that she never noticed that Doris wasn't "right behind her"; in fact, there was nobody following her up to the lobby at all.

There were some class papers to be marked, but for once Benjamin Shorofsky let the work lie on his desk untouched. Instead, he closed the classroom door and went to the record cupboard. There were many symbols that could be said to represent a teacher's life, but to Shorofsky the most telling was the large bunch of keys that he always had to carry; every key opened some drawer, some cupboard, some supply room. He'd promised himself that one day he'd get around to labelling them all, but so far he never had.

He checked the index, and took out a record. Here, at least, there was order; student volunteers classified and indexed every record that was bought in by the school. He took the vinyl disc from its cover, and put it on the turntable of the Education Board-issue stereo. No hi-fi buff would have had the equipment in his home - no flickering lights, no smoked glass, no brushed steel facings with bunches of spaghetti wire hanging out of the back, just a huge wooden box with a hinged lid housing everything but the speakers - but the tone was sweet and clear, and the large empty classroom added an echo of melancholy that gave a real-world dimension to the recording

It was a symphony, Gustav Mahler's Tenth. Neglected by so many for so long, Mahler was finally coming to be recognised as a composer with decisive influence on twentieth century music. Shorofsky had first heard the Tenth in London during the mid-sixties; an unfinished work with only the first two movements complete and the rest in sketch for, it had been rendered into a performing version by a British composer.

What had disturbed him was a sight on the sidewalk north of Times Square, a place that Shorofsky passed most days on his way into school. A man had been sitting with his back to one of the buildings, a man in a long dark coat that was torn and shabby. He'd looked to be in his thirties but he was haggard, his hair longish and matted, his beard thick and dark highlighting the skin that was stretched tight over his cheeks. his eyes had been sunken and hollow, little pits of extinguished fire. The man didn't move, and he didn't speak; he just sat there holding out a piece of cardboard - an opened-out box that he'd probably dug from the trash behind one of the Broadway stores-on which, in uneven writing, were the words Help me, I am starving. About half a dozen tourists had been standing before him in silence, looking puzzled; it was as if they felt there was something about the situation they hadn't seen, and that by staring they might perceive it.

But this had been no joke, with a punchline to relieve the buildup; this had been real. There had been about thirty cents in small change on the sidewalk beside him.

It was never hard for a New Yorker to walk on by such sights. Ingenious begging was a small industry in the city; well-dressed young men cruised the main railway terminals with a roll of bills in their pockets, looking for the soft-hearted or the out-of-towner to hit with their story. They were always trying to get home, and only a few dollars short of their fare; they'd show the roll of bills, and suspicion would evaporate while sympathy took over.

With such people around, and a constant chorus of Can you spare some change? in the streets, the destitute found that they no longer had any credibility. Shorofsky had walked by without hesitating . . . but those burned-out eyes had stayed with him.

He'd seen them before, many times in wartime newsreels and once, unforgettably, in reality through a double-barrier of barbded wire. There had been no fakery. The man was starving.

And here was Shorofsky, in a regular job, getting old in comparative security, and his answer to the situation was to play some music. Every day, he told his students that art and life were one; art wasn't an alternative version of reality to be preferred because it offered softer options, a more reassuring way of looking at the world. Only bad art did that, and bad art was a lie to be dispised.

But what, in truth, was he doing now? Wasn't he treating the music as the bad art that he so often condemned, a massaging of the mind, a soothing of the troubled soul? An escape, when the situation demanded confrontation?

Shorofsky moved to the classroom window as the second scherzo began, and he looked down into the street. Almost eighty years before, the composer had stood like this at the window of his New York hotel suite and watched the passing funeral cortege of a fireman. The slow, muffled drumbeats of the funeral march had brought tears to his eyes; Mahler's own death was only three years in the future, and he was already suffering from the serious heart condition that was to bring it about.

Now the fireman was dust, but the moment of his passing remained in the hammerblow beat of a covered drum in the scherzo. Life is a miracle, it said, and life is frail.

Damn it, he didn't seem to have a handkerchief.

Of all the interested crowd that pressed around Coco, Danny Amatullo was the one who seemed to be most fascinated by the details. He wanted to know everything - what, who, when, where, and how - and in the end he was slowing the story so much that the others began to shout him down.

'The hardest thing is doing what they call "hitting your mark",' Coco explained. 'If you're off it by just a little bit, they have to do the whole thing over again because it's not right for the camera.'

'Why not just move the camera?' Danny wanted to know. 'The actor's more important than the camera.'

'Hey, man,' Coco protested. 'I'm not going to tell them how to do their job. Not yet, anyway!'

'But it went well, huh?' Bruno said, and Coco came down a little to be serious again. 'Yeah,' she said. 'I mean . . . it'll be a while before I know one way or the other, but . . . what happens, happens. I think I did okay.'

The start-of-session bell broke up the group, and it was obvious that there was disappointment around; this was as close as any of them had ever been to a big-time experience like a screen test, and they were determined to enjoy it even if the enjoyment had to come second-hand. Coco had to make promises to a couple of latecomers that she'd go over the story again after the class with Reardon. If the demand got any bigger, she was thinking, she could put the show into syndication and retire on the proceeds.

But then she saw that Bruno was watching her.

Out of everybody, he'd stayed fairly quiet. Now he hadn't drifted with the others, but seemed to be waiting for her to say something more.

'What's wrong, Bruno?' she said. 'I've got to get to drama class.'

'I think you know what,' Bruno said quietly, and Coco faltered a little- the first crack in the confident facade that she'd been propping up since she walked into the school a half-hour before.

'I don't want to be late for Reardon's class,' she said finally, and she managed to turn away and leave Bruno behind.

Leroy was doing a fast sprint down the hallway as Coco was crossing to the drama studio, obviously late for a class of his own.

'Hey, Leroy,' she called after him, 'I can help you with your showcase now.'

Without even seeming to slow down or to break his rhythm, Leroy did an about-face and ran backwards for a few steps.

'Marguerite's helping me out,' he called back to her, and in his tone there was neither rancour nor any sense of a putdown. 'Doin' a good job, too.' He wasn't out looking for an argument over being let down; he'd managed to patch the hole, and now his attention had to be saved for the work in hand.

'Good,' Coco said, 'I'm glad,' but Leroy was already out of earshot.

There was an extra feeling of support from the class for Doris as she tackled Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene for the second time in the term. It wasn't only a new warmth because of her much talked-about collapse in the English classroom; but Doris had changed her approach, shifted gear somehow, and her reading was considerably better. If Doris Schwartz had discovered some kind of secret, then everybody wanted to get in on it.

'That was good, Doris,' Reardon said a moment after she'd finished, and the babble around him seemed to suggest that the rest of the group thought likewise. 'That was very good. More importantly, it was a heck of a lot better than last time. What did you change?'

'Well,' Doris began hesitantly, 'you said that it lacked substance last time . . . '

Reardon smiled. 'Do I really talk like that?'

'No, you were right. And I thought that maybe what I wasn't getting was how guilty Lady Macbeth must feel, and so I started thinking about things that made me feel guilty. And I sort of used those things.'

'What kind of things? If it's not too personal.'

But it was something personal, Reardon could see it right away by the manner in which Doris began to search for the words. She seemed to be dwelling on whether or not she wanted to get into this.

Reardon decided to take her off the hook. 'Well,' he began, 'the specifics aren't all that important,' but Doris interrupted him.

'No,' she said, 'the specifics are important. Because they're about me and Coco.'

There was a stirring in the group. Reardon had noticed before that Coco, sitting at the back, wasn't really giving her attention to the work in hand. He'd been trying to think of some way of getting her concentration without having to be sharp or give her an order, but it seemed that Doris had done the job for him; having heard her own name, Coco was right with them.

The two girls were looking at each other; Doris in control, Coco waiting to hear. Reardon wondered how deep these waters where going to be, and whether he shouldn't call a halt now before they got any further.

But he let Doris go on.

She said, 'I can only look at things from inside me, and from inside me it doesn't seem life is all that fair. And sometimes I watch Coco, and it all seems to come together so easy for her . . . the dancing, the singing, everything. I've got to work at it, really work all the time; and when I heard about her and that screen test, it was like the final thing. I envied her so much, but then I felt guilty about all the bad stuff I was feeling. So I took that guilt apart, and I-'

'I stunk up the joint,' Coco said quietly.

All heads turned towards her. She was still fixed on Doris, seemingly talking to Doris alone. She said, 'Everything I told you about the screen test was a lie. I was awful. It wasn't anybody's fault but mine-I got up there, and I choked.' She gave a bitter little smile. 'The harder I tried, the worse it got. I meant it, what I said before; I stunk up the joint.' She shrugged. 'So much for the "halo effect".'

Reardon watched her, glad that he'd let it go through; glad that he'd helped Coco without discouraging her, glad that she'd taken her shot on her own terms and was coming away from it with dignity and an improved understanding of the professional poise that she would one day surely have.

Of all the students seated around Coco, Julie Miller was the most dumbfounded. She'd hung on every word of Coco's account, lived through every moment of the screen test with her; now she could hardly believe that Coco had been spinning it all as she'd gone along. As far as Julie was concerned, it had been Coco's greatest performance to date, bar none.

'Why didn't you tell us?' she said.

'Because I've got this image,' Coco told her, in reality telling them all. 'I'm supposed to be this perfect person that all these good things are going to happen to.' Suddenly there were tears in her eyes and anguish in her voice; she kept them in check, but she couldn't stop them showing through. 'Well,' she said, 'I'm not always magic! I'm just me and I'm afraid and I don't know why I screwed up and why I lied, except that I just got so afraid of . . . '

Coco ran out of words, but Doris finished the sentence for her. 'Afraid of not being everything everybody else says you're supposed to be,' she said.

Reardon wound it up there. They had a couple of exercises to end the session, but the real work of the day had already been done. Some of the students went out of the class looking puzzled, and others were downright confused; but they'd all been shown an insight on how to cut through their preconceptions and the outer layers that they didn't even know they had, and it was now up to them to arrive at their own understanding.

There were secrets in acting just as there were secrets in any other kind of craft, but they were the kind of secrets that were always on open display. Learning lines and saying them didn't make actors, any more than wearing medals made heroes; first you had to go through it, and the real ordeals were all deep inside.

Doris Schwartz and Coco Hernandez had come through, and they'd come through whole. They were on their way.

Reardon could hope for no less for the others.

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