"The Only Playboy"...a story
What can happen to you if you’re the playboy of the western world….
Had he known better what she could do, Raul would have treated Corinth better. And at the moment he still didn’t know, despite the fact that he thought he was falling in love with her. He had been watching her this closely just for the previous three hours…their first learning-stage run-through of the play and, he thought, Love isn’t supposed to come on like a lightning strike, is it?
He sat on a folding chair at the side of the room, watching Corinth rehearse the final moment in The Playboy of The Western World. Pegeen Mike, almost in tears, watches Christy Mahon—played by Raul—disappear triumphantly across the far distant bog with his nutcase, thrice-slain father. Just in this brief moment, Raul could see how accomplished an actress Corinth was…how well considered, how deep her understanding of love was, how finely she understood moral failure.
“’Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely.’” Pegeen Mike held Christy’s scarf, which he had given her, as though it were the stately, sad emblem of the end of love. Her tears now did fall upon it. It was the scarf that Christy wore throughout the play, an emblem of the pluck he had shown killing his father. That admission to Pegeen Mike and the others in the pub led to Raul’s favorite line of Christy’s in the play, one that he enjoyed acting out physically on stage. “’I buried him then.’” The shovel in Raul’s hands was imaginary. But because of his talent using it, the audience could easily see it. “’Wasn’t I diggin’ spuds in the field?’”
The scarf was of bright red wool, and had formed a kind of playful underscore to Christy’s own claims, false though they were, of patricide and revenge against his father.
Raul knew that written lines from a famous play were no substitute for the roil of true love. But Pegeen Mike had said to Christy, “’And you a fine, handsome young fellow with a noble brow...it’s the poets are your like—fine, fiery fellows with great rages when their temper’s aroused.’” Just now Raul would like Corinth to say something like that to him offstage somewhere, over a glass of wine. He figured that Corinth may not use the kind of sensational language of which Pegeen Mike is capable. But if Corinth would just look at him the way she was looking at him in the run-through, when she uttered that line…. She observed him the same way every time she recited it. Raul, hoping that the gaze was not just the trained fakery of a gifted actress, rather the real thing, determined to ask her out.
Raul was also advising the production at the behest of the first-time director Milly O’Mullaly. He was a superb actor, all the reviews of his work had said. If the movies were ever to find him, he knew his strengths as a character actor would get him the jobs. Raul did not have the compelling beauty that leading men often have. But he was so believable as a youthful bad guy, his black eyes so convincingly expressive, and his body language so wonderfully, precisely rough, that he sometimes did win the girl, simply because she was fascinated by him. He also had a special talent for English drawing room comedy because he could do accents. In the case of the Playboy, with Milly he was helping the actors with theirs, the County Mayo version of English being, of course, essential. He knew that if you get that wrong, you get the whole play wrong. They were rehearsing Playboy for a run at the Curran in San Francisco and, although Corinth had been friendly enough through their early script discussions, and had sought him out for help with her accent, they had spent little time otherwise together.
“Where?” Corinth said.
“Up Geary Street. There’s a place I like up there on Larkin, called Jane.”
“Never heard of it.” Corinth offered a smile of such sweetness that it countered the abrupt dismissal that Raul’s café suggestion had gotten. He had decided that this idea of his maybe wasn’t—
“I’d love to,” she said.
He back-pedaled. “You would?”
“Yes. I’ve got some questions.”
“About whether Christy really loves Pegeen Mike.”
“Of course, he does.”
“He’s not just playing with her? Using her?”
“You think he is?”
“Well, he’s clearly not so dumb as he appears at first. Cute. Fascinating. But manipulative.” Corinth raised her eyebrows. “A liar!”
“For sure,” Raul admitted
“Ay, me quare pagan.” This she pronounced with the kind of Mayo grittiness and humor that fills the play. “But a clueless liar.”
“You see cluelessness in my performance?” Raul muttered.
“Raul….” Corinth pursed her lips and then, after thinking about a response, frowned. “Look, Pegeen Mike herself comes to understand how…duplicitous he is, no? Look at how she berates him there toward the end!” She did not acknowledge Raul’s question. Nor did she disagree with it. “Just a suggestion. Can we talk about it a little?”
Raul now wanted even more to have coffee with Corinth. This idea of Christy as a blatantly intentional roué, rather than just a wandering dummy lost in the west of Ireland—and eventually lost in love—could make for even better comedy. Raul loved the idea of playing a handsome buck, clueless maybe, but no less a deceiver. And now Pegeen Mike could be even more fooled by him. Christy finally stands up to his head-sliced father, who nonetheless eventually drags him off across the bog. In the end, they are more drunken compatriots than bullying father and mewling son. But also in the end…with the disappointment that brings this comedy to its close…Christy’s lying brio destroys what he and Pegeen Mike have so lovingly declared to each other earlier in the play.
Corinth put on a black sweater. It was very long, so that when she buttoned it down the front, it suddenly seemed like a slim wool dress. The white blouse was buttoned at the neck, its long, pointed collars emphasizing her fine shoulders. The shoulders were framed by the full curls of her brown-red hair, the red of which suggested yet another west of Ireland element in Pegeen Mike’s character…all that hape o’ water-borne boggers pullin’ fish from the frigid sea. Her hair was one of Corinth’s great assets, along with her lips, which were being pursued, as it were, by Christy Mahon throughout their comic negotiations.
She took up a shoulder bag and pointed to the way out of the rehearsal room. “So, are we going?”
“Why the name?” he asked as they sat down at the counter at Jane. “’Corinth.’”
The café was a favorite of Raul’s, who enjoyed the constant youthfulness of its clientele…mostly people in the tech industry, employees of the software companies along the middle stretch of Market Street. So, a lot of youngish men in beards dressed in Levis and other nods to ersatz cowboy-nuevo homeless style, especially in the shirt tails hanging out over their belts. Raul sensed that old, dead John Wayne, his favorite of all movie cowboys since he had been a child (even though Wayne himself was long gone by the time Raul was born,) never went around with his shirt untucked. The women in the café were for the most part tattooed, their hair dyed pink and blue, and wore army boots and other graceful fashion. Corinth herself was like something out of Vogue Paris by comparison. When they entered Jane, the usually noisy crowd went almost silent for a few moments as she passed between the tables toward the two empty stools at the counter. Corinth herself seemed not to want to acknowledge any of this…her wonderful looks and so on. She was quite calm about them, something else Raul admired in her.
“The name?” she said.
“Corinth. I was born there. My parents…they’re old hippies.”
“Still. Even though they live in Brooklyn now.”
“Corinth itself lost its charm?”
“I guess so. But also there wasn’t a lot of work there for a bearded long-hair that spoke no Greek.”
“How old were you when you came back?”
“Did you like your name?”
“I loved it! Still do!” She pushed back a lock of hair over her right shoulder. “It’s so graceful.”
This made sense to Raul, who admired how she was playing Pegeen Mike. The Mayo girl is not sophisticated, and sometimes her language reflects no education and a wish to do something else somehow, somewhere away from her father’s village pub, preferably in the arms of a murderous fine-lookin’ lad like Christy Mahon. But no. She’s stuck in the far coastal Mayo cold. The way Corinth was playing her, Pegeen Mike’s roughness was softened by her love-struck language and the great urges she feels when it comes to the impetuous Christy. Raul knew that the audience would sympathize with Pegeen Mike because of the way Corinth luxuriated in the girl’s passion-driven flights of feeling.
Corinth herself was no country girl. She had had a career as a child actor in New York, in musicals, and had actually spent a year at the Actors Studio. She was now twenty-five, and Hollywood was knocking. It had, however, not yet tried the door itself, and she was maintaining herself with a still very active stage career. What surprised Raul initially was the same thing that surprised others about Raul himself. Corinth, too, could do accents. At Tosca up in North Beach one night, when several of the cast had gathered together, they had gone around the table. Someone had suggested a contest in which all the actors would recite one single line in different accents: “’I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’” There was comic effort and laughter as the utterance made the round. Raul himself dazzled everyone with renditions in rough cockney, Texas panhandle grit, English public-school elegance, Italian New York mobster, boricua New York Puerto Rican, and, of course, County Mayo rural Irish. Corinth did almost as well in other accents, including a Bollywood accent from New Delhi. The other competitors around the table all admitted defeat.
Raul walked Corinth home to her apartment on lower Lombard Street.
“How’d you get yours?” she said.
“The accents? Royal Shakespeare. They taught me.”
“But you might as well be from Mayo itself, me auld flower.”
“Maybe. But I don’t know anything about the place, except…” Corinth looked up the incline to Russian Hill. It was late, and Lombard Street was empty of foot traffic. The fog had come in and settled heavily over this entire part of the city, so that the cars, buildings, and even the streetlamps seemed stifled. “I guess they have fog like this in Ireland.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Raul said.
Corinth fell into silence. For the moment, the only sounds were those of their trudging up the hill.
“Did it ever occur to you that we’re phonies?” Corinth said.
The trudging continued.
Corinth poked him with an elbow. “You have a personality of your own, right, Raul?”
She adjusted the scarf around her neck. It was the red one, the same she wore at the end of the play. “No disrespect. But, see, I sometimes get lost in all these characters.” She glanced toward him. “Have you ever noticed how often, when a celebrated actor is being interviewed somewhere, how little he has to say?” She smiled, although Raul recognized in it a moment of thoughtful comedy. “He can say ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning’ as though it were coming from Olivier himself. But, asked for an original thought of his own, he mumbles. Looks away. Seems stricken with confusion.”
“Speak for yourself, Corinth.” Raul chuckled.
“Oh, the women have the same problem, often. A line from Tennessee Williams spoken as though it’s the end of life itself.“
“’I have always depended on the kindness of—’”
“Yes. But on her own, otherwise, a lot of mumbling. Or if it’s clearly spoken, a lot of nonsense.”
“Nonsense doesn’t make you a phony, though, does it? Maybe you’re just shy,” Raul said. “A lot of actors are shy.”
Nodding, Corinth put a hand through the crook in Raul’s arm. “It’s cold, isn’t it?” She adjusted the collar of her coat, and they kept walking. “You know, Pegeen Mike is crazy about Christy.”
“I do know that.”
“Have you ever been crazy about anyone, Raul?”
Raul did not answer at first, although the truth, poised upon the end of his tongue, almost escaped. He caught himself. It was too early. They barely knew each other.
“I have, yes. But I’m not going to tell you about it.”
“You’re married, are you?” Corinth said.
“But in love.”
“I think so, yes.”
Corinth turned her head and grinned openly at Raul. “You’re not sure?”
“I’m sure, yes, but—”
“Are you in love with someone now?”
“Listen, Corinth, I don’t think that’s—”
“You are in love with somebody.”
The fog resisted lifting, although a thick breeze came down from the top of Russian Hill. It caused Corinth to shiver once again.
“Are you?” she said.
He had been reading the day before…John Donne. “And who understands? Not me, because if I did, I would forgive it all.” If Raul himself understood, he would be able to forgive every ill-considered trifle that had crossed his mind. He would forgive himself for all such trifles: various slights he had received from others; jealousies he had felt; unwarranted anger here and there. But he worried just now that if he didn’t understand love itself, Corinth would dismiss his ineptitude. And he worried then that he really wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.
Even though that had been the situation all his life.
He had been born in San Francisco…a boy, an outcome that had disappointed his mother Estelle. She was now a wealthy Burlingame matron who had gone from that early moment to have Raul’s two sisters, over whom she had so ruled that neither of them understood. They were each married…one to a brain surgeon; the other to a now-suddenly-wealthy start-up technical whiz…and limited their displays of emotion to playing golf and tennis, although never against each other. Raul had not signed up for the U.S. Marine Corps, which had dismayed his father Jalen, who felt that the kinds of ruggedness The Corps had provided for him during “the Vietnam thing” would likewise see Raul through the rigors of business. It had done so for Jalen Kelly, who was a noted venture capitalist…Square, Uber, and so on. Jalen himself had predicted an entrepreneurial business career for his son the moment Raul had struggled from his mother’s womb in 1990. “Here. Read this,” his father had once ordered him, having finally decided to do something about Raul’s preference for novels, poetry, and the footlights. At the time, the boy was sixteen. Before going to sleep, Raul did dip into The Art of The Deal, which his father had tossed onto his bed. Trump. Bad writing. Self-obsessed silliness. The boy returned quickly to his Edith Wharton. It had been especially tough for his father when Raul was accepted to the Yale School of Drama, after getting his degree in English from Stanford.
“You want to be an actor!” his father had muttered.
“But both those places have great business schools.”
“I know, Dad”
“Like who? Johnny Depp?”
Raul thought it over. “Sure.”
“Nah.” His father shook his head. “There’s no money in that.”
With every utterance of Pegeen Mike’s line, Corinth continued looking at Raul the same way, especially on opening night. The pause he gave before his response to the line, which he improvised himself during that first performance, allowed Christy to respond to Pegeen Mike the way Raul himself wished to respond to Corinth. The pause reflected pleased, accepting surprise.
They had now known each other for two months, and Raul’s wishes seemed so unruly to him that he realized he had to tell her what he was feeling. It mattered to him that she might laugh at the outburst and advise him to get his…well, passions together and stick to the task before them. But so be it! he advised himself.
He walked her home after every performance. They talked. There was laughter and shared experience. Patter. Fun. Affection. Until the night Corinth asked Raul if he would like to come up for a glass of wine.
Her phone rang the next morning and Corinth wrestled through her purse for it. Much from the purse got strewn across the bed: a lipstick, some crumpled Kleenex, a small note pad, and a half-filled packet of gum, until the phone finally presented itself. She checked it to see who was calling. “Jesus! It’s Hylda.”
Corinth lay back against the pillow and brought the phone to her ear. The conversation was a joyous shouting match.
“I got it?” Corinth sat up, leaning forward over the phone. Raul placed a hand on her lower back. She was shaking with excitement. “Which part?”
Hylda spoke at some length. Even Raul could hear the glee in her voice.
“You mean, the part?” Corinth grasped the phone with both hands as Hylda continued talking. Raul could tell, from the change of tone in the agent’s voice, that more serious issues were coming. “But when do I see the contract?”
“Tomorrow! You want me to come down there tomorrow?”
The conversation went on for several more minutes. Raul got up, put on his pants, and went into the kitchen to make coffee. When Corinth turned off her phone, he returned to the bedroom. She sat back against a bunched-up pillow. She had put on her blouse and, holding the phone in both hands, was weeping.
“What’d you get?” he said.
She put the phone down on the crumpled sheet to her side. “George Clooney.”
“Somebody gave you George Clooney?”
“I’m in his new movie. He’s directing.”
“Who else is in it?”
“He’s my father, and he and I are doing the heist together.”
“You and George.”
“Yes! The Great Mugol Diamond! In Paris!”
Corinth leaned forward and folded her arms. She shook her head, a sparkling of great relief. “Oh, Raul.” She reached out for his hand. “Please. A hug.” She took him into her arms. “I’m so glad you got to hear this.” She kissed his shoulder. “You brought me luck. You’re part of it.”
The next morning very early, she flew to Los Angeles. She knew she had to get back by mid-afternoon at the latest. Curtain time for Playboy was 8:30. Raul drove her to the airport. Corinth was so excited that she could talk about little else.
“What if this…? What if….?” She put on her sunglasses and, with them, Raul saw the star quality that now, suddenly, possessed her. He wondered if there had been an actual change in her, or if he were simply viewing her with the aid of her…her… He considered the words. Her moment! Yes, she was an actress. Yes, she had beauty that, as Milly O’Mullaly had said when they first met, “could kill.” But since her telephone conversation with Hylda the morning before, Corinth’s very bearing had changed, and staring out the windshield as they descended Hyde Street toward the freeway, Raul was indeed discomfited. He grumbled in silence. He felt his stomach tighten. He knew what it was. Jealousy nudged him and identified itself.
Corinth Jamison! right up there on the movie poster, above the title with George. Two hoods working a caper, both beyond gorgeous, Corinth on the way to her first Oscar.
That afternoon Raul was late picking her up at the airport. He did ask her what the meeting with Hylda…and, as it happened, George…was like. Corinth flooded the conversation with details.
“He is such a nice man!” “Well, they’re excited too. Imagine! They’re excited!” “No, he wasn’t in the limousine at the airport. But they did send a limousine. Imagine. For me!” “They hadn’t seen as good a screen test as mine in, well, ever!”
Raul chatted, but that was it. His own career floated past him as Corinth spoke. Now it seemed amateur to him. Way back in the back as an actor, and not a gifted one. Maybe his father was right. Raul, wasting his time in regional theaters, going nowhere. Sitting alone with a bowl of buttered popcorn on his lap, he would watch Corinth, on television, hurry up to the stage at the Academy Awards, to thank her parents the long-hair and the hippie mom, to thank George, to thank Hylda, and not a word about Raul Kelly. By then, I’ll be her ex-boyfriend, among others. Nothing much.
“You know, I wish you had been there,” Corinth said.
Distracted, Raul glanced toward her, and saw she was worried about what he was thinking.
“I mean, I’m telling you all this, and maybe it’s too much.”
“It’s your day, Corinth. Don’t worry about me.”
“But I think I’m—”
“My day’s coming.”
“I’m sure it is, but I just think—”
Raul’s fingers tightened around the steering wheel. “Don’t worry about it!” He kept his eyes on the freeway ahead.
Corinth turned her eyes ahead also. Sadness pervaded her silence. They spoke little for the rest of the trip into town.
The next morning, Milly O’Mullaly wanted to talk with both of them, together, at the theater.
“Look, we all know what’s going on.”
“You do!” Corinth said. The outburst faltered as it left her lips, as though tears were about to follow.
“Everyone does, Corinth. And after last night’s lousy performance? Are you two kidding? And the worst of it in situations like this is that it affects what everyone else is doing. So…”
Milly had grown up in County Galway and Dublin and, after emigrating to the States, had gained a reputation for stand-up comedy in New York City. She was known for the hilarious fun she made of LGBTQ people, justified by the fact that she herself was one. She had voiced her dependence on Raul and Corinth both as they had ventured through the early Playboy rehearsals. They had such experience as actors that Milly freely admitted how much she needed their help on this, her directorial debut. As the rehearsals had progressed, however, she had come into her own, and now she was indeed the director. She also seemed to know County Mayo like the back of her hand. Both actors had acquiesced, realizing how good Milly really was.
Perturbed, she allowed her eyes to close for a moment. She was angry with both and was thinking how best to proceed. Heavy-set, in fine athletic condition, she usually dressed in an extra-large T-shirt with a fiery left-wing progressive demand of some sort printed on the front, purple gym tights and black leather loafers, white socks. When working, she piled her long black hair up in a curl-ridden pyramid at the top of her head. Her formidable smile enhanced the gifts she had for immediate hilarity on-stage.
But she was not in the mood for any of that just now.
She removed her horn-rimmed glasses and lay them on the table before her. “So, I want the two of you to grow up.”
Now Corinth did begin weeping.
The downward-turning tone of voice caused even more tears. Raul reached across the table for the box of Kleenex resting on it and slid it toward Corinth. She glanced at him with a look of squashed gratitude, and took several of them.
“And you, Raul.” Milly sat back and folded her arms before her. It was clear to Raul that the director thought him responsible for the lovers’ quarrel and Corinth’s unhappiness. He would beg to differ, but also knew that men usually beg to differ in these kinds of situations, even though they so frequently are responsible. Raul knew that any protest he could make would bring instant opprobrium down upon him, especially from Milly. He considered reaching for the Kleenex himself.
“We have a closin’ night tonight. The place is sold out. It’s been sold out the whole time, for Lord’s sake. You are superb together. Corinth just got that offer.” Milly leaned over the table and entwined her hands together. “You’re lovers.”
“You know about that?” Corinth whimpered.
“What do you think, we’re all blind?” Her fingers resembled hunkered down disapproval. “What else do the two of you want?”
Raul grumbled. He raised a hand to interrupt.
“Put an end to this bickerin’, Raul. Be nice!” Milly then fixed her gaze on Corinth and Raul both, each equally. “Move on.” There would be no denials. “Give up the moody broodin’, will youse? and do your job.”
The curtain opened on a dark stage. The lighting slowly revealed the interior of the shabby Irish village pub. A few wooden tables and chairs. No paint on the wall boards. No décor. A few small windows. The bar…more a country-store counter, the lower reaches of which were stained by years of spilled Guinness and the scrapes of rough boots…had a large bottle and two rough ceramic mugs on it and an old, piled-up rag. The pub was beset by poverty.
Offstage, Corinth wiped her eyes with the hem of her apron. In thirty seconds, she had to go on. She glanced to the right, where Milly and Raul stood watching in back-stage semi-darkness. She dropped the apron and took up the list on which she would be writing as she entered the pub. For a second or two she seemed ready to break down. But she pursed her lips, gathering herself, and reached for the doorknob that would open her way to the pub and to the first act of J.M.W. Synge’s The Playboy of The Western World.
Her performance was the best of the play’s run, especially as, at the end, she approached the front of the stage and gathered her hands before her. Pegeen Mike’s voice had become a glistening surge. Her shoulders lowered and she seemed barely able to speak. She took up the end of her red scarf and wiped her cheeks with it. Letting it drop, she looked toward the door that was open to a view of the bog in the distance.
“’Oh, my grief, I’ve lost him surely.’”
The theater was silent. The audience seemed not to be breathing. Pegeen Mike put a hand into the pocket of her apron and took out the list from which she had been reading at the beginning of the first act. She looked it over, crumpled it, and put it back in the pocket. Standing alone in the pub’s rural light, she turned to face the audience, and looked out into the far away. She wrung her hands.
“’I’ve just lost the only playboy of the western world.’”
She sorrowed as the lights went abruptly black, and Raul, by now offstage again and still feeling the betrayal he had so vividly enacted upon Pegeen Mike, realized his own very stupid error.
The audience remained silent for a moment, as though not grasping what they had seen. Finally, their applause burst onto the now re-lit, empty stage.
As the cast came out for a bow, Corinth, still in the midst of her sadness, reached for Raul’s hand. He kept hers in his throughout the curtain calls and, finally, in the middle of the fifth one, in which just he and Corinth came out on stage to noise and acclaim, he brought it to his lips. Corinth allowed the moment. He looked into her eyes. “Forgive me. Please,” he whispered.
Blowing kisses at the audience, thrilled with their applause, washed over with cheers, Corinth yet turned to Raul. “Come with me.”
He realized that he had not seen even Pegeen Mike, in the midst of her happiest, enthralled moments with Christy Mahon, appear so overtaken by love.
Copyright ©2022 Terence Clarke. All rights reserved.
This story is one from my collection titled San Francisco. Available on order everywhere.
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