By Patricia Crandall
Hattie leaned forward on her elbows. Being in high spirits, she said, "I never dreamed I would be playing opposite you at an upscale summer stock theater, Lee.”
Lee Jonas turned on his famous grin. “One month ago you were an extra at the Woodshole Playhouse in Tarton, Massachusetts, playing a munchkin in 'The Wizard of Oz." Hattie mocked a pout. "I had to begin somewhere, like you …, once upon a time.” She frowned. "Why don't you call me by my stage name?"
"Tia Gayle." Lee shook his head. "I like the sound of Hattie Perkins. Do you know what my real name is?"
Hattie tightened her fingers around the stem of a crystal goblet. "What is it?” She smiled.
“Only my mother and sister know and they've been warned never to tell. It's that bad."
“Let's see… William Jefferson Clinton?”
Lee suddenly pushed back against the chair. "I warned you we might have to dash out of here. Those four ladies sitting beneath the Casablanca fan are getting ready to pounce on our table.” He waved his fingers at Hattie. “Are you ready… like we practiced…one, two, three…”
They rose and dodged linen covered tables, going down an aisle past the podium monitored by the hostess. As they hurried through the front door, Lee called out, "we're forfeiting dinner, Bryna. We'll take a rain check when it's not so busy.”
"Take care, Mr. Jonas," the hostess saluted.
Outside, in the lovely summer's eve, a light flashed. Lee made a grab for a camera clutched in a sprinting woman's hand.
"Don't print that picture, Roxy!"
"Sorry, but you're news, Lee." A tall, athletic woman climbing into a news van shouted. After the door closed, the vehicle sped down the road.
The red taillights disappeared around a corner. Adjusting his eyes to the dark, Lee shoved his hands into the deep pockets of his trousers. “Let's get a burger at the Burger Den. Stanley will set us up at a table in his kitchen.”
“Will this table have candlelight and fine linen?” Hattie made a face.
“Cool chick.” Lee took her arm and they strode along two dimly lit blocks to a shabby restaurant. They went through a creaky back door and entered a well-lit, bustling kitchen.
A burly man spreading pizza dough on a dented pan nodded at Lee. “Your regular, Mr. Jonas? What will the lady have?”
“A small antipasti,” Hattie called out. She sat down at a worn table against a stained wall. She turned to Lee and asked, “What can that newswoman possibly print?”
Lee's eyes became hostile. “Hattie, you haven't been in this business long enough to know what drivel that paparazzi bitch will print in tomorrow's news.”
Early the next morning, Hattie rapped on the stage door displaying four gold stars and the bold-printed type, Lee Jonas. She held a cardboard carrier containing two cups of black coffee and muffins. “Lee, it's Hattie.” She knocked again and pressed her ear to the door. There were rustling sounds inside. “Coffee,” she announced. The door swung open and she took two steps backwards as Lee passed her wearing a murderous expression on his face. “Sorry, I don't need java right now. Check out the newspapers in the lounge.” He strolled across the stage and took his place for rehearsal.
Hattie looked down at the coffee and muffins. “Hattie, psst…over here.” Hub Pinkster waved to her from the middle row in the small, opulent theater. Hattie and Hub were raised in the same village, went to the same rural school and their parents were best friends. They were fledgling actors at the Theater Barn and shared a unique friendship.
Hattie skittered past others seated in the audience and dropped into the saved seat. She shared the coffee and muffins with Hub. They kept each other company until it was their turn to be called onstage.
Hattie watched Lee become the stalking ghost hunter, Jake Krall. After the final scene was rehearsed, Lee flung a jacket over his shoulders and exited the building without a word to anyone.
Hattie walked doggedly to her apartment after enduring a long day of voice lessons, memorizing lines and rejection from Lee.
“Oh no,” she sighed. “I don't need to sort through these.” But she did and she squinted as she read sixteen phone messages taped to her apartment door. Two messages were offers to star in pornographic films. She shredded those requests. Eight messages were from her mom. Now was not the time to return those calls. Her mom and dad would most likely be playing bingo in the church hall. She checked the big noisy clock on the wall. It was 7:15 P.M.
In the morning, Hattie called home on her cell phone. She stood in line behind tenant number four, holding a towel and facecloth over her arm. Hattie and the tenant shared a tiny bathroom with other roomers living at the boardinghouse.
Hattie could not shake the numbness which had come over her after she saw a photo of her and Lee on the front page of the Loud Mouth tabloid. She braced herself for the wrath that was sure to come.
"How could you do this to your family?" Connie Perkins shrilled into the phone. "Lee Jonas is an evil, self-centered man. He dumped the mother of his children to take up with you.”
The sleepy-eyed tenant glanced over her shoulder and cringed at the maternal voice peeling through the phone. Hattie gripped her terry robe tightly and said with as much calm as she could muster, "Mom, relax; you're making too much out of this.”
"Don't be belligerent," her mother shouted. "This news has upset your father. I had to take him to the emergency room for oxygen. When he read the article about you and Lee Jonas, he had an anxiety attack."
Hattie imagined her father was more upset about her mother carrying on than the newspaper article focusing on her and Lee exiting the Amber Glow Inn.
"Why did you wear a low-cut dress?"
"It was 89 degrees. I was hot."
Hub Pinkster strolled into the room looking relaxed and well rested. He handed Hattie a new tabloid as he walked by with a toothbrush in his hand. An insert photo on Page 2 depicted Lee's former live-in girlfriend, Marilee Hemmings sailing with their two children on an idyllic mountain lake.
"Thanks," Hattie mouthed to the tall young man flopped against the wall, waiting his turn to enter the lavatory. With the phone to her ear, she stared fixedly at the photos of her and Lee clinging to each other. Blushing, and feeling guilty as sin, she caught Hub's eye. He winked reassuringly. Good ol' Hub, she exhaled. He was always there for her.
"Your bleached hair clipped to one side makes you look older,” her mother ranted. “Your Grandmother said I should remind you of Aids in case you and this fast actor are having sex."
Hattie retorted, "It's none of your or Gram's business as to what Lee and I are doing, mom. I say my prayers; go to 4:30 Saturday evening Mass at the college chapel every week and I make a good confession every six months. I eat regular meals... "
"Come home and be a nurse," Connie pleaded.
Hattie snapped the phone shut.
The evening was marred by a torrential rain. While napping on the living room couch plumped with Grandma Perkins' crocheted pillows, Hattie was awakened by the ringing of the doorbell. She arose disoriented and weaved to the door through scripts piled on the rug. "Who's there?" She yawned.
"Open the door. I'm soaked to the skin."
Hattie slid the chain lock on the door and peered through a narrow opening. A man wearing a Burger Den cap and a white uniform stood on the landing. He was holding a large pizza box nearly covering his face.
"I didn't order a pizza. Vamoose."
"Hattie, it's Lee. I'm in this get-up to duck the press. Stanley put a pizza in a box to make the disguise look authentic.” He shifted his weight impatiently. “Will you please open the door?”
Hattie released the chain and stood back as Lee rushed past her dripping wet. She took the warm pizza box out of his hands and set it on the counter. She opened the cover, slid a spatula beneath a slice, and slid it on a paper plate. "Go into the bathroom. You'll find towels to dry yourself."
“The Press has invaded Leighton-Woods,” he said in a muffled voice.
Stripped down to boxer shorts, Lee returned to the living room towel-drying his hair. He chomped into the slice of pizza, the topping oozing down his chin onto the paper plate. Hattie looked at him unsmiling, and handed him a napkin. “You're taking a lot for granted coming here after you gave me and everyone else at rehearsal the big chill. It's because of the choices you've made the press is hunting you down and printing your dark secrets.”
Lee thrust his hand into the waistband of his shorts and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He lit one and exhaled. Hattie pushed a chipped dish toward him. "The choices I've made are my business. And I should've known that dining at an upscale Leighton-Woods restaurant wouldn't work out. Next time, I'll have dinner catered at my place.” He tossed his head back. “I was in a bad mood after that paparazzi bitch snapped our pictures. USA Today, The Times, The Sentinel and Globe are saturated with our photos.”
Hattie nodded. “The havoc that so-called reporter's caused is despicable. My parents are frantic. One photo makes you look indecent, and I hate to admit my mother's right - I look like a hooker.”
Lee paced back and forth. “My kids think I've dumped them. I've called New York three times today to reassure them I'm still their Daddy. Marilee's flipped-out. I'm pressed to give details of my every move to her lawyer even though we've mutually agreed our co-habitation is a dead issue and we share equal rights with the kids.”
Hattie eyed him. "It is over with Marilee?”
Lee said unflinching. "Yes."
Hattie's heart pounded. "Blast that reporter. It makes me look like a home wrecker.”
"And another blast!" Lee picked up a pillow and punched it. “I'm off to New York for six weeks. Trent Studio has requested changes in scenes from my latest film due out in January." He dropped his voice to a whisper. "During that time, I want you to consider moving in with me when I come back to star in a new film." He rubbed his hands together. “I'm done performing in summer stock theater. I've paid my debt to Ernie Bilk.”
Hattie said incredulously, "“What's wrong with summer stock theater? It made you what you are today, Lee. And, what's wrong with our relationship the way it is?” She bit down on her lip.
“I want something more from you.” He pulled her down on the rug and nuzzled her ear. She disregarded the pulsation in her neck and put him at arm's length. “If you're serious and want to take our relationship a step further, then co-habitation is out and a commitment is in.”
A funny look came over him. "I didn't say 'marry me.' I want to enter a meaningful relationship with you. I'm as much in love with you as I can be with anyone. We're alike, you and me. It'd be the perfect interlude.”
Hattie suddenly realized there were tears in her eyes.
Lee stood up and pulled on his trousers. He buckled his belt. "I'm not used to this hard to get stuff, Hattie.” He turned and went straight to the door, stopping with his hand on the doorknob. “Give it time. You'll come around.” He looked at her levelly. “I'll call you.” He blew her a kiss.
After he had gone, Hattie wrapped her arms around herself and shook. *
On a perfect July evening, after the final curtain fell on the last act of Caesar's Folly, Tia Gayle aka Hattie Perkins and Guy Hiller aka Hub Pinkster were congratulated by Ernie Bilk as they cut through the stagehands and worked their way toward the rear of the theater.
The grotesquely large, impeccably dressed producer gushed, "Since the two of you've paired onstage, the reaction of the audience has been incredible. Night after night the devotion is there." He waved his large, ringed hands in the air. "The last time we had an audience of this caliber, Hugh Jackman and Kathy Griffin were teamed together." Ernie moved his cumbersome form aside as fans rushed toward Gayle/Hiller, pressing upon them flowers, boxes of candy and regalia of praise. When the excitement was over, tired but deliriously happy, Hattie and Hub were chauffeured in a limousine to the low-rent district. Exhausted, they high-fived each other at the front door and shuffled to their respective apartments.
It was finally the night that Lee Jonas was scheduled to return from New York. At 10 P.M., Hattie's cell phone chimed. She answered in a soft voice, “Hello.”
There was an intake of breath at the other end. "Is that greeting for me?" Hub Pinkster asked.
Hattie was taken off guard. She expected Lee's voice. He had left a message he would call at 10:00 P.M. She cleared her throat, "Hub, how are you?" There was an awkward pause. "Well, that shows what a state I'm in. You're fine. I just saw you half an hour ago. If you're calling to rehearse those troublesome lines in the play, it's too late. Can we do it tomorrow?"
“That'll be fine,” Hub said.
“Say, is anything wrong?”
"I couldn't settle down; went out for a walk in the fresh air to clear my mind. Can I see you for a few minutes?"
Hattie ran fingers through her loosened French braid she had worn onstage. "I've a headache.”
"I promise to take a second of your time."
Hattie looked at the clock on the wall. It was five after ten. She searched for a plausible excuse to put off Hub. There was none.
"Five minutes." She drummed her fingers on the table. Blast Hub's timing. She felt certain Lee would call at any minute. She closed her eyes and squeezed them tightly shut. 'Does it matter?'
When Hub appeared at her door Hattie was sitting on the couch casting repeated glances at the phone laying on an end table.
"I'm no good at this," Hub collapsed on the couch beside her. "Your mother asked me to check on you. She's worried you may do something foolish. She knows Lee Jonas is due back tonight after a six week hiatus."
"How appalling!" Hattie said loudly.
Hub said defensively, "Your Mother loves you and cares about your welfare, Hattie."
"My mother should've had a brood of Perkins and then she wouldn't focus all her concerns on me. Exactly what is on mom's mind?" Hattie became a little less angry, knowing Hub was a nice guy doing her mother's bidding.
Hub looked at the ceiling, then at the floor. "Connie wants me to ask you to marry me."
Hattie's face drained of all color. "Your five minutes are up!" She hissed.
Hub retreated to the door. "I love you, Hattie. I always have. Will you marry me?"
"Go away!" Hattie shivered. "I need to be alone."
She heard the door close softly followed by a rechecking of the lock. She closed her eyes and imagined she was standing at twilight on Sunset Beach, Cape May, New Jersey. Darkness follows a flash on the horizon, and a spark enters her heart. She crossed her arms and hugged herself. When did friendship convert to love?
At the final cast party of the Theater Barn's summer season at The Amber Glow Inn, Ernie Bilk took both of Hattie's hands in his and gently squeezed them. He said in a concerned voice, "I thought we were going to have a faux pas on stage this evening, mon cherie. I'm impressed you took control of your audience while being in a difficult position.” He smiled benevolently and gazed fixedly into her large, green eyes. “That shows exceptional stage presence.” He nodded his head up and down.
During the evening's performance, Lee Jonas and Marilee Hemmings sat in the front row of the small, crowded theater. There was no mistaking the famous model whose face and body graced magazine covers. She was dressed in a red leather mini-skirt and a black sequined tube top with a champagne-lace shawl draped over her shoulders. When Hattie's eyes locked with Lee's, she forgot her lines, recouping when Hub prompted her from his vantage point onstage.
Hub came up behind Hattie and gripped her elbow. "Great acting job, Hattie." Ernie excused himself, and Hub steered Hattie into the packed reception room.
"I'd like to go to the table now," Hattie drew a deep breath and went forward.
They crossed the jam-packed room, receiving congratulations along the way. They went to a long, festive table filling fast with producers, reporters, Hollywood, and New York elite, including Lee Jonas and Marilee Hemmings. Ernie made a toast to the success of the summer season and the new sweetheart couple, Tia Gale and Guy Hiller. He announced that Guy was to replace Lee Jonas in an autumn production co-starring Tia Gale. He explained Lee Jonas had signed a contract to star in three movies, the first, a comedy, to begin late fall in Italy with Reese Witherspoon.
As glasses tinkled, Hattie was aware of Lee observing her from the far end of the table. She arose. "I need to refresh myself, Hub. I won't be long." She dropped her napkin on the seat and hastened to the ladies room.
Inside the potpourri-scented room, Hattie brushed her long brown, golden highlighted hair so it fell in wispy layers over her shoulders. She outlined her eyes with mascara and adjusted the straps to her pale blue slip dress. She appraised her image in the full-length mirror. Satisfied, she entered the hall off the lounge and stopped abruptly as a deep voice said, "Hattie...baby!"
She regarded Lee with cool interest.
"Hey, didn't you miss me?" He asked, moving close to her.
She took a step backwards.
Lee frowned. "I thought we had something going...how can you discount how we felt for each other a short time ago?" His Johnny Depp eyes smoldered. “I thought we could get together. I'm in town for a few days.”
Hattie marveled at how calm she felt. “You and Marilee have reconciled?”
Lee waved his manicured hand. “We've settled on an open- relationship.” He drew near to her again and she slipped past him.
"Break a leg in Italy, Lee."
When she returned to the table and sat down across from Hub, he cleared his throat. "You and Lee were gone at the same time. I couldn't help noticing.
Hattie looked into Hub's keen eyes. "Lee and I met by accident in the lounge hall."
"I would've liked to have been a bee around that conversation." Hub picked up a dinner knife and fiddled with it, his fingers constantly moving.
Hattie smiled a trifle ruefully.
"Did you talk about anything in particular?" Hub looked at her, waiting.
"Mundane," Hattie reached across the table and took Hub's hand in hers, gently massaging his fingers. She said in a low voice, “You know, Hub, love must be sincere. It took a while”… she paused. “I had to get the wrong man out of my system. Plus, I had to get past the fact you and I were in the Tiddly-Wink Daycare Center together. How unromantic is that?” She gave a snuffling laugh. “How about a latte and a cinnamon bun at Starbucks tomorrow morning. Just like old times, only it'll be a new beginning.”
Hub had the most disarming smile. Deep in his jacket pocket, he grasped a pink diamond ring in a blue velvet box. “Let's see where it takes us.”
- - -
I have published numerous articles and short stories in various magazines and newspapers. I have four books in print, Melrose, Then And Now, a historical volume, I Passed This Way, a poetry collection, The Dog Men, a thriller, and Tales of an Upstate New York Bottle Miner, non-fiction. I live with my husband, Art, at Babcock Lake in the Grafton Mountains near Petersburgh, New York. Visit me at authorpcrandall.blogspot.com