by Pam Munter
The trouble started on stage, as might be expected. Being good mattered more than anything to her, even more as she got older. She tried to figure out what was wrong, how she got off track this way. Now it had gone on too long.
Madelyn always loved singing those sentimental old songs, the ones that had words that meant something. As a performer, she was best known for those melancholy ballads that would tear your heart out. Even as a kid, she could weave her warm personality around those lyrics and grab an audience. And sometimes, she would use her musical language to relate to others. Words, after all, could be tools of seduction. But in recent years they had become something more – neurological inroads, ways to relate to herself and not always in a good way.
My schemes are just like all my dreams,
Ending in the sky
The intrusion of random song lyrics had never been troublesome before but now they had become like refractive lasers into her subsconscious mind, information she wasn’t always open to receiving. There was no warning, either, causing disruptions in her concentration and well being.
She had never been this nervous before any performance, at least not since she was 12. But this was something else. Riding in the car with Helen, her personal assistant, Madelyn hoped it wasn’t anything serious. After all, she wasn’t crazy.
All your fears are foolish fancies, maybe
“What’s the address again, Mad?”
Madelyn reached down to smooth her skirt as the car pulled up to the traffic light. It would have been better had there been more time to get to the appointment but it takes time to get ready for any appearance.
“It’s on little Santa Monica, just past Beverly Glen, I think, 10935. Wish we were going out to lunch or something.”
Madelyn reached for the mirror in her purse and checked her face again. She never left the house unless everything was perfect and, indeed, it was this day. The wig had just been freshly coiffed, the double set of eyelashes firmly affixed, the blue eye shadow just so. It took longer these days to create Madelyn Mercer, carefully filling in the cracks and crevices of a long and sometimes dark life. You never knew who you might run into, maybe even paparazzi or some eager fans. The oversized sunglasses on her face would protect her identity for now, though. There was too much else to think about.
She heard Helen’s voice, “You sure you want to go through with this?” Helen had worked for her a long time and Madelyn didn’t like her to see her like this, anxious and unsure of herself. She had grown attached to this selfless woman who seldom complained, even after those occasional outbursts of temper. It was easy to take her for granted. Twenty years younger and dowdy in demeanor, she was the perfect assistant.
“I don’t think there’s much choice. At the Bowl last week, I forgot the lyrics in the middle of three different songs, even “Cabaret.” And there were those flashbacks again. Why is this happening now, Helen? Jesus, you’d think at my age I’d be done with all that. I don’t do drugs or drink that much. It was my husbands who were the drunks.”
Madelyn looked out the windshield to see the freeway jammed ahead and was glad Helen was driving, as she always did these days. Maybe it was her encroaching age, but Madelyn had no patience for much of anything now, least of all, any performance problems.
“Being a legend is hard work,” Helen teased. Madelyn knew her joking was usually a habitual way to get her to relax. She appreciated Helen’s attempts. Today, though, the comment was lost in the noise of the traffic. Madelyn was elsewhere, not feeling quick-witted at all. What was she feeling? So much noise inside her head.
Then at the corner of Beverly Glen, Madelyn found herself standing immediately offstage as she heard Johnny Carson come back from commercial and begin her introduction. She had checked her image in the mirrored green room, completed her vocal warmups and was feeling that wonderfully familiar flutter of excitement before going on. Her final moments of preparation were interrupted by a sharp pain in her upper right arm. She turned to see her first husband Sam, an angry, almost crazed look on his face. Why had he left the green room? Why hadn’t he just stayed home?
“You bitch. You think everybody loves you. I’m the only one you love, though, right, bitch? Right? You’re not so wonderful. Not everyone loves you. Don’t you forget it.”
He loosened his grip long enough for her to escape, through the opening in the curtain into the bright lights of the set where Johnny was waiting, smiling and applauding. She heard the band play her intro, walked over to her marks, and comfortably eased into her practiced show biz persona. The warm applause was an aphrodisiac like no other. She started the verse to “Say It With Music,” a song audiences expected to hear from her.
Music is a language lovers understand
Melody and romance wander hand in hand
The irony of the words did not escape her and she hoped the chasm between the airy and romantic lyrics and the realities of her brutal marriage did not show on her face. It was that night when the pain of the illusion had almost interrupted her professional demeanor. Was it the awareness of the event nearly 40 years ago that had traumatized her? Or could it have been one of the many others where she had come home from a gig to find him drunk, lying in wait for her? He had beaten her, torn up her arrangements, shredded her life, really.
The traffic seemed to be moving again, jolting her back into the present.
“I probably should have done this long ago,” Madelyn said.
Helen kept her eyes on the road. “I’ve never been. Hard to imagine you lying on a couch for very long.”
Madelyn laughed. Not that it was funny. As she peered through the windows of the blue Honda next to her, she sucked in her stomach as she could feel herself crushed under that guy who had burst into her hotel room so many years ago. Where had that been? Wenatchee? Salem? They never caught him. Why wouldn’t these pictures go away? She didn’t cancel her show the next night, though. She always went on, no matter what. That was her training and that was her mantra.
For years, she had thought about seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist, anyone who could help her ream out the crap in her head. But Helen was right. Being a legend is hard work. A week here, a night there, always on the road. Not a normal life. The only one she had ever known. Perfection a daily requirement.
“It shouldn’t take long,” Madelyn said, reassuring herself. “I’ll have time for just a couple of sessions before we fly up to San Francisco.”
She knew it wouldn’t be enough, not by a long shot. But she had to unload some of it, just let it out somewhere safe. Helen was a dear – as close to being a friend as she had for decades – but Madelyn had secrets she hadn’t told anyone, least of all someone who worked for her. She had come to rely on Helen more and more as the years went by, as the riptide of age swept her out to sea her from time to time. Helen could have been her daughter, if she’d taken the time to have one.
“I’ll just do a little shopping while you’re in there. We passed a mall a while back. You can call me when you’re ready.”
Madelyn’s stomach growled audibly as Helen pulled into the parking lot and into the one remaining open space. Was this hunger or the start of gastrointestinal panic? The two of them sat quietly for a moment, the car engine purring in wait. Madelyn stared at the dashboard. Now she was at the top of the long stairway center stage, her tightly corseted figure dazzling in that long sparkling red dress. The audience started its tumultuous applause. She looked down to see the waiters smiling and singing as they formed a line at the bottom of the staircase.
Well, Hello, Dolly.
She surely knew how to marshal that luminescence. She loved that moment. She felt so transcendent, above all the detritus of real life. Sometimes it was comforting to have that ready-made inspiration on tap, people she had portrayed, inhabited, become if only for a few hours. It was like having a DVD playing inside her head with all the characters on call, like multiple personality disorder without the craziness. If she could only bring it under control.
“OK. I’ll see you later, Helen. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
She was ready now. Still, this wasn’t a performance with memorized, internalized song lyrics – not a script with a role she had under her belt. This was all ad lib, coming from a place completely foreign to her. Her worst nightmare in a way, like going on stage and not knowing her lines. Or like forgetting those song lyrics the other night – and other nights.
The wall directory was easy to decipher, if only her eyes would focus. “Deidre Collins, Ph.D. Suite 305.” After a preventative stop at the restroom, she found the door and cautiously opened it.
Won’t someone hear my plea
And take a chance with me
The room was sparsely furnished with six Eames chair knockoffs in various colors. There was a Danish modern coffee table with magazines piled on top. Nondescript art decorated the walls. No one was there. For a moment, she worried she had come at the wrong time. She sat on the green Eames, pulled out her reading glasses, picked up an old magazine and flipped through its pages without comprehending any of it.
The inside door opened quietly, but it was enough to cause Madelyn to drop her magazine to the floor. As she awkwardly reached to pick it up, she heard a warm, almost lilting voice.
“Hello. You must be Madelyn Mercer. I’m Dr. Deidre Collins. Please come in.” They shook hands then Madelyn followed her down the hall to a well-appointed office. She looked around for the couch but there wasn’t one there. Well, at least, not the kind she had seen in comic strips and in movies. This was more like a living room, with a sofa, two comfortable upholstered chairs, a coffee table, better art on the walls. Her eye caught the Kleenex box on the table and she felt a grain of gratitude. Why was she so nervous? Her hands felt clammy. She hoped the doctor hadn’t noticed that.
“What brings you here today?” Deidre’s manner was friendly, if professional. Her face had non-judgmentalness written all over it, a sort of expectant half-smile fixed in place. Her head was slightly tilted to the left, in open anticipation of what Madelyn might say.
Madelyn looked up from her lap and at her dark brown, caring eyes for the first time. For an instant, she was distracted by the beige Chanel suit and the matching Manolo Blahnik shoes. The hair was perfectly styled, not too much makeup, artfully done. It could have been a younger version of herself, if she had gone to college.
“I’m a performer,” she began, not knowing how much to say.
“Mmm. Uh huh.”
“That’s what I do. That’s who I am.” She had to fight an urge to launch into her opening song from her Kansas City show.
They go wild, simply wild over me
They go mad, just as made as they can be
She knew she had to unpack her trunk of tricks, like how to hold people off, how to avoid any real intimacy, even with poor eager-to-please Helen, her factotum for three decades. It could all start here. Maybe.
“I’ve heard and seen your name, of course. But I’ve never seen you perform.”
That felt like a sucker punch. She lived in a hermetic bubble in which everyone in it agreed she was a legend, that everyone had heard her voice or seen her on TV or on stage, that everyone thought she was the best ever. She thrust her chin upward a bit to protect against the inadvertent assault, the hurt.
“I’ve been around a long time. Started when I was nine.”
“Why don’t you tell me why you are here. How can I help?”
Madelyn sat back, nestling herself into the soft cushions and stumbled on to the darkened stage in her head.
“That’s the problem. All I do is perform. A lot has happened and…”
At each word, she reconsidered trusting her. It wasn’t about the shrink, really. Madelyn didn’t trust anyone and for good reason. The bus of betrayal seemed to stop at every corner.
“You’re always on stage, one way or another. Is that right?”
Why had she waited so long to do this? Did she dare hope for this?
Now, dearie, don’t be late
I want to be there when the band starts playin.’
The band was always playing. That was the problem. What happens if it’s gone? Who would she be then?
“Yeah. I am. Always on.”
“I don’t want to be…on stage here. I’ve been doing this long enough.” She could feel a tear starting to well up in her right eye and immediately grabbed for the welcome box of Kleenex.
Deidre nodded. “It’s easy to get caught up in what seems to be, rather than what is. Yes?”
Madelyn shifted in her chair. “I don’t know what is. I mean, I know what happened to me. Believe me, I know about all that. But something different is happening now. Worse.”
“I want to hear about that when you’re ready to tell me. How have you typically handled the crises in your life?”
Madelyn smiled at Deidre. “I’d cram it all into a performance. Reviewers say I really get under the lyric. No kidding! And now, there’s…I don’t how to describe it….interference when I’m on stage. Sometimes even when I’m not.”
“What do you think will happen here – in this room?” Again, that expectant look that was now inviting.
“I’m afraid I’ll lose my…what?…edge? Talent? My voice? Myself.” She was stopped at hearing her last word. Lose herself? Is that what’s happening?
“Most people gain more in psychotherapy than they lose. It can be scary sometimes, I know. But if you’re willing to work with me, we’ll need to meet twice a week for a while. Change takes time. Can you do that?”
A tsunami of disappointment swept over her. How could she rearrange her life just like that? There were engagements, obligations…expectations. Fears.
Come Fly with Me
She knew what she needed to do. She was 82, not nearly ready to retire, afraid to think about it. But if she took some time off, nobody need know the reason for it. There was a gap after this LA gig. At least, they could get started with this excavation, or whatever it would turn out to be. There was something calming about Deidre’s style and demeanor. This would be a bumpy road, she knew that, but there was an implied promise of safety about the unknown, perhaps for the first time in her life.
Someone to Watch Over Me
Pam Munter has authored several books, including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram. She’s a retired clinical psychologist and former performer. Her essays have appeared in Manifest-Station, The Coachella Review, Lady Literary Review, NoiseMedium, The Creative Truth, Adelaide, Litro, Angels Flight—Literary West, Litro, and Persephone’s Daughters. Her play, “Life Without,” opened the staged reading season at Script2Stage2Screen in Rancho Mirage, California and was a semi-finalist in the Ebell of Los Angeles Playwriting Competition. Pam will finish her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts this June at the University of California at Riverside/Palm Desert. Website: www.pammunter.com