A mystery, a ghost story, and a New York actor in rural Tennessee
No matter how fast I ran, or how many times I zigged and zagged, I heard the dog getting closer. First his paws, then his growling, then his breathing.
Finally, I gave up. I stopped, groped around until I found a fallen branch, and backed up against the biggest tree I could find. I held the stick like a baseball bat and waited to see my pursuer.
He—I assume it was a he—padded out of the shadows into a thin patch of moonlight. In my terrified state he looked as big as a horse, and the first thing I thought of was The Hound of the Baskervilles. Reading that story as a child, I always wondered how anyone could be so scared of a mere dog. Now I knew.
He had short hair that shone where the moonlight hit it and rippled over his muscles. I couldn’t see any teeth when he growled, but I was pretty sure they’d be huge, too. The stick in my hand could not have felt more inadequate. I remembered Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, facing down a hellhound, and thought, Who ya gonna call? Nobody came to mind.
He was less than ten feet away now, and his masters drew close as well, although with far less speed and grace. Apparently they trusted the dog to do most of the dirty work of catching me. Which, of course, he had.
And now he was about to finish the job.
Then, for no obvious reason, he took a step backwards and growled in a completely new way. Suddenly he was frightened. Something moved in the corner of my eye. Had the Durants flanked me, or had I just run straight into their clutches? I turned.
A man emerged from the forest and stood beside the same tree I cowered against.
Although I couldn’t see his face, his body shape told me it wasn’t C.C., or his friend Doyle. All the Durants I’d seen had been larger as well. He was shorter, and slighter, than any of them. He had an unruly shock of dark hair silhouetted by the moonlight, and wore overalls. He carried no weapon, yet the dog continued to back away, his growl now becoming a low, keening whine.
I glanced from the dog to the man, not sure what exactly was happening. Why did this guy frighten the dog so much?
And then I saw the obvious. I mean that literally: faintly but distinctly, I saw the moonlit trees through the man’s form. He was a ghost.
I suppose, though, this needs some background.
“His name’s Ray Parrish,” Emily Valance said over her cup, her pink bangs falling to her Asian eyes. We sat at one of the tables in the tiny Podunk Tea Room on East Fifth Street between Second and Bowery, sipping tea that cost more than some meals I’d had back in my hometown. Neither of us were natives—I was from Oneonta, and Emily was from California— but we both felt like we belonged nowhere else
“Ray Parrish,” I repeated. “No, I don’t know him.”
“No reason you would. He hasn’t had anything produced yet. Well, unless you count a one-man show he did, Dick from Hicksville.”
“Dick from Hicksville?” I repeated rather archly.
“I know how it sounds, it’s a terrible title. But it was great. It was all about the difficulties he’d had in making a dent in the theater scene. And, oh my God, was it funny.”
“So it was good?”
“It was brilliant. I couldn’t stop humming one of the songs for two weeks.”
That got my attention. Whenever a professional theater person got an earworm from a new song instead of a Broadway classic, it meant the new piece really was pretty good. And even though Emily was a terrible dancer, she knew good music. “And what’s this new show about, then?” I asked.
“He’s being all hush-hush about it. I know it’s got something to do with mountain people. You know, like from down South?”
“What, like Li’l Abner?”
“I seriously doubt that. He’s from there, so I don’t think he’d be making fun of it. And he let me hear the big ballad he’s written for the female lead.” She paused for effect; actors know just how to do that. “And I want to be the one to sing it, Matt. I do. It’s a career-maker, and I’m not just saying that. If the rest of the score is as good as what I’ve heard, it can’t miss. It’s like it reaches inside you and brings up all these emotions you haven’t felt since you were a teenager, except it’s not like a kid would feel it, you know?”
I shook my head. “Emily, I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.”
She laughed at her own words. “Good God, I do sound insane, don’t I? It’s so hard to describe it, you just have to hear it. You just have to.”
I sipped my own cappuccino. I’d known Emily for a couple of years now, and enthusiasm wasn’t something she came by naturally. She was a great singer, an okay actress, and a lousy dancer, all facts she knew very well. But she had nursed a mental image of herself in a Broadway musical since girlhood, and she wasn’t about to let a minor detail like lack of appropriate talent stand in her way. Others found her overbearing and bitchy, but I actually admired her. And anything that had a single-minded a performer like her this fired up was something I probably needed to pay attention to.
“So when are the auditions?” I asked.
She shook her head. “No auditions. He’s just calling up people he knows and asking them to come to a rehearsal studio. If he can get along with them, they’re in.”
“He’s personally doing it? Is he directing it?”
“No. Neil Callow is.”
“Neil Callow? No shit?”
“No shit. He’s apparently been quietly in on this from the beginning. I heard Ray even slept on his couch for a couple of months when he couldn’t afford his own place.”
Neil Callow had done some huge shows; in fact, I’d danced in one of them, Sly Mongoose, three years ago. He was a mercurial guy, to be sure, but his talent was undeniable, and anyone who’d worked for him once would jump at the chance to do it again.
“You keep calling him ‘Ray,’ like you know him,” I pointed out.
“I . . . might,” she said, and looked away for a moment. “ ‘Might’ as in ‘might have been out with him’?”
“ ‘Maybe’ as in ‘more than once’?”
She nodded sheepishly. “But, Matt, he’s so old-fashioned and nice, you know? Like I always imagined a real Southern gentleman would be.”
“So you can’t bring yourself to fuck him just to get a part?”
She stuck out her tongue. “No. I don’t do that anyway, you slut.”
I knew she didn’t, but it was still fun to tease her. “So has he called you? In a professional sense?”
“No,” she said, unable to disguise her bitterness. “He hasn’t. And I can’t ask about it. Mainly because if he said, ‘because you’re Asian,’ then I’d have to punch him in the face.”
I nodded. Theater wasn’t as bad as Hollywood at race-blind casting, but it was still hard sometimes for actors of an undeniable race to get roles in shows where the characters weren’t race-specific.
“Well . . . there’s still time, right? They haven’t started rehearsing.”
“I suppose.” She peered into her cup. A guy looked her over blatantly as he left and said, “I sure could do with some Chinese takeout.” She ignored it. After a moment she said, “I have to sing those songs, Matt. I don’t know how to describe it to you, but it’s like he was writing them for me. I know, I know, every singer wants to think that, and he wrote most of these long before I met him. It’s just . . . they’re me. They’re my hopes and dreams and nightmares.” When she looked up, there were tears in her eyes. “If I don’t get that call, I don’t know what I’ll do. I really don’t.”
At that moment my own phone rang. The number didn’t come up as one I recognized, and I was about to let it go to voice mail, when Emily said, “Go ahead and answer it, I need to freshen up.” She scurried to the restroom before anyone else in the place saw her crying.
I answered. “Hello?”
“Is this-here Matt Johansson?” the voice on the other end said in a distinctive and heavy Southern drawl.
“This is Ray Parrish. I don’t reckon you know me, but I saw you in Regency Way and thought you were great.”
My heart pounded, and I quickly went outside. I glanced at the restroom door through the front window and willed it to stay shut. “Thank you. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’ve got a new show that I’ve written, and I’d like to talk to you about playing one of the leads. I think you’d be terrific, and really, I just want to see if you, me, and the director get along.”
“Who’s the director?” I asked as casually as I could.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God! my brain screamed at this confirmation. This is really happening, right here, right now. My voice said, “Oh, I’ve worked with Neil before. Sounds interesting.”
“All right. I’ll text you the address and the time. Great talking to you.”
“Great talking to you, too,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound as numb as I felt. That could come across as blasé, and I was anything but that.
The call ended, and Emily emerged from the tearoom. “What’s wrong?”
“Wrong? Nothing. Why?”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Who was on the phone? Did you get bad news?”
“That? No. It was . . .” Her concern was so genuine, and I’m such a terrible liar, that my brain refused to cough up a reasonable deception. “Some scam call trying to tell me I had a bunch of money coming because some rich uncle died. Heh-heh.”
Emily stared at me. I couldn’t blame her. I felt myself turn red. “They called you,” she said at last. It was a whisper, but the jealousy and accusation in it were so loud, I was sure they heard it in Queens.
I lowered my head and nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry. I danced in one of Neil’s shows, so they thought . . .” I wasn’t about to tell her they’d offered me one of the leads.
Fresh tears filled her recently re-mascaraed eyes. Without another word she ran off down the street. I knew better than to follow; the last thing she wanted right now was my presence reminding her that she’d been passed over yet again. I wondered if she’d mention this to Ray, or if this spelled the end of that relationship. Or perhaps her friendship with me.
I went back inside, drank the rest of my tea, and Emily’s, in a kind of blank daze. It was just another Off-Off-Broadway show, an original musical at that. The run would probably be two weeks at the most, and the money barely enough to exist on. But I felt a surge of excitement building in me far out of proportion to the reality. Was this how those first performers in A Chorus Line or Rent felt just before going in to audition for those shows? Did they, at some subconscious, instinctive, primal level, just know? Because looking back, it was clear I did.
I stayed in that daze as I headed home to Bushwick. Ray hadn’t described it as an audition, and Emily said they were just calling people they already knew could perform. But I didn’t want to be caught off guard. I mentally ran through a list of songs I knew I sang really well, and then tried to remember if I had sheet music for them. If not, at least I had time to download it.
And while I was downloading, I could find out a little more about Ray Parrish.
I knew nothing about this show yet, I kept reminding myself. But I already knew I wanted it.
Photo at top: Alex Bledsoe's daughter gets shy around the magnolia tree in her Gran's front yard in Gibson, Tennessee.