Thursday at The Velvet Lounge. Evening. The brunette on stage, bobbed hair, mocha skin, and sequined blue dress, serves up an overtly sensual rendition of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” She extends her fingers outward and reins them back in, pounding her fist against an invisible wall with each thump of the bass drum. She directs her energy towards Milton in the leather booth. Milton takes her in with steady eyes and takes his drink in with crooked dry lips – a glass of Booker’s, neat. Lavender-colored cigarette fog, illuminated by the stage lights, swirls in the air.
“She’s good,” he says, head resting on the indoor brick. “She’s so good.”
The bartender, trying to look preoccupied, says, “Yeah.” He grabs a spotless mug off the shelf and wipes it down.
“You know, I actually have another show to get to,” Milton says.
“Yeah?” the bartender says.
Milton pulls out his wallet and the bartender whips out the tab. Instead of cash, Milton hands him a photo. A dark-haired boy with freckles, six or seven, grinning at the top of a slide.
“My son, Peter. He’s in a play,” says Milton. “Gonna be autographing that picture any day now.”
“Uh-huh. You oughta get going then.”
“No, no. I got time.” Milton scrolls through his texts, the white light of his phone searing his retinas. A message from Lily: Show starts 7 PM. Don’t bother coming if you’re gonna be late.
“Oh, no. Shit. OK. Here, take care,” says Milton. He squeezes the bartender’s shoulder and slaps a stack of tens and twenties into his hand. Lunging forward, Milton stomps from the plush carpet of the club to solid concrete. His body moves on autopilot. The world around him is a blur but he takes the time to observe the specks on his polished shoes and the hairs on his pale knuckles. Traffic lights reflect in the puddles outside, creating neon pools of yellow and green. Raindrops drum down Milton’s neck.
He stumbles down the avenue in a half-stroll, half-jog, the occasional wrong step drenching his gray slacks. He figures he hasn’t missed much. Peter, ever the meek presence, always seemed destined for roles like Villager #2 and Tree in Background. He’s no less proud of the boy. Milton brushes the dark damp hair out of his eyes and wipes his face on his sleeve.
The corner deli becomes house with brown roof becomes house with blue roof. A few blocks further now and he’s in front of his old address. It’s a residence like any other in the neighborhood, except he can remember walking through that red door every night, Peter and Lily asleep, a grilled cheese sandwich at 1 a.m., and stepping around a minefield of toys. He’s taking the same route Peter and Lily take to P.S. 115 and he wonders how often he comes up in their conversations. “Hey listen…I wouldn’t get your hopes up about tonight.” He’s sure the words have been uttered in this vicinity. He remembers carrying the boy up on his shoulders through this path, in the days Peter thought he was the tallest man in the world. Now the boy has seen teachers who could explain the world better than Milton ever could. He’s seen superheroes on television far braver than his own father.
The banner outside the school reads, “Welcome Parents!” Milton trudges up the steps, body weight pressing hard against the railing. The hallways are empty and dimly lit. He walks by muted bulletin boards where paper plate faces with yarn hair are stapled. There’s a long mural of an American flag and kids of every race. As he wobbles past, diversity becomes a nauseous blend of colors. His waterlogged shoes squeal as he drags them across the smooth floor tiles. The sound of jaunty piano music guides Milton towards the auditorium, the faint cheering and laughter increasing by the decibel.
He finds the double door and slams the metal bar against the wood, entering the auditorium. The room is packed with dark silhouettes, the slivers of their heads illuminated by stage lighting. Milton turns to the stage and sees Peter, center stage belting out the final note of a song. The spotlight gleams on the boy, wearing a striped T-shirt and navy blue shorts. It cuts to darkness. The audience screams and claps. Milton’s palms explode into applause, his elbows knocking into teachers standing nearby.
“Sir, could you please take a seat?” one of them whispers.
“Yeah. OK, no problem,” he says, grinning as he scans the rows of chairs. He spots an open seat next to a bald man in a sweater vest. He maneuvers past irritated parents, shuffling through ten or so pairs of knees. This section of the auditorium teems with minivan families: dads with well-coiffed hair, moms sporting healthy tans and clean capris. Milton focuses on stability. With the bourbon still fresh in the back of his throat, the ground feels like a teetering rope bridge over water. One foot in front of the next, hands firmly secured to the seatbacks on his right, he successfully reaches the empty seat.
Milton settles down, occasionally hoisting himself up by the armrests to look for Lily. The piano begins playing again as the curtains unfold. Ropes whir as the muslin is lowered down, revealing painted bottles on the shelf of a bar. Peter sits on a barstool, wearing a white button-up with the sleeves rolled up. Next to him is a smaller boy in similar work attire.
“No, no. I had a serious thing going for her,” Peter says.
“Really? Thompson or Baker?” says the boy.
“Lily Baker. You think I’m joking.”
“You used to make fun of that chick all the time. Called her a blimp making her maiden voyage or something.”
“Yeah, well, my brand of affection is a little different than yours.”
A few chuckles from the audience. Milton leans in closer, trying to focus his vision. He turns to the bald man on his right.
“Hey, man. What play is this anyway?”
The man tilts his head towards Milton. “It’s Macbeth.”
Milton watches in tranquil fascination as a cerulean light hits the two performers on stage. Of course he’s dreaming. There’s no way they could know any of this, these conversations from his life down to every last stutter and hesitation. Milton chuckles at the thought of an elementary school choosing him of all people to portray on stage. (These elaborate fantasies have convinced him of stranger scenarios. Once, he was a lion-tamer in the Great Barrier Reef.) When Milton wakes up, he’ll be on a friend’s couch with the hazy details of last night behind him. In the meantime, he figures he can stay and enjoy the show.
“You should look her up, Milton. I think she still lives in town,” the boy says to Peter.
“Maybe I will. Take her out, show her a nice time,” says Peter.
“A nice time, huh?”
The two high-five. The boy exits stage right.
Peter looks out into the audience and starts to sing:
What ever happened to Lillian Baker?
Daddy had a farm on a pretty acre
She’s the type of girl who was brought up proper
I can show her things that are bound to shock her!
Milton snorts and cheers as an elaborate 20-foot wooden construction of his high school yearbook emerges onto the stage. Kids stand stationary in windows resembling rows of photos, swaying as the music picks up tempo. Finally, a mousy girl steps out of her frame. She’s Lily down to the auburn locks and the uneasy smile. The girl and Peter dance together on stage as a dry ice mist envelops them, their steps clunky and calculated. He’s trying his best not to step on her open-toed heels and ends up tripping on his own foot. Just like Milton remembers it.
There are flashes in which the costumes and scenery change before his eyes. One minute, Peter is wearing Oxfords and slacks straight from Milton’s wardrobe. The next, the kid is donning a gold crown and fake beard. The girl is Lily. The girl is Lady Macbeth. The dialogue shifts between comprehensible exchanges and speeches peppered with too much “doth” and “thither” for Milton’s tastes. Baldwin High School, 1986. While the rest of his English class was discussing Macbeth, Milton was fumbling with Kelsey Rubin’s bra in the supply closet. He leans forward in his seat, watching Lady Macbeth plot to kill King Duncan. He’s taken aback by the literary knowledge he has somehow retained. He rubs his eyes, hoping the world before him will somehow solidify. Oddly enough, it’s the Shakespeare that fades away, not the bizarre stage production of his life.
Milton watches himself with Lily, their first date at the ice rink captured with cardboard set pieces. A musical number about their first time together which, if it wasn’t disturbing enough, has to be sung (and mimed) by his own son. Dozens of scenes set in the bar. Each time Peter, as Milton, stumbles to the ground, the bottle rolling to his side, the audience laughs a little more and Milton laughs a little less. Perhaps the performance is too convincing or perhaps he’s actually starting to see himself in his own son. He’s starting to see the cycle. Peter is growing up too fast on this stage. The suit is too big on him and he shouldn’t be drinking until he’s at least 20.
He’s growing up too fast every time Milton sees him. He learned to ride a bike already, without his father’s help. He’s going to learn to drive soon and Milton probably won’t have time to teach him. Isn’t it supposed to be that these changes don’t really hit you until you’re making tea one day and you really think about it? For Milton, the change becomes apparent every time he visits Peter. He’s going to be taller than him. He’s going to be stronger. Maybe that’s a good thing because the boy – the young man – will learn to carry certain things better than his father ever could.
On stage, a painted backdrop replicates the interior of his old address – the cracks on their seafoam green walls, the $9.99 still-life from Bed Bath & Beyond. The following exchange takes place between Peter and mini-Lily:
Milton: Look, I brought the kid a present. I’m happy, he’s happy. C’mon, Ebenezer.
Lily: He doesn’t care about presents. He wants to see you.
The on-stage Milton walks over to a bag of flour with a smiley-face on it, labeled “Peter.” He pats the top of the bag. Next to it is a remote-control toy airplane.
Milton: Hey buddy, I have to head out right now. I’ll come by and fly this thing with you another time, OK?
Lily: Where is it you even have to go off to?
Milton: I have important shit to do. Just tell him.
Lily: Sure. Peter, you hear that? Daddy has more important shit to do so he’s going to go now.
Milton: That’s not what I said.
“That’s not what I said!” Milton calls out, bursting from his seat, his chest heaving.
“Sit down, jackass! I’m trying to record this,” says a crusty voice behind him. “Great. You made me say ‘jackass’ on camera.”
Milton whips around and brandishes his middle finger at the voice, wherever it came from. He straightens out his shirt and collapses back into his chair. The seat cushion is his shelter. He sinks deep down, hoping it can engulf him whole. His own son, his pride, his legacy, reduced to a mere prop, an inanimate object, a bag of flour on a stage.
A photo in his wallet.
What did he know about Peter?
He remembers the day he took the kid to the zoo. Where was that in the play? Pittsburgh Zoo. A clear sunny day. They wandered through the African Savana and tried to top each other’s elephant impressions. When they reached the Antarctic exhibit, Peter pressed his little nose to the glass when he saw the polar bears. He laughed and roared, said they were his favorite. So for a while, it was stuffed polar bear toys and polar bear T-shirts every time he visited. Then one day, he chucked one of his polar bears aside and said he liked planes now. Milton remembers that. Peter likes planes. He remembers that, dammit.
“And that’s supposed to be good enough, right?” the miniature Lily says on stage. “You know what kills me is how people say, ‘Oh, he doesn’t really look like you. Must look more like Dad then.’”
“What? Why does that kill you, Lily?” says Peter, his voice soft and dry as if he’d just swallowed a cotton ball.
“Because I agree with them. Every time I look at the kid, I see you, Milton. And I’m reminded that it’s the only thing you’ve ever contributed.”
Milton clutches the wallet through his pants leg. The photo wasn’t there because he was proud of his son. It was there to prove to everyone he was a father.
The voice isn’t coming from the stage – it’s coming from behind him.
“Lily,” says Milton, seeing strands of auburn hair as he turns his head.
“He’s good, isn’t he? He was practicing his lines the whole way over here.”
The bald man next to Milton shushes her.
“Yeah,” says Milton. “He really is.”
“I’m glad you came,” she whispers. “He’s glad you came. He wanted you to see this more than anything.”
Before Milton can reply, a loud crash startles the crowd. His eyes dart towards the stage as a cloud of flour erupts into the air, billowing outward. Glass shards scatter across the stage. In the center is a bulky black contraption. Milton squints to see the bag of flour labeled “Peter” effectively crushed by a loose stage light. The actual Peter is sprawled across the ground. Milton and Lily dash towards the stage.
“Peter! Peter, are you OK?” says Milton.
“I’m fine,” says Peter, brushing the dust off his elbows. Milton squeezes him tight, burying the boy in his damp sleeves.
A teacher in a floral print skirt climbs up to the stage. She hyperventilates over the small mounds of flour.
“We have no Peter! We have a broken stage light! What else could go wrong? It’s the curse of Macbeth!”
“I can play Peter,” says Peter, poking his head out from his father’s embrace.
“That’s great, dear, but you already have a part.”
“Lady,” says Milton, releasing his hold on Peter. “I’ll play the dad.”
“You?” she says, eyes creased into laughter.
“It’ll be fine.”
Milton doubts he heard this exchange properly but he has ceased to care. Peter was real, every strand of the boy’s hair tucked beneath his father’s arms so nothing could harm him. This moment is real. Milton looks out at the audience, a spotlight blazing in his eyes. In the first row, a medley of faces shocked, confused, upset. They murmur to each other and adjust themselves in their seats, their heads turning to the stage one by one. They’re waiting. Milton has no idea where this story is going. He doesn’t know any of his lines. There are no cue cards, no stage directions. It’s hardly the role he was born to play.
Milton clears his throat and looks over at Peter.
For him, he’ll learn.