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July 22, 2024

Impressions

By Michael Price

Miles pressed the up button and brushed a fuzz from his suit coat. Executives and their associates flowed through the monotone, white-collar hum of business, Miles only occasionally sensing eyes that, for the most part, were far too preoccupied to even be thinking about lunch yet. He filled his lungs with the ever-so-modern architectural sterility enveloping him, and instinctively fidgeting with his this-occasion-only necktie, slipped into an air of approachable sophistication, a well rehearsed guise. He glanced up at the numbers and muffled a forced, artificial throat clearing, rendering inaudible the anticipated ding.

"Well now, don't you look so nice, deary," opened the elevator.

Somebody's grandmother, judged Miles, improving his posture. Wealthy. Servants. Poodle. Probably more than one. Miles kept a smile to himself as they exchanged places. And that scent, that marvelous aroma of venerability. Very wealthy, indeed.

"As do you, ma'am," he polited in passing, considerately sideways, wishing he'd worn a hat to tip.

The woman leaned closer, eyes narrowed slightly. "Pardon me, deary?" she strained, pointing to an elderly, diamond-studded ear.

Miles allowed his smile to surface as he chose a destination from the shimmering brass panel in the otherwise floor-to-ceiling mirrored compartment. All CEOs have mothers, he reasoned silently, respectfully studying her standing across from him, her blue veined hands white-knuckled onto a red leather hand bag, in refreshing contrast to the backdrop of bustling indifference buzzing past her, satisfying the what's wrong with this picture subtitle that had momentarily scrolled through his brain. He assumed his finest elevator stance and resumed the never ending battle against lint.

"I said, you have yourself a nice day," he enunciated obligingly louder as his vision began to narrow.

"Well, that's so nice," somebody's grandmother smiled back, long ago having committed this scene to memory. "And you, young man, you have a ..."

The reflective doors met, leaving Miles alone with himself. Now then -- relax. Just relax. He did the inhale/exhale meditation thing a couple times, something he had picked up long ago in an acting seminar he had been talked into, checking and re-checking his hair from every possible angle, as the mechanical uplifting commenced. "A sorta soapy James Bond-ish type," iterated in his ears, the exact words Bernie had used on the phone earlier that morning, characterizing the day's role to be auditioned for. Miles affected a wry smile at the recollection; sometimes agents had a funny way of talking, and besides, this was one of Miles' favorite and most practiced character types to read for, despite the fact that he had yet to reel in his first tall, dark, and handsome, cooler-than-cool leading man, starring role. Bernie had also mentioned something about it being "just a matter of time" -- for about the hundredth time -- Miles never quite sure where the real talk left off and the agent talk began, especially over the phone. Still, he thought he looked pretty good standing there, posed for objectivity, on his way up to "the big penthouse in the sky," the top floor, corner suite no less, and he gave every effort to feel good about his chances, because he had been assured many times by many people that it might help. He talked himself into the idea that he was getting better at playing the sexy male stud lead role with each audition and the notion of portraying the gentleman's idea of an ideal gentleman appealed to him in the grandest way; everybody loves those guys, he shrugged. What's there not to like? He glanced up at his progress as the machinery began to slow. Robert Redford ran a quick comb through his hair. Harrison Ford perfected his entire attire into place. Richard Gere finished up with a few last second deep breaths. "Mirrors don't lie," said Miles out loud.

He was ready.

Ding.

He posed himself for performance as the reflective doors parted. Miles made an entrance onto the thirty-ninth floor.

He quietly eased open the door to the casting agency's outer office, inched his way inside, and gently clicked the door behind him. Once having satisfactorily composed himself he performed a momentary pan of the room. There was another man ("gee, he looks just like me, what a surprise," Miles muttered under his breath) sitting in one of the two matching earth-tone, office-generic chairs, his legs stiffly crossed, apparently quite engrossed with and buried behind the day's sports section.

"Script's on the table. Help yourself."

Miles performed a mental salute in the general direction of a quite attractive, blond and wavy, much-too-busy-to-overly-acknowledge-anyone receptionist, stiffly perched behind an immaculately uncluttered, warehouse close-out redwood desk, peripherally veiled behind a large computer screen, in vigorous effeminate assault of a keyboard.

Miles sighed under his breath. "Thank you," he said, choosing a seat.

Yet another vanilla holding tank for actors, he thought, suppressing mild ennui: browns and tans, tans and browns, vaguely familiar wall treatments, rental-scented furniture, double-digit aged carpeting, magazines aplenty, recycled classic pop tunes ... same old yadda etcetera. He idly considered the possibility that there might actually, maybe, be more than just the one scheme of décor that would adequately suffice for such a waiting area -- cheaply, of course -- (which was evidently of significant importance with regard to rooms such as this), without sacrificing that inviting pick me! show-biz flavor, as he began rummaging through the myriad a periodicals this month had deposited on the rough wood and glass end table next to him. This magazine browsing ritual had, with many opportunities for refinement, developed into one of his favorite pre-audition staples. It allowed him to, a) relax, which was vital, of course, b) read a good article, c) initiate some opinions concerning the overall artistic psyche of the people he would be dealing with, and/or, d) look at all the pretty pictures, which is what he did most of the time. Since he was one of only two suits in the room, Miles -- who was once reprimanded in class by a geometry professor for referring to Pythagoras as "a lucky S.O.B." -- felt sure that, for once, his would not be a lengthy wait. He began leafing through an art magazine, trying to visualize how the next twenty minutes of his life might transpire.

The casting director would be male, that much he knew (Bernie had been full of information that morning), which meant that the guy would, again, be reading the female role; Miles was used to that. He hoped the guy would offer a bit more in terms of believability this time. Miles also hoped it would be a light, happy, up scene, possibly with a little playful humor sprinkled in, maybe even a happy ending scene, and he particularly hoped he wouldn't be expected to cry; he had always hated that in an audition, yet, lately, he seemed to have encountered precisely that type of negative-crap roles with great regularity. He hoped the guy would at least be pleasant, maybe even crack a smile once in a while, and that the end result this time would be a successful culmination of theatrical give and take, of fine dramatic and/or comedic synergy. In fact, Miles had tacked quite a list of hopes onto the bulletin board in his mind -- as usual -- and tried not to look at it -- as usual. Instead, he began leafing through an article about an odd-looking new art movement he couldn't have cared less about.

"If you'd care to follow me, now ... Miles, is it?"

Miles dropped his magazine, ripping several pages on the way down. The receptionist was a man, a very petite, impeccably groomed, contralto of a man. Miles fumbled for composure.

"Sorry, I ... " he managed, clumsily piecing together the torn pieces. He returned the magazine into the middle of the pile and rose, grooming and de-linting, de-linting and grooming. "But ... he ... " he stammered, all but pointing directly at the other suit who, from all appearances, was really into his sports and, Miles deemed, looked equally perfect for the part to be read for.

The receptionist emitted a girlish twitter. "Oh, him. Not sure what he's waiting for, silly boy. Seems like he's been hanging around here for God-knows-how-long."

The man-receptionist reached over to turn the page for the unresisting fellow, straightened his tie for him, then turned and addressed Miles through a silly grin. "Actually, I think he's usually more of a funnies guy." The receptionist aimed a knowing wink at Miles and oops-ed out loud when the newspaper slowly dropped from the other suit's hands.

Miles forced himself to smile as the mannequin in the suit continued to stare straight ahead, because that's what dummies do.

"G'mornin'. I'm Bobby. Have a seat. Tell me a little about yourself."

Miles had been ushered into one of the most dimly lit, disordered, filthiest rooms he had ever seen, even for a casting director. Papers, books, scripts, tapes, overflowing ash trays, an assortment of mugs and glasses, and other cluttering desk camouflage provided a chaotic and disheveled buffer between Miles and the balding, bifocaled, obviously chain smoking, pear shaped miniature seated on the other side of the war zone that was Bobby's desk. Dust scattered as the tiny troll-of-a-man lifted himself slightly to insignificantly shake Miles' hand, then plopped himself back down in his chair with a grunt and a squeak. A small television, barely audible, made its presence known from somewhere under the mess, possibly under the plateau of strewn-about papers to his right, Miles guesstimated, as he considered several clever responses.

"Well ... " he began, routinely brushing nothing from his left sleeve, fashioning a hint of a grin.

Bobby's eyes sparkled as if he'd been cued. He looked directly at Miles. "A well is a hole in the ground, Howard. Make sure you don't fall in it."

Miles took a beat, as did his grin. He wasn't sure what his next line should be. "My name is Howard ... er, Miles ... I ... "

"That's from Picnic," puffed the smoke stack, peering over his glasses at the bemused Miles, who nodded dumbfounded acknowledgment. "Inge, you know. Damn good playwright, Inge." Bobby's wristwatch flashed. "Ever do any Inge?"

Miles considered lying. "I don't believe so," is what he settled on, feigning a quick mental perusal of a veteran acting resume.

"Really."

Miles noted a hint of tarnish in Bobby's sparkle.

"Damn fine playwright, Inge. Damn good. And Bill Holden -- what can you say about Bill Holden? Damn good actor. No sir, no more Bill Holdens floatin' through this office anymore, that's for sure. That's for damn sure."

Bobby lit a new cigarette with the old and leaned across the clutter, his eyes opening wider. "How 'bout Williams?" he glinted. "Ya musta done some Williams."

Miles' eyes met Bobby's head-on; he knew this one. He Brandoed himself into character and rose dramatically, fine tuning attitude on the way up. He fashioned a sneer. "Stella!" he Stanleyed, slumping back into his chair with a porcine grunt.

"Streetcar!" Bobby was at once positively giddy, one loud reactionary clap's worth of giddy. "That's good, that's good."

"My old high school did it." Miles sensed a favorable mood swing. "I was a shoo-in for the part. I was the only guy with chest hair to try out."

"I can see it, I can see it. And the Karl Malden role? Who'd they get to play Karl's part? Ooooh, I hope he was good."

Miles jogged his memory for Bobby to see. "Uhhh ... hmmm."

"And Ann Margret? That role? Ooooh, Ann Margret ... wasn't she absolutely fabulous? Ya gotta love good ol' Blanche."

The ya lost me sign flashed several times through Miles' brain before he was able to compose himself back into the conversation.

"Oh, but of course, the remake," he humored along, clearing his throat. "Yes, yes, she was very good, too. Good role."

"God, I love actors! But what a play, huh? Huh? That damn Williams ... now there's a playwright. And Inge ... I mean, what can you say? You're sure you never did any Inge?"

Miles sighed to himself. "I think ... I might have read ... "

"Say, come to think of it," blurted Bobby while over-capacitating an ash tray. "I just saw the other day ... hold on ... " He began rifling wrist deep through the desk-top jungle, " ... no, that's not ... no...wait! ... here we go ... yeah, right here, fourteen down: Picnic playwright -- four letters. See? See?"

Miles wasn't sure if he was seeing what the veteran casting director was suggesting he see but couldn't help but notice that fourteen down was one of only three or four words penciled onto the haphazardly twice-folded newspaper crossword grid Bobby was referring to. He pried a play-along-with-Bobby uneven smile from his ever expanding repertoire of facial masks, feigning interest.

"That's him, all right," was what came out of his mouth.

"Damn right, it's him. Him and Williams."

"And Billy Holden."

"Exactly. All those guys. Now we're talkin' real drama."

"Real drama, yessir."

"Yessir! But! ... and I hate to rush things along, such a nice little chat and all ... "

Another mood swing, thought Miles, as Bobby pivoted into his finest business demeanor, re-ignited a butt from the past, and handed Miles a tattered ream of semi-stapled papers, " ... I want you to turn to page twenty-seven."

"Uh ... " a fair amount of upside-downing of papers was required, " ... twenty-seven?"

"Right." Bobby's eyes were fixated on a spot in the papered-over area that, Miles now knew for certain, entombed the mini-T.V. from his view. The casting guru had no script in front of him, as far as Miles could tell, but it was hard to tell. A steady stream of smoke rings floated by and dissolved past Miles' shoulder. A cosmetics commercial was playing.

"Middle of the page, Jeremy. Go."

"Jeremy?"

"Your line."

Miles deep breathed a potentially cancerous fog out of his face and dabbed at a perspiring sideburn as Bobby sharply struck an open handed blow to the mess atop where he gazed, sending a page of something to the floor, the volume increasing slightly. Miles tossed a startled glance at the elsewhere engrossed casting director -- a glance not caught, much less returned -- and tried to focus, collect his thoughts: Inge, Jeremy, Malden, Bond ... feeling quite unprepared, Miles settled into a character with his customary throat-clearing.

"Jennifer?"

"What?"

"I ... I ... "

"Stop," Bobby snarled indifferently, his eyes never leaving the hidden screen, which now was featuring a soap opera, one that Miles had been rejected for no less than a month prior. "D'ya see more than one I in the line, Jeremy?"

Miles blankly stared at the crown of a bald head. Again, he cleared his throat, which so often seemed like the perfect thing to do, in so many similar situations -- the vocal equivalent to adjusting himself. "Well, I just thought ... "

"Don't think, Jeremy, just read the line," Bobby monotoned. "Be the damn line. Again."

"A quick question?" Miles donned his serious theater student get-up, thinking it might help. "Am I supposed to love you or ... what?"

Bobby banged away at the pile again, inducing yet more volume, and chose a mug to slurp at, his face contorted in apparent disapproval. "Right," he spat, matching volume with volume, the floor-papering an ongoing process. "Only I think you're a schmuck."

An almost genuine smile crossed Miles' face. "Oh, so it's a comedy."

Bobby dramatically removed his glasses and tore himself away from his program; a hollow stare was cast. "No," he blanded, wiping his glasses on a shirt sleeve and replacing them on his nose, re-focusing on his soap. "Any other quick questions?"

Miles oopsed to himself, his heart doing cartwheels. "No, no." he red-faced, hoping he hadn't been too wordy. He stared at the page in front of him.

"Hit it, Jeremy."

Miles swallowed hard. "Jennifer?"

"Good. What?"

"I ... we ... "

"Good. Just go ahead and say it, Jeremy."

Unaccustomed as he was to emoting for such a distracted audience, Miles sensed beads of perspiration multiplying on his forehead, as he concentrated on his script. Unglued was the sub-text he read between the lines on page twenty-seven.

"I don't know what to say."

"Sure you do."

"I don't know."

"Isn't it obvious?"

"I'm sorry. I just can't."

"Okay, then I'll do it. It's over."

"I know. I guess I always knew. Or should have known."

"I really think you're a nice guy and all."

"Yeah, that I know."

"I'll always think of you."

"You're a complicated woman, Jennifer." Miles flipped the page, but the scene was over. "That's it?"

"That's it, Jeremy," Bobby and the butt gestured, unsuccessfully pounding for volume with his other hand. "We'll call you, blah, blah, blah."

Miles made a mental note to look up audition in the dictionary when he got home but he could take a hint.

"Thank you, sir," he formalitized with extended hand. For a moment, and a really long one at that, he thought he might have to slip away unnoticed, but Bobby caught a glimpse of Miles' outstretched sweaty palm while on a one-handed excavation for a flame-bearing implement of any kind, anywhere within reach, and, for the record only, limply shook it. By the time Miles reached the office door Bobby was on the phone, apparently on hold, still engrossed with his soap, looking like The Great God of Acting, dropping ashes onto his kingdom.

Miles reached for the doorknob but stopped, suddenly feeling quite cheated. He turned to face Bobby. "Excuse me, please," he voiced over the competition. "Could I just ask you one more question?"

"Quickly," barked Bobby, flipping channels on the hour.

Miles struggled for some words of his own. "When you write down ... about me, I mean ... whatever it is you write down ... " he stammered, gesturing in general at Bobby's desk of disarray, " ... if you write down anything at all, I don't even know ... what -- just ball park comments, now -- what would you say?"

Bobby peered up at Miles, who sensed yet another mood swing in the room. Bobby hung up on his holding pattern, manually turned down the T.V. volume and, rising agedly from his throne, wiped his glasses with a wrinkled handkerchief. He began methodically pacing behind his desk. Miles wondered how long anyone could be expected to tread dramatic effect and briefly looked away.

"Son," said Bobby, apparently now willing to throw a line to a floundering young actor, "you've got to feel what you're reading. Really feel it, as if it were a part of you. Trust the words, that's what the author's for and, believe me, there are some awfully good writers out there. Damn good writers. Then feel it, son. Be it. I can see you can act -- and God knows how much I love actors -- but don't act, be. You've got to feel it before you can be it. Understand, son?"

Then, as if having satisfied his good-deed-for-the-daily-minimum-requirement, The Great God of Acting lit another cigarette, returned his freshly cleansed bifocals to their usefulness, and sat back down.

"I didn't believe a word you said," he stated, banging for volume.

* * * *

"Yes, Miles, party of two, please."

In an effort to avoid confusion when making reservations of any kind Miles had long ago stopped giving his birth surname -- Peterson. He liked the stage name he had chosen for himself when he first moved to California, six-plus years prior, thought it made him sound urbane, cultured, perhaps even approaching "James Bond-ish," but had always hesitated to reserve anything using it -- such as a lunch date table for two in a classy, new restaurant -- lest anybody within earshot or, God forbid, the maitre d', might roll their eyes, tee-hee, or otherwise make light of how nose-in-the-air it might come across in a public setting -- Princeton. Miles Princeton. It sounded almost too good, too polished for normal, everyday use, so he rarely used that name either. After much internal debate, he had settled on Miles, which he thought sounded medium-rare sophisticated, this-side-of-the-Mediterranean unique, yet friendly, well bred, and clever.

Of course, that wasn't his real name, either.

"Ah, yes," the white-tuxedoed man checked off in his book, behind the intricately sculpted, dark redwood podium, acknowledging Miles without actually looking at him. "Your table is indeed available, Mr. Miles." Looking up. "Will the other member of your party be along presently or would you care to wait at your table, sir?"

"Both, I hope," light-hearted Miles.

"Very good, sir," serviced the maitre d', his polite, gentle tone belying an impressively constant stony gaze, leaving Miles unsure if it was his attempt at socially acceptable levity that was "very good" or ...

"If you would be so good as to follow me."

Miles was led through an opening of lush, mahogany-hued, velvety drapes -- the heavy, weighted kind they used to use on theatre stages, he idly thought in passing -- into a large open dining area, dimly lit, especially for early afternoon, with brass-based, pear shaped-glass globed, candled centerpieces elegantly adorning the white tableclothed tables. Markedly unrushed black-tuxedos creaked across the shimmering hardwood floors with discernible stealth, attempting their professional best not to look excessively servile, most of them teetering precariously along that oh-so-fine-line of oh-so-fine-dining snotty exterior demeanor of culinary superiority, underscored by the usual soft business lunch patron chatter and clatter. Miles was a little surprised by the house music, which he recognized to be an old Artie Shaw classic (he couldn't recall the name of it), with many more big band favorites to follow. But it was fine, he enjoyed big band music every now and again. It just seemed out of place for the place, which was obviously better suited for a healthy platter of easy listening jazz, Miles determined, maybe some slow sexy sax, a little Kenny G in the early afternoon, Grover Washington, perhaps, music by which to make a good first impression.

Either that or turn up the lights so you could see, he concluded to himself.

"Will this be satisfactory, Mr. Miles?"

"Yes, thank you," he lied. Damn. Once again, he had forgotten to request a booth, preferably a cozy corner booth and, much to his chagrin and developing embarrassment, found himself being hospitably shoe-horned into a rather ordinary looking wooden chair and snugged under a table, set for four, located absolutely in the middle of the room.

"Shall I remove these extra settings for you," said the maitre d', having already started the process.

"Thank you, again," sighed Miles, furtively panning the room, suddenly feeling quite viewed, theater-in-the-round style. At least it was dark, he mused ironically, adjusting his tie, smoothing out his suit coat. Then, "Oh! Do leave a setting for her, won't you," he said, gesturing mostly with his eyes toward the empty chair to his left.

"Of course, Mr. Miles. And would you care to peruse our excellent wine list while we await the young lady?"

"Peruse, yes, please."

"I trust she will be joining us shortly?"

"Oh yes, please."

"I shall be happy to escort her to your table when she arrives. Enjoy your afternoon, Mr. Miles."

"Thank you, we shall," said Miles, as the maitre d' strutted off.

Miles picked up the white, crisply folded, linen napkin from the setting in front of him and draped it neatly across his lap as a haphazardly bow-tied, non-tuxedoed employee, wearing strikingly unpolished shoes, filled his water glass from a glisteningly polished silver pitcher with water, but no ice. Miles frowned.

"Thank you," he said flatly, briefly catching his reflection in the pitcher.

The water-man nodded respectfully in another language and went on his way. Miles glanced at his wristwatch and sighed, mostly for show. She was late. People were watching, he could sense it. He didn't even know her very well, barely knew her name, just a pretty lady he had met at a cattle call commercial audition two days prior. They had hit it off after mutually screwing up their reading. He'd managed to squirrel up enough courage to ask her out while walking her to her car, afterwards. Enough courage for lunch, but not dinner. Not yet, anyway.

This has to look absolutely ridiculous, he thought: late twenties, well dressed, supposedly handsome young man sitting by himself, conspicuously dateless, at a table better suited for four than two, much less one, center stage in the créme de la créme of the biz eateries, with but a lonely glass of tepid tap water as his only available prop, aside from assorted bits and pieces of himself. Where was she? He was certain about the agreed upon time and thought she had been, too. They had even joked about making the reservation after noon, that it might not look very good chug-a-lugging at a couple of jumbo margaritas in such a swanky joint at eleven-o-one. He took a sip from his water glass, "ish, warm"-ed to himself and rocked back in his chair, unbuttoned his suit jacket, tried to appear relaxed, casually rocking back and forth, not-a-care-in-the-worldly for all to see, gently drumming his fingernails to In The Mood (he recognized that one right away) on the edge of the table. And he had had such high hopes for this particular young lovely. Where was she?

"Hi!"

The strident female voice that had snuck up on Miles from behind was startlingly animated, piccolo-esque, and, upon initial appraisal, way too overblown service industry friendly. Miles tipped over backwards in his chair, awkwardly sprawling onto the hardwood with all the predictable and appropriate sound effects. Everybody looked. A few people applauded. Most kept eating, chatting.

"Oh my God, are you all right?" concerned the waitress, helping Miles to his feet by one arm.

"I-I-I'm fine, uh -- no problem," stammered Miles, realizing a spontaneous blood-rush to his face, brushing himself off on the way up. The waitress righted his chair for him and he sat down, smiling sheepishly at the young woman.

"I am so sorry," she apologized, dabbing at his lapels with a dry towel she kept tucked in her apron string. His nearly full water glass, the one he'd been holding, remained intact on the floor next to him, afforded a relatively soft landing courtesy Miles' upper torso garmentry. A different male non-tuxedo, also with significant shoe polish deficiencies, was at the scene within seconds, with a dry mop, sopping up water to the big band beat.

"It's okay, I'm fine. Really," Miles insisted. "It's only water. It's not even cold water."

" ... I didn't mean to startle ... here, let me ... "

"Hey, c'mon now, let's not make a federal case out of this," quieted Miles, collecting his dignity, peripherally peering about for gawkers, gently brushing aside the waitress's efforts. "I dry. It's one of my better qualities."

"And you're being such a good sport about this. Let us buy you a drink, at least. What can I get for you?"

Miles studied the young woman. She seemed out of place, somehow. First of all, she was a she, a waitress instead of a waiter, the only female afoot, as far as he could tell. Secondly, she was indeed young, younger than him, certainly. And very pretty, actually, as pretty as any barely-post-teens female dressed in a black and white monkey suit could pull off, he figured. All the other tuxed servers appeared to be considerably older, more professional in stature and appearance, male, and patently unpretty.

But the one characteristic that set her apart from the rest of the staff, the rest of the room, Miles surmised, the one thing that struck him as uniquely different about her, was his determination that -- despite initially coming across so over-the-top welcoming and pleasant and quite alarmingly so, as it turned out, particularly in comparison with the restaurant's veritably stolid supporting cast -- she actually seemed sincere. Her eye contact was sensational: big, blue, and, at the moment, genuinely heartfelt in its connection with Miles. She seemed like the real deal.

"Well," started Miles, experiencing a momentary flashback to his Picnic tete-ta-tete with Bobby from earlier in the day, "I suppose I could be talked into a beer while I wait. There'll be one more coming -- and you probably knew that. Anything imported in the bottle will be fine, thank you."

"Coming right up," she smiled. "Oh! By the way -- geez, I almost forgot, how could I forget? -- it's only my job. My name is Michael -- sorry 'bout that -- and, ya know, for better or worse, I'll be your server this afternoon, that whole deal. And again, I do apologize for all this," she said, lightly touching Miles' shoulder on her way past him.

Miles swung around in his chair. "Michael? Really?"

"Yeah," the waitress voiced back. "Daddy was expecting a boy." And she was out of tactful earshot.

Miles muttered under his breath, I'll bet daddy was a little surprised, watching Michael as she walked away.

All opening act debacles aside, there was something he really liked about her, he couldn't quite put a finger on it.

It wasn't just that they had the same birth name.

One O'clock Jump

"Here I come. It's me. Sit tight. I'm almost there."

Miles smiled as Michael the waitress approached his table, audibly over-exaggerating every step. "Thanks for the warning," he smirked.

"Not a problem. German okay?"

"I love European beer. How did you know?"

Michael set a bottle of beer and a heavy glass mug in front of Miles. "I used to wait tables," she drolled, almost concealing a grin.

"Ah, a sense of humor, too, that's nice, I like it," Miles Hawkeye Pierced.

"I'm assuming you want to hold off on menus ... "

"Yes, please."

" ... dumb question. Back in a bit. See ya." And off she went.

Take The A-Train

"Your wine list, Mr. Miles. I understand we had a minor accident?"

"Well, I did."

"Are you injured, sir?"

Miles thought to himself, It's a good thing I'm not bleeding, Jeeves, that was five, ten minutes ago. "I'm fine, thank you."

"And I trust you're being well tended to?"

Go away, I've experienced far too much attention already, is what Miles came very close to voicing. "Michael is taking critically good care of me, thank you, sir."

The maitre d' consulted his watch, still expressionless. "And we're still thinking the young lady is en route?"

"That's what we're thinking."

"Very good, sir. I do hope she has not been involved in an accident."

"Right there with ya', my good man, thank you."

"My pleasure." And off he went.

Jumpin' At The Woodside

Miles checked his watch for the seventeenth time since he had entered the restaurant. Thirty-seven minutes late and counting. She wasn't coming. He knew it, or he should have known it, just like the others. He assumed his face was getting redder with each passing minute and was, now officially, grateful for the lack of illumination in the room. He felt like an idiot, just sitting there, alone, big table, in the middle of one of the city's finest restaurants, nursing a beer by himself. Every table in the vicinity had turned over since he'd sat down; an entirely fresh group of gapers, in multiples of two or more, were now whispering sentiments ranging from pity to mirth, no doubt. Why did stuff like this always happen to him? He looked around for Michael. He needed to talk to her; just getting up and walking out would be a pretty tactless thing to do. He had monopolized one of her larger tables over a busy lunch hour for a long time, which did bother him, but he hadn't seen her for quite awhile. Still, he figured it might look a little better if he could smooth things over with her before he left -- she had been so nice, after all -- if he had any hopes of being welcomed back the next time he wanted to impress a young lady over lunch; it really was a nice place. He considered the management, too, although Miles figured old stone face in white wouldn't care nearly as much or, if he truly did give a rat's ass, certainly no one would be the wiser.

I'll Never Smile Again

No Michael in sight. Regretfully, Miles sighed deeply and rose, displayed one final pan of the room, again exhaled expressively, pulled a twenty out of his wallet and set it under the empty beer mug, posed himself, and made his way toward the curtain, avoiding any and all eye contact.

He had enjoyed the beer.

* * * *

" ... so anyway ... not sure if you're checkin' back for your messages, but I suppose ... yeah, well, never mind. Listen, Miles buddy, Bernie here. Hey pal, we got a super easy gig goin' on for ya over at the Palace tonight, easy cash, last minute sorta deal, you'll love it. They're lookin' for a young stud, good lookin', well dressed, you know the routine ... big time dressed-to-the-nines man-model-type to fill in at some sort of music awards deal, I never heard of it ... figured you'd be a natural, ya popped into my mind right away, my man. Called a seat filler, you prob'ly heard of it. I mean, I figured, as long as you're already dressed for it, ya know, from this afternoon ... oh! that's right, I almost forgot, how'd it go with the Inge guy? I mean, what the hell was that, right? Damn guy's been at it for about as long as I've been alive. Criminy Hay-zeus! Brando, Holden, Malden ... am I right? That's good stuff, all good stuff, just part of the ol' biz, eh Miles? Heh, heh! But tonight ... what the hell, should be a kick in the pants, if nothing else. Lots of gorgeous babes dressed to the nines, whad'ya think Miles? Huh? Huh? Course, who am I, tellin' you about gorgeous babes? Me. Tellin' you. 'Bout dames. And I just cracked myself up. See, what'ya gotta do is, ya know, whenever one'a those muckety-muck prima donnas gets up to collect their hardware or hit the head or whatever -- and I realize you've never done this before, but it's so easy -- just slip in behind 'em and ... well, have a seat. Til they get back. So ya see, what happens, when the camera pans the crowd ... ah, you're prob'ly way ahead'a me. Anywhoooo ... simple as that. Just rubbin' elbows with the big shots. Nothin' to it. Take three, maybe four hours. Five, tops. Hell, even I could do it. Easy money. Hey, I know your threads, my man, you're perfect for the part, a real knockout. Just be cool. Like everybody else. Y'know, act normal.

Oh! Say, I meant to ask you, how'd that lunch date with ... uh ... " (click)

* * * *

Miles was both tired and thirsty by the time he hit the barstool. Eleven-o-one. It had been a long, ostensibly forgettable day, but one that he was woefully certain would remain in his memory bank far too long, the kind of day for which late night happy hours were invented.

"I'd like a scotch, Chivas, when you have time," he gestured to the fashionably uniformed frat-man zipping past him, behind the bar, a drink in each hand. "Please."

"Be right with you."

Miles fashioned himself as a discriminating beer drinker, typically imported, perhaps a glass of wine every now and again, but he had long ago determined that any variety of beer clashed with the particular suit he was wearing and, on this night, wine just wasn't going to cut it. Tonight, he wanted to feel it. He didn't especially care for the taste of scotch, not really, top shelf or not, but it accessorized well with most of his wardrobe and had been his number one choice in the feeling it department for years. It had been awhile; hardly known as a prolific drinker, he had almost forgotten what it felt like to feel it. Besides, ordering expensive scotch amid packed, classy nightclubs had always been a solid public relations move in the past.

"Chivas ... rocks, I assume?"

The young bartender was holding a low-ball of light brown liquor over ice, poised to set down in front of Miles, awaiting final approval. He got it. Right away.

"Thanks," exhaled Miles.

"Sure. Tab?"

"Please. Oh, here." Miles removed a clip of bills from his front coat pocket and slid a five-dollar bill across the bar. "Don't be a stranger."

"Thanks a lot, sir."

Miles took a long sip. "Ah, go buy yourself some new clothes, for God's sake," he jested with a wink to his new favorite bartender, who sauntered away, not doing a very good job of concealing a hospitable smirk. Miles sat back, loosened his tie, shook his hair into and fashionably out of place, took a shorter sip, and began a slow pan of his surroundings, another room in which he most certainly had not previously made an appearance. Nice joint, he thought, idly speculating whether or not Freud had ever used the word glitzy in any of his work. There were a number of bar stools available but three virtually identical bartenders and matching herd of waitress were standing, chatting casually at the far end of the almond shaped bar; Miles assumed an anticipated full house, a late night crowd, no doubt, which was fine with him; a day like he'd been through deserved a better fate of a night, a good lot of people watching, at the very least. Sure enough and in short order, as if an usher had at once lifted the restraining ropes at a new-release star-studded blockbuster, dreadfully well-dressed people in groups of one or more were starting to drift in with greater regularity. The incoming fashion statement was one of upper-end retail, Saturday Night Fever: The Next Generation, mused Miles to himself; see also gaudy. The twenty-first century rendition of the Yuppie Show-And-Tell skit; Miles had seen all the movies, and was well familiar with the script: underlit three-tier dance floor, flashing colored lights everywhere, videos everywhere else, mirrors everywhere everywhere, and brutally attractive and nuzzlingly attentive waitresses wearing scarcely enough to satisfy the minimum daily requirements of decency flouncing about the room. Miles decided he felt a little better, ordered another drink, and tossed two one-dollar bills across the bar.

"I appreciate it, sir."

"I'll be back," said Miles, edging his way into the room, drink in hand.

"I'll remember."

Ding, rang the bartender's bell in thanks.

Miles leaned into a pose against the deejay booth, one of the major focal points of the club, in an overt exhibition of the very essence of cool, melting into the glitz. The dance floor was, for the moment, flashing to itself and, in synergy with the multiple mirrored surfaces surrounding it, gave the place a false sense of depth, not unlike the peculiarly deceptive mirrored room he had always bumped and bruised his way through at every carnival he'd been treated to as a kid. From where he was standing, Miles was able to make out at least four or five slightly different angles of reflections of himself, and his eight or ten weren't the only eyes checking himselves out through the flickering haze. Even the two near-sighted romanticists challenging the Guinness record for conspicuous, deep in discourse in the corner booth, took time out from their busy schedule to look at Miles, who absorbed their sixteen to twenty, produced a pocket watch from his inside suit pocket ("Wristwatch by day, pocket watch for play," had always been one of his stock adages concerning style), and instinctively craned his neck in the general direction of the entrance, as if he was waiting for somebody. Having satisfied his customary preliminary charismatic late-night impression requirement and not wishing to risk forfeiture of his barstool (the room was, indeed, filling rapidly) he returned to the bar, where his bartender pal was prepping Miles' bar space with a damp towel.

"First time, I take it?" small-talked the bartender, a man who looked very much like Miles, but younger. He folded his damp bar towel into thirds, set it on the bar rail, and leaned back against a cooler.

"Right, first time," admitted Miles, his head on a swivel. "Good crowd, usually?"

"Finest plastic can buy."

Miles fiddled with his drink for a minute. Sometimes he wished he smoked; guys like him usually smoked, at least socially. "Ladies?" he asked out of the back of his head, trying his worst not to look directly at two well-shopped lovelies making a finely tuned grand debut of an entrance.

"What, you're asking me?" The young bartender looked around the room and smiled. "It's a damn fashion show, for Godsake." Miles turned and smiled back. It was a nightclub convention of nightclub conventions, and junior barkeep was calling roll. "What's your name, sir?"

They exchanged names, hand-shakes, and other trivialities as the crowd continued to flow in. A massive multiple perfume cloud stormed over Miles, inducing a sneeze.

"Gesundheit, Miles."

Miles overused a cocktail napkin and tossed it in a wastebasket behind the bar. "Watch your language, Phil," he said, turning to re-inventory the room, which was now approaching capacity. The dance floor had suddenly become a popular place to be seen.

Phil the bartender chuckled under his breath. "You'll like it here, Miles," he said, backing away. "You'll come back."

The two stools directly to the right of Miles were rapt in the throes of a two-martini business meeting that had lost its sense of direction since the end of dinner, hours prior. They look like beginning acting students, thought Miles, bombastically over-emoting, gesturing wildly, entirely oblivious of how ridiculous, how utterly unreal they looked. The stool to Miles' left was one of but a few still vacant; he idly considered the efficacy of his deodorant.

"A glass of water, Phil, when you have a second," he said as the young bartender happened by.

Phil returned in less than a minute, setting a tall glass of water in front of Miles. "You're a nice man," he said, vaguely recalling the time he'd told a waitress, Show me a guy that tips for water and I'll show you a guy on a mission. "Next one's on me."

"I'll wait," said Miles, playing the new night-time version of fashionably correct, citing to himself the difference between feeling it and a complete breakdown in character. He rotely reached to loosen his tie but, discovering that he had already done so, tightened it, after a brief consultation with the mirror behind the bar, right in front of him. The woman of his dreams (the blonde, not the redhead) was perched over his left shoulder, right behind him in the mirror, committing first degree obvious with an unlit cigarette. Miles artfully performed the finest of barstool pirouettes and flicked his Bic in her face.

"Thanks," the woman exhaled.

Miles presented the seat next door to the early thirties, attractive, successfully employed, loves-all-sports pair of nylons pretensing before him, who was now enjoying a nicotine orgy with the stars. "Allow me," he offered.

"Oh my, a gentleman," she recited, setting a half-full martini glass on the bar, accepting Miles' barstool tender. "Can I buy you a drink, sailor?"

Miles was glad when she laughed first. Nice gal, he judged. Brassy sense of humor. Body plus. Nice threads, too, as Bernie might say. She was wearing a little too much make-up for Miles to accurately assess decimal point scores for overall beauty but, on the surface, she looked a generic great. He decided to play.

"Tell you what," he slied, ala Bogart, "how 'bout you let me buy you a drink and we'll call it even."

She Mona Lisa smiled. "You drive a hard bargain, young man. Sold."

Miles liked her. She was sharp. She definitely wasn't flat. He had to admit to himself that he wasn't overly thrilled about her smoking but it appeared that her pluses far out-valued her minuses, as close as he could tell. And he could almost always tell.

"I'm Miles."

"Katherine." Two well chilled hands met the standards of formality. "Say Niles ... "

"Miles. With an M."

"Miles ... Miles, sorry. Do me a favor, will ya, Miles?"

"Sure, what can I do for you?"

"Put your arm around me."

Miles couldn't help but notice that, at that very moment, the deejay had flipped the switch in his booth controlling the strobe light and had it set at a very slow pace, once every few seconds. Miles had always loved strobes -- quick flashes of fantastically bright light--that's what he liked about them. Like a million photographers with unbelievably good timing, granting every moment an importance of its own. Miles slid his arm around Katherine.

"It's just that ... see, there's this guy over there ... "

"No, no, I understand. Happy to help."

Which were both lies. But he figured he was already too involved to be doing anything about it now, and he gave her a little squeeze, to make it look more believable. She responded with a smile and a be good, dear tap on his cheek.

" ... just for a while, you know, just to make it look like ... "

"No problem, really. I'm having a swell time," is what he whispered in her ear. They looked very convincing.

"Thanks. This guy ... I don't know, he's kinda crazy. I mean, I only went out with him four, five, maybe six or seven times, I don't even remember, you know the type."

Miles said he knew the type and loosened his tie once and for all, reached for his drink, and raised it to his lips. There was a very large man towering over Katherine and him from behind in every reflection. The man was displaying all the symptoms of a person that had recently spent entirely too much time in the sun. He did not look pleased.

"That's him," Katherine nudged Miles with a whisper. "Just make it look like ... "

"I know, I know." He gave her a reassuring peck on the cheek as the music turned cuddly.

Miles and Katherine sipped in silence while the big red man in the mirror loomed ominously, occasionally guzzling at a beer bottle, also silent, all three staring straight ahead, alternately at and away from each other. Oh great, perfect, the guy looks like he's about to have a cow, thought Miles. Jealous and pissed, add a little or, by all appearances, a lot of alcohol -- always a nice recipe. "How the hell did I end up with this lovely role," he muttered sarcastically, under his breath.

"What's that, dear?" Katherine whispered.

"Nothing."

"Oh, Miles dear, ya'wanna dance?"

Miles definitely wanted to dance. As did seventeen other couples. Miles allowed himself to be escorted past the big red man in the mirror ("pardon me" were his exact words) on their way to the third tier of the dance floor, the only one unoccupied and with room to move freely. There they slow-danced, alone, a step above the other two more populous tiers, for several minutes. This was better, they danced well together, they looked good, Miles ascertained. He forced a smile and tried to relax. In certain combinations of light they reminded him of a scene from a B-minus movie he'd seen at a foreign film festival, he couldn't remember the name of it, back when he was just starting out as an actor. Miles decided he was close enough to feeling it and vowed to switch to soda after the dance.

"Hey you ... be a sport and let a guy cut in, huh? Whad'ya say, pal?"

The big red man in the mirror had been an all-conference performer in ice hockey his senior year of high school and executed a textbook hip-check on the considerably stunned Miles, who dazedly said "Excuse me, I'm terribly sorry" to a tier railing. Miles had previously only heard of this type of boorish behavior and wasn't sure he liked it, but wanted to be fair.

"Look, sir, I didn't mean to ... "

The big red man in the mirror punched Miles hard, in the pit of his stomach, sending Miles staggering about comically, gasping for air. Other dancers stopped to watch, as did most of the rest of the throng. A chorus of "ooh"s and "ahh"s, in harmony with a smattering of laughter, provided additional accompaniment as Miles, audibly wheezing in irregular short breaths, with a Herculean effort, righted himself, assuring and reassuring himself that he had, indeed, been fair.

He had.

Miles had seen James West do it hundreds of times on old Wild Wild West reruns and was quite alarmed at how painful an experience it was to actually strike another human being in the face with one's fist. He clenched his knuckles in pain as the big red man in the mirror tumbled onto the second tier in a heap. There was blood; it was difficult to tell from where, exactly, somewhere in the man's sights and smells department, best-guessed by all onlookers. Barely moving, he displayed no signs of getting up in the immediate future. People were applauding, cheering, whistling. Loudly.

"Ah, he's all right," yelled a face in the crowd. "He just got his bell rung." Followed by much laughter and further ovation.

A bevy of dancers swarmed around Miles, slapping his back in jubilant congratulations, as Katherine attended to her fallen ex. The deejay waited until he was certain the big red man in the mirror was displaying most of the definitive signs of life before segueing into the theme from Rocky.

Ding, ding, ding.

"AND ... THE ... WINNER ... " the deejay blared into his microphone, as several of Miles' frenzied new fans raised his swollen and aching hand in triumph, " ... AND NEW ... HEAVYWEIGHT ... CHAMPEEEEN ... "

Miles loomed as conquering hero over his bloodied and beaten foe, in glorious silhouette created by a momentous rapid-fire succession of multiple strobes, as the din reached its peak.

He had never felt anything like it.

Article © Michael Price. All rights reserved.
Published on 2012-03-26
1 Reader Comments
Jacob
04/01/2012
10:37:48 PM
Enjoyable read. Wish we'd seen more of Michael (reminds me of the Franz Ferdinand song) but I can't complain as this had my full attention from beginning to end.
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