Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts
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Short Story
3412 words
SHJ Issue 2
Fall 2010

In Black and White

Jackie Zollo Brooks

Adella went to the audition knowing she wouldn’t get the part. Under her winter coat she wore a faded dress that tied in the back with a hanging sash of the same flowered material. In the straight-backed wooden chair where the secretary directed her to sit while she waited, Adella crossed her feet at her ankles as they’d suggested at the school.

Crossing her legs at the knees might be a good move, a subtly seductive pose for some, Guy told her, but when Adella crossed her legs at the knee she made people wince at the sight of her bone-thin ankle trying to support another whole leg when it looked as if it might crack in two at the slightest pressure.

“Another thing,” Guy said, chucking her under the chin when she stopped by his office for a copy of the sides to read at the audition. “If there should be the slimmest chance you’re offered this part, don’t be pig-headed.”

“When am I pig-headed?” she asked.

It was in Guy’s nature to scatter her, to throw vast confusion over her head like the net they throw over wild animals when they are transporting them to the zoo.

“Oh, god, let me count the ways,” Guy said. He was smiling as he tipped back in his swivel chair behind his desk that was covered with headshots and resumes from young people all over the country, maybe all over the world, sending in their pleas to be admitted to the school.

“Adella, if someone suggests you change your name, you don’t have to get stubborn about it. If someone hints there might be nudity....”

“In The Glass Menagerie?” Sometimes she thought Guy must be out of his mind.

“No, not in The Glass Menagerie, of course. I’m speaking generally.”

“Ah, well, thanks for the advice...”

Guy rose from behind his desk, handing her a set of wrinkled papers stapled together in one corner. The Helen Hayes theatre was presenting a revival of Tennessee Williams’ plays in the spring. The director had called the school. For reasons known only to Guy, as she was his least favorite student, he selected Adella for the audition.

“Here are your sides. Take the week-end to study them and then on Monday morning, just forget all about the words. Don’t dress in jeans but don’t dress to the teeth either.”


“And, Adella...”


“Don’t be pig-headed about sense memories either.”

“I’m not, Guy. I just don’t believe in sense memories like everybody else.”

Guy sighed and sat down in the swivel chair. He opened a drawer on the side of his desk to get out a half-empty pack of cigarettes.

“Let’s agree to disagree on that one, shall we?”

Adella wanted to tell Guy that her memories were her own, not a set of party tricks to flash in front of twenty-four other people in a classroom. Guy had no sense of decency when it came to private thoughts any more than he did about the importance of clothes to protect the body. If Guy had his way all the students at the school would daily be stripped naked, emotionally as well as physically for the two years they attended. Luckily for Adella, the rest of faculty showed more restraint about getting to the core of students’ vulnerabilities.

The tension between the two of them only increased in Adella’s second year. She turned out to be the one student who refused to attend Guy’s class on Nudity in Performance even though he threatened to fail her. Gail, her closest friend at the school, confided that she didn’t want to attend either.

“I get a sick feeling every time I think of that class. Two weeks! The trouble is, Adella, when we leave here if we have any hope of doing an indie or even a commercial, we’ll have to be willing to strip. I don’t think there are any actresses who don’t do nude scenes any more even on the stage. Remember Edie Falco? She did that two-person show and she had to be naked. I want to get used to it so if I have to I can do it with some confidence.”

“That’s okay, Gail,” said Adella, patting her friend on her shoulder. “I just don’t want to get used to it. Some people are comfortable naked. I’m not.”

“If we’re going to be actors, don’t we have to do everything?” Gail said as they approached the door to Guy’s classroom where Adella could see through the narrow pane of glass that some students were already taking off t-shirts and pants. “Don’t we have to learn to be comfortable with everything? No holds barred?”

“I don’t know,” said Adella. “Maybe I’m in the wrong profession. You go in now. And good luck.” She walked down the hall, leaving Gail standing alone in front of the door to the class.

The secretary in the producer’s office came from behind her desk and motioned to Adella to follow her down a dark hallway. Adella could see the light coming through the frosted glass in the doorway at the end of the hall. This was what she called a supreme moment, one lived vividly in a present sharply etched like the black silhouette cut-out of her six-year-old face with turned-up nose pasted onto a little white card that an itinerant artist gave her after she posed for him on a stool at the State Fair. In the silhouette there was not a single feature, yet one could tell exactly what she was like as a child from the way the little head was thrust forward as if to meet oncoming adventure. Adella was aware of walking down the hall, of being nervous, of being acutely attuned to the fact that everything at the end of the hall awaiting her would completely change her life. Even if she did not get the part—and she was sure she wouldn’t—her life would be altered by the experience that would unfold inside. She was a butterfly cracking the chrysalis, hanging by a slender thread from the rest of her life that had held and protected her. The secretary tapped on the frosted glass, did not wait for an answer from inside, but pushed open the door for Adella to enter.

What she wanted most as she entered the room was to use the bathroom. Adella had often experienced that urgency which accompanies the initial stage of every performance. She allowed the pressure on her bladder, whether real or imagined, to propel her across the room to stand in front of a long deal table. There were three people waiting there: the director whom she recognized as a famous person whom she had never met, an older woman dressed in black with white hair skinned back in a bun at the nape of her neck, and a large man in a brown suit with a face like a cream puff someone had dropped on his shoulders to nestle among two custardy rolls of fat that bulged out on either side of his stiff white collar. He must be the producer. Each person extended a hand to Adella as she walked from one to the other, murmuring her name.

The director dragged a chair out of a dark corner to the center of the room for Adella to sit on in front of them. The light was dim as she glanced around. The director, who was watching her carefully, saw this at the same time. He got up again and went to the two windows and snapped up the shades.

“Hmm, that doesn’t do it either, does it?” he said. “Let’s try this lamp. Does it work? Yup, it does. Now, will it make it across the room from this plug?”

The older woman spoke up. She had an accent that Adella thought might be Russian.

“She could move zee chair closer to zee lamp, Charlie,” she said.

“No, no,” said the director struggling with the heavy floor lamp. “I want her out here in the center.”

Adella sat in her chair, crossing her legs at her ankles.

“While Charlie’s fooling around there, why don’t you tell us something about yourself,” said the man in the brown suit, speaking for the first time. He leaned forward, straining as if to escape the narrow confines of his chair.

Adella remained silent. The director moved the lamp so it was behind her right shoulder. He picked up the chair with her in it and moved her slightly to the left.

“There,” he said, smiling down on her. “That should do it.”

“I asked Miss Pickering to tell us about herself,” said the man in the brown suit.

The director, brushing off his hands, took his place in his chair behind the table.

“Oh, she doesn’t want to do that, Clive,” he said. “She just wants to get the damned thing over with, don’t you?”

Adella smiled. She wondered if she would have dared refuse the man in the brown suit had the director not intervened on her behalf. Her hands gripped the wrinkled paper on her lap.

“Helena will read with you. Is the light all right?”

“Yes, it’s fine, thank you.”

“Well, I’d like to know something about the young lady,” said Clive, tugging at his shirt collar so the flesh trapped there jiggled.

“All in good time, Clive, all in good time.”

The director smiled across the table at Adella. “Guy tells us you like to work. Is that right?”

“Yes,” said Adella. “I do.”

“Now, you see, Clive,” said the director. “Miss Pickering has come here to work, so shall we let her have at it?”

Clive cleared his throat. He could not easily shift in his chair as he appeared stuck but he nodded his head curtly at the director. “Whatever you say.”

“Just so,” said the director with a laugh. “The director’s always right, isn’t he?” he winked at Adella from behind the table. He was not expecting a response.

She dropped her head to her script. She was not going to get up from the chair and limp around the room as Laura during the audition. Gail would have done it with great purpose. Any number of them would have. But she recoiled at the thought of exposing the character’s infirmity at this first meeting. Instinctively, Adella felt that Laura herself would not like having strangers see her limp. She was holding on close to whatever it was she had for this character. She kept her head down, waiting for the woman, Helena, to begin. Then, in her slightly accented voice which was not of the Southern variety usual for the character of Amanda, the woman began. We would be an odd couple, Adella thought.

Helena had a long speech before Laura would speak. Adella could sit and listen, gaining composure. Also she could feel the weave of Williams’ words begin to wrap around her. When she looked up she saw a shadow across the room. Adella sat still in her chair. It was not the shadow the three figures at the table cast behind them on the bare faded orange wall. Rather it was a shadow appearing out of the darkened corners on the side where the windows with the dirty panes of glass let in a weak light. The shadow seemed to be moving toward her. Adella took in a breath. She could barely hear the voice of the woman, Helena, reading her speech. The shadow as it floated out of the corners of the room loomed up as a blackish cloak edged all around in a pallid white light. Adella thought she had never seen anything like it before. But when she took in another breath, she realized she had. The thing which had ceased moving and hung just at the corner of the table where the three others sat was really the image of a black overcoat. The shadow wreathed in its weak whitish light was like a figure that moves in front of a camera obliterating the audience’s entire view of the screen. But why the black overcoat?

Helena had stopped speaking. With an effort, Adella looked down at the sides and found her part. She spoke her lines as if in a dream. She wanted to be through speaking so she could return to studying the shadow. She looked up from the script afraid it would be gone. The others in the room were quiet until Helena began reading the part of Amanda again. The shadow of the black overcoat remained. It was in some way haunting, familiar and yet barely recognizable. Adella remained fixed on the big, blurry black image until Helena stopped reading; by then the shadow was nearly gone, being slowly swallowed up in the dimness behind the long table.

Adella read her part again, struggling to get past the enveloping presence of the black shadow. When she had finished, it was the end of the scene. No one spoke. Then in a quiet calm voice the director suggested they move on to the next scene. This scene had much more weight on Laura as she explains to the Gentleman Caller how painful it was for her in school to be stared at for her heavy leg brace. The director read the Gentleman Caller with Adella. When the director had a long speech, Adella again looked around the room. At first she saw nothing. The light from the window had darkened as through the smudged glass Adella saw several thick grey clouds had formed in clusters across the wintry sky.

She returned quickly to the script to be sure she’d kept her place. The director’s voice was soothing; there was about it something reminiscent of her past. Whose voice did his remind her of? It was then that she saw the other shadow come drifting up from under the table past the crossed legs of the other three. This shadow was as solidly white as the other had been predominantly black. She recognized it at once. It was a shadow, if it could be called that, that she had seen at odd intervals throughout her life and which she had come to call the whiteness. This shade was smaller in scope than the black shadow; it appeared rather oval, elongated, blurring off at the edges.

Adella felt herself being dragged toward the whiteness. It was not simply a white image; it had also a definite texture. This texture she had named the softness. The whiteness was inseparable from the softness. One aspect could not be experienced without the other. Dimly she remembered having learned in the past that the apparition or vision, or whatever it was, must be acknowledged each time as both white and soft. She wriggled in her chair in an effort to stay seated. She knew she must remain focused. She must hold fast to the script in her hand; she forced herself to fix her eyes on it. In three more lines it would be her turn. She recalled now that when she had experienced the whiteness before she had often fallen into a deep sleep.

She was aware that her voice betrayed her struggle to stay awake when it came time to read again. The director as the Gentleman Caller was giving her bad news, breaking her heart but as she played Laura, she went on struggling, struggling just to stay awake.

When the reading was over there was silence around the table. The director got up and walked Adella to the door.

“Please wait outside for a few minutes, will you, Miss Pickering? We’ll have you back in again to talk.”

Adella took her same seat in the waiting room. Another young woman about her age was there now. She assumed she would be the next one to audition. Adella rolled up her script so it looked like a diploma. She slid it in her bag and leaned her head back against the wall.

Once when she was staying at her sister’s house after they were grown up and her sister had a new baby, Adella told Felicita about the whiteness. She explained its shape and about the softness that came pressing in whenever the whiteness began to move closer to her.

“Do you have any memories like that?” she asked her sister.

Felicita laughed. “No, I don’t. But then I was the oldest.”

“The softness is almost like something is about to suffocate me,” said Adella.

“I don’t doubt it,” said Felicita, cradling her new baby against her shoulder.

“I was so jealous of you, I tried to smother you with my pillow, but Grandma stopped me.”

Adella knew instantly that this was so; Felicita’s pillow was the source of both the whiteness and the softness. In the producer’s waiting room she let out a long sigh. And just today, exhausted from the pressure of trying to perform for strangers, her mind had opened, revealing the black shadow which she knew she had seen once or twice in her childhood but, unlike the whiteness, never again. And the black overcoat? It was what Felicita’s father had worn when he came to visit their mother. Adella was not supposed to have known that she and Felicita had different fathers but when she was still quite young he had come one time to see Felicita before he moved away. Adella saw suddenly her mother, pale with her hand on her throat as if she were choking, talking to the man who was Felicita’s real father. Adella worried with the gnawing worry a child would have seeing her mother so distressed. Then, all at once, the man stepped in front of her so all she could see was his rough black woolen overcoat. Adella could not see her mother. She felt shut away from her forever as if she would never find her mother again. Even now Adella clenched her hands as if to push against the thick black curtain.

She sat up straight in the wooden chair. One shadow was about suffocation, the other about separation. They had come through her panic to help her approach Laura. In a cold reading these effects were not called for. People only wanted to see what she looked like, hear the quality of her voice. And yet she panicked. And her panic, her natural response to being put on the spot, was the key to unlocking the part. What Guy failed to grasp was that one did not conjure up sense memories by trying to make a match between an emotion and some incident from the past as if choosing a bolt of material by matching it to a tiny scrap. One didn’t conjure at all; one merely opened the way for these sense memories by slipping through the veil of an emotion to find what was behind it. When she felt the panic she decided to float on it as one floats in a dream where one senses one is not awake but dares the dream to continue to see where it will lead. The irony of the whole thing made Adella smile. Acting was not sorting with purpose through our dreams and memories to make the best selection. Acting was being alert to the dream; dreaming in the moment one is awake. Just then the phone rang on the secretary’s desk.

“You can go on back now,” the secretary said.

The other young woman rose to go down the hall.

“I’m so sorry,” said the woman at the desk, “I meant Adella Pickering.”

In the big empty room, someone had moved Adella’s chair up to the table so she sat with the others.

Without warning, the director said as soon as she was seated, “We’ve decided on you for the part.”

Adella didn’t know what to say. She tried to smile.

“And are you nearly finished at the school?” Helena asked.

“Well, I have to repeat a course I failed and then...”

“You failed a course at the school?” said the director. “What could it have been?”

“It was the Sense Memory course,” said Adella.

“What fools!” cried Helena, slapping the table with her long white hand.

“What fools,” echoed the director, shaking his head and smiling.

“What fools,” said Clive who had no idea what the other two meant but after all he could have his say. He was the money man.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury