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Fiction by Elizabeth Block
 
Music by Paul A. Toth
 
Art by Evri Kwong

'art' © 2007 Evri KwongThe Ghost of Sarah Bernhardt Comes Home

 

The story begins with Sarah Bernhardt dead on the stage. Not the original Sarah Bernhardt, the French comedienne. A Sarah Bernhardt of the late 20th century, Sarah Bernhardt, whose real name is Loralee Levin, an American girl who runs away to New York to become a less than famous stage actress.

Sarah Bernhardt, touring her one woman show, decides that because her mother has passed away, wants to perform in her home town, which, until now, she has escaped and squirmed at every previous opportunity—a decision that puzzles the town, indeed.

Why would Loralee wait until her mother’s death, people ask?

Loralee Levin aches for her hometown audience. Her hometown needs to see Sarah Bernhardt, needs it more than New York, more than New York theater critics, apparently, more than Sarah Bernhardt itches for life.

People talk about Sarah Bernhardt’s entrance.

Mrs. Finklestein, phones her cleaning lady—the one who is also Loralee’s mother’s cleaning lady, the one who used to yell at Loralee because she never learned how to make a proper bed, all those black women cleaning up after her—says, Aisha, did you see the Sunday paper, your little Loralee, oy veyismere, Sarah Bernhardt of all names, the French actress, not Sandra Bernhardt, meshuga girl from Hollywood, but our little Loralee, she’s coming to town for her one woman show.

Aisha snaps back, I ain’t wanna see that spoiled little girl Loralee as a prima donna brat. Got any extra tickets, Mrs. Finklestein?

And some. Make me your fried chicken and I’ll give you two. Make sure it’s a kosher chicken, or you are not coming into my house again.

Always a condition. Can’t you ever give a black woman nothin’ for free?

Aisha-la, dahling. I’ll give you Passover dinner off. Just make the chicken—kosher—and I’ll have the tickets for you.

Irene Goldblatt calls Arlene Finklestein’s second phone line, while Mrs. Finklestein and Aisha bicker on the first line. Arlene hears the phone. Wait just one minute, Aisha, another call. She picks up the second phone attached to the wall, unlike the portable phone on which she speaks to her cleaning lady.

Arlene, it’s Irene. Are you there, what are you doing, are you on the other line, who is it?

Wait one minute, Irene, I’m on the other line.

Aisha dahling, I’ve got a call. I’ll see you tomorrow, kosher chicken, kosher—Irene, hello, how are ya, it’s been awhile.

Arlene, honey, Loralee Levin is coming home, she’s in the papah. Did you see? My own son, the editor, didn’t tell me he was running a whole spread in the entahtainment section. Did you know he used to date her in high school?

Irene, are you going?

Am I going? My son is giving me front row seats, next to the theater critic. Am I going?
And you couldn’t get me the good seats too? Not even for her mother, Ruthy, my best friend.

I am Ruthy Levin’s best friend, Arlene.

Sure, Irene. You’ve always believed that, like your uncle Jack would come back from the dead with a shiksa and candy canes.

Off they go to the theater.

Aisha sits in the theater, numbed. Sarah Bernhardt delivers her last monologue, followed by an efficient final act, dropping dead in a filtered blue spotlight. The audience thinks Sarah Bernhardt is faking it. Such a fine actress.

Even with her amputated leg.

Aisha could not believe Sarah Bernhardt confessed, clucked, signified, howled the secret interactions mother and daughter shared. This was not acting, Aisha knew. This was not drama. This was Loralee’s real life. Nobody really knew what occurred between Ruthy and Loralee Levin, except Aisha.

The cleaning lady always grasps the trouble the family sees.

Everybody in the audience who knew Sarah Bernhardt as Loralee Levin, daughter of Ruthy Levin, hissed at the actress.

Get off the stage.

Ruthy Levin would never do such things, never say such things to her own flesh and blood.

Nobody wants to believe what happened on stage—how Loralee Sarah Bernhardt’s diaphragm takes it’s last wobbled humpty-dumpty breath. The audience jerks the house. Wires split, lights fade.

Aisha sits in her seat, as the crowd clogs and fades. How could I have missed it all these years? That girl ain’t never spoiled, after all. Not with a mother doin’ those kinds a things. Not with a mother like Ruthy Levin.

That Ruthy sure put on a good show. Like Sarah Bernhardt, Ruthy played her audience good. Mrs. Levin was always tellin’ me she called Loralee Sarah Bernhardt, “histrionics” about every little thing Ruthy did to Loralee. Took me all these years, and I didn’t even see it.

That Loralee ain’t never spoiled. That’s just Ruthy’s mouth goin’ off, tryin’ to make herself look good for all the fancy neighbors.

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WRITER'S STATEMENT OF INTENT:

I want to distort and render absurd a Chekhovian impression/realism. Up to now, I have had difficulty contemplating and writing American literary realism (though I crave reading the rare representational gem--particularly Russian, French, Spanish-language, or Japanese translations). My tale attempts to distress a classic Anton Chekhov story and also to amp it up by way of teasing out a racial and class tension that I find too lacking in mainstream American realism. Lately though, I have been obsessing about why the American realist-confessional memoir, like Anna Nicole Smith's tabloid tremor, is so damn seductive.

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last update: July 2, 2007