MCCALL & COMPANY: SWOLLEN IDENTITY

A NOVEL BY RICH LEDER

 

CHAPTER 2

PSYCHEDELIC SUNDAY

 

Sixty seconds after Brooke Barrington left the House of Emotional Tics, my buzzer buzzed. She wants more than just a kiss, I thought. She gets anything she wants any time she wants it, and she wants more of me right now. I walked to the intercom beside the door and pushed the button. “It was a good kiss, okay, great, but I’m not a girl-on-girl kind of girl.”

“Nice to know,” Posey said.

“Thanks for sharing,” Dennis said.

“We have news too,” Posey said.

“Hit the buzzer,” Dennis said, “and we’ll fill you in.”

Dennis Parker and Posey Schmidt were the husband and wife co-founders of the Schmidt and Parker Players, the off-off-off-off Broadway musical theater company of which I was a member. Posey wrote, composed, and produced the all-original shows; Dennis directed them. Friday night, last night, we opened Blood Song and Dance, a vampire musical. I played the lead, the vampire of Grand Central Station, who in her heart, if she had one, wanted only to be a nightclub singer. The story was nonsensical, but the singing and dancing were terrific, and gallons of fake red blood spurted into the night, so the audience had a ball even if they hadn’t a clue about what was transpiring.

Dennis was the mirror image of Joel Grey, his lost twin separated at birth for mysterious reasons. He was sixty-two years old and five foot three. Posey was the perfectly round incarnation of Liza Minnelli, except with frizzy, fire-engine-red hair. She was fifty-five. They had endless energy and a love for theater that knew no bounds.

She wore a blazing red sweater over black tights and red high-top Converse sneakers. He wore black slacks, black shoes, black shirt, skinny black tie, a black blazer and a black fedora. They sat on my sofa, filled to bursting with glad tidings.

I sat across from them on a Monte Carlo Club Chair that I had bought for five bucks at a yard sale in Washington Heights and had reupholstered with a chocolate-colored fabric that made it look like a five-hundred-dollar chair. (Leo the Upholsterer owed my father and me a favor for finding his runaway daughter in an Upstate ashram and escorting her home, so he did my Monte Carlo Club for free—a PI perk.) I wore faded blue jeans, a blue cotton blouse, and canvas-colored Toms, the outfit I was wearing when Brooke Barrington kissed me on the lips, a kiss I couldn’t shake.

“So what’s your news?” I said.

“The next play is ready for rehearsal,” Dennis said.

“It’s called Psychedelic Sunday,” Posey said, handing me the script.

“We want you to play Venus,” Dennis said, “as in Venus and Adonis.”

“The painting,” Posey said, “by Peter Paul Rubens.”

“It’s one of the three leads. You’ll wear a nude leotard, feathers in your hair and love beads,” Dennis said. “Hippie heaven.”

In the D-Cup Musical Theater, the loft stage owned and operated by Dennis and Posey, the Schmidt and Parker Players were trying something new. Instead of staging four original shows per year, they were going to put up six. The old system meant waiting for one show to end its eight-week run before starting a four-week rehearsal period on the next show and then eight weeks of performance and then four weeks of rehearsal and so on throughout the year. The new system meant that as soon as one play opened and began its eight-week run, the next one would begin rehearsing, and it would have the same eight weeks to get up on its legs so that it could open hot on the heels of the show that was closing.

It was a system, I thought, that would make for frenetic and confusing times at all times because the actors would be continually performing one role while rehearsing another, which might give the cast a kind of crazy-chicken-without-its-head synergy times two because while Posey was a furiously fast and prolific writer and composer, she was equally and exceptionally loosey-goosey as far as plot and character were concerned, so the crazy-chicken-without-its-head cast would have no idea what either of the plays were actually about. She wrote fun and catchy songs, though, and Dennis was a talented helter-skelter director and choreographer, so while I was skeptical about the new order, I thought a preposterous yet entertaining evening at the D-Cup would still be in the cards for both shows—same as always, just more so.

“It’s about a prim and proper art professor from Columbia University named Johnny Jedry,” Dennis said, “who loses his passion for art, life, and love and catches a cab to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a Sunday afternoon in 1968 to find it.”

“The cab driver listens to the professor’s tale of woe and offers him a hit of LSD,” Posey said, “which Johnny drops on the spot because, well, that’s not clear yet.”

“A hole in the plot that will soon be filled,” Dennis said, optimistically.

Since plot holes were rarely (if ever) filled at the D-Cup, I kind of rolled my eyes, but mostly I rolled them because I couldn’t stop thinking about the kiss.

There were only two reasons I could think of that Brooke Barrington would kiss me. The first was simple: she was attracted to me. I’m not a supermodel, but I’m a good-looking five seven, curvy in all the right places and honed, toned, and fit as a fighter. Literally. I’ve been a boxer for a long time.

My mother died when I was ten, my sister, Marilyn, left for Cleveland when I was twelve, and when I was fourteen, Jimmy took me to Raul’s Boxing in Hell’s Kitchen, a dive gym near the Port Authority, deposited me on a three-legged stool that had been there for fifty years and said to Raul, “Teach her to punch like a man, amigo.”

I hated training at first, but my father made me go, and as I got stronger and faster, I felt bigger and better, so I trained longer and harder. Several decades later, I was still at it with Raul four days a week, working the speed bag, pounding the heavy bag, smacking the pads with jabs, uppercuts, crosses, and haymakers, jumping rope for days, and pumping out pushups and pull ups and sit ups and squats like a Marine. I can defend myself in a tight spot, which was what my father wanted, plus he often said, “Some people go begging for a good punch in the nose, and it’s your job to give them what they want.” Now I was able to oblige them—while looking like Sandra Bullock.

Anyway, that’s what people tell me, based on the factual theory that there are two cities—LA and New York—where everybody looks like somebody famous, either a politician or a musician or, in my case, a movie star. Not the Sandra from Speed, people say, the Sandra from Crash and The Blind Side, mid-forties, strong and confident. I’m not as pretty as Ms. Bullock, and I’m nowhere near as rich or as successful an actor (though as far as acting ability goes, I think I’m up there with her or at least near her or at least I can see her from where I am), but my hair smells great, my eyes are bright and alive, I have a generous smile, I know how to put on just enough makeup to look like the girl next door, and I rock a tight sweater and blue jeans for a forty-five-year-old woman.

“What is clear,” Posey said, “is that when Johnny arrives at the museum, the classic Venus and Adonis comes to life, meaning Venus and Adonis leap out of the painting and take him on a singing and dancing tour of the museum to renew his passionate heart.”

“Johnny falls in love with Venus,” Dennis said, “much to the dismay of Adonis. To settle the dispute, the rest of the museum patrons arrange for a pistol duel to the death, and Adonis shoots Johnny in the heart.”

“It’s a tragically bittersweet ending,” Posey said, “because as Johnny is dying on the floor of the Met on a Sunday afternoon in 1968, he realizes that he gave his life for love and art and so has been saved—except he dies anyway. What do you think?”

I thought not one moment of the show would make sense. Much like Brooke Barrington, who either kissed me because she came to the House of Emotional Tics to hire a PI to find the person stealing her identity and instead found a woman who so turned her on at the very first meeting that she just had to lay one on her lips before leaving…or who kissed me because she had some ulterior motive that was a mystery folded into a puzzle, wrapped in an enigma, draped in a problem, cloaked in a conundrum, and bundled in a secret hidden deep inside her swollen identity debacle that would torment me until the case was solved. Option two seemed more likely to me.

“Will you do it?” Dennis said.

“I’ll do it,” I said—when offered a lead role in a musical, take it is my unwritten rule of theatrical thumb.

“Wonderful,” Posey said. “Now about this kissing business….”

“The key here is did you kiss her back?” Dennis said.

“I’m afraid I did,” I said.

“Then maybe you’re a girl-on-girl kind of girl after all,” Posey said.

“You haven’t exactly had good luck going girl on guy,” Dennis said.

No, not exactly. Indeed, if it’s true that every person has one great character flaw, mine was that I was unlucky in love or bad at it or both.

My romantic relationships with men had been a disaster from my first boyfriend, who got me pregnant at age sixteen and immediately ran all the way to San Francisco to try his hand at being gay, to my last boyfriend, Homicide Detective Mike Harriman, who conspired to have me killed—after having my father killed—and then framed me for the murder of a NYC medical examiner named Stone, who he’d also had killed. (I found Stone in his Queens kitchen, tied to a chair with his eyes shot out, while my boyfriend and I were simultaneously—but not cooperatively—investigating my father’s death.)

The corporate assassin who killed my father was waiting for me—thanks to Harriman—and nearly strangled me to death in Stone’s kitchen. Fu saved my life at the last minute. One second I could breathe, the next second I couldn’t; my throat was collapsing, my heart was stopping, I knew I was dying, and then Fu was crashing through the back of Stone’s house like a nuclear missile.

What matters here is that it gets worse as far as the relationship with men part is concerned.

Harriman wasn’t just up to his neck in the life-insurance scam that Jimmy was digging into before he was discovered dead in the Monument elevator, he was also sleeping with Olivia Russell (the beautiful, powerful, pitiless Monument Life executive who engineered the murders and the scam in the first place) at the same time he was sleeping with me, at the same time I was falling for him, at the same time he was facilitating my father’s murder and mine too, proving again that my ability to choose men was not only fundamentally flawed but was also now hazardous to my health.

The murder charges against me were dropped when I got Harriman to tell the truth—while I wore a wire—with one of the best performances of my life. He was hauled away, I was released, and one thing after another, I was making out with my new client.

Harriman happened, beginning to end, over the last five weeks. Brooke Barrington happened over the last five minutes. There had been no break between them.

“Maybe you switched teams without knowing it,” Posey said.

“Jesus,” I said, “Can that be true? Am I so crappy at dating men that my brain changed over to women without telling me?”

“Maybe,” Dennis said, “but then…maaaaaybe Venus was bi-sexual too.”

“Yes, yes, she was experimenting,” Posey said. “Like you, Kate.”

“I’m not experimenting,” I said. “Am I experimenting?”

“You might be,” Posey said. “Just like Venus might have been.”

“That’s it. Just like Venus. It’s a theatrical gift. Use it, Kate,” Dennis said.

“Use it or lose it,” Posey said. “Venus burns the candle at both ends. I love it.”

“Done deal,” Dennis said. “She jumps out of the painting, and she’s bisexual. Or might be. Or might want to be. Or might always have been. It’s fabulous.”

“Then why does she fall for Johnny?” I said.

“Because Johnny’s a woman,” Posey said, taking the script back for revisions, no doubt.

“Now she is,” Dennis said. “Table read is Monday night.”

“Good bisexual work, Kate,” Posey said.

And then they went back to the D-Cup.

I had to be at the theater by five o’clock for my Saturday night performance as a nightclub-singing vampire knowing that soon I’d be simultaneously rehearsing my performance as a bisexual hippy goddess who pops out of a painting during an art professor’s inexplicable acid trip. I put those plays aside, however, because first I had to work out whether or not my brain had changed sexual horses in midstream. I fell asleep before I had the answer.

 

READ CHAPTER 1  //  READ CHAPTER 3