The interviewer was in his forties, very fit, and the hand he held out to her was strong and firm. He introduced himself, Abner Laurence, and the magazine. She was Anna Mordecai, the performance artist mentioned in the Post and on NPR. When she invited him in she noticed his limp, so pronounced that it rocked him from side to side. It occurred to her that with modern prosthetics, fewer and fewer people had gaits like his. When he looked at her head-on, she saw surprise. She smiled. “You haven’t seen me perform, have you?”
“No; I will, though, on Thursday at the fundraiser.”
“I’m not what you expected, am I?”
“Well… uh…” It wasn’t tactful, she knew, the little dig against herself. She was chunky, heavy-set, and there seemed nothing agile, limber or spry about her. Whatever grace she shoed came from the familiarity with her own rooms and furniture. He looked around. The place was ordinary, not particularly neat, which surprised him again.
“I bake,” she said, “so will it be some chocolate brownies or a slice of pie?” He hadn’t eaten lunch and he chose the pie. Peach. He followed her into the apartment’s small kitchen and saw the cups on a tray.
“Should I bring this out to the front room?”
“Yes, please…” Then, she thought of the limp and feared for the cups sliding on the tray, but having said yes, didn’t want to offend him. “Coffee okay?”
“Coffee’s fine,” he said and bore the tray in carefully.
When they were sitting down and she had served both of them generous cuts of the pie, he said, “Juggling has fallen on hard times.”
She drew a breath and shrugged, “It’s TV and computers. Anything that can be faked by special effects hurts the old arts. Magic, juggling, ventriloquism – these have all left the big stage and gone intimate and private. I perform at small venues – people’s homes, restaurants, private clubs. The pay is fairly good and I tour sometimes.”
“So people still come to see someone juggle?”
“People come to see me juggle. The same emotion that brings people out for auto races to see the crashes, gets them out to see me drop things.”
“But you don’t…”
“But I do, sometimes, three or four times during a performance. I got the idea years ago from a young niece. My sister was visiting with her family and she asked Linnie to bring in the things they had brought from home. Linnie was twelve then, and so eager. She had always been a little shadowed in the radiance of her older brother, and now was being asked to be important. She ran into the front room and came back holding two jars of relish – my sister used to can – and a framed picture her brother had done, and a book. She was so eager, so wanting to do it all at once, to fulfill every need. I saw the eagerness on her face – smiling, eyes glowing. The first jar began to slip. In her haste to stop it she unbalanced the picture and it started to turn in her arms, which pulled out the book which started to fall, which caused the first jar to weigh and begin to slide. In an effort to catch it, her left arm tightened in response to the reach of the right, so book and picture feel and then jar number two, and then jar number one, and then, because she had leaned completely back to balance against it all, so did she. One jar broke and ruined both the book and the picture. I had begun to laugh – of course I was horrified at myself for laughing, but it was funny. Every slapstick act aims for that kind of laughter at its mastery, its completeness. Totality is a pleasing thing. I was juggling then. A doctor had recommended it to help my coordination. That and being overweight as a kid and wanting to be graceful and limber if I couldn’t be cute and pretty made me want at least to be popular, even if it was for a comedy act. The laughter was partly a revelation I was having as I looked at Linnie among the ruin. WHy shouldn’t I use my size to my advantage? I began to experiment.”
She took a bite of pie and he noticed the ordinariness of her gestures. The pie was excellent, not too sweet and with none of the aftertaste of store pies. He congratulated her and she beamed and offered more.
“You like food,” he said.
“I respect it.” she said.
“What’s the hardest thing about juggling.?”
“That’s easy – juggling things of different sizes and weights.”
“I understand you started with golf balls picked up from a local links.”
“Yes, all the usual things on and on, but for my act, Linnie’s example is the one that works best. You’ll see that on Thursday when you come.”
She offered him more pie and coffee and they talked about the act. She asked him about his limp. “A war that is supposed to not be a war. I got it in Korea, defending the DMZ.”
“I have a friend who was in Desert Storm and came back with PTSD and cured it, at least in part with juggling. He said his mind needed to be filled with something aside from the war and coming home from the war. He works with the VA hospitals using military stuff – hand grenades, things like that.”
“So juggling is therapy for you?”
“I wouldn’t say that, any more than TV or skiing or mediation or walking or anything that takes concentration is therapy.”
“Where do you go in your mind when you juggle?”
“Good question – I don’t know, but it’s very quiet there, relaxed and aware at the same time> Think of how you are when you are adding up numbers. The world shrinks to the size of your machine or your pencil. Do you want any more to eat?”
He said no, thanked her and left, telling her he would be at the fundraiser and asked if he might see her afterwards for a few final questions. She said she would make herself available.
On Thursday, slow-ups and stops for highway construction made him late and she was already on stage. The lighting was adequate, no more. For a moment, he thought she had been taken ill and sent a substitute. This woman was dressed in a faded housedress with her slip showing. She wore no makeup and her hair was tied up haphazardly, some of it escaping the bandana. She had a small broom and dustpan which fell with a clatter just before she spoke. There was a bucket at her feet with cleaning materials in it. “Hi, out there,” she said. She seemed to be missing some teeth. “Miz Bagon is gonna be here soon and the thing is that if I don’t get this place cleaned up and some supper on the table, she’ll fire me sure.” She picked up the broom and dustpan and began a slow juggle. She was fat, she was seemingly clumsy, but she wasn’t missing a beat as she bent down and began to get her cleaning materials, bottles of cleanser and a brush, rags and then the bucket itself and the bucket was never grasped but flung up from fingertips and all the while, she was beginning her life story, which Laurence knew to be true as to its facts and may or may not have been true as to its coloring. “I was originally planning to be an astronaut,” she told them, “but my sense of direction wasn’t so good and what the guidance counselor said was my spatial sense wasn’t no good at all. So, I had to lower my dream.” People had begun to chuckle.
She went on, describing an earlier childhood, confiding that she had been pudgy and clumsy, same as now. “I fell in love when i was twelve with Arno Benson.” At that name, the bucket dropped from her hand and one after another, soap, rags, brushes, bottle landed in the bucket. She picked up the bucket without a break in her story or taking a bow and moved it to the side of the performance area.
There was a large cabinet at the back of the area which didn’t look like part of the act. She hadn’t stopped talking which she went to the cabinet – now telling about her high school years and the diets and regimens she had tried, all of which had failed – taking out a table, unfolding it, a chair, dishes, a cup, silverware, napkin, carafe. Then came food – a basket of rolls, a small ramekin of butter, quiche in a ban, plastic bag of salad, two bottles of dressing and an individual frosted chocolate cake. She began to juggle, moving from food to implements and back, still talking.
Arno Benson, loved and lost, was succeeded by Bucky Boldstone, Eldred Pound, Linton Smith, and Asa Tesch – Two Jews, a Black, and an anarchist, none of whom stayed. “One by one, they dropped me.” She was setting the table as she spoke, giving and taking the items, sometimes ten in the air as lamented the lovers lost.
Some of the telling evoked real laughter – all of it had a wistful charm. Now and then she would take one or two away from the circle of what came and went from her hands. Seven, eight, while the dish went down and the fork and spoon and napkin, seven, six.
And her great love, Alexi, a Russian from a small town. He wanted to take her back with him as his bride – too many differences in culture, language, way of life, she said. She was now juggling food alone. There were the rolls still in their basket, the quiche, the butter, the salad, the cake. Abner realized that the rolls, the butter, the quiche , and the cake had to be kept upright. He held his breath, thinking that everyone in the audience must be doing the same. She was talking about the contrary pull – love versus a life shoe dound’t live. Alexi wasn’t’ comfortable in America – too many choices, he said, too much that was random and usure. He loved her – she loved him. In Russia, he said they would be upheld by a big, close family – she would soon learn what she need to know. In America, she said, they could choose a close family life, too. THere was choice here – they wouldn’t have to live the hectic lives of people in big cities. There was middle America – a center of the country where thew was a slower, clearer way. “If you loved me -” in a deep voice. “If you loved me -” in her own voice. Her hands went up before her face and all the juggled item s fell, the salad packet opening, the quiche, and the butter and the cake, splat, the rolls rolling.
Everyone gasped, even Laurence who had intuited how the act would end. She got a standing ovation and she bowed, smiling before going to the cabinet for trash bags, broom and mop. In a surprisingly short time the mess was all in the garbage bags and the floor clean. “I’ve got to change. I’ll be back in five minutes.”
There was no backstage at the hotel. Abner thought she must have to do her prep in the bathrooms of her venues. He waited by the cabinet.
Here she came, wearing a polo shirt in a soft blue and darker slacks and carrying her costume. He was surprised, looking and looking again. The easy, competent juggler was now ordinary and a little heavy-footed, a stodgy middle-aged woman. She could have been anyone living the inactive life of any suburbanite whose longest walk was to her mailbox. “Hi,” she said.
“I’m agog. You were wonderful.” She saw his praise was real and beamed with pleasure. He wanted to say, ‘How can you be so different?’ stopping himself a moment before the words her made. “You must be exhausted ,” he said, “ on stage with no breaks for what? Half an hour?”
“Exactly half an hour,” she said, “but adrenaline last longer than that, so I still have some to get past before the let-down starts. Lets’ wheel this cabinet out to the van and then we can go for coffee somewhere.”
They were at a Starbucks inside a supermarket. She looked no more graceful than the least graceful of the others getting their coffees and pastries and carrying them to their small tables. She laughed as she saw his expression. “Never play poker,” she said and he laughed. “The answer is that I lose myself – no, I find myself as a juggler. My whole mind, my whole body, all of me is one idea, one rule and that rule is honoring the pure laws of physics; it’s total and absolute.”
“…and many thousands of hours practicing.”
“Something I noticed,” Abner said, “when we were at your house, you served me a wonderful homemade pie. You said something I’ve never heard before – that you respected food, yet you juggle food and that gorgeous last moment I just saw – cake, butter, salad, rolls, quiche – splat. It reminded me of the pie-throwing in the old comedies.”
“Isn’t it funny? She said, “food fights at a time when food was scarce and people were hungry? For a fat kid, a fat girl, and a fat woman, there’s a deep ambivalence about food. Love-hate. Longa go, so long ago that I can’t remember when, food got divorced from appetite, and eating became like a kind of ponr – not erotic, just forbidden. Food became a guilty pleasure. I do need to tell you that the cake frosting is shaving cream, the quiche and rolls weighted plastic. Harry Pearl makes all of this for me. He’s a master. Even the butter is gloppy the way real butter should be.”
“But the message is the same, “ Laurence said. “The splat.”
“Enjoy the paradox,” she said. Her look was full of humor.
He looked at his notes. “Have you a picture we can use?”
“The one at the door of the event – I told them I would pick it up tomorrow.”
“Forgive me if I tell you that it doesn’t do you justice.”
Her smile turned radiant, “Why, thank you,” she said.