Excerpt from Colleen Cable’s “The Farmhand”
I. Lights Down
I tried to take comfort in the familiar theater—the peanut shells and sawdust on the gap-toothed floor, the smell of old paper and the shadow of something sour, the chorus of snores coming from the rear, the wooden benches, the soft light that bled from the open front door. Yet sheets of music sat propped on my piano like marching orders. The notes and bars and rests were tattooed in black ink, static on the crisp white paper. I imagined their production in some large mechanical belly, a giant iron casting the notes down, down, down.
I skimmed the score for The Farmhand once again. It appeared to have a simple melody running throughout, a lot of major chords, some ragtime patterns. Altogether, it was a fairly ordinary piece of composition.
People began to filter in for the start of the show. The theater opened daily at 9am and stayed open until 1am most nights. If people were still willing to pay five cents, Simon would keep it open all night.
The audience, although changing from day to day and show to show, remained of a similar makeup. Paul, Corey, and Homer slept in the theater most nights, tucked in the back row, curled around their Coca-Cola bottles of moonshine. Neither Simon nor the audience minded them so much. The policeman who was stationed on our block said it was better for them to sleep it off in the theater than in the gutter.
Daytime shows were usually full of kids skipping school—faces flushed with the small rebellion, laughing and throwing peanuts at the screen when the villain appeared. There was a group of them today, a group of four girls and two boys all carrying schoolbooks. A couple that often came in the daytime was there that day, rather off to the side, as usual. The woman was much older than her fellow, who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. There was also a newcomer sitting directly in the middle. He wore a business suit, but the tie fell limply around his collar. He clutched his hat to his chest like a shield as he stared at the screen. I glanced up, but the screen hung blank from the ceiling. Simon was in the projection room—a little hut above the front doors and the box office.
The lights in the theater went down at nine sharp, with only a sliver of morning light streaming through the door and my small lamp to illuminate the music.
From the projection room, I heard the revving of the projector and the mechanized turning of the reels. The screen overhead turned bright white. Square block outlines slid slowly down the screen, followed by an entirely black slide.
I began the music. There was some light clapping from the audience, a few shouts of, “Play it, honey,” probably from Paul or Homer just waking from a restful night.
VICTOR MANN STUDIOS
The beginning of the score was chipper, and the tune continued swinging as the scene changed to a cityscape. The picture switched to Charles Gibson in some garden, down on one knee before Katherine Tarnish, and still, the music stayed the same.
I plodded through the score, ignoring my desire to improve it, to play according to what I was seeing. I had been to some movie houses where an old bat plays the same Chopin score for every single picture. Some said she was deaf. Some said she didn’t even watch the movies, just put her head down and played what she knew. Maybe I should’ve been more like that.
Gibson fumbled and struggled throughout the picture, getting confused over Katherine’s family’s curious ownership of a hippopotamus named Mama River. It was half-heartedly explained away—the father had apparently “found” it somewhere and decided to keep it on the farm.
Gibson was mucking out the horse stalls when, without fully realizing it, I had gone off the tracks. I stopped looking at the music and instead stared up at the screen, allowing my hands to move over the keys on their own. It felt so natural. As I veered from the set music, the screen flickered as if it realized something had changed.
The screen changed to another view of the meadow, from a different angle than before. At the edge of the pond, there were two cameras positioned with a few men huddled around them, shirtsleeves rolled up to their elbows. My fingers responded immediately with an anticipatory musical progression until I figured out what was going on. Sometimes the film reels got out of order, which was most likely the case.
The picture shifted to a man walking toward the camera, up a grassy slope. I didn’t realize it at first, but there was a crowd of people facing the same direction as this approaching man. They were watching him.
He kept getting closer, then abruptly stopped, the camera capturing his waist on up. He had a round face with a few wisps of hair on his head. He wore overalls with a stained, light-colored shirt. A bandana was tied around his neck. His eyes were dark gray on the screen, but I thought they might have been a dark leathery sort of brown. There was something about him that seemed familiar to me. He simply peered through the screen, into the small movie audience. It took me a moment to realize that he wasn’t looking at the audience, but was, in fact, staring directly at me. I felt watched, targeted. My fingers fell more lightly on the keys until I stopped playing altogether. I stared back at the man overhead.
When the music stopped, there were confused whispers from the audience and snickering from the teenagers and the hum of the churning reel.
The screen jumped again and a lantern slide was interjected. It was of a man and a woman grinning widely under a huge, umbrella-sized straw hat with a large banner above them that read, Ladies and Gentlemen—Don’t forget to remove your hats! At the bottom, smaller, it read, Hats off to the movies!
“What happened?” Homer stirred awake. “Is it over?” he said too loudly.
“I’m sure there’s just something wrong with the reel,” I called out over them, but no one seemed to pay attention. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the blank screen where that man had been.
Simon came out on the stage from the back entrance. “I’m sorry, folks. We’re having a little trouble with the new reel, but we’ll have it sorted for the evening.” The audience filed out of the theater grumbling that they should have gone to the Peacock Theater up the street, much to Simon’s chagrin.
He approached the piano where I still sat and put one hand on top of the upright. With the other, he kneaded his wrinkled forehead.
“You didn’t stay on the music, did you?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Louise, you’ve got to stay on the music. You know if I had my way, I’d let you play whatever you want. You’re one hell of a piano player, but the studios want to know that their pictures are being properly shown, music included.”
“I know,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say. He began to walk away after he tapped the piano top. “Simon,” I called after him. When he turned, I said, “How does it end?”
“Oh, as you’d expect. You’ve seen enough of these to know they’re pretty predictable.”
“But the man who comes in at the end? Who was he supposed to be?”
“I noticed him too. It’s probably some stand-in who wandered into the frame. Must have gotten mixed in. It’s a Mann production, which is odd. You’d expect it from Aywon or Mastadon, but Mann’s usually pretty good with its reels.”
Simon said he’d see me that night, then walked out the door. I sat at the piano still thinking about what was so familiar about the man’s face, and why his appearance didn’t feel like a mistake.
Simon liked to intersperse playing feature-length movies with newsreel and live performances like second-rate magicians, ventriloquists, and Chinese acrobats. The stage was never vacant so long as the doors and box office were open. I took breaks during the live acts.
That day, I went to visit my husband, Frank, where he worked as a member of the crew in upper Manhattan. It was a pleasant walk that I took often.
As I walked, I thought about The Farmhand. I thought about the music I would play if I could. When Katherine and Charles are in the city, the music should be plucky, to be sure, with a lot of regimented patterns of notes. It should sound like a typewriter: exact, mechanized, modern. I could hear the music—the clip clop of my heels on the sidewalk, the bump and whir of automobiles hitting the uneven road, the ching-ching-ching of change in the bag of the woman walking behind me, a door slamming at the corner grocery, the door opening back up.
Each character would have a figure attached—a set of notes that identifies and introduces them. Katherine Tarnish’s should be a lovely and high-pitched, a flute-like chirping. Charles Gibson’s would be lower and more clumsy. If only I had a trombone.
When the two go into the country, however, it should grow more whimsical. I remember my parents took me to the country once where we stayed in a cottage for a week. There was a calico cat that hung around the house. I played with her every day, following her and trying to mimic her movements. The farm music should be like that cat.
I had walked past Frank’s building. It was off of 83rd. I turned around and began to climb the steps to Randolph Studios. They did all their filming on the rooftop—better light up there and more space to build their sets. The whole neighborhood was a high-altitude gallery of movie sets. No matter where you turned, you’d see at least four studios. They were always tearing down old sets and building up the new.
Elevators made me nervous, so I took the stairs all the way to the roof. At the top of the last flight of stairs, I could see the rooftop door hanging open. I could hear the grating sound of a saw through wood and the hammering of nails. “Watch your head!” a man’s deep voice shouted.
There was a flurry of activity as I entered the doorway—two men carried a broken piece of wood as big as an automobile; a smaller boy hacked apart what looked to be a railing; a portly woman painted yellow stripes on the far wall. Even though Frank had been working on this picture for something like three weeks, they looked as if they were just beginning to build the set. I spotted Frank kneeling with an older man on a long rectangular piece of plywood, tracing straight lines with a yardstick and pencil. I stepped around a woman with hair the color of carrot cake, who swept a considerable pile of dust and debris. I put my hand on Frank’s shoulder.
“I thought the studio had been filming for a week already. Are you all just starting to build the set?”
There was a sudden cacophony of metal skittering and wooden boards hitting the ground. I jumped out of my skin in surprise, but Frank wasn’t affected at all. He calmly turned his body toward me. “Thugs from Mann’s studio broke in last night and wrecked the place. It’ll put us behind at least a few days.”
“Can they just come in here and do that?”
“They can. They did. But I’d be lying if I said we didn’t do it to them too. It’s just part of filming in New York. We’re all so goddamn crowded in this city. There’s no open space. See that, over there?” He pointed to a neighboring rooftop with a gazebo structure on top covered in gauzy fabric. “That’s Mann Studio on the next goddamn roof.”
Frank said he felt caged in New York.
When I first met Frank, he electrified me with this strange, alluring energy. We met, of course, at a movie house. When I had just graduated from high school, living at home, and auditioning for a place in a “respectable” theater, I snuck out to the movies at least five times a week. Sometimes I would see the same movie over and over again, memorize the gags, the timing of the actors, the way their faces told you everything you needed to know.
Frank was dragged there by his buddies. He didn’t like the movies because they were shallow pantomimes of great works—Ben-Hur, etc. Works made of words, flattened into caricature, he said in the theater that night, loudly. Normally, I would have pulled my cloche a little lower on my head as to avoid eye contact, but that night I didn’t want to. It was my first time seeing this picture—Back Stage with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. I looked up at him and said something. I don’t remember what it was exactly, but something to the effect of “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He looked shocked. His buddies looked absolutely scandalized.
“I beg your pardon?”
“How many flickers you seen?”
“Enough to know that they’re for children. It’s a play where all the actors have forgotten their goddamn lines.”
To be honest, I didn’t know what to say. Who was I to challenge him? I wanted to cower back in my seat. Certainly he would laugh if I told him I loved everything about the flickers. I heard a few people grumble behind me; I was blocking their view. But this man didn’t seem to care whose view he was blocking or whose show he was ruining. I had to say something. “Well, sir, you see, you are now in a movie house filled with patrons who actually want to be here and have paid admission too. So I would appreciate it if you could clam up and watch the goddamn movie.”
He nodded patronizingly, almost as if he were bowing. He sat and watched the whole movie through.
I could tell Frank was flustered and annoyed.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I bent my mouth in a sort of grimace to emphasize my concern.
Frank stood from his kneeling position and exhaled. He nodded his head. “It’s just a pain, that’s all.”
He looked back down at the man still measuring and drawing what I thought would probably become windowpanes. Frank took hold of my hand and led me to an open corner of the roof. I looked out over the hodgepodge of gray and brown buildings, streaked with years of weather and wear.
“Have you given it any more thought?” he asked.
A laundry line on a distant rooftop caught my eye, white sheets billowing as if they were sails that could carry the building away. “Yes.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t want to go west.”
“But you don’t want to stay here.”
“I never said that.” I became more conscious of the constant hammering in the background and the grinding of the saw. “And I don’t want to go to California just because I might not want to be here.”
“There could be so much more for us in Los Angeles. You can play piano anywhere. You’re good enough that any theater would hire you, coast to coast.”
I pulled a pamphlet of sheet music out of my bag and handed it to him. The title page read, The Farmhand: Music. He flipped through it, but he wasn’t looking at it. He was just stalling, wondering what he could possibly say. The falls of the hammers mirrored the pulsing, pounding beats of my quickly developing headache.
“They’re making everyone play the same stuff now. Simon gave it to me this morning.”
“Louise,” he said.
“Well, we knew it was coming. No use crying over it now.” I took the pages back.
“You’ll still get to play,” he said.
“That’s not playing. I’ll be like any old phonograph,” I said. I bit my lip, knowing full well the pointlessness of this exchange. Lately, it seemed as though we repeated our conversations a lot. We couldn’t say anything new. “Listen, I’ve got to go prepare this, so I’ll see you tonight?”
“Of course,” he said. “I am sorry, Lou.” I knew he meant it. He smiled at me, this crooked, dashing smile straight out of the movies. “Who knows? Maybe it’s just a phase.”
“Maybe,” I said, returning a close-lipped smile. I took the stairs back down to the street.
Frank wanted to be a playwright when I first met him. He asked if I wanted to go to dinner after Back Stage when I yelled at him. We spent the entire meal discussing the merits of the movies. He was unconvinced, but was willing to entertain another side.
“Well, sure, they’re quite a technological marvel, but they’re not art,” he said.
He changed his mind over the years when he saw how much money a person could make from just one script. He supposed the flickers weren’t all that bad.
He liked to write what he called vignettes: tiny episodes, or descriptions of scenes as they happened. He would preserve these moments in words so that later, he could translate it on screen. He didn’t let me read them. But, like a man possessed, he would stop what he was doing and start scribbling in a notebook he kept in his pocket. Six or seven times, he barked at me not to move or I might ruin the scene. There was a time I was stirring potatoes in a pot of boiling water, steam pouring up to my face. Another when I sat on our windowsill imagining improvements of a musical sequence for a particularly funny scene in The Scarecrow, eyes closed to the sunlight like a tulip, fingers fidgeting on my lap. The latest was when I had pretended to do a ballet in the living room. He yelled, “Don’t move!” and I’d had to hold myself rigid on my tiptoes for what must have been ten minutes. I didn’t really understand why he wrote these scenes. He said they’d all come together one day, that I’d eventually see it in a movie. I didn’t understand how these little two-page scenes could be sewn together into a story. In my profession, you just react. In his, I suppose, you plan.
Read the rest of “The Farmhand” in apt‘s fifth print annual.
Colleen Cable is currently pursusing her MFA in fiction at University of Maryland College Park, and working on a novel based on the life of Buster Keaton.