The Dead Television
Who Was Jeanne?
I was Jeanne, Jeanne was I,
my friends called me Moon Pie,
but now I’m dead, deceased, at rest,
though I still hate my ex.
My husband Mick, he always won,
I’d love to beat that prick,
but love I did, I did, as well,
I loved that Beatle John.
I laid a guy once underneath
the bleachers at my school
then came my daughter Emily
and god I loved her too.
Jeanne seemed asleep lying in her coffin. Her face was appealing, glowing—her hair golden like sunshine. I cried when I saw her. Couldn’t help it. She somehow looked more beautiful than I had ever seen her. There she lay, all tension of life now absent. I fumbled forward, forgetting the formal setting of the funeral home. My fingers ran through her curls, twining, becoming entangled. I kissed her, wetting half her face. Maybe a minute went by, maybe an hour. I only know that Jeanne’s sister, Marianna, at last, pulled me from her.
“Are you done?” she asked.
I stared at Mariana and said nothing. I bent forward one last time and nibbled the tip of Jeanne’s nose.
Mariana gazed inside the coffin through bothered eyes. She nudged me out of the way and fixed Jeanne’s makeup, that death mask she would wear to the crematorium. She prodded at her dress, a blue frock with lace. She combed her hair back into place.
Jeanne had always hated Mariana. I never knew why until that day at the funeral home. Mariana had hired a priest to preside over the ceremony. One noted to possess knowledge of a secret door to Heaven, through which those who had died under questionable circumstances could enter. I suppose the details of Jeanne’s death had given Mariana pause. Mariana’s hiring of such a guy gave me pause. But what could I do? Mariana was running this show. She had all the rights.
Jeanne and I had shared the stage many times before her final performance. We were actors, working for the Old Stage Players. We were a traveling troop and did as many as six performances a week. We were doing A Christmas Carol one December in Colettesville, NC, and that’s the night I first kissed Jeanne.
After the show, Jeanne and I were the last ones left outside the theater. Everyone else had headed back to the motel because it was freezing cold. But Jeanne was in the mood to talk.
“I’ve met Elton John,” she said.
“Yes, I have. I’m the one who turned him gay.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“How’d you do it?”
“He fell for me and I turned him down.”
“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.
“Well, it seemed like it at the time.”
We were bundled up in fur parkas, our breath freezing like cigar smoke. Jeanne was clinging to me to keep warm.
“I know everything about John Lennon,” she said.
“Yes, I do. Ask me anything.”
“What’s his favorite color?” I asked.
“How do you know?”
“Well, it’s not blue. That’s how.”
“How do you know it’s not blue?” I teased.
“Because blue is everybody’s favorite.”
“So, maybe it’s John Lennon’s too.”
“No, John’s too cool to be like everybody else.”
“That makes sense.”
“I always make sense.”
The night got colder and Jeanne and I walked toward the motel. The wind picked up and we ducked into a store front to shield ourselves. We window shopped until Jeanne got bored looking at tools and coveralls and horse feed.
“You want to help me practice my kissing scene?” she asked.
“Sure, why not?”
“Thought you’d say no.”
“Why would I say no?” I wanted to know.
Jeanne was clinging to me and our frozen breath mingled and rose like a mist. She stood on her tiptoes and we kissed.
“Because of Mick. Most guys won’t let me practice on them.”
“Was that one just practice?”
That one wasn’t just practice for me. I was crazy about Jeanne ever since I first saw her. I talked to her every chance I got during work. She called on me to practice lines. We always joked around. We had great times. But she was right about Mick, her husband, the owner and artistic director of the troop.
Mick was a tyrant. Most of the guys were afraid of him. He seemed to enjoy humiliating those with whom he was at odds. He had his fun with the rest of the troop at their expense. For those guys he fired, he topped it off with a poor recommendation. If Mick had a beef with you, watch your back. He was both mean and sneaky. He had no mercy.
I was willing to be just friends with Jeanne until Mick began to treat her as badly as he had some of the others. I was shocked one day when she was away from the theater and Mick had the entire troop laughing at her.
“You just can’t fix stupid,” he’d said.
“Neither can you fix a cliché,” I told the stagehand, Terry, a local, whom we’d picked up to help move the sets during performances. Terry was one of the few who hadn’t laughed at Mick’s cruel joke.
Things got worse between Jeanne and Mick. I became her confidant. She told me a few times that she was afraid of him, and that she didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know either, but Mick seemed to know. He stuck to his usual pattern of berating Jeanne to the troop every time he had the chance. He referred to her as “our idiot blonde” once right in front her. The troop had laughed dutifully.
The great blowout in their marriage happened a year later when we were doing A Christmas Carol once again. Mick had cast Jeanne as young Ebenezer’s wife. Jeanne had always played the female leads, and to her, being cast in this inconsequential role was the absolute affront. I’d never seen her so angry in all the years I’d known her. I had the night off and was hanging out with Terry when Jeanne came by my apartment.
She was crying so hard she shook. It was several minutes before she could tell us what happened.
“Mick locked me out,” she said.
“No way!” Terry said.
“Yes, way! He told me to go outside and wait on him. We were going to talk. But then he locked me out.”
“Somebody needs to have a talk with that man,” Terry said.
Terry was right. That was no way to treat anyone, especially Jeanne. We all stayed at my place that night, and I decided to have a talk with Mick the following evening.
When I got to rehearsal, Mick had left word for me to come and see him. That’s convenient, I thought. I found him back stage and we went into the box office to talk.
“I’ve decided to cast you as Charles Dickens,” he said. “It’s the best role you’ve ever had. Do a good job and who knows where you’ll go. I’ve been keeping up with what you’re doing. Consider this your big break.”
“Tell me one thing first,” I said. “Why’d you lock Jeanne out of the theater last night?”
“That’s not your concern,” he said. “I’ve fired Jeanne and she’ll never play another role here or anywhere else if I have anything to say about it.”
“But she was badly traumatized.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because she told me. She came by my place.”
“You have a choice to make and you’d better think hard about it. You have a chance to play a great role, but if you continue to see Jeanne, you will never play another theater role again. Take my word for it.”
“Jeanne is a friend,” I said, “a real friend, and that’s something you know nothing about. You’re a pathetic bully, and I’m ashamed that I’ve worked for you as long as I have. Find yourself another Dickens.”
Outside, I told Terry what happened.
“Well, I’m quitting too,” he said.
“Tell him about me.” The voice came from a pickup truck parked nearby. I could see a brunette woman sitting there.
“That’s my girlfriend, Jane. She just started in ticket sells and she’s quitting too.”
“I couldn’t ask you to quit your jobs that way. How will you live?”
“Jane just got a settlement check.” Terry’s grin was catchy. “We’re set for a year. Besides we like Moon Pie, right Jane?”
“Yeah, we want to be her entourage.”
I thought that was just splendid. We headed off to tell Jeanne about it, and the four of us partied at my apartment that night. Jeanne played piano and sang show tunes. Terry and Jane had a slapstick comedy routine they performed, which kept us in stitches all night. I confided that the reason I had gone into show business in the first place was because I could neither sing nor dance nor act. So, naturally, there was nothing else I could possibly do.
Terry and Jane rented a place nearby. We all became friends, and, more often than not, prepared our dinner together on the grill. Terry was a winemaker, and he shared many bottles of his special blackberry. Jane possessed the talent of coming up with a joint of good smoke. Jeanne would entertain us on piano.
I bought a rattly old van, and the four of us often road-tripped together. One night during dinner, Jeanne had the idea of traveling to Wilmington to chase Hurricane Fran. She had been following this storm on the weather channel, and, given that we all had seen Twister, this seemed like the perfect idea. An hour later we were on the way.
Wrightsville Beach was deserted. Many of the hotels were boarded up. Others demolished totally. The storm had blown through just before we arrived, and the few people we met were scared or angry.
“Did you have your premiums paid up?”
“Well, they’ll pay, then.”
“Well, by-god, they better!”
The hurricane tide had left the beach strewn with debris. After a long walk, Jeanne got a phone call. I figured it was Marianna. Had it been Emily, Jeanne’s daughter, she would have been smiling and laughing. But, Jeanne wasn’t smiling or laughing. In fact, she was quiet and shaking. Not angry shaking but something else. She was horrified.
“What’s the matter?” we asked.
No answer. Jeanne just started walking back toward the van. “I’m going home,” she said.
We finally got her to tell us what happened. Emily had attempted suicide. Jeanne and I had visited Emily many times, and she us, so I knew she had suffered from depression. And I knew she had been in the hospital for it. Jeanne had talked about this more than a few times.
I liked Emily, but she wasn’t like Jeanne. She was analytic, always trying to figure people out. Figure an angle with people. How to have her way with them. She and I talked for an hour once before I figured out that she had wanted me to pay her water bill. Jeanne, though, was the essence of creativity. She rarely thought outside of how best to play a theater role or how best to teach her piano students or how best to prepare a rack of ribs.
Back at home, Jeanne spent the next weeks visiting Emily. They let her out of the hospital after a week, but Jeanne stayed on. She was driven, on a mission to save her daughter. And she wasn’t about to leave her until she knew she was better.
When I went up to visit, Jeanne’s appearance stunned me. She seemed withered, dispirited, as if her character had dried up and blown away on a hurricane. She had aged ten years. She seemed to care about nothing other than keeping tabs on Emily. She seemed obsessed, looking for some “in” into Emily’s psyche. She had taken on her daughter’s persona, her habit of analyzing.
Back at home, Jeanne’s spirit continued to decline. She gave up teaching the piano. She spent her days staring at the weather channel. That light that had been so apparent in her, and had been the core of her character, had faded. Her smile and her laughter seemed nowhere to be found.
Terry, Jane, and myself were on the porch one evening having a glass of wine when Jeanne came out. Her face was animated, and I believed at that moment that she was okay again. I think Terry and Jane thought so too. It had never occurred to any of us that she would never be okay again.
“The television’s dead,” was all that Jeanne said. And she went back inside.
It was Jeanne’s eyes that had died. On that desolate beach in NC, her bright, enchanting eyes were destroyed. The beauty of those eyes was shattered and left lifeless by the dreadfulness of the thought of losing her precious child.
I wondered, even before Jeanne’s decline, how she would be able to manage. She had lost her position as an actor. She had little hope of continuing her career. She had lost her marriage. I imagined that the two of us would marry one day, and I suppose I thought we’d live happily ever after, like in the shows we performed. But some shows depict the tragic nature of life through their twists and reversals, and such was the nature of mine and Jeanne’s experience.
I came home one day to find Terry waiting for me on the porch.
“Is he here yet?” Jane’s voice drifted from inside.
“Yep,” Terry said. He gazed at me, right steady.
“Did you tell him?”
When they told me that Jeanne was dead, that she had committed suicide, all I saw was the porch floor rising toward my face. Terry and Jane picked me up and brought me inside.
Jeanne’s brother, Mark, rescued me from Mariana. He brought me to a seat in the chapel and we sat. Jeanne had loved her brother and I understood why. Unlike Mariana, he was patient and caring. I thought he might hold my hand there in that chapel like I had seen him hold Jeanne’s, but he didn’t.
I stared at the yellow carnations on green wires standing around Jeanne like sentries. I willed them to die. But they remained triumphant and leering. They reminded me of Mariana. I decided to take Jeanne’s hatred of her sister upon myself. I took on her love for her brother as well.
The minister rattled on for twenty minutes and, finally, secured a place for Jeanne in Heaven. He claimed that despite Biblical references to the contrary, Jeanne should be admitted because her depression was responsible for her death and not herself.
In spite of this message of reclamation, and Mariana’s gratified eyes, the ceremony put me off. I wanted a celebration of Jeanne’s life and of her beauty and of her brilliance. I understood that everyone has to die, and that many of us do so before we reach that mind-failing age when our bodies fall into disrepair and ruin. I understood that depression is just as surely a disease as any of a physical nature. I just could not understand relegating ourselves to the place where we have forgotten about the excellence and the grandeur and the sublime wonder in our loved ones in favor of living in the shadow of religious doctrine.
After the service, the minister was shaking hands with the crowd, and I stood in line. But I never shook his hand. Instead, I told him that Jeanne did not need his message.
“She owns a heaven more accessible than yours,” I said. “In her heaven, everyone is invited without exception. The only ones who do not come are those who are too fearful, too mired in their smug little worlds to imagine the possibility.”
Overall, I can only imagine that Jeanne had tried to take Emily’s condition onto herself through transference, and then carry it to the grave where it could harm her daughter no longer. Such healing was typical in the West before the onslaught of the Enlightenment, when science came to the fore and religion took a backseat. I wonder, if, in following science, we have strayed further off the mark than where religion had us. At any rate, it seems that Jeanne’s style of healing worked, for Emily seems much better.
The Suicide of Jeanne Little
Jeanne, you asked me once how long
I’d remember you when you died.
I smiled and said, a day or two.
You shook your head and cried.
You really should remember me
much longer than that, you said.
I smiled and shook my head and headed
tiredly back to bed.
A little spirit came to me
as I was driving in my van,
a little spirit like a comet
buzzing all around my head.
Go away you little spirit,
must you be so bothersome?
Go away and leave me be,
I have work to do today.
Then I learned that you’d been found
lying dead behind the door,
prescription bottle by your hand,
tablets scattered on the floor.
Alone on Christmas Day, I sat,
staring at the dead TV,
in my blue rocking chair with her
blue chair now empty there with me.
Jeanne, you got me good this time:
you’ve rearranged my world,
left me reeling in a daze,
lost in a hazy maze.
Then you appeared in apparition
radiant there in front of me.
You laughed and said, I got me too,
and then you flew inside my eyes.
I now see through your eyes, Jeanne,
I learn and laugh for two.
When darkness reigns in my cruel world,
I often seek out you.