- The Canary Keeper
In a neat house on the outskirts of Market Town lived a small-time actor, a man whose legendary ability to cry on cue had deserted him. Newspaper reviews from long ago called him “The Fountain.” Nowadays he was dried up, his tear ducts clogged with despair. If the footlights grew dim in the presence of greatness, Charlie admitted with some reluctance his own star burned like a dying ember, a white dwarf, less like Gielgud and Olivier and more like Bozo the Clown. Maybe, on a good day, he reminded people vaguely of Gene Kelly or, when he was really cooking, Chaplin. Still, he wanted people to feel moved, maybe not moved to tears, as he had once been able to pretend, but moved to more than boredom or fatigue or—that terrible sound—folding their programs in their laps.
It was 1987, the year Paul Newman directed Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich in the fourth film version of The Glass Menagerie. Unfortunately, it was also the year of the Teen Wolf sequel and another unremarkable installment in the Jaws series. Fred Astaire died that year, as did Bob Fosse. Charlie hadn’t met either one of them, but he’d grieved—without crying, of course—as if he had. One day in winter, during that bleak, quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s, Charlie left behind his customary morning load of laundry and decided instead to walk downtown for an audition. He put on his best shoes—a pair of loafers given to him by the local stage manager—and rummaged through his dresser drawers until he found a comb. These days, his hair seemed stiff, like the bristles on a paintbrush. At the bottom of an old trunk he found a rusty can of hairspray and made himself stiffer still.
The weather forecast called for temperatures below freezing, but he did not have a car, and the bus routes ran only as far as the movie house on the edge of town. On the long walk to the concert hall, he passed a dying business establishment called Market [End Page 53] Town Morning Coffee. Waiting at a crosswalk, he recognized the scent of biscuits baking and decided to stop in.
On his way through the mirrored archway, he bumped into a group of departing customers. A cowbell attached to the top edge of the door would not stop ringing.
“Charlie,” a man said. Gripped between his fingers, the man held a dog leash without a dog attached. The man opened his mouth and revealed a row of teeth so straight and white they seemed to hover, to hang in the air like the Chinese lanterns in Charlie’s front yard. The man grabbed Charlie by the shoulders. “Hey, everybody, do you remember Charlie? ‘Super serious discounts that will scare you to death! Never in the history of haunted houses were prices this Low-low-low!’ Come on, Charlie, do a little Lionel Lightbulb for us, would ya?”
“I don’t know,” Charlie said, and here he made a point of breathing through his nose—better to avoid wandering germs. He took a step back from the pastry-filled crowd. Approaching Charlie with a wild stare, the man twirled and swung his dog leash, the metal end meeting Charlie’s kneecap with a thunk.
“Aw, come on,” the man said, his voice overtaking the bakery’s cavernous warmth. “ ‘When things go bump in the night, light up YOUR living room with fantastic fixtures from the South of France!’”
Charlie laughed and shook the man’s hand. “Those were the good old days, weren’t they?”
Charlie did not like to lie—the truth was, his tenure as television spokesman for Remarkable Lamps had been the lowest point in his professional career—but he believed in making at least tentative stabs toward polite public behavior. The man tugged on Charlie’s overcoat and invited him to sit down at the front counter. Charlie agreed.
When a waitress brought out a steaming tray from the kitchen, the man finally loosened his grip on the dog leash, took the largest biscuit, and shoved several...