Like a Complete Unknown

By Sharon Barr

If you want to know how great you are, stay home and audition for your mother.

—Stella Adler


Newark Metropolitan Airport baggage claim area

Saturday, June 28, 1969

4:30 a.m.


e few passengers from the 11:50 p.m. flight from Chicago to Newark Metropolitan Airport are waiting around for our luggage in the cavernous United Airlines terminal. A paunchy guy with a bad comb-over is gaping at my legs so I turn away hoping to discourage his attention. I’m eighteen, and at 5’11” am used to having people look, but it often makes me tight-throated and nauseous. Today I can’t allow anyone to disrupt the little time I have left for rehearsal. Only fifty-two hours till I try out for the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I’ve got to get in. I wish I believed that institution’s rejection of me utterly unimaginable, but I’ve imagined just that—a terrific lot.

My audition monologue is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the part where Helena yells at Lysander and Demetrius because she thinks they are making fun of her. I can relate—my height has always been a source of other people’s amusement. I like being tall but if my mother had had her way my knees would have been stapled when I hit 5 foot 8. My New York plans were met with heavy sighs and concerned frowns.  My parents used the words “inexperienced,” “naïve” and “gullible” to explain their position; I used “adventure,” “summer” and “I don’t care what you say I’m going” to explain mine.

So I need to not blow it. I need to do this right. I need a cigarette. Now perched on the back of an orange fiberglass airport bench I feel good. Sitting high up like this gives me attitude, which is important particularly when you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing.

I know that Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter—a kind of da-dum, da-dum, da-dum, thing so I cross my legs and run through the monologue, punctuating its rhythm with a circling ankle, cigarette held between my index and middle finger, and a few dramatic head tosses:

If you were civil and knew courtesy, you would not do me this much injury. Can you not hate me, as I know you do

But you must join in souls to mock me too?

I try it different ways, tossing around emphatic hand gestures, always with a cig.  A woman with a kerchief on her head and a long skirt drags her little boy to a distant bench. Just as I start to explain to her that I’m rehearsing, I hear the mechanical baggage carousel spit out clangorous paroxysms. Eager to get on my way and reunite with my wardrobe, encased in a big white plastic Samsonite, borrowed from my mother, I rush over to it.

Suitcases crash out of the chute onto a metal conveyor belt. Mine, arriving behind several smaller, more discreet satchels, appears like a moving mountain.  Mr. comb-over guy is now standing next to me as I yank my suitcase from the belt; it lands spinning on the linoleum. I lean over and try to pick it up.

“Looks like you’re staying a while. Can I give you a hand?” he asks.

Unsure about my next move I say, “Oh—that would be utterly super!” He starts out with a big, confident grin but can’t carry the bag more than a few steps and ends up shoving it toward a waiting taxi. By the time he gets it into the trunk, he’s dissolved into massive pools of sweat and wheezy gasps; his updo has fallen over leaving him with a shiny pate surrounded by stringy fringe. I’m grateful for the suitcase transport and thank him with a hug which he must find startling because he backs way up as I wave and slip into the cab’s rear seat.


*     *     *     *     *

From the conspicuously displayed license I see that my driver’s name is Agung, so I greet him with “Hi Agung. I’m Riley.”

“Where to?”

“One twenty-three East 18th Street at Irving Place.”

Wow––next stop Manhattan and the apartment Olive, who scored a summer internship at Random House, arranged for us. Olive Hardwick was my best friend at Miss Willifred’s Preparatory School and one of the few people I really talk to. I’m anxious to tell her about recent family developments—that my father lost a ton of money in the soybean futures market; that my mother has become very matter-of-fact and utterly creepy; and that the extended financial leash I’ve always enjoyed is now tight.

I may be nervous but I’m certain that everything that’s happened so far has led up to this exact taxi ride––New York––the Stage––and me on it!  After all—I have cab fare, four hundred fifty dollars in American Express traveler’s checks, and I’ve got what it takes––I think.

As we emerge from a tunnel into Manhattan, the grey dawn is breaking pinkish-orange. I lean my head out the window, look up at the dirty brick structures full of people living vertical lives, and let my voice fly:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so;

I sit back in the cab. “That’s part of my audition piece,” I explain to the driver–– who does not respond. “Hey,  . . . what does the name Agung mean in English?”

Greatest. Balinese.”

“You’re from Bali? Oh, that’s super. I’d love to go there. Why did you leave?”

“Big Volcano, 1963. Hot lava covered my village, killed whole family and many other peoples.”

“Ohh. We didn’t hear much about that. President Kennedy got shot that year, and then the Beatles arrived. Maybe that’s why. I’m really sorry,” I say, but he doesn’t seem to want to chat, so I continue my catechism:

To vow, and swear, and super praise my parts, when I am sure you hate me with your hearts.

It feels like we’re getting close to my new home, so I forget rehearsing and start looking at street signs. On Hudson the traffic slows, which seems odd for only 5:30 in the morning, and then we begin to hear sirens as we crawl uptown. When we come to a street called Christopher, it’s obvious that there is some kind of a disturbance. A bunch of detritus including broken bottles and odd pieces of clothing are strewn all over. I smell rubbery smoke and see the charred shell of a car. People block the crosswalk and crowd onto the sidewalk carrying signs. One says RESIST, and another reads STAND UP & SAY NO. I think it a protest against the Viet Nam War so I flash a peace sign to demonstrate my solidarity and clear our path, but a guy in overalls and no shirt stands in front of our vehicle and gives us the finger.

There are a lot of men and more than a few women yelling. I make out phrases like “Down with the pigs” and “Shit gotta stop.” An uprooted parking meter lies across the sidewalk. I see girls in cheerleader outfits and heels form a kick line across Christopher Street, but when one pulls off a wig, it’s clear they are in fact guys. Next a bottle shatters on our hood before its liquid drenches the windshield.

Naskleng!” yells Agung. “What does that mean?” “Dickhead!”

“Let’s turn around!” I offer, as though it’s a new idea. It’s clear, however, that because so many people are in the street blocking us, we won’t be budging anytime soon.


*     *     *     *     *

A dude with shaved eyebrows and tight black jeans picks up a loose cobblestone and heaves it at a policeman. It misses him but knocks out one of our headlights. At this frontal assault, Agung, who is now alternately crossing himself and honking, starts to move forward; a cop stops us with his hand and then unspools a fire hose, which another policeman attaches to a hydrant. The crowd backs up as he ratchets the nozzle. When it becomes obvious that it contains no water, everyone laughs and cheers. Cars are pelted with pennies that resonate with a dissonant tinkle.

The young man with no eyebrows and black jeans tries to open the taxi door on my side. It’s locked so I roll down the window and say,” Did you need a ride? I’m only going to 18th street.”

Before he can answer Agung screams, “Close window!”

I roll it up right before it’s splatted by a tomato delivered by a muscular woman in a black leather vest standing behind the guy without brows. Her expression is one of aloof hatred. I offer a weak smile, another peace sign and then flatten myself onto the seat. There is a thick smell of exhaust fumes and I want to throw up.

“Where are we?” I finally think to ask. “Village!” Agung says.

“What’s going on?”

“Very mad peoples!”

I’d forever heard how exciting the Village was but didn’t know that it’s also a war zone.

Again he tries to move, but the car is still encircled by men and women ranting, “No more! No more!”

Agung pulls the key out of the ignition, leans his forehead on the steering wheel and mumbles. I hear him sniffling too, so he might be crying. With the car turned off and the windows closed, it feels like we’re in a coffin. Many of the passersby stop, peek in, and make faces. I should be way more concerned with Agung’s tears and our possible asphyxiation, but I can’t help but notice the way these protesters dress. If they’re not wearing tight Levis, they’re sporting colorful, imaginative, folkloric-type garb. This whole experience makes me rethink my wardrobe.  Just then we’re hit with at least two more beer bottles, which smash, splinter and splash all over the car again.  I hear phrases like “Shut the fuck up,” so I guess the inhabitants in the building overhead, yearning for sleep, are doing the throwing.

Finally, as the crowd moves east, there’s a break. Agung takes quick advantage of the clearing and starts the motor. We head up Hudson to 8th Avenue and then right on 14th Street. I roll down the window and exhale with relief. Fifteen minutes later Agung stops the cab on Irving Place.

“You lucky we not dead, lady. Thank you, Jesus. So this it!” he announces.

When Olive described the place, it had sounded bohemian: a basement apartment next to an old tavern. This building is a dreary, off-white affair. There are dripping, rusty air conditioners hanging out of dirty windows, and on the curb are an abandoned stroller, an overflowing garbage can, and the remains of what must have once been a bicycle.

Across the street are two shaggy-haired boys in their undershirts, smoking and sprawling on the stoop of a crumbling brownstone.

I want to take you higher, by Sly and the Family Stone, is blaring out of the bar next door even though it’s barely 7 a.m.

“I must have the wrong address.”

“This it!” Agung says with absolute determination. I pay and beg him to wait while I check the names on the bells. The designated apartment, Minus 1-A, has no name next to it. I buzz, hear subterranean rustling and a male and a female voice.

Assuming that, in fact, this is the wrong place, I relax, but then the door swings open and there’s Olive wrapping herself in a seersucker robe.

“Ri!” she exclaims, giving me a quick hug.

“Olly pop! Sorry it’s so early. I took the red eye. We got caught in a big riot downtown!”

“Wow. Far out. I thought you were coming in tomorrow. The place is kind of a mess. Tommy and I weren’t expecting you today.” She says this while raking her hands through her glossy brown hair, which is usually flipped up or tucked into a neat ponytail. She looks disheveled but fresh. Unlike me, her body is va-va-va-voom voluptuous with cleavage for days.

“So he’s here too?”

I knew Olive was hot for a guy named Tommy, whom she’d met last spring skiing in Aspen. She’d thought it hopeless. He was at Yale, from a big-deal family, and even though she was set to go to Barnard, at that point she was only a senior in boarding school. “What did you do to your hair?” she says, making an expert subject change.

“Oh, yeah, cut off the big debutante do a day after my party. Needed a change. Did it with kitchen shears.  Kicky right?”

Olive looks concerned.

Just then I hear a thud and turn to see that Agung has tossed my suitcase onto the curb. I rush to get it before someone else does––plus I want to say goodbye to my friend from the front.

“Sorry about the volcano,” I say, peeking in through his passenger side.

Agung closes his eyes, bows his head and then looks up at the road and speeds off. As I go back to my bag, one of my pumps gets sucked into the cracked concrete causing me to flail and spin. Before I’ve stopped wobbling, Tommy reveals himself from behind Olive. He’s bare chested, wearing madras Bermudas, loafers without socks and a dazzling smile. Charging over to get the bag, he steadies my gait and helps me regain my balance. Then he reaches his hand out to shake.

“Tommy Paley”

He’s at least four inches taller than me. I flip my hair as though I still have a full mane and look up as I place my hand in his. “Riley Fairchild.”

“I like your dress.”

I’m wearing a black-and-white checked minidress that I love.  I’m flattered he notices it but still I look down and pretend to check what I’m wearing. “Oh, I forgot what I had on.”

He smiles and picks up my suitcase like it’s a loaf of bread. I catch Olive’s eye. Her look is remote as she glances first at me, then at Tommy. He walks by her carrying the bag; they kiss quickly as he passes. This brief peck seems to reassure her of his singular intentions. We follow him through the front door, turn right, and go down three steps into the basement flat. Tommy, now relieved of suitcase duty, stands behind Olive and puts his arms tightly around her waist as she exclaims, “I am so glad you’re here!” She seems genuinely pleased.

“Gosh. Me too. Wait till you hear about my cab ride! Quelle experience! And there is so much else I need to tell you. Where, uh, should I put my purse?”

I look around and am not excited about putting anything down anywhere. It doesn’t look dirty, just worn and vaguely tragic. I see a stack of New York Times and smell an odd combination of stale kitchen grease and Olive’s L’ Air du Temps cologne. The room has two half windows that look out on the sidewalk with a view of pedestrian feet. The laminate floor is stained and peeling. The walls are blue with purple streaks, as though the color was up for grabs. There’s an old card table with three folding chairs; next to it is a black leatherette beanbag seat that looks like a giant burnt baked potato. Dropped from the ceiling is a combo fan/light fixture that, because it contains no bulbs, seems beside the point. As an added design element, a five-foot-tall drywall divides this room and what appears to be a sort of kitchen zone. Why, of all the apartments in New York, has Olive chosen this one?

“I know it’s a bit Dickensian, but hey, so convenient.” says Olive, following my drift.

To what I wonder––the pub next door?

As though there are several wings to choose from, Olive gestures to the door of a room facing the apartment’s street side. “I think you’ll have the most privacy in there.”

This front room, into which I am ushered, has a bare mattress in the middle of the floor, a fan and a lamp shaded by an orange paper lantern. Out the window I see two silver trashcans. There is also a peculiar rope strung lengthwise from one side of the tiny space to the other. “Am I supposed to hang myself with that if things don’t work out?” I say, gesturing to the rope.

“That’s for your clothes silly,” she says laughing. “There’s a closet in the hall but it’s really small, and Tommy put his stuff in there. I know it’s a little bare bones, but . . .”

“Hey, I’m off to the bodega. So milk, and what else do we need, hon.?” Tommy interrupts.

“Eggs . . . oh, and light bulbs!”

“Right.” They kiss and he leaves the flat.

“I think you’ll really like Tommy. He’s got a cool summer job at the Village Voice—a weekly paper.”

“I’m just happy to be here, but I don’t want to get in the way or anything.

I mean I could always . . .”

“Oh, no. I meant to festoon the joint with fresh flowers in honor of your arrival. I really thought you were coming tomorrow. There are a bunch of extra sheets and stuff, and guess what’s just down a few blocks? The place that the New York cognoscenti think is so in right now. Max’s Kansas City!”

“Kansas City?”

“The Warhol hangout—musicians, artists, drag queens. I love drag queens.” “You know drag queens?”

“Well, no, but I’m sure I would love them, if I did. Anyway, Max’s is wild, and if they ever let me into the back room, I’m never leaving.”

“Let you in?”

“Oh, you’ll see. When does your school start?”

“Well if I get in—Tuesday” “You might not be admitted?”

“Well, it’s a very old and . . . uh . . . well-respected place. I have to audition Monday, but it’s for the summer session, so how hard could it be?”

I realize I don’t know the answer. My throat tightens, and I cough. “I’ll get you some water.”

“It’ll go away in a sec. It’s that imaginary noose thing that happens to me when things get a little”––I manage a deep breath—“too real.”

“Well, let’s not go there. I hate that!” I follow Olive out into the kitchen zone, where she fills a glass from the tap. The water is warm and vaguely metallic tasting, but I drink it down.

“I’m doing a piece from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the audition.”



*     *     *     *     *


I’m convinced this choice of classical material will indicate my serious intentions.

Even though I kind of always knew I had to be an actress, my only previous theatrical experience included a successful audition for the drama club at Miss Willifred’s that led to a role in an original production entitled A Rock, a Tree, and a Cloud. We had only one performance, and during this, the girl playing the Other Waitress dropped the line on which I was to exit. Not knowing what to do, and not eager to relinquish the limelight, I stayed at my perch on the barstool, drink in hand, and acted like I was getting more and more loaded. Then right before the final curtain, I keeled over. It got a big laugh. The playwright and the other actors were upset, but when I took my bow the audience stood up. This spurt of validation made me ecstatic, and I knew it was time for New York.

Then because there doesn’t seem to be a dishwasher, I put the glass in the sink.

“I love that play,” Olive says. “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?

Titania is such an eccentric chick!”

“I’m doing Helena’s monologue. The one where she’s really pissed off because thinks she’s being made a fool of by Demetrius and Lysander.”

“Oh? In front of everyone?” “I better practice.”

“Not tonight! There’s a party at a friend of Tommy’s. You have to come.”


*     *     *     *     *


I spend the day napping, and just as I start to rehearse, Olive knocks on my door announcing it’s time to get ready. I take a shower in the fusty bathroom, put on makeup, hoop earrings, my cherished pearl necklace with an emerald clasp, a Courrèges vinyl miniskirt, and white go-go boots. Olive looks beatnicky chic, in a black minidress, tights, ballet flats, French twisted hair, and peace sign drop earrings. In contrast Tommy, wearing khakis, red striped tie, navy sport coat and Top-Siders, looks like an ad for Brooks Brothers. We get a cab and give the driver a Park Avenue address.

Ten minutes later, as we pull up to a building with an elaborate portico, I whisper to Olive, “Is this where we’re going?”

“Why are you whispering?”

“It’s just so très èlégante—Tommy has a friend who lives here?” “Well, it’s her parents’ place. She’s our age.”

The white-gloved doorman rushes out, opens the taxi door and practically carries us inside. He recognizes Tommy and ushers us into the elevator and up to the penthouse. A winsome girl named Jamie meets us at the door, and, as Tommy is introducing Olive and me to her, a man about fifty with flowing iron gray hair, black turtleneck, a pendant

necklace, and a jacket, worn cape-like over his shoulders barrels down a flight of stairs and heads for the exit. He stops short when he sees Tommy.

“Tommy darling, how are you?” he says. “Uncle Lenny! I didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Just leaving, dear boy––but thrilled to catch sight of you!” “These are my friends Olive and Riley.”

“Groovy. Well, have fun, kids.” And with that he kisses Tommy on both cheeks and ruffles his hair; then after readjusting his jacket, he pivots and continues his departure.

“He’s your uncle?” I blurt out in shock.

“Not technically—but I’ve known him all my life. The Bernsteins are friends of my parents.”

“Tommy knows a lot of people. He grew up in Manhattan,” Olive explains.

I see two grand pianos back-to-back in the enormous Chinese-yellow living room, and it dawns on me that this is in fact Leonard Bernstein’s home and that the hostess is his daughter.

The party is a loud, smoky, affair. Everyone appears to be smart, rich, or beautiful, and in some cases all three. I watch them balance their cocktails and cigarettes with a splendid kind of carelessness. Olive, Tommy, and I light up as we enter the living room, and I take a comforting pull on my cigarette as they disappear, hand in hand, into the crowd.

Was it only two weeks ago when I hosted my own shindig, where I blew out eighteen birthday candles and prayed that an eastern breeze off Lake Michigan would carry my wish up to the heavens? That was a gauzy affair under a pink tent with an eight-piece R&B band. It had been labeled my coming-out party, but exactly who or what I was coming out into wasn’t clear. In attendance were the rich but always understated denizens of Lake Forest, Illinois. I danced barefoot in a strapless, fuchsia-chiffon gown till three in the morning when omelets and coffee were served by the pool. Indeed, my parents gave me a loving, extravagant celebration, which also served as a well-catered punctuation mark to their twenty-two-year marriage.

Everywhere I look in this luxury duplex are clear-skinned Ivy Leaguers who appear completely at home. I overhear conversations about this one’s play being produced and that one’s magazine job. There are a lot of discussions about the Vineyard and some regatta or other. Then I hear the phrase ‘uprising in the Village’ spoken by a guy with ebony hair, blue eyes and prominent cheekbones that give him a savagely sexy beauty.

He’s talking to a couple—a short man in a bowtie with an arm around a small woman in a flowered shift.

“My taxi got stuck in that riot. What was their beef anyway?” I say, jumping into the conversation. The three turn to me, and I flush with embarrassment.

“Homosexuals in a gay bar called Stonewall Inn finally got sick of being raided, so last night when they got busted, one refused to get into the paddy wagon. From there it mushroomed,” the one with the cheekbones, says.

“It’s a Mafia-run place that the cops are determined to shut down,” declares the guy in the bowtie.

“I heard it was also sparked by Judy Garland’s funeral,” his other half adds. “After lunch at the Carlyle I was walking uptown and saw at least a thousand people queuing up around the block just to get a look at her in her coffin. Many of them were Negroes.”

“Guess they identify with her,” her friend says.

“What were you doing downtown so late?” the sexy one asks me.

“Well, it was dawn. I was just . . .” I try to think of a more interesting scenario but come up short.  “. . . riding in from the airport. I’m here for the summer to . . .” At this the couple roll their eyes at one another and peel off. Left alone with this man, I get nervous and stifle a throaty cough.

“Are you okay?”

“Oh, I’m fine. It’s just a wrinkle in my otherwise implacable poise.” But my throat tightens.

As I clear it he says, “How about a drink?” I panic and look around for Olive.

“If you are searching for whoever you came with, they’re probably smoking a joint in the bedroom. I can take you there–––or offer you . . . champagne?” He lifts a flute off a passing tray. “Voilà! ”

“Merci!” It’s clear he’s at least ten years older than most of the other guests, well into his thirties.

“Quite a skirt you have on. Can I touch it?”

Well, this is an odd request. “Okay. It’s Courrèges, the spring collection.”

He touches its surface and then caresses the hem for a moment, brushing my leg. I can’t breathe for a beat and am surprised by my reaction.

“What brings you here?” he says, smiling.

Is he messing with me? I take a sip of the champagne, look away, and try to regain my composure. Then I shake my hair as though it’s in my eyes, take a breath, and with a straight face let it rip. “Well, you see, I’m a coloratura soprano and hope to be discovered before I age and lose the light quality of my top notes.” I then turn, bump into someone, and spill half my champagne down my front.

Chuckling, he hands me a paper napkin as his eyes slide over my body. “Perhaps you could sing Over the Rainbow,” he says, nodding at the piano, “I could accompany you and make your leap to stardom that much easier.”

“Are you a musician?” I dry my hands and pat a spot on my blouse.

“If you’re a singer, then I’m a musician.” He takes back the napkin, crumples it, and hands it to a passing waitress, deftly exchanging my now half-empty glass for a full one.

I take a quick sip and, feeling a bit more secure, use a phrase I’ve heard my mother utter a million times at parties: “And to what or whom do we owe your attendance?”

“I recently sold Jamie one of my paintings, and she was kind enough to invite me.”

“You’re a musician and a painter?”

“I mess about a bit. I’m Lucca Seaver.” He gives me a card I glance at.

I see a Seventh Avenue address and stow it away in my pocket. “And I’m Maria Callas.”

He laughs which thrills me. “You’re a fabulist,” he says.

“Thank you!  No, really, my name is Riley Wainwright Fairchild.”

“That’s a mouthful. So, Riley, do you have a phone yet?”

Startled and excited by his interest, I’m poised to look for Olive, to ask for our number, when a tall woman with long, auburn hair, fringe bangs, and a sheer blouse comes up, puts her hands over his eyes, and kisses him on the neck. As Lucca whips around and they embrace, I shrink back into the cluster of partiers.

Everyone continues to maintain a relentless but understated presumption of friendliness that makes me feel even more random.  Three classes of champagne later I start introducing myself as the Duchess of Argyle. Neither Olive nor Tommy reappear, so finally I make my way out the apartment door, down the elevator and onto the street to get a taxi. Just as one screeches to an impressive halt, I hear a voice from above yell, “Maria! Don’t leave me all alone!”

I look up, and there’s Lucca. I blow him a kiss and climb into the cab. Feeling smug that I displayed a kind of casual aplomb, I’m happy for a few blocks until I remember the monologue I’m to perform in is in less than thirty-six hours. This realization crashes my buzz, and once again I start uttering my lines aloud:

Can you not hate me, as I know you do, but you must join in souls to mock me too?

The cab driver, who sports thick glasses and bushy hair and is not much older than I, chimes in with:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so.

“Wow. Are you an actor—or just well read?” I say, catching his eye in the rearview mirror.

“Both. Hey, only a suggestion, but I think you need to play against the needy way Shakespeare has written Helena. I’d get the whine out of my voice.”

“Did you do the play?”

“Last spring at the Sheridan Square Playhouse.”

“Oh. Cool.” Opening the window, I imagine myself in a tragic taxi crash, pre- empting Monday’s potentially humiliating audition. And then, for the second time today, I’m deposited in front of our sad edifice. I hand the driver a five, wait for change, give him a quarter, exit the vehicle, and recite in a coquettish, not whiney, voice:

If you were men, as men you are in show, you would not use a gentle lady so!

“Better!” he yells after me.

I hurry past a boy sitting on a garbage can, smoking a joint, and when I smell the burgers from the pub next door, realize that I’m hungry. The song “MacArthur Park” blares out of the bar’s jukebox and its lyrics resonate over the city’s ubiquitous clatter of existence.

A siren screams in the distance.


Sharon Barr is an American actress who achieved 1970s cult status through her participation in the neo-expressionist off-off Broadway movement. With roles in Tom Eyen’s Women Behind Bars (Drama Desk Award) and plays by other emerging playwrights she managed to frequent the stages of La Ma Ma E.T.C., Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, etc. She then moved on to Film and Television (imdb.com/name/nm0056570). In 2011 Barr, a licensed Chinese Medical practitioner, wrote and directed a documentary pilot entitled BoomerAngst, which deals with her generation’s feelings about their own mortality. She has just completed a novel also entitled Like a Complete Unknown that takes place in the Manhattan of the early seventies.

Going to Lough Derg

By Raymond Abbott

hen Eileen boarded the charter bus for Donegal, late at night as it was, she had the bad luck (she later decided) to be seated next to an elderly American woman who, desiring to express herself, told her that though she wasn’t of Irish ancestry herself (as far as she knew), she had come to Ireland because it was so lush and green. Her name was Bertha, she informed Eileen, and her late husband was Raymond.

Bertha continued talking, on and on, as fast as the words could spill out of her, oblivious to the possibility that Eileen was not interested in what she had to say. Somehow, Eileen had the idea that a woman with the name of Bertha would be large, as well as unattractive. But this Bertha happened to be tiny and frail, with ample facial wrinkles and a deep voice. Eileen guessed her to be about seventy years old.

Eileen wondered what on earth this woman was doing on a charter bus to Lough Derg, but she was unable to find an opening in the woman’s nonstop talking to ask the question. Every time she would try to interject something, Bertha would speak right over her words, drowning her out. This annoyed Eileen greatly.

First, it was an account of her life in great detail, including her marriage to Raymond and his death. Then there came an unabridged accounting of her various ailments throughout the years. After about an hour of this, which was almost more than the reserved and very polite Irish woman could stand, she concluded that perhaps God had given her this woman as an additional penance. This was the penalty for sounding smug with her friend Dympna, when she shared with her the great pleasure she had making the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She had simply been too chipper for God’s liking about the upcoming weekend of fasting and prayer. Yes, that was it, that was her conclusion. And so Bertha was to be her punishment.

God was testing her. He must be disapproving of her. This God, one of wrath and vengeance, the God of the Old Testament. She was much more familiar with the God in the words of Jesus as told in the Gospels, and even more so with his Mother, the Blessed Mother, to whom she most often prayed. Indeed, it was to the Blessed Mother she had prayed for her brother Giroud’s child, an albino, and born blind.

Eileen wondered if Bertha was going on the pilgrimage to Lough Derg. She couldn’t imagine how such a loquacious person could manage the rule of silence that was strictly enforced. And in addition to that, the physical demands of Lough Derg would surely be difficult for a frail, elderly individual like this woman. But as it turned out, Bertha was on the bus on her way to Galway, and for no other reason. She was allowed to take a seat on the charter by special permission, because the station master didn’t wish to have to listen to the woman talking interminably. He had taken enough punishment hearing her, and by God he was going to put her on the first bus he could.

When the bus arrived at Galway hours later, with Bertha talking the entire time, it was clear to Eileen that she was not to be dropped off at the bus station, but rather at a corner near the Great Southern Hotel on the outskirts of Galway. She highly doubted if Bertha understood why she was left there at 3 a.m.

The driver, figuring that since she was an American, and therefore had money, assumed she could simply pop into the hotel and stay there the rest of the night. But what if the poor soul doesn’t have 150 pounds for the Great Southern? Eileen worried. What would she do? Yet Bertha did not appear to object to where she was dumped.

On an impulse, Eileen left her seat and called out to the driver, asking that he wait a moment. He was reluctant to linger there, as he was already behind schedule, but he complied with a gesture of exasperation.

“I thought you had someplace to go,” Bertha remarked, as the bus pulled away. She was obviously pleased that she had company again. Someone who talked on and on as she did could not enjoy being alone, Eileen concluded. She probably talks to herself when she is alone, she speculated.

Eileen was not particularly attractive. She suffered additionally with a kind of hip displacement, a birth defect the doctor’s called it, which could have been repaired at birth but never was. It left her with a noticeable limp. She was widowed and had one teenaged son, Eric. She knew there would not be another husband in her future, a future that looked rather bleak to her as the years passed. She was grateful to have the one son. But she found Bertha’s life far more depressing than her own, even though it occurred to her that Bertha herself didn’t view her life that way. But she determined that she would do this added penance, help this pitiful American woman. She’d do what she could to help her get on her way, and then go on to the pilgrimage at Lough Derg. That must be what God required of her now.

“Have a place to go?” she asked Bertha.

“No, not really, but here is a hotel.” She gestured toward the Great Southern.

“Yes, but I don’t think you would want that place, not at 200 quid a night.” She was exaggerating the price. She didn’t really know what they charged, but she guessed it was certainly at least a hundred.

“Oh my, no. I’m not sure how much that is in dollars. What is a quid? The money still confuses me, you know.” She laughed nervously. But clearly she was glad to have help, and even more, to have company. Bertha had a throaty laugh and a deep speaking voice, as if her vocal cords were damaged. Probably got that way from talking too much, Eileen surmised. But whatever the cause, her voice was unpleasant to listen to, and often difficult to understand.

“Do you have your plane ticket home?” Eileen persisted, thinking that that was what the woman was probably about to do, go home. Bertha had said, in her lengthy monologue on the bus, that she’d been in Ireland nearly three weeks and was planning to leave soon.

“Oh my, yes, I have it someplace.” She began to rifle through her large black pocketbook.

“That’s all right,” Eileen said, putting up her hands dismissively. “We can look later. Right now we need to find a place to stay. A bed and breakfast, I suppose.”

“But I thought you were going to Donegal, to that place,” Bertha protested.

Well, so did I, frankly, Eileen thought, but she didn’t say it. “Well, there is a temporary change of plans. Yes, later I will go on to Lough Derg,” although by then she didn’t see how she would manage it. Nevertheless, she sensed that she was doing the right thing helping the American woman.

Nearby she found them a bed and breakfast, at the going rate of 13 pounds per person. Much better than the hotel rate was bound to be. Once they settled in a room, which would have a rather spectacular view of Galway Bay in daylight, Eileen set about trying to get the woman sufficiently organized so that she herself might get on course and think about getting to Donegal and from there, to Lough Derg. This proved to be a difficult task, for Bertha wanted to do nothing but talk. Now she was expounding about the travels of her life.

Eileen found herself listening absently, trying not to show her increasing impatience with this woman. Bertha seemed incapable of shutting up, even at this late hour, when both women were close to exhaustion and needing to rest.

“You know, Mrs. Riddle,” (for that was her surname) “you talk a lot.” There, she said it! She couldn’t have not said it.

“Oh my, yes, I do. I should try harder not to. I know, I’m told that all the time. Even my son and daughter tell me. Have I told you about them?” She had, of course. “Oh my, but here I go talking too much again, aren’t I?” And as they began to prepare for bed, for a few minutes she was actually quiet.

They slept only a very few hours before breakfast was served. Eileen hated to pass up the sumptuous meal, yet she figured she might yet make Lough Derg, and would need to continue on her fast. Bertha paid for everything, saying she had money, and that was the least she could do. She had in the meantime produced her plane ticket, which Eileen noted was not for another four days.

“So what was it that you wanted to do in Galway?” she asked.

“I don’t have any family here. I don’t have any in Ireland, although there is supposed to be some Irish blood way back. But this lady I used to work with—did I tell you I’m retired from Western Electric Company?” Eileen nodded, for she had heard it all, at least twice. “Well, she continued, a friend of mine has a cousin in a place called Spiddal, which is supposedly close to Galway.”

“It is.”

“Emily, that’s my friend, she gave me an envelope for this woman. I think there’s money in it, but I don’t know, of course. I didn’t look. I did promise to give it to her, and Emily is a good friend.” She began digging in her large pocketbook, finally coming up with a scrap of paper. She read it. “Dillon is her name, Kathleen Dillon.”

“Then you want to go and see this woman?”

“I did promise.” She paused. “Look, dear, you don’t need to stay with me. You have things to do, important things, more important than me.” The woman was right. But Eileen was now in a quandary. She realized she had no way to get to Donegal, couldn’t afford to rent a car, and who knew when the next bus would come, how long it would take to get there, and what the cost was? “Maybe I will stay around and see that you get to meet your friend’s relative, this Mrs. Dillon.”

The Dillon woman actually lived in a place called Barna, not Spiddal. It was on the outskirts of Barna that they found the house, with the help of a hired car. The house was small and trim, with a definite charm about it. The woman who answered the door was middle-aged, short and heavy-set like the peasant she was. She was also a heavy smoker, as well as a non-stop talker to rival Bertha herself.

Mrs. Dillon was hospitable and welcoming to the strangers, inviting them in immediately for tea. The house was a chaotic mess inside, cluttered and dirty, with a bad smell about it. Several unhealthy-looking cats were in evidence. Kathleen Dillon was able to out-talk Bertha, and she chattered on about herself, smoking all the while, and punctuating her talk with references to deceased persons, pausing to bless the souls of those dearly departed.

When Bertha pulled the thick brown envelope from her purse and prefaced the giving of it, Mrs. Dillon stopped talking, put down her cigarette, and took from her the

thick envelope. She opened it to find a letter and a large pile of twenty dollar bills in US currency. Perhaps several hundred dollars, Eileen guessed, trying not to stare.

“Bless you for taking the trouble to come,” she said. Her happy grin showed mossy green teeth in need of care. “You must have some tea,” she insisted, as she

got up to turn off the kettle in the kitchen. But the prospect of a meal in this dirty house did not appeal to either visitor, and they demurred.

Meanwhile, Eileen was finding the cottage close and smelly, with the stench of garbage and stale tobacco smoke, so she got up and followed one of the cats out the open back door. Outside it was a mild, sunny day, with the grass still damp with morning dew. She spotted a milk cow some distance out in the back, along with more cats. Just then, Eileen slipped and fell hard on her bad hip, but fortunately the impact was cushioned by something soft. That something was a fresh cow flap, which she found herself sitting squarely in, and she wearing the best slacks she owned.

Penance is one thing, she thought to herself, but this is getting ridiculous. She managed a weak smile, as the other two saw what had happened. What an absurd comedy this has turned out to be!

She got up rather gingerly. She ought to feel grateful that she wasn’t injured badly, although gratitude at the moment was hard to summon, sitting as she was on the ground covered with cow dung at ten in the morning in her best clothing, and feeling hungry and weak, as well.

Mrs. Dillon rushed out bearing a not-too-clean towel, trying not to laugh at the scene, while Bertha seemed confused about what was going on. Eileen did her best to clean herself up, and she and Bertha soon left in the rented car which had been waiting for them all this time. It was Eileen’s intention to change clothes at the bed and breakfast, say goodbye to Bertha, and catch the next bus to Donegal and do the best she could with what was left of her time at Lough Derg. She wondered if the authorities would allow her to join the group at such a late time, but she would give it a try.

But when Bertha suggested to Eileen that she go with her to Lough Derg, Eileen was speechless. How could she discourage this woman?

“Maybe I haven’t told you how hard Lough Derg can be, Bertha.” Had Bertha listened when she mentioned the fasting, the kneeling, the crawling over sharp stones? Eileen suspected, but was too polite to ask, that Bertha wasn’t even Catholic, and so all of this would be completely foreign to her. But to go to the island like one of the regular pilgrims, was that appropriate? Would it be allowed? Should it be?

“It isn’t at all easy,” she assured Bertha.

“You said you’re allowed a bit of toast and some tea,” Bertha countered.

“I did say that, didn’t I?” She didn’t add that for additional penance, she usually only took water, no tea, no burnt toast. Eileen, being polite, but wanting desperately to be rid of this woman, made up her mind to be firm and say the obvious: It would be impossible for her to join the pilgrimage!

Bertha went to her bag and began unzipping pockets, looking for something. Then she pulled out a thick stack of travelers checks. “I can easily afford for us to go there by car, and if we hurry, we won’t be so late.” She handed the checks to Eileen. There must have been three thousand dollars in checks in hundred-dollar denominations, and to Eileen’s amazement, none were signed. The bank apparently had allowed Bertha to leave without signing the checks. Why, this was the same as having three thousand in cash stuffed in a bag!

“Do you realize,” Eileen scolded her, “that these checks are unsigned? Did the bank give you them like this?”

“I suppose they did. I got them as I recall the day before I left for this trip and it was late and the bank was closing and the people there seemed upset that I was so late in coming in.” The words tumbled out. “Travel is for the young, or it should be, but you don’t have the cash or time it seems when you’re young and want to do it, and feel up to doing things like climbing mountains and other strenuous activities. You know what I mean?”

Eileen nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. She certainly didn’t have the money to do many things now, and she was fairly young, younger by far than Bertha, and she didn’t see where she would have the money later in her life, unless she got awfully lucky, like winning the lottery.

“First thing you need to do, Bertha, is to sign these checks. Right now, I mean.”

She had authority in her voice. And so Bertha signed all the checks, of which there were many, at least three thousand dollars worth.

As Eileen watched her signing, she thought, What harm could it do if the woman traveled to Lough Derg with me? Then she quickly realized she was being tempted by the money and what it might buy. Like a ride to Donegal. Still, how fine it would be to travel to Donegal in a car hire, a taxi, no less. Bertha could easily afford it and the cost wouldn’t be so much if Bertha went out to the island. Surely God wouldn’t be offended, even if the woman might put away a chicken sandwich to get her over the hump. She hadn’t been fasting anyway. Eileen was keeping the fast, but growing weak with all the activity. It was one thing to fast at Lough Derg where food wasn’t all around and others were fasting, too, but here and now, fasting was much more difficult.             Nevertheless, it was decided Bertha would accompany Eileen on her pilgrimage to Lough Derg.

They arrived in Donegal that evening. The boat operator was puzzled as to why anyone would wish to go out at that hour, for surely the Prior out there wouldn’t permit a landing. But when Eileen waved a couple of twenty quid notes in front of his nose, he took them out just the same. He would leave it to the priests to figure out for themselves what to do with the stragglers. It wasn’t his place to make such decisions. He did feel there was a strong possibility the fathers would send them back, so he decided he’d better hang around for a few minutes just in case.

Lough Derg is a tiny place, a spit of land in a large lake. Eileen didn’t know its history and couldn’t answer the many questions Bertha threw in her direction. It was evident that Bertha had been expecting a much larger place, and she began to wonder what she was getting herself into. Eileen had tried to prepare her, but that wasn’t an easy task for someone unaccustomed to listening. Bertha heard what she wanted and tuned out the rest.

On the short boat ride she said only, “I guess I’m really doing it.” Eileen didn’t reply to this obvious statement, thinking instead about what it meant to bring someone with her who had not been fasting, and was not even Catholic. Perhaps even a total non-believer! If Bertha had not offered to pay for the car to Donegal and the boat ride, she never would have allowed this situation to develop. Bertha had put the pressure on, that’s for sure; but there was more to it. To Eileen, it was as if this weekend was meant to unfold as it was unfolding. God’s hand was in all of this. It was meant to be difficult and confusing, just as it had been so far. God wanted this annoying American woman to accompany her on the pilgrimage, and she’d just as well accept it.

Upon their arrival at Lough Derg, the Prior, the Rev. Robert Moynihan, was reluctant to allow them on the island so late, and he questioned why they were coming at all, so long after the main body. Eileen tried to explain, but it did little good. She had warned Bertha that this might happen, and Bertha’s reply was, “Balls! I haven’t come this far not to be admitted. We’ll pay him off.” And she waved a stack of 50 pound notes, drawing the attention of the boatman.

“It won’t be that simple, Bertha,” Eileen warned. But it was that simple. Bertha made a contribution of 200 pounds to the church coffers, and they were allowed in. This astonished Eileen, for she knew the previous Prior, a stern cleric, would never have done so. But this new young cleric must have been more worldly, for he accepted the generous contribution with alacrity.

Eileen wondered what had happened to the former Prior. Had he died? Where would a Prior go after Lough Derg, other than to Heaven? She struggled to remember his name and then it came to her. Father Kehoe. She blessed his soul.

For a Prior, Father Moynihan was a bit too jolly. It was hard for him to be serious in a place where talk was discouraged and what there was was done in hushed tones. So he had to express himself mostly with a generous smile. Moynihan was thick of build, with dark hair combed back severely, without a part. His deep blue eyes were merry, perhaps even mischievous. His late beloved mother used to tell him that such eyes would draw the girls, and he’d better be prepared for that.

And what did this new Prior think of Bertha, dressed as she was, not in modest dress like the Irish women, but in a lavender polyester pantsuit favored by older American women? He warned them that the pilgrimage would be strenuous, both spiritually and physically, and it was quite likely they would not, as Eileen hoped, be able to catch up with the rest as far as the discipline and many prayers.

As they walked toward the women’s hostel, Eileen tried to explain (quietly, of course) what was ahead of them. “The chief penitential exercise is the vigil, in which we must stay awake for twenty-four hours,” she began. “You’ll see.” Bertha had never heard of such a thing. Not to eat, nor sleep either? “The toughest part of what we must do is remain awake, from 10 p.m. tonight to 10 p.m. tomorrow night.”

Was that a groan coming from Bertha, and then a murmur “My God!”

After settling in their Spartan rooms, the two made their way to St. Patrick’s Basilica. At the entrance, they removed their footwear. They could hear people praying in concert, but being late, they began with Station I. The stations were supposed to be completed by 9:30 and it was already past 8. They were hopelessly behind the others, yet in a strange way, Eileen was enjoying herself. I must not have fun, she told herself, feeling immediately guilty.

The floor of the Basilica (which was quite small) was paved with sharp stones, which immediately got Bertha’s attention. “Oh, the rocks certainly are sharp, aren’t they? They could do something about them, it seems to me. A little cement would do wonders. After all, we are barefoot.” She was not speaking quietly, and Eileen had to hush her up, all the while trying not to laugh. Was the woman serious? Didn’t she understand that this was all deliberate?

The other pilgrims had finished the set of stations, and the two stragglers were quite alone, at least they thought so, until they spotted Father Moynihan standing nearby within earshot. It almost looked as if he too were enjoying himself watching the women.

Eileen hadn’t asked Bertha what her religion was, but the fact that she had no relatives in Ireland must mean she was something other than Catholic. She could even be Jewish. So she voiced the question that had been gnawing at her. “You are Catholic, Bertha?”

“Oh my goodness me! My Raymond could never tolerate Catholics. He didn’t like Episcopals either, because they were too Catholic. I was raised Presbyterian, but Ray was Baptist, Southern Baptist, and so I became a Southern Baptist.” Eileen wondered what that was all about. But this was dangerous talk in the present milieu, and she had to shut her up.

“I told you, Bertha, we can’t keep talking.”

“Oh, I forgot, honey.”

That “honey” was a first for Eileen. Oh, these foreigners! What in the world was this woman doing with her? And why had she decided to invite her? For Bertha, it was loneliness, she guessed, but what was Eileen’s excuse? Maybe she was lonely, too. But what company she had selected! Or did it pick her? She really didn’t know.

Bertha was catching on now. If she couldn’t say all the prayers, at least she could move her lips and pretend, so nobody knew for certain. But only the Prior was watching, anyway.

“Not bad for a Southern Baptist,” Bertha whispered to Eileen, who nodded, not really knowing what that was except that it was some Protestant sect. She had never really known a Protestant in her entire life.

After all the walking and kneeling on the sharp stones, Bertha stopped to rub her knees and check out one foot which was bleeding slightly. “You need not go on,” Eileen said gently. “They will take you back to the hostel.”

“Not without you, honey. I’m staying. Did I do it right?”

“You did well,” Eileen said softly. She pitied her after a fashion. She pitied herself as much. Now she was pleased that Bertha was with her. Bertha the Baptist. God forgive her her mistakes, she thought. He must have meant it to be this way or it wouldn’t be happening. He wouldn’t have put her in her path in the quirky way that he did.

It was curious, but Bertha was more suitably dressed for the vigil than was Eileen. Eileen wore a pair of jeans because her slacks had been soiled. These jeans, God help her, had a seam running down the front, which made the trek over sharp stones even more unpleasant. Bertha’s polyester had some give and wore like iron, and so she suffered less—or so it appeared— but due to her age and generally poor condition, it could not be reasonably said that she was having anything approaching a good time. She wasn’t. She was uncomfortable and very tired, but she didn’t complain, though she continued to talk too much. There was nothing much Eileen could do about that.

Meanwhile, Eileen’s knees were especially sore from that seam, that terrible, terrible seam. Discomfort, tiredness, and hunger were one thing, but this punishment from the seam was almost too much to deal with. Yet she plodded on, saying nothing to Bertha. And Bertha was certainly doing all right, considering everything. She was a real trouper. God bless her.

The two rushed a bit through the rest of the required stops, but by morning, they were with the others. They had caught up. They made the 6:30 a.m. mass and morning prayers, and it was shortly after this that they were permitted to take one of their Lough Derg meals (so-called). It consisted of black coffee (no sugar) and burnt dry toast. Bertha had already been forewarned about that. The meal was eaten in silence, though Bertha dared to ask if there were any dessert, knowing very well there would be none this day or any day of the pilgrimage.

After the meal, Eileen reminded her again that she could stop any time she wished, but she knew Bertha would go on, so she decided to say no more about it.

“I know, I know,” Bertha reassured her. “I will stop if I have to, but not yet. How are your knees, honey?”

“Not so great,” Eileen replied. “See this seam—did you ever see jeans with a seam in the middle of the leg?” Bertha smiled, thinking she knew nothing about jeans, never having worn them. “I don’t know if I can stand it,” Eileen complained, which was unusual for her. “But I promised God I would come. He did something for me, so I come to honor his mother.”

Somehow the unlikely pair got through the day and remaining required stations before bed at 10 p.m. Bertha was nearly asleep on her feet and Eileen had to almost prop her up. But she wouldn’t quit. By bedtime, Eileen collapsed, her knees torn painfully by the seams. Bertha looked even more exhausted, but Eileen barely noticed. She took off the wretched jeans, fell into bed, and was soon fast asleep. But Bertha felt called upon to do a little sewing for her injured friend. She took out of her handbag scissors, needle and thread, and in the dim light of the room, cut out those objectionable seams, then cut strips from the matching lavender coat she wore as part of her pantsuit and replaced the cruel seam with a soft patch of sorts. It took her a long time to do this, for her eyesight was poor in the low light, but she prevailed.

No one was aware of what Bertha was engaged in, except for Prior Moynihan, who saw her through the doorway. He hadn’t expected her to last until bedtime, and here she was, up hours beyond that time sewing, of all things. When Bertha finished her work, it was only a very few hours before time to rise again. But she was satisfied she had done a good turn for her friend, and was awake before the appointed time.

When Eileen got up and saw the lavender strip where the seam had once been, she was nearly overcome, but didn’t know what to say, except for a sincere Thank You. Together they went in silence for the closing mass and ninth and final station, and then it was 10 a.m. and time for the boat to leave. To Eileen’s dismay, Bertha had disappeared. She began to worry that she had finally collapsed somewhere of exhaustion, but the Prior came up to speak to her.

“She’s fine. She fell asleep. She will be along soon. A quite remarkable lady, your American friend,” he said with a grin. “By the way, I like your jeans. Might they even be called ‘designer jeans?'” He was jesting.

“I guess they might be,” Eileen said. “They certainly fit like none I’ve ever worn before.” Eileen was about to explain how the jeans came to have a lavender stripe up the front, but the Prior simply put up his hand. “No need to explain at all,” he said. “I understand fully how the change came about. Here your friend comes now.” Bertha hobbled toward them, looking tired as well she might, but smiling too.

“Have a safe journey home, and God bless both of you!”

There is a saying at Lough Derg, Eileen had said on the boat ride in, that if you look back at the island even once as you proceed toward the mainland, it is a sign you will return someday. Eileen had never been able to leave and not look back, and she doubted that many of the pilgrims could forego the temptation.

But Bertha, on the other hand, said “Never, never, never again,” and she didn’t look back, not so much as out of the corner of her eye. She was taking no chances.


Raymond Abbott is a social worker in Louisville, Kentucky, having served in VISTA on a South Dakota Indian reservation. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kentucky Arts Council.