Matt Sorley, born Mose Sadacca, was an actor. He was a character actor and (when they let him) a comedian. He had broad, swarthy, pliant cheeks, a reddish widow’s peak that was both curly and balding, and very bright teeth as big and orderly as piano keys. His stage name had a vaguely Irish sound, but his origins were Sephardic. One grandfather was from Constantinople, the other from Alexandria. His parents could still manage a few words of the old Spanish spoken by the Jews who had fled the Inquisition, but Matt himself, brought up in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, was purely a New Yorker. The Brooklyn that swarmed in his speech was useful. It got him parts.
Sometimes he was recognized in the street a day or so following his appearance on a television lawyer series he was occasionally on call for. These were serious, mostly one-shot parts requiring mature looks. The pressure was high. Clowning was out, even in rehearsals. Matt usually played the judge (three minutes on camera) or else the father of the murder victim (seven minutes). The good central roles went to much younger men with rich black hair and smooth flat bellies. When they stood up to speak in court, they carefully buttoned up their jackets. Matt could no longer easily button his. He was close to sixty and secretly melancholy. He lived on the Upper West Side in a rent-controlled apartment with a chronic leak under the bathroom sink. He had a reputation for arguing with directors; one director was in the habit of addressing him, rather nastily, as Mr. Surly.
His apartment was littered with dictionaries, phrase books, compendiums of scientific terms, collections of slang, encyclopedias of botany, mythology, history. Frances was the one with the steady income. She worked for a weekly crossword puzzle magazine, and by every Friday had to have composed three new puzzles in ascending order of complexity. The job kept her confined and furious. She was unfit for deadlines and tension; she was myopic and suffered from eyestrain. Her neck was long, thin, and imperious, with a jumpy pulse at the side. Matt had met her, right out of Tulsa, almost twenty years ago on the tiny stage of one of those downstairs cellar theaters in the Village — the stage was only a clearing in a circle of chairs. It was a cabaret piece, with ballads and comic songs, and neither Matt nor Frances had much of a voice. This common deficiency passed for romance. They analyzed their mutual flaws endlessly over coffee in the grimy little cafe next door to the theater. Because of sparse audiences, the run petered out after only two weeks, and the morning after the last show Matt and Frances walked downtown to City Hall and were married.
Frances never sang onstage again. Matt sometimes did, to get laughs. As long as Frances could stick to those Village cellars she was calm enough, but in any theater north of Astor Place she faltered and felt a needlelike chill in her breasts and forgot her lines. And yet her brain was all storage. She knew words like “fenugreek,” “kermis,” “sponson,” “gibberellin.” She was angry at being imprisoned by such words. She lived, she said, behind bars; she was the captive of a grid. All day long she sat fitting letters into squares, scrambling the alphabet, inventing definitions made to resemble conundrums, shading in the unused squares. “Grid and bear it,” she said bitterly, while Matt went out to take care of ordinary household things — buying milk, picking up his shirts from the laundry, taking his shoes to be resoled. Frances had given up acting for good. She didn’t like being exposed like that, feeling nervous like that, shaking like that, the needles in her nipples, the numbness in her throat, the cramp in her bowel. Besides, she was embarrassed about being nearsighted and hated having to put in contact lenses to get through a performance. In the end she threw them in the trash. Off stage, away from audiences, she could wear her big round glasses in peace.
Frances resented being, most of the time, the only breadwinner. After four miscarriages she said she was glad they had no children, she couldn’t imagine Matt as a father — he lacked gumption, he had no get-up- and-go. He thought it was demeaning to scout for work. He thought work ought to come to him because he was an artist. He defined himself as master of a Chaplinesque craft; he had been born into the line of an elite tradition. He scorned props and despised the way some actors relied on cigarettes to move them through a difficult scene, stopping in the middle of a speech to light up. It was false suspense, it was pedestrian. Matt was a purist. He was contemptuous of elaborately literal sets, rooms that looked like real rooms. He believedd that a voice, the heel of a hand, a hesitation, the widening of a nostril, could furnish a stage. Frances wanted Matt to hustle forrrrr jobs, she wanted him to network, bug his agent, follow up on casting calls. Matt could do none of these things. He was an actor, he said, not a goddamn peddler.
It wasn’t clear whether he was actually acting all the time (Frances liked to accuse him of this), yet even on those commonplace daytime errands, there was something exaggerated and perversely open about him: an unpredictability leaped out and announced itself. He kidded with all the store help. At the Korean-owned vegetable stand, the young Mexican who was unpacking peppers and grapefruits hollered across to him, “Hey, Mott, you in a movie now?” For all its good will, the question hurt. It was four years since his last film offer, a bit part with Marlon Brando, whom Matt admired madly, though without envy. The role bought Matt and Frances a pair of down coats for winter, and a refrigerator equipped with an ice-cube dispenser. But what Matt really hoped for was getting back onstage. He wanted to be in a play.
At the shoe-repair place his new soles were waiting for him. The proprietor, an elderly Neapolitan, had chalked Attore across the bottom of Matt’s well- worn slip-ons. Then he began his usual harangue: Matt should go into opera. “I wouldn’t be any good at it,” Matt said, as he always did, and flashed his big even teeth. Against the whine of the rotary brush he launched into “La donna e mobile.” The shoemaker shut off his machine and bent his knees and clapped his hands and leaked tears down the accordion creases that fanned out from the corners of his eyes. It struck Matt just then that his friend Salvatore had the fairy-tale crouch of Geppetto, the father of Pinocchio; the thought encouraged him to roll up the legs of his pants and jig, still loudly singing. Salvatore hiccupped and roared and sobbed with laughter.
Sometimes Matt came into the shop just for a shine. The shoemaker never let him pay. It was Matt’s trick to tell Frances (his awful deception, which made him ashamed) that he was headed downtown for an audition, and wouldn’t it be a good idea to stop first to have his shoes buff ed? The point was to leave a decent impression for next time, even if they didn’t hire you this time. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, buy some shoe polish and do it yourself,” Frances advised, but not harshly; she was pleased about the audition.
Of course there wasn’t any audition — or if there was, Matt wasn’t going to it. After Salvatore gave the last slap of his flannel cloth, Matt hung around, teasing and fooling, for half an hour or so, and then he walked over to the public library to catch up on the current magazines. He wasn’t much of a reader, though in principle he revered literature and worshiped Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He looked through the Atlantic and Harper’s and The New Yorker, all of which he liked; Partisan Review, Commentary, magazines like that, w...