by Leah Lederman
The lights came up and lifted me from my trance, the last note of the orchestra still vibrating from my seat into my limbs. The rustle of people around me gathering their coats and programs jostled me back to the Cleveland Playhouse Theater. It was a sea of red velvet seats, lights, a stage—everything you would expect to see having been to a theater—except that for the last two hours, I’d completely forgotten I was there.
Dad placed his hat on his head and reached for his trench coat. The brown felt fedora always made me think of Indiana Jones. Of all the adults I knew, Dad was the only one who wore a hat. It was a relic from the past, his middle-class, Sears-Roebuck Southern Ohio upbringing. He shrugged his shoulders to better situate his coat, then smiled when he saw me watching. “Got your coat?” he asked. I turned to retrieve my jacket, but he said, “Here.” He took it from me and opened it, giving it a little shake to indicate that I was to put my arms into it. My dad sure knows how to treat a little lady, I thought.
The Playhouse Theater was the kind of place where Dad had to tell me when to clap, like when the conductor arrives. I never would have thought to clap my hands just because a guy stood up in front of the orchestra, no matter how nicely he was dressed. I mean, why was he late?
The spring-loaded chair popped up behind me when I stood up. In a movie theater, it was customary—and advisable—to let the seat high-five your butt. It was not customary—or advisable—to do so in a place that required a program to tell you the unspoken story of the dance. When the dancers are too busy pirouetting to say their lines, they don’t want you toying with the seats. They also don’t want you talking during the performance, but Dad leaned over to me sometimes during the performance to point things out: “Now they’re traveling all over the world. See?” and “ The Chinese dance is your mom’s favorite.”
Dad would take my older brothers to the movies. He watched Star Wars with them and clapped with the rest of the ticketholders when Luke wheeled on the Emperor and rejected him; Peter said he watched Platoon with him twice, and wasn’t sure Dad was in the same theater with him, either time. He’d gone somewhere else in his head.
I never saw a movie in the theater with my Dad until I was an adult. Instead, he took me to plays, symphonies, and ballets. Once he took a gaggle of us to see Kabuki Macbeth when I was five. I don’t recall much aside from strange makeup and the way the actors’ voices changed pitch every other syllable. We never let him live that one down and he loved it. Years later he was still known to impersonate them at random intervals, “Is this a dagger I see before me?”
My sister was one of the mouse puppets in the Cleveland Ballet’s Nutcracker and I was a caroler—my first paid gig in a nonexistent dance career. Dad came to every performance and was amazed to learn that even in a professional show of Cleveland Ballet caliber, not every night was the same. Sometimes the curtain was delayed. The lead ballerina from cast A had a different quality to her movements than her counterpart in cast B, though they followed the same choreography. He’d been to enough performances to notice when the company’s principal male dancers switched from white spandex tights to black. Mom, who helped sew their costumes, had the inside scoop: Apparently, there’d been too many catcalls when they wore the white. It was many, many years before I understood that joke.
With our coats on, Dad and I filed into the lobby with the rest of the audience. We set out into Downtown Cleveland, where sewers steamed and cold air grabbed at our clothing, looking for a way in. Dad walked briskly to outpace the wind and my patent-leather shoes slapped on the cracked sidewalk as I tried to keep up. We traversed the terrifying sidewalk grates and passed iron fire-escape stairwells crawling up the brick facades of tall buildings. The sky-blue Corvair he’d inherited from his dad was a welcome sight. Dad was holding open the passenger-side door for me when I stopped short, realizing with a gasp that I had forgotten my Mousie Purse.
Blue, padded cotton with an embroidered, mischievous-looking mouse in its bottom corner, industrial staples from when its handle came loose. I took that purse with me everywhere. At least until I realized, there in the Cleveland Playhouse Square parking garage, that I’d left it behind.
I didn’t have to throw a fit, and I knew better than to ever do so. Just, “Oh no! I left my Mousie Purse!”
Dad didn’t skip a beat. “You left your purse? We’ll go back and get it.”
Back over the terrifying sidewalk grates and iron scaffolding and steaming sewers to the theater. Dad explained the situation to the security guard at the ticket booth.
“Where would a woman be without her purse?” The old man led us in with a smile he kept trying to hide. He needn’t have bothered. I could hardly see upwards past his knees, though I liked the red stripe on his blue pants.
“You know whereabouts you were sitting?” the security guard asked Dad.
We entered the theater, now vacant, and I stopped hearing anything anyone said. I had been swallowed by the whale; I was Jonah. Row upon row of empty red seats stood at attention like the little things that line our small intestines. I’d seen them in my brother’s science textbook. Did whales have small intestines? I made a mental note to check later.
“Yup, that’s the one!” Dad said, holding up the blue purse like a prize fish. It bulged with linty-capped chapstick, candy wrappers, pencils, and pads of paper from Pat Katan’s. I didn’t take the purse right away, even if that had been our mission. I was too busy staring up at the stage, the mouth of the whale.
“Say, my daughter here and her sister were stars in the Nutcracker. They used to let us leave out the backstage door. It’d save us a walk around the building in this weather…”
The old man didn’t blink. “You know the way. You and your daughter have a great day now. And you take care of that purse, young lady.” He patted Dad on the shoulder and walked back up the aisle, laughter bouncing on his shoulders.
Backstage, cold gray concrete, utility tables, and scaffolding replaced the plush carpet and balcony seating of the theater. Crew members fiddled with light bulbs and worked pins into tutus on costume mannequins while random dancers milled around, some wearing sweat pants over their leotards. It was fresh enough after the show that they hadn’t cleaned up yet. I marveled at the heavy makeup and glitter on their faces. Rivulets of sweat ran down their faces and backs.
The Nutcracker Prince was smiling and out of breath, having demonstrated a move to another dancer. He nodded as I passed and gave me a casual, dismissive wave. I hardly noticed for staring at his barrel thighs bulging through the fabric, still wondering, absently, innocently, why he’d made the switch to black spandex.
Leah Lederman lives near Indianapolis with her husband, children, and assorted animals. She created and edited Café Macabre and Café Macabre II, collections of horror short stories and art by women, and A Novel of Shorts: The Woman No One Sees. In 2020 her essay “My Bleeding Heart” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is currently writing a memoir about the ways she was shaped by her father’s experiences in the Vietnam War.
Leah, I Loved it. When will the book be finished. I would love to read it.