A True Tale of Avarice and Pride (with a Side Order of Lust)
By Susan Lilley
Some people say that “dinner” and “theatre” are two concepts that should never be entwined under the same roof. What snobs! The dinner theatre where I toiled during my formative college years was a rich, tawdry, shiny, utterly fascinating place. As a fledgling adult with pretensions of sophistication, I loved the atmosphere of second-rate glamor, soap-operatic intrigue, and the prevailing air of adventure that swirled from the front office to the green room at Once Upon a Stage Dinner Theatre. The stars were mostly burnt-out TV series veterans or faded Hollywood types, and the plays were bland, insipid romantic comedies. The best drama was always behind the scenes: the director cheating on his wife with the current ingénue from New York, the Greek chef loudly firing a drunken dishwasher for the tenth time, and the complicated love lives of the waiters, who wore tuxedos so cheap that if a Manhattan or Mai-tai was spilled on a jacket, the liquid would bead and bounce like rain off a duck’s back.
My job shifted from show to show; sometimes I was the fake-smiling hostess up front. Sometimes my friend Linda, the stage manager, got me a gig as her nervous assistant or a dresser backstage. The management found me useful and flexible, and I reveled in moving from sub-world to sub-world along the worn carpeted passageways between the front of the house and backstage. People confided in me. I knew everybody’s business, from the busboys’ pot habits to the general manager’s array of shady business dealings, which sometimes resulted in his arriving to work with bloody knuckles. I studied Shakespeare and Donne by day, life in the greasepaint-and-moussaka-scented world of dinner theatre by night.
I met James and Will the night they started waiting tables at Once Upon a Stage. I was navigating the verandah lobby bar area wearing insanely high wedge heels and one of my high school prom dresses I used as a hostess uniform, a bright blue floor-length halter dress with white polka-dots, made entirely of care-free polyester. Will was leaning on the bar, looking pretty good in his equally synthetic tux, watching me with undeniable interest. Which was weird, since I had gotten the distinct impression that he and his pal James, a tall, owlish-looking guy with round-rim glasses, were really a couple.
It was 1974, the second wave of the sexual revolution. Straight, gay, bi—these terms were bantered around constantly and very much on my mind, since two of my best friends were in the process of coming out. Plus, sexual opportunity seemed to be everywhere in those days. That week I had received a mash note in class from an androgynous young woman known only as Barbarella, who had spotted me with friends at a local gay club the weekend before. Nobody’s sexuality seemed quite settled in this world, and experimentation seemed like an invitation from the universe. Late night drunken conversations always circled back to who was doing what with whom, and maps of yearning, fulfillment, and confession were drawn like constellations in our youthful skies.
As I smiled at Will from the hostess stand, James appeared behind me, leaned in close and whispered, “There’s nothing like a dark, skinny guy in a tuxedo, is there?” I laughed nervously and said I guessed not. James’s tone was sweetly conspiratorial, and Will preened happily under our double gaze.
Over the next couple of weeks I learned that James and Will were new in town, were “roommates” in a new place they were fixing up, and treated their jobs at the dinner theatre as a hilarious joke. They were flirty and wickedly funny, and I often found myself with them at the bar next door after the theatre closed, gossiping over a Tom Collins or stinger on the rocks. We played the new Allman Brothers song “Sweet Melissa” over and over again on the jukebox during band breaks. When I told them my parents had almost named me Melissa instead of Susan, they started calling me Melissa all the time at work, and sang the refrain of the song whenever they passed me at the theatre bar or in the service passageways. They began to insist I come over for dinner one night after work, a very-very late dinner, to see their house and listen to their new state-of-the-art stereo system. I called my coming-out friends to see what they thought. Rick said they sounded like a lovely couple, I should go, and while I was at it, see if they have a friend he might like. Nikki said what was I afraid of, I should go, and by the way, see if they have any good pot.
The next Saturday night I followed them home around midnight to a secluded little house on a small lake, with palmettos, oak trees, and moss forming a tropically inviting entrance. Wine glasses in hand, we toured the house. I was stunned. My friends and I lived, if we were lucky not to live in a dorm or with parents, in rented cracker boxes or roach-infested apartments with walls like paper. These two lived like kings, with swanky, well-made furniture, gorgeous oriental rugs, antique mirrors and real paintings, not the rock band posters my friends and I stuck on the walls with tape, or cheap reprints of Escher or Beardsley for the more effete.
They pulled out the new Allman Brothers Album, Eat a Peach, and we listened to “Sweet Melissa” in glorious quadraphonic sound and danced, all three of us together. When we finally sat down to filet mignon served on exquisite china, they told me the story of how they found each other: Will was in federal prison–Raiford, in north Florida to be exact–and lovelorn James became his pen-pal. Upon Will’s release they started their lives together as partners, and found this little house and these silly jobs and now, they had found me.
Me? My toes curled under the table as I tried to remain calm. As a child raised by a lawyer father and a junior-league, bridge-playing mother, the closest I had ever come to someone who had done time was watching Perry Mason on TV. Furthermore, it was clear they were a couple, so what did they mean about finding me? I began to wonder what sharing a bed with two men who were obviously into each other would be like. I even began to plan how I would tell about it when the time came, to an audience of enraptured friends, none of whom had done what I have. I could just picture the respect and envy in Nikki and Rick’s eyes! This could really ramp up my image. Straight little Susie, who coughed and passed out every time I tried to smoke pot, who liked boys and couldn’t help it, who was considered so wholesome that just my presence reminded my friends to brush their teeth. I would be the one to first earn the threesome-with-two-gay-lovers badge. But could I go through with it?
James took my chin in his hand and turned it toward the grand piano in the corner. His tone turned a bit serious. “Melissa.” As he paused, dramatically, I realized I was getting used to that name. “Look around. Everything in this place, everything, is stolen. Every stick of furniture, every book, every goblet. We give ourselves the best, and you can have it too. We want you to join our little family hobby.”
I came out of my dream of heroic sexual boundary-busting and stared at them in what must have looked like chalk-faced shock. Will took over. “Honey, with your innocent face, we could pull off some major heists together. We have some big plans and we want more than anything to bring you in. We’ll teach you. We know what we’re doing.”
They had pulled their chairs close to either side of me; I felt a calming hand on each knee. Heists? Was he really using this language? Was I dreaming in film noir? I was sweating now, and my heart pounded in my ears. I somehow got to my feet, a big phony smile plastered on my face.
“Gee, guys, that all sounds really interesting. Really great. But. Um, I am afraid you have got the wrong girl.”
“Oh no, you’d be perfect!” James crooned soothingly and he poured more wine in my glass. “Sit down and let’s just talk about it. In fact, why not stay over?”
I stood in a frozen daze as Will walked over to the very expensive, very stolen, cream-colored Danish modern sofa and patted a cushion. I had been around theatre enough to learn a few acting moves. I took an exaggerated gander at my watch as I walked unsteadily toward the door and tried to sound nonchalant yet panicked. “Oh, Jesus! Look at the time. I have a class tomorrow at ten!”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, doll,” said Will. He moved between me and the door and opened his arms wide. “Think about it,” he said. Then he whispered, “In the meantime, our little secret, right?” Then he hugged me so hard it took my breath away as James stared dimly from the table.
“See you at work!” My voice sounded like a strangled mouse. “Thanks, this was great. Really, really fun.”
Things were a bit awkward at the theatre after that. I smiled gamely and tried my best to be natural, but every time Will or James came near me with a slightly questioning look on their faces, I shut down like an iron gate. I saw the smirks and whispered speculations of other staff as they watched us maneuver around each other. We were once such a flirty threesome, a sparkly intense triumvirate, now gone somehow weird and cold. With age I would learn that work friendships in certain kinds of jobs can be as intense and as fleeting as summer storms, but at the time I was shaken by this strange confluence of infatuation, flattery, and enormous misunderstanding.
At the next show changeover, I got the backstage task of dressing the new star, Sal Mineo, during costume changes and was released from the lobby and the prom dress and the thieves. Reborn as a techie, I dressed in black, carried an important flashlight, and kept my head down. In a few weeks Will and James were gone. I never found out why Will went to prison in the first place, or why they left the dinner theatre. It was a few years before I even drove by the little house on the lake they had lived in, just to see if it was real. And I kept quiet for a good, long while.
“Sweet Melissa” appears in Susan Lilley’s There Will Be Words 2014 limited edition nonfiction chapbook WHEN WE WERE STARDUST.