The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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R obert DeNiro is getting into character. He’s been talking to his agent about doing some kind of working-class movie, something set in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana, or the factories of New Jersey. Something gritty that will show the fears and concerns of the men involved in America’s doomed industries.
“Real people,” he mutters, facing his reflection in the mirror. “Some kind of real, regular guy, for Chrissake.”
He tries it a couple of ways. First he tenses his shoulders and lifts them a little, balling his hands into fists so that the thick muscles of his upper arms bulge. Then he pulls a strand of black hair over his eyes and glowers through it. “OK,” he says thoughtfully. “Kind of a tough guy thing. Could work. He could be king of the walk and then lose his job. Show some vulnerability, lose his wife. . . . Nah.” DeNiro angrily pushes his hair away from his face again. “Who needs pathos?” he asks the mirror. “Who hasn’t seen that tough but vulnerable thing a million times? Shit.”
He circles the room a few times. “Worker, worker, worker,” he recites to himself in a kind of furious mantra. Then he suddenly rushes to the bathroom, grabs a jar of Vaseline, darts back to the mirror. He is humming a line from “MacArthur Park” — “Someone left the cake out in the rain . . .” and it’s coming out all plummy and full of easy emotion. He shoves Vaseline into his hair till it’s glossy and plastered to his skull. He smiles a mocking, know-it-all smile, and imagines its curves echoed by a vicious pencil-stroke of moustache. He makes his eyes opaque — black and beady. “Closer,” he says gleefully. “Closer.”
He puffs out his chest and tries a strutting little walk. He goes back to the mirror, places his hand over his heart, and sings again. “I don’ t know if I can take it . . .” — he closes his eyes so hard that he actually squeezes out a couple of tears — “. . . for it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have the recipe agaiiiin. . . .”
“OK,” says DeNiro. “I think we’ve got something here.”
One summer night, DeNiro walks into the Purple Hen in Tenafly, New Jersey. A tall, skinny man in blue jeans and a plaid shirt is ambling past. He brushes against the actor. “Sorry, pal,” he says, with a comfortable, chest-deep laugh. “Just couldn’t wait for some of that cold, wet stuff.”
“S’OK,” says DeNiro. “I know how you feel.” And he trails after the man to the bar. They find themselves elbow to elbow, waiting for the bartender’s attention. “I’m Vince,” says the tall man, extending a hard-skinned hand.
“Bobby,” says DeNiro.
DeNiro starts coming into the Purple Hen once or twice a week, and the men who hang out there nightly get comfortable with him. Fortunately, he’s done his homework well. So when they ask where he works, he is able to tell them that he does TV repair at Dudley’s — which is just outside of town. Why, then, they want to know, does he come all the way into and across town to drink at the Purple Hen? A knowing man-to-man grimace: “It’s my old lady. She can’t stand for me to be out with the boys. Comes to wherever I’m at, towing one of the kids along half the time. Crying. Nagging. I gotta get away once in a while.”
A ripple of sympathetic laughter — the men begin to accept him. Their warmth grows when, after a few visits, DeNiro lets on that he knows how to play the piano. Just a little, he adds, with a self-deprecating grin.
Vince strides over to the Purple Hen’s ancient piano and tosses open the lid. “Ain’t been tuned for a coupla decades,” he says, “but let’s see how you do.”
Now DeNiro is rapidly riffling through his memories. As it happens, he can play a little. He took lessons in classical music and jazz improvisation on both piano and horn for his role in “New York, New York,” and a couple of the musicians in the film told him he was good enough to go pro.
So DeNiro sits at the grimy keyboard in the warm, dark atmosphere of the Purple Hen, bathed in his new friends’ admiration and acceptance. But he knows it’s not DeNiro being asked to play. It’s Bobby. And Bobby doesn’t play jazz or classical.
Tentatively, he starts picking out the melody to “MacArthur Park” with his right hand. He adds a few vibrating chords and lets them build to a thunder. Then, very softly at first, he begins to sing. He sings the way he did in front of the mirror, when Bobby first came into being, until, keyboard almost forgotten and caressed with only his left-hand fingertips, he’s standing, hand over heart, voice pulsing with the sweet emotion of the song.
As the quivering notes die away, Vince and his buddies laugh and applaud like crazy. “Hey Bobby,” they cry, “Eh, Bobbo, didn’t know you had it in you,” and Bobby segues smoothly into “Starlight.”
But when he goes home, DeNiro knows he’ll have to do some work on the role. He is getting tired of Bobby’s endless smirking and rib-poking, his sexist jokes. And he knows it’s going to get really boring just pounding out things like “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” on the piano. No. Bobby is going to have to grow as a character.
DeNiro has shaved the moustache and allowed a glimmer of his own humorous intelligence to show through his creation. One night, as Bobby plays “Kiss Today Goodbye,” he feels someone slide onto the piano stool next to him. A firm olive-skinned thigh, its top skimmed by the shortest of sky-blue skirts, rests by his pant leg. Someone starts singing along with him in a breathy, uncertain, little girl’s voice, and the words, “What I did for love, what I did for love,” sidle confidingly into his left ear and nestle there.
“Nice goin’, Bobby,” yells Vince affectionately. “Looks like you’ve snared my little sis. Eh, Bernie,” he goes on, at the top of his voice, “watch what you’re doin’. You’re picking on a married man theah.”
“I can look after myself,” she says, shaking her hair back. “And it’s Bernice, you big ape.”
Bernice is no ordinary Tenafly daughter. She is as smooth and rounded as a plum; you could get lost in the black haze of her hair, and her fingernails are the deep pink-purple color of a deadly nightshade flower. Ever since high school, Vince brags to Bobby, everyone has been calling her “the gypsy” because of her looks, exotic style of dress, and unconventional behavior.
She sings along with the piano all night. Once, she walks away to refresh her makeup in the ladies’ room. She leaves a second time to get herself a piña colada from the bar. “I love them,” she says to Bobby. “They make me think about tropical nights and the sea and palm trees. I had to show the barkeep how to make ’em. I brought in a book.” She fishes out the maraschino cherry and holds it between her teeth, leans toward him. Bobby moves forward, too, and nibbles at the cherry. Then he curves his hand behind her head and kisses her tentatively. Looking up, he sees Vince frowning.
At 4 a.m., when the bar closes, Bernice asks Bobby to walk her home. Vince’s expression is still clouded, but he waves when he sees them leave, and says, “So long, Bobbo. See ya.”
Bobby starts talking about renting a little house a few blocks from the Purple Hen. One night he has just parked his car and is walking to the bar, when Vince appears out of the dark, grabs him, and pins him up against the wall in one furious movement. “Awright, Bob,” he hisses, his words scented with whiskey. “What the fuck’s going on? Yer a married man, dammit. What the fuck are you doin’, messin’ with my sister?”
Bobby squirms, holds back the impulse to hit Vince, finally says, “I’m separated, Vince. She’s a cold woman, my wife. Hard and cold. We’re separated, man. We’re through. I’m fuckin’ serious about your sister.”
Bernice moves in with Bobby. She has a talent for interior design, and she soon makes over his entire house. She paints the walls, cabinets, and closets in shades of purple, pink, and fuschia, choosing carpeting and curtains from the same pulsating family of colors, studying catalogs and cloth swatches from local stores. She paints four golden Turkish turrets up the corners of the living room, topping them with tulip-shaped domes. “I love you,” Bobby says, when he returns from a hard day of work to find her happy, sweaty, and paint-smeared. And he pulls out her hairpins, so that her hair cascades to her shoulders, and tugs his fingers gently through the lacquered strands, making little circles with the pads of his fingers against her skull. “I love you,” he repeats, cupping her round breasts in his hands, then leading her to the dusty-blue bedroom.
An hour later he calls Vince and tells him to get his ass over for some poker, to bring the boys, and tell them their wives can come along, too. Nobody’s gonna believe, he says exultantly into the phone, what Bernice has done to the place.
Before the guests come, DeNiro goes to wash up. The bathroom walls are of ersatz black marble, veined with gold, and the taps are gold, too. He bathes, then sits on the edge of the tub and clips his toenails into a tiny, gilt wastepaper basket. He is puzzled; something keeps pushing at the edges of his memory. His eye follows the traceries on the wall, and he sees a twenty-room mansion by a pounding azure sea, somewhere in California. In his mind, he enters the mansion, and room after room opens before him, white, airy, filled with books and music and gracefully curved sculpture. In the innermost room is a round bed, and on it lies his wife. His other wife. Six-foot-tall, black as ebony, limbs splayed bonelessly on the snowy coverlet, as ready to spring as a panther.
Halfway through the party, Bobby is forced to drive to the store for more beer. Vince, his cousin Jimmy, and several of the boys are standing around the kitchen, a little sloshed, making conversation.
“You know who he is, dontcha?” says Jimmy, cocking his head toward the doorway where Bobby has just gone out.
“Dunno what you mean,” says Vince.
“Yeah,” says Jimmy. “You do. I know you do. He’s that movie star. . . .”
“Oh, yeah,” pipes up a short, pimpled man. “The one in that Godfather movie who makes people offers they can’t refuse.”
They all laugh. “That was Marlon Brando,” says Jimmy. “But he was in that movie, too. And a whole bunch of other movies. DeNiro. I swear he’s Robert DeNiro.”
“Robert DeNiro,” says Vince thoughtfully. “That’s right. I kinda knew that somewhere all along. You know,” he goes on after a pause, “I don’t think we’d better tell the girls about this. They’d get all crazy and excited and start pestering him for autographs and shit. . . .”
“And you know how women can’t keep their mouths shut,” says the short man. “They’d be blabbing it all over, and next thing you know, the neighborhood’d be full of reporters and fan club people and Hollywood types and he’d just hafta take off again to wherever he came from.”
“You know,” says Jimmy, “it’s pretty nice of him to come stay with us. He’s probably trying to do his bit for the working class or something, trying to help us out.”
“Oh, I don’t know it’s so nice,” says Vince. “He gets Bernice. And, after all, the guy has gotta be somewhere.”
Actually, the women would be far less surprised than their husbands imagine. Marilyn Monroe is sitting in the living room with them. She has been joining these women in Tenafly for Thursday night bridge and occasional other pursuits for as many years as they can remember. At the moment, she’s saying breathily, “I know I shouldn’t, but it’s just sooo good,” and coating a potato chip with onion dip.
Marilyn’s hair is gray. The translucent skin the camera once loved is dissected with wrinkles, the famous body thickened and softened. But the voice is still that of a shy little girl. And the sex goddess spirit still flickers. Every now and then she will decide to “be Marilyn” out on the street. Then all it takes is a tiny tilt of the chin, a tremor of the mouth, something melting in the movement of the hips, and Tony, the fat old grocer, finds himself pausing as he hoses off the boxes of fruit outside his shop, and wondering, with shame, why he is filled with sudden lust for the elderly woman who has just stopped to finger his grapes.
But Marilyn never plays these games around the women — or their husbands. Now she stoops to retrieve the youngest, plumpest child from the carpet and swing him into the air. As she tosses her head back, the lamp behind her blazes her hair into the whitegold silk all moviegoers remember. “So pookums,” she says with her sweet, silly giggle, as the child giggles helplessly with her. “So pookums, is you happy your Auntie Marilyn’s come home?”