Keeper of Youth
Melissa L. White
Copyright 2023 by Melissa L. White
Photo property of the author.
Alan Weisman stood at the
window observing the anthill beneath him. New York City, seen from
any number of penthouses he had owned over the past decade,
frequently reminded him of ants. Workers. Drones. A colony of
social insects scurrying around in their frenzied, methodical
He shuddered. Turning away
from the window, he shoved his hands in his pockets and took a deep
breath. He couldn’t believe he had opening night jitters –
not after all these years. Glancing up at the antique clock on the
mantle, he decided to go out for a walk. There were still four hours
before show time and he didn’t want to sit in this mausoleum of
an apartment all alone. This production was a nightmare from its
earliest inception. Nothing about this play had been easy. God only
knows why he’d stuck with it. He regretted leaving Hollywood.
After the fiasco of the
play, where that vapid actress, Celeste-what’s-her-name, left
out most of the final scene— he felt like slitting her throat.
How could she be so damn stupid?
He went to the cast party
simply to find her and fire her on the spot. What excuse could she
possibly offer him? It angered him because he had gone with this gut
feeling and cast her against the advice of everyone involved. She’s
a nobody, they all said. And a has been.
“How can you be
both?” he demanded in her defense.
With much cajoling and
persuading, he finally had his way, and she was cast for the lead.
And now he regretted it.
He wondered how she would
react. Would she grovel? Or just cry? He hated it when women cried.
It was so degrading.
At the party she looked
ethereal, almost other worldly. Standing alone near the bar, she held
a drink in each hand. He watched her, waiting to see if anyone would
approach her to claim their drink. Of course, no one did. Everyone
was avoiding her. In fact, after a few minutes, Alan realized that
she was drinking from both glasses.
Excusing himself from the
conversation, Alan headed across the crowded room towards the bar. As
soon as she saw him, her otherworldly quality vanished immediately.
She was gearing up, he thought, getting ready for battle. How the
hell will she try to defend herself?
When he reached her, she
lowered her eyes for a moment, then looked up at him and smiled. It
caught him off guard. The look on her face reminded him of a small
child all alone— timid and shy— unsure where to turn
without her mother nearby to hide behind her skirts. He stood there
not quite sure what to say. She seemed too innocent for him to
deliver the thrashing he’d planned.
She blushed and said
softly, “I’d offer you a drink, but I’ve been
drinking them both.”
Alan laughed. “I
Glancing up, her eyes
softened into an embarrassed smile as she realized he’d been
watching her. She studied his face for a moment then proffered him a
He disliked the taste of
Pinot Grigio. It was far too sweet for him.
Pursing her lips, she then
took a sip from the other glass.
Alan smiled, remembering
how his mother used to do that at parties with a drink in each hand
and a cigarette dangling from her lips. At least this girl didn’t
He glanced over his
shoulder and noticed a photographer against the wall. He took her arm
and steered her away from the bar. The last thing he wanted was his
picture in the tabloids with some inane headline such as, “Director
Shreds Actress to Tears.”
They stepped into an
alcove then Alan pulled back the curtain and held it for her. She
stepped outside to the landing, setting both drinks on the railing,
then wrapped her slender arms around her shoulders, hugging herself.
With her porcelain skin glowing in the incandescent outdoor lighting
and her big almond shaped eyes, she seemed so much like a child’s
discarded china doll that he could not bring himself to yell at her
like he had intended.
Instead, he reached into
the breast pocket of his jacket and pulled out his investment
portfolio statement. What the hell was he doing unfolding this and
showing it to her? Had he lost his mind? He put it in his pocket
earlier for good luck. Directors are as superstitious as baseball
players. Each of us has our own rituals and lucky charms. This one
obviously has lost its charm.
Alan took stock of the
situation. Never had one of his plays flopped so badly on opening
night, and it had certainly been a long time since one of his films
had ranked as anything less than the top grosser on opening weekend.
Celeste.” He pointed to his ending balance. She stared at it a
moment, then glanced up at him, confused.
He pointed to the opening
balance and said, “When I first opened this account two years
ago, this is what it was worth.”
She read from the
statement, “One hundred eighty-two thousand dollars?”
“Right. And this is
what it’s worth today.”
He watched as she read it
again. She grinned up at him and giggled. “Forty-one million?
Why are you showing me this?”
He shrugged, then slowly
folded the statement, and stuck it back in his breast pocket.
“I have no idea. It
came in the mail today and I carried it with me tonight for good
Her smiled faded, as if
she knew what was coming. She suddenly looked small and afraid. Her
fear utterly embarrassed him.
He grabbed one of her
half-finished glasses of Pinot Grigio and guzzled it. Why did he let
this woman bother him like this? He usually had no trouble letting an
actor go, even on opening night. He’d done it before. Twice.
But this was different somehow— if only she didn’t look
so damn much like his mother.
Celeste suddenly burst out
laughing. “Haven’t you already made a lot more money than
this in your life? I mean are you trying to impress me?”
She offered him the other
glass of wine. He took the glass and drained it in one gulp.
He set the glass down,
saying nothing. She stepped up to him and threw her arms around his
neck, embracing him. He grabbed her wrists and started to pull away
from her, then changed his mind. She even smelled like his mother.
Nina Ricci. L’Air du Temps. As she hugged him tighter,
his look of exasperation relaxed into a resigned smile.
He instantly thought of
watching his mother on stage when he was a little boy. She was a
torch singer in the 1940’s and 50’s and Alan used to go
with his nanny to watch his mother rehearse. Watching her sing the
old Rodgers and Hart classic, “Where or When,” filled him
with joy. Right now, he had a very nostalgic and clear picture in his
mind of sitting in a dark Manhattan bar in the middle of the
afternoon, drinking a Shirley Temple, and watching his mother on
stage as she sang.
like magic,” Celeste whispered, closing her eyes, lingering
over her words just to make their embrace last longer.
He tried to pull away, but
she wouldn’t let him.
She sighed. “Whenever
I’m around you, I feel so good.”
Panic registered now on
his face. He started to speak but she interrupted.
“I mean just now,
showing me this investment. You make me feel special, as if what I
think really matters. I mean, who am I? ‘A nobody actress with
mediocre ability,’ to quote my last review. But you’re
this big-time director, and you took a huge risk even casting me, and
now after I totally blew it tonight, you’re still trying to
make me feel like a queen.”
Rolling his eyes, he
started to pull away again, but she reached up and kissed his cheek.
she said, pulling back enough now so she could see his face. “Really.
I mean it.” She hesitated, twirling a lock of his hair on her
finger. “Why are you trying to impress me?”
Just then Marco, the
assistant director, stepped through the doorway.
“There you are. I’ve
been looking every…”
Marco stopped in
mid-sentence as Alan jumped away from Celeste. She blushed, seeing
how much it embarrassed Alan that Marco had caught him hugging her.
Marco took out a cigarette
and lit it. “If you’re busy, I can come back. I mean how
long can it take?”
Marco shot her a malicious
smile then glanced back at Alan, “Or shall I do it for you?”
Alan took Marco by the arm
and led him away. “No thanks. I’ll handle it,” Alan
“Well hurry up.
Lowenstein and his pack just called a meeting. They’re all
upstairs.” Marco stepped back inside the bar. Alan turned to
“Honestly, you make
me feel like a better person.” She hiccupped.
“You give me this
warm sort of life inside, so I can do a better job, or just feel good
about myself.” She shivered and bit her bottom lip. “This
is how I imagine love must feel.”
Alan blurted out, “Celeste
you left out most of the final scene. Something like six pages of
dialogue. It’s amazing the rest of the cast had enough presence
of mind to finish the ending. If not for Marco’s cueing from
the wings the entire finale would have come to a screeching halt.”
slumped as she crawled into herself like a turtle retreating into its
“Marco wanted to
fire you just then.”
She looked up at him and
he could see the tears rimming her eyes. She stared at him for a
moment then said, “Marco’s just easily excited. It was a
fluke. I’ve never missed a cue before in my life. Please don’t
I’ve got to go upstairs.”
She grabbed his sleeve.
“Who is Lowenstein?”
“The backer. The guy
who writes our paychecks.”
Stunned, she watched him
go then yelled out, “Why did you show me your bank statement?”
He stopped then turned to
face her. “I don’t know. Stalling, I guess. Firing people
never bothered me before.”
She smiled through her
tears, running up to him, “See? There’s a connection
between us. You feel it too.”
real!” She reached for him.
He grabbed her wrist then
held it. She tried to pull her arm free, but he held it tight.
“Celeste, I’m gay. Believe me, whatever there is between
us is all in your head.”
She hesitated then
laughed, hysterically. “Oh, my hell! That’s even better.
If you’re gay, then you showed me your bank statement not
because you’re trying to impress me, but because it made you
happy and you wanted to share it.”
“Yes it is!”
Her emphatic insistence surprised him. “Think about it,”
she continued. “Money’s a big turn on. I’ve gotten
enough expensive gifts to know what I’m talking about. But
you’re the only man who’s ever displayed that kind of
wealth to me without trying to get in my skivvies.”
two people sharing something good. Admit it Alan, you see something
in me you like.”
He shook his head.
“Okay. How many
people have you shared this little secret with tonight? I mean do you
make it a habit of showing your cast your bank statement?”
He loosened his tie. “Why do you make this so hard on me?
Celeste. You’re fired. It’s that simple.”\
She blinked. Then pulled
off her false eyelashes and dropped them into her glass.
He winced and thought:
Stop. Put them back on. He glanced at his watch.
said. “I’m fired. So, what if I cut my hair and dye it
red, and change my name?”
He stood there grinding
his teeth, feeling that blood vessel engorge itself just above his
eyebrow. His pulse pounded in his ears.
Suddenly Lowenstein burst
through the alcove door.
“Alan. There you
are. We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Celeste turned away,
hiding her face as she desperately tried to fish her false eyelashes
out of her wine glass.
a genius. I loved the new ending. Tightened up and all.”
“Are you kidding?”
Marco stammered, hurrying up behind Lowenstein. “Have you lost
Lowenstein turned around slowly. “Nobody talks to me like
Marco dropped his
cigarette on the floor and ground it out with his foot. Lowenstein
planted his hands on his hips. “My secretary will call you
tomorrow with severance and all that.”
Marco’s eyes widened.
Lowenstein frowned. "Your
services are no longer required.”
slammed his wine glass down on the ground, shattering it to pieces.
“You’ll hear from my attorney!”
scare me,” Lowenstein said, smoothing down his lapel. “I
have the best contract attorney in the city.”
Marco kicked the door on
his way out.
Lowenstein turned back to
face Alan and Celeste. “As I was saying, you two are brilliant
together. I want to sign both of you to a three-play contract. What
do you say?”
Alan laughed out loud.
Celeste took a Kleenex from her pocket and gently wrapped her false
eyelashes in it. She tucked them into her purse and smiled serenely
said Lowenstein, taking her elbow and leading her to a chair. “You
were simply fantastic this evening. I’m surprised I haven’t
seen more of you. Your comedic touch is first rate. I want to do a
modernization of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. And I
think you’d make a dazzling Rosalind.”
“What do you think
old man? Wouldn’t she be fantastic as Rosalind?”
Alan scratched his chin.
“Have you ever done Shakespeare, Celeste?”
She blushed. “I
played Hermia in our high school Interscholastic League competition.”
Alan smiled. “A
Midsummer Night’s Dream. How did you do?”
glanced at Lowenstein then back at Alan.
“I mean in the
competition. How did your school place in the tournament?”
“We finished third
in the State competition.”
“Well, there you
have it,” said Lowenstein. “If she can do Midsummer
she can do As You Like It.”
Alan cleared his throat.
of setting it in Queens circa 1945, with a family of Greek
Alan laughed out loud.
Lowenstein, “It’s funny just thinking about it. Come to
my office tomorrow, both of you, and we can discuss it further, after
we sign that three-show contract.”
Celeste looked at Alan and
settled,” Lowenstein said, reaching for Alan’s hand.
“I’ll see you both tomorrow at noon in my office.”
They shook hands then
Lowenstein leaned down and kissed Celeste on the cheek.
he said and left in a hurry.
Celeste reached up and
held her hand against her cheek where Lowenstein had kissed her.
said softly to Alan. She sat down slowly in the empty chair against
the wall. “If I had a bank statement, I’d show it to you
right here and now.”
Alan chuckled, noticing
all at once that her mascara was smeared beneath her eyes. “You
look tired,” he said. “Can I see you home?”
said, amazed. “I want to go out and celebrate. Don’t
Alan sat down beside
Celeste. “I want to go home and re-read As You Like It,
then go to bed early so I can be rested and at the top of my game
tomorrow with Lowenstein.”
Celeste lowered her eyes.
“Yes. I guess you’re right.”
Alan stood up and held his
arm out for her. “Come on. I’ll see you home.”
In the taxi on the way
back to the upper West side, Alan asked Celeste if she wanted
something to eat.
famished,” she said, glancing at her watch.
“Come to my place
and I’ll cook you an omelet. We can talk about Shakespeare. I’m
curious about you as Rosalind.”
Celeste smiled at him.
Alan leaned up and spoke to the driver. “72nd and Central Park
The driver nodded and
Celeste smiled shyly. “I’m
so nervous about tomorrow. It’s a good thing he wants both of
us there, so you can do all the talking.”
“Because sometimes I
have this overwhelming fear that everyone will realize I’m
completely incompetent and dump me like a hot potato.”
“A hot potato?”
Alan laughed. “I haven’t heard that since grade school.”
“Do you really think
I could play Rosalind?”
Alan thought for a moment
then said, “What I’m most unsure of is setting the play
in the 1940’s in Queens. I wonder if that’s such a good
idea. Shall we read the play together?”
Celeste grinned. “Let’s
have a slumber party. You know, stay up late then go to our meeting
together in the morning.”
Alan reached into his
breast pocket and ran his fingers over his bank statement. He smiled
then took Celeste’s hand. “I’m sorry for firing
you. But you really did leave out a huge portion of dialogue. You
can’t do that with Shakespeare. People will notice.”
“Not if it’s
set in Queens. The dialogue would be modern vernacular instead of
Shakespearean Old English.”
said Alan, squeezing her hand. “You have to learn your lines
without leaving anything out. That’s the most fundamental rule
of the stage. Know your lines!”
Celeste touched Alan’s
hand with her other hand, running her fingers over his lamb skin
glove. “If you coach me, I can do it.”
“I’m a writer,
not a coach.”
best director I’ve ever worked with. You knew exactly what to
say all through rehearsals so I could be what you wanted. I don’t
know what happened tonight, why I skipped so many lines.”
“It was more than
skipping a few lines. You left out several pages.”
happen again.” Celeste started to cry. She quickly wiped her
tears then rolled down the window to let in the cool night air.
Alan reached over and put
his arm around her shoulder. Something about her made him feel
protective, parental even, as if he was meant to look after her.
Celeste smiled at him then rolled up the window. “Whatever
Lowenstein wants us to do, I’ll do it flawlessly. I won’t
let you down.”
Alan nodded. He thought
about being a coach, directing young talent that needed his maturity
and expertise. He knew Celeste was a risk, but he had to admit that
being around her made him feel young again. He enjoyed her
spontaneity, and it wasn’t because she reminded him of his
mother. She genuinely made him feel good.
Alan cooked a vegetarian
omelet with mushrooms, scallions, and artichoke hearts. Celeste raved
that it was the best omelet she’d ever eaten. After dinner, he
gave her a pair of his silk pajamas and she pulled her hair back in a
ponytail. She looked to Alan like she was seventeen years old.
After Alan lit a fire in
the fireplace, they sat on the couch before the flames and read the
play together. They laughed and giggled. Alan made several notes
about working class Greek immigrants. When they finished reading
through the play, Celeste yawned. “If you have a blanket, I
could fall asleep right here on this cushy couch.”
“I have a guest
bedroom where you’d be much more comfortable.”
she insisted. “This is fine. I want to be by the fireplace.”
he said, standing up to get her a blanket. He retrieved the blanket
from the hall closet and when he returned to the living room, he
hesitated a moment, gazing at the resemblance between Celeste and his
“What is it?”
“You remind of my
mom, when she was young.”
Celeste laughed. “I
do? Was she an actress?”
Alan shook his head. “A
singer. She was fabulous and I loved to watch her on stage singing
“Where or When.”
“Where or When?”
“Don’t tell me
you haven’t heard it before. It’s a classic.”
Celeste sighed. “There’s
a lot I haven’t heard before.”
Alan gave her the blanket
then went to his bookshelf and took out a CD. “You’ll
love this. It’s Lena Horne.”
He put the CD on his
stereo and played it for Celeste. He sat beside her on the couch and
watched her as she closed her eyes and hummed along with the music.
When the song ended Alan got up and turned off his stereo.
“What was she like?
Alan sat back down on the
couch beside Celeste. “She was so sophisticated. And very
ephemeral. Her voice was very breathy. Terribly elegant.” Alan
got up and took a framed photograph from the shelf. “Look,
here.” He gave the photo to Celeste. “This was taken in
1945 when I was one year old.”
Celeste took the photo and
studied it. “Very elegant, indeed.” she said. “You
have her eyes.” She gave him the photo and started humming the
tune. Then she sang the line, “The smile you are
smiling—something something— you were smiling then…”
Her voice trailed off, as if she was lost in thought. Then she looked
up at Alan and said, “Is she still alive?”
“Goodness no. She
died when I was a teenager.” Alan returned the photo to the
shelf and sat back down beside Celeste.
Celeste reached over and
touched Alan’s arm. “I’m so sorry. My father died
before I was born. I never knew him.”
Alan said, “I’m
sorry, Celeste. Did your mother ever remarry?”
She shook her head. “Mom
still lives alone in Idaho. That’s where I’m from. Coeur
Alan took her hand and
held it for a moment. Then Celeste leaned over and kissed him on the
cheek. “That’s something we have in common.”
“Losing a parent
early in life?” he asked.
She nodded. “I used
to crave having a father more than anything in the world.”
Alan smiled at her.
“I think that’s
why I became an actress. To satiate my constant lack of— and
need for— attention.”
“I know that
feeling. Trying to fill a void like that was a big part of my life
for a very long time.”
Celeste closed her eyes,
smiling. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“For what?” he
“For giving me a
He nodded. “Your
first audition really impressed me. I knew instantly that you were
perfect for the role of Marina. It was as if I’d written the
lead in Taxi Dancer expressly for you.”
She glanced at him
sideways. “If you knew right away, then why’d you make me
go through 13 call backs?”
He sighed. “The
producers wanted someone else. It took a lot of convincing on my
part. But I believed in you from the very beginning.”
Celeste grew silent.
Thoughtful. Then she took his hand. “Thank you for believing in
me when no one else did.”
He gently kissed the back
of her hand. “Hey. I want to give you something.”
He stood up and went to
the bookshelf and took down a small wooden box. Opening the box as he
returned to the couch, his eyes twinkled with delight.
“I want you to have
this.” Grinning, he took a cameo broach from the box and gave
it to Celeste.
Is it an antique?” She took the cameo and examined it closely.
“It was my mother’s.
Her grandmother gave it to her. It was handcrafted in Vienna in the
18th century. It’s been in our family for
generations. I’ll never marry or have any children, so I want
to give it to you. Mother would approve hole heartedly. I’m
sure of it.”
Celeste beamed at him.
“Here, pin it on me.”
Alan scooted over closer
to her on the couch and pinned the cameo broach to her pajama top.
She hopped up an went to the mirror next to the bookshelves, gazing
at herself, and the admiring the cameo. She spun around and scampered
up to him, then planted a kiss on the top of his head.
beautiful. I will treasure it always.”
stood up and hugged her. “I feel certain, my mom would want you
to have it.”
She grinned, running her
fingers gently over the cameo. Then glancing at Alan, she tried
unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn.
Alan looked at his watch.
“It’s late. There’s a toothbrush in the guest
bathroom, never been used. Still in the package.”
“Thanks Alan. We
really do make a fantastic team.”
“I agree. Well,
goodnight then,” he said.
Celeste curled up on the couch, laid her head down on the pillow and
closed her eyes.
Alan went to his bedroom
and took off his clothes. He looked at himself in the mirror. He had
gray hair on his chest and shoulders. His muscles sagged here and
there. He looked every bit his age.
Alan took a quick shower
then put on his pajamas. He got into bed and kept thinking about
He fell asleep quickly and
dreamed about Celeste forgetting her lines. The nightmare continued
as he dreamt that the play had tanked in the third act, and the
audience walked out in droves before the final curtain. He shuddered
as he read the horrible reviews in the Times. He woke with a
start and glanced at the clock by his bed. It was 4:46 am. He got up,
went into the living room, and tiptoed over to the fireplace.
Standing by the couch, he gazed down at Celeste, smiling as he
thought of how angelic she looked asleep, so much like a child.
He hurried to the kitchen,
made a pot of coffee, then went to his office and turned on his
laptop. He sat down and quickly wrote an outline, then hammered out a
treatment in less than an hour. He started writing the play, but
surprisingly, he kept adding in camera angles and scene descriptions.
He opened a new file and started a screenplay, writing seven pages
without stopping. He then glanced at the clock and decided to check
on Celeste again.
Alan went back to the
living room and watched her lying there asleep. As a young man, he
had never wanted to have children. But now, watching this young woman
sleep, Alan wondered what it would be like to be called “Daddy.”
He went quietly back to
his office and shut the door. When he started writing again, the
words poured out of him and onto the page. He thought of a perfect
idea for the ending and immediately wanted to share it with Celeste.
This is how it feels to have a daughter, he told himself; to want her
feedback and ask her opinion.
Staring out the window, he
saw joggers entering Central Park. Taxis and buses crawled down the
street. Gazing across the park as the sun started to rise above the
tree line, he thought of Celeste hugging him last night at the party
and he felt good inside.
He sat back down at his
desk and continued writing with an invigorated passion and an uncanny
ease, which he hadn’t felt in years. Utterly inspired, the
words flowed from him like a river, and he lost track of time. At
8:44 am he heard Celeste turn on the shower in the guest bathroom.
He yawned, satisfied with the morning’s productivity.
“This is exactly
what I needed,” he said to himself as he printed the first
dozen pages of his script. He took a sip of his coffee then scrolled
down the title page and typed in the dedication.
“To Celeste. For
making my writing sing.”
He laughed out loud then
deleted that last line. What could he say that would make her
understand how she made him feel?
He typed in a new line,
“To Celeste. The keeper of youth.”
He printed the page then
went to the kitchen to make blueberry pancakes for himself and the
keeper of youth.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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