What Else But Grace

EDITOR’S CHOICE AWARD


BY JANET KENNEY

It was important to me to have landed a role in a play before I went home for the Christmas holidays, and I did. It would assure my friends and family that I was doing well in New York, and it would give me something to come back to. By early 1985, when I was not making rounds or waitressing or waiting for the phone to ring, I was playing the princess in a production of a fractured Humpty Dumpty in a tiny, grungy theatre in Greenwich Village. The little theatre ran shows for children and their savvy parents, so the shows were filled with double entendres and pop culture references so the adults wouldn’t be bored. There was lots of audience interaction, so you got to improvise quite a bit. In a wildly tacky turquoise blue gown, carrying a four-foot hot pink hankie, I’d run downstage and scream out to the kids:

– What should I do? Should I marry the King? 

– No! No! they’d all yell. The prince is an egg!

Now, I’m not supposed to know that the prince has been turned into an egg by the evil King, so I have to get that under control.

– Oh, no! Don’t say “egg!” I’m (Hack! Sneeze! Cough!) allergic to eggs! If I even hear that word (hock a huge loogie into my hankie) I get allergic!

– But he’s an egg!

– What did I just say? I can turn you all into frogs. Don’t think I can’t do it!

We did two shows on Saturday mornings. One day, I had waitressed and gotten home at two or three the night before. When I arose, I had my familiar morning horror, throbbing and aching joints, but took some Advil and headed into the Village to work by 8:30 am. I got through the first show with only a dull throbbing trying to warn me. We cleaned up a bit, but didn’t take off all the makeup, so that people in the diner where we went to have breakfast would know we were actors, then did the second show. I was getting a thick, sodden feeling in my limbs, but finished my coffee and went to do the second show. 

Part of the gig was to greet the children after the show. We lined up in the lobby like a wedding receiving line, and we shook hands, signed autographs, and teased and joked with them. 

– Yes, I am a real princess. Check out the tiara, honey.

– It’s just made of shiny stuff.

– That’s how it sparkles, honey. 

– It’s not diamonds.

– Diamonds cost a fortune, honey. Ask Daddy for a diamond and see what happens. 

Daddy would snicker and tell the child they would talk about it when she graduated college. I had knelt down to talk to the kids, but my legs weighed over two hundred pounds each and they were filled with sand. I couldn’t possibly get up. I stayed on my knees to greet the rest of the children. When the kids were thinning out, I said to the prince, who was standing beside me,

– Honey. Sweetheart. Love. Could you please help me up?

– Of course, my darling. Anything you say.

– See how he does what I tell him, girls? Oh, thank you, sweetheart, you’re the angel of my dreams. 

After we waved the kids off, using super-human strength, I managed to get dressed. There is a particular ache that is the mark of a flare coming. My limbs feel slightly detached, very heavy, and they stop working. I couldn’t lift my right arm. Actors are notoriously observant and one of the girls said,

– You’re not left-handed.

– I have a cut on my right. I don’t want to get goop in it. 

Luckily, rather than asking to see the cut, she led off a discussion of cuts and infections and hideous injuries people had had (actors are disgusting). I begged off an afternoon beer. I would miss an afternoon audition, but already I was expert enough to know that this was going to be bad, and I had to get home as soon as possible. It took almost an hour to walk the several blocks to Union Square. Then I had to get from Greenwich Village to Long Island City. No elevators or escalators. Just steps. Hundreds of them. 

It was worse, as it has continued to be, on my right side, so, though both sides were ready to blow, I favored the right. I kept looking down at my sneaker, focusing all my energy on that foot, getting that foot to move NOW. I could see how swollen my feet were right through the sneakers. At the subway gate, I couldn’t use my fingers, but pawed a token out of my jeans pocket and worked it into the slot, holding it with my palm and trying not to drop it. 

We arrived at 23rd/Ely in Queens. The closest exit gate was locked. Everyone swore and grumbled and headed for the open gate 100 yards away. An older woman asked if I needed any help. She was right from an advertisement for Swiss Cocoa. She wore a blue raincoat and a flowered handkerchief over her gray hair. She was carrying a bag of groceries and a little black purse. She had sparkly blue eyes and bright red spots on her cheeks. I wondered if her perfect teeth were her own. 

– No, thanks. I’m fine. Hurt my foot. Going home to take a bath.

– Oh, that’s the best thing.

As I progressed towards the exit, which was now 600 yards away, I could only move by gathering the fabric of my jeans at the knee, using that fabric to pick up the leg, and letting the leg down gently for another five or six inches of progress. Each step left me breathless and shaking. My shirt was tear-soaked. I was panting. In between steps, I stopped, holding onto the subway wall to keep from collapsing, and got my breathing under control.  

Finally (was it an hour? At least.) I got to the exit gate. I looked up. Steps. Eight of them. Never happen. The stairs leading outside, leading to my home, my Advil, my tiger balm, my roommates, my bed, were right there in front of me, but I just couldn’t do it. I held onto a wall. I waited. Another train pulled in, and another man offered help. I didn’t even look at him. Just shook my head. He reluctantly walked away. My legs trembled uncontrollably. I could normally stare them into submission when they did that, but they ignored me. My feet were cemented to the floor. There was really no way to move. 

A policeman appeared on the other side of the tracks. I waved him over. He disappeared for a moment and when he came down the stairs he looked angelic with the light behind him. He was beautiful. He had impossibly dark black skin, and the slightly yellow eyes some Africans have. 

When the policeman was at my side, I said, 

– Arrch. Uch. 

He checked carefully with his street-smart eyes to see if I was on drugs. I wasn’t. 

– Easy, honey, he said, easy. What is it, dear?  

– I have to get to that step. I can’t walk. So I need you to help me.  

– OK. How come you can’t walk?

– Arthritis, I said.  

– I’ll call an ambulance.

– No, no, don’t. My house is down the street. I just want to go home.

– Seems like you should go to the hospital. 

– No, no, please. 

He didn’t love the idea, but he was game. He tried taking my arm as if he were escorting me across a busy intersection, but that didn’t work. I couldn’t budge, but I could make awful noises. Next, the officer told me to lock my arms together, take a deep breath, and he got his strong arms under my trembling ones and when he lifted me up, with such a dramatic change in pressure, I screeched. A banshee wailing. An enraged bear. A Friday the 13th victim. 

The officer hoisted me up like, er, like a princess, and he hauled my body over to the stairs. I screeched. He put me down and got his radio and called for an ambulance. 

– You’re going to the hospital.

– No, no. I’m an actress. 

– What’s that got to do with it?

– I don’t have any insurance. 

– So don’t pay the bill. You can’t walk and I can’t carry you. 

It takes a lot for me not to be able to argue anymore, but I just sat on the step trying to calm myself, and the officer kindly talked only enough to get some needed information, and the ambulance came and took me, and I was sad to leave my hero.


Janet Kenney is an award-winning playwright whose plays have been produced from Boston to Alaska. She spent the pandemic year writing her new full-length play, Cape Haven. She has a Masters in Playwriting/English from Boston University and a BA in Theater Arts from the University of Massachusetts/Boston. She teaches ESOL for fun.

Image Credit: “Kept Sorrow” by Aaron Hahn