“I just think he’s a little over the top,” said Madeline. “He has a weird chin.” She sat in her nightgown with one leg crossed over the other in front of the computer in the basement and worked on an online math puzzle. The kids were upstairs in their rooms.
“Nick Hartcher is the greatest actor of his generation,” said Brett, sprawled on his customary spot on the carpet. “His chin has no bearing on this argument.”
“It bugs me,” said Madeline. “It’s too weird.”
“It’s a testament to his acting ability that he gets leading roles despite his non-traditional chin,” said Brett.
“I’m glad you and the kids like him,” said Madeline.
“It’s not just because I went to school with him,” said Brett. “It’s not just because he was my understudy for Arsenic and Old Lace.”
“I know,” said Madeline.
“He’s the greatest actor of his generation,” said Brett, smiling up at the ceiling. He’d textured it himself. Not bad for an actor-turned-furniture salesman.
Lisa and Campbell Crouse were raised on the work of Nick Hartcher. When they were young, Brett made edited versions of Nick’s more explicit films so that his kids could observe Nick’s masterful performances without too much adult content, although some of it was left in because it was important to the context of certain scenes. Madeline was opposed to this practice at first, but the kids handled it with more maturity than she expected and she figured that serious artistic discussions with their father were probably good for them, although she wished that they didn’t have to all be about Nick Hartcher movies.
Once the kids got older, the Fan Club watched a Nick Hartcher film at least once a month. Sometimes they would take careful notes and pause the movie in the middle of scenes to discuss the various techniques he was employing. Sometimes Brett forbade note-taking of any kind and insisted that the Fan Club simply enjoy the ride and bask in the brilliance of Nick Hartcher’s work without worrying about defining, describing or otherwise demystifying it.
When Lisa was eleven and Campbell was nine, they both cried when Nick Hartcher failed to receive an academy award for his daring performance in Slow Burn. Brett felt more angry than sad, but he used the opportunity to teach his kids about injustice and the fact that while recognition is nice, it should not be the final goal of great acting. It was a growing opportunity for everyone, Nick included, apparently, because he won an academy award the very next year for his role in Precious Flaw, and the look of pure joy on Brett’s kids’ faces was one of his most cherished memories.
By the time they were in high school and trying out for school plays themselves, Lisa and Campbell had heard the story of the time Nick Hartcher was their father’s understudy in Arsenic and Old Lace dozens of times. But they liked the story, so they didn’t mind. Madeline was tired of hearing it, but she didn’t say so. She assumed there were things she did that Brett was tired of too. That’s what happened when you lived with someone for eighteen years.
“I was a senior when Nick was a sophomore,” Brett would say, tapping his fingers together wistfully. “Even then, we all knew he had talent. He was in a class all of his own. Having him pushing me, knowing that at any moment he might step in and take the role from me, it made me a better actor than I ever would have been otherwise. You shouldn’t fear competition. Competition forces you to heights you didn’t know you could achieve. “
“Was he nice?” Lisa sometimes asked.
“When he wasn’t performing, he was very reserved. He understood that acting is acting and life is life. When you know you’ve got it, you don’t have to treat every moment like a performance. That’s amateurish. That’s bush league.”
“Why didn’t you keep in touch?” Campbell sometimes asked, wondering what it would be like to have such a famous family friend, maybe dropping in every once in a while for dinner or offering to help pay for the kids’ first cars.
“Our relationship was strictly professional. It was built on mutual respect. He had to know how much better he was than me, but I think he saw the sincere love of acting within me that he himself felt. Not the same talent, no, but he saw the love. Once Arsenic and Old Lace was finished, I graduated and married your mom right away and Nick was the lead in every play after that until he graduated. We went to all the plays until we moved. Lisa, you even got to see him in one, but you were too young to remember.”
“Did you like the plays, Mom?” one of the kids would inevitably ask Madeline.
“I thought they were good,” she would say. “Very impressive for high school.”
“But what about Nick?” one of them would insist.
“I always thought your dad was better.”
Then everyone would laugh. Madeline really meant it, but it wasn’t worth an argument. She knew her family wouldn’t believe her. They were a very devoted Fan Club. Perhaps even blindly so. Of course, how many people wouldn’t laugh if Madeline told them she thought her husband was a better actor than Nick Hartcher. She was probably just biased.
One night, while perusing Nick Hartcher’s official website, Brett discovered that Nick was going to be appearing on the Brandy Yorth Show that very night, giving an intimate one-hour interview. Lisa and Campbell were as excited as Brett was. Madeline wasn’t excited, but she didn’t want to be a stick in the mud, so she made a special fruit dessert of her own creation and served it to the Nick Hartcher Fan Club on Styrofoam plates as the Brandy Yorth Show’s opening credits played. Brett sat forward in his brown leather recliner and the kids fidgeted with anticipation on the couch, accepting their desserts with quick smiles and distracted thank yous.
“Shh,” said Brett as the interview started, even though no one was making any noise. It was a preemptive shushing.
On the TV screen, Brandy Yorth, her lustrous black hair wrapped in a questionable head scarf, greeted the viewing audience and ran through a list of Nick Hartcher’s accomplishments.
“Why didn’t she mention his early supporting role in Chilly Waters?” asked Lisa.
“The list isn’t supposed to be comprehensive,” said Brett. “They assume a certain level of prior knowledge from the viewing audience.”
“Nick seems very relaxed,” said Lisa. She always insisted that her interest in Nick wasn’t a crush, but sometimes the rest of the Fan Club wondered.
“First question,” said Brandy. The live studio audience cheered. It was Brandy’s catchphrase. As the applause subsided, Brandy continued. “Nick, you’ve achieved a reasonable amount of acclaim for pretty much everything you’ve ever done. What’s the secret to your success?”
Nick chuckled and touched the moustache he’d grown for the Western he’d just finished shooting. It drew attention away from his odd chin. “You know, Brandy, I’ve been asked this question lots of times over the years. And I usually say something about dedication, God-given talent, the support of my family. Something like that. And all those things are true. But that’s not what goes through my mind.”
Brandy cocked her head to one side and gave Nick a quizzical, coaxing look.
“I’ll tell you what I actually think of when someone asks me my secret to success.”
Brett and the kids had their eyes fixed to the television. The notebook that Brett reserved for lessons from Nick’s career was lying on the coffee table, but he was too zeroed in to remember that this was the kind of thing he’d want to write down.
“When I was a sophomore in high school,” said Nick, “my family moved to a new town in the middle of the year.”
“Dad,” whispered Lisa, her voice trembling with excitement.
Brett’s pulse began to race. The hairs on the backs of his hands stood up.
“I had been acting since I was young,” Nick went on, “So naturally I tried out for the school play. They were doing Arsenic and Old Lace and I was really excited to contribute. I thought it had a chance to be a great show.”
“I can see you as a great Mortimer Brewster,” said Brandy.
“That was the part I tried out for,” said Nick. “But even though I was sure I had nailed the audition, they gave the part to a senior who had been there longer. Which was fine. Hollywood works much the same way. The known commodities are given preference. So I was the understudy.”
The studio audience laughed at the thought of Nick Hartcher as an understudy.
Brett laughed too. He couldn’t believe this was happening. Nick remembered the play. That meant he probably remembered Brett too. How gratifying.
“And it all would have been fine,” said Nick. “But the guy who I was understudy to resented me, I think, and felt threatened. I tried to keep my distance and respect his seniority, but he was so persistent in harassing me and making sure I didn’t forget my place, the fact that I was new, the fact that he was the lead. Even then I knew it was all a product of his insecurity, but that didn’t make it much easier to handle, especially at that age.”
“What was his name?” asked Brandy. It was the kind of probing inquiry she was known for.
“I don’t suppose it matters now,” said Nick. “I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. Probably working in an office, living in a subdivision, all settled down, divorced, two or three kids. His name was Brett Crouse.”
“Turn it off,” said Madeline from her spot at the end of the couch, looking around for the remote.
Brett looked over at his kids. They were looking at him as if they were trying to decide whether or not to tell him his face had been permanently disfigured in an accident.
“So this guy,” said Nick.
“Brett,” interrupted Brandy. “Brett Crouse.”
“Yeah, Brett Crouse, he did everything he could to hold me back. And the whole time, other cast members were coming to me and telling me how much better than him I was and the director was telling me to bide my time, and it was tough, it was very tough. But it was the first adversity I’d faced, and it forced me to really think about what I was doing and why I was doing it. Now every time I look at a script or I audition for a part, I think about Brett Crouse and how he tried to stand in my way. And how he failed. I persevered and went on to have the lead role in every play after that until I graduated. And I’ve known ever since that if and when I run into rough patches, I will persevere again.”
“Fascinating,” said Brandy, showing a lot of upper gum as she smiled.
Lisa and Campbell were silent and still on the couch.
“Turn this off,” said Madeline. “I can’t take any more of this. He didn’t need to use your name.”
“Brandy pressured him,” said Brett.
“You’re going to defend him now?” asked Madeline, rising to her feet and angrily gathering the empty plates and forks. The Brandy Yorth show paused for a commercial break.
Brett turned to the kids and said, “I don’t remember it the way Nick seems to. But sometimes people perceive events differently. It’s OK. He had just moved to a new town, he didn’t know anyone. He was probably feeling pretty vulnerable and he must have misunderstood me. Let’s watch the rest of the interview.”
“I don’t want to see anymore,” said Lisa. “I hate this. I don’t like him.”
“Me neither,” said Campbell. “What’s wrong with him? What happened to him?”
Brett muted the TV and stood up in front of the screen, his hands clasped behind his back. “I’m surprised at you guys. I thought you understood the importance of separating the art from the artist. However your feelings may change towards Nick Hartcher as a person, your respect for him as an actor shouldn’t be affected at all. Not in the slightest.”
Madeline stood in the doorway between the living room and the dining room with the plates in one hand and the forks in the other. “Brett,” she said. “Cut it out. Your kids like you better than Nick Hartcher. I know that’s hard for you to understand, but you’ll get used to it. Shut the TV off and let’s do something fun.”
Brett looked to Lisa and Campbell. “Is that what you guys want?”
The Future Forest Housing Development chapter of the Nick Hartcher Fan Club crumbled in front of Brett’s eyes. When the dust cleared, only he and his family remained.