The inside of Sabrina Allesandro’s house smelled of wet fur and dried leaves. I followed her down a long corridor, squinting against the sudden splashes of sunlight that sprang through parted drapes in an otherwise darkened house.
“The sun fades everything,” she apologized, walking stiffly but waving her now knotted hand with the grace of someone who had spent decades in front of a camera. “All those years of collecting lovely things. I want them to last as long as they can.”
I hoped by lovely things she wasn’t referring to the mounted brown bear that was positioned at her entryway. It looked patchy, its expression puzzled and it gave me a shiver when I brushed against it in passing. “I understand,” I said, noticing the sparkle of dust in the sunbeams and wondering why she didn’t worry about the dirt.
“Melissa,” she said. “You said your name was Melissa, right?” She asked as we entered the room she had in mind for our visit. “Have a seat here at the table and I’ll get you some tea.” She motioned me into a chair at a big wooden table that barely fit in a room lined with bookshelves. Her library, I supposed.
When she left the room I examined the beveled edges of the table and its details. It was mahogany and with animals carved into the curve of the legs. At first I couldn’t make out that they were meant to be living things at all, but the longer I stared the more obviously the beasts’ features curled out of the wood. Strange animals, elephant trunks and monkey paws, twisting and clawing as if they were crawling up from the womb of the earth. They were a jumble and shadow that began to writhe. I blinked, flinching and looked away.
“I see you are admiring the table. It’s Ashanti. Beautiful isn’t it?” Ms. Allesandro came in with a teapot and servings, simple white china.
I thought about how much I hate tea and smiled at her. “The table is interesting.”
“It’s one of a kind, made just for me,” she sing-songed her reply. “I had a daughter who would have looked an awful lot like you. You’re what, twenty,” she asked?
“Nineteen,” I answered thrilled at her interest. This wasn’t hero worship, I reminded myself. It was an interview. If could have chosen a mother, any mother other than the barely-there mother I had been given, she would have been Sabrina Allesandro.
I wanted to be Sabrina Allesandro, not the woman carefully easing into her chair, but the lithe and exotic brunette of a half a century before. I was going to be a legendary animal trainer, returning from adventures, dating and discarding Hollywood princes while all was documented on late night television. I had an hour of her time and I needed to make the most of it. Surely she still had contacts in the industry. If I pleased her, perhaps she could help me jumpstart my career. I wanted her to see herself in me, just as I did.
Ms. Allesandro poured me a cup of tea and held it out to me with surprisingly steady hands. She smiled with teeth that were too perfect to be real or to give her an illusion of younger years. Her hair was too long. Her roots gray. And when I looked closely at the pale pink cashmere sweater she was wearing, I could make out her paler flesh peaking through moth eaten holes. Still, she had been off the radar for decades, nearly impossible to find and I had expected her to look much much older.
“You had a daughter?” I asked. A daughter was a surprise to me. I had read every bit of information available on this woman, not just from Google, but from Lexis/Nexis and even second-hand stories from third-rate stars. No one said anything about a child, let alone one that had been lost. Allesandro had always flaunted being a bachelorette. She loved proclaiming the animals were her children.
“Terrible thing.” She swiped at her eyes and stared off into a corner of the room. I was curious, but I wanted to know more about her animal experience than her personal tragedies, so I didn’t ask.
It had been decades since anyone had actually seen her. I had found no obituary and so kept looking until at last I found the niece of the long-retired director of the Cincinnati Zoo with a phone number. “She must be very old,” the niece had said, but just like everyone I spoke to she mentioned Sabrina with affection if not love. People used the word “strange” with the same fondness as when they said “beautiful” when they spoke of her. And everyone seemed sad for her, though no one would say why exactly.
The teacup in my hands, I sipped and in an effort not to grimace from the vile taste, looked about the room. The bookshelves held nothing but leather-bound volumes. They looked perfect as if never bothered. They almost seemed false, as if any bookcase could be a secret entrance to some dank lair in a low budget horror movie. The taxidermy atop the shelves only added to the cheap slasher’s vibe. There had to be more than a dozen of them, raccoon, opossum, tortoise and fox.
I never understood the desire to collect dead animal skins. They looked as poorly imagined as the tight line of leather books. I scrutinized a bobcat perched just to her left, its glass eyes dull, fur in disarray and a little patchy. Its positioning was awkward, belying the fluid grace of a living cat with a cunning heartbeat. This feline was twisted as if reaching to lick at a patch of fur on its rump or examine the tail that was never there. It was an oddly chosen pose.
“You must be looking at Suki,” she said and I jumped, partially because the interrupted silence startled me, but mostly because I thought I saw the cat’s whiskers flick, which was ridiculous. The bobcat didn’t even look real. “Suki and I have been together a long time.”
And then I had a horrid realization. “That’s Suki?” The idea of having an animal you shared the stage with mounted was an uncomfortable one.
“She was one of the first animals I ever trained. Her mother had been hit by a car and killed. She was found barely weaned. I raised her myself. She had star quality from the moment she learned to accept a bottle, she was the one who made me and I’m eternally grateful to her.”
“Well, certainly it was your talent as an animal trainer that molded her into a star,” I said. All the newspaper clipping and magazine articles called her “a wonder with animals”, “an amazing raw talent like no other”. She had risen from a poor family and with no instruction, built a brilliant career by the time she was twenty-five. I smiled as I complemented her, but her expression didn’t warm.
She clacked her cup into its saucer with a little too much force and leaned across the table, her focused stare pushing me back into my seat. “You want to be an animal trainer, do you? A famous one?” She nodded to herself. “You want to stroke something powerful and sexy, purring in front of a camera while the men imagine you wild beneath their sheets.”
I swallowed and said nothing, but she was waiting for an answer. “Why not?”
“You are certainly pretty enough.” She said and picked her tea back up again as if she had said nothing strange. As she sipped her gaze softened, her focus some place in between us.
“You are foolish to think that anyone ever truly saw me or admired my abilities. It was always the animals.”
I thought she was wrong, that it had been her who had seen the animals and no one else. A character actor had told me that Sabrina would go to great lengths to protect her charges and give them human-like amenities. He remembered producers commenting on contract riders that required down-filled cushions and expensive cuts of raw beef.
He also remembered her tantrum when he had tried to sneak into the green room to pet Suki. Sabrina had thrown a champagne bottle at him even though he was only ten years-old, a child actor promoting his first role. He had laughed when he told me. He had seen much worse growing up and growing old in Hollywood and Sabrina was never more vibrant than when she was angry. That memory would later be integral to his first wet dream.
“It was you they loved, Ms. Allessandro, believe me,” I said.
She met my eyes again, but this time she was smiling. “It’s far too late for me to listen to children. I had my chance, but perhaps you could tell me a few pretty stories anyway, Brianna.” She chuckled.
Brianna? I was confused by her response and thought about the lateness of the afternoon. Perhaps she was suffering from sundowner’s syndrome, her old mind getting tipsy on the coming dusk. It was better to shift gears than to bring attention to her odd statement. I pulled a notebook and a pen from the depths of my black handbag. “I was hoping you might have some insights on how someone who wished to follow in your footsteps should start.”
“My footsteps, darling, were invisible. I told you, no one saw me.”
I sighed with frustration. This was not as I had imagined. I had first seen Sabrina Allesandro sitting on Johnny Carson’s sound stage when I was far too young to be up so late. The babysitter had passed out and I had stayed up watching old television episodes, a tribute to Carson until my mother came home wobbling on her heels just before sunrise.
I began keeping a menagerie of invisible animals and then to train them to do “amazing feats of wonder”. And when I was old enough, my mother let me buy a rat. I trained Josie to walk a tight rope, scale a rat-sized wall and jump through a hoop.
Then in one wall-shaking fight my step-father killed Josie to make a point. My mother would usually say he was just “having a night” and cover the marks with makeup, but this time she hushed me, gathered my things and we left.
At the shelter the women wanted to get me a puppy, but it wasn’t allowed, so they bought me a cockatiel. I left her wings long and trained her to fly to me on cue, to play basketball with a little wiffle ball and a handcrafted hoop and the women cooed that I would surely be a veterinarian. I didn’t correct them, but vets don’t work on a stage or have fan clubs. I was going to be an animal trainer.
The library was a bit darker from the failing outside light, the taxidermy becoming indistinguishable from the gathering gloom. The eagle owl mount placed nearest the door had eyes that shown from the shadows, but all the other animals would soon be difficult to identify. The thought of a hidden crew of animals past, looking on as their master chattered like the Mad Hatter made my jaw clench. The idea was worse than the eerie shine of those owl eyes, I thought, noticing the tattered edges of the poor raptor’s facial disk. Then the eyes blinked and I dropped my pen.
“No one thought of it as training,” Sabrina said, looking into the past rather than at me again. “To them it was only magic and a story.”
The owl’s blink was my imagination. I was just creeping myself out.
“My advice is to find yourself a nice boy and have children,” Sabrina said.
I forgot about the owl and snapped my attention back to her. A husband and kids? I thought of my latest stepfather, one arm flung across his eyes, grease and beer staining the too thin and shrunk Guns N Roses shirt that just barely covered his bulging belly as he napped on the couch. “I am going to be an animal trainer,” I said unable to keep the anger from my voice.
“The animals will steal your life away. I always thought I was nothing more than an invisible master yanking Technicolor puppets. Even when Suki scratched Carson’s face it was a dialogue between Johnny and Suki. No one noticed me.”
“I noticed you. Paul Newman noticed you. Hepburn noticed you. She may have hated you, but she saw you.” I punctuated my list with a pointed finger, but Sabrina’s expression was blank. “If you want to know what it’s like to be invisible, put on my magic slippers. Even you’re not seeing me,” I growled at the old woman with the dreamy eyes, eyes that sharpened and lit up again with cognition.
“No,” she said and then drew a breath through her nose. “I don’t see you at all. I see myself.”
I sat up straighter, we getting somewhere. She saw what I saw. Surely she would help me.
“Foolish of me to imagine I could save myself,” she said leaning her cheek into her palm as if for comfort. “You poor poor thing.”
“I don’t need saving,” I said to her, shutting my eyes against the sudden heat in my face and the memory of waking with my stepfather’s breath moistening the inside of my ear. “I don’t need saving.” I said to myself. This crazy washed up star and her dusty menagerie were putting me on edge and I hadn’t slept well in weeks. It had to be the sleep deprivation. This wasn’t the first time in recent days I’d caught glimpses of impossible things. It also wasn’t unusual for innocent comments to take me to dark places. I needed to stop being so jumpy. This was too important.
“I’ve wanted to be like you since I was a little girl,” I said. “It wasn’t easy to find you.”
“It wasn’t that Hepburn hated me,” Sabrina said without hearing me. “It was what happened in Africa.”
I took a sip of my tea, now tepid and tasting even more foul and grimaced.
“You don’t like tea,” Sabrina said. “Let me get you something else. Do you like Perrier?”
I nodded my head “yes” and composed myself while she whisked the tea off the table, seeming more stable and competent than minutes before, but it was probably a temporary state. Growing old must be hell, although my sharp mind and youthful agility didn’t do much to keep me safe. Working with animals professionally would change this. I was formidable on a horse’s back, a charmer with a trick happy dog on a lead. I understood animals and when I was working with one, even just as a volunteer at the zoo, people wanted to be near me to understand them too.
Sabrina returned with two tumblers of bubbling water, interrupting my thoughts as she launched again into her story.
“I was younger than Kate, but we had so much in common, I just had more of it, although maybe not to my benefit. And we both had loves we desperately needed in our lives. The witch warriors demanded a price for their potion. I paid it. It was a sacrifice Kate wasn’t willing to make and so she lost Spencer Tracy eventually. I wouldn’t lose my animals though, not for anything.”
She was still sounding crazy and her agitation was making me nervous. I pulled my Perrier closer to give my hands something to do. The condensation on the chilly glass turned my hands clammy.
“The animals, my children, my family…they lived, even as others died. They are slower, more peaceful every day, but they’re alive,” she said.
I was going to have to get out of here. She was raving and sitting uncomfortably close to me. I rubbed the outside of the tumbler with my palm and began to plot what to say to escape.
“The animals lived and they lived and they lived because Brianna died and I have had my heart’s desire.”
My God, the woman thought her taxidermy was alive. And what about her daughter? “I see,” I said, although I didn’t see anything. I wished there was something stronger than sparkling water in my glass.
“There is only one thing I have been lacking,” she mumbled as I lifted the liquid to mouth.
I paused as the bubbles fizzed close to my nose. I was hoping they would wash away the tang of aftertaste from the Earl Grey and give me an excuse to look away from her face.
“Someone to talk to, an understanding soul.” She had a witch’s “I could eat you up” expression. It was disconcerting, so I switched my focus to the liquid inside the tumbler.
I angled the glass for a swallow, thinking that this meeting was nothing like I had hoped. I had wanted Sabrina to be the key that unlocked the door to a stairwell straight to fame. Instead I was sipping Perrier with a senile recluse. I would have to find another way. The tickle of carbonation was just touching my lips when there was a flash of motion at the edge of my vision.
“What the–!” I started as she knocked the tumbler from my hand. The liquid spread across the table thick and slow like mercury and I imagined I heard it hiss like steam. The glass turned end over end and thunked to the floor, dead weight.
“But I can’t do it to you.” she said. “Leave now.” She covered her mouth with her hand and turned away from me, her shoulders shuddering.
“Leave?” I asked, no longer wanting to run. What had been in that glass? What about Suki, the owl and Brianna?
She stood, making her way to the door in an impossibly quick motion for such a rickety frame of bones. She stopped in the doorway and looked back. I hadn’t moved. “Find a good man, fall in love with yourself and then fall in love with animals on stage.” She waited for me to nod my head, I think, or maybe just for my expression to change. When neither happened, she sighed. “Show yourself out,” she said and then stepped into the dark hall.
I listened for her footsteps, thinking I would never let the animals and the spotlight drive me mad. I would begin my career just as she had, without a mentor, without a patron, depending only on my talent and determination. I would have the things she had and more. I would begin my career like Sabrina Allesandro, but it would end much differently.
I kept listening, but there was just the sound of a heavy door swinging open, groaning as it closed and bolting shut. Our interview was over and that was just as well. I didn’t need the woman’s permission or advice to become everything she once was. Still I stared out the door, past the eagle owl mount until I was certain she wasn’t coming back. I was just getting up when the owl’s giant head turned, orange eyes blinking and beak clacking. I ran for the door.