Joanna Howard

The Actor at Dinner

Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the greatest actor of all time, we were told by our host. No one appeared. The name was unfamiliar. The door stood swinging, as the soup was brought in, cutting the view of the corridor forward and back, with no one in sight. Already, it was an awkward dinner party of no more than eleven. The conversation was not loud enough to cover so conspicuous an absence. Brace yourselves, we were told, he has the lightest touch ever.

On that belated cue the actor pushed into the dining room in plaid high-waisted trousers and a velvet waistcoat, the tips of his black moustache waxed, and curled upward toward his eyes. His arms stretched out a marvelous tremor that set the bouillabaisse rippling up over the terrine's lip. Every part of his body was violently attacking a role. Look at his throat veins, someone to my left shouted, they are coursing with anticipation and bloodlust. His shins, one of us said, his shin bones are the Laurence Olivier of shin bones. Bloody hell, another put forward, he has more expression in his corneas than I've felt in my entire life. A pretty young girl with strong sensibility fainted under the effect, our host laughing out a gloat. I was left speechless, myself, gazing at the wafting hint of mournfulness that slipped up the delicate curve of the actor's ankle below its scarlet stocking.

Suddenly, I was struck with the inevitability of the finale. How can this amazing creature sit down before us and eat his soup? But with a hand gesture of marked closure, he completed his arrival as abruptly as it had begun, and lifting his coat-tails, seated himself across from me, mutely. The slightest blush of a smile appeared below his whiskers as he motioned to the host for a bolster to tuck against the small of his back in the dining chair. There was nothing remarkable to the manner in which he realigned the sliver beside his plate. He picked up his soup spoon, sorted out a shiny mussel, and chewed without flare. Before long, the conversation at the table slowly built to a mundane purr. I, however, kept on with his breathtaking performance, as he dipped the corner of a napkin in his goblet to clean the broth from his waistcoat, and brushed from his pant legs the crumbled traces of a French roll. Every gesture was studied precision. No part of him gave away the deadly exhaustion held up in his reedy chest, his absent utterance, the violent pulse below starched cuffs.

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