A love story brought to you by the Lyric Theatre.
By Phillip Ratliff
I was standing at the corner of Third Avenue North and 18th Street when I first laid eyes on the lower half of the person who would become my wife. She was standing barelegged inside what once was and is once again the Lyric Theatre, wearing a blue jean mini skirt, a pair of wing tips from American Eagle Outfitters, and something up top I wasn’t particularly interested in that evening. She glanced at me, and I at her. I glanced again and she brought me a Foster’s beer. We chatted and were holding hands on the sidewalk outside the old Lyric within an hour. Her name was Abby, and it still is.
I was there at the Lyric with a female friend, Jennifer, who could’ve easily been mistaken for my date by someone less intrepid than Abby. Jennifer was displaying a lovely objet d’art of her own making—a decorative martini glass—in an art exhibit consisting mostly of other household objects that had succumbed to an army of creative types armed to the teeth with glue guns. That’s what the Lyric lobby was in those days—an art gallery.
Jennifer and I had carefully negotiated an agreement that can be summed up with those deflating words “just friends” so I was dating someone else, a tempestuous someone named Catherine who was interested in a bit more than friends but shunned exclusivity with me, despite my best efforts. Given Catherine’s terms, I felt no remorse in locking in on Abby even as I worked to disentangle myself from Catherine. As Beyoncé would say about a decade later, if you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it. Her principle is timeless.
Abby and I went on a date, of sorts, which consisted mostly of making out in the back of a movie theater while Zoolander flickered on a screen in Ft. Payne, Alabama. Then we went on more dates. We ate my food—sag paneer and benghen bartha from Taj India—and her food, fish and chips from Captain D’s. It all tasted better with Abby, and it still does.
We frittered a dizzying week of eating together and making out, two balloons filled with the helium of each other’s company. The string in this analogy would be a nagging question: What to do about Catherine? Conflicted, I called the one person who I knew to dispense sage, nonjudgmental advice, Glenny Brock. Glenny was my editor at the time, and quite the wordsmith. I’ll never forget her prophetic utterance: “You need an Abby.” And I still do.
Case closed. Per Glenny, I ended the relationship, or whatever it was, with Catherine, sloppily and emotionally, but well poised for me to become what I was to become with Abby: inseparable from her, then happily married to her, as most could have guessed, the fat half of quite the cute couple.
It was a blissful scene interrupted by the occasional flash of disturbing imagery. About a month into my romance with Abby, she began to sense a presence, a third member of our relationship, haunting us like an imaginary childhood friend making an abrupt reappearance. There were strange sightings. When hanging out at my Southside apartment, Abby began to see glimpses through the window of some brooding, spectral figure. “Tell me what Catherine looks like,” Abby demanded. I described her.
“Yeah, I see her standing outside your window, staring at us sometimes,” Abby said. I assured her that Catherine, though strange, was also harmless. Inwardly, however, I shuddered at the violation. I had no reason to doubt Abby. When I was in my ill-defined relationship with Catherine she obsessed over her previous ex-boyfriend, making no pretense that after she and I had said goodnight, she was going to swing by her ex’s apartment to lurk outside his window for a few hours. I surmised she was now in some other arrangement with some other Southside dupe, to whom she bids a fond goodnight before heading over to my apartment to work her shift outside my window.
That was about 15 years ago. Just recently, the ghost of Catherine came back to haunt me, if only briefly, just the other day, and once again, Glenny Brock was the deuterogamist. I was sitting on a bench off of Peachtree Road in Atlanta, Georgia, trying to pilfer some electricity for my iPhone from a local church. My cord was shot and was pumping in power at the rate of about one electron every quarter hour. Any activity on the phone would shut it down, but with some discipline I had managed to get the charge up to about 8 percent. A text popped up on my phone, which read: “Wait a second, who’s the crazy person? She’s standing outside my office.”
“Who is this? Glenny?”
“Who else?” As I said, I thought of Catherine but a string of forensic questions revealed that the woman haunting Glenny’s office was another crazy person I knew. Her text, ultimately, was about neither crazy person, but about another matter altogether. Here, some backstory is in order: Glenny’s new job is at none other than the Lyric Theatre. In her new role as cheerleader, fundraiser, souvenir sales associate, and curator, all manner of artifact and lore come across her desk.
Glenny has recently become infatuated with one particularly strange tchotchke and she was texting me because she wanted me to take a look. A jpeg dinged in to my gmail inbox. I opened the file and stared quizzically and Spock-like at the strange item. I was not sure what to call it, but I can describe it. It was a sculpture, an assemblage that, if you’re looking for some sort of poetry, would have fit in quite comfortably at the Lyric back when it was an art gallery 1.5 decades ago. The item in the photo was anthropomorphic but also freakishly trans-morphic, with two legs that each look like the lamp from A Christmas Story and a body possibly built by Stradivarius.
“It’s called a puppet bass,” Glenny texted, right before my phone died. “Puppet bass” seems about right. If Pinocchio had somehow mated with a cello, this would be their love child. Intrigued, I made an appointment with Glenny to meet up in the lobby of the Alabama Theatre, after Abby and I had taken in a Christmas matinee, to talk about Glenny’s weird-ass find.
Three days later, Abby and I walked into the Alabama—Abby, cheerfully, me, grumpily. Parking had been a nightmare. Finding a seat, annoying. After we’d found seats in the balcony, Abby offered to grab a blonde ale from the bar while I took a time out. With beer in hand, I was appeased, and a few minutes after that, laughing hysterically at How the Grinch Stole Christmas. When Thurl Ravenscroft launched into “You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,” I was singing along like a 5-year-old, unaware at the time of that the irony of the scene I was presenting exceeded anything Chuck Jones could’ve come up with.
After two of the three cartoons, Abby decided I’d had enough. We descended the grand old staircase and there she was—Glenny—standing in the lobby! It had been several months since I’d seen her and I was flooded with nostalgia. “I’ve known you 15 years. That’s insane!” I blurted. Glenny, who was having none of it, quickly directed the conversation toward the puppet bass and its delightful provenance. Here’s what we know:
Possibly as long as 90 years ago, the puppet bass was sold in various locations surrounding the Lyric, in an establishment known as Mehr’s Music Store & Novelty Shop. Respectable patrons looking to fill their parlors with the totems of good life would shop in the front of the Mehr’s for sheet music and musical instruments. The rest of us would head to the back of the shop in search of costumes and magic tricks. Standing over all this was the puppet bass, a grotesque novelty with a string dangling enticingly from the back of his head. Shoppers curious enough to pull the string would have seen the puppet bass’s creepy eyes blink.
Steve Gilmer of What’s On Second had acquired the puppet bass, Glenny said, but convinced that it belonged in the lobby of the Lyric, sent it packing westward. Glenny contacted me, convinced the puppet bass was the stuff of journalism. I wasn’t so sure that it might not have a future life as the subject of a terrifying short story about talismans that spring to life and attack you in your own home.
There’s one detail in the story that invites special scrutiny: the inscription in an unidentified language on the puppet bass’s great wooden chassis. Is it Greek? Glenny wondered. Was it a magic spell or a dedication to some unknown god? Dare we attempt to translate the inscription? If we were to say the words aloud, could we live with the fallout? Glenny, apparently feeling the call of commerce, made this announcement: “I have to go sell T-shirts.” Abby and I peeled ourselves away from Glenny, left the warmth of the Alabama, and stepped into the cold, clear December air.
Across the street, at the intersection of Third Avenue North and 18th Street, stood the Lyric, dazzlingly restored and a few weeks away from reopening. A few short months after meeting Abby at that intersection, I proposed to her, at the precise spot that I first held her hand. Since then, we’ve driven by our spot hundreds of times, each time fully aware of the sacred memory this patch of concrete holds. If I am whizzing up 18th toward the interstate, I invariably take a moment to notice the side of the Lyric, an expanse of brick wall that gave Abby and me privacy from the throng of artists and the gawkers they dragged with them.
Never have I invested an old brick wall with such poignancy. But what would that wall have come to mean to me if Abby had never had the courage to bring me the first in a long line of beers? Would it forever be the wall I associated with the cute girl whose glances had failed to connect with mine? I think that association is not the sort that has much staying power. It would have faded to the point that the wall would stand blank to me, mute concerning any amorphous sadness I’d have felt in myself for not being with someone I never knew.
It’s a hypothetical I won’t have to worry over. “We met there. I held your hand on that corner,” I said to Abby.
“We did. You did,” Abby said.
We couldn’t let the intersection that brought two theretofore lone travelers to their one shared path go uncelebrated. Abby attempted to snap a double selfie with the gleaming new Lyric sign behind us, but the afternoon sun was too bright, rendering us two silhouettes and our backdrop a blast of blinding white light. So we stared across the street, over the sidewalk where we once snuggled, through the brilliant lobby glass and the faint reflections of two familiar figures, into the future home of the fabled puppet bass, snapping photos in our minds.