During the interval between casting “Woman on the Scarlet Beast” and rehearsals, I moved to a retirement center. Much of the time, I spent unpacking boxes and attempting to restore normalcy to a life I had deliberately uprooted. Among my goals was to revive friendships that had been neglected during this busy interval.
One friend had recently opened an antique shop on SE 13th and Lambert, an area of the city known as Sellwood. Sellwood borders the Willamette river and is one of the older Portland communities, which may explain why a number of antiques stores line the main street like a row of hungry birds. My goal on the first Saturday I was free was to drop by my friend’s new place and show my support by making a purchase.
I am familiar with Sellwood as I lived there while doing graduate work at Reed College. At the time, I was in my late twenties and the area wasn’t considered prime real-estate to developers. Rents were low but the old-fashioned clapboard charm of the neighborhood was undeniable. As I drove along the two lane avenue, I passed an apartment building which I recognized as the former residence of the woman upon whom the grandmother in my play is based. I remembered the structure as being brown and shabby, but it had been given a facelift and a coat paint so that I nearly passed without recognizing it The moment I did recall, however, the memories of that portly, timid woman came flooding back to me. She had an overwhelming desire to please and her granddaughter was shrewd enough to use that desire to achieve her own ends. Theirs was a fascinating dynamic that I attempted to replicate in the play.
Continuing on toward my friend’s shop, I couldn’t help wondering if the duplex where Ruby, the central character of my play, had once lived was still standing. As the other tenant in that building, I had heard and witnessed her tempestuous family scenes and had embroidered many of them into “Woman on the Scarlet Beast.” Longing to touch base with that history, I decided to search for the duplex once I’d I finished the visit with my friend.
Leaving her shop with a silver letter opener and a magnifying glass, I began my search for the duplex in earnest. Unfortunately, time had dulled my memory and after 50 years much of the landscape had changed. Buildings had been torn down, remodeled or repainted. Nothing looked entirely recognizable, though at times, I caught the scent of something familiar, an old tree, or a corner lot still undeveloped — the perfume of a memory which I continued to follow. Eventually, twilight fell and I was forced to admit defeat. The duplex Ruby and I shared had been old at the time and was probably demolished.
Disappointed, I turned on to Lambert street and was headed home, when a bungalow I recognized sprang into view. In the past, it had been painted green and white, but on that Saturday, it was splashed in pastels. Still I knew it by its shape and by the fact that it sat kitty-corner from a church. When I lived in the area, the bungalow had been the property of the Catholic diocese and when it fell vacant, Ruby had moved into the place, rent free. I visited her in that little bungalow many times before I finished my studies and moved away.
Satisfied that I had an anchor for my memory, I drove on until the church on the opposite side of the street came into full view. When it did, I stopped unable to believe my eyes. I knew that church, not as a relic of the past but as the new residence for the Post5 Theatre, the company producing my play. What, I wondered, were the mathematical odds of this coincidence? “Woman on the Scarlet Beast,” was to be performed in the church where Ruby worshipped 50 years ago.