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fic: Good Thing Going

Title: Good Thing Going
Author: fengirl88
Fandom: Merrily We Roll Along - Sondheim/Furth
Characters: Charley Kringas, Franklin Shepard, Mary Flynn, Evelyn Kringas, Joe Josephson, OCs
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: no warnings as such, but a lot of angst
Wordcount: 2838
Disclaimer: These characters are not mine.
Summary: There he goes again, goddamn Sinatra, ruining Charley Kringas's day. You'd think he'd have better things to do.
A/N: written as an early birthday present for ginbitch, who requested Frank-Charley angst after we saw Merrily We Roll Along. Thanks to [personal profile] thirdbird for the lovely beta and American-picking, and to [personal profile] sc010f, innie_darling and S. for advice on locations.

There he goes again, goddamn Sinatra, ruining Charley Kringas's day. You'd think he'd have better things to do.

It started out like a song,
We started quiet and slow, with no surprise,
And then one morning I woke to realize
We had a good thing going...

Looks like that fucking song is going to follow Charley around for the rest of his life. Eight years since the movie of Musical Husbands, but thanks to Ol' Blue Eyes he's still being haunted by the hit that ruined everything.

It's August, and Manhattan is sweltering, but he slams the window down to shut out the noise of next door's radio, shut out Sinatra's voice wrapping itself around the words Charley wrote. Shut out Franklin Shepard's music, which he'll have in his brain for hours now. Fuck it.

Should have stayed in New Rochelle, Charley. It's quiet enough there, at least when the kids aren't home. A family with four kids needs a big house with a backyard, a nice lawn, leafy streets, good schools nearby, all the stuff you can't get in the city. Lower Westchester's perfect for all that.

But it's too quiet for him, which is why he rented a studio in Greenwich Village to write in, though people said he must be crazy. Why would anyone go to the city in order to think?

He'd had a lot of disapproving looks from friends and neighbors when he took this place, even though he could easily afford it now. Maybe they thought he was cheating on Evelyn, which he never has, not in twenty years of marriage.

One good thing about a Pulitzer Prize, it shuts people up – even more than having a hit on Broadway. Nobody tells him he's crazy any more. Pretty Politics looks set to run another year at least. Charles Kringas's star is rising, and all anybody wants to know these days is what he can do for them.

Today's mail is full of the usual junk. Invitations to come and lecture at Columbia or NYU about The State Of Contemporary Drama: no. Invitations to attend glamorous opening night parties for other people's shows: no. A letter from a young composer fresh out of Juilliard, asking if Charley would be willing to hear some of his music: hell, no.

Another, more urgent message from his agent, asking how the new play is going: it isn't.

Not today, anyhow. He looks at the other letter, the one still lying unfolded on his desk. Almost the last person he'd have expected to hear from.

Almost, but not quite.

Times like these, Charley wishes he still smoked. The doctor advised him to give it up, but he misses it. Misses drinking, too, though he knows things go wrong when he drinks, don't think about that. And he's seen too much of the damage it can do. Mary, for example...

Her letter's dated a week ago, from a hotel in Los Angeles: You were right, Charley, she says, we're not the three of us any more. We're one, and one, and one.

She hadn't wanted to believe him when he told her that. She'd gone on hoping it could all be mended somehow, even after Frank had told him You're dead to me. The eternal optimism of the drunk. Scratch that: the eternal optimism of a woman in love with the one man left in the world who didn't realize how she felt about him.

Not any more, though: it looks as if she's finally fallen out of love with Frank.

You're the only one who will understand... I can't stand what he's become. He doesn't even care that the movie's a piece of junk. He's surrounded by creeps and hangers-on and he thinks they're his friends. And he's cheating on Gussie with Meg Kincaid – Jesus, if ever there was a girl who deserved the label starlet. I swear all she needs is a bottle of peroxide to be a dumb blonde... I told him in front of all of them that I'd rather be me, fat, drunk and finished, than Frank Shepard, any day.

Funny it ends this way: another public humiliation, though this time in Frank's own home instead of on live TV. He wonders which Frank minded most, though it's not hard to guess.

Charley can barely remember what he said in that TV interview, but he knows it must have been about their work. Work, and money, Frank's obsession with money and his own frustration at the impossibility of getting through to him, getting him to see that what mattered was their work together. He remembers dimly saying something painful and stupid about friendship being like a garden. Saying he missed Frank and wanted him back. That's the guy I love, the fella who's inside Franklin Shepard, Inc.

He remembers Frank afterwards refusing to listen to Charley's stumbling attempts to explain, to apologise. Frank saying something about a tribe that behaves as if someone who's done something really bad is dead: they just can't see him any more. Frank returning his letters unopened, refusing to answer Charley's calls, till even Mary had to acknowledge it was hopeless.

What he'd done was unforgivable, he knew that. But so was what Frank had done – signing up for a three-picture production deal that would block their work on Take A Left indefinitely, when they'd been waiting a decade to do it already. Not even having the guts to tell Charley what he'd done. Leaving him to hear it from the TV interviewer, seconds before they went live on air. How was he supposed to react?

Never again, Charley had sworn after that. No more collaborative working. He knows that's what the kid from Juilliard wants from him – the letter said how much he loved Musical Husbands and Sweet Sorrow, how it's always been his ambition to write for the stage, if he could just come and talk to Charley, play him some of his songs...

He doesn't let himself remember too clearly how it was with Frank, in the beginning. It hurts too much to think about how right it felt, working together. A kind of completion, when he hadn't even known he was incomplete.

That boy even sounds like Frank, hopeful and eager, the way he used to be, before success took him and changed him into someone Charley wasn't even sure he wanted to be friends with any more...

Even with the window shut, he can still hear in his head the lyrics he wrote for the bridge of the song; a prophecy about him and Frank, though he didn't know it back then:

And if I wanted too much, was that such a mistake at the time? You never wanted enough, OK, tough, I don't make that a crime.

Frank had wanted too much in one way and not enough in another. He cared about money, about what people thought, not about writing the best music he could. Hell, not even about writing music: when was the last time he'd composed anything new?

Wasting his time and his talents in wheeling and dealing and movie production, on things so many other people could do, many of them better than him. Wasting his love on a string of women each more worthless than the last.

That's not fair to Beth, Charley grudgingly admits to himself. Though he'd never really understood why Frank loved Beth, even if he felt bad for her about Frank's affair with Gussie. And now Gussie is the wronged wife in her turn, humiliated and betrayed as Beth was before her. He's not sorry for her: if Gussie had left Frank alone none of this would have happened.

Charley knows he's lucky, to have met the woman he wanted to marry so young. Maybe he's lucky, too, that he never looked at another woman after he married Evelyn. The first flare of excitement had died down, and in its place had come understanding, companionship, the stability of family life. He's proud of his kids, and he doesn't think he's been a bad father. He might have been a worse one if things had gone better with Frank. He could have been going out to California all the time to talk picture deals...

A memory he didn't still know he had comes back to him: that awful evening in 1968, waiting for Frank at the Downtown Club with Evelyn and Mary. The slow realization that Frank wasn't going to show up after all, that he must be with Gussie in spite of everything he'd promised. Going home drunk and angry, pouring out his rage and hurt. Telling Evelyn how Joe Josephson refused to know what was going on, even though it was obvious Gussie was cheating on him with Frank. Saying to Evelyn “How can he do that? She's his wife,” and Evelyn looking at him so strangely and saying “Sometimes it's better not to know.”

He'd been too drunk to ask her why she'd said that, and then he'd forgotten it. Now he wonders what she meant.

Evelyn was his rock, after the hideous TV interview. She'd never said she was glad Frank was out of his life, out of their lives. But hadn't there been just a shade of relief when he said it was all over between them?

She had a right to be relieved, after the countless hours of listening to Charley's frustration and resentment about Frank. He'd go round and round in circles till she'd say “For pete's sake, come to bed.” He wouldn't, though: he'd be up for hours, unable to sleep as the tape in his head spooled on and on.

All that stuff his shrink used to come out with about boundaries, about keeping your personal and professional life separate – how was he supposed to do that when he was working with someone he'd known and loved for twenty years? It would have been the same with Mary if they'd ever tried to work together.

He'd said that to Dr Berg once, and got the nearest the shrink ever came to a pitying look:

“Do you really think it would be the same with Mary?”

Maybe not, but then Mary wouldn't have sold out. She was more like him than she was like Frank.

“Everybody loves Frank," Joe Josephson had said to him bitterly, when he finally found out that Gussie was really leaving him. “You, Mary, and now Gussie.”

“It's not the same thing,” he'd said, indignant at the idea that what Gussie felt was comparable to all their years of loving friendship.

Joe had given him a look almost as strange as Evelyn's. “You can say that again!”

Did someone declare this officially Look At Charley Funny Week, or what? He'd told Dr Berg about it, and added another look to his collection.

“How did that make you feel?”

Shrinks and their dumb questions.

“Bored,” Charley said. “I've had enough of Joe and Gussie and Frank – ”

“Have you?” Dr Berg didn't sound as if he believed him.

He'd quit going, eventually; it wasn't doing any good. The man didn't understand how central Charley's work was to his life. He couldn't just walk away from Frank – and anyway, every time he tried, Frank did something to pull him back again.

Until the day he didn't.

“Hi!” Evelyn calls, when she hears his key in the lock. “You're home early today.”

She's in the kitchen, baking cookies. Oatmeal and raisin, his favorite.

“I got a letter from Mary,” he says, holding it out to her. “She's finally through with him.”

Evelyn doesn't ask who he means; she doesn't have to. She wipes her floury hands on her apron, but doesn't make a move to take the letter. She looks harassed and tired; maybe it's the heat.

“That dumbass, he thinks he's got it made,” he says. “He doesn't even know he's lost the things that really matter.”

“Oh Charley,” she says.

She hugs him so tight it feels as if his ribs are going to crack, and buries her face in his shoulder. Her whole body shakes, as if she's laughing or crying, but she doesn't make a sound.

“Evelyn?” he says. “Ev? Are you OK?”

“He doesn't even know,” she says, and it's almost a wail.

She must mean Frank, but why that distresses her so much he's not sure. “No,” he says, “he doesn't.”

“And you?” she says. “Dear god, Charley, what about you?”

She's crying openly now, harsh racking sobs that set his teeth on edge. He pats her back awkwardly, not sure what he's supposed to do.

“Don't,” she says, pulling away from him. Her face is all blotchy.

“What?” He doesn't understand.

“You have no idea, do you?” She sounds as if she can hardly believe it.

“What?” he says again, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice.

“You think about him every day,” she says. “He hasn't spoken to you in years and he's more real to you than any of us.”

What the hell is he supposed to say to that? Frank was his best friend, his partner, of course Charley thinks about him –

“I don't know if I can do this any more,” Evelyn says. “Being married to someone who's not really here.”

It's like being in a scene from one of his plays, or someone else's. He says the right things: tells her how much he loves her, loves the kids, begs her not to leave. The words feel strange in his mouth.

“We'll see someone,” he says. “Do you want to see someone? We can do that.”

“Yeah,” she says. “We can.”

She doesn't sound as if she believes it, or maybe she just doesn't think it'll do any good.

The kids come in from school and she's caught up in the usual routines of fixing dinner and helping with homework, hearing about their day. He leaves his study door ajar for once, and listens to the noise of family life; he's too wound up to get any work done.

The thought of a future in which that noise doesn't exist for him makes him feel faintly nauseous. He tries not to notice the thrill that goes with that, the urge to bring everything crashing down just because he can. He gave in to that once before, in that nightmarish TV interview, and he's regretted it ever since.

They'll get through this somehow. Lots of couples do. Like the song says, And while it's going along, you take for granted some love will wear away. They still have a good thing going.

There seem to be more sheets of the letter than he remembered, and then he realizes he's got the letter from that young composer mixed up with the one from Mary. No point in taking it back to the city to throw it away; it can go in the wastebasket here. He crumples it into a ball.

Shouldn't he at least tell the kid no? He uncrumples the paper and looks at the letter again.

There's a postscript he hadn't read before, talking about some probably half-assed revue the kid's written the music for. It's happening just around the corner from Charley's studio.

I guess this one won't have jokes about the Kennedys, he thinks, remembering himself and Frank and Beth jigging around in a basement to Bobby and Jackie and Jack.

Oh, what the hell. There's a phone number after the address; normally he hates the phone, but tonight calling feels easier than writing. He dials the number and hears it ring, on and on till he's just about to put the phone down.

“Hi!” a young male voice says, and then there's some panting. “Are you still there?”

“Uhuh,” Charley says.

“Sorry,” the voice says. “The phone's in the hall and it's five floors down.”

“Is this Oliver Guy?” Charley asks, because if it's that kind of house it could easily not be him.

“Yes – who's this?”

“Charles Kringas,” Charley says. “I got your letter. I'd like to hear your music.”

“Oh my god,” the young man says. “Wait – Denny, is that you? Because I'm going to kill you –”

It takes Charley a while to persuade him the kid that he is who he says he is, but eventually they agree on a date for him to see the revue, and Oliver Guy stops gibbering and goes away.

Charley imagines him calling up his friends to tell them the news, the way he and Frank and Mary would call each other when something happened, bursting with excitement or despair. Sometimes he still feels as if that younger self is alive in him, hopeful and raw and believing anything is possible. Worlds to change and worlds to win.

He wonders if Frank ever feels that way too; if there's anything left of him that isn't Franklin Shepard, Inc. Then he gives himself a shake and goes to join Evelyn and the kids in the living room, while he still can.


Frank Sinatra's recording of "Good Thing Going" is here.

Lonny Price sings "Franklin Shepard, Inc", the song in which Charley attacks Frank on live TV and their friendship ends, here.

The Guardian review of the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of Merrily We Roll Along is here.

Also posted at http://fengirl88.dreamwidth.org/101085.html with comment count unavailable comments.


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