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"Could you... do something? For us?"
Oh, God. Not again. This whole thing had been going so well up until now. One half-hour of a forty-minute talk, on solid ground. Name: Given. Twenty seconds at most. Credentials and Important Work: Given. Slightly longer; I had stretched it out to about five minutes, three minutes more than it could have been. Musings on the Theatre in General: Five. Personal experiences on stage: Yet again, Five. Personal Reasons for Leaving the Professional Stage: Zero. They probably all had their guesses. Most of them would be more-or-less correct. Advice for High Schoolers Considering a Career in Theatre: The main focus of my talk. Fifteen minutes, less the twenty seconds I had spent on my name. All this I could do. Please, kid, don't ask me to _act_ here...
"I... um. Don't have anything prepared." My tail twitches, a bit nervously.
It wasn't that it was a dramatic shift of expression. But in my business, you get sensitized to this sort of thing. The kid was a certified master at "subtly crestfallen."
Damn, this kid is _good._ Why the hell did I open it up for questions? I could have quoted statistics. Told them the average unemployment rate of the collected body of Equity actors. Prattled on about how difficult it is to get work on stage. Ten minutes, easy. The little dinger goes off, kids shuffle out to Career Day, Section 4, and the lucky professional of their choice gets _his_ forty-minute stint. Instead...
Instead, I'm being asked to perform, asked to put myself on trial again. The process of acting is one of constant self-exposure. I know this. I also know that whenever I attempt to do anything on stage, I have to connect my work. And to do that, I need my emotions.
Damn it. Not here. Not now.
Why does the Theatre never let me forget? Every hurt, every shame, every injury I've ever given or received... were I anyone other than who I am, I could throw them in my emotional junk drawer and cover them over with whatever I pleased. Instead, every one is dredged up, cleaned off and stored carefully in my emotional file-box for future use.
Which means I have to keep looking at them.
I could wing it. Ham it up. They wouldn't know the difference. Heck, most high-school actors view emotion in terms of "the bigger, the better." I know. I've been there. It's a stage we all pass through.
_I_ would know the difference.
My eyes scan the classroom. Though there are more than the usual number of vacant seats (read: those normally occupied by the students whose mothers found out ahead of time exactly _what_ was to be giving this lecture) it is readily apparent that "subtly crestfallen" is spreading like wildfire. Never refuse a captive audience, I've been told. Actors are supposed to be suckers for this kind of stuff.
"You sure?" he asks.
Ouch. Ouch ouch ouch. He should patent those puppy-dog eyes and sell them over-the-counter. My resistance is crumbling. It's only a matter of time.
Ah, hell. Why not.
"All right," I say, grinning with a confidence I do not feel, "You asked for it." A brief pause as I steel myself. "_The Merchant of Venice._ Shylock. Act Three, Scene One."
And I begin. An actor prepares. It's always these first few moments that are the hardest; especially starting cold like this. And it's harder than it used to be. The connections don't come as fast. I'm out of practice. Several endless seconds tick away, as the high-school audience sits, waiting.
Concentrate, connect to the piece.
You know what they say about bicycles...
* * *
Five-year-old Michael Bix. In the dark basement of his parents' house. Lantern-style flashlight casts a lemon-yellow window of light onto the blank concrete wall. And in the darkness, two distinct voices emerge.
"Hello, there, mister doggie!" says a crude, vaguely duck-head-shaped shadow in a comically squeaky voice.
"Hello there, mister duckie!" replies the equally crude, vaguely dog-shaped shadow, in a low, growly voice.
"Whaddaya wanna do today, mister doggie?" says the duck.
"Um... I dunno!"
"Okay... ya wanna play kickball?"
"How 'bout... tag!"
A brief pause where both figures lose cohesion, dissolving into strange, five-limbed creatures that vibrate rapidly up and down...
...and Michael Bix shakes out his hands. Then, with the attention to detail only a five-year-old can have, he carefully positions his fingers back in the proper alignment and places them back into the light.
"What sort of game _do_ you wanna play?" says the duck.
"Um... how 'bout... EAT MISTER DUCKIE! MUA-HA-HA-HA!"
"NO! PLEASE! NO!"
The dog circles.
"NO! NO! NOOOOAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGHHHHHk."
"Num, num." the dog-shaped shadow seems satisfied with its kill. From the darkness come lip-smacking noises that go on for a long time.
* * *
Eight-year old Michael Bix. Wondering why Lucky went to the vet's but didn't come back. Wondering why his parents _aren't saying a thing to him._ Just wondering...
* * *
Eighteen-year-old Michael Bix. Treading the boards of South Scarborough High Auditorium in his last high-school production. The yearbooks are out and old news, the hugs have been exchanged, and promises to "keep in touch" that will never be honored have, nonetheless, been made. Michael Bix, now known as "Just Bix" to everyone but the Federal Government wishes the sleepy hamlet of Grover's Corners good-night one last time. Lights down. Lights up on Bix and all the cast. The obligatory bow. The obligatory applause. Lights down on Bix and all the cast.
* * *
Twenty-one-year-old Michael "Just Bix" Bix, pondering a return to plain old "Michael Bix." Undergraduate at St. Ignacius University, Theatre department. Taking an unscheduled break from classes to make an unexpected trip back to his hometown. Clad in a black suit for the umpteenth time. He's worn one for _The Front Page_. He's worn one for _Arsenic and Old Lace_. He's worn one for _The Sound of Music,_ for crikes' sake. But he has never, ever worn one for his parents' funeral.
Incidentally, he happens to be doing so now.
After the two caskets (that, for reasons of good taste, were never opened over the course of the ceremony) have been lowered into the quiet, grassy earth; after the condolences and after the food, after everything has been cleaned up, packed away, and finally, irrevocably settled, Michael Bix takes his driver's license and stares at it for a long time. Ponders automobiles. Ponders starting up the wood-chipper and throwing the damn little bit of plastic inside. Notices the part about organ donation. Cries, for a good length of time.
Then, brandishing the license all through the downtown like a laminated battle-axe, he neatly flags aside the I.D.-checking lunatic bouncer at the door of Mickey's Irish Pub and admits himself to his first real-live goddamn bar.
Six hours later, he's studying the ceiling.
* * *
Oh no. I didn't want to do this one. This isn't the topic I'm looking for... I'm losing my focus...
The Costume Shop. Marion J. Helsing Theatre, St. Ignacius University.
"All right... erm... Michael, is it? We gotta measure your chest..."
Her smell. Lilacs.
"Okay, raise your arms..."
Very nearby, this time...
"All right, stand up straight now..."
"And the inseam."
She looks up. Notices my blush. And smiles.
* * *
Michael Bix and Jenny Montag. A "unit." Not married (for crikes' sake, no, not married!) but a unit nonetheless. Little apartment in the college town where Michael Bix has just earned his MFA. Michael Bix is not planning on acting professionally, because Jenny is _not_ repeat _not_ moving way the hell out to New York or wherever you have to go to make a living as an actor. Michael Bix is Just Fine With That. Michael has taken a job in a local bookstore and spends his days in various stages of contentment, ranging from euphoria to mild well-being. Who needs the Theatre when you have... Her.
Lilacs. The wonderfulness of it all.
* * *
Quiet new-age music from Bix's extensive collection of titles from the 1990's flits softly through the dim hospital room. For some time, this is all the noise there is. Then the pains come again, and the slightly curled humanoid form on the bed lets out a pent-up cry that terminates in a vaguely canine howl. And then there is just the music again. Repeat. Ad infinitum.
Michael Bix writhes, halfway between sleep and wakefulness, in the throes of agony. Goodness knows what pictures are going on inside his mind, but Jenny Montag, seated in a chair nearby, considers that they couldn't be all that much stranger than the reality of Michael's situation. The hospital gown is torn and shredded; and the sheets... the sheets... are a mess of perspiration and, to Jenny's quiet horror, short white and black hairs... scattered about like angular snow... "shed" from the nascent coat of animal hair that now covers the body that used to be...
Still is, she thinks... Still is...
her most Significant Other in the Universe.
* * *
Jenny's Parents on Speakerphone. Unbeknownst to them.
"Good lord, Jenny. A Dalmatian?"
Michael Bix winces. The gesture is still unnatural to him, as are all his gestures. One slightly-clawed hand moves absently to his face.
"Mother, he's still Michael..."
"He's still Michael even on all fours?" adds a male voice.
"No. He's not on all fours, Dad. He can still stand upright. And he's just as tall as he used to be. He's just... he looks a little different."
Michael winces again.
Jenny sizes Michael up. Notes the lean canine body-shape. Notes the tail. Notes the claws on the hands. Notes the somewhat altered feet. But most of all, notices the head. The face. The ears. The whiskers. The muzzle. And the spots. Oh, lord, the spots.
A moment's pause.
"Not all that different."
A brief sigh from Michael. Not exactly relief.
* * *
Michael Bix and Jenny Montag. "Vito's Italian-American Sports Bar." His first time out since the flu. It's taken him the better part of a week to prepare himself for this. The smell of garlic hangs heavily in the air. Jenny notices it. Bix is nearly overwhelmed. Bix _loves_ garlic.
After a break in the conversation, Jenny finally brings up the subject that has been on both of their minds the entire meal. "I think they took it all right. Considering."
Bix uses the corner of a breadstick to mop up a bit of sauce from his spaghetti Bolognese with extra meat. "Considering what?"
Bix sees the response in her eyes. Considering that they've just been told that their daughter's live-in male companion has recovered nicely from his bout with the Martian Flu and is now perfectly healthy except for the small detail that he happens to be a large bipedial Dalmatian. Other than that...
"Well, you know, it's pretty sudden news." Jenny toys nervously with a fork. Jenny does not, apparently, want to talk about it. A slight twinge, somewhere deep in Michael's gut. A moment of uncomfortable silence, broken by the sudden arrival of the vaguely annoying young waiter, probably moonlighting here from his daytime activities at St.I-U.
"Either of you two care for dessert?" The waiter cannot help fixing his gaze on Michael as he says this. Michael knows that the waiter has been staring at him all night.
"I think we're fine," says Michael, as casually as possible. "Think I could have another drink?"
"Yessir. Black and Tan?"
Jenny Clears Her Throat. There is a brief pause.
"Maybe you could just come back in a bit."
The waiter nods and vanishes. Michael fixes his gaze on Jenny. She speaks first.
"Bix, you've had enough."
"Jen, I've been through a hell of a lot in the past few weeks. Cut me some slack here..."
"I did. Remember? That was when you had the first one. And the second."
Another uncomfortable silence. She speaks again.
"You told me to hold you to this."
Bix is unable to keep a low growl out of his voice. "Jenny... that was before."
"Just because it was... before... It doesn't mean you're a different person now..."
"Strange how I _feel_ different, though. Wonder why _that_ is."
Yet another uncomfortable silence as they lock gazes. The waiter returns.
"You two decided?"
"We're done," they say in unison.
* * *
Murphy's Booksellers. Michael is here, staring dumbfounded at his boss. It is some time before he can speak.
"Michael, I've been trying to break this to you as gently as possible..."
"Murph, you can't close! You're... I mean... you've been here forever!"
"That's just it, my boy. I _have_ been here forever. It's time to get out."
"But... you're a pillar of the community! Guys who graduated from St.I-U _decades_ ago still come back and remember this place!"
Murphy sighs. "Michael. Goodness knows, I wouldn't do this to you if I had the choice. I know it's been rough on you, since..." He trails off, gesturing lamely.
SCABS, Murphy. Say it. It's not that difficult. A-one, two three... "Stein's Chronic Accelerated Bio-Morphic Syndrome." Stein probably stayed up nights trying to think of such a cute little acronym, Murph... the least you could do for the guy is to say it...
"Since, erm. Your thing."
Damn it. As if not mentioning it will make it go away.
"Murph, let me run the place. How 'bout it."
"You don't want to run this..." Murphy gestures about, idly, at fifty years of carefully maintained love. "This thing." He takes a deep breath and continues. "This place is a money pit nowadays, lad. Most of the business nowadays is cause'a the nostalgia factor. And that just isn't enough. Not with the big chain stores popping up on the outskirts." Murphy notices the expression on Michael's face. "Don't get me wrong, lad. You've been a great help. I never could've made it these last few years without you." He sighs. "But I've been in the red the past four quarters, and it's time to get out."
It is some time before Michael can speak. "What am I gonna do, Murph?"
Murphy goes to him and puts an arm around his shoulders. "Why not try the telemarketers? They're always looking for folks with good phone voices..."
The distaste is palpable in Michael's voice.
"Lad," says Murphy, "I don't know how to tell you this... but... this isn't all that large of a community, here. You're pretty much... well... unique. Now, I kept you on after your... thing... because you give a shit about this place. Plus, you're a damn hard worker. And I like you. Frankly, I don't care what you look like, spots or no spots. But starting over... in a town like this... you might not find things so easy."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I'm saying, lad, that maybe you need a job where... erm... nobody you're dealing with has to _see_ you."
It's out. There is nothing more to say. Michael's gaze goes to the books for lack of a better place to put it.
"D'you... want them, lad?"
"Murph, you know I don't have room in my apartment for all this."
"The library, then."
"They'll probably make you an honorary trustee, Murph."
Murphy nods, silently. "Not all of them, mind you. I'm keeping a few. And you're welcome to take what you like."
And then there is, again, nothing more to say, and nothing fills the air but odors. Paper. Leather. Glue. The collected atmosphere of decades and the collected works of centuries.
"Sorry, lad." Says Murph.
Michael does not reply.