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* * *
The British Camp. Near Dover.
"The weight of this sad time we must obey /
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. /
The oldest hath borne most: we that are young /
Shall never see so much..."
A sad glance to the fallen monarch.
"Nor live so long."
A quiet death march. Slow black.
Lights up. Company bow. More applause.
From his position in the aisle, Michael Bix, dressed in traditional usher's garb, takes a deep breath and casts open a door between two worlds, and life begins streaming out of the Space, like blood flowing from a wound. For a brief instant, Michael is disturbed by the image; as if in the simple act of opening a door he is somehow guilty of a queer sort of murder. Michael watches the theatre's essences slipping away, off to a dozen different coffee-shops and post-performance discussions... leaving an empty, bloodless husk... and him standing by helplessly, unable to stem the red tides...
Yes. It's like watching something bleed to death...
"Hi. Thanks For Coming. Thanks. Thank You For Coming. Have A Good Evening. Thank You. Thanks For Coming."
Away they flow, seeping into the parched earth of the City beyond the doors...
Michael shakes his head, as though to clear it. Gawm, he thinks. This is what comes from being up at 5 A.M. Screw "getting there early." This morning's audition didn't turn out any different than the last one. Or the one before that, or the one before that...
The last theatre-goers shuffle out of the Space. Michael sighs. The King is Dead. Long Live the King.
And tomorrow evening, lifeblood surges back into the body, the King jerks alive again like some hideous marionette, and takes, again, the first crucial steps towards his eventual destruction. Over and over and over...
Audition after audition after audition...
It's time to get out.
Michael goes to the house manager's office.
"Thanks for helping me out tonight, Michael. Didn't know what I was going to do when Henry called in sick."
"No prob. You know, you can call me anytime you need help..." Michael really means it. And if his income must come from filling in for sick ushers on a night-by-night basis, so be it. The cash has to come from somewhere...
When, considers Michael, does one stop claiming that one's an actor? It's been two months since his last _voice over_ for pete's sake... A full ninety percent of his income is derived from institutions other than the theatre... temp work... emergency staffing...
"Thanks for the offer, Michael, but I get the feeling the management would start getting edgy if I keep somebody like you around too much..."
He doesn't even _realize_ he said it! "Somebody like you..."
Michael feels the scream coming and he suppresses it...
Whatever happened to plain old Michael Bix, huh? Good old All-American Mikey, second-grade Tee-Ball wizard, sub-regional spelling bee champion, inveterate high school drama geek, collegiate theatre starling, Michael Bix, Master of Fine Arts? Huh?
Michael Bix. SCAB. Oh, yeah. And he looks like a Dalmatian.
And for another thing, it doesn't help that...
"Michael? Yoo-Hoo, Michael? I'm going now. Here's a set a' keys. Lock up when you're through here, 'kay, and drop 'em off here tomorrow." The house manager pauses. "You all right, Bix?"
"All right. See you later." He leaves.
Michael remains in the office for a long time.
It's time to get out.
Michael picks up his coat, and puts it on. He then goes to the desk and searches for a moment through scattered papers, finally producing the manila folder which he had placed there earlier this evening. He opens it, and fans through it. Forty-four two-sided copies. On one side, his name and list of credentials. On the other... a head shot.
He stares as forty-four copies of the same carefully selected shot leaf through his vision. Forty-four identical faces. Down to the spot.
Michael breathes a long, shuddering sigh.
He snaps shut the folder in a brisk, business-like fashion. Goes to the Smoking Lounge. Finds a discarded matchbook with three sad-looking cardboard matches inside. His steps calm and purposeful, he nips out the back stage door and finds a Dumpster. He lights a match. And applies it to the folder.
The match goes out.
A tense pause.
Michael has never been a particularly religious type of man. Sure, there was that whole deal with the Husky statue in Central Park last Christmas, but that was less religious than it was... well... instinctive. But something is picking at his brain right now. The folder should have took. It should have. Damn it, it's just paper...
He breathes words into the darkness, addressed to no-one in particular...
"Um... if this is a sign or something..."
With an air of cautious reverence, he lights the second match. A sharp chemical smell assails his nostrils once again, and then the fire. Nearly trembling, he touches the match to the manila folder.
_The match goes out._
There is an almost audible gasp from Michael Bix. Tension thickens about him like fog. For a moment, he can almost hear the presence of something Other...
This must be what they mean. This is what everybody always talks about. Miracles on Earth. When man is in his darkest hour, when all hope is gone, when the soul teeters on the brink of ruin, there is something, some presence, some force that will extend a gentle hand, bring him back from the precipice, and using whatever means possible, guide him back to the right paths...
Eyes gleaming in the night and an expression of utter hope on his narrow canine face, Michael Bix lights the last match, holds it for a moment like a candle against the darkness, and slowly, reverently, touches it to the folder.
The folder goes up like a torch.
Michael slumps, and idly tosses the burning remains into the Dumpster. He trudges back into the theatre, an endless journey of twenty steps, and finds himself again in the Space, looking out over the dark House.
He screams, finally.
And then, perhaps inspired by the performance of Lear he has just seen...
"Thou, Nature, art my goddess! To thy law / My services are bound!"
He shrieks the lines. Furiously. There is no art, no craft to his delivery. No subtle variation in feeling. No mood save wrath. The theatrical equivalent of banging on the keyboard as hard as you can with whatever you can, hands, fists, elbows, forehead, anything. He throttles the lines, choking the breath from their collected body. He stops. He starts. He goes in the wrong order. Nothing matters but the words.
"...Why brand they us / With Base? With baseness? Bastardy! Base! Base!"
Faster and faster...
"Who, in the lusty stealth of nature, take / More composition and fierce quality / Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed, / Go to th' creating a whole tribe of fops / Got 'tween asleep and wake!"
Round and round again, back to the beginning...
"Why BASTARD? Wherefore BASE? / When my dimensions are as well compact, / My mind as generous, and my shape as true..."
Bix's voice catches in his throat. He almost doesn't make it past this line. Somewhere, he finds the strength, and struggles on...
"As honest madam's issue!"
"WHY... BRAND... THEY... US!"
Outside, in the Dumpster, the last remnants of the fire flicker out. A breeze stirs a cloud of grey ashes from the receptacle and scatters them into the street. Michael Bix falls to his knees, a slumping, crumpled form in the midst of a vast empty space. Quietly, almost pleadingly, he delivers the last line.
"Now, gods... Stand up for bastards..."
Michael's head jerks up.
A single pair of hands clapping. A voice from the dark. How had he missed it? Nobody should be here...
"Good, good. The lines are a little off. But good."
Michael awkwardly rises and attempts to straighten his rumpled shirt and slacks. "Um..."
"D'you like Edmund?"
"Erm. It's a great part. Ah... excuse me... who..."
"No. I mean, do you _like_ him."
Michael thinks. "Yes."
"Even after what he does to his brother."
Michael shrugs, noncommittally, but his mind is completely in focus. He peers into the darkness of the House, sensing a challenger and attempting to rise to the occasion. "Edgar's a coward. Doesn't even have the guts to reveal himself to his father. Edmund is an emotional successor to Lear. Sure, Lear fuc.. messes his life up, but at least he's a man of action. Like Edmund. Edgar just sits around whining all the time."
The shape in the shadows hrm's thoughtfully.
"What did you think about the fellow who played him tonight? I assume you were watching the show, along with the rest of us..."
"He did a great job."
"Honestly. No back-patting bullshit. Tell me."
"Well... um... He was a little too stuck in classical 'villain' mode."
The figure chuckles. "Damn straight he was. Did you catch the 'malicious laugh' after he dupes Gloucester?"
Bix smiles. "Mm-hm."
"How would you have played it?"
"Um. Grim resolve."
"I mean, here's Edmund, who's got 50% of his father's genes, just like Edgar. And he sees his old da' is going to pass on the lands and title to his whiny brother... I mean, this is a leadership post, in confidence with the King... I don't think Edmund's pride in his family and his position will let him see that post go to a guy who's going to botch it up just on account of him being 'legitimate.'"
"The most interesting characters are a mix of blackness _and_ whiteness."
Michael can't tell whether the guy is making a joke or not. So he simply agrees.
"What's your name."
"Bix. Michael Bix."
"Bic's? Like the pen? Black and white?"
Now he's sure he's being played with. But not maliciously, he senses...
"With an X."
"Are you an actor, mister Bix-with-an-X?"
Without even thinking, Bix says, "Yes."
"You got a resume?"
Bix stares straight ahead. "No, sir."
"Hard time being an actor without a resume, mister Bix."
A swallow. "I burned them, sir."
The figure doesn't miss a beat. "Giving it up forever, then?"
"Was planning on it, sir."
"Any interest in re-considering?"
Michael's heart skips slightly. His tail twitches. "Perhaps."
"Glad to hear it." A pause, and the figure comes into the light. He is an unremarkable man, probably handsome in his youth but now come into middle age and gone somewhat to seed. On the short end of medium height, thinning hair meticulously combed over the bald spot. A bit on the jowly side. He is dressed in an unremarkable brown suit with leather patches on the elbows and faux penny-loafers.
To Michael's eyes, he has every appearance of a god.
The god extends a hand. "Harald Wallace. American Shakespeare Company."
"We've been doing a neat little version of _The Merchant of Venice_ over in the Ruby-Fillmore Playhouse, Off-Broadway. Traditionally, once we do these things in NYC for a while we skip around, you know, tour for a bit. Now, we're in our last week here, and one of the cast has elected not to come along. He's got a good part lined up in an Ionesco festival, and frankly, I don't blame him. Right now, he's playing the Duke of Venice for us. Now, it's not a big part, just one scene, and Portia does most of the talking. But it _is_ a nice, visible part, and to boot, you're on stage with basically all of the principals at the same time, and there are some lovely moments for interaction."
Bix's heart is working the uneven bars. His tail is kept so carefully rigid that it could be used to start screws. He waits.
"Would you like to joi-"
The god chuckles.
"All right, then. Here's my card. Give me a call in a few days, and we'll get you set up."
He takes the white rectangle of cardboard as he might a Communion wafer.
"D'you mind if I laugh?"
"Go right ahead." Wallace smiles.
And Bix does so. For a long time.