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* * *
Venice. A Court of Justice.
Enter Antonio, Bassanio, Salerio and Gratiano, with others.
Enter The Duke.
"What, is Antonio here?"
Antonio the Merchant looks up at the magisterial figure standing at the head of the Court. "Ready, so please Your Grace."
A slight sigh, towards Antonio. On its surface, it is a simple exhalation of breath. But there is something there, a mood, a feeling, that expresses profound compassion for the wretched merchant. It is a masterful sigh, executed to perfection, the very image of sympathy, touched with profound weariness at the edges, the sigh of a nobleman driven to extreme measures but determined to keep his calm and dignity in spite of it all. An empathetic glance. The Duke speaks.
"I am sorry for thee. Thou art come to answer / A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of-"
"LOOK, MOMMIE! A DOGGIE!"
Quiet murmurs throughout the audience.
"A BIG BLACK AN' WHITE DOGGIE! AN' HE TALKS! LOOK! HE'S WEARING A HAT!"
It's a beret, you little shit. It's a magnificent beret, a symbol of authority, wine-colored, with a bit of a rakish slope to one side where it comes over the ear, emblazoned with the Starburst Crest of the City of Venice, okay? We know the doggie is wearing a hat, sweetheart, so would you please just shut the fuck up and let everybody else pay attention to the play here?
Except no-one else is, either.
They're watching the doggie with the hat.
"I have heard / Your grace hath ta'en great pains to qualify / His rigorous course; but since he st-"
"HERE, DOGGIE DOGGIE DOGGIE!" The kid is joyful, exuberant. He's been sitting here, Bix imagines, for the past two hours, stuffed into an uncomfortable suit, dragged along to the play because of a last-minute baby-sitter cancellation or in some perverse and misguided attempt to put the Appreciation of Theatre in him. He's hot, he's uncomfortable, he's cranky, and now, finally, at last, after the single most boring evening of his life, he sees something entertaining! A six-foot tall doggie in a hat!
"WHY'S HE ON HIS BACK LEGS?"
Those audience members not already engrossed in watching the entertaining spectacle of a Dalmatian wearing the Robes of State are now attempting to get the kid to quiet down, to no avail. As a result, no-one is paying a whit of attention to Stage Left, where John, as Shylock, has just entered. John is a _great_ actor. A master of the craft. Every move, every detail, rehearsed to the point of perfection, but not to stagnation. Never _so_ rehearsed that he is unable to change. Every night, Bix notices subtle variations of mood and feeling, precisely tuned for maximal response based on his night-by-night perception of exactly what the crowd wants. He plays the audience like a fucking violin. And Bix knows that John has worked this entrance. Hard. He's spent hours with Wallace, tuning this, tweaking that, to create, as he enters, the proper air of cockiness, smug triumph and, deep beneath it all, quiet pain at a lifetime of sufferings.
The audience doesn't notice a thing.
They're watching the doggie.
Damn it. It's not supposed to be this way. At the last possible instant, the actor gets his big break. A star is born. Fame. Fortune. Glory. Happily ever after.
They're _still_ watching the fucking doggie.
Thoughts elsewhere, Bix skips through his lines on autopilot, not feeling a thing. Ya-da ya-da ya-da forfeiture ya-da ya-da ya-da human gentleness and love ya-da ya-da ya-da rough hearts of flint ya-da ya-da ya-da okay, speech is over, let John speak... speak, boy, c'mon, speak...
"I have possessed your grace of what I purpose..." Thundering. Bellowing. John has never delivered the line like this before. A valiant attempt to grab the audience by the throat, stare them in the eyes, and say, "Look here, you..."
They _STILL ARE WATCHING THE FUCKING DOGGIE!_
The scene lurches on. Andrea, company starlet and resident Portia, delivers "The Quality of Mercy" speech with flawless grace. Gratiano shows himself as the callous bigot that he is. Climax! Shylock is tripped up, at last. Antonio renders some mercy, but not much. Shylock leaves, defeated. End of scene. The doggie leaves.
Okay. Now. Back to the play...
* * *
That night. Winter is coming again.
High above the City. The Ritz-Savery Hotel. Penthouse. A company party.
Wallace is nothing if not extravagant. Upon the show's departure from NYC, (with Michael Bix joining on, proud young addition to the touring cast), Wallace left the show, as most directors will, in the hands of various sub-directors and underlings to work on more projects of his own. Of course, since no director worth his salt would let actors alone for _too_ long, he occasionally stops back in to check up on his children. Watch the show, give notes, and zip back off to NYC again or LA or god-knows-where to pay attention to his newer projects.
And when Wallace comes back, he throws a party.
Wallace is _big_ in the theatre. Hell, Wallace is big _everywhere_. So, inevitably, what starts out as a simple company party becomes a goddamn three-ring circus, with important whosits and whatsits to impress everywhere you turn.
Clad in a snappy tuxedo especially altered for him by the costumer, Michael is distinctly uncomfortable.
The noises. The Looks. The smells. (Lord, the smells... Wallace's cigar alone smells like a refinery to his hyper-sensitive nostrils...) The lights. One hundred fifty Really Important People milling about in a small enclosed space. And to top it all off, Wallace _saw_ tonight's performance. And he has expressed the desire to have a little chat with Bix tomorrow before he ships out.
Bix nonchalantly wanders towards the bathroom, glass of ginger ale still in one hand. He neatly steers clear of John, avoids the crowds of people surrounding _Andrea,_ (Pronounced Ahn-Drea), _Center of the Universe,_ ducks his head to inhibit the possibility of actually making Eye Contact with Wallace and eventually makes it to the one place in this entire penthouse where he is certain he can be alone. Shoes tap against linoleum. Close the door, lock it, there you go... three steps to the toilet, open the cover... Ah, at last!
Bix throws up.
After a while of resting his face against the cold porcelain, he rises, weakly, and rinses his mouth out at the tap. He flushes, turns, and goes to the door, unlocks it, and pauses.
From without, the noise of the hideous, damnable party.
Bix hesitates. Focuses himself. Takes a few deep breaths, checks himself over in the mirror to see that the tux is clean and straightened, takes a few more breaths, and puts his hand / paw to the door handle.
He turns around and begins looking for another way out. Dimly, he recalls that _some_ bathrooms are constructed with two exits, one to the main space, another to, say, the bedroom or something... crikes, this is a big bathroom... Ah! Here we are! Another Door! Only silence behind. He opens it.
Yes. The bedroom. _Ahn-Drea's_ bedroom. Everyone else is just partying here. The remainder of the cast has got rooms elsewhere in the hotel. Ahn-Drea, by the will of the Divine Wallace, gets to live in the penthouse. The perks of fame.
That's not what Bix notices.
Lilacs. Somebody's been using lilacs. Lilac water. Something.
Leaving the Nissan behind had been one of the hardest actions Bix had ever taken. An actor on tour has little need for an automobile, and even with lodging being paid for on a city-by-city basis by the touring company, it seemed senseless to pay to keep the thing in storage. When the tour ended and he was back in New York without a car to sleep in... well... he'd just make do. He always had in the past. Besides, he had reasoned, with the premium from the Nissan, plus a bit of saving here and there from his job, he might actually have the funds to get an actual apartment... as far away from that damned freight-yard as possible...
On the other hand, it had been Jenny's car.
And even after more than a year, it still smelled like her. Lilacs.
In the end, his practical side won out, and he sold the car, Jenny's car, the car which he had kept in tip-top automotive shape to while away the hours and fill up the empty spaces that had been previously taken up by alcohol before he went clean, his sleeping space for that first horrid year in New York, the beloved Nissan hatchback, to a used car dealership who in turn probably sold it to a family of four who would have no idea how much the machine had meant to him. Most likely, with their woefully incapable homid nostrils, they wouldn't even notice the smell of lilacs.
Andrea uses lilacs. Not as perfume... he would have smelled it before now... but somehow... somewhere in the room...
Bix shudders once, and the stresses of the night catch up with him at last.
He walks to the bed.
* * *
A noise is intruding upon Bix's fuzzy-sleep-consciousness.
What the hell is that? Ah well. Best go back to Sl-
Bix sits bolt upright. Fuck!
He looks around the apartment. Checks his wristwatch. Five AM.
Somebody's still awake, out there. The party's over... by the sounds of it... but somebody's still awake...
Bix sighs heavily. No way to sneak out, now. Yet another in a long list of socially uncomfortable situations. Bix practically considers them old hat by now. Not wishing to delay this farce any longer, Bix opens the door. And sees what has been making the noise.
Amid the flotsam and jetsam of the evening's party, The Divine Ahn-Drea sits, cocktail dress casually rumpled. The Divine Ahn-Drea's hair has been let down. The Divine Ahn-Drea...
Is sitting in the middle of the floor, wearing a Chicago Cubs baseball cap, holding a catcher's mitt, tossing a baseball (a-la-Steve McQueen in _The Great Escape_) against the wall and catching it again on the rebound, over and over. The scene is so incongruous that Bix, for a moment, considers he must be dreaming. Then...
"Michael!" The Divine Ahn-Drea is distracted, mid-throw, for a moment by the figure at the bedroom door. She flushes in embarrassment. Too late to stop the motion of her arm, she completes the throw, but so distracted is she that the ball goes wild, caroms off the mantel, zings off in a new direction, hits Michael-at-the-bedroom-door directly in the face, bounces off him and proceeds to knock over a table lamp nearby. Andrea rushes over...
"Michael! Are you all right?"
"Fine. Fine." He waves her off. "Hell of a curve ball you got there."
Andrea smiles ruefully, her flush returning. She giggles. "I am _so_ sorry. I thought everyone was gone..."
"Nope. Sorry 'bout that. I... erm... I guess I should be going."
Pause. Andrea realizes that she's wearing a baseball cap. She takes it off and lamely tosses onto a coffee table. Another pause.
"Yeah. Probably." She says. Neither of the two move.
After a time: "What's with the... erm..."
"Ah, this?" She clumsily removes the catcher's mitt and tosses it too onto the table. "An old habit. Helps me relax."
"Funny." Says Bix.
"Do you want something to drink? Here. Let me get you something. Sit down." She hastily brushes aside party debris from the couch and pushes Bix down onto the cushions. She disappears into the kitchenette, and after a while returns with two mugs. "The dignitaries slucked down all the champagne before they left, but there's still _some_ stuff left..." She sets the mug down. "Hot Chocolate?"
"Ah. Sorry. No. Chocolate's not good for... um. Dogs."
"Um. Yes. The doctor told me that. Might cause a heart thingy. Some weird chemical incompatibility."
"F'you have any hot _carob_ around here somewhere..." He smirks.
Andrea pats her dress as if checking nonexistent pockets. "Erm. Nope. No carob anywhere. Ah well. Egg nog?" She produces the other mug.
Bix smells the alcohol therein.
"Last of the batch. Care for any?"
Never again, Bix... Promise me...
"Erm. I don't drink. Either. Alcohol. You know."
She's disappointed, Bix... you've just turned down both of her offerings... She's just trying to be nice, make you feel comfortable in an admittedly awkward situation, and here you are, making it even more so...
"That's all right. I think I'd better be going." He rises from the couch.
"Well, if you gotta go..."
"Listen, Michael. I know it's been a hard run so far for you. And we've still got plenty of performances left in this town. If you ever need to talk..."
Bix laughs. "Right. Just waltz right into the elevator and ask to be taken to the Penthouse. Me. They'd probably arrest me on the spot just on general principles."
She smiles. "Yeah. You're right. Sorry." Suddenly, her face lights up and she begins rummaging through some debris on the coffee table. Eventually, she emerges from the mess with a single key.
"There's a private elevator. You believe this place? Wallace insists on treating me like some fucking Rapunzel clone. I envy the rest'a you, sometimes." She hands over the key. Michael is speechless. He stammers out a thanks and turns to go. A moment later, he turns back.
"Andrea? In the bedroom... Lilacs?"
"Oh." She smiles again. "Dried. From my folks. Got them on my first professional opening night, way back when."
"Hm. Andrea, do you want to know something that really shocks me?"
"You're a real person."
She laughs. "I guess that's a compliment."
A pause, not so awkward this time.
Simultaneously, they say, "Later."
Bix walks away, with the vague hopeful feeling that nothing can ever go wrong again.