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The Promised Land
The stage at the Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre is low, and small, yet I could see the potential when I sized it up immediately upon entering the space. Being so devoted to the _idea_ of acting, _wanting_ it so much for myself and knowing that the only way I can do it is with a willing provider of audience and part, I have always looked critically upon any space designated as a _performance space_. Every stage matters to me, because I like to think, somewhere inside, that it might come to me to choose and be involved in how to _use_ that space. So I surveyed the stage even as I stepped down the carpeted ramp past the seating area and shyly approached what I supposed to be the director.
Mr. Kelly had said "yellow gentleman," and even though the "yellow" part certainly fits, in a brilliantly obvious way, the "gentleman" part made Mr. Ross show up instantly in the small group. From the side, in silhouette from the other stage-area door's white light, he appeared to be posed in a suit and sword, like some Revolutionary officer. Upon closer inspection, the "sword" of the man proved to be his tail, a length of tightly drawn feathers that reached almost to the floor.
Around him were the other early auditioners, giving him their resumes and pictures or having just done so and leaving now to walk upstage behind some plain flats that were set up. It seemed that the building was somewhat small and that warm-ups would be in the regular backstage area.
I quietly gave German my resume packet and snuck glances at the other women, picking up scents and voices, some with the intent of sorting them out, others just by chance. I filed away in my memory the somewhat babyish, clean canine scent of the only pet animal I could filter out, one not in the room but a frequent visitor; a neutered dog of some kind. I wondered whether it belonged to the theatre owner or whether he was _very_ casual about the presence of pet animals on his property. Another, definitely male, scent of what seemed to be the same breed, then some other male scents, of, besides human, a number of species I could not immediately recognize.
One I could see, a strangely-colored bullish-looking man of some kind, but in the dispersing for warm-ups and the dim lighting I lost sight of him. At any rate, the women had me more interested. Next to a white-haired old man who reminded me a little of Grandpa (as many white-haired men and women do) stood a small, red-haired woman, and I could hear her voice across the room. I dismissed her; the voice was harsh, which can be a good thing, in a way, but so unlike my own that any comparison for the same part would not be made between her and myself. Our styles would be too different.
I waited for Mr. Ross's gravely-voiced okay and took direction to the backstage, peering back behind the flats before actually entering the warm-up area. More women were there, and I heard the blue door open and sensed the change in light and sound as more auditioners came in through the lobby. I decided to concentrate on what I was there for.
I could not help sizing up the other women, but I tried to forget and just _be_.
It was hard.
I did a good job, yes, considering... Yes, it really went rather well.
I can't help thinking that if, if, just maybe, there was something about me just a little different, to make up for the _known_ advantages of the other girls, something in my face or manner or even the _way_ I auditioned aside from the pieces I read and sang and the actual way I _performed_, it might _just be possible_ that...
That the phone will ring,
Fifty-some hours from now...
Ah, but the _people_!
Why me, when right next to me, massaging her throat in preparation, stood _Andrea Dowling_?
Why me then? Why me now?
Please, please, I don't even need a part. I couldn't hope to compete against Andrea Dowling. I can't hope to work with some of the men and women I saw reading today.
I just need to be called back.
I'll find out, next time there is an audition, whether _big names_ are going to be there and I will set my sights a little lower and look somewhere else.
So, I broadened my base of experience today.
Maybe that other feline girl will get a part. She seemed pretty unruffled in the midst of people like Andrea Dowling.
Maybe Andrea will fill the only female role that was left; maybe they only had one, and she was not available, and then it turned out she was, and she has it in the bag.
My hands are still wet from washing them. This is what comes of having plushy fur like mine.
I idly lick my hands dry, not caring how catlike it is.
Grandma used to have a cat.
It was black-and-white spotted and used to sit with its legs all pulled up under its torso like a stuffed animal, making restful sounds like the fire it settled in front of, eyeing me benignly when I spoke to it.
"Nice Kitty, have some milk?"
"Don't be giving that cat milk, November, Darling."
"You want some milk, Kitty?"
The cat always watched the conversation move between Grandma and myself, never getting too excited, always knowing how it would come out.
It was fourteen when it died, I think, and I cried and wouldn't look at the spot where Grandpa buried it until he covered it over with grass clippings and marked it with a stone. Even then I was afraid to walk to that spot in the yard, until he finally picked me up and carried me and showed me how he had covered it over. He had laid the sod back in and obscured the edges with the grass clippings, and I stared, still afraid, but not seeing what I had expected to see.
The idea of tilled earth always bothered me.
I expected worms to come out of it.
Earthworms, angleworms, like the kind some people go fishing with. They always scared me. I wasn't even aware of the maggots and worms that are said to eat human bodies.
Grandma was finished in the way one might finish a piece to protect against the other worms, worms that... eat wood.
She changed that way.
She was very beautiful.
I sit on the bed.
"Ever wonder," someone said, watching the auditioner out on stage at the time, "whether we have some kind of _power_ over our forms that, if we have it, we exercise over the change? Some kind of... Mental symptom effect thingy...?"
I concentrated on my Broadway-musical song selection and nodded absently.
"I'm nervous, and I'm talking. Typical me."
"Shh--" someone else said, someone reptilian-smelling.
A few Norms in the area moved in closer to hear what the whisperer was saying about SCABS.
"I mean, _look_ at that guy. Is that a performance form or _what_? And he's an actor. I mean, what if when he was out cold with the Flu, his brain said to his body, hey, if you can do it, I got a request..."
"I dunno," someone else said.
The auditioner, even with his back to us, _did_ appear pretty flashy. I wondered if the Norms were watching and listening and thinking about how they could supe up their own bodies.
I know from my training in college that, even if you _are_ a SCAB, and a rather plain one at that, or a plain-looking Norm, it will do no good to try to show off something you don't have.
Not that you could have hidden the SCAB on stage behind any black sweatsuit, which was what he wore. But when you're as flashy as that, it doesn't pay to advertise it, either, since the director will see it if he wants it, and supposedly it's your _acting_ that's on display. If you show off your physique too much, they think that's all you've got.
I _also_ know from college experience that if you have a SCAB body, it may be all they see.
But at least that's not your doing.
But was my form my doing?
Did I, for example, remember Grandma's cat, and get as close as I could to that?
I have been in full-morph, as they call it, before, and it made me so homesick for Grandma that I cried and cried although nothing came out and then I changed back and cried for real and curled as small as I could get and didn't move until I had managed to forget all about Grandma's cat, for a few moments at least. Forgetfulness has been a release for me, and I am sure it was for Grandpa.
He used to pretend she was nothing more than an ordinary chair, to himself, when it had been all winter and all spring and on into summer with no response from Grandma.
But she was never any _ordinary_ thing, chair though she... is...
I suppose that, if there _is_ something to that idea that we choose what we can of our forms, then Grandma had a beautiful piece in her head when she transformed.
It was so horrible.
Grandpa came home with Uncle Tad almost supporting him under the arm, helping him walk, and he would not look at the piece of furniture they brought in behind him; not at first, anyway. He was too sad from the weeks at the hospital spent trying to communicate with his wife...
I thought the chair was being brought in for Grandma to sit in, when she came home.
I waited, and asked Grandpa when she was coming, and he assured the uncles that he was all right now and they should go.
He reached for me, weakly, and I gave a little jump to help him lift me into his lap.
He was back in some of the plaid button-downs he wore before his SCABS, and I am sure he would have been unshaven if he had had facial hair. His delicate skin had little, white trails of salt dried onto it. I traced them with a fingertip and waited for his answer on _when_ he was going to go and get _Grandma_.
"She's not here, November. I'm not sure if she is ever coming back."
My face crumpled, just like his would so many times in the months to come. "Not come _back_?"
"I don't know, November." He sighed as I had never heard him sigh before. "We're going to _try_ to get her back. But she is in a different shape now, like I am. Remember when I changed?"
I nodded, afraid. His voice was soothing, but I had never seen him so weak.
"The shape she has become is very different, so different that she cannot hear, or talk. She may _want_ to come back, but she may not be _able_ to."
I just stared at him, almost, I think, trying to see if he was telling me a little joke.
For a moment he held me closer, so I could not see his face, and shuddered while I lay my head on the wrinkled plaid shirt over his shoulder. Then he drew back and breathed out more words. I loved him so much right then, sensing his need to do right by me, but I did not know what to do for him. I wanted to tell Grandma to come back, tell her so she could hear me, but she had always told _me_ what to do. Maybe if I asked nicely, I thought...
"Sometimes, November, the thing that changes people changes them into... other things. Not people. They are people, but they are other things. I mean..."
I waited through the pause, and he seemed ashamed as he began again, as though he had done something that he felt was not worthy of Grandma. I had seen that expression when he could not get a present he was sure would be just the right thing to give her.
"That chair," he said finally, turning his eyes to it then, "that chair-- is your Grandma's body. She cannot hear, or speak, or do anything but be a chair. That is what her change means."
"But _that's not fair_!"
I still had my arms around him, and I think I practically spit in his face. At the same time, I was admitting defeat. I knew it even then, when I was saying those words in my childish voice. If Grandpa said that Grandma was the chair, then Grandma was the chair. He would never lie to me.
I already knew what "disease" meant in my family.
It meant this was nobody's fault, this change, and that there was _no one who could fix it_. Reason would do no good. That's not fair. I said it whenever I knew I had lost. But usually there had been Grandma, right there, hugging me and saying, "It's all right, life's not fair, you'll survive, I think..." and smiling and tweaking my nose so I would have to disguise a stolen smile by wrinkling up my chin in a pout.
I knew Grandma had the disease that it seemed all old people got, and that she went to the hospital.
"How..." I asked, my voice lower than the sound of the house itself.
"We try," he answered, tightly, holding in what would come later that night, "by asking her to change and seeing if she can hear us. They did... Tests, at the hospital, like the kind you have had on your ears and eyes, remember? Only with little wires to see if there is feeling in the-- chair."
"I'll ask her," I said stoutly, and slid down from his lap to go to the chair.
The chair is darkly varnished in a high-gloss finish, the nature of which has been tested in a lab and found to be very nearly identical to certain commercially available brands. It looks black to me, but when I look at it long enough the swirls of caramel-colored wood grain show in a sort of subtle glow. It sits on rockers, apparently glued and pegged to the lathed black legs, and has an indented seat that looks, well, inviting.
The chair's back is made of the turned dowels as well, seeming to spiral up to support the curved rest that holds an engraving of flowers on a vine on either side of... A dragon.
Why a dragon?
I don't know; I don't have the slightest idea, but the dragon does have eyes, and they seem to look at me, in the style of the friendly Chinese dragons. Its warm-dark varnished tongue and warm-dark varnished tail and shining talons curl almost actively, in seeming imitation of the surrounding vines. A person's head could rest there, against the stamped scales of the animal, if a person were to sit on the carefully carved-- carved? never... but to all appearances she has been-- carved-- seat... and lay their head back onto that cradling wood.
In the dark, only occasional dull gleams betray the presence of any type of fine furniture in the room.
I keep the room pretty dark-- fairly dark... Most of the time. As I have kept all of my dorm rooms. All of my one-main-room dwellings.
When I lived with my aunt and uncle, I kept the chair, but I kept it in a safe and dark and quiet room, and I tried not to think about it.
They let me keep it. By then it had almost become a memorial item in the family, rather than... Her.
It-- _she_, she sits... on rockers... in the dark a few feet from my bed.
I sit on my bed.
I always sit on my bed.
Grandpa, are you there?
There in the cemetery?
How long can I do this, and why did I start? Why did _you_ start, why did _we_ start? It's just a chair.
As I do so, sinking slowly, in tiny increments, onto my side on the thin but squishy-soft mattress, I think of Grandpa. Thank you, I think to him in a little piece of my mind behind my sobs, for getting me through that door today and into the performance space and onto the stage. Thank you.
I would like a hug, really, or a smile, but remembering it will have to do.
I skip past any memories that include Grandpa leaning against the kitchen doorjamb or hunched over on the couch with his soft, pale hands clasped tight, and I skip over any memories that include the chair.
By the other blue door leading out of the audience space, one of the two from the lobby, stood a girl in high-tops and a jacket, leaning against the jamb by the corner as if to cover up the white cane that I saw immediately. She acted as if she were trying to disown it. I wouldn't have noticed, wouldn't even have really looked up at her face, except that the thin white cane made me curious. I wanted to see her eyes.
They looked normal. Cloudy with the vaguely sullen expression of her whole face, but blue and clear and normal. Just obviously unseeing.
She felt me look, though, or she assumed that anyone pausing near her was staring, and tilted her head and spoke: "Yes? Can I help you?"
I could have said no, thank you, and continued on out through the lobby towards the entryway and the sidewalk. I felt empty, yet sickly hopeful, as after any trial of my talent before strangers who might decide its value or maybe even forget it existed. But I was startled-- and suddenly I was dreadfully embarrassed for having been curious about her eyes in the first place.
I wanted to sink into the floor and tunnel my way to my apartment, anything but reply, and I couldn't even make myself reply in the one easy and quick way that would get me out of that situation. I reminded myself that the audition was over, the worst was over, and she couldn't _know_ I had stared, but then I just felt guilty. So I said, "I recognize you from the group that was at the back before we got started today. Do you work here...?"
She seemed to acquire some sort of pleasantness for her expression, although her face was still determinedly clouded, and she smiled a little.
I noticed her ears, pointed like an elf's, tipped with a little dusting of white-and-black fur and pressed against her very short-cropped hair. I thought, so this is another kind. Besides cats, like me, and dogs and horses and... and chairs, there are these. I knew she must not have been blind long. She looked and smelled so angry, even though she did open up a little more and I began to feel warily comfortable. It seemed I was taking in more than my limit of strangers for my mind for one day, but I was doing all right, I reminded myself.
"Yeah, I work here. Did you need something?"
"No-- I was just... well, I was just leaving, after the audition, you know, and--"
"I'm with Publicity. How did you feel your audition went?"
"Well-- I don't know; it's not mine to--"
She laughed then, just a little, and reluctantly, and I just widened my eyes and stared at her.
"I'm just asking," she assured me. "If I want your opinion, why not give it? Anyway, this is my first pro post out of college and I want to know how it's all being received, you know?"
"Mr. Kelly must be-- interesting to work with," I noted.
She chuckled a little again. "Oh yes. German, too. And--" she leaned a little closer-- "Alexander Leaf."
My heart did some kind of flip in my breast and I think I gasped. It was obvious that she expected this reaction, at least, and I did not disappoint. "He works-- he doesn't work _here_, does he?"
"He's in on it with Mr. Kelly. He actually lives here."
I was floored. I had already felt I was in over my head, and now I felt surrounded and threatened by talent. I decided to keep the talk small. Somehow, though, I did want to keep it that way rather than leaving; it was beginning to occur to me this could be the last time I would see this place, and I soaked up my surroundings and the movement of people past us while the dog-elf-girl and I stood in the tiny corner by the door.
"So," I asked, cheerfully, "where did you go to college?"
"Minnesota. My family is in Wisconsin, though. You? Or have you not been?"
"I've been. Ohio. I'm from here-- Pennsylvania-- originally. Um, so, who are the paintings of in the front of the lobby? Theatre people?"
"No. Larry's-- Mr. Kelly's-- family. His niece with the cat and then her parents over the bench. I haven't seen the pictures but I hear they're nice. Juliet's in Hollywood--"
She paused as I once again reacted.
"Yes, she is," she assured me, "and watch for her because she's going to be big. So... Are the pictures nice?"
It dawned on me that she needed to talk. I knew what this felt like, in an odd way. Surrounded by her group and not feeling comfortable with anyone _but_ the unknowing, perhaps nonjudgmental stranger. She could have asked any number of people to tell her about the portraits. But she asked me. I didn't know her, she didn't know me, somehow in my shyness and her bitterness we were temporarily and tenuously safe with each other.
I almost hoped I would never see her again.
I mean, how many friends had she alienated in her bitterness already? To me, she _smelled_ bitter. And how many times was I really comfortable with talking to any one person?
"They're very nice," I told her. "Come with me and we'll get a better look."
She idly trailed the cane along behind her, as if it were a loose thread on her trousers, and sauntered with me to the main area of the small lobby. Her gaze-- or, non-gaze, never shifted, but I did sense just a bit of nervousness in her scent and her movements. She regained all composure as soon as we stopped. I figured she knew the lobby; at least, she seemed to, and I could tell she stopped when my presence and footfall sounds paused. I regarded the photograph of the Kellys, Thim and Rosemary, and yes, they were dead, as I had thought perhaps they were.
I began to describe the portraits. The Publicist nodded appreciatively, and occasionally interjected related topics regarding the girl, Juliet, and Mr. Kelly.
"By the way, I'm sorry to have not asked right away," she said, "but what is your name?"
"Oh! I'm sorry."
"That's okay," she smiled. "My fault." She extended a hand. I noticed, as long as I was staring at everything, that she had no visible fur anywhere except on the ear-tips. I shook her hand as firmly as I always do.
"I'm November Divosijli," I told her.
"Nice to have you audition with us, and thanks for the sightseeing. It's not important, but everybody calls me Feech."
I was right. She did feel pretty down on herself. It occurred to me to be a little bit peeved that she could be bitter when she had a _job_ in the _Theatre_. I smiled at her, then remembered she could not see it. "So, how did you come to be here from Minnesota?"
"Mr. Kelly. He let us know he had openings and some of us from Hayden Heath applied. A few more auditioned, too. He has a soft spot for Juliet's classmates, it seems."
She grinned, like I used to when Grandma told me "you'll survive, November."
"I have to go."
"Good luck with callbacks," she said. "Or maybe... Break a leg going out the door? Does that work?"
I engaged in some sort of parting commentary with "Feech" and traversed the lobby carpet quickly to the glass door, shoved it open and gulped in the fresh air. It was over. The audition was over.
I stay home; where else would I go?
In my apartment, where it is dark, there are five lightbulbs, one of which I routinely turn on. There is a CD player. At night I turn on a musical to sleep by. It is usually _Cats_. I am not amused by this. I simply like the lilt to the music.
I cuddle up to my pillow and during mealtimes I sit and play with my food under the light of the sink's overhead bulb, or read something with my hand propping the pages open over the flecked laminate table.
There is a phone, for which I pay a certain sum each month so that it will be available to receive or send out calls, should someone like myself ever receive or send out calls. I never do. It is always silent. It is not even fingerprinted or accented with dark grey hairs from my wrists.
Truth to tell, I write to my aunt far more often than I even _think_ of calling... Over a telephone, or a videophone, or any other such habitually-kept appliance of communication, the emotions can reveal too much.
Then people worry. So I don't call.
I used to perform in the dining room or the living room.
Then I used to perform, once a year or, when I was incredibly fortunate, more, on the stage at college.
I turn off the light after mealtimes and sit in the dark.
On the second day, it occurs to me to _find_ the phone.
I sit by it.