by J. (Channing) Wells
© J. (Channing) Wells -- all rights reserved
"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.
"Hello? Who is this?" An unseen child screams petulantly in the background.
"Hello, Ma'am. Am I speaking to Mrs. Vondracek?"
"Yes..." The child keeps screaming. Away from her end of the receiver, the voice says, "DAMN IT, MAGGIE! I'LL BE RIGHT THERE!" Then again, to the receiver. "Who is this."
"Yes. Hello. My name is Michael Bix, from Apex Telemarketing, on behalf..."
"You, sir, have got a lot of nerve. I don't want anything. I don't have time for this..."
"I understand that, Ma'am. If I could just have a minute of your time..."
"No! No, you may not have a minute of my time. And you can tell your goddamn company that I am never going to be interested in giving any more of my time. Do you realize-"
"MOMMY! MOMMY! TIMMY TOOK MY DOLLY AN' HE WON' GIVE IT BACK AN'-"
"TIMMY, YOU GIVE YOUR..." Exasperated grunt. "Look you. I don't want any of you ever calling me again. Do I make myself-"
"Ma'am, I'll certainly make a note of it to my-"
"MOMMY! MOMMY! HE'S PULLING OUT HER EYEBROWS-"
"DAMNIT, TIMMY!" And then, to the phone. "And damn you, too."
"I'm really sorry, Ma'am. This is just my j-"
Michael slumps against his desk. Only call number twenty-seven of the day. And plenty more to go. He carefully records a "Not Interested" response on the log sheet.
After a fashion, Michael considers, Murph was right. In a way, it's refreshing to know that one would be treated this way regardless of any personal considerations. Unconditional Negative Regard. But it drains on you. And already, Michael is looking forward to his one reliable form of relaxation at the end of the day. With this thought in mind, Michael consults his log sheet, clicks the "talk" switch, and dials the next number. Call twenty-eight.
Michael is drunk.
"Damn it, Michael! I hate it when you do this! You told me, 'never again!' D'you remember that, Michael?"
Michael mutters something. Not even modern voice-recognition software could decipher it, even were Jenny to have some on hand.
"This has got to stop."
A moment's pause. And then the sound of crying.
"You're not getting out of this that way again..."
The crying continues.
"I mean it!"
Again, the crying. There is a moment's pause.
Tail patently hung between his legs, Michael Bix crawls over to Jenny and rests his chin on her knee. Seizing hold of an ancient memory that has connected men and canines for thousands upon thousands of generations, she scritches him behind the ears.
"Don't do this to me anymore, Michael."
There is a brief murmur of assent.
"Don't do this to me. I can't... take it..."
Again, the murmur.
He does so.
This is one I really didn't want to have to see.
Panting in the age-old exhaustion of afterglow, a human and a near-human lay amongst rumpled covers, silently debating the equally age-old question of who gets the side with the wet spot. Tongue lolling from his jaws, Michael Bix finally arises from the bedclothes to clean himself up. As he does so, Jenny leaps to the drier side with the fierce intensity of some predatory animal. Michael pivots one-hundred-eighty degrees, snarls playfully, and lunges at her; the struggle for the dry half of the sheets begins anew.
Blink a few more minutes ahead. Michael and Jenny again upon the bedclothes. Michael seriously panting now. A question forms in his mind. He probes it for a moment, and then lets it fly. Why not.
"It didn't... hurt this time...?"
The pause is a bit too long. The feeling of contentment drains.
"No. Not really." Jenny has never been a very good liar.
Another question forms in Michael's mind, unbidden. This one, he tries to stop before its release. To no avail.
"Are you happy with me like this?"
Again, the slightly longer pause.
Bix sighs, closes his eyes and grits his teeth together so that she won't see. All around, his canine nose picks up the smells of sweat, of laundry detergent on the sheets, of the sheets themselves... and above all, the smell of her lilacs.
Michael knows a little bit about the Dalmatian, as a breed. Once, shortly after SCABS had finally finished its course, Jenny attempted to lighten Bix's mood by playfully reading to him from a breed-book as she toyed with his spots, first touching them, then kissing them, one-by-one. Between kisses, Michael learned that the Dalmatian was originally bred as the penultimate carriage-dog; with an in-bred congeniality towards horses and a shoulder-height ideally proportional to the axles of a standard cart, they could keep the horses happy and remain at post underneath the master's carriage to guard it from any potential miscreants.
Michael Bix considers this as he lies flat upon a mechanic's creeper beneath his mistress's late-model Nissan hatchback, doing routine maintenance. From Murphy's substantial collection, he elected to take just two books: The Complete Signet Classic Shakespeare, and R. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The second was a bit of a whim when he first picked it out, but he fully recalls sitting down at the bus station near Murphy's and cracking the dog-eared paperback to pass the few minutes until his bus arrived. The book would never be closed again for the remainder of the day, and by the time late evening / early morning rolled around, when he finally let the book drop out of sheer exhaustion, he had made a vow to find out if he, himself, could find the spiritualism inherent in engine mechanics. Within a week, the empty spaces which his abstinence from alcohol had left were filled with the routine care and upkeep of Jenny's automobile. Funny how it all seemed to make so much more sense, now; back in high school, the shop rooms had seemed like foreign landscapes where strange, mechanically-minded students performed arcane tasks that collegiate-minded students steered well clear of. Now, all of a sudden, everything seemed to click into place. Of course, he reasons, his breed-inspired predilection for hanging around under vehicles probably has something to do with it. It seems as though Martian death-viruses have a sense of humor after all. Michael hums slightly to himself as he practices the systematic art of automotive maintenance, and for a moment, all is right with the world again. Then...
"Hey! You! Dog-Fucker!"
It is a curious and long-standing tendency of the human race to attempt to justify the causes of incomprehensible diseases and conditions according to gut instinct, regardless of how much research is presented to the contrary. Michael has heard this one before - intuitively, to some, SCABS must be some sort of sexually transmitted disease caused by carnal relations with the animal type in question. Never mind the volumes of research that state otherwise, never mind the resulting patent impossibility of existence of some of the more exotic 'morphs. Sometimes, man acts purely on instinct.
Bix knows a lot about instinct. Normally, he bears such insults with fairly good grace. But here, beneath his mistress's vehicle, faced with potential adversaries, ancient and long-suppressed breed instincts are beginning to go "Ping."
"Talking to you, dog-face!" Fraternity boys, probably. Two, by the smell of them. Probably head-up over St.I-U's recent victory over rival Marymount College. Celebrating their vicarious victory by slogging a few beers and having a little fun with the freak next door. Bix grits his teeth and suppresses the urge to come out from under the car fighting. His instincts scream at him, and he plugs up his internal ears and attempts to distract himself with the fuel-line clips. Suddenly, the creeper lurches, feeling the impact of a foot. Michael's chin slams against the exhaust pipe, and he tastes blood.
fight fight fight fight fight fight fight fight
"'Zamatta, dog-boy? Your girlfriend not enough for you?" Another chuckle. "I seen her, dog-boy. Damn fine broad."
Fight Fight Fight Fight FightFightFightFight
"Nah," says the other one, "He ain't into 'broads.' He's into bitches..."
A low growl escapes Michael's throat. His hand closes around a nearby lug-wrench...
"Your girlfriend ever get sick a' that big-ass swollen dog cock inside her alla time? Somebody oughta show 'er a real man again one 'a these..."
In a single motion, Michael thrusts himself from under the car, the creeper's wheels grinding the asphalt. He swings the lug-wrench once, and it connects solidly at the hamstring. As the kid stumbles, Bix leaps from the creeper and brings the wrench around in a broad arc at the kid's face. Blood. The wrench falls unheeded to the pavement. And then, the shreds of Michael's conscious mind are burned away by the fires of instinct as the world dissolves into a red haze of claws and teeth.
And then pain explodes in his skull.
The last thing he sees is Frat Boy Number Two, advancing on him, the fallen wrench held menacingly in his grasp.
Michael lies upon his couch, ice compress clutched against his still-aching skull. Jenny sits at the table nearby.
"You messed up the one kid pretty bad, Bix."
"They were insulting you."
"Damn it, Bix, let them insult me. I'd rather that than this..."
"I couldn't help it!"
"So what you're saying is, now, every time you're under the car, you turn into a psychopathic wrench-wielding maniac?"
"No... It's just... the protectiveness instinct goes through the roof. It's the breed...
"Don't pull this genetic crap with me, Bix. You're human. You can control your actions."
"I am not human."
"You're not a dog, either!"
"Yeah. I'm currently a really shitty combination of the two." The yelling is making his head hurt, and he re-positions the ice pack. Jenny coughs. She's been coughing a lot these days. The stress has been working her over again.
"You should see somebody about that cough."
Jenny hrm's noncommittally. "Next payday, maybe."
"Don't you have anything saved up?"
Jenny fixed Bix with a stare colder than his compress. "I did... but we wasted it all settling with that kid..."
Bix sits up, then stands. "What? You gave him the settlement? It was his fault, for crissakes!"
"I know that, and you know that, Bix. But we don't have the money for an extended civil suit..."
"You can't let him win!"
"Well, maybe if we had any significant income coming from your area, we'd have enough to hire somebody!"
"I get paid what I get paid."
"What, at Apex? Motto- 'Being Bloody Annoying to You, the Consumer, Around the Clock, Seven Days a Week?' Bix, you can do better than that..."
"Nobody wants to hire a freak in this town, Jenny."
Bix does not mention how much he has come to rely on the job. The knowledge that, for a few times each day, he will be actually talking to someone who will relate to him as a normal human being, simply out of ignorance and the magic of the voice-only telephone.
"Bix, I will not put up with this!" There is a faint quaver in her voice that suggests she is close to her breaking point. "I will not have you constantly moping around here, deathly afraid of doing anything productive out of self-shame..."
Bix actually laughs. In her face. "I'm ashamed. I'm ashamed? Who refuses to even show me to her parents? Who doesn't bring friends over to the apartment for fear of what they'll think? Who refuses to even admit that I'm any different now than I ever was? Who can't even bear to hear the name of the condition..."
"Bix, stop it."
"Bix, I mean it!"
"SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS Bloody Fucking SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SCABS SC-"
"BIX! STOP IT!" The cry is high, shrieking, and bespeaks broken glass and broken dreams.
A single, hacking cough, from Jenny. Than a series of quiet sobs.
"Jen. I'm sorry."
"I didn't mean it..."
"I'm not speaking to you." Her voice is hollow, pained.
Bix tosses the ice-bag into the sink. He goes to the door.
"When should I-"
Michael Bix sighs slightly, turns, and walks out.
Oh no. Not this one. For the love of all that's holy, not this one... not again...
"Jenny!" Michael shouts, a note of concern entering his voice.
"Jenny? What did the doctor have to say?" Michael Bix walks through his strangely still apartment, having just come home from his shift at Apex, the one job he could find where nobody important had to see his face. Ever.
"Jenny? Jenny!" The kitchenette is empty.
"Jenny!" The bedroom, as well. The bathroom...
A moment of frozen horror.
The last syllable of her name is never completed.
It is a long time before he even notices the note.
An even longer time before the thought to call 9-1-1 even enters his gridlocked brain.
An even longer time before the paramedics come and take her away.
Michael does not go with them.
Almost of its own volition, the note unfolds.
"michael this is the last thing i ever wanted to do to u / u have to believe me if i thought there was any other choice i would have taken it / tests said it wasnt just the plain old flu / showed signs of contracting SCABS / please dont worry about me by the time u read this im going to be in a better place / IVE NEVER BEEN AS STRONG AS U Bix / i cant take it wouldnt be able to take it / dont worry it was completely painless tell mom and dad it wasnt your fault /
An adult Michael Bix dreams and wonders why Jenny went to the vet's but didn't come back. Wondering why his parents still aren't saying a thing to him. Just wondering...
Michael Bix turns the key in the ignition of the late-model Nissan hatchback. Jenny's car. Thoughts of Jenny strong in his mind.
Did she realize, in those last horrible moments, that in doing so, she gave ultimate affirmation to every negative opinion he ever suspected her of holding? That by her blank incomprehension of a future without her body of birth she delivered Michael the most grievous insult he had ever known? Perhaps she did. Perhaps she realized at the last and tried to get to the phone... perhaps if he had come home earlier, instead of stopping at the bank to deposit his paycheck... perhaps he would have discovered her, still alive...
That way madness lies.
Michael instead contents himself with idle speculation. wondering what she would have been. Had she been able to take it. Emotionally handle the prospect of existing as a pair of freaks in a small, conservative, college-town. Just wondering.
A horse, maybe. Dalmatians get along really well with horses, she said. Yeah. That fits. That fits.
A warm breeze brings the scent of fresh lilacs through the open window. They're probably a long ways off, and their scent is almost completely masked by the clogging dark-brown odor of the exhaust.
A tear wells up at the corner of my eye.
Silently, I flick the switch that raises the power windows.
And I begin my drive to New York.
To become an actor.
I'm losing control again. Fifteen seconds have passed, and the high-schoolers in front of me are beginning to look a bit uneasy. I can feel the thoughts flitting through their minds, wondering exactly how long it's going to be before Sparky the Firehouse Dalmatian here gets on with his song-and-dance number. The sweet, mousy little thing who is, ostensibly, in charge of this classroom on normal days, is beginning to give me A Look. Perhaps wondering if good ol' Bix is going to break down right here in front of everybody. Because everybody knows, of course, that you can't completely trust these SCABS people. One second they're going along fine, the next, bam, they're howling loonies.
I wished I could have told her that normal folks are like that too. We all are. All that we need is to be tweaked in the proper places.
Now, perhaps, Mrs. Lemke is questioning the decision to include this guy in Career Day in the first place. Sure, he used to be a New York actor, with a handful of voice-over spots (obviously, the easiest type of job for him to get...) and one fairly major touring show experience under his belt, but surely we could have found somebody with about the same credentials who was... well... normal... Just to avoid any potential problems, you understand, not because we really think he's a plague-bearing psychotic circus freak...
Fifteen seconds. An eternity of silence.
Damn it, why did I have to think about Jenny? I should have started in New York. That's the part I wanted to tap into. Not her. Not... the suicide... why did I have to think about her?
Because I always will. A day will not go by where I will not.
jenny jenny jenny jenny jenny jenny jenny jenny je-
I clench my eyes shut, as if to block out the pictures. As if every detail of the scene were not etched in diamond directly upon the surface of my occipital lobe. Drawing on my reserve power, I manage to eke out a few words.
"All right. Shylock."
Yes, they all think, you told us that already, fifteen seconds ago. Can we please just get on with it?
"I'm trying," I desperately want to say back, "And I hope you rugrats appreciate what I'm going through here... asking me to remember all this shit right here in front of everybody..."
All right, Bix. Stop it. Too late to turn back now.
A deep breath.
Here we go again...
Insert dramatic jazzy horn introduction here.
"Start Spreading the News..."
Bah bah bahbedah Bah...
"I'm (something something) Today..."
Bah bah bahbedah Bah...
"I Want to Be a Part of It... New York, New York..."
Huddled in a mass of blankets in the back of a Nissan hatchback, Michael Bix is singing at the top of his lungs and giving himself percussion accompaniment by tapping his foot-claws on the lined-glass rear window. The rear seat has been folded down, creating a large flat area that would be reasonably adequate for a six-foot tall bipedial Dalmatian to curl up in and sleep. Although the dealer probably never mentioned this bit of trivia to Jenny when she bought the car in the first place, this interesting fact has become important for the simple reason that a six-foot tall bipedial Dalmatian is currently attempting to do just that. And he's failing.
The noise of the machinery in the freight-yard nearby is deafening. For two hours every evening, some hideous mechanical nightmare goes on over there. Michael cannot think of any single manufactured product that would require processing at such a high noise-level, but he is not particularly interested in talking to the owners and asking them what the bloody fuck is making all the racket. He has a "Business Relationship" with the freight-yard...
"Erm. Hi. My name is Michael, and I was wondering..."
The foreman looks Michael up and down, props his feet up on his desk, and says, "You one of them, then."
Don't ask. Don't even try to clarify. Don't say, "One of whom, sir? Oh this? Yes. A-ha-ha. A "SCAB". Silly little thing, really, Why do you ask?" Just forge ahead.
"Erm, yes. I was wondering. I'm new in the city, and I was wondering if maybe... well... I need a place to store the car, until I find an apartment. You're... I mean... you're not too far from the downtown, and I notice you have that big lot out nearby..."
"Fifty bucks. A month."
"I see. Um. How about if..."
"It's not negotiable."
"That's pretty damn cheap already, kid. You're not going to find any cheaper."
Bix knows that the man is right. Not this close to the city proper.
"Right. Okay. But it's not going to be long-term, see. I just need it until I find an apartment."
The foreman gives a faint smirk that, in retrospect, has far more meaning to Michael then it does at this time. "Right. Then you just pay me the fifty bucks for this month. And we'll see, after that."
"There was something else. Until I find a place... I need somewhere to sleep. Would you mind if, maybe, I spent a few nights in the lot? Just until I-"
"Kid, you can run your own fucking grocery store outta your goddamn car for all I care. S'long as I get my fifty bucks."
"Thanks. I mean that."
"Yeah, sure, kid. Now get the fuck outta here. You're making me nervous."
Four months later, Bix's fifty-dollar-a-month automobile storage fee has become his fifty-dollar-a-month rent. No. A sleeping fee. "Rent" would imply that he lives in the car. He doesn't. He sleeps there. His days are spent in their entirety hopping from audition to audition, waiting in the endless cattle-call lines, scanning the free copy of the Times in the library for any new notices and generally keeping himself off the streets as much as possible. Showers and toiletries are taken care of by sneaking into the dressing-rooms just prior to auditions. Laundry at the coin-op. Meals are taken at any number of cheap cafeterias and diners around the city and only his pride keeps him from going to the soup kitchens. And although the most technically- demanding theatrical job he's ever gotten is a voice-over for a toothpaste commercial, he is an actor.
The machines grind away into the night. Michael Bix raises his voice in joyous, desperate defiance against the horrors of the outside world.
A tense, expectant pause. Michael stands on stage, casually dressed in a freshly-washed sweat-suit, the color carefully chosen to complement his striking black-and-white markings. Sweat-suits are fine. Never dress for the part. Show up in whatever makes you feel comfortable. The audition is for you.
The audition is for any one of thousands upon thousands of half-mad genius directors in the greater New York City area with a story to tell and the budget to tell it with, one of whom is currently seated in the middle of the dark auditorium where Bix has just finished his audition piece.
Bix stands in the midst of the otherwise empty theatre. Tools are scattered about and the great bulk of assorted scenery bits still in their horridly embryonic less-than-half-complete phase lurk ominously in the shadows. There is the sense of potentiality and new birth in the air. The Empty Space. A space which has been, in the past, everything from Main Street U.S.A. to a Victorian sitting room to a surreal landscape on the threshold of a dream. A space that will continue to be all these places from here to eternity, forever and ever, amen.
The theatre is magic. And Bix is merely a component.
He comes to the New York Stage with a vast arsenal of tools and techniques which he carries slung about his person like futuristic weapons of death out of a bad science fiction movie. The Alexander Technique. The Feldenkrais Technique. Yoga. Shiatsu. Traditional Massage. Acupressure. All designed to help keep him and his voice in tip-top performance condition. Skill. Talent. Raw Charisma. Dashing Good Looks, for crissake! What more could you ask for...
Bix projects a calmness he does not feel towards the unseen and vaguely menacing figure in the darkness of the house. Tries to read his thoughts. C'mon, guy. Be adventurous. Consider, for a moment, the potential benefits that might accrue from having a Dalmatian in the cast. I look great in costume... or out of it, for crissakes. I come in my own fucking costume. What's the matter, you not looking for the polka-dot motif for this show? Come on, you bastard, say something...
"All right! Thank you very much for coming in."
Bix sags inside. He knows the tone of voice. Desperation wells up inside of him... he wanted this show... this could have been his break... it even felt right...
He goes out on a limb.
"If I could try... reading... from the script... the role of the Poet, maybe...?"
"Actually, I think you're fine. Thank you, mister Bix."
Michael adopts his best patent-leather-black-shoe smile. "All right. Thanks for your time."
"No, thank you." A pause. The figure shouts to an unseen aide. "Liz, you want to call the next one in here?" His attention returns to Michael. A bit more forcefully, he says, "Thank you."
Bix's smile, much to its credit, lasts all the way to the door.
Winter comes, in earnest. The blankets cease to be enough. Bix occasionally starts the car and flicks on the heater, and the world momentarily becomes sane again. But, because of the financial fears of rising gas prices as the holidays approach and the real physical danger of accidentally falling asleep and never waking up in the morning on account of that wonderful little Carbon Monoxide thing, he dares not do this for too long. And in the night, in the creative dementia of half-sleep, he imagines that the white flakes that fall from the coal-black clouds are the spots of some strange photo-negative version of himself that lives somewhere beyond the sky... and that inverse Bix is shaking, shaking himself until the white spots fly from his coat and fall to the earth below, leaving him a perfectly clean, coal-black dog all alone and invisible against the dark midnight sky...
Bix has determined that the day will not pass without celebration of some kind. But the prospects of an extravagant holiday dinner are beyond his meager means.
Bix decides to build a fire. A nice, jolly-old damn-fine old fire, just like back home. Excepting, of course, the fact that instead of a nice warm blaze burning in the hearth with little Michael and his loving parents looking on, it looks like it's going to be a pitiful little affair in a beaten-down area of mucky three-week-old half-melted snow in the lot next to the freight yard... and no-one else there...
Fuck it. A fire it is.
Bix shells out some money for a plastic-wrapped bundle of logs before he considers that, without a grate for proper ventilation, he can't just put newspaper up to a three-inch thick log and expect it to take. Two years of Boy Scout memories from his youth begin filtering back up through his subconscious mind, and an entire epiphany is expressed in a single word.
And this is the reason that Bix is wandering through Central Park, looking for dead branches. The occasional rabbit appears, far off, nosing for vegetation in the melting snow. Here also is an ornamental duck-pond, kept warm and thus inhabited by the graces of the city. Bix idly watches the animals and ponders his life. Wondering what he's doing here. No. Correction. Wondering what the fuck he's doing here. Freezing his butt off, living out of his car, hungry, tired on account of never being able to get a damned decent night sleep with all the noise from the fucking freight-yard. All of this would be bearable if, big if, he were working. But he's not. As it is, the commercials come only frequently enough to allow him to pay his sleeping fee and squeeze by on a damned uncomfortable lifestyle. Merry fucking Christmas.
There aren't too many branches lying about... but there are enough. Nearly satisfied with his take, but with little else in his life, Bix rounds a corner in a path and stops short.
A proud-looking dog of the Husky variety standing in regal posture, cast in metal, placed on a pedestal. It is a remarkable statue, and in the dim haze of the morning and Bix's constant, nagging hunger, it appears almost godlike, the idol of some ancient canine deity. Some rational part of Bix's mind remembers having heard of this statue, constructed to commemorate a brave Alaskan sled-dog whose leadership and courage saved an entire village through timely delivery of much-needed medication when all other routes failed. Bix knows this. But still, Bix feels himself drawn towards it, in a strange near-religious stupor. He does not resist the compulsion.
Bix stands a long moment in the shadow of this monument. And then, his body acting completely on the orders of something other than his rational mind, Michael Bix sheds his heavy woolen coat. His shirt. His trousers. His boots. A slim, furred, black-and-white spotted humanoid shape stands naked in the snow. Waits. And raises both arms in a gesture of ecstatic glory.
Tiny little. Little running thing. Run run run run run...
Water smell. Bird smell.
Somewhere in a dark basement, far lost in time, in the light of a hand lantern, a crude, vaguely dog-shaped shadow circles menacingly around an equally crude-looking duck.
"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.
It ends up being a good fire after all. And Michael Bix eats of his Christmas dinner. Canned corn, heated in the can. Pre-packaged pudding cups. And one real honest-to-goodness real-live goddamn roasted duck.
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.
...And, of course, within twelve hours everything had gone wrong...
Sunday. The Ritz-Savery. Michael's Room.
Wallace is here. It's a meeting that Michael has been dreading all day. After departing Andrea's penthouse and returning to his own room to finish the night's sleep that he had begun in Andrea's bed, he had arisen, washed up, gone for a bite of breakfast at the hotel coffee shop, returned to his room...
Wallace had seen last night's performance.
Michael had shuddered slightly, had started pacing back and forth across the carpet until his claws started ruining the pile...
Wallace had seen the show last night... and wanted to Chat about it...
Gotten ice from the ice machine...
A Little Talk... later today... he saw that fiasco...
Flicked on the television... scanned the channels... flicked off the television...
Waited some more...
Finally, in a last-ditch desperate attempt to keep his mind off the upcoming meeting, Michael had begun cleaning the room. By the time he was finished, the bed had been crisply made with full military corners, the obligatory hotel wall-art had been dusted with a washcloth, front and back, the lampshades had been cleaned and straightened, the tub / shower and sink had been scrubbed down with the only cleansers he could find (hotel shampoo and facial soap), the towels had been neatly folded and replaced in their rack, and, for the hell of it, there was a fresh roll of toilet paper on the dowel.
The waiting had begun again.
A few hours later, a maid had entered the room after knocking on the door and receiving no response. She had walked in, completely unprepared for the sight of a six-foot humanoid Dalmatian sitting there in the middle of a sparkling- clean room performing general maintenance on the room's air-conditioner. She had stood there for a moment, taking in the scene. Then, nodding slightly to no-one in particular, she had gone on about her work in the other rooms on the floor, rooms clearly occupied by somewhat saner patrons.
After every possible venue for activity had been exhausted, Michael had lain upon the immaculate bed, attempting to reason with himself.
A few pointers. Yeah. That's all he wants to give. Tough audience last night, eh, kid? Glad you've got a few days of break before the next show, huh? Glad we didn't schedule a matinee for today, get some sleep, rest up, few days you'll be back on track. Oh, by the way, a few notes for you...
Michael had known it wouldn't be that easy. He never anticipated, though, exactly how hard it would be.
"Wallace... you can't do this to me!"
Wallace looks guilty. It is an expression Michael has never seen him use.
"Legally, no. I can't."
A note of frantic desperation enters Michael's voice. "We've got a contract!"
"I know, kid. I know. And if you took it to claims court, every jury in the free world would see it your way. I'd be defaulting on you. Now, I'm prepared to pay you all remaining promised salaries..."
"Fuck the money, Wallace! I want to act!"
Wallace's guilty expression becomes even more pained. "I know, kid. I can't force you to leave. But I'm sure I could see clear to getting you an extra default payment in addition to your remaining pay..."
"I repeat, Wallace, Fuck the Money, I Want To Act!"
Wallace sighs. "I know, kid. I know." Wallace closes his eyes for a moment. and then begins sorting through some newspaper clips that he has brought along to the meeting. "You seen the notices?"
Michael grits his teeth. "Yes."
"Here. 'The show is curiously lacking in direction, however, and fails to bring itself to the proper climax.' Another one. 'The production is an astonishing one up until the final critical scene, which, due to its unfocused nature, left this reviewer with an empty feeling.' There's more."
Grasping any straws he can, but knowing full well the reason for these particular clips, Michael says, "See? They don't have anything specifically to say about me..."
"Michael, the reason the play has gotten so out-of-focus is that in the one scene that everything finally comes to a head, nobody is paying any attention."
Yeah. They're watching the fucking doggie... say it, Wallace...
"What about Peoria! They loved it in Peoria!"
"Michael..." A deep breath... "The reviewer in Peoria was one of your people."
Not you, too, Wallace... please tell me you didn't just say "one of your people..."
Wallace talks for a while longer, but Michael does not hear a word.
"one of your people..."
Wallace is still talking. He must be. Michael can see his lips moving. But all he's saying, over and over again, is "one of your people..."
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Michael gathers his last vestiges of strength. He screams. "I don't Care if I'm ruining the show! I don't care about the fucking notices! I don't care about your bloody newspaper clippings! I WANT TO ACT! You told me I could act, Wallace! Damn, it, you KNOW I can act! You liked me! Has that all changed, now!?"
Wallace looks deeply hurt.
He fucking should look deeply hurt. Michael wants him to be deeply hurt.
A brief pause.
"I didn't want to have to tell you this, kid... but... Andrea..."
"Has expressed specific concern about it. She thinks that maybe we should let you go."
The bottom drops out of Michael's mind. Andrea. Ahn-fucking-Drea. Little miss here's-my-personal-key-come-up-and-talk-anytime-you-want. Little miss I-know-this-has-been-a-hard-run-for-you-so-far. Little miss here-I-am-all-glamour-up-the-ass-but-I'm-really-a-nice-girl-deep-down Ahn-fucking-Drea..
She offered me drinks...
"I didn't want to have to tell you that, kid. It's your choice, whether you want to stay on or not. I would completely understand..."
Like hell you would, Wallace. All you fucking care about is the show.
Deep down, Michael knows that the show is all that he himself cares about as well.
And if to save the art as a whole, one of the artists must be destroyed, so be it.
Long live the Theatre. And long live Harald Wallace's Merchant of Venice.
"Gimme the check."
An expression of pained relief passes over Wallace's jowly face.
"Thank you for understanding."
I don't understand, Wallace. I won't ever understand, or accept it. Not completely.
"You got a pen I could use, Michael?"
"Sure." Bix lifelessly hands him one.
"If there's anything I can do for you in the future..."
"Forget about it."
"Thanks, Michael. You're a good man."
He finishes filling out the check. And turns to go. As he is almost to the threshold, Michael calls out to him...
He turns around. "Yes?"
"Sorry for screwing up your show. I know it meant a lot to you."
Wallace does not answer. He turns to the door, opens it, and leaves.
Michael sits on his immaculate bed.
"Hi, Michael! Is there something I can do for-"
The costumer stops short.
Michael is standing at the costume shop door, grinning. It is not a pleasant grin. It is a polyethylene smile, a fierce rictus, an adamant grimace that could withstand sledgehammers. It is a grin normally assigned in the minds of men to padded cells and straightjackets.
"Hi!" Says Michael brightly.
"Um. Hello... is there something-"
"I just got canned!" There is a mad glee in his voice that is making the costumer nervous.
"I'm. Um. Sorry, is there something-"
"Yes, indeed! I want my fucking costume!" The smile has not wavered.
"As a souvenir!"
"You really got laid off?"
Michael nods, brightly.
"Oh... I'm. Um. So sorry for you... but, well, I mean, Michael, we really can't allow that, I mean, your understudy will have to wear something... "
"Come on! You'd have to alter it anyway!" The voice bobs cheerfully up and down like a balloon on a string.
"Um. Well. I mean. Alterations are easier than making an entire new... um..."
The costumer trails off as a subtle shift comes over Michael's expression. On the surface, the look does not change. Still madly cheerful. But there is a shift in the eyes... and suddenly, the costumer realizes that when a dog smiles at you, it can also be showing its teeth...
Michael's eyes flit for a demi-second to the man's throat. And back again.
"Oh, well, I'm certain that new fabric won't be too hard to find... after all, this is a big city..."
"Thanks! I thought you'd see it my way!"
Michael rummages around in his pockets and eventually removes two twenty-dollar bills out of the roll that Wallace's check had garnered him. Wallace's money. Correction: formerly Wallace's money. Now, Michael's money. Money that Wallace had used to kill his own guilt. He presses the bills into the nerveless hands of the costumer, then collects the mass of Azure cloth that is the Venetian Robe of State, complete with long, flowing royal blue cloak. He then picks the wine-dark beret from the rack, pops it on his head, adjusts it to a sufficiently jaunty angle, checks himself in the mirror, and walks out.
He is humming.
The Duke of Venice strides through the streets of the sunset city, wind whipping his cloak into a frenzy of silken cloth. All about him, the passers-by stop and stare.
Let them the fuck stare.
Michael is still humming a mad, cheerful little tune as he floats through the masses. Some of the more uneasy citizens are giving him a wide berth, thus assuring Michael clear and unhindered passage through the streets. One, two, three blocks... ah. Here we are.
There is a public phone carrel here. A man occupies it.
Michael Bix, still grinning, approaches the man, boldly, and taps him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me. Sir. May I see the yellow pages? I assume there is a copy there, isn't there? In one of those nifty little binders?"
Wide-eyed, the man steps aside, his phone conversation temporarily put on hold. Michael Bix flings open the yellow pages. Let's see. B. B. B. Ah Ha! Bars!
Michael laughs aloud at the incongruity of the yellow pages! The man formerly at the telephone carrel stares at him even more wide-eyed! Who the fuck cares!
T. T. T. Taverns! Here we are! Dozens upon dozens of them. Let's see...
Michael Bix closes his eyes, raises a finger dramatically in the air, and stabs it down onto the phone book. He then opens his eyes and looks down at where his finger has fallen.
It sounds like a good a place as any.
"Never again, Bix..."
The smile wavers.
"Never again, Bix... Promise me..."
A long moment passes.
Jenny killed herself.
Jenny killed herself because she couldn't bear the thought of being a SCAB, like her boyfriend was.
Jenny killed herself at the very time that Michael needed her most.
All bets are, therefore, off.
Promises are breaking all over the world tonight. What's one more...
The Blind Pig Gin Mill.
Two A.M. Closing time.
"You believe that?" says a besotten black-and-white spotted figure in royal robes. "Come to... fucking phone booth, pick one at... y'know. Thing. Not deciding. Equal Chances. You know..."
"Random." suggests a lupine form seated at a far away stool, who is, at this late hour, is the only other person in the place save the barkeep.
Michael snaps his fingers. "S'it. Yeah. Random. An' I pick the one bar in this fucking city owned by SCABS, run by SCABS, patronized by SCABS, whole fucking deal. 'My people', tha's what he said. Fucker. My fucking people."
The barkeep fixes his placid, bovine gaze upon Michael Bix. He says nothing.
"I said, d'you believe that? Fucking coincidence, eh?"
The barkeep still says nothing.
"What the fuck is up with you, big man? I said-"
The lupine form smiles slightly and cuts in. "Dear boy. Before you go on getting miffed at this gentleman any further... you may wish to consider how often you have actually heard the man hold a conversation tonight with anyone, not just yourself..."
The barkeep's face registers the faintest of smirks. Michael ponders.
The barkeep scratches some letters on a notepad with a pen and holds the end result up for Michael's perusal.
"Bloody fuck. 'Thought you were being awful quiet."
The lupine form laughs, good-naturedly. "Don't worry, dear boy. Only one of many amusing little peccadilloes about this place. You stick around here long enough, you learn them all."
Michael fixes the wolf with a withering gaze and holds an unsteady finger in an accusatory gesture.
"I am not sticking the fuck around. You are not my fucking people. I am never the fuck coming here again. You hear me?"
The wolf looks sadly at the Dalmatian. "Sorry. I understand. It's hard to think about it that way sometimes. If you..."
"Listen, bright-boy. I'm not talking to you. 'F' I wannid t' talk, I'd go the fuck talk to madame Ahn-Drea. Bitch."
The wolf sighs and returns his attention to his final drink of the evening before nipping off back home. He knows the name of Ahn-Drea quite well, by now. The unfamiliar Dalmatian at the far end of the bar has been talking about her all night... and none of it good...
Michael whistles to the barkeep. "Another one, over here, big man. Just keep 'em coming." He pushes a sodden twenty-spot across the counter where it sticks in the vast puddle of condensation and spilled liquor that has been accumulating in front of Michael all evening despite the barkeep's best efforts to clean it up.
The barkeep gingerly picks the twenty out of the mess with one hoof-like hand and gives it back to Michael. He scritches again on the notepad and holds it up to Michael.
Last Call was Five Minutes Ago.
"Fuck that. Make a goddamn exception. Special case here."
The barkeep shakes his head firmly.
Michael stares at the barkeep in a bleary but distinctly challenging manner. "I said, make a goddamn Exception."
The barkeep shakes his head again, his eyes meeting Michael's in an equally challenging fashion, only less bleary.
The wolf mutters to himself at the end of the bar. "'When he is best he is little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is little better than a beast.'"
Michael's head jerks over in the wolf's direction. "What?"
The wolf does not make eye contact but instead stares straight ahead. "Said of the nephew of the Duke of Saxony, when in his cups. The Merchant of Venice."
"Listen, bright-boy. Don't go giving me Shakespeare. I know fucking Shakespeare. I act in fucking Shakespeare. I did that fucking play last night. So don't you go giving me Shakespeare."
The wolf continues staring straight ahead. Michael again fixes his attention on the barkeep. Stares at him.
The barkeep shakes his head.
Michael reaches behind the bar for a bottle.
The barkeep's hoof-like hand comes down in a solid grip that, while not immediately painful, suggests that pain is not completely out of the question. Nor are, say, broken bones.
The red haze begins burning at the corner of Michael's vision, and a low growl escapes his throat.
With his one free hand, Michael Bix throws a punch.
And then, without knowing exactly how he got there, Michael Bix is on the floor. The huge bovine barkeep is over him, hot breath streaming from his nostrils like some crude geothermal force. Eyes still fixed straight ahead, the wolf comments, "Ah, yes. Yet another one of those amusing little peccadilloes. Never attempt to punch the barkeep. Silly little thing, really."
From his position on the floor, Michael struggles against the barkeep's grasp. It is rather like attempting to struggle against continental drift. This position for a moment, and then, with an embarrassingly small amount of effort, the barkeep lifts the silk-clad Dalmatian from the floor and deposits him outside. The door closes with a thud.
There is a moment's pause.
Then from out on the street comes a long, drawn-out howl. A howl no human throat could produce. A Pleistocene howl, dragged up from the very roots of the evolutionary record.
It is an angry howl.
The wolf looks concernedly towards the door. "Oh, no." He goes to it and swings it open. "Look, my dear boy, awful sorry about that. If you need a place to sleep tonight..."
But there is no one there.
Three A.M. A chill wind comes out of the west.
Michael stands, once again, before the Ritz-Savery. The silken finery is in a dark, stained, frayed state, and the beret is woefully out-of-place. The light from the exterior lamps of the hotel is reflecting through his eyes, giving them an unearthly glow.
Words are flickering through the red haze.
Ahn-Drea. This whole thing is because of Ahn-Drea. She was the one that suggested that Wallace fire me. That's what made him do it.
A low growl.
The red haze is still there. And the alcohol isn't helping any.
He looks up, far up, to the top floor of the Ritz-Savery, and an entire universe of hate and pain and bitter frustration finds a point to revolve around at last.
Michael Bix fingers the key to the Divine Ahn-Drea's private elevator.
That goddamned baseball...
She's playing catch with her goddamned baseball again...
Michael approaches the door to the penthouse. Knocks, very, very softly. A menacing knock. The baseball stops.
"Who is it?"
No reply from Michael.
The sound of someone coming to the door. Perhaps a look through the peek-hole. Then... the door opens...
"Michael! What..." The Divine Ahn-Drea she stops cold, seeing the hideous apparition clad in tattered Robes of State before her; he bears little resemblance to the fairly classy Dalmatian she had known twenty-four hours ago. Even in his state of wrath, Michael notices that she is still wearing the baseball cap.
Michael raises one clawed hand.
Years of anger collect in his upraised arm.
For Jenny. For her cowardice. For Murphy, for going out of business at the worst of all possible times. For the two goddamned frat boys. For the freight-yard foreman. For a thousand and one different bigoted casting directors. For the house managers of the world. For Wallace, who had given him a chance and taken it away again. For the Divine Ahn-Drea herself. For those two bastards in the bar, their taunts, their mockery. For every stare, every crosswise glance, for every carefully-washed dish in the public diners, for every theater seat left deliberately empty between himself and the next, far more normal, person, for every slight, every comment, everything.
For the fucking disease. For the ruination of his life.
Ahn-Drea's head snaps sideways. She staggers with the force of the blow, stumbles, falls backwards into the penthouse. Her temple connects solidly with the edge of the coffee table. Blood.
And suddenly, two more words filter up through the rapidly dissipating red haze...
The streets of the city. Three-fifteen A.M. A canine shape staggers through the unpopulated alleys and byways, bearing another shape in his arms. The first is tall and spotted; the second, being borne, wears a baseball cap. Her eyes are closed, and blood freely flows from a gash at the temple and a series of three parallel scratches along one cheek...
And to Michael's estimation she seems disturbingly light...
Were Michael in any command of his faculties tonight, he would have simply stayed in the penthouse, dialed the emergency number, waited for the ambulances to arrive, and sorted it out from there.
He had called the emergency number for Jenny.
Jenny had never come back.
In a blind fit of panic, he had hauled the bleeding, unconscious form of the Divine Andrea to the elevator, punched the street-level button, dragged her out into an alley behind the hotel... then hoisted her up in his arms and started walking...
Hospital. Medical clinic. Something. Damn it, Andrea, don't die...
Blindly, he staggers through the streets of the city, searching for something that will stop the bleeding, stop her life from slipping away...
Alley to alley... alley to alley... one after another...
And then, cresting the intersection of a cross-alley...
He walks directly in front of a parked squad car. For a second, Michael Bix and the police officer therein lock gazes. His eyes go to the Divine Andrea. They notice the blood. They return to Michael...
Michael takes off running, still bearing the strangely childlike figure in his arms.
A split-second later, the cross-alley erupts into a hell of lights and sirens.
He ducks down another alley, too small for a car to follow...
Which in turn, emerges onto another street...
Somewhere behind him, the sirens blaze... drawing closer...
Michael runs. Street by street by street... minute by minute... sirens closing...
Turn a corner here...
Suddenly, by some mad coincidence, the vast bulk of a building complex comes into view. Emblazoned upon the upper surface of the tallest building are the words, "Mercy Medical Care Center..."
Michael breaks into a sprint. The Divine Andrea groans, and her eyelids flutter...
Sirens, all around now...
He reaches the complex. The doors hiss silently aside as he bears Andrea directly into the main lobby. The night receptionist is there...
The night receptionist sees a nightmare in black and white clad in ruined blue robes and a wine-colored beret. Her eyes go wide. Bix staggers to the desk.
"Here..." A pause for one or two panting gasps... "Save her.." He offers the figure forward.
The receptionist screams, and then, "Help! Somebody!" She stabs at call buttons. People, hospital staff, begin swarming into the lobby...
The police finally arrive.
Michael is grabbed solidly by the collar, jerked backwards, leaving Andrea deposited like some unholy offering upon the altar of the reception desk. He is forced to his knees. From somewhere far, far away, Michael hears the click of handcuffs...
no... it's not supposed to end this way...
He is dragged backwards, weeping, screaming, howling.
The doors hiss open, preparing to allow his departure...
He cries out, "ANDREA!"
Andrea's eyes flutter open...
Suddenly, from the desk, comes a magisterial voice, a precision-tuned voice, rehearsed and retrained over and over from many years on stage and screen.
"Stop." The voice commands.
Andrea sits up. There is a moment of silence.
"Let that man go." A gesture to the bound, crumpled Dalmatian form on the floor.
The lobby goes strangely still.
"You are under the impression he is the perpetrator of all this. He is not. He simply stumbled across the aftermath of the mugging. He was the one that brought me here. If you want the real perpetrator..."
Another slight pause. Andrea is keeping her face carefully straight.
"He's a short gentleman, about 5'2". He has a swarthy complexion, a black beard, a scar on his forehead and a pronounced Scottish accent."
Michael looks up at her in shocked silence. Andrea meets his gaze. And gives the faintest of smirks.
Faced with the intimidating presence of the baseball-cap-clad figure at the desk, the police officer feels himself retreating slightly, if only in voice.
"Still... I mean... um. We should probably take him in... you know... for questioning..."
The Divine Andrea removes the baseball cap and shakes out her hair. The transformation from tomboy to diva takes less than five seconds. A collective gasp. The police officer stammers out, "Andrea Dowling..."
Andrea smiles. "Glad to see you recognize me, officer."
The officer stammers for a bit longer. "I... er... I mean... sorry to have... erm... The wife loves your work, Ms. Dowling..."
"Give her my best..." replies the Divine Andrea, airily.
"Now, let that man go."
"Yes. Erm. Ma'am. You know. We just thought... you know... him being..."
"Yes, yes. I know what you thought. Just let him go."
The shackles come undone.
"Leave." Commands the Divine Andrea.
The police officer, stammering apologies, backs out the door to the lobby and is gone.
"Now," she says calmly to the collected mass of nurses and orderlies behind her, "I am going to faint."
She does so.
A recovery room in the hospital. A few hours later. Michael sits, uncomfortably, in a chair. The fear of the past few hours has sobered him as quickly as a thousand cold showers might have. Andrea lays on a bed, chemical ice-compress to her head. There has been silence for some time. Finally, Michael speaks.
"Glad to see... there wasn't serious harm done."
"Mild concussion, they say. Nothing to worry about. I was just out cold for a few minutes, there."
"I'm feeling much better now," she adds, helpfully. The blood has been cleaned from her cuts; as head wounds will, they had been bleeding at a level disproportionate to their size.
"Sorry." Says Michael.
Andrea sighs. "You realize, of course, that for ninety-nine point nine percent of the people in the Western Hemisphere I wouldn't have done that."
Michael nods, remorsefully.
"I mean, I give you my key and everything, and less than twenty-four hours later you show up at my door, and without a word of explanation, you smack me silly..."
"Why did you do it?" Asks Michael, despairingly.
"Tell Wallace to can me!"
Andrea sighs. "Michael... I'm sorry about that. I should have talked with you first. I..." She stops. Then starts. "I was doing it for your sake. I couldn't stand to see you go on, night after night, with people practically laughing at you up there... I only suggested it... I never dreamed he'd do it on the spot..."
"Ah. Thanks. You told him to fire me for my sake. How silly of me for not seeing this sooner."
"Damn it, Michael, you're not in any position to give me any sarcasm here." She pauses and collects herself. "Michael... a few more months with us on tour and you would have been ruined as an actor. You're not stupid. You know how you were delivering those lines last night..."
With no feeling. Complete apathy. His entire focus was on that one goddamned screaming kid. And on the audience. And on himself. Not the character, not the scene. Total, utter self-consciousness and self-shame. The twin banes of the actor. Michael knows that she's right.
"The theatre is a tough business, Michael..."
"Yeah. For me especially."
"Not just for you, Michael. For everybody. It's a goddamned tough business. It's insane. There's no work anywhere, it seems. People like me... are less than one in a million. And frankly, there's a lot of unknowns out there with a hell of a lot more talent than I've got. Call it luck, fate, politics, whatever. It's a mess, is what it is. And yet, we go on loving it."
"We do that a lot. Love the things that hurt us."
Andrea nods. "The theatre is a bitch, Michael. It's kinda like alcohol. The body interpreting the signs of mild poisoning as pleasurable. Speaking of which..." She sniffs at him... "I though you said you didn't drink?"
Despairingly, Michael replies, "I didn't. At the time."
"Planning on giving it up again, now?"
Michael nods sadly. And begins crying. After a moment...
"C'mere, Bix." He sadly goes over to the bed and rests his head on Andrea's knee. She scritches him behind the ears. "You're going to think I'm nuts. Hell, I think I'm nuts. I mean... anybody else that would do that to me... I'd think twice about calling them a friend again." She pauses. "But I get this tremendous... something... from you... It's like you yourself. Sure, you've got your black spots... but really, I mean, really, you are mostly white."
"Don't joke about the fur." He cries quietly, still.
"Sorry. Anyway. I'm going to be on tour with Wallace for a while longer... probably a couple of months, maybe a year... but after that..."
She hunts around on a nearby table for a bit, eventually producing a pen and a small complimentary notepad with the name of the hospital on it. She scribbles a note.
"I've got a flat in Greenwich Village. I live there, most of the time. Here's the phone number." She presses the notepad into Bix's hand. "When you get your life all straightened out... give me a call, okay?"
Bix, again, is speechless. Dumbly, he accepts the pad.
"In the meantime, you've got a great big beautiful city to work with. Hell, you might even find an acting job here. Maybe not a steady one, but hook up with a local Rep theatre, and you'll at least be working..." She smiles. "You're too cute. They won't be able to resist you."
Bix smiles, overwhelmed. He begins crying again. Finally...
"Andrea. Thank you."
"No problem, Bix. Now get out there and break a leg."
He hugs her, for a long time. After the all-too-short embrace, he arises, fixes the beret on his head, arranges the tattered shreds of the Robes of State around his narrow canine shoulders...
"See you later, Andrea."
Michael makes his entrance. Onto the rest of the world.
The grey light of dawn is all about as Michael Bix steps forth from the hospital. Somewhere, a winter-bird chirps. He wanders the streets for some time, engaged in deep... but pleasant... thoughts. Suddenly, rounding yet another corner in his life, he sees a scene that stops him short.
Directly ahead, the sodium flicker of a tired streetlamp is casting its last light of the evening... directly upon a bare concrete wall...
A lemon-yellow window of light, in a basement far lost in time...
A space to perform. An empty space. A space craving to be filled with new life. Quietly, Bix approaches the light. Stops.
And with the attention to detail that only a true actor can have, he shapes his altered canine paw / hand into the crude semblance of a dog. He puts his hand into the light, and for a moment a clumsy dog-shaped shadow is cast upon the bare concrete wall. This scene holds for a moment.
Then the sun finally crests the skyline of the city, and the streetlamp winks out. And Michael Bix stands there, casting an elegant, dog-shaped shadow onto the bare concrete sidewalk in the light of a new morning.
A whole world full of empty spaces. Theatres everywhere you look. And the actors therein are simply shadows cast by the greatest light of them all.
And Michael Bix looks up at the sun , eyes closed, lets it warm his face for a while.
Back to the classroom, at last. My eyes snap open.
"Okay. Shylock." I say this again, but this time, I am, finally, ready.
"You know the speech. Act Three, Scene One. It's one of the most famous monologues in the Bard's work. You know... 'Hath not a Jew eyes, Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed by the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same...'"
My voice catches.
"'Healed by the same means...'"
Another pause. I shake my head to clear it.
"'Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?'"
"This is not a nice monologue. It goes on to say a whole lot of stuff about revenge and other things like that. But for this particular part, I must interject that the answers to all the above questions are, unequivocally, 'Yes.'"
They look at me a bit confusedly. I didn't necessarily expect them to understand. I smile.
"You still want to hear it?"
"Yeah!" says the kid in the front row with the trademark-able puppy-dog eyes, who has been getting impatient with me.
I act. Again. The glory of the theatre fills me. Words cascade from my mouth and I find myself possessed by the holiness of it all. Fueled by my memories, shaped by my consciousness, given form by the words, given life by my life.
And then it is over.
Applause. I stand exhausted, smiling. Thankfully, Mrs. Lemke takes the helm.
"Well, class, it looks like we're about out of time here... I want you all to thank mister Bix for coming in today..."
They do, obediently.
"And... well... you can go a little early on to the next section that you want to attend. Some of the others aren't out yet, so no noise in the halls..."
She is drowned out by the clamor of departing students. Puppy-dog-eyes looks at me and smiles, and then turns to leave. Soon, it is just me and Mrs. Lemke.
"Well. Thank you, mister Bix. That was very informative."
I bow, deeply, in the Grand Classical Style, removing my beret in the process. Going out on a limb, I take up her hand and kiss it once.
She doesn't draw back!
Grinning widely, I say, "Enchanted, madam. Glad to have been of assistance." I stand upright, turn on one heel, and walk out into the crowded hallways of the high school.
And soon, the students all disappear into their next section, and I am left alone. I wander the now-empty halls of the high school. Memories. High school theatre. I find the auditorium / stage, and look in. Ah... how innocent I was then...
Yes. It's there. An Empty Space.
Not satisfied, I turn around and begin peeking into other rooms. Classrooms, lunchrooms, the commons area, the gymnasium, the library...
Thousands upon thousands of Empty Spaces. Waiting to be filled.
I sigh contentedly, and walk away. To the Blind Pig Gin Mill.
It was a task I had set for myself since the beginning of the day.
A bit cautious, for perhaps obvious reasons, I step inside. The place is bustling with the lunch crowd. I catch the eye of the wolf from that first fateful night and nod to him. Try to put all the emotion of remorse and apology I can muster into that one nod. I'm an actor. I can do this.
He receives me. He gets my meaning. And in response, he gives me a smile and a nod that says "All is, if not completely forgotten, at least forgiven." Good crikes. He must be an actor too.
For the second time, I approach the bar. The hulking barkeep looks at me. Judging me.
I swallow hard.
"Tonic. No gin. No vodka. Just the tonic."
He smiles faintly, and complies. Somewhere, I sense, Jenny is smiling too.
"Lime, too, please."
He does so. He gives me the glass of effervescent liquid. I study it. It will be the first time I have been in a bar holding, drinking a non-alcoholic drink. It fizzes quietly, almost in approval.
And like the ocean in a seashell, I hear the roar of a thousand audiences in the noise of the effervescence.
I turn dramatically to the gathered crowds of my fellows and raise the glass.
"To all the Empty Spaces of the world! That they may be filled, in turn, with new life of their own!"
Okay. So it's a pretty stupid toast. Nobody gets it. A couple good- natured mutterings and half-hearted glass-raisings. Nobody stands bolt upright and shouts, "Aye, Sir! To all the Empty Spaces!"
But in my mind, they all do.
I turn back to the bar and, tipping the glass to my lips, I take the applause within me.
Website Copyright 2004,2005 Michael Bard. Please send any comments or questions to him at email@example.com