|Snakes and Ladders
© Feech -- all rights reserved
Jordan Milner puts down his agenda notebook and looks around at the Blue Window production assembly.
"Okay, any other old business? New business?..."
He does not pause but we are right with him on what has become the meeting chant: "Hopes, Dreams, Aspirations?"
Slight pause. Then:
"I have a dream," Gabriel says. "In it, I'm naked in the department store and..."
His voice fades as he realizes we are all staring at him, open-mouthed.
"What?" he asks, his dark grey eyes regarding us sharply from a large wildebeest's head. "What? It's just a stupid old joke. What am I supposed to do, work up a comedy routine? What's up with all of you?"
We remain speechless for another moment. Even Professor Milner is struck dumb. Finally Kent Dryer, sitting next to Gabriel and as floored as the rest of us, ruffles the blue-grey humanoid's mane and gives him a quick kiss on the cheek.
"Whaaat?" Gabriel demands. "What the Hell are you all staring at me for?"
"Nothing," Kent says, teasingly. "Shall we just get on with the new business?"
Gabriel is grumpy for the rest of the meeting, but the rest of us are in a great mood.
I suppose I should mention that a good number of the students at Hayden Heath learn the signed alphabet, and a few learn morse code.
"AALLAAAN!" STOMP! STOMP! STOMP!
Most faculty members have a good knowledge of both.
"AALLAAAN!" WHAM! WHAM! STOMP! STOMP! STOMP!
I have fair usage of sign language and morse code and a few other means of communication, since my father is a doctor specializing in SCABS.
"AALAAAN!" WHAM! WHAM!
And of course these things come in useful at Hayden Heath University, where the density of people with SCABS is so great.
Alan lands with what I think must be painful impact on the sawdusty concrete floor. He looks up, nods in recognition, and runs a shudder down the entirety of his twenty-eight-foot length, dislodging hundreds of specks of pinedust from his scales. He waits, expectantly.
I sign to Alan as I say, "Doesn't that hurt?"
The huge Burmese Python's dark, slick tongue darts purposely in and out of the subtle groove in his mouth. Being deaf and mute, Alan has chosen, since the onset of SCABS, to communicate in Morse code. He usually keeps it as simplified as possible. "L-I-K-E E-N-T-R-A-N-C-E"
"You could sneak up on me and do your constricting act. That serves for plenty of drama."
"W-A-S S-O-R-T-I-N-G P-A-I-N-T"
I look up in the direction from which Alan fell and can barely see the cans of latex paint lining the top shelf of the paint storage cabinet. The cabinet is what I was hitting as I called AALLAAAN. The snake-student is often affectionately referred to in a shout. Fact is, he can't hear the rest of us, responding only to vibration, and getting his attention when he's in some unknown part of the scene shop is fun. So sue us. We're theatre people.
I must admit I'm way too shy to ever take my love of the Theatre Arts directly onto the stage. Being a techie brings me enough outlet that I'm pretty inhibited when it comes to acting. But even I like calling for AALLAAAN. "Glad to hear you've been working through that mess," I sign and say. "Maybe you can get me the color I need. We had a mixed cherry color for the window frame edging, and someone rinsed my reserve container down the drain just after I managed to put a grand old scratch in the frame. Is it possible we have another set of Blue Window reserve paints somewhere?"
The python moves slowly up the side of the paint cabinet. I notice that his cream-colored underside is smeared with black latex and that one of his golden-brown spots is sprinkled in sky blue. Typical Alan. Wearing the show, I call it. Actually, my own shoes and jeans are a rainbow of Blue Window effects. I have never really tried to avoid getting paint on myself. There's a certain pride and satisfaction to it, as though weeks of work have decorated the person as well as the theatre. We feel as if we have separated out into all those colors, so we might as well be wearing them!
The strength of serpents never fails to impress me. Even Bahni, John's boyfriend and now also a two-foot-long garter snake, can really whip his little body into motion when he wants to. Alan effortlessly pushes himself upward until only a small fraction of his long body is supporting him against the shelves. Then with a careful shove, he sends his chin onto a shelf and pulls himself on up. Eventually, his chocolate-and-gold-brown form disappears from view among the paints. I wait for the verdict. I'd sure like to repaint just the section I scratched, rather than starting all over with a newly-mixed color. Blue Window opens this week and it's just my luck that one of the freshmen rinsed my old paint down the drain. Oh, well. Wasn't her fault. She cleaned up the whole sink area, and I can hardly fault her for that.
Alan reappears, his shimmering little chocolate eyes peering at me from above. He lowers his body until his face is level with mine.
"N-O" Pause. "A-S-K J-I-M"
Just what I need. "Do I have to?"
"Y-E-S O-R R-E-P-A-I-N-T"
"Shit. I so much prefer dealing with you."
If a snake can smile, Alan is doing it now. I grin at him and tickle the scales on his chin. He lifts his head to better facilitate this. "F-E-E-C-H S-C-R-I-T-C-H E-X-P-E-R-T" he spells in Morse.
"Why thanks, Alan. Let me know any time you're going into shed and I'll give you an all-out scritching session."
"S-O-U-N-D L-I-T-T-L-E T-O-O G-O-O-D"
I give him a final "scritch" and turn to find Jim before I remember. "It's so incredible I almost forgot," I sign. "You will never guess what happened at the final meeting today."
"Gabriel told a joke."
A shudder of amused disbelief runs through the enormous python. "G-A-B-E"
"I swear. Absolutely. Unless you know any other wildebeest-morphs on campus, Gabriel cracked a joke. How long has it been, now? I know he was sick before I came here."
"Y-E-A-R P-L-U-S" "That is what I thought. IN-credible. You should have seen us. Lucky he didn't send anyone into cardiac arrest."
"Me, too. He's really a great guy. Maybe this Griever part did him even more good than we thought it would."
"Exactly. Well, Alan, I guess I'd better find Almighty Jim. Thanks for trying to help."
Alan nods and rises out of sight once more. I steel myself for asking a question of Jim.
Okay, okay. So maybe I'm overreacting. But the Great Technical Director is one of the most humbling people on campus. And theatre people don't take well to humility. Me, I can't take the embarrassment of being within his line of sight. It's impossible to understand it unless you've experienced it.
The TECHNICAL DIRECTOR. Shit.
Ask Jim, or repaint.
I pray the Lord to make it quick.
I step over a mass of drop-cloths in the middle of the shop floor and approach the tool section. This room is massive, and as such has been separated into different sections by cabinets, tables and the like. Behind the white-enameled metal door to the power-tool locker, I find Jim. One tentacle is in the depths of the locker and the others are mercilessly coiling electric cord in some inscrutable attempt to organize the work area. As expected, he pays no attention to me.
"Ahem." I nervously finger a lock of my shortish hair and cough an unsure greeting. Jim fakes ignorance for a second and then turns to me.
This is the painful part. Those eyes. I think that in order to be a University Theatres Technical Director, a person has to pass a test for Eyes That Penetrate Students' Skulls. Jim's cold gaze sweeps over me as he waits, in silence, for me to make my pitiful move. I almost feel that if I say the wrong thing, one of those suddenly-still octopus arms is going to rip open a gate to Student Purgatory somewhere so I can learn Humility Before the Technical Director.
You think I'm overreacting? Try this yourself sometime.
"Um, Er... Jim?"
Maybe a nod. Probably not. Hard to say.
"I was, I mean... I asked Alan if-- actually, I lost the reserve paints for Blue Window. Someone cleaned the containers."
Now the vodor kicks in. It's not what Jim says, but what he doesn't say that gets to me. It's like that now. "<
Why? I fill in for him as his all-powerful gaze encompasses me. What do you need Blue Window paints for? Haven't you finished painting that set yet? Aren't there enough freshmen slaving under you? You screwed up, didn't you. You left a freshman alone with the paints. And then in your infinite gracefulness, you scratched the finish on a set piece. Students. I swear, none of you ever learn.
"Yeah. I, um, need Blue Window paints. Need the cherry mix for the window-frame border."
Even though you should know this yourself you pitiful excuse for the future of Theatre, I am going to tell you because otherwise you will not leave me in relative peace so I can get on with the mysterious, vital tasks I am accomplishing. "<
His Office. Great. No one has ever seen Jim enter or exit it. He leaves that to the rest of us, yet somehow manages to spend equal time both in and out of the Office. As far as I know, he transports using some other technology he learned along with the Eye trick. We mortals have to use The Stairs.
The Technical Director's office perches at the summit of a ladderlike stair that climbs two stories, from the floor almost to the ceiling of this cavernous shop. I take a deep breath and start up.
Let the other techies have catwalks. Let Jim have his Office Stairs. I can't abide heights.
These Stairs aren't any ordinary steep set, either. They're flimsy metal things, riddled with little diamond-shaped holes and made with just barely enough space to put a sneaker on each step.
The Office. I made it. On the table is a neat pile of plastic, lidded bowls with the name of a Blue Window set piece printed in indelible ink on each lid.
I feel like I've just reached the end of a movie quest or something. Mixed cherry color in hand, I face up to the final battle, the Descent.
At the bottom of the Stairs I meet Gabriel.
He laughs at what I know is my very pale face. "Way to go, Feech. Jim's Lair yields its treasure unto you. Did you scratch a set piece or something?"
I nod. I notice that Gabriel is holding a blue denim garment in his left hand as if he's not quite sure what to do with it. He follows my gaze and holds it out to me.
"I got something for you."
Suddenly I realize and I put down the paint I'm carrying. I don't reach for the jacket, though. I can't. "Gabriel," I say.
"No. No. I can't."
"I owe you."
"Gabriel you can't give me anything for-- for--"
"I can too. I want to." I can hear the old stubborness creep into his slightly grunting, organlike voice. He pushes the jacket into my limp hand. "I wouldn't be alive now if you and Kent hadn't gotten here when you did. I hope it fits. I know the other one was the only one you ever really liked."
"Gabriel don't be ridiculous. I would like anything you gave me."
"Then take it!" he snorts. It's a command. I put on the jacket.
Mall smell. Even a human nose can pick up on that! The startling freshness of new clothes. Suddenly, another smell hits me from months ago and against my will I see red on the blue.
The black box theatre floor. Gabriel's blood. Kent's hands. My old jacket... My stupid old jacket that I liked so much. How the Hell could he remember? He must be one of the most sensitive people I've ever known... screams... Gabriel's blood. The jacket fits.
"Oh, Feech. Don't cry. Don't do that to me. I hoped I could find one that would fit you. Do you like it? I'll take you shopping for another if you don't like it."
"Shut up!" I say, rather harshly, as I hug him. "I like the jacket."
"Don't cry." He pats me awkwardly.
"I'm not crying. Yes I am. I'm sorry, Gabe. It's just... Relief. I don't know if you realize what a scare you gave us."
"Don't apologize." I wipe my eyes. "I'm just so glad you made it okay. You're really doing well, Gabriel."
"Thanks." He smiles. His dark blue-black lips curve up in the shadowed African face. "Kent has helped a lot. I've spent a lot of time talking to him. But I wanted you to know I haven't forgotten."
"I don't know what to say except that it fits, and therefore you have accomplished what I myself have not been able to do in over nine years. Maybe I will go shopping with you sometime. I know we 'Normals' are supposed to have it easy, but it is beyond me why the cuts of the shoulders in so many jackets have to be so damned annoying."
"Say the word and we'll spend a Saturday putzing around in clothing stores."
He turns, his tall stature still a startling difference from the tortured form I knew last semester. I stop him, not feeling like I've said enough. "I'll wear it under my winter coat now and then I'll wear it all Spring. This is a Sacred Jacket."
That smile again. So unfamiliar, but so good. "I think I know how you feel," he says, and strides easily from the shop.
I adjust the jacket as its meaning continues to sink in. Clothes shopping. Gabriel, shopping? Gabriel, whose body never stopped changing and twisting long enough even for the costumers to get him properly measured? His outfits are all new, now. Last semester he was wearing (and regularly ripping) odd wardrobe pieces thoughtfully offered by larger students. Now he's bigger than he ever was, but so... well-formed. It's a nice thing to let sink into the brain, but can be almost as startling as a negative change.
I pick up my paint and head through the massive double doors into the black box. I shall celebrate my victory over Jim and the Stairs by painting over that damned scratch.
The jacket hangs where I can see it while I finish the relatively quick job. I suppose it really wouldn't do to splatter Blue Window colors on the Sacred Jacket. But at least it can pick up the scent of the theatre. Once broken in, it will do quite nicely.
A drama of destruction, rebuilding, fragile facades and delicate humor overlaying deepest grief.
It's a good show.
Gabriel, Bethuel and Juliet are visions from the playwright's mind. The rest of the cast is pretty darn good. And I'm having a ball watching their feet tread upon, their shadows fall upon, the pieces my Crew and I worked so hard to perfect. The light, the emotion, must play perfectly off of colors and textures the Set Designer (our own Kent Dryer) has instructed us to apply.
Paint Crew Head.
So what, you say?
Hell. I did that.
I watch in my Sacred Jacket and feel smug. Kent, tall and fine, looks about as smug as I feel. He ought to. His boyfriend is slaying that audience. At least I think Gabriel's his boyfriend. I know they're going together to the Theatre Department dance week after next. I can't think of many better-looking couples. Amber eyes, grizzled-blond hair, and blue-grey fur go together so well.
You can tell my color sense has been heightened by this project. I'm on an absolute high.
Sunday afternoon is the last show. After that we strike the set, and then many of the professors are taking advantage of the lull to give us Big Assignments. Then the dance, and soon Spring and Park Play.
But for now, Sunday evening, we have a world to destroy.
That's what it feels like. The furniture, the apartment rooms, the hanging window that was never noticed by the characters living their lives but was nevertheless a key part of the set. All must be removed as the black box is transformed into an empty cube again.
All that can be used again as-is, such as the dresser, the couch, the chairs, is taken on dollies to the stock cave below the Performing Arts building. All that is specific to the world of Blue Window is taken apart.
We get to play with power tools.
There is some sense of guilt as the drills work in reverse to unscrew and disassemble the black box's latest features. Loss. Fleeting life. Every surviving flat piece of board will be saved in the scene shop for use in the next show. But for just a moment, it feels as though that re-use will be grotesque, akin to animation of the dead.
Mostly, however, Strike is a blast and a half.
Once the blocks are taken apart, I join the Lighting Crew in taking down the instruments and stringing them on their wheeled metal rack. Alan helps, and, as I hand him a lighting instrument to put into place with his mouth, he gives me a flirtatious flip of the head that I know perfectly well is referring to "scritches". I laugh. "Alan," I sign after giving him the light, "If you don't pay attention to what you're doing, you're going to end up wrapped around that rack yourself."
The full python-morph haughtily places his piece and turns solemnly to me. "Y-O-U A-S-S-U-M-E W-H-A-T I T-H-I-N-K" he spells.
"Sure, but don't I assume correctly?"
An amused expression. He nods. We continue working.
Long abouts late dinner-time we begin taking the last of the boards and tools into the shop. The instrument rack is wheeled to a corner of the mainstage wings. I'm carrying a blue-painted pine board and Alan has a drill held carefully in his mouth.
I drop the board.
Please understand that Alan is twenty-eight feet long. It is extremely difficult to keep track of the entirety of his whereabouts at any given time. So, while I do drop the board on purpose, I do not drop it on Alan on purpose.
His tail is just in the way. I could have sworn I looked, before adding the board to the pile. But his brown tail is covered in dust and the other ninety percent of him is clear over by the power tools, and I don't realize what I've done until the huge serpent whips around in surprise and discomfort. He yanks his tail from under the board and looks at it briefly, then turns away again.
I hurry to get his attention. I practically pull his face sideways so he'll see me sign: "Alan! I'm so sorry! I dropped the board. I had no idea. Show me where it hit and let me take care of it."
Alan noses me, in his usual calm manner. "S N-O-T-H-I-N-G"
"I really should look at it. Or let someone else. We should at least clean the spot. I'm so sorry."
He shakes his head pleasantly. "I-L-L C-L-E-A-N L-A-T-E-R N-O W-O-R-R-Y"
I am a worrier. I sign, "Alan, don't keep looking at me like that just to be nice. I made a stupid mistake. I'm sorry."
"N-O F-A-U-L-T" spells the snake. He's still giving me his best, gentle expression (and no, I don't know how he does it). He leans his head sideways under my hand and I smile, giving him a little rub as tacitly requested.
I always feel so awful, even after a minor accident like that. I guess it's the thought that it could have been much worse.
The next week is empty in a relaxing way, with memories of the show fresh in our minds and our creative desires temporarily sated.
I'm in the Department office, skimming a textbook assignment, when I notice that John, slouching in a chair across from me, has begun quietly muttering something to the little serpent curled in his lap.
"John," I ask him, "What are you guys doing?"
"Discussing monologues for next Fall, now that we have a moment, you know."
"Why don't you just let Bahni see the pages?" I look at the yellow-striped dark figure, who stares intently at John.
John doesn't look up. "Well, I was, but my arm got tired holding it that way so I'm just reading to him at the moment. Does my voice bother your studying?"
"No, John. That's fine." I go back to my book and the muttering continues.
Finally I look up again. "John."
"What?" This time he faces my way, and Bahni does also.
"You did know that-- well, that Bahni is a full-morph garter snake."
He looks at me as if I've lost my mind. "What are you getting at, Feech? Of course he's a garter snake. Goodness knows I've done enough pounding of that fact into my head."
"But, John, snakes are entirely deaf."
"Oh, I know that. I know good old AALLLAAAN! is stone deaf. But I read to Bahni regularly."
Bahni has turned his impish colubrid face back in John's direction. I say, "Hey, Bahni! Look at me!"
Of course he doesn't.
John's face registers dim surprise. He looks carefully at the young man lying in his lap. "Bahn, can you hear me?"
I stifle a chuckle as Bahni gives his head an emphatic, negative shake. Then John asks, "Well, then, Bahn, can you understand me?"
Another emphatic headshake, this time a positive one. John gives me a slightly sheepish, yet decidedly smug, crooked grin. I laugh. "You guys got something going, there," I say, and John's expression changes to one of pride.
I leave my textbook on my chair and touch Bahni's "shoulder." He looks up and nods as I say, "See ya later. You, too, John. This reminds me that I haven't seen Alan all week, and there were some paint containers I threw in the wrong cupboard on Sunday. I know he'll appreciate it if I ask him where they're really supposed to go."
"See you later, Feech," John says, and turns back to his monologue, but not before he has carefully hoisted Bahni to his shoulder where the snake can see better.
I step out into the Lobby, and from there to the hall where there's a small door to the scene shop.
Bethuel is entering the scene shop from the other direction. "Well, hello, Feech," he smiles. He has a soft smile that offsets the powerful clarity of his blue eyes. I like him. "You're not in here to work, are you? I thought they ran you ragged for Blue Window."
"You guys helped a lot," I tell him, "and it wasn't so bad. Today I just have to ask Alan a question."
"Hope we can find him. I wanted to talk to him, too. He seemed a little quiet, for Alan, yesterday and day before that. He didn't stop in at the office on his way out yesterday and I had been going to give him this order for Jim from the Design Lab."
Cold feeling. It goes away before I can identify it. Beth notices. He notices everything. "Is there a problem, Feech?"
"No, I don't think so."
He looks at me concernedly, but even I don't know anymore what it is that he saw. So we just start calling Alan.
"AALLLAAAAN!!!" STOMP! WHAM! WHAM!WHAM! Bethuel really gets into this.
All the time that we call, wreaking vibration, we scan the shop for signs of the approaching tech assistant. But no brown-patterned figure comes into view.
"AAALLLLAAAAAN!!!" STOMP!STOMP!STOMP! WHAM!WHAM!WHAM!
"Bethuel, do you suppose he might not be here?"
"AALLAAN!" WHAM! STOMP!
Pause. Silence. No swish of snakeskin on cement.
"I suppose it's possible. Maybe he went home sick yesterday and never came in today." There is something in Beth's voice that I find deeply disturbing. And the words, "home sick."
"Beth, I dropped a board on Alan's tail during Strike." I'm shaking again. Worrier Feech.
He looks at me with a pity I'd really rather not see. I can see his mind working, figuring out the past days, where Alan has been seen, why, at this moment of all moments he, Bethuel, might have chosen to come and look for Alan. Why now? Why here?
Because Alan is not home sick. Thank God Beth is here with me.
"Start looking," he says.
I screw up my courage and grab a ladder. I'll check the paint shelves first.
Bethuel climbs The Stairs to Jim's Office and emerges with a deeply concerned Technical Director. I imagine I see a softening to those ever-stern Eyes.
Jim can really move. Despite being a large octopus, he has little trouble at work because of a special water-based lotion he wears surrounded by a thin layer of oil. He is able to breathe and hear like the rest of us, but speaks only through the vodor.
But I only glance at the Technical Director.
I'm busy fighting the nausea that's rising in my throat. Not only am I terrified of heights, but I don't see a sign of Alan. He may be at home, I tell myself.
Then I look once more at the anxious Beth and Jim and know that Alan is here. Somewhere.
Every corner of the scene shop. Every shelf, every cupboard. I go into the black box and ask Shadow, the Swallowtail dramaturg, to please help out by searching the box. Then I return to the shop.
I'm wandering now, trying to keep control as much as trying to find Alan. I meander through the wings, onto the mainstage. The yellow-and-orange cushioned folding seats are dull in the half-dark. The curtains a dull burgundy.
I look up into the fly equipment, high above in the gloom.
Some barely-there glow... of a cream-colored belly.
"Jim! Bethuel! Come quick! Please!"
Immediately Jim is climbing the metal scaffold to the ceiling. Bethuel gives me a quick, reassuring pat on the shoulder and goes to call the ambulance.
Jim has reached the python. I can see his shimmering, multicolored form as he works to gently extricate Alan from his instinctively-chosen hiding place. Alan you shit, I find myself thinking, why couldn't you have chosen a ground-level lair like any normal python?
Beth comes back, looking grim, and takes my shoulder to back me out of the way while Jim lowers his Tech Assistant to the stage.
And I thought Alan was strong.
Alan. The three of us move to his head and each take a tentative touch of the brown face. Glazed eyes. "Alan?"
A pulse is there, just barely, but my gorge rises again as Alan's obsidian tongue slips from between relaxed jaws and lolls to one side. Human hands and octopus tentacles pat the body, begging a reaction. "ALAN?"
From outside, somewhere, the sound of sirens.
I swear this hospital should have a waiting room just for us Hayden Heath University theatre folks.
We shuffle our feet and say things none of us will remember. I stand against a wall and tick off hospital visits in my mind. Gabriel, Bahni.... Alan. All in one year. But this one is my fault. You can try to talk sense to me later.
This time, intelligently, they let us in as soon as the antibiotics began to be administered.
I practically throw myself down on the bed, barely avoiding the equipment set up around Alan to stave off the infection. Snakes are very prone to infection... Once again, I find myself involuntarily cursing Alan for not having gotten attention sooner. No response from Alan yet. But the doctor says he's going to live. Even though it was a close call.
We sit through the afternoon, until they insist that we take a break and give the still-unconcious Alan an undisturbed rest. They assure us that Alan's getting state-of-the-art care, that they'll be bringing in a herpetological specialist to treat the realtively tiny cut that went toxic and caused all the trouble. Then they practically shove us out the door.
I go to Bethuel's dorm room with him. I don't think I could handle being alone right now. He gives me the talk I know he will, about how there's nothing I could have done and how Alan was just a little too careless but at least All's Well That Ends Well, but I only nod in a disconsolate way. Nobody but Alan can forgive me for this. When he's communicating again, maybe I'll listen.
Alan is not, however, coherent for two more days.
In that space of time I nearly go out of my mind.
Whenever someone can take me, I'm at the hospital. And at the end of the weekend, one week following Blue Window Strike, Alan's eyes finally clear as they focus on me.
I sign his name and he actually-- the nerve of him-- puts on his best amused expression and leans blatantly into my hand.
"You shit!" I'm laughing and crying at the same time. I think there are other people in the room, but I'm not even certain. "You could have DIED! I TOLD you to let me help. Oh, Alan, I'm so sorry."
"W-E-L-L L-I-F-E-S L-I-K-E T-H-A-T"
I am now fully aware of several classmates in the room with us, and several of them have placed hands on varying parts of the Burmese python-morph in silent relief.
"W-E A-L-L M-A-K-E M-I-S-T-A-K-E-S"
"Not mistakes like THAT."
"S-C-R-I-T-C-H F-O-R P-E-N-A-N-C-E"
So I give Alan a good scritch and a rub, and several of his friends join in. He really basks in it.
For a penance, this is really quite an enjoyable activity.
Okay. Now if you want to tell me that everything's okay, I might be ready to listen.
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