|The Promised Land
© Feech -- all rights reserved
Ten years ago, Grandpa died.
Today I stand in front of a newly-remodeled, smallish building just a few streets over from my little apartment and a mere two miles from the cemetery where Grandpa's slab is set in the often-cut, weed-free grass next to a grave that should have been Grandma's but isn't. A stranger is buried there, next to Grandpa Casey's spot, and I try not to look at the stranger's grave, because it reminds me of too much.
We knew years before that it would be just as well for Grandpa to sell that plot that was to be Grandma's, although for a time the question was not that so much as whether, and when, to use it. Then he decided, and somebody else is buried there now, and when I go to talk to Grandpa with my hand palm-down on the cool slab I try not to look at the engravings one spot over. All I see is the Casey name, on his own marker, and it helps me to talk to him.
I went to "see" him today, to get up the courage I will need, to see if his self might somehow reach me a little more easily if I approached the resting place of his Earthly body. Which is kind of a silly idea, if I think about it in a certain light, since Grandpa died in a body that wasn't his own to begin with, although he always said that SCABS didn't take away your body, just changed it; sometimes very, very dreadfully.
But Grandpa was pretty. Grandma, too, always was. And both of them loved me so much that even in my eternal shyness I began to be suffused with the strange notion that I could do whatever I wanted.
And what I wanted was to act.
To be a different lady, a man, anything, so long as it was different, and so long as there was an audience. I used to sing for my aunts and uncles when they came over, and sometimes Grandpa's card-player friends would listen, although they really came to play cards, as I was told when I got too boisterous. I used to sit in their laps and hum to myself, playing with the crackling, bright-plastic chips, smelling the beer and the men, and listening to the low-toned laughter.
Shy I was, and am, terribly so, but not around the men and aunts and uncles who would let me perform for them. Grandpa and Grandma, and then later just Grandpa, would tell me time and again that if what I truly wanted was to be an actress, then I could, and I should listen to no one who told me otherwise. I didn't even take a "back-up" major at college (a small place just across the state line in Ohio). I just acted, plus whatever else the syllabi required so I could graduate as an actress.
I was not the only SCAB at the college I went to, but I was not in any sort of majority, either, and sometimes it showed when I needed a part for credit and someone else, a Norm, got it even though they were only a year or two into their schedule. On the nights when I wasn't cleaning offices after hours or, joy of joys, doing a show, I used to curl up on my dorm bed and almost cry, just thinking of Grandpa and how far away he was, even if he said he would always be near, and the old house that had been sold upon his death... I always saw it as empty, even though I knew it must be refurnished and inhabited; I never could bring into my head any vision other than the last one I had of my and my grandparents' home: a deserted, sided box, polished wood floors coldly bare, mantelpiece dust-free and empty of any ornament, Uncle Sherman and Uncle Tad carrying the last piece of furniture out for me because I wanted it. They had not been going to keep it, even, assuming that I had no interest in it, but they did not know that Grandpa's feelings and mine were not the same, although I wonder even now whether I am disturbed, more so than he was, and should get on with things and get rid of the piece.
But here I am.
I came, from Uncle Tad and Aunt Cheryl's place, to college in Ohio, and then to Pennsylvania again, because all through my time at school I mourned how very far away my grandfather was, and here he is, just a couple of miles away.
I hope. I hope he is there, when I need him to be, when I plead for the support his clean blue eyes used to give me and the courage his quiet words used to instill in me. What, otherwise, is the point of clinging to a tiny apartment in this city, finding work no more than I would anywhere else, feeding my hunger for art when I can ignore the possible listening and ridicule of strangers at night in my small space. I own few music discs, but those I do own I have become, to the point of walking the streets to music unplayed.
Theatre is supposed to be a transient art, but I find myself almost guiltily playing and replaying every show from college and high school in my head, weeping for the loss of the worlds we closed down at the final curtain, sometimes almost more than I weep for my own relatives who have passed from me.
Sometimes, it is easier to mourn those shows, for I have begun, slowly, over the years, to understand Grandpa a little better than I ever had as a small child. Some of the other relatives thought they understood him, and although they felt sorry, there was nothing they could do that would not disrupt what they thought was a very deeply disturbed and grieving mind. I agreed with them because I was too young to understand what I alone, living with him, saw and heard and experienced.
I think now that Grandpa and I perhaps shared more emotion than I knew, and I have taken up where he left off. It is a hard duty to uphold, although there is really nothing to it, and whenever I can-- like at the graveyard, when it comes up in a rush of emotion-- I try to forget so I can keep on.
I hope Grandpa is there in that cemetery, because I need the touch of his soul, the touch I went in search of before I walked resolutely here.
I walked, not with eager anticipation, nor a springing step, but with a grim determination that I would not flee at the threshold. For flee I have, on more than one occasion, after discovering what I knew all through school intellectually to be true: that the Theatre is not a welcoming family but a territorial beast, and no amount of training can show past the stern and harried faces and hands that turn a would-be willing actress away at the door, hungry as before, yet weaker than ever, without even having a chance to deliver her fervently worked audition pieces.
They hold open auditions, then someone decides they don't want to see any SCABS, or a part is filled and the producers are too involved in the next step of creation to withdraw the audition notices.
I knew I had hit rock-bottom in my pit of fading self-esteem when I saw a notice for open auditions and did not even attend.
When this new place advertised, I had to come. If I get turned away, at least I tried, and I may try again, and my resumes may go out in the mail again, and I may actually believe I can get a part. If I get...
If? Of course I will. Of course I will be turned away... There is a sameness to my life now that extends even to the songs that run through my head in the mornings and the replayed fantasies I go to sleep on at night. I do not even know anymore whether this sameness is discouraging... Or comforting.
I remember Grandpa.
I remember his face and the way he used to smile lightly, and how I used to think his face was like a gentle smiling sun in one of my coloring books, making things below it smile and grow, and how sometimes he used to crumple about the edges of the eyes and press his forehead against the doorjamb of the kitchen and stand like that for a long, long time.
Sameness. Sameness without... knowing... Is not the sameness of comfort. It is a weight, a sorrow, a death.
The sign says, in small, clean, painted script, "Thim and Rosemary Kelly" and, in larger white paint on a fabric sign over the glass door, "THEATRE".
Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre, 4010 Riverside, is holding open auditions for a production of Chess. Men and women, SCABS and Norm, needed. Appear in person.
Here I am.
Complete with tail, whiskers, the whole bit.
I adjust that mottled dark-grey and cream tail and feel over the buttons of my black-brown silk shirt to make sure I did them up right. I am in such a state that I don't even remember getting dressed this morning.
My large yellow cat's eyes must be wide and scared as all Hell. Get a grip, November, get a grip.
You with me?
I square my shoulders.
I unsquare my shoulders.
I pause, I clear my throat on the empty street, I fear the arrival of the others who must any moment show up for this audition, I fear they will not show up and no one will set a precedent by going through that shiny glass door before me...
I take a step-- no, I don't.
I do. I take a step.
One step having been made, I am on a course for the door and know I will any moment now be reaching for it, pulling the handle with a carefully groomed paw, smelling the new-theatre air, going in.
You there, Grandpa?
Two more steps...
My reflection in the glass closes in on itself as paw touches reflected paw and I pull open the door on the unobtrusive building-front and Go Inside.
Women and Men, SCABS and Norms...
SCABS and Norms...
SCABS and Norms...
My resume is under one arm.
Okay, I'm in, and... I think... I'm ready.
The lobby is small, smelling professional and polished, yet unmistakably of animals and humans of varying sorts, although the scents are not soaked into the walls and carpet as they will be in a few years.
There is no closed box office window, but a counter with vertical wooden beams serving to frame the space wherein sits a middle-aged woman, with golden hair done up in a bun, who smiles at me when I step onto the maroon carpet. Behind me, the door slowly hisses shut, and my back fur rises just a little before I smooth my ruffled nerves again and nod to the smiling woman.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see some of the rest of the lobby. I turn to get a better look; a window seat, covered with vinyl about the same shade as the carpet, fills the nook of the display window where upcoming shows and auditions are announced. The audition I am here for is printed out in black on white, seen backwards through the paper from here inside the building. Sunshine cuts a path across the short stretch of carpet, past another bench in another, windowless nook, to a steel drinking fountain adapted for most forms and a cream-colored wall with a picture on it.
The portrait above the fountain shows a girl and a jungle cat of some kind, probably a SCAB, but it's hard to tell. The girl is slight and blonde, with a quiet smile, interesting even without a close inspection of the photograph, and the animal is black with yellow eyes.
Above the second bench is a portrait that I presume, given the usual arrangement of lobbies, to be that of the people for whom the theatre is named. They are a youngish middle-aged woman and a man, smiling, hands lapped together as they pose easily for the photographer. The background is a rich grey that gives the feel of an oil painting. There is a shining brass plate set into the frame, probably with their names and, if they are not living, the dates they were born and died. I wonder when that photograph was taken, and what they were thinking about at the time.
Just as I turn to the box-office woman, as she opens her mouth to speak, someone comes from the flat blue door to the right of the counter and steps as if to head for the office supplies behind the desk.
"Hello!" He says, mid-step, swiftly changing direction when he notices me. He holds out a hand in greeting.
I almost shy back. This is quite unexpected. The blue door closes on its own, but before it seals itself I hear a murmur of voices coming from behind it. A collection of mixed but not blended body scents comes out with the air. Some of the other auditioners must have gotten here early, as well. I entertain a shudder of nervousness, but since my nervousness is divided I actually manage to act ladylike for the important-seeming man who is trying to greet me.
I nod in a sort of courtesy-without-a-dress and offer my right paw with the palm down, submissively, to shake hands with him. Despite my shyness, my handshake is strong, thanks to Grandpa's years of tutelage on the art of impressing those who may empower you, and the man seems pleased.
"I am Lawrence Kelly, welcome to our theatre, Miss." He smiles in an almost frightening manner. I can't figure out what it is about him that seems so wrong until I realize that it is just that; he is being so outgoing, so friendly, so welcoming, and he must be busy. This is not like a normal audition at all. At normal auditions no one has time for you. At normal auditions, you have your four minutes or, if there has been a change of plans since the last posting, a "Sorry, we won't be needing you; could you clear this space for the actors?"
"November Divosijli," I say. "Hi."
Mr. Kelly has black hair and a black beard, so black that it almost seems too much with the bright blue eyes and equally bright smile. He smells like sweat and an art gallery, and I get a sudden notion that he is not a "Theatre Person," as such, but rather someone appreciative of art who has the funds to back a local theatre for himself. He wears a smooth-textured Cardigan that looks far more professorish than theatre-ish. "Fine, fine," he smiles, "good to meet you. November. Nice name. Directly in through this door is the seating area; we'll have you all gather in there and send you through to the back for warm-ups, so we may as well get started with the early ones. I see you have your resume; that goes to German-- the yellow gentleman, our director, you can't miss him. Good, there, go right on in there and we'll have all of you set and organized before the rest even get here."
He smiles all the time that he is talking.
Okay... This is odd... Since when is anyone this enthusiastic in the professional theatre? Not that I have any professional experience beyond thwarted auditions, but still...
Could this be a good omen, this outgoing and helpful theatre backer, or could it be a sign that this is some off-the-wall operation that will never go through with a show or make it off the ground? Well... Either way, I have to try my best. It's the least I can do. In a way, I am not here for them, but for me; no matter how they view my audition, I will prove to myself that I am still an aspiring actress. That lifelong fact has fallen too far into question.
Mr. Kelly turns away to speak to the box-office woman, and I make my way up to, against and through yet another door, into the theatre proper.
The blue door falls shut behind me.
The apartment is dark.
It is always dark, I suppose; a sort of protection against its smallness, as if, when you can't see any edges, there are none.
Not that I mind the smallness.
So that means I am rationalizing again, and the real reason it is dark is protection from the contents, or the sight of the contents.
I turn on one lightbulb's worth of light over the white-enameled sink and watch as my steel-grey hands wash themselves under the stream that trickles on down into the stainless drain and away. All around the stainless steel drain are rust spots and other places where the enamel has been marked with something or other, and it strikes me as ironic, but I don't have any choice but to accept the sink the way it is.
I have no idea why my thoughts are taking the turns they have. I think I am trying to protect myself from getting too excited. Just because I actually made it through an audition, all the way through, without being thanked and sent on my way, and just because they noted directly to us as we were leaving that callbacks would be made by phone, does not mean I am going to be called back. It is a logical leap that my brain keeps making because, for one thing, Mr.Kelly and the rest of the theatre people were so friendly, and for another thing I want to go back. I want it so bad I am listening for a phone call that will not come in two days, while the rest of my body except for that one listening ear sits and stares and considers what it would be like to be called back, just once, really considered, for a professional part... I don't even care if I don't get a part. I just want to be called back.
So I keep concentrating on the feel of the edge of the bed where I sit, and on whether or not I should put on some music, and on telling myself: November, you're not getting called back. They gave you your time and that's all you get. I don't care how much you want to go back to that nice little theatre again. I don't care that it is small and cozy and that the people smiled at you, or at least some of the less nervous ones did, and you managed to smile back and were inordinately proud of yourself. I don't care, I don't care, I don't care.
But Grandpa said, mews a little voice from years back that somehow managed to break into this conversation, I could do anything I want.
When I handed my resume to the director, Mr.Ross, German Ross, I caught a moment to glance around at some of the other women, paying more attention to them than to the men, since they would be my competition... Mr.Ross is hard not to look at, but his stern pink eyes, glinting in the dim lighting of the audience area, made me want to stare and turn away at the same time. He actually made me feel a little more at home as soon as I saw him; he looks and behaves about right for the impatient, no-nonsense theatre people I was expecting.
Beyond the grey tweed jacket of the tall, broad-shouldered cinnamon-yellow parakeet man, I could see some figures standing against a carpeted wall; they seemed to know each other and the place already, and not to be auditioners. From my place near the low stage I could smell the difference between them and German, German and the auditioners. The air in the performance and audience spaces simmered with the changed heartbeats and brain workings of the preparing auditioners...
I don't care how damn well you pulled it off. I don't care if some of the biggest names in this state's theatre community were there and you still went through with it.
But Grandpa said...
Grandpa said not to sit in the chair.
I remember Grandpa telling me, sternly, to refer to him as Grandpa, not ever Grandma or anything else I would call a lady, even when he changed into a lady just like any other. He preferred it, a lot of the time, when we called him "Sir." And his card-playing friends called him "Jack" or "Johnathan, You Old Stick-in-the-Mud," same as they always had, for as long as they kept coming.
It wasn't his SCABS that kept them from coming. At the time, it didn't even seem to me, young as I was, that there was anything all that bizarre in Grandpa and Grandma buying their clothes at the same Wal-Mart sales and Grandpa conducting his games in a powder-blue pants suit while Grandma served drinks from the kitchen in her nearly matching seafoam green one. To me they were perfect. And I knew my Grandpa the minute he came home from the hospital, threw my little (then pink) arms around his neck and listened patiently while he explained what had happened as best he thought he could to a little girl.
I never saw it as unusual. I thought it was a part of life, a normal part, the way "girls' changes" and cracking voices were for girls and boys just a little older than me. The word "disease" could not be bad coming out of Grandpa's mouth. He said it gently, the way he said everything, even when reprimanding me for referring to him as a lady (I may look like one, November, but remember I am married to your Grandmother and it's still me, your Grandpa). The darkest he sounded was in the days before the visits from family and friends started to peter out; I knew then that he was sad, and I never associated anything about Grandpa Casey with any kind of bitterness.
I do now.
I wonder sometimes if I will be able to go on as long as he did.
What if, he fretted, what if...
What if you cremate a body and it's still alive? What then?
What if you inter a collection of wooden slats and glossy dark finish and it changes back? If planks can be sentient, are ashes of those planks sentient?
How long is sentience gone before life goes?
Where do you put a wedding ring on a chair?
What do you do with a little girl who doesn't understand and whose wide-eyed innocence eats at your heart until you can't even look her in the eye when you speak of her Grandma anymore?
He was there for me, all the way. I was too young to be there for him, and all the neighbors and relatives who had spent their time around his dining room table were spending it around some other of their number's dining room table, because Grandpa asked them to.
He went out, sometimes. Then an aunt or an uncle or a high-school girl would stay with me. But I missed the card games, and he wouldn't take me.
Living as I do now, I know why.
He was afraid that if he left the house with me in his arms, he would never, ever go back.
The stage at the Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre is low, and small, yet I could see the potential when I sized it up immediately upon entering the space. Being so devoted to the idea of acting, wanting it so much for myself and knowing that the only way I can do it is with a willing provider of audience and part, I have always looked critically upon any space designated as a performance space. Every stage matters to me, because I like to think, somewhere inside, that it might come to me to choose and be involved in how to use that space. So I surveyed the stage even as I stepped down the carpeted ramp past the seating area and shyly approached what I supposed to be the director.
Mr. Kelly had said "yellow gentleman," and even though the "yellow" part certainly fits, in a brilliantly obvious way, the "gentleman" part made Mr. Ross show up instantly in the small group. From the side, in silhouette from the other stage-area door's white light, he appeared to be posed in a suit and sword, like some Revolutionary officer. Upon closer inspection, the "sword" of the man proved to be his tail, a length of tightly drawn feathers that reached almost to the floor.
Around him were the other early auditioners, giving him their resumes and pictures or having just done so and leaving now to walk upstage behind some plain flats that were set up. It seemed that the building was somewhat small and that warm-ups would be in the regular backstage area.
I quietly gave German my resume packet and snuck glances at the other women, picking up scents and voices, some with the intent of sorting them out, others just by chance. I filed away in my memory the somewhat babyish, clean canine scent of the only pet animal I could filter out, one not in the room but a frequent visitor; a neutered dog of some kind. I wondered whether it belonged to the theatre owner or whether he was very casual about the presence of pet animals on his property. Another, definitely male, scent of what seemed to be the same breed, then some other male scents, of, besides human, a number of species I could not immediately recognize.
One I could see, a strangely-colored bullish-looking man of some kind, but in the dispersing for warm-ups and the dim lighting I lost sight of him. At any rate, the women had me more interested. Next to a white-haired old man who reminded me a little of Grandpa (as many white-haired men and women do) stood a small, red-haired woman, and I could hear her voice across the room. I dismissed her; the voice was harsh, which can be a good thing, in a way, but so unlike my own that any comparison for the same part would not be made between her and myself. Our styles would be too different.
I waited for Mr. Ross's gravely-voiced okay and took direction to the backstage, peering back behind the flats before actually entering the warm-up area. More women were there, and I heard the blue door open and sensed the change in light and sound as more auditioners came in through the lobby. I decided to concentrate on what I was there for.
I could not help sizing up the other women, but I tried to forget and just be.
It was hard.
I did a good job, yes, considering... Yes, it really went rather well.
I can't help thinking that if, if, just maybe, there was something about me just a little different, to make up for the known advantages of the other girls, something in my face or manner or even the way I auditioned aside from the pieces I read and sang and the actual way I performed, it might just be possible that...
That the phone will ring,
Fifty-some hours from now...
Ah, but the people!
Why me, when right next to me, massaging her throat in preparation, stood Andrea Dowling?
Why me then? Why me now?
Please, please, I don't even need a part. I couldn't hope to compete against Andrea Dowling. I can't hope to work with some of the men and women I saw reading today.
I just need to be called back.
I'll find out, next time there is an audition, whether big names are going to be there and I will set my sights a little lower and look somewhere else.
So, I broadened my base of experience today.
Maybe that other feline girl will get a part. She seemed pretty unruffled in the midst of people like Andrea Dowling.
Maybe Andrea will fill the only female role that was left; maybe they only had one, and she was not available, and then it turned out she was, and she has it in the bag.
My hands are still wet from washing them. This is what comes of having plushy fur like mine.
I idly lick my hands dry, not caring how catlike it is.
Grandma used to have a cat.
It was black-and-white spotted and used to sit with its legs all pulled up under its torso like a stuffed animal, making restful sounds like the fire it settled in front of, eyeing me benignly when I spoke to it.
"Nice Kitty, have some milk?"
"Don't be giving that cat milk, November, Darling."
"You want some milk, Kitty?"
The cat always watched the conversation move between Grandma and myself, never getting too excited, always knowing how it would come out.
It was fourteen when it died, I think, and I cried and wouldn't look at the spot where Grandpa buried it until he covered it over with grass clippings and marked it with a stone. Even then I was afraid to walk to that spot in the yard, until he finally picked me up and carried me and showed me how he had covered it over. He had laid the sod back in and obscured the edges with the grass clippings, and I stared, still afraid, but not seeing what I had expected to see.
The idea of tilled earth always bothered me.
I expected worms to come out of it.
Earthworms, angleworms, like the kind some people go fishing with. They always scared me. I wasn't even aware of the maggots and worms that are said to eat human bodies.
Grandma was finished in the way one might finish a piece to protect against the other worms, worms that... eat wood.
She changed that way.
She was very beautiful.
I sit on the bed.
"Ever wonder," someone said, watching the auditioner out on stage at the time, "whether we have some kind of power over our forms that, if we have it, we exercise over the change? Some kind of... Mental symptom effect thingy...?"
I concentrated on my Broadway-musical song selection and nodded absently.
"I'm nervous, and I'm talking. Typical me."
"Shh--" someone else said, someone reptilian-smelling.
A few Norms in the area moved in closer to hear what the whisperer was saying about SCABS.
"I mean, look at that guy. Is that a performance form or what? And he's an actor. I mean, what if when he was out cold with the Flu, his brain said to his body, hey, if you can do it, I got a request..."
"I dunno," someone else said.
The auditioner, even with his back to us, did appear pretty flashy. I wondered if the Norms were watching and listening and thinking about how they could supe up their own bodies.
I know from my training in college that, even if you are a SCAB, and a rather plain one at that, or a plain-looking Norm, it will do no good to try to show off something you don't have.
Not that you could have hidden the SCAB on stage behind any black sweatsuit, which was what he wore. But when you're as flashy as that, it doesn't pay to advertise it, either, since the director will see it if he wants it, and supposedly it's your acting that's on display. If you show off your physique too much, they think that's all you've got.
I also know from college experience that if you have a SCAB body, it may be all they see.
But at least that's not your doing.
But was my form my doing?
Did I, for example, remember Grandma's cat, and get as close as I could to that?
I have been in full-morph, as they call it, before, and it made me so homesick for Grandma that I cried and cried although nothing came out and then I changed back and cried for real and curled as small as I could get and didn't move until I had managed to forget all about Grandma's cat, for a few moments at least. Forgetfulness has been a release for me, and I am sure it was for Grandpa.
He used to pretend she was nothing more than an ordinary chair, to himself, when it had been all winter and all spring and on into summer with no response from Grandma.
But she was never any ordinary thing, chair though she... is...
I suppose that, if there is something to that idea that we choose what we can of our forms, then Grandma had a beautiful piece in her head when she transformed.
It was so horrible.
Grandpa came home with Uncle Tad almost supporting him under the arm, helping him walk, and he would not look at the piece of furniture they brought in behind him; not at first, anyway. He was too sad from the weeks at the hospital spent trying to communicate with his wife...
I thought the chair was being brought in for Grandma to sit in, when she came home.
I waited, and asked Grandpa when she was coming, and he assured the uncles that he was all right now and they should go.
He reached for me, weakly, and I gave a little jump to help him lift me into his lap.
He was back in some of the plaid button-downs he wore before his SCABS, and I am sure he would have been unshaven if he had had facial hair. His delicate skin had little, white trails of salt dried onto it. I traced them with a fingertip and waited for his answer on when he was going to go and get Grandma.
"She's not here, November. I'm not sure if she is ever coming back."
My face crumpled, just like his would so many times in the months to come. "Not come back?"
"I don't know, November." He sighed as I had never heard him sigh before. "We're going to try to get her back. But she is in a different shape now, like I am. Remember when I changed?"
I nodded, afraid. His voice was soothing, but I had never seen him so weak.
"The shape she has become is very different, so different that she cannot hear, or talk. She may want to come back, but she may not be able to."
I just stared at him, almost, I think, trying to see if he was telling me a little joke.
For a moment he held me closer, so I could not see his face, and shuddered while I lay my head on the wrinkled plaid shirt over his shoulder. Then he drew back and breathed out more words. I loved him so much right then, sensing his need to do right by me, but I did not know what to do for him. I wanted to tell Grandma to come back, tell her so she could hear me, but she had always told me what to do. Maybe if I asked nicely, I thought...
"Sometimes, November, the thing that changes people changes them into... other things. Not people. They are people, but they are other things. I mean..."
I waited through the pause, and he seemed ashamed as he began again, as though he had done something that he felt was not worthy of Grandma. I had seen that expression when he could not get a present he was sure would be just the right thing to give her.
"That chair," he said finally, turning his eyes to it then, "that chair-- is your Grandma's body. She cannot hear, or speak, or do anything but be a chair. That is what her change means."
"But that's not fair!"
I still had my arms around him, and I think I practically spit in his face. At the same time, I was admitting defeat. I knew it even then, when I was saying those words in my childish voice. If Grandpa said that Grandma was the chair, then Grandma was the chair. He would never lie to me.
I already knew what "disease" meant in my family.
It meant this was nobody's fault, this change, and that there was no one who could fix it. Reason would do no good. That's not fair. I said it whenever I knew I had lost. But usually there had been Grandma, right there, hugging me and saying, "It's all right, life's not fair, you'll survive, I think..." and smiling and tweaking my nose so I would have to disguise a stolen smile by wrinkling up my chin in a pout.
I knew Grandma had the disease that it seemed all old people got, and that she went to the hospital.
"How..." I asked, my voice lower than the sound of the house itself.
"We try," he answered, tightly, holding in what would come later that night, "by asking her to change and seeing if she can hear us. They did... Tests, at the hospital, like the kind you have had on your ears and eyes, remember? Only with little wires to see if there is feeling in the-- chair."
"I'll ask her," I said stoutly, and slid down from his lap to go to the chair.
The chair is darkly varnished in a high-gloss finish, the nature of which has been tested in a lab and found to be very nearly identical to certain commercially available brands. It looks black to me, but when I look at it long enough the swirls of caramel-colored wood grain show in a sort of subtle glow. It sits on rockers, apparently glued and pegged to the lathed black legs, and has an indented seat that looks, well, inviting.
The chair's back is made of the turned dowels as well, seeming to spiral up to support the curved rest that holds an engraving of flowers on a vine on either side of... A dragon.
Why a dragon?
I don't know; I don't have the slightest idea, but the dragon does have eyes, and they seem to look at me, in the style of the friendly Chinese dragons. Its warm-dark varnished tongue and warm-dark varnished tail and shining talons curl almost actively, in seeming imitation of the surrounding vines. A person's head could rest there, against the stamped scales of the animal, if a person were to sit on the carefully carved-- carved? never... but to all appearances she has been-- carved-- seat... and lay their head back onto that cradling wood.
In the dark, only occasional dull gleams betray the presence of any type of fine furniture in the room.
I keep the room pretty dark-- fairly dark... Most of the time. As I have kept all of my dorm rooms. All of my one-main-room dwellings.
When I lived with my aunt and uncle, I kept the chair, but I kept it in a safe and dark and quiet room, and I tried not to think about it.
They let me keep it. By then it had almost become a memorial item in the family, rather than... Her.
It-- she, she sits... on rockers... in the dark a few feet from my bed.
I sit on my bed.
I always sit on my bed.
Grandpa, are you there?
There in the cemetery?
How long can I do this, and why did I start? Why did you start, why did we start? It's just a chair.
As I do so, sinking slowly, in tiny increments, onto my side on the thin but squishy-soft mattress, I think of Grandpa. Thank you, I think to him in a little piece of my mind behind my sobs, for getting me through that door today and into the performance space and onto the stage. Thank you.
I would like a hug, really, or a smile, but remembering it will have to do.
I skip past any memories that include Grandpa leaning against the kitchen doorjamb or hunched over on the couch with his soft, pale hands clasped tight, and I skip over any memories that include the chair.
By the other blue door leading out of the audience space, one of the two from the lobby, stood a girl in high-tops and a jacket, leaning against the jamb by the corner as if to cover up the white cane that I saw immediately. She acted as if she were trying to disown it. I wouldn't have noticed, wouldn't even have really looked up at her face, except that the thin white cane made me curious. I wanted to see her eyes.
They looked normal. Cloudy with the vaguely sullen expression of her whole face, but blue and clear and normal. Just obviously unseeing.
She felt me look, though, or she assumed that anyone pausing near her was staring, and tilted her head and spoke: "Yes? Can I help you?"
I could have said no, thank you, and continued on out through the lobby towards the entryway and the sidewalk. I felt empty, yet sickly hopeful, as after any trial of my talent before strangers who might decide its value or maybe even forget it existed. But I was startled-- and suddenly I was dreadfully embarrassed for having been curious about her eyes in the first place.
I wanted to sink into the floor and tunnel my way to my apartment, anything but reply, and I couldn't even make myself reply in the one easy and quick way that would get me out of that situation. I reminded myself that the audition was over, the worst was over, and she couldn't know I had stared, but then I just felt guilty. So I said, "I recognize you from the group that was at the back before we got started today. Do you work here...?"
She seemed to acquire some sort of pleasantness for her expression, although her face was still determinedly clouded, and she smiled a little.
I noticed her ears, pointed like an elf's, tipped with a little dusting of white-and-black fur and pressed against her very short-cropped hair. I thought, so this is another kind. Besides cats, like me, and dogs and horses and... and chairs, there are these. I knew she must not have been blind long. She looked and smelled so angry, even though she did open up a little more and I began to feel warily comfortable. It seemed I was taking in more than my limit of strangers for my mind for one day, but I was doing all right, I reminded myself.
"Yeah, I work here. Did you need something?"
"No-- I was just... well, I was just leaving, after the audition, you know, and--"
"I'm with Publicity. How did you feel your audition went?"
"Well-- I don't know; it's not mine to--"
She laughed then, just a little, and reluctantly, and I just widened my eyes and stared at her.
"I'm just asking," she assured me. "If I want your opinion, why not give it? Anyway, this is my first pro post out of college and I want to know how it's all being received, you know?"
"Mr. Kelly must be-- interesting to work with," I noted.
She chuckled a little again. "Oh yes. German, too. And--" she leaned a little closer-- "Alexander Leaf."
My heart did some kind of flip in my breast and I think I gasped. It was obvious that she expected this reaction, at least, and I did not disappoint. "He works-- he doesn't work here, does he?"
"He's in on it with Mr. Kelly. He actually lives here."
I was floored. I had already felt I was in over my head, and now I felt surrounded and threatened by talent. I decided to keep the talk small. Somehow, though, I did want to keep it that way rather than leaving; it was beginning to occur to me this could be the last time I would see this place, and I soaked up my surroundings and the movement of people past us while the dog-elf-girl and I stood in the tiny corner by the door.
"So," I asked, cheerfully, "where did you go to college?"
"Minnesota. My family is in Wisconsin, though. You? Or have you not been?"
"I've been. Ohio. I'm from here-- Pennsylvania-- originally. Um, so, who are the paintings of in the front of the lobby? Theatre people?"
"No. Larry's-- Mr. Kelly's-- family. His niece with the cat and then her parents over the bench. I haven't seen the pictures but I hear they're nice. Juliet's in Hollywood--"
She paused as I once again reacted.
"Yes, she is," she assured me, "and watch for her because she's going to be big. So... Are the pictures nice?"
It dawned on me that she needed to talk. I knew what this felt like, in an odd way. Surrounded by her group and not feeling comfortable with anyone but the unknowing, perhaps nonjudgmental stranger. She could have asked any number of people to tell her about the portraits. But she asked me. I didn't know her, she didn't know me, somehow in my shyness and her bitterness we were temporarily and tenuously safe with each other.
I almost hoped I would never see her again.
I mean, how many friends had she alienated in her bitterness already? To me, she smelled bitter. And how many times was I really comfortable with talking to any one person?
"They're very nice," I told her. "Come with me and we'll get a better look."
She idly trailed the cane along behind her, as if it were a loose thread on her trousers, and sauntered with me to the main area of the small lobby. Her gaze-- or, non-gaze, never shifted, but I did sense just a bit of nervousness in her scent and her movements. She regained all composure as soon as we stopped. I figured she knew the lobby; at least, she seemed to, and I could tell she stopped when my presence and footfall sounds paused. I regarded the photograph of the Kellys, Thim and Rosemary, and yes, they were dead, as I had thought perhaps they were.
I began to describe the portraits. The Publicist nodded appreciatively, and occasionally interjected related topics regarding the girl, Juliet, and Mr. Kelly.
"By the way, I'm sorry to have not asked right away," she said, "but what is your name?"
"Oh! I'm sorry."
"That's okay," she smiled. "My fault." She extended a hand. I noticed, as long as I was staring at everything, that she had no visible fur anywhere except on the ear-tips. I shook her hand as firmly as I always do.
"I'm November Divosijli," I told her.
"Nice to have you audition with us, and thanks for the sightseeing. It's not important, but everybody calls me Feech."
I was right. She did feel pretty down on herself. It occurred to me to be a little bit peeved that she could be bitter when she had a job in the Theatre. I smiled at her, then remembered she could not see it. "So, how did you come to be here from Minnesota?"
"Mr. Kelly. He let us know he had openings and some of us from Hayden Heath applied. A few more auditioned, too. He has a soft spot for Juliet's classmates, it seems."
She grinned, like I used to when Grandma told me "you'll survive, November."
"I have to go."
"Good luck with callbacks," she said. "Or maybe... Break a leg going out the door? Does that work?"
I engaged in some sort of parting commentary with "Feech" and traversed the lobby carpet quickly to the glass door, shoved it open and gulped in the fresh air. It was over. The audition was over.
I stay home; where else would I go?
In my apartment, where it is dark, there are five lightbulbs, one of which I routinely turn on. There is a CD player. At night I turn on a musical to sleep by. It is usually Cats. I am not amused by this. I simply like the lilt to the music.
I cuddle up to my pillow and during mealtimes I sit and play with my food under the light of the sink's overhead bulb, or read something with my hand propping the pages open over the flecked laminate table.
There is a phone, for which I pay a certain sum each month so that it will be available to receive or send out calls, should someone like myself ever receive or send out calls. I never do. It is always silent. It is not even fingerprinted or accented with dark grey hairs from my wrists.
Truth to tell, I write to my aunt far more often than I even think of calling... Over a telephone, or a videophone, or any other such habitually-kept appliance of communication, the emotions can reveal too much.
Then people worry. So I don't call.
I used to perform in the dining room or the living room.
Then I used to perform, once a year or, when I was incredibly fortunate, more, on the stage at college.
I turn off the light after mealtimes and sit in the dark.
On the second day, it occurs to me to find the phone.
I sit by it.
There are probably about half the number of people in the theatre as compared to the initial audition. In a way, this makes it less threatening and more excitingly intimate, knowing about half of us will be joined in the show and even those who are not will have spent that much longer before an audience (of sorts). In another way, the presence of a number one can actually sort out and count out makes for an intimidating closeness. We don't know who, among those surrounding us, will matter in the future. We don't know who is a stranger we are tied to for just a few hours, and who will be an essential family member for the next few months.
So, supposedly, we forget about all that and just do our best to read the parts.
They will give us some of the music from Chess to look over and sing this time, as well as parts to play off of one another until they have considered all of the combinations that occur to them.
I myself am going through the motions of reading a part with Andrea Dowling.
In fact, in going through the motions, I suppose I am doing it, and somewhere in me the analysis is coming up somewhere near the mark of not-half-bad.
But-- Andrea Dowling...
Keep going, November, just keep going...
No, don't just keep going. Want the part. Get the part.
But I want to curl up and give up, right now. I must look laughable next to Andrea Dowling. She seems to be having fun. I noticed her tense face when I first spotted her, and began tumbling into this odd sort of dream-state, but now with the director's eyes on her she seems to be having the time of her life.
Why I am not following her example is a good question; goodness knows that I may as well look good while I look stupid. Or whatever.
I keep going.
Of course I do. I'm performing.
Goodness knows my family, when I ever lived with one, had a hard enough time getting me to stop once I got started. I used to even overdo it a little bit in college, having those precious few chances to actually act and sing in front of people who wanted me to. Not that my family didn't want me to, just that they didn't solicit it, almost force it, like a director does.
Maybe the masochistic fascination I have with acting is actually some sick sort of rape fantasy. It would make about as much sense as "devotion" and "fulfillment."
Yikes, I did that wrong. No, November, there is no "wrong" in audition, just self and comparison to vision.
This kind of energy is nothing like actual performance energy. This is built of fear, not shyness, but a fear and an anger that helps my shyness along and promotes all three. I'm afraid that because of one small slip I won't get a part. But then, just because of one small slip, how dare they fail to consider me? How could they possibly decide against me for (insert reason, imagined or not, here)? I know why. I'm not good enough. I look silly here. I ought to be ashamed for having shown up. Around and around and around.
Did I say I only wanted to be called back?
Well, as long as I'm here, I am at an audition, so I may as well audition. And that includes all the turmoil that comes with it.
I know some people can, but it never seems I can get into a character during these things. It takes preparation for me, and I didn't want to study the musical ahead of time in case of getting too far into a character image that is not pleasing to this particular producer and director. So I count on my skills, which, for better or worse, gives me plenty of time to think behind the lines.
I'm not going to get a part.
But I have, as of today, I will be able to tell my actor friends if I ever make any, auditioned with Andrea Dowling and in front of Alexander Leaf, who is producing the show along with Lawrence Kelly.
I can't believe this place. It's jam-packed with all these incredible people and they called me back.
With that to go on, I dive into the third time through the section, now read with another actress, as German keeps the groups going. I sneak another glance at Mr. Leaf every chance I get. I can't help it. I'm such a habitual starer, and I keep staring even when it's embarrassing thinking that they might be noticing my staring.
I have noticed a number of scents that are familiar from the initial audition, and filed away faces to go with what names I have heard and what scents connect to whom, but they are all on reserve in my brain, against the strong possibility that by this time tomorrow not a one will recall that I exist.
Adjust tremors in voice, keep going, pause, react. I'm getting good at this. The only problem comes now if I fall into too much of a pattern and don't show the potential I have to be worked with.
In another pause, a stop in the reading during which German is giving my nervous co-reader a little tip (a bad sign, I have found-- if the director is patronizing you, it's about time to be chalking up the whole thing to experience. He's getting you ready to go back out into the world, not to work under him--), I stare some more at Mr. Leaf.
At my height, when Grandma first came home, I was approaching her almost at the level of her seat to my chin. I pattered over eagerly, figuring on one well-placed "please" to get her to feel sorry and come back. I knew what Grandpa had said, I knew it wasn't her fault, even knew the impossibility of a "cure". I just thought, somehow, that if Grandpa and I were going to try, then there would be something to try for. I did not understand, and still do not fully comprehend, precisely what they hoped to accomplish at the hospital by checking for brain waves. It seemed obvious even to a little girl that a chair does not have a brain, as in the body part they showed in diagrams on the old children's health shows.
Grandpa rose from his seat right behind me, and as I reached up and clasped the rounded ends of the armrests on Grandma's new form, he grabbed me gently and quickly around the middle and pulled me back.
I took a breath to ask why, but he was already tempering his voice and continuing:
"No, November, Honey, don't touch."
Again, I readied a "why?" and again, he continued:
"November..." He sighed... "I know you want to touch Grandma, but-- but. But, this chair is very fragile. You see. See the varnish on the wood? What would happen if you climbed on it? You know what can happen and how things... furniture can scratch. You have to try to remember, okay? This is not a toy."
I stared up at him for a few moments, arranging this information in my mind alongside all I had ever learned of Grandma and of rocking chairs.
It did not make sense to me.
I am sure it will, one of these days.
The Thim and Rosemary Kelly Theatre is filled, in the audience space, with neat lines of blue canvas director's chairs. In one of them sits German, for short bits of time. Mostly, however, the budgie-morph is either closer to the stage and barking out directions, although he could easily be heard from anywhere in the building, or speaking to some staff member or other on the middle aisle while keeping one part of his attentiveness tuned to the stage.
In the chair next to German's sits Alexander Leaf, nationally known playwright, world traveler, and... SCAB. I did not know that about him until today. I have never seen anything like him.
It seems that the pet dog I scented during the initial audition belongs to Alexander. It is a Dalmatian, confirming my identification of another, similar scent on that day, for it turns out that Andrea Dowling's Significant Other is the large Dalmatian-morph that can be heard belting out his particular musical assignment in the backstage area for that section of the appraisals. I had seen him on the first day, but I had not seen Alexander. It seems that Lawrence Kelly went West to visit his niece and is leaving the rest of the cast selection up to German and Mr. Leaf, the knowledgeable Theatre Men.
I do not know what Mr. Leaf is. If he were at a costume party, I get the feeling that people would be constantly approaching him and either declaring jubilantly that his was a great (insert obscure fantastical or literary creature of viewer's choice here) costume, or asking him "What are you supposed to be?"
He has a shell over his back, except that it is not any kind of shell I have ever seen depicted anywhere before. It seems rigid, and very thick and black and brown (depending on the angle of the lighting), yet it is segmented. The segments themselves seem to be some sort of SCABS ornament, in an odd sort of way, since they allow for no real bending. His back is hunched, but it is impossible for me to tell whether or not he is old.
He pets his small, quiet pet Dalmatian with claws of extreme length and blackness, claws seeming to bend yet presumably actually giving slightly at their attachment points to his armored fingers. When he smiles, some teeth show, but alongside them sprout blackish fanglike protrusions that give his grin an almost comical, almost frightening appearance. He smiles often, and it is a relief to me to see that his dog trusts him and sits unconcernedly on its chair.
Whether his face is actually covered with scales akin to the shell on his back, or just very dark and extreme in texture, I cannot tell. I swear that I can make out eyes in his expressions, yet I cannot tell whether the eyes actually show, or simply manage to glint a bit past layers of shell. Perhaps his real eyes are somewhere else entirely from the spot to which my own are drawn.
Next to German, he cuts an impressive figure. The two men together almost make me glad that the equally impressive Mr. Kelly is temporarily out of town. Three imposing, authoritative men could be a bit much for me to pretend any kind of confidence around, I think.
"ALL RIGHT!" Calls out Mr. Ross, causing several actors and a crew man to jump and Mr. Leaf's dog to turn his head and blink affrontedly. "HERE'S THE DEAL!"
The auditioners who have been working with the musicians backstage begin trickling out from behind the flats, and soon there is an attentive and rather anxious-smelling group surrounding German and his clipboard.
"I have been told," he says, deep-voiced and bird-harsh, "that we are all done with our song series, and we have seen what we need to see. Therefore, if you would all stay nearby for the next hour, we will be solidifying the cast list today. Be back on this stage, as noted, in one hour, please. Thank you all."
German waves us toward the doors. I notice Feech again, coming into the audience area and reluctantly sweeping with her cane through the group to talk to German. Andrea Dowling is immediately taken up in an animated conversation with a gangly, vibrant mule-morph who must have just come in. In the rush of people out the doors to get a bite to eat, I get suddenly lost.
I don't know where I am, except that it smells like a theatre. I don't know any of these people, except that they are conversing and hungry and, most likely, somewhere in that half-hyped and half-exhausted state that I myself am floating in. Why we are all in the same boat, I don't know. Why I tried this at all, whatever it was, I don't know. Who, among all these people, I will ever come to know in any sort of intimate way, I do not know.
Do any of them live around here? Did they travel to get here? Where is here?
What is performance? Why did I even get up this morning?
After the meal break... I know.
Sitting on one side of me is the bullish-looking person I saw on the first day. It turns out he is a wildebeest-morph; I read with him earlier. He is watching me concernedly, gripping the edge of the low stage and leaning over the script on his lap to try and catch my eye. I know that's what he's doing, but my vision is fixed on Mr. German Ross, because I still cannot believe he did what he just did.
Alexander is talking to that mule-girl, Eppie; Feech and one of the other crew members are muttering to each other behind German somewhere, and while I take in all this, as well as the identities of the people sitting and standing on the stage around me, I keep my eyes and ears focused on German. I keep waiting for him to take the script back.
I'm finally here, and I don't know what to do.
I can't do it, I think. I can't I can't I can't. I lied to you all when I auditioned in the first place. I am not a... professional...
November Divosijli-- Florence.
No one ever tells you, in college, how different it's going to be when your apartment is your own and you're alone and the only thing you have to show is the results of a background the producers never experienced, and you have never seen any of these people before except on stage if at all, and they put you in a starring role before they even get a chance to try you out.
The bluish-furred man next to me is Anatoly. That's all I am aware of; I will remember his own name later.
On the other side of me is a man with black-black hair and a nervous scent. He is staring at his script as if he doesn't know what to do with it, either. I see this without seeing it. I am staring at the director.
German passes out the last of the librettos and looks at me, in a seeming quick glance that lasts a little longer once he realizes how dazed I am.
He winks at me.
This is the first time that it occurs to me that a director might hate auditions, too.
He's just as relieved that it's over as we are.
"Okay, folks," says German, "There are some things I feel you should know."
We shuffle to get comfortable and yet look alert as we begin to get used to the certain bodies and smells around us. I remember this from college; this feeling; this coming together... I begin to feel slightly triumphant, and good...
"First of all," German goes on, "We don't have our own musicians; all these fine musical folks have been borrowed from a local orchestra. So, I want you all to be extra nice to them until our own budget can hire people to match them."
We nod and smile.
"Next of all..."
I notice that Alexander Leaf says very little. He seems to be here mainly in the writer/dramaturg position, and although this makes sense, I keep getting the feeling he should be doing more. Maybe it's his fame that makes me think that. On the other hand, maybe he just doesn't talk much to the group because he uses a vodor... The sound is easily understandable, but maybe he is actually shy...
"... We have no costumer as yet. Therefore I need all of you who have some expertise in this area to help out in that vein. Raise hands now, come on, that's good boys and girls... Okay, Daniel, Kent-- is there nothing you don't do, boy? Thought you were going to be on hand as a back-up dramaturg as well... Sharleyne... All right. And Box Office help."
I raise my hand. I figure I don't have much talent in any other areas besides acting so I may as well volunteer for something safe.
"November. Good... Andrea, great..."
German marks on his clipboard. Eppie, Bix and Andrea's daughter...? I think. Anyway, Eppie bounces over director's chairs just to see if she can, grazing one with the top of a foot on occasion. Daniel, seated over by the piano and crossing and uncrossing his ankles, looks nervous again. German and Alexander have already explained that there will be a meeting to discuss personality traits we should all know and trust each other about.
I kind of like the sounds of that; we were always taught in classes that the basis of a good show is trust. It did not make sense to me that we then ignored this fact in actual production. Maybe there is something to be said for working in a theatre that's run by someone interested in, but not tied to the traditions of, theatre. Maybe Lawrence Kelly had German organize that sort of trust meeting because the logic of it made sense to him.
Bix complains very quietly about the way his white hairs tend to drizzle all over his chosen outfit of black sweat suit all the time.
German looks up again. "You may all think this is a bit over your requirements, being all of you actors and actresses, but the plain facts are that if you don't work in more than one capacity the outcomes of this production are going to be less than any of you might desire. Think back to those high-school shows and how everyone did everything, eh? This is our first show here; I expect to make it something you will all be proud to have been involved in on many levels. And then maybe we can afford to hire a House Manager so Tanya can run Box Office, and maybe we can hire a Technical Director, which we are working on, believe me, and a sound board operator of our own as opposed to borrowing other theatres'. Okay? All with me so far?"
We mutter in an affirmative manner and nod. Someone sneezes.
"Good. Right. Okay. As you know, I am your director. Feech is my assistant director and the Publicist; listen to her." He turns to look back into the carpeted audience area and points out Feech, standing out of the way of the jumping Eppie. "Also, naturally, listen to me." He winks at the assembly in general. "And Tanya-- give her any hassles, and you will answer to me. We need a House Manager. As for a Stage Manager, we are working on it in conjunction with Technical People. For now, Val is it, and I've had Gabe--" he nods towards the wildebeest-morph-- "volunteer as assistant. We're borrowing a make-up artist and hiring a groomer to get you all started along those lines.
"Now go eat something."
We rise not-too-eagerly, still getting a feel for each other as defined fellow cast members and for the Theatre itself.
Mr. Kelly reportedly wants to add on with the building next door at some point, but for now the place is somewhat small, although welcoming and functional. There are even perches above the sound booth where flighted guests could attend shows most comfortably, if they so desired. I hear that Alexander and his pet dog live here, on the premises, in the basement. I don't know whether that's strange to me or just kind of warm and comforting, thinking of the Theatre as someone's permanent home.
I should be deliriously happy. But I start to look around, as people mingle and as we discuss carpools and schedules and families, and I start to see a pattern.
Gabe/Anatoly has a friend with him: Kent/Walter.
Andrea/Svetlana has a friend with her, Bix/Freddie.
Daniel, member of the chorus, has someone waiting back home. He's talking about her, then laughing at something someone says in return. He really gets into the conversation, but whether that is from exuberance or from nervous energy I can no longer tell in the mass of personal scents around me.
Alexander has Silence, his smallish Dalmatian dog.
German has no one, I think, nor Feech, but then when I look up for the sheen of yellow feathers I see that Feech is talking to him about something and it shatters that. Not that I am not talking to people, as well. Not that Feech and Mr. Ross might not be just as alone when they leave this building. It's just that everyone seems to have someone. Someone right now, and I don't belong here.
Yet I do, officially.
I am gazing blankly at the front page of my copy of the libretto when Gabe/Anatoly comes up to me again. Kent/Walter is gesturing vigorously in the background to Bix, who is nodding as if he is about to break into an eager retort as soon as Kent stops. "You okay, there, November?"
I blink, hearing the sound for a moment without responding. It sounds strange for Other people to speak my first name casually, lately; it hasn't been usual since college, and even then I was often alone.
I'm so lonely.
I almost say it, out loud, and feel myself shudder at the shame that could have ensued from spouting off something like that.
The wildebeest waits, patiently.
I respond: "Yes, I'm fine."
He smiles. "You looked a little lost is all. I'm glad to know I'll be working with you. I think we'll all--" he gestures at the group in the space-- "make a good team."
"The producers seem to think so," I manage with a little smile.
He shrugs. He looks around again. "Yeah, well, I think I agree with them."
I know I'm not really responding the way I would want me to if I were initiating contact with me as a fellow cast member.
He waits another respectable amount of time, then asks, "You want to go get something to eat with me and Kent?"
I nod... "Yeah... Sure, I guess I can. Thanks."
He flicks an ear at my hesitation, and inquires, "You got somebody waiting for you? Want to make a phone call?"
"No--" I hold my script up to my chest, focusing my gaze somewhere in the back of the room as if I have just seen another cast member do something interesting. "No-- no one. Thanks for asking me, let's go."
"This is a stupid show!" shrieks out German, pacing among us at the initial rehearsal. "Stupid! The people are stupid and make stupid assumptions! Half the music is incurably corny!"
Kent Dryer beams. Someone coughs.
"Therefore," states the director with a fist to his clipboard, "We are going to treat it as such, and make it work for us. I mean really, come on. If a person in your life acted this way, you would accuse him of having some of the worst personal problems I can think of, anyway.
"You people--" with a sweeping gesture at us all-- "are PAWNS! Chess pieces! Walter almost gets to be one of the actual players, but not quite. These guys--" he puts a hand on Bix's shoulder and nods to Gabe-- "go their whole lives thinking they're something they're not.
"Maybe you, Anatoly, get a little bit of a clue. You, Freddie, you're the winning king. That's all. Who wants to be a king in Chess? But you let yourselves. So!"
German wheels around and stops in front of me.
"Everything centers on the queens. You two, you are the queens." The director lifts my face with a finger under my chin as if illustrating something about me to the rest of the cast. He sets his eyes on Andrea and nods to her.
"I want to see you all play this stupid game to the hilt, or you're sure as hell not the people who do it in the world of the show. You got it? I want to see camp, overworking, overacting, the whole works. I'll tell you when to cut it back. But if there's only ONE message to this entire musical, we might as well make sure the audience gets it. Yes?"
We nod. Someone murmurs something sounding like an affirmative comment to the person sitting next to them.
I look at Bix, who is wagging his tail.
German looks at his clipboard, then eyes Andrea and myself again.
"You two, you queens, you're more valuable, you're more important, and you still have no control. Let's see if we can show that right now, off the cuff. I want to see valuable and helpless. Princesses in glass boxes or whatever the hell. Go-- now."
I take up Florence and put her mostly in my eyes. I notice that Andrea's mouth entertains the most change. Mr. Ross regards us critically, along with the curious rest of the cast.
"Mm-hm..." he nods, slowly. "Okay, yes, I think we're getting somewhere..."
When rehearsals are in the afternoon, I sleep in, and when I can't sleep, the glossy black and caramel of the chair is warm and smiling in its dragon engraving before my eyes in my room...
I sleep in the bathtub, some nights, just so I won't wake up after the sun and see that chair out in the main room.
Grandpa... Grandpa! What were you thinking? Were you thinking she was alive?
Or just that you didn't know?
And why-- why...
One night in the bathtub, I know why. One night, with towels banked up around me for some semblance of bedding, I feel the balls of my dark grey-brown-cream furred feet press against the chill of the white enamel and I shudder. What if that were Grandma? What if there was no warmth, ever, except what you put in, like water over a corpse, water into the bath?
He was afraid.
Afraid I would break her, yes, or scratch her, but also afraid she was either in there or not and there was no way he could tell and if he touched her...
If he touched her, she would be cold.
And he would know she was dead.
Which has really been assumed, by the family, as if the rocking chair is somehow her urn, but which could not be assumed by Grandpa... Or by me.
I curl up in the tub, palms over my head, ears tight to my skull, eyes shut under their dark rims so it is as if I have no eyes at all.
Grandma. If I look at her, she is tempting...
And if I touch her, what then?
Is she there, like Grandpa is (in my mind, and I hope somehow in truth) at the cemetery when I touch the stone slab?
But I know he is dead. I know.
I cry a little, just a few tears seeping around the edges, for missing Grandpa, but I don't know what to feel about the chair.
Anger... Maybe? Something that makes me sick, though. Something wrenching and terrible.
Those tracings of gold-hued grain down perfectly turned dowels... The handrests, the indented and inviting seat; the curve that would hold... my head if I... dared to do what I know I must not, must not. I've covered it with bedclothes, but then it just looks softer and all the more tempting.
There is a show to do.
A wonderful, glorious show.
I have to learn how to apply the right kind of make-up in the right way to my fur and skin; Angelo the Groomer is always telling me to hold my head up and behave like I do when I'm acting so I can learn to get consistent results. The "borrowed" make-up artist mostly helps the Norm members of the cast and touches up what Angelo helps us do. I never knew before the red-haired man that I would swear was a woman and got SCABS, just a hunch I've gotten good at following, arrived with his kit, that there was make-up made especially for use on fur.
It doesn't smell as strong as the normal stuff.
Bix raves about it, and the Norms stick their tongues out at us in jealousy.
I do a lot of giggling.
On the night before Opening Night, Lawrence Kelly puts his arm around my shoulder and takes me aside.
"I haven't seen the whole process of production for this show," he says, cheerfully; "would you say it went well for you?"
"Oh, yes," I assure him, noticing the eager scent about him as has pervaded the air near every member of the Company for the past few days. "I mean... I mean, I don't know how I have-- I mean, that's German's call, but I--"
He chuckles. "That's fine, November, I was asking your opinion. So, you planning on acting again after this run?"
"Oh-- I mean, I would have to audition, but I intend to audition, you know, around here..."
"I'll tell you what we've been thinking, and German and Alexander and I are talking to everyone about this individually."
It can't be what I think it is, but it's shaping up to be that way. But it's impossible. But it's possible...
"I'd like you to think about something for me. Nothing to sign yet, just something to get your brain around. I started this place with the thought in mind of eventually funding "
He's going to say it...
" a repertory--"
He said it. He actually said it, my ear caught it, my brain processed it-- he said it...
" group of professionals to maintain a regular local season. Is that something you'd be interested in? If you're staying around here, that is."
I nod, dumbly.
He pats my shoulder. "No pressure, just give it some thought. We'd like to have you; we're casting for versatility, when we can, and although I suppose I shouldn't make calls based on gut instinct, we think you and some of the others fit into our vision. Hope we might build a group."
He grins. I smile weakly.
"Give 'em a good Dress," he tells me, backing off to, no doubt, go blow the mind of yet another cast member. "Break a paw!"
I put on a great Dress Rehearsal. Even Feech takes me aside and says so, and she's not usually one to do so. I've almost forgotten about being afraid to ever see her again. Maybe she feels good about me, too. I don't know.
I don't know, but I feel the power starting. Just a little, but it's there.
They want me. Permanently.
Me and Daniel and Feech and Bix and everybody that wants to stay.
We're good, damn good.
Daniel still looks and smells nervous a lot of the time. But I think German or Larry got to him, too, because when he comes out of the back with his eyes still sort of raccoon-lined with his make-up, he comes close to me and says, "Hey, November, nice job."
"Thanks," I say. "You too."
"Thanks." He stands for a moment, tousling up his black-black hair with his own hand like an animal rolling in grass after prolonged confinement.
"You know," he says, carefully, always sizing me up-- I'm used to it by now, we all are, and we know to watch for signs of his particular serpentine tendencies acting up-- "You know... I think I could get to feel really comfortable in this place."
Dark, light, blinding light, more dark, flashes, sounds, scents, and then...
Strangers are shaking my paws and congratulating me on a good show.
Eppie is chatting with everyone and then some. Andrea is smiling broadly and making eminently entertaining comments, which should be impossible after the power-drain of doing a show, but she's making them anyway...
Gabe wraps an arm around me and gives me a lick on the cheek, then does the same to Andrea. Bix is making the same rounds. The Dalmatian goes so far as to kiss Silence and Alexander, too, although at the same time he shows distinct humility around the shelled playwright. Everyone does, somehow.
This should be all I ever wanted. Easily.
I'm jostled around in the smiling crowd in the small lobby, past the consistent photographed smiles of the Kellys in their frame, into corners and out of them again, always with my heart filled with my release scant minutes before from Florence and her melancholy life; filled with my own rehashing of my voice and the others and the way I was blinded from seeing the audience but could smell and hear them beyond those lights... Every other member of the cast, I am thinking, could scent the air above the boards and take into themselves a piece of someone there just for them.
Everyone except me.
And yet, there were people here to see me tonight... As Florence.
What about me? Does anyone outside the Theatre know me as me?
Probably not... I don't even know me as anything but an actress and a shy girl. I don't have anybody.
I need to talk to Grandpa.
I surprise Gabe and Kent by mentioning casually that I think I'll be leaving now.
"Aren't you staying for the party?"
"It's just downstairs in Alexander's apartment. You're not staying?"
Gabe's blue-grey hands hold my dark ones, making me just slightly uncomfortable... I don't want to insult him, but I need to leave. I need to be with someone. Someone from my other family, before I can have this one in this building.
I shake my head.
"Listen," says Kent, sternly, a tone he has gotten good at in playing Walter, "we can't let you go home alone. It's late, it's pitch-dark out, and you're a SCAB. Nope, we're going to at least have to drive you."
I don't want them to know where I'm going. On the other hand, he's right. I squirm a little.
"Let me drive you home."
Something comes to me. "No, no-- It's very close by. Honestly, I can change so that no one will notice me. Honestly."
Gabe's grey and Kent's amber eyes register some doubt, but I must appear earnest enough. I don't even know if I can do it again as I did a long time ago, but I need to be alone until I can get to the cemetery.
Gabe releases my hands. "Well... All right..." He snorts a little, and Kent gives me one good scenting for honesty-- I can tell by his own scent. He looks Norm, but he's a she-wolf or something. We learned all that when we had our meeting. I feel a twinge of shame at not having told them... about... But it really doesn't have anything to do with Theatre. Does it...?
"Anyway..." I say, beginning to back off to the glass door...
"We'll miss you at the party," Kent tells me.
"Thank you," I reply, "and I'm sorry, but I need to go home tonight. 'Bye."
I get out of there.
The streets are empty in that mid-time of most of the audience having gone home and the actors still hanging around. Most of the buildings along the street are dark, except where a streetlamp gives a false gleam of light to a window.
I look down the sidewalk one way, and then another, but see and hear no one.
Grandpa's stone is a few miles away... I could walk it in humanoid form...
But Kent is right. I almost turn around and go back in to ask for a ride, but decide that now that would look stupid. And then I wouldn't be able to ask them to drop me off at the cemetery. I just wouldn't.
I look at my paws. I close my eyes, as if I am still looking at them without looking.
My tail... If I recall correctly, I started with getting it to be smaller, the one time I did this.
I step out of the lights from the theatre and carefully take off my clothes, then stand on them, concentrating. I wonder about someone coming out and seeing me, or maybe even an attacker lurking in the deeper shadows just behind me, but nothing seems amiss in the area.
Somehow I manage to push away the ghostly fears enough to get my tail to recede. I feel the sensation as if bones were melting, but coolly, without a wrench or a sting. I flex my claws to keep my mind on the shift into small, November-the-cat until I am that, staring with the same-but-smaller yellow eyes out at the dark.
I pick up my housekey in my mouth and start trotting for the cemetery, but it is not long before the shadows begin to daunt me, and I can smell too many strange cats, here on the ground... And dog urine... And grease... My paws feel sticky and gritty already and I have only gone half a mile.
I could go home.
I continue trotting, but startling at every new sound. I cower in the gutter when a car comes by, wanting that tiny wall of cement where I can use it as a protective stand at my back, and I know I look ridiculous. I hope no real cats show up and see me. Not only that, but what if they wanted to fight? What if I'm on their turf?
I mew a little around the key in my mouth, and my own ears flick at the sharp, pleading sound.
Another few blocks, and I've had it. I'm going home.
But I can't go in half-morph form, I realize. I'd be naked.
I make a turn and trot determinedly for my apartment, trying to look purposeful and tough, watching at every moment for cars and scenting the air for those dogs that left urine everywhere. I smell the marked areas of a tomcat's territory, and hurry a little faster.
Someone left broken glass on the sidewalk... I can see it shimmering like little stars or jewels in pieces on the pavement. I see it too late to avoid stepping in the first of it, though, and then half-limp, half-purposefully-stride on towards my room.
I need a bath, I think. A bath, and a long talk with Grandpa. You there, Grandpa? I didn't make it to the cemetery. I'm sorry...
At last, the flaking paint of my thin-walled building comes into view.
I climb the stairs, then at my own door I pause and press up against the wood to change my fur back out to the size of skin that covers the whole me; my bones refill their spaces, and I insert key in lock and go in.
Just like I like it.
I break down.
I can't take it.
I remember... I always remember...
Grandma and her cat, and the empty house when Grandpa died, and Uncle Sherman and Uncle Tad each on one side of the chair and carrying it out for me...
I'm so jealous of them.
I clench my fists. Damn them!
No! No-- I don't mean to damn anybody. I really don't. It's not fair it's not fair it's not--
I reach up and turn on the light.
The chair and I are both naked, although she looks quite a lot more dignified and fine than I do, I know.
I don't think...
I go for the bathtub, trying desperately to stay the temptation I really know I'm going to give in to anyway. The water warms me and cleans the grit from my feet and hands; I rub the tearstains from my face fur.
She's still out there. She never moves. No one ever touches her. Just Tad and Sherman, that one time.
Were you afraid, Grandpa? Of the cold? Wood is cold even when it's alive, isn't it.
I almost cry again, but I don't.
When I leap out of the tub, I am the cat.
Exhausted from Opening Night, the dark walk, the changes... Grandma...
The chair awaits, smooth and dark and grooved for sitting in.
I gauge the distance, eyeballing the curve of the seat versus the arch of my body and the strength behind my leap, and I jump, that lightly that I don't even rock... Her... as I land on the slick varnish.
What the hell. I'm not even thinking anymore. This isn't even me. I may as well.
I balance on my haunches at the very rim of the chair's seat, and begin a gentle, but determined, rocking motion with my torso and front legs. I stare spacily at the floor and don't pay any attention to anything until I feel the rocking strengthen under me in the way it does on a swing or in a cradle when one has enough momentum going.
Then, I allow myself to slide all the way back into the semi-circle of ornamented dowels and turn around three times, while the chair is still rocking.
If I can just go to sleep while the momentum lasts, the rocking...
Two sensations wake me.
One is the sensation of Two AM. I know it well. I would not even need to look at the clock.
The other is my purring, rhythmic ins and outs in my chest over my curled, warm body on the chair.
Is still rocking.
They'd still be at the party. At least until three am, I think. At least...
I know what he'll say when I ask. I know what he'll say. But can I make myself ask?
My hand shakes as I dial the numbers. The chair is rocking almost imperceptibly, but rocking, with the warmed blanket I placed over her armrests. My mouth sort of hangs open whenever I look at her. It's not quite integrated yet... I just stare and don't really get past the staring... But what I really want to do is wrap myself all up in the chair and never let go and sob and tell her how sorry I am, whether or not she can hear me.
She felt me. She felt me. Okay, maybe not me, but the temperature, the warmth. She responded. She needs people as much as I do. We both do. It's my responsibility by her-- and by myself.
I didn't tell anyone... Not even when we had our getting-acquainted trust meetings when we all learned about Daniel and Kent and what Bix and Gabe think on various Issues...
The vodor-voice that answers is Alexander's. I know what he'll say. It frightens me. But I have to ask, even though I know that asking means... Telling, and doing...
I squeak out, "Could I-- I mean, are you-- I mean, could I join the party?"
Alexander's vodor crackles a bit, then replies,"Ofv course, No-vember. Iyll send one ofv the boys with a vehicle."
Here goes. I shiver, but whether with dull fear or repressed happiness is hard even for me to tell.
"Oh, thank you, Alexander, and, I wondered, please, if-- if perhaps... my Grandmother could come too."
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