|Entrances and Exits
by Phil Geusz and J. (Channing) Wells
© Phil Geusz and J. (Channing) Wells -- all rights reserved
It was a slow, lazy Summer Friday evening at the Blind Pig Gin Mill. I sat at my usual stool, down at the end so as to keep the crowds at a distance. I was drinking a caffeine-free cola, but expected to shift to various vegetable juices with vodka as the evening progressed. It had NOT been a good day. Donnie, telepathic as always, filled my paw cup and kept his silence. I needed to unwind from frustrating, repeated failure, and he could tell. I was left alone.
I had started the day by waking up with one of my cage cases, as Splendor refers to the patients I sometimes spend weeks living with in an effort to return some degree of functionality to their lives. This was a fellow lagomorph, someone who until a few months back had been a schoolteacher of exceptional skill and dedication by all accounts. But, having spent weeks caged with what SCABS had left of him, I had finally been forced to agree that there was no longer anyone home. And I had watched as they hauled him off to a lapine colony, muzzle pressed against the wire of his cage as he nervously but helplessly contemplated the trauma of a ride.
It had sent shivers down my spine. Even now, I sometimes regressed to that state myself for minutes or hours or perhaps under exceptional conditions a day or two. We rabbits have a lot of trouble with that. Someday, could I fail to return, and face the future that I had just watched begin to unfold for what had once been an exceptionally decent human being? It had happened to many of my fellow lapines, many indeed.
I hated SCABS, and I hated the colonies. Most of all though, rabbit or not, I hated losing. And I had lost today, a big one. No doubt about it.
His wife hadn't even been there to see him go. I didn't blame her for filing for divorce so quickly, or even for being so nervous and jumpy at the idea of meeting with me. But she could have been there to say goodbye- Jim had really been scared of the truck...
Yes, there would definitely be some vodka in the mix tonight.
Then, as the day had progressed it hadn't gotten much better. A cage case takes a lot of time. I have to spend seven days a week, damned near 24 hours a day living as an animal myself in order to make the whole thing work. It's incredibly boring usually, and when I do it off-site among norms or even a with lot of SCABs who are unfamiliar with my methods it can be demeaning. The results are often worth it, but even after a successful session I need to relax, catch up with the news, socialize a little with Shortcake and just good ordinary people. Usually I take a few days off. But not today, naturally, not after one of the must gut-wrenching emotional experiences of my life. Today there had to be an emergency call from Mrs. Swindell...
I signaled Donnie and asked him to start adding vodka. If I was going to go over it again and again, I had no intention of doing it sober.
Mrs. Swindell was a SCAB, sure enough. And one who suffered from all the SCAB-related psycho-complexes of insignificant self-worth, instinctual influences intruding into her daily life, feelings of inhumanity, the whole shebang. In fact, every time a new SCAB-related psycho-complex was catalogued, she suffered from it within days. Unemployed and having lots of free time, I figured she had better knowledge of the SCABS databases than I did. She needed extensive counseling on a regular basis.
Because she had two square inches of sparse fur on her lower back. That was all SCABS had done to her.
It was very hard to take her histrionics after seeing what I had with Jim that morning. She was so traumatized, she said, when she realized her energy levels had dropped yet again. I explained to her for the thousandth time that she had so little three-toed sloth in her makeup that it was impossible for her behavior to be instinct driven. It was purely psychological, I earnestly assured her, but she was certain I just didn't understand.
Yeah, I understood alright. "Mrs. Swindell," I asked, "how's your job going down at Dudson's?"
"Oh!" she exclaimed, "that's why I came by today! I was feeling so dreadfully tired, so, well, slow if you know what I mean, that I called in sick again. And they fired me! It's discrimination, I tell you! Dudson's is owned by Norms, you know."
Right. I was getting better at this counseling thing- I'd nailed her in one guess. "Yes, Dudson's is owned by a Norm. Alex Dudson is his name. His youngest daughter died of the Flu, and his eldest son is living in the Caribbean because as a Komodo dragon SCAB he can't tolerate our climate. He's one of the Shelter's biggest donors, and he gives to SCABS victims in other ways, too."
I watched the dreams of a lawsuit die in her eyes. It wasn't pretty. "Well, humph, be that as it may it just didn't work out. I need you to restart my subsidy until you can find me something more suitable to a person with my handicaps."
My temperament has been much more patient since SCABS gave me my ears and fur and tail. It really has. But even a lapine has his limits. Splendor would back me on this one, I was sure. "Mrs. Swindell, I don't think I CAN find anything suitable for a person with your handicaps."
This pleased her- I was finally giving up and she could quit worrying about that dreary work stuff. She tried to stroke me to reinforce her victory. "I know you've tried, Phil. Really you have. Seven different jobs you've found for me- who could ask more! You're such a dear..." And she reached across my desk and scratched my ear.
My skin crawled. Therapy books be damned- I knew from the shop floor how to handle a genuine malingerer. Carefully I brushed her hand away before she got too intimate, and explained. "But your handicaps have nothing to do with SCABS."
She pulled back abruptly. "What do you mean?"
"Mrs. Swindell, we have limited resources here. Your subsidy does not come from government funds, and it is paid entirely at the discretion of the management of the West Street Shelter. I am officially determining in your case that your handicap consists of congenital laziness and mercenary instincts that predate your bout with the Flu. Probably by many years. If you wish to appeal this decision, you may speak to Splendor. Good day, Ma'am."
First she screamed a bit. That was bad enough. Then she attacked me.
I have the smallest office in the shelter, by choice. I feel safer in small places. And my desk is carefully placed at a diagonal across the corner by the door to make me feel that I have a place to hide if I need it. In the past, this had served me well by giving me a most-welcome boost in confidence, even if it did make some of my larger clients a bit claustrophobic. When she came for me I dropped down from my chair, and hit a panic button. Then I went for the little trap door I had designed for the desk so that I could have a clear shot into the corridor. I like hidden trap doors- it's a rabbit thing.
But this time it didn't work. The silly cow had put her leg across my secret exit, either by cunning or dumb luck. And she was shouting and beating on me and cursing...
I panicked before help arrived, wresting myself from Swindell's surprisingly powerful grip and dodging about the office as she chased me. Help arrived in under a minute, but it was too late for me- I was every bit as much a scared rabbit as Jim had been that morning. Splendor hauled Swindell away, while Paul the custodian and sheep unamorph tried to lure me out from under my desk.
Eventually, Paul got me down the corridor and into my apartment/closet with Shortcake, who I hadn't made time for in over a week. She was overjoyed to see me, and in my current mood I was more pleased to see her than any human.
I didn't come out for hours. And when I finally did, it was to snag a ride to the Pig.
Where I currently sat, planning a nice little drunk.
Things had not been going well at all, lately.
I was into my second real drink when Copernicus and Wanderer came bustling up, accompanied by a couple of the lupines. I was easier around the carnivore types now, probably because with a job and a purpose in life I was just generally a happier person. But there still was and probably always would be a certain underlying tension. Wanderer handled it by blithely ignoring it of course, and I wouldn't have it any other way. Copernicus had also become a close friend and sometimes drinking buddy, but the other lupines kept their distance. I appreciated the gesture.
"Phil," Wanderer exclaimed in his false but pleasing English accent. "Can we borrow you a moment to settle a dispute?"
A dispute? Involving Coops? This I had to hear about. "Of course. What can I do?"
"Hop down on the floor a moment."
Mystified, I complied.
"Would you be so kind as to sit on your haunches?"
"Sure." I dropped to all fours, and sat comfortably on the floor. You never need a cushion when you're a rabbit. At least there are a FEW positives...
'Now, please hold still". Wander got out a tape measure. I looked up at Coops, but he shrugged. He was as mystified as I was. Wanderer fiddled a bit, decided I was widest across the hips, and measured. "He's 20 inches wide. I think that should explain everything, Copernicus."
The huge lizard was still as mystified as I was. "I just don't get it" he finally said.
Wanderer looked pained. "Look, you're the one who complained that I was exaggerating while telling my boys here how close I came to beating you at darts, right?"
"And a bullseye would have beaten you. Am I right again?"
"You are," he conceded.
"And I missed it by less than 20 inches, certainly. So I did indeed come within a hare's breadth of victory, sir. You owe me an apology."
Copernicus groaned and rolled his reptilian eyes as the lupines howled in victory. In sympathy I shook my head dramatically and hopped back up to my drink as the crowd dispersed. Only at the Pig...
Business slowed a bit, and Donnie came over to visit. He signed that he was sorry to hear that I'd had such a rough day. But he liked the way I'd handled Mrs. Swindell.
I rocked my ears forward by way of thanking him for the compliment. I'd never be half the social worker Donnie was.
Donnie went on a bit about how people like Swindell could destroy the good names of us all if we didn't have the guts to deal with them ourselves. But there were a lot of folks who genuinely needed help out there.
I knew what he was doing. Maybe I wasn't in his league, but I was in the business too. I needed some reinforcement, though, so I let him go on. He surprised me.
Had I ever met a Dalmatian SCAB named Michael Bix?
No, I replied, not that I recalled. I was a regular at the Pig mostly by courtesy, as cage work took up a lot of my life.
Donnie explained that he'd only been in two or three times. His first time he'd shown up in some kind of theatrical getup and been tossed out drunk after trying to punch out the bartender, but that since then he'd been strictly non alcoholic and mostly quietly stayed to himself.
Damn, I thought, you'd have to be REALLY drunk to take a swing at Donnie. He was what, in excess of 600 pounds of muscle? And why would you want to hit him in the first place? I said as much.
Donnie smiled, and went on. This Bix guy really HAD lost a major Shakespearean role that night, one with a troupe of Norms even, according to Wanderer. The lupine would know, too, given his own ambitions. It was the kind of break that a Norm actor would kill for, much less a SCAB. No wonder he'd hit the sauce so hard. Since then, Bix was working down at Archie's Automotive, a tire and repair shop where a lot of SCABs did business. Donnie had run into him there, pricing tires for the heavy-duty pickup he needed to haul himself around. Bix had been pleasant, just as he always was in the bar. But never close, never open. And the pain had never left his eyes...
I sighed and looked into my drink. The world was full of SCABs trying to get by. And this one had a decent job and obviously some skills he could still use. Why should I stick my nose into his business?
The answer to that question topped off my drink with carrot juice, no vodka. Unasked, he had sensed I was approaching my reasonable limit and was giving me a gentle hint. Donnie is the most remarkable judge of human character I have ever met. If he thought I should do something, I would be wrong not to listen. And why was he telling me this if not to introduce us? I said, simply, "All right. I'll try." And smiling, he had signed that he was picking up his new tires around noon tomorrow...
He swung by the Shelter on the way, and I hopped up into the high cab. I still avoided walking in public as much as I could, improved confidence or no. The danger of my going out into the world was real, not imagined. Especially in a neighborhood like that around West Street...
Still, it was good to see some new territory. I hadn't been this way in months, and I realized I'd forgotten how nice it was to cross the river and smell the living green, and roll through the small park with its fresh-cut grass and planted flowerboxes. The scents made me hungry, good breakfast or no. I was on the verge of asking to stop for a quick nibble when we pulled up to an older dilapidated-looking 4-bay garage. Recognizing the truck, a billy-goat SCAB of low degree waved Donnie to an unoccupied slot. This was Archie, I soon discovered, and he told me it was fine by him if I wandered around a bit, as long as I was careful. Kindly, he added that he very rarely saw any stray dogs in the neighborhood, but that if I needed to deal with any sort of threat his mechanics would be glad to help, as all were SCABs. They understood.
I liked Archie.
Saturday is the busiest day in almost any garage, and this was no exception. Michael was there as I expected; being the newest employee he was least likely to rate the day off. He was beneath a very familiar looking sedan, muttering under his breath. I looked the car over with proud eyes- my plant had built it while I was still working there. It was one of mine. Wondering what was wrong, I glanced about and saw a rebuilt starter still in its box, waiting for installation. Uh-oh, Michael was in for a bad time. I got up on my toes and looked inside the passenger compartment, and sure enough the vehicle was equipped with an automatic. Changing the starter was, to use the factory technical term, a bitch.
Unless you knew a little factory trick...
Underneath the car, Michael was figuring this out for himself. Judging by the sound, he had the old starter disconnected and was flopping it around to get it out. I knew he would be at it a long time- it would not clear the exhaust pipe, even though it looked like it should. I could picture the whole setup in my mind's eye. Carefully, trying to keep my fur motor oil and grease-free I dropped to the ground and stuck my head underneath the raised car. "Give it up," I said. "It won't clear. Trust me on this one."
He looked up, annoyed. Then he took in my lapine form and stared just a second before realizing what he was doing. It was OK with me, I was used to it. There aren't all that many rabbit SCABs out walking the streets, after all. Especially high-degree white furred ones.
"Yeah, I think you're right. I'm going to have to pull the exhaust. It'll take at least an extra hour, damnit. And the owner's waiting out front."
"If you do that, you're liable to mess it up. You know how it is with exhausts- once you start to take it apart, the whole thing can go to pieces. You're as likely as not to end up replacing the whole thing. It costs money as well as time."
He closed his eyes and seemed to use some kind of relaxing technique. "I'm new here, and new to doing this for a living. Archie will kill me." I doubted that from what I'd seen. But I understood his concern if he still felt he was proving himself.
"Tell you what. I think we can work around it. Have you got an old broom?"
He looked at me like I'd lost my mind. As a lapine, I'd gotten used to that, too. Finally he spoke. "Leaning in the corner."
I retrieved it and went to the back of the car. Everything was just like I remembered it there. With awkward paws I slid the broom's handle a foot and a half or so up the tailpipe, and told Bix to have the new starter ready. Mystified, he did what he was told. Then I told him to get clear, and applied a familiar pressure and twist, just SO. It was hard with my new body, and I had to use my teeth for the twist, but I got it right and the old starter "clunked" to the ground as the exhaust warped under the pressure I was exerting. "Urgh!" I mumbled around the broom handle, encouraging Bix to hurry. I was having trouble maintaining my leverage with my poorly suited forelimbs and low body weight...
Bix was in motion instantly, popping the new starter through the gap I'd opened. "OK!" he shouted, and I relaxed in relief. I had been really afraid I could no longer do that trick, but I'd still had it in me.
He bolted it in and wired it up in a jiffy, and it worked properly on the first try. I listened contentedly to the twin camshaft motor humming away, and felt a warm glow I hadn't known in ages.
I had helped fix something, forepaws and all...
We talked for a bit, naturally, and I had explained how I'd been a union rep at the plant the car had come from. Once we'd gotten a bad shipment of starters in, and hadn't realized it until almost 8,000 cars had been built. About 6,000 of them were equipped with automatics, and management had gone ape over the costs of pulling that many exhausts on top of all their other troubles. A close friend of many years had an inspiration, and came to me to present it to management for her, as she was very shy. I had demonstrated the proposed procedure at least a dozen times to progressively higher ranking executives, until I became very proficient. The company had saved a fortune, and my friend had gotten a substantial bonus. That was how things were supposed to work. Everyone walked away happy.
Bix seemed to enjoy our little talk. The legendary Paul Newman excepted, it was unusual to find an actor or for that matter any "artsy" type with an appreciation of automobiles. When I mentioned this, Michael had abruptly clammed up, and left to tell Archie the job was done.
Donnie was right. I had seen an enormous amount of pain descend on him, and his eyes had shuttered right over. This guy was really suffering. I didn't usually do carnivores, but somehow Bix seemed less threatening than most. Maybe it was because we both had domesticated roots...
When he'd come back to clean up, there being no more cars in line, I explained who I was and what I did. He was trying to ignore me, in a polite way, but I wouldn't be brushed off. Finally, I got blunt.
"Look, I can't even drive anymore. I don't own a car. The reason I'm here is that Donnie thinks we ought to talk, and I'm inclined to agree with him. You're wound as tight as a three-day alarm clock. You want to talk about it, fine. Look me up at the West Street shelter. You don't, it's your business and your life. But I happen to think you're a fool if you believe that you can deny what's going on inside you. And a bigger fool if you don't trust Donnie's judgement." And with that, I turned on my heel and walked- I had intruded enough.
"Hey, Phil!" Bix called. I stopped and turned.
"Thanks for that tip on the exhaust."
I wished I could smile. Instead I rocked my ears. "That's OK. I enjoyed working with my hands again, even if I don't have them any more."
He smiled, despite himself. And I went to meet Donnie, who looked to be just finishing up.
I had earned a few days off. I would use part of them to pump whatever passed for Wanderer's brain. And maybe make a few phone calls.
Somehow, I figured I'd see Bix again, even if he didn't know it yet...
I get these dreams sometimes.
You'll have to take my word for it, of course. You can't see the pictures in my head. It would make this sort of thing a lot easier if you could. As it is, my words will have to suffice. I am an aspiring writer, after all. I have a play in the works. It's called Sommerset. It's a heart-rending, rather smarmy and emotional thing that will be finished by the time of the Last Trump, I am certain. And when it is, I will present it in glory to a famous New York Repertory company, who will promptly see every ounce of beauty that I have sweated and burned to distill into my words, and will therefore bump their planned Neil Simon festival into next season so that they can devote their entire powers towards extracting the truth of my work. Representatives from Samuel French, Inc. will attend the opening night gala, and at the reception afterwards will beat their way through the seething crowds of fans to offer me silver-plated contracts and pens with ink of liquid gold. My name will be given top billing in theatres around the country as the nation swoons over their new Favorite Son. Tennessee Williams, eat your bleedin' heart out.
I am also an actor.
And that's the problem.
I get these dreams sometimes. Not those kinds of dreams. That's the first thing that people think of. I wouldn't blame you, if you did. Dogs are famous dreamers. For centuries, man has watched his faithful canine companion walking the paths of the Dreamlands, legs wiggling in suppressed motion, muffled 'wrfs' escaping his throat, nostrils wiggling in scent-signing, eyes firmly closed to the outside world. And man has watched this, and has pondered the immortal-but-not-terribly-profound question, "Do Dogs Dream?"
Yes, we do. And what are we dreaming about, you may ask? We dream of chasing little bright streamers of scent through the landscapes of our minds. We dream of death and of life. We dream of carrion, the large and the small of it. And we dream of rolling in it. That is what we dream of. That is what I dream of. Because I am a dog. Kind of.
My name is Michael Woodrow Bix. The son of a starched White-Irish-Linen mother and a French Protestant father, both proud American citizens and both, unfortunately, deceased. I am an artist and a dreamer, a poet and an architect of thoughts, a seer of worlds and an extroverted Promethean ne plus ultra. And I am an actor.
It is a fact about my being. I could put it on my driver's license. Directly underneath my name or my date of birth. Slightly above the spot that indicates my eye color (brown) and my hair color (descriptively listed as "White, Black Spots;" the state DMV will ever be practical that way...) and directly to the left of the stunning full-color photograph of Michael Bix in all his Dalmatian glory, smiling that insipid and vaguely sick-looking smile that even naturally photogenic people get when their picture is being snapped directly after their being placed under the heavy lamps and being asked detailed questions about organ donation.
It would say, "Soul: Actor."
And that, as I have said, is the problem.
Yes, I have the traditional doggy dreams. I can't tell you how many aethereal rocks I have meticulously pissed on in the process of carefully marking my dream-territory. But I have other dreams as well. Sometimes they mix and swirl together with the doggy ones; it's to be expected, I guess. My brains still have not completely accepted nor admitted the fact that for the past four-or-so years, I have been, for all practical purposes save my bipedal stature and my six feet of height, a Dalmatian. So, for example, on the typical night, after spending hours upon hours romping through the forests of the Dreamlands joyously chasing the vibrant smell-trails of teeny little rodents and lagomorphs, I suddenly find that everything stops. The forests clear, and the clean scent of vegetative matter dissolves into another smell I know so achingly well.
The smell of the Stage.
Ask any actor. Even the hominid ones. The Theatre has a smell to Her. It is sawdust and upholstery, grease and greasepaint, ozone and smoke. The must of ancient fabric and the miasma of new paint. The sharp, stinging odor of a slowly-cooking gel placed too close to a malfunctioning light. Soap and cold-cream, base and powder, oil and sweat. You cannot know unless you have experienced it firsthand. It's like nothing else in all of Creation. My words will never do it justice. But I'm hoping to set the scene a little here. Got the picture? Good.
Magnify it tenfold. A hundredfold. Very possibly a thousandfold. Add the smell of excitement. The vague and not-quite identifiable smell of nerves. The odor of... passage. Your fellow actors leaving trails of scent as they enter Stage Left, Cross Downstage to the Table, then to the Couch... or enter Stage Right, Cross to the Coatrack... overlapping and combing their scents into a fibrous and gleaming network. A tapestry of smell-color into which every step that you make weaves yet another vital, personal, critical thread. And... lastly and most overwhelmingly, the literal avalanche of human odor which rolls like silent thunder onto the stage floor at the very moment that the curtain rises, smell created by the hundreds and hundreds of individual souls that make up that wonderful, fickle, horrid and glorious entity known as the Audience.
And that, my friend, is what the Theatre smells like to me.
In my Dreamland, it is this odor that replaces the innocence of the forest.
And as the forest vanishes into the mists, the Space appears. It's never the same place twice. Two weeks ago, it was a vast and glorous thing of Byzantine columns and velvet seats. Last week, a makeshift stage in a bombed-out shell of a building in Bradenburg, with blankets and folding chairs. Early this week, the back of a pickup truck, lighting provided by a hand lantern. Two nights ago, a charming amphitheatre deep in the woods of Wisconsin that I visited once as a child. And last night, a textbook study in "modern proscenium" decked out in earth-tones; the sort you'd find being used as the Main Stage for a medium-sized university somewhere in the Middle West. The appearance is but trapping. Wherever it is, it is a Theatre. And its soul is always the same.
The air thickens...
And then, She is there present. The very Soul of the Space. In my mind, She appears eerily familiar to the images that I still carry of my mother, or my father, or perhaps both. Auburn of hair, green of eye, pale of skin. She, too, takes a number of forms, but like the space that she represents, She is always the same. Because She has the Smell. And I know Her well.
"Mistress." I murmur, bowing my head in a gesture of deepest respect.
My brain is still confused, because in these dreams I approach her as a dog only, my hands gone to feet and my frame quadripedal in stature. My fully canine shape is a remnant from my time spent romping in the blissful dream- woods, just moments earlier. This also, incidentally, means that I am quite naked and defenseless before Her. Just as She wants.
"Michael." She says, recognizing me. And in that one word, like the perfect Actress that She (naturally) is, She floods my dream-struck mind with acres and oceans of meaning.
She is sorrowful at her lost Son. She does not understand why I left Her. She is angry and hurt, confused and insensible. For all her power, she is strangely childlike herself, an adolescent faerie queen, lacking the ability to comprehend we foolish mortals.
The Theatre is a jealous mistress, indeed.
I try to explain to Her that it wasn't my choice. That I have fought like a thing possessed to keep Her company. That I have dedicated my life to Her, eschewing more profitable and satisfying professions to bathe in Her often-sparse glory. That my soul is Hers, and indeed has been Hers from the very beginning, ever since the time just shy of my fourth birthday that I played the First Wiseman in the annual Christmas pageant at my mother's church; wherein Little Michael was bearing Gold for the Christ Child but, at the last moment, accidentally ended up tripping on the kneeler and dropping the heavy foil-wrapped parcel smack on the head of the Newborn, thankfully played by a vinyl doll for this particular production. Without missing a beat, he retrieved the box, leaned over the Manger, and "inspected" the doll therein. Then, nodding soberly to himself, he stood up, and in a loud voice, proclaimed to the congregation, "Don't worry! He's okay!"
Everyone laughed. And at that moment, my soul became Hers.
My Mistress laughs as well, remembering this moment quite fondly. I try to maintain her happiness, by reminding her of the good times we've had. Arsenic and Old Lace. A Midsummer Night's Dream. Search and Destroy. The Kentucky Cycle. On and on, production after production, from my childhood days in Elementary School musicals, on through High School, and College beyond. And lastly, the Professional Stage. Harald Wallace's Merchant of Venice. The show that was going to be my big break. My final entry into Her lifelong favor.
And then She grows sorrowful again. Because it didn't work.
Her child has SCABS. And when you're a six-foot tall humanoid Dalmatian, the word "conspicuous" takes on a whole new meaning. Especially when you're trying not to draw focus away from critical scenes. It was a wonderful experiment on Wallace's part, a glorious and insightful gamble; but in the final analysis, it failed utterly.
I was canned.
Leaving me stranded in a nameless city somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard. A city containing no less than twenty- three active Repertory Theatre companies, large and small. Not one of which has ever been interested in replicating Wallace's grand experiment.
Leaving me with nothing, no job, no hope, no muse.
"Damn it!" I howl at Her, then. "This is your fault. Some good it does me to be your consort. For all you care, I could just sit in my room, acting for an audience of none, whiling away the hours until I eventually collapse from starvation. But I need a job. I need to pay for the groceries, the utilities, the rent. Yes, I'm working at an auto shop. It's my only other marketable skill. Mistress, you know that, given the choice, I'd be back in an instant."
I pause then, focusing my bitterness. "But it's not my damn fault that no-one believes in me..."
And then, quite suddenly, She begins to cry.
I sit there in uncomfortable silence as her tears flow. Then, sensing the need to do something, I plod purposefully over to Her, my toenails clicking on the boards.
I lay my head in her lap. And still the tears fall.
And the tears become cold, and intermittent, and focus themselves, as my consciousness shifts, into that damn leaky pipe above the single boxspringless mattress that serves me in office of a bed here in the Lutheran Hostelry. It's an awful little room, small, dark and tea-colored, only spottily lit by a single naked bulb in the ceiling. I share a bathroom with four other tenants. It's cheap. But it's not free. And that's the only thing that's keeping the single remaining flame of my pride alive and burning, albeit feebly. I'm not a charity case. It's the only thing I have left.
My only possessions of any value are piled nearby the broad windowsill; my haphazard stack of books and scripts, my omnipresent mechanic's tools, and, of course, the one that hurts the most -- my old theatrical makeup kit. A single antique promotional poster of the Gielgud-Burton Hamlet and an electronically unsound twelve-year-old vid-feed complete the decor. A tiny room for a tiny life.
The leaky pipe pitterpats on my face.
Sunlight slouches uneasily into the room.
And my tiny digital alarm clock breaches Seven. There is a click, and the radio comes on, to the sounds of station identification. Promptly, an annoying morning-show person attempts to entertain me with insipid host banter and then informs me in a rather demanding tone of voice how wonderful a day it is, completely covering over the instrumental beginning of a modern top-40's song that is its only redeeming quality. I shut all of them up with a brush of my hand to the snooze button. If only everything were that easy.
Michael Bix: Welcome to your life.
Good fucking morning.
Eight A.M. sees me making the relatively easy walk through the limp morning haze from the Hostel to Archie's Automotive, the near-downtown area's one and only totally SCAB-friendly service and repair station. Archie himself is already there, munching on a handful of long grass from the nearby park. He probably has been here for several hours already. Arch is going over the daily stores again; he is nothing if not careful, claiming repeatedly that if his clients have nowhere else to go, then they jolly well better be able to find it at his place. The business is his life. He's pretty much sunk everything into it, both in terms of his resources and his personal time. And he gets by. Sure, the place is in serious need of a good remodeling. Heck, he hasn't even gotten around to replacing the long-burned-out neon that used to grace the sign some years ago, I am told. But he gets by. As well as any of us ever do.
I receive the usual hand-raised-in-greeting salute from the other boys as I pass. I return the gesture to each in turn. Jonesy is taking the incoming folks; there's always a rush of 'em, right before the workaday proper begins, folks trying impatiently to fit their latest motor-vehicle crisises into already-cramped schedules. Jonesy's good at handling that sort of customer. You wouldn't expect that a four-foot-high Praying Mantis would come off as much of a people person, but Jonesy manages. Something to do with the voice, I think. We all have our skills.
My punch-card is waiting for me, as always. Archie does this more out of formality than anything else; he says he pretty much trusts us to manage ourselves time-wise. The notable exception to this is Scott, the straight-out-of-high- school Grunge Hamster, who is habitually late for work. Archie's cautioned him on it a couple of times, but he's really too much of a softie to actually fire anybody who's done anything less than steal from the till. Besides, when he does get here, he's a damn good technician. Wonder of wonders, Scott seems to have shown up early today, because I can hear the tinny half-echo of his headphones out from under an old Aught-Seven Chrysler. Damn thing's on its last legs anyway, but the owner wanted us to do what we could. I bellow a halloo to Scott so that he'll hear me over the psychotic acid rock with which he regularly abuses his ears. If I'm up on my modern music, Scott seems to have selected some vintage screaming from noted SCAB chanteuse Allison Hyde, whose grotesque on-stage shapeshifting has gained her a sort of sick fanship across a broad range of the "music" (term used loosely) appreciating public, Norm and SCAB alike. Sounds like Allison's going off on the primal glories of the hunt and suchlike; so loud is Scott's music that I am able to pick out some of the words, even over his headphones. I know of some prey-type critters that would be driven absolutely loony by a female wolfy thing screaming blood and violence at them, even over a recording, but Wonder Hamster Scott just soaks 'er right up. I have to repeat my halloo once more before Scott kicks a leg in idle greeting.
Behind me in line for the punch cards is Kirk Feisel. Kirk is a big ol' English Rooster, and is consequently horny as all hell about ninety-nine percent of the time, but Archie tells me that I shouldn't believe that this was really all that much of a switch for him. Feisel's always been God's gift to Women, and his current shape is only a physical manifestation of what his soul has more-or-less always been. I will maintain until my dying day that, unless proved otherwise, that there is some sort of weird intelligence about the Martian Flu, or at least some kind of a sick sense of humor. Anyway. Feisel is bragging idly to me about the latest in a long series of sexual conquests, and as usual, I just smile and nod. We all humor him. Ever since SCABS ran its course with Kirk, he's always been a bit insecure about this sort of thing, and thus compensates by telling us all about his newest projects in excruciating detail. It's no real secret that part of his problem stems from the fact that even though his biological maleness is intact, the simplified plumbing of his Avian form has left him without... erm... God's gift to Men, as it were. On the surface, he looks like a reprehensible bastard, but once you get to know him, he's really an okay kind of guy.
All of them are, in fact. They're all wonderful people. Folks I wouldn't mind inviting over for dinner some night if I could offer them anything more than pot noodles for a change. Each and every one is a heartbreakingly real, gloriously vibrant, utterly alive, person.
And that's why I feel kind of guilty that, despite my best efforts, my soul dies just a little bit more each and every time I come here.
I am technically lying to my Mistress the Theatre in those dream-dialogues that I've told you about already. Automobile mechanics is not my only marketable skill. I could really do any number of things, from phone-solicitation to assembly-line work. All are good steady jobs. All would give me that paycheck at the end of the week, to keep my stomach full and my roof intact. But I am an actor. And when I cannot act, I go nuts. Absolutely bonkers. It's an obsession, an addiction, a dangerously habit-forming but transcendently-ecstatic drug that feeds the essentials of my ego those things that it needs to remain sane in the face of a ludicrous world. I can't help it. I am a sick, sick man. Anybody who would do so much for so unrewarding a profession has to be sick. And we theatre people all are. And we go on loving it. When it's there.
But when I can't get it, life starts getting weird and unfocused on me. Colors (whose shades are already a bit dimmer to me because of my canine eyes) begin fading even more to grey. The world tilts on its axis. Morning becomes my most feared adversary. Life starts losing what little meaning it had.
Archie was a godsend, that way. When I was teetering on the narrow-edge of despair at finding absolutely no work on the Stage, good ol' Archie just happened to post a "Help Wanted, Full Time, Start Immediately, Own Tools Required." Everything I was looking for. A Job. Sure, it wasn't in the Theatre, but at that point, I was so out-of-funds and out-of-whack that I didn't care anymore. Plus, engine mechanics is something I'm actually good at; and not just because the Dalmatian spots do wonders for hiding the occasional grease stain.
Frankly, I've lasted longer and remained saner at Archie's than I would have at any other job; automotive maintenance has always been sort of a spiritual and meditative sort of thing for me. Comes from reading too much Pirsig, I think. It forces you to organize your thoughts, like a mantra or a mandala or whatever. Working systematically in slow, even stages, rhythmically honing in by process of elimination on the precise area where the problem lies. Why exactly this or that cylinder is misfiring. Why precisely the fuel cell is putting out uneven current. What the hell is making that odd clacking noise. Bit by bit, part by part, zeroing in, finding the center. Pirsig was right; it is kinda like Zen.
There's more, of course, on a deeper and more primal level. Jenny--
...must not think about that again... not now...
Jenny once told me that the Dalmatian, as a breed, has its roots as a "Carriage-Dog," i.e. a dog that would get along smashingly with your horses and remain at post underneath your vehicle when it was not in use to guard it against potential miscreants. And, although I don't like to admit it, hanging around under vehicles is just something that makes me feel at rest and at home. It's all in the genes. I probably would find myself liking horses, too, if I ever seriously met any outside the confines of the Pig.
So Archie has filled up a needed void in my life. He's given me something to keep me busy, to keep my mind off my pain, to keep me smiling. He gives me a paycheck that, while not something to write home about, is perfectly adequate for my meager needs. I've got a steady job, food (of admittedly poor quality) on the table, a roof (similarly questionable) over my head. More than a lot of poor bastards have. Especially amongst "My People."
So. Why am I miserable?
We've discussed that already.
The daily grind swings into high gear. What starts out as a simple fluids refresh for the air conditioning of a '25 Takahashi turns into a tricky condenser inspection, overseen by the far-more-experienced-at-this-sort-of-thing-than-I Jonesy; the proper repairs are going to cost about five times what the owner expected to pay; so not only will he come here tonight and not have his A/C fixed, but he'll have to bring it back in again another day and get charged through the nose for his trouble. It doesn't help that the weather-folks are predicting steadily-inclining temperatures over the next couple days. I try to call him a couple times during the day to okay the full job, because I'd like to just get the damn thing done with, but the guy's secretary informs me that he'll be in meetings the whole of today, and probably won't get my message. So I can't do a thing with it. Another wasted hour and another unhappy customer. Not the kind of thing I want to be dealing with today. Thoroughly pissed off, I take my frustrations out on helping Scott with a jammed screw that won't come out for love or money, no matter how much lubricant shit we smear all over it. We eventually end up stripping the damn thing and it has to be drilled out. Archie's in back dealing with an irate customer over the phone, and so is unable to take the time to deal with a brand-new irate customer who has just dropped by, complaining about the charges for his brake job. He gesticulates wildly with a lit cigarette as he does so, despite all the posted signs that expressly prohibit having one here (Just which of the two words No and Smoking don't you understand? How about the words Explosive and Fumes?) Jonesy runs damage control until Archie can get out to the front. Feisel mutters something filthy under his breath and goes back to dickering with a bad fuel-tank sender that's causing somebody some radio noise. The day goes on.
Lunchtime. And there is much rejoicing. Arch makes the official proclamation that this has been a Day From Hell, and in an attempt to lift our spirits a little, he offers us beer and assorted edibles, both on the house, both delivered in from a pretty cheap local Chinese place. Arch says that he can afford to treat us all, occasionally. He's a nice guy, by the way, in case I haven't already mentioned it. I tend to freak out about displeasing him, but deep-down I really think that with him, at least, everything's Okay. I put my order in for a nasty-sounding Chicken and Potato Curry with Hot Sauce, just the thing for my masochistic taste buds. Don't believe all that strict carnivore crap about dogs, either. First thing a canid in the wild will do upon taking down his prey is rip open the stomach and eat the partially-digested vegetable matter. We're omnivores, really. We just need a little (unwitting) help from our good friends the herbivores. I pass on the beer, as always. I've got promises to keep.
The food eventually gets here. It's okay, really. Arch digs into his assorted bamboo-and-other-greens. Everybody has to stop and watch to see Jonesy's impressively insectile skill with the chopsticks after Feisel brags about it to us. The curry that I've ordered is, as I predicted, about as friendly as the near slope of Hell itself. Yum.
Vinny asks me if I want to finish his beer, but I decline. Vinny can never finish a whole one. He's an odd case, too. Arch had to manufacture his coveralls specially, considering that there was nothing in the catalogues that would fit a girl of about elementary-school age, which, unfortunately, Vinny happens to be. His own personal bout with SCABS not only flipped his gender but also started him aging backwards, for whatever fucked-up reason that the MFV has for doing anything that it does. We still refer to him pronomially in the masculine gender, at his own request. Vinny was one of the earlier folks to come down with SCABS, way back roundabouts the turn of the millenium, making him technically the oldest guy here, but he defers to Arch because Arch owns the shop. The doc's used to say that Vinny had stabilized at age eight, but now they think he might be creeping even further backwards. Vinny will tell you all about this in a quiet voice, if you get him alone. He'll talk to you all about his fears of what's going to happen to him if he doesn't quit un-aging. He's very afraid. And he doesn't have anyone to turn to but us, his co-workers. His wife passed away a few years back at the age of sixty-three, pancreatic cancer that went too long before diagnosis. They never had the chance to have kids.
But we're all here. And we're all alive. And for most of us, that's enough.
And so, what right do I have to be unhappy?
Like I said, we discussed that already.
Lunch finishes itself and the afternoon swells into forever. The heat is getting more intense from outside, and I'm starting to regret not having those epidermal sweat glands again. Sure, it saves time on showering. But it's annoying as all hell when you start entering the early stages of heat exhaustion. Vinny forcibly gives me a break about halfway through and tells me to lie down and get some water. He was noticing the panting, I guess. I protest feebly, noting how much more I have to get done before the day is out, but there's something about saying "no" to an eight-year-old girl who is looking at you in "That Way" that makes turning her (him?) down a feat of considerable difficulty. Especially one who probably knows a hell of a lot more than you do about life in general. Scott, without lifting his head from beneath the hood of the car he's working on, dutifully kicks Vinny's stepstool over to him as I go to the breakroom in back and collapse.
Fifteen minutes later, I'm back on shift, doing a relatively simple oil and fluids job that got brought in midday. I've only been at it for about five more when I forget to mind the pressure on the radiator cap when removing it. No harm done, thankfully. I could have gotten splashed something nasty, and that wouldn't have been fun at all. I can't help it. I'm out of focus. I sit there cursing my own stupidity in a wide blue streak until Archie comes over to me and asks me if anything's wrong, other than a mistake with the radiator cap. I just tell him that it's been a tough day. It's true. But there's more, too.
I'm miserable. Images of the Stage keep coming back to haunt me.
Life really sucks, sometimes.
A quick application of long-practiced focus techniques gets me back on track, and I zhoom through this job and another one afterwards at record-breaking speeds. Archie's newest employee gets good marks on time, but has forgotten the routine vacuum and overall spiffing that Archie prides himself on. Jonesy picks up the slack. Meanwhile, Feisel and I take the truck out to 25th street, where some teenager with his daddy's secondhand car has just realized that he's left his lights on all night, through the morning and into the afternoon as well, and consequently needs a jump. It's a simple service, and Archie has instructed us not to charge for it if that's all that was needed. The kid is appropriately grateful to us. On the way back to the shop, Feisel talks to me about his idea of the perfect woman, but he loses me about halfway through because he gets into a sort-of-strange-sounding alphabetical code that I'm not familiar with, but that I'm assuming refers to bra sizes or something. He doesn't clarify and I don't ask.
By the time we get back, everybody's all uptight because Jonesy had to give Scott the Heimlich maneuver while we were gone. Arch keeps telling the kid not to store spare bolts in his cheek pouches, but he never listens. I think he does it for the shock value more than anything. Scott's gonna get himself killed one of these days, one way or another. It's just a matter of time. It's the same sort of thing my dad used to say to me. Twenty-eight years old, and I'm already sounding like my dad. Scary.
Time passes. The clock wends its way forward, and quitting time approaches. I'm done with everything on my list for the day, so I'm helping Vinny out with his. Arch is telling Feisel about that trick all the rest of us learned with the broomstick last Saturday. (Feisel had the day off; another hot date, hubba hubba.) Bit of good luck there, that rabbit showing up when he did. Elsewise we probably would have had to pull the exhaust to get that damn starter out.
I re-visit last Saturday in my mind. He was a perceptive little bugger, he was.
"You want to talk about it, fine. Look me up at the West Street shelter. You don't, it's your business and your life." Brief pause. "But I happen to think you're a fool if you believe that you can deny what's going on inside you."
He noticed. He saw. And the bunny isn't the only one, either. Arch, for one, knows that something's going on in this brain a' mine. He's too perceptive not to. The rest of the guys only realize it to a somewhat lesser degree. But Arch knows, too.
Arch isn't talking. He's not the kind of guy who delves real deep into the personal stuff. Not when you haven't invited him to. And I sure as hell haven't been doing any inviting. My sanity is hanging by a single, solitary thread, and the name of that thread is "Self-Reliance." I am a rock, as Paul Simon used to sing before he gravitated to the more African rhythms. And a rock feels no pain, and an island never cries.
Somebody slap me before I start getting overly sentimental, here. Point being is that opening up would mean weakness, and weakness means that I've lost. I can be a pretty stubborn bastard when the mood strikes me. I'm in no danger of cracking just yet.
But that rabbit -- he was a different story. The way he brushed me off like that. I had no doubt that, if this guy was a trained counselor, that some of this was just a clever ploy to win me over. By dismissing me so completely after only a little bit of probing on his part, he's made it seem like I'm the stupid one. Worse, I have to keep thinking about him. Every time Archie or any of the other boys talks about that trick with the broom, I'm going to remember that damn rabbit. I can't just brush him off as an annoying nosy bugger, because he seemed genuinely concerned about helping me on Saturday. And by throwing the ball firmly into my half of the court, he's actually being ten times more effective at his job than if he were to keep hounding me about it.
Don't get me wrong -- I am grateful that he seems to be concerned about me. I'm just in no mood to be talkative right now.
My thoughts elsewhere, I hardly notice when Vinny tells me that he's all done with his stuff as well and is going to be heading out. Vinny's worked hard today; this sort of thing always exhausts his eight-year-old body more than the rest of ours. Arch is always sympathetic towards this sort of thing. Feisel gives him a ride home; it wouldn't do to have Vinny out wandering the streets by himself. Nasty things can happen to unattended little girls in this city. And we trust Feisel implicitly. Like I said, deep down, he's really an okay kind of guy. Scott is just finishing up and Jonesy is working with the returning customers. I see the guy who brought in the Takahashi with the leaky A/C, and I'm glad that Jonesy is handling him instead of me. Jonesy's a lifesaver, that way. I start in with a sweep and hose job to keep the place looking, if not absolutely spic-and-span, at least reasonably clean, but I've gone all distracted again and the comparatively simple task is taking me far longer than it should.
Scott finishes and departs in a blaze of acid rock, shouting good-byes to us all. Jonesy eventually clears out all the customers and follows suit, strapping on a helmet and wrapping his insectoid frame around his beloved Harley for his long ride home. Watching this display and leaning pensively on my push broom, I briefly consider buying a motorcycle myself, for about the fifteenth abortive time. When you're barely scraping by as it is, such thoughts bring the term "Idle Fantasy" to mind. Jonesy rides off into the declining sun.
So wrapped up am I in my thoughts that I hardly notice Archie standing behind me. I whip around a bit too fast and startle the poor guy; I've gotta watch these predatory behaviors.
"Hey, Bix. It's quitting time, in case you haven't noticed. 'Vb'ody else is gone."
"Right. Sure, Arch. Just gotta finish the sweep here."
"Forget it. 'L get it in the morning. Go home. Relax."
"Thanks." I start packing up the cleaning supplies.
"Oh. And Michael?"
I stop. "Yep?"
Archie hedges a bit. "If you... um. Need to talk, or anything. I'm here."
I nod. "Right. Thanks, Arch. Sorry 'bout these past few days. It's just been kinda stressful."
He nods back. "Just so ya know."
"'Kay." I say. And I begin putting the cleaning stuff away again. Arch starts closing the bay doors.
"I'm gonna head out. Lock up when you're finished."
"Right." I say.
Archie gets everything all closed up, locks the register, and departs. Leaving me standing there alone in the empty garage.
Another Empty Space.
Waiting to be filled.
It will remain idle here, silent and waiting, throbbing with potential, until, come Six A.M. tomorrow, Archie returns, picks up the vacuuming that I didn't finish tonight, and starts the whole process of living a day in the Real Life all over again. Entrances and Exits. Characters come, characters go. We bring to the scene our own hopes, dreams, concerns and fears. We leave at the end, having lived another day in the life, having shared our hopes, worked for our dreams, nurtured our concerns quietly to ourselves and expressed our fears in quiet voices behind closed doors. And in between, well, that's where everything really happens.
Another day in the life.
Another day away from the Theatre. Another day of maintaining a semblance of sanity. Another day trapped in a job that I don't want. A job that represents Archie's pride and joy, Jonesy's love, Scott's dreams of someday attending college, Feisel's need for a private bragging ground and Vinny's desperate, clinging hope that things will turn out okay, even though they probably won't. A job that represents the death of my Actor's soul.
Shaking my head silently to myself, half in disappointment, half in wonder, I roll the vacuum carefully into a storage closet, lock up the shop and begin my walk back home, as the sun begins slowly fading to blackout far off in the distant West.
Another day in Existence.
Day follows night and night follows day. Spinning in endless cycles. Round and round and round and round she goes. Put your finger right there, sir, if you would be so kind...
Nighttime again. Several days later.
I'm at home, in my crappy little room at the hostel, paging through my copy of Stoppard's The Real Thing, the old vid-feed playing quietly in the background. From outside, one of the City's feral cats is miaouing to beat the band, much to the dismay of my already-distracted ears. I have half a mind to go out there and show the sick little bastard just what a dog is good for, anyway, but my annoyance level isn't that high yet. For whatever reason. Certainly, I've been getting no emotional help from work. Every day spiraling onwards into the next, in one unbroken stream. Living for quitting time. Living for the weekends. Living for Holiday Breaks. Living for anything and everything save actually being there and doing my job. The sad thing is, this attitude about the workaday world is probably the exact same attitude shared by a good chunk of my peers in the City's menial blue-collar workforce. Society is weird that way. In the final analysis, I'm not in all that unusual a position. I'm just taking it worse than most people.
And that's what that damn rabbit saw. To draw from the age-old theatrical lingo, I'm dying up here. Truer now than it ever was when I was on the Stage, no matter how nasty it could get at times.
"You want to talk about it, fine. Look me up at the West Street shelter."
I grit my teeth and throw myself into the reading. Tonight, Michael has chosen to distract himself from the shittiness of his life with the sometimes-tricky prose of Mister Tom Stoppard. Not as blank and senseless as Beckett, more concrete than Ionesco, a bit classier than Shepard and altogether funnier than Mamet. The perfect choice for the night. Rampantly pseudo-intellectual, slightly gimmicky, perfectly deadpan and thoroughly "real."
I need my plays. They're all I have left.
"You want to talk about it, fine. Look me up at the West Street Shelter. It's your business and your life. You're a fool if you think you can deny what's going on inside you."
Outside, the damn cat reaches the continuo, and shifts into molto fugace to boot. I send up a silent prayer to any potential cat-hating snipers lurking on the rooftops, but it goes unheeded. So much for practical religion.
"--business and your life. You're a fool if you think you can deny what's going on inside you. Your business and your life. You're a fool if you think you can deny--"
Squeeze eyes shut. Concentrate. Focus. All right now. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Ah. Much, much better.
Back to Stoppard.
"I was taken once to Covent Garden to hear a woman called Callas in a sort of foreign musical--"
The pipe starts in again. Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip.
"I was Taken once to Covent Garden to hear a woman called Callas in a sort of Foreign--
Drip, drip, drip, drip drip...
"I WAS TAKEN, ONCE, TO COVENT GARDEN to hear a WOMAN called CALLAS in a sort of--"
Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip...
Drip, drip, drip, drip, drip...
"I! WAS! TAKEN! ONCE! TO! COVENT! GARDEN! TO--"
Drip, Drip, DRIP, DRIP, DRIP, DRIP, DRIP--
Strangled scream. Shuffle, shuffle. Thud, thud, thud, thud. Wrench, wrench, tighten, screw, turn, strain, easy does it, easy does it, don't break it this time, (remember the mess, Bix, please), steady, steady, there we go, TURN!
Carefully, I pack away my tools. Sometimes they do come in handy, outside of work.
Back to Stoppard.
"I was taken once to Covent Garden to--"
Without consciously realizing what I'm doing, I leap from my humble and newly-damp mattress over to the single open window and attempt to scream firey hell at the cat in particular and the world at large, but so senseless am I that all of my wrath pours itself into a long series of rabid barks that echo back to me over and over again in the smoggy evening air. It's a hideous sound, and it probably doesn't do my voice a hell of a lot of good to produce it, but sometimes, you just have to go all out, rational or no.
Silence, for some time.
Then, from without, a faint, tentative, "Mrowr."
And then, He / She / It starts again. Louder, if such a thing is possible, than before.
The growl builds in my throat again. I slam shut the window just as my kitty friend picks up with the feline equivalent of the Prelude to Act Three of Lohengrin. The closed window barely mutes the psychotic bastard, and what's more, in this heat, leaving my window closed overnight would be suicidal. Houston, we have a problem.
I idly toss Stoppard back onto the pile. There's just no doing it, tonight. My patience is quite gone.
Sometimes, you just reach the breaking point. And when man, or in my case, pretty-close-to-man, reaches his breaking point, he requires a means to "cope." Some take out their frustrations on their pillows. Some take out their frustrations on their wives and children. Some go screaming off into the night, cackling hideously at the insanity of the world. Some, tortured geniuses all, turn their frustrations inwards and produce brilliant masterworks of thought and sound and color. Me? I take showers. Long ones.
Stepping lightly, I make my way around the my bookstack and pluck from the floor my soaps and shampoos and the like. Then, flipping off the vid-feed with my foot, I grab my towel off the makeshift line I've strung up to keep it reasonably dry between showers and head out into the hall for the bathroom.
It is only when I am there and have shut and locked the door behind me that I notice something wrong with my reflection in the big over-sink mirror.
A grease spot.
It's a tiny little thing, no bigger around than a penny, about midway up my slightly-elongated canine neck. Must have missed it in the customary post-work clean-up. Mentally, I run over my tasks that day, trying to place where I might have picked it up. Probably dickering with that oil pan. Damned annoying thing.
Sighing to myself, I strip down and step into the ancient claw-foot tub. My finger touches the oil-spot, idly. Soap and water time.
Five minutes later, I'm back out, and drying off, shivering violently. Let me rephrase my original statement: When I require a means to "cope," I usually take long showers. When there's any hot water. Fuck it. Fuck it all.
The grease stain is still there. I can see it in the mirror. My abbreviated showering didn't help.
The world spins again...
One thing that you must realize about me is that I tend to obsess over details, especially in situations of massive background stress. Details like dripping pipes and grease-spots. It's actually done me a world of good in my particular profession; if there's anything that helps an artist out in the practice of his craft, it's a meticulous attention to detail. But it also tends to make me just a shade obsessive- compulsive. And occasionally, I find myself, given sufficient stress, going utterly loony over trivialities of the environment. The grease-stain is one such triviality.
I stalk over to the sink, a dog on a mission. Soap... so. Water on. Scrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrub check. Clean?
Scrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrub check. Clean?
Grit teeth again.
SCRUBscrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrubscrub check. Clean?
Not on your life, of course.
The tunnel vision begins. Thoughts race through my head.
Archie's got this lovely stuff over at the garage. Some weird mail-order gunk that takes oil-stains right out of anything, fur included. Hell, it'd strip the paint off your siding, given half a minute. Normally, I make sure to carefully and anal-retentively clean myself with the horrid goop after each messy job. But today, of all days, I missed that one little spot.
Back to Archie's? Not at this hour. That would be ludicrous.
And the soap doesn't work.
I spin through several options in my head before my mind lights upon my makeup kit. I used to have some heavy-duty remover in there, suitable for cutting greasepaint. And if greasepaint, why not a little motor oil, right? I toss on my clothes, return to my room, throw the towel over the line and recover from the floor my old makeup kit. Rapidly, I make my way back to the bathroom before any of my other hostelmates can snatch it up. Then, pulling the dressing- chair up in front of the counter, I toss my kit down on the mock-marble top, sit, and open it.
From within wafts a cloud of the Smell.
I had almost forgotten it. It had vanished from everywhere but my dreams. And now, here it was again, a ghost from the past made flesh, so to speak.
The last time I opened this old thing was back in the Heloise City Theatre, on that last fateful night of Merchant of Venice. The last show of my professional theatrical career. It's not enough that the smell of the makeup itself is almost enough to do me in; death by nostalgia, as it were. But what's worse is that somehow, someway, when I latched this thing closed on that singular, horrid night, I managed to capture just a bit, a few cubic centimeters at the most, of the essence of the Theatre. The last breath of Hope within Pandora's Box.
It hangs heavy in the air.
The Smell of the Stage.
"You're a fool if you think you can deny what's going on inside you."
Almost unconsciously, my hand goes to the kit. But I'm not searching for the makeup remover. I know what I'm doing here. The ritual has begun.
I hate makeup. Hate, hate, hate it. You might understand why, given what you've seen tonight with regards to one tiny little grease spot. I start getting edgy after a few hours of having several layers of gunk on me. Believe it or not, it's one of the more physically trying parts of my career as an actor.
But it's also one of the most magical.
Makeup is a transformative. It allows us to change ourselves. To direct our own forms. SCABS takes this to an unholy extreme, twisting and reforming its victims at a very fundamental level. But there is a quiet beauty to the act of small-scale ritualistic transformation that is, quite bluntly, fascinating. Actors are painters, too. We use ourselves as our canvases.
My hand moves to the blue-wash. Back when I didn't have a layer of black-and-white spotted fur covering my face, this was a time for base. Now, traditional base makeup applied directly to dog hair would look silly, to say the least. But what remains to me is the concept of background. The blue wash serves that purpose. A few carefully measured drops in the little cosmetic bowl... like so. Add water... gently... a trickle more... there. Mix with the brush end.
I'm working on autopilot, here. Meditation and ritual. Every motion precise and perfect. Take the sponge, soak it, brush. Broad strokes. Evenly. Don't want any color to actually stand out, just the faintest of overall blue casts so that under the inevitable pale-peach of ambient theatre lights I end up looking dazzlingly white. If you're going to be a freak, you might as well be an impressive one. Brush, brush, brush, brush, brush. Dip. Repeat. Over and over. 'Til that's done. Now. The spots. The blue-rinse makes the white stand out nicely, but it tends to overshadow the spots as well, if corrective measures aren't taken. Enter the pencil. Solid black eyeliner. Place it in the little sharpener, so. Turn. Remove. Admire the edge, critically. Then begin. Outline each one, including (for the heck of it) my added grease stain. Fill in the patchy parts. Round out the uneven ones. Color, color, color. Each and every one. Even the little one on the corner of my muzzle. Mustn't miss a freckle. One by one by one by one by one by... any more? Nope.
Back to the sharpener. Rim the eyes. Eyes are important, on stage. Must draw attention to them. Good. Into the makeup kit again, for the shadowing. Faintest dark powdering underneath. Simulated shadows and light. The raw materials of any visual art. Satisfactory? Blink. Blink. Yes. Now to the sides of the muzzle. Faint clouds of cosmetic shadow-stuff, subtly changing the contours of the face. I've elected to do "standard nobility" tonight. It fits, somehow. A few quick pats with the stippler in a few carefully-defined areas completes this portion in toto. Done with the shadows? Hokay.
Almost finished, here. Lips. Got myself some black lip-color; normal folks use it for special effect. I use it as my basic. Spin through my collection of brushes to find the medium-small one. Apply the top, evening it out. Press together. Fill in the cracks. Blot with paper. There.
Home stretch now. All that remains is the powder. Open the bottle, pat a bit on the back of the hand... find the puff, touch it to the pile... then to the face. Poof.
Five or so large pats and twenty small ones brings me to the finish.
I am before my own reflection, illuminated by the bulbs of the overhead lamp. Before the mirror sits a perfect creature of the theatre, a true Scion of Thespis, a beauteous specimen of dogdom, positively glowing in a million and one ways. Michael Bix at his finest.
Michael Bix, the Actor.
I admire my handiwork. Not fucking bad.
Idly, I consider the specifics of my ritual. Everything seemed so... practiced. So real. I haven't lost the touch. Everything is all just waiting there, ready to be tapped.
A fragile contentment begins to construct itself amidst the general awfulness of the night. I'm still a Child of the Stage. Her spirit never leaves you.
I give myself one more critical glance. Yes, not fucking bad. Considering that about four years ago, Michael Bix had to learn his makeup techniques all over again from scratch. SCABS will do that to you. I mean, prior to my acquisition of the Martian Flu, I had a completely different makeup ritual. No fur, for one thing. The color schemes were different, of course, as well. My eyes were blue then, not this deep canine brown. The hair was...
Brown, I'm sure. I'm having trouble recalling the specific shade, though. Ah well.
And then there was the matter of the shadows. Back when I could use white highlights that didn't get completely lost in the glare of dog fur. Back when I could dicker subtly with the shape of my nose using lights and darks for precise effect; back when I wasn't stuck with this ludicrous black thing cresting a canine muzzle; back when... um...
I realize that I'm having a hard time recalling the rest of my face as well.
Petulantly, I begin searching through the annals of my memory. C'mon, Bix. Grab onto something. Two-and-a- half decades before the Flu you were looking in mirrors. Two-and-a-half decades you were looking at that same old face, every single morning, toothbrushing on forward. All the way through college, Bix. C'mon. You can do this much, at least...
There's that glimpse of brownish hair. The blue eyes. And maybe a little bit of White Irish in the line of the jaw.
And that's it. That's as far as I get.
With vague unease that rapidly grows into full-blown psychological panic, I shuffle backwards through my mental scrapbook. High School football games, graduation pictures, publicity photos, headshots, cheap Polaroids of me and the guys I used to hang with back in college, every image of my old self that I can possibly dredge up from the dark waters of my memory.
Nada. Not a thing.
All I keep seeing, over and over again, is that damn black- spotted muzzle.
My god. I've forgotten what I looked like.
I sit there, staring at an image of a face that is not mine. And there is no trace of me there, anymore. Nothing to even hint at the me that will never be me again.
This is what I am. This is what I will be. This is what I always have been. Ever backwards into the past, ever forwards into infinity. Now and forever. Amen.
Michael Bix, the SCAB.
From somewhere far, far away, I hear a faint knock at the door of the bathroom. One of my hostel-mates, wondering what's taking me so long, I imagine. I am only distantly aware of this. My thoughts are quite elsewhere.
Time to return to the real world, shall we? Let's end the farce here. Dream's over, time's up, joke's finished. Let's all have a good laugh and go out for dinner or something. This isn't happening. This isn't me. This isn't my life. This isn't how things were supposed to go.
Eyes fixed straight ahead, I reach into my kit, fumbling about blindly for a bit but eventually coming up with the makeup remover and my scrub-cloth.
I dampen the cloth with the remover and start scrubbing. The layers begin fading, stripped clean by my hand. I unconsciously turn on the tap without breaking the rhythm, rinse the cloth, apply more remover, and continue to scrub.
From without, the noise of the knocking. Growing louder and more impatient.
Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.
Layer upon layer of carefully-applied cosmetics vanish under my rhythmic scrubbing. Returning to normalcy. That's how it always is. At night, the makeup always comes off. We spirits of the Theatre are returned to our natural forms. When the Theatre takes us, we may be cats or serpents, males or females, aged or youthful, human or no, possessed of every shape of the world and every color of the rainbow. But at the end of the night, She releases us from her transformative clutches, and we become our normal selves again. That's just how things work.
The scrubbing continues. The knocking grows louder. Voices from the other side of the door, wondering what the fuck is going on. Still, the scrubbing continues. And I scrub away, with increasing force and furor, cleaning myself from every last trace of irritant.
Until there is nothing left to remove.
Every scrap of the pigmented chemicals I had labored so hard to apply is gone.
Calmly, I regard myself in the mirror before me.
And then, in the quiet voice of the utterly mad, my brain informs me that I am not yet done.
Back to the washcloth. The scrubbing continues.
Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub.
My arm begins to ache from the pressure. My hand cramps into a death-grip on the cloth. The fur on my face and neck begins to cluster in damp clumps from the constant abrasion.
More knocking from outside. More yelling.
Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. Scrub. SCRUB. SCRUB. SCRUB. SCRUB. SCRUB, SCRUB, SCRUB, SCRUB...
A low, keening, wail, drawn up from the inhuman parts of my soul, begins building at the back of my throat. My eyes glaze. My fist clenches. And still, the scrubbing continues. On and on. Faster and faster. Harder. Farther. Encompassing more and more of my face. Tiny clots of hair are torn from their roots. The pressure grows. Harder. Steadier.
The wail keens louder.
The knocking becomes insistent.
The scrubbing does not stop.
Harder and faster, up and down. Scrubscrubscrubscrub SCRUBSCRUBSCRUBSCRUB. My wail becomes a cry and then a shout, then a bellow. I squeeze my eyes shut, in an attempt to block out the pain that runs now in stinging lances across my abraded flesh. But I cannot stop. Not until I am clean.
I scream, then, and something in me shatters. With a wild, furious apostasy the scrubbing stops. My arm falls to the sink-basin and my neck curls downwards towards the fetal position. Everything ceases for a brief moment.
Then, from the sink comes the sound of faint pattering, maddeningly similar to the leaky pipe back in my room that started this whole evening out.
I wrench open my eyes and stare in the direction of the sink. The washcloth is dripping into the basin, which accounts for the noise. The fabric is also stained to a disturbing off-reddish color.
I lift my head then and look in the mirror.
In at least two places, I've rubbed the skin completely away. Down to the blood. My fur is in a sorry state, matted, clumped and notably absent in some select places. Other patches are stained with red from the open sores I have raised on my skin. But for all my self-imposed injuries, I am still completely, totally, utterly, a Dalmatian-shaped-thing in human's clothing.
And the grease stain is still there.
I realize then that I have, indeed, snapped.
"You're a fool if you think you can deny what's going on inside you."
A deep, ratcheting breath.
"You want to talk about it, look me up at the West Street Shelter."
Something has to change. Something has to change, and it has to change now.
I haphazardly throw my stuff in the kit and slam it shut again, barely managing to get it closed. Then, ignoring the concerned and fearful glances that I receive from my hostel-mates crowded outside the door when they see the hideous state I'm in, I stalk back to my room, throw my things with a bit too much force inside, and rush downstairs to the lobby and the voice-only telephone that I know to be there.
A quick reference of the Yellow Pages gives me the number. Coins are deposited, buttons are poked. A call is sent off into the ether. I worry that no-one will answer at this hour. But maybe, just maybe...
Three rings. Then...
"West Street Shelter, this is Phil. K'y help you?"
I breathe for one second more, gathering myself. "Phil." I say, in a ragged whisper. "We need to talk."
The rest of my mini-vacation was pretty routine. Shortcake got some of the attention she deserved, and I began to tentatively consider adding a second bunny so she wouldn't be so lonely while I was gone on business. I read some old papers, caught up my e-mail, and...
...wondered what to do with all my spare time. It was an old problem, one that dated back to my going into the carrot business. Before SCABS, I had enjoyed travel, fishing, shooting- all things that took me out into the wide world. Sure, I had participated in many sedentary pursuits as well, like reading and even a bit of writing here and there. But I MISSED touring museums and national parks, MISSED heading across country in a fast car with a map and no set plans, MISSED the recoil of a handgun or the buck of a fishing rod in the hands I no longer had. For an endless time, I had sat in my apartment alone, obeying my lapine instincts and giving in to my rabbity fears. Now, I was starting to live again but it was all stress, all business, and I had lost my unwinding mechanisms. Sure, I could snuggle with Shortcake, something I could never have done as a man. And it helped, in its way. But it provided no break in the monotony, put no spark into my existence. It was a requirement, not a pastime.
Rabbits thrive on boredom, but all work and no play would eventually make Phil a very dull bunny. Even the Pig was getting old...
It was just another one of those SCABS conundrums that I was becoming so familiar with, where fur or feathers or whatever made someone unable to enjoy the things they'd once lived for. A significant part of my professional life was spent finding new careers or pastimes for these clients, or perhaps new ways to enjoy the old ones, while others I had to help learn to live with a new reality.
Unfortunately, I knew I was one of the latter. And I had no cause for complaint- my new life was at least beginning to shape up- I was a lot better off than I had been immediately after leaving the hospital...
I trembled. Usually, I try not to remember that. Counselor, heal thyself...
And closed up my laptop. It was time to leave my "burrow" for a while and get out. Be human. Even if it meant doing work instead of R&R. Carefully I eased out of Shortcake's cage, squeezed through the pet door I still used for security, and headed out to the front yard. Usually if I waited there, it wouldn't be long before I snagged a ride to the Pig...
Today it was Jack De Mule who picked me up. I was halfway into the battered old Chevy when I realized that he already had another rider...
A full-morph coyote. Doug Linger.
It was pure reflex- I slammed the door and backed away. But my guilt at seeing how "Wiley"'s head hung got me back in. I had the whole back seat to myself, and Doug was the very model of politeness. I feel like such a louse when I snub a predator-SCAB that way- they don't deserve it, not a bit. But it is SO hard for me to trust. Especially since a certain evening when I was stalked by a feral tiger-SCAB, and nearly lost my life. Many of us prey SCABs are suspicious by nature. But one who's actually been hunted, well, it turns on a certain switch inside of us, one that never really gets turned off. After that night, I can never forget that some see me only as a midnight snack of hot salty blood and yummy, clover-fed flesh...
Jack dropped me at the door, and in an effort to at least partially make amends to Doug I stepped on the treadle and opened the door for him. He bowed slightly, recreating human body language on four legs by buckling his forelimbs a bit, and trotted through the portal and back to the Lupine corner. Meanwhile, I hopped up onto my usual stool by the door and greeted Donnie. He filled my paw-cup, and asked me how things were.
Fine, I responded, and asked him if Wanderer had been around. I knew he wasn't in at the moment, having been inside the Pig for over 45 seconds without hearing his voice. Donnie signed that he was out getting a pizza and would be back momentarily. I thanked him, and waited.
But not for long. He burst in, carrying the pizza with a dramatic flair accentuated by the cape he always affected, and immediately was going at it with that wonderfully full English accent.
"I have returned as promised, dear friends, with provisions for all!" Hungry howls answered him and I involuntarily flinched again, though no one saw me. "Hello, Bunny Rabbit!" he greeted me as he briskly headed for the back.
"Hey, when you get a minute can you come back by?" I asked. "It's business."
"Business? Do you ever think about anything else?" Wanderer rolled his eyes and sighed. "Yes, of course. Let me get a plate and secure a ration for myself lest these pig-dogs eat it all..."
And presently he was back. "At your service, my pale wiggly-nosed friend."
"Michael Bix." I said.
Wanderer's mood darkened a bit. "Yes. What about him?"
"I hear he can act."
The wolf-morph looked thoughtful for a moment. "Understand that I've never seen him perform. But he was touring with a Harald Wallace production."
The lupine looked at me strangely. "You don't follow the theater much, do you?"
"Not at all. My artistic leanings, such as they are, tend toward the homespun and the literary."
"Ah. Too bad. Harald Wallace is a God of the stage, a man who has made more careers than I can name. He does real art, not mass-appeal material. And to be in his productions, one must be very, very good indeed."
Wanderer looked sad and angry. "The same thing that keeps happening to me. Who wants to put a SCAB on stage? Bix got rave reviews in Peoria- I pulled them off the 'net once I met him and found out he was a fellow thespian. But everywhere else he was seen as a disturbance, a distraction, a SCAB, if you know what I mean."
"SCABs like Bix and I, well, if there's a lupine or canine role open we might be considered. But the fact is that there just AREN'T that many roles. And Bix, well, he's been something of a nuisance here sometimes, and often seems more than a bit stuck up. But do you think a Shakespearean trouper is going to find any peace playing the part of Spot the Dog on a children's afternoon TV show? At least as a lupine I get the odd werewolf part, roles that at least allow me to stretch myself a little. But Bix? It's no wonder he's made a profession of changing oil- the parts he could actually get would be an insult to him."
"So you think he's better off as a mechanic?"
Wanderer glared at me like I was stupid or something, then relented. "Phil, you have never trod the boards, have you?"
"Then you cannot understand. The need to perform is like a flame inside you, a burning that never stops. It's heroin, cocaine and crack, love and sex and hate. Picture Michelangelo with a set of paws like yours, or Caruso rendered mute. Envision Rasputin emasculated. Then you can BEGIN to comprehend what has happened to Michael Bix." Wanderer sighed. "Bix hasn't talked much here lately- he never says a word to anyone in fact. Knowing what he's been through, what had happened to him on his worst night here, I have wanted to get to know him, to try and make friends. He COULD fit in with the lupines well enough, after all, if he accepted his canine nature a bit and let himself go a little. But he can't. Frankly, I'm worried."
"Damned worried. He's going to explode again, Phil. Acting is his natural release. Without it, the pressure just builds and builds. And this time, he may just take it out on himself.."
Wanderer needed to say no more. The suicide rate among SCABS was among the highest on Earth. And the wolf was a good judge of character. Damn!
But continue he did. "Frankly, I'm glad to know you're taking an interest. He needs someone, and you seem to have a knack."
Just what I needed. Wanderer didn't know about my current string of failures. "This is a little bit out of my usual line..."
"You'll do fine anyway. We all have faith in you." And with that, he smiled, excused himself, and headed back to his pack. They were saving a seat for him in a poker game, and Wanderer had to get there before someone thought of some especially nasty prank to play on him...
For several hours I sat at my stool deep in thought, hardly noticing Donnie topping off my carrot juice. Finally, I took advantage of an offered ride and headed back to the Shelter. It was time for some studying...
The research lasted long into the night.
Wanderer was right- Wallace was a true artist and maker of careers. And Bix had gotten fine reviews in Peoria, while escaping any negative comments elsewhere. But the play as a whole had been ridden mercilessly everywhere it appeared (Peoria excepted) until Bix had been dumped. Then, magically, all had been made well. Reviews were excellent from that time forward.
It doesn't take a Shakespearean to scent something rotten in Denmark.
I also read up on acting and human psychology. Based on a light once-over, Wanderer was right on track about the need to act. The more I read, the more apt his comparison to a gelded Rasputin got.
Jesus. What was I going to do? Maybe Bix would never call...
RING! went the emergency line, startling Shortcake out of a sound sleep. Having lapine sleeping habits and often being up at strange times, I frequently handle the hot-line calls in the wee hours. Still, I was groggy from my intense study, and slurred the words a bit. "West Street Shelter, this is Phil. K'y help you?"
"Phil," I heard in a ragged overwrought whisper that my big ears identified instantly as that of Michael Bix. "We need to talk."
I propped up the phone's receiver in the cedar shavings that Shortcake and I prefer to sleep in, and twisted myself around in the cage to get comfortable. While doing so I clawed my mob-mate firmly in the face, and she recoiled away. Damn! I so love these early-morning crises! But my clients never, ever know it. They are hurting far worse than me.
"Michael? Is that you?" I knew the voice, but the question is settling to the client. And who knows, maybe someday I'll be wrong.
"Yes, it's me." Long pause. "Whoever that is."
Oh-oh. "What's on your mind?"
Another long pause. "I'm..." More silence.
"I'm... I'm tearing myself to bits. I'm just.... lost." There were no more words, but I could hear heavy panting. Bix was under tremendous tension. Anything could happen. Or might already have happened.
"Are you at home?" If not, I might have to figure out how to get him there. Or here. Or to a hospital. Damnit that I could no longer drive, anyway...
He giggled a bit, with more than a small overtone of hysteria. "Yes, I'm home alright. Or I'm in a dream. Or a nightmare. Could this have become my home? Is this really my life?"
"Have you been drinking?" I had done my homework, after all. Or as much as I'd had time for.
At that, he straightened out a little. "I wish I had been. Then, I would understand, would have a reason..."
Shit, shit, shit. I knew he was violent at times. What had he done? "Have a reason for what?"
He was a little bemused now. "I just tried.... I tried to wash my face off, Phil. Just as if it were makeup, as if I were playing a role. I scrubbed and scrubbed until I bled, trying to find my real face. It was... crazy. I was... out of control."
He'd never know how glad I was to hear that his lapse had been so relatively minor, his violence so harmless to himself and others. Somehow, I had been expecting far worse.
"It happens sometimes, Michael. Happens to us all. Did you ever hear about my first night at the Pig?"
He had, and he laughed a bit, nervously. Good. The hysterical edge was gone. Or nearly gone. I was anchoring him back to normal, everyday experiences.
"Even Norms lose control, and most of them have a hell of a lot less reason. It's OK, Michael."
Michael tried to explain, somewhat incoherently , what had happened. But he couldn't finish. The tears had come, tears of relief, rage, and fear. Tears of envy and anger, love and hate. This man's emotions were backed up beyond belief. Where did he find so much pain? Again Wanderer was right- Bix was like an infected blister ready to burst. He had lost his emotional drain, and the pressure would grow and grow and grow until either the old tap was opened or a new outlet found. Tonight's episode would keep him functional for awhile- the pressure had come off a little. But what about the time after that? And the time after that? I let him go on until he wound down and slowed to a stop, giving him encouraging "Uh-huh"s and "Yeah"s at appropriate times. At first I wished I could take notes like most therapists. But soon I was so overpowered by the story that I knew I could never forget it. SCABs. Territorial instincts. Fight. Dead lover. Parking lot. Christmas duck and mystical experience. Burned résumés. Miracle role. Friendship, rejection, lost role, violence, and auto mechanic.
What a screwed up mess.
Bix was sounding better toward the end. I worked hard at staying positive and professional, accepting Michael's transference of his problems to me. We were going to meet in two days' time- I had an evaluation scheduled on a feral mouse patient 150 miles away in the morning; even for Bix I couldn't put it off. And someone coming in from out of town the morning after. But the afternoon was Bix's .
He sounded much better as we finished, with a new element in his voice, one I'd not heard from him before. He had hung up before I was able to put a label on it.
It was hope.
Cell phones are a blessing. My mouse-client's family had arranged a car for me as transportation to get to their relative, and luckily the driver was about as taciturn as they come. I had about an hour each way to work on Bix's case, and I couldn't waste a single minute. I had a hunch that Bix wouldn't be the sort to stand for extended therapy; he might not even show up for his first session. And, the root of the problem from my point of view was obvious. If you want to talk about your childhood and deep sexual secrets, see a shrink with a real license. If you want practical help surviving in the real world, or an opinion on whether a rodent or lapine SCAB can function as human, call me. My obligation to Bix was to help him either act or learn to live without it. For my money, the odds were on the former.
Actors compete for parts like athletes for gold medals- there are always FAR more bodies than roles. And Bix had a very obvious handicap working against him. But we bunnies are renowned for our cleverness in a pinch. When cleverness fails, we are not above deviousness. And if deviousness doesn't cut it, well, then we get nasty. And this time I was pulling out all the stops. The lapine schoolteacher, Mrs. Swindell, and a sure loser tomorrow were getting me down. I was beginning to doubt myself, my ability to help other SCABs. I NEEDED to help Bix for myself as much as for him. As we hit the Interstate, I got out the cell-phone. Where to begin...
Using my trusty pencil, I dialed the city's Chamber of Commerce, and asked for the Chairperson. Eventually, after holding a bit, I got Dot Poiters on the line.
"Phil! How are you! I haven't seen you since, well..."
"Since I got interested in greenery in more than an academic way. I know. And just for you, you can go ahead and tell me I have a cute voice now, too. I won't be insulted."
She giggled. We had worked together when I was Chair of the Community Services Committee in my Union. Together, we had distributed tens of thousands of charity dollars from our Local to needy individuals and projects. Since then, we had exchanged letters about the Shelter, but had never talked. Until now.
"OK. You have a VERY cute voice now. So quit fishing for compliments, already!"
I laughed with her. Dot had always been one of my favorite people- how had we fallen out of touch? "S'all right. Tell me, are you folks still funding the Community Players Group?"
I hesitated. Was it fair, what I was about to ask? Was I going to make another deserving prospective actor lose a part he or she badly needed? And deserved? Then I realized it just didn't matter. Bix was suffering for certain, and the scales were balanced against him utterly. Throwing a little weight around was the right thing to do. "I need a favor, Dot."
She answered immediately. "We're already doing a lot for the Shelter, Phil."
"No, no. We're very grateful, it's nothing to do with that. What I want won't cost you a dime."
I swore her to client-patient confidentiality, then explained to her about Bix. Not everything, but enough. Including the spots. To my surprise, she began to laugh hysterically.
"Dot, this isn't like you. What's happened to this guy isn't in the least bit..."
"No, no, no!" She was still giggling. "I would NEVER laugh at..." And she broke up again.
I was getting impatient. "Dot..."
Finally she came back to Earth. "I'm sorry. It's just..." She snickered, then quit again. "Phil, I may be able to sway the director a little in your favor on this. We ARE a big part of their funding, after all. And we owe you personally, too. But you'll have to help us out on something in return..."
She explained. I didn't like it at all. But she wouldn't come off of it.
"You can't find another rabbit?"
"Nope. Not anywhere. You guys don't grow on trees, you know."
Damnit if she didn't laugh again. "Phil, I was going to call you on this eventually anyway. You want the favor, it's tit for tat. Period."
And so I found myself promising to be the Easter Bunny at the First Annual Chamber of Commerce Egg Hunt next year, and to appear at God knew how many fund raisers ahead of time.
It's amazing, the things I've done for clients. Damn. And I hate crowds now more than ever...
And, still laughing, Dot told me to expect a call from the director.
Sharon, the field mouse I had come to see, had been over the Flu for some time, but had shown no real signs of intelligence or purpose despite promising brain-scans. She was still very disoriented, as might be expected of someone who now weighed only a few ounces. Going full-morph had made her so tiny that her whole universe had changed. But she seemed quite sharp and responsive for a mouse, and I believed that she would someday come back to human norm mentally. Once she got over the shock, she could begin to heal. I noted that she reacted better to me than to any of the medical staff or even her own family. Perhaps she was trusting my friendly scent? She was sniffing everyone and everything continually, and her eyes were blinking a mile a minute. Continually, she tried to burrow under me, seeking security in the warm softness of my safe-scented fur.
I suggested that they call for a consultation from Dr. Coe or another SCAB eye expert to determine whether Sharon's vision was mouse-normal, human-normal, or something in between. If it was mouse-normal, as I was beginning to suspect, then she couldn't make out anything more than a few inches away from her muzzle. And her depth-of-focus would be so shallow that even once-familiar objects and faces would be frightening amalgams of motion and color. At the same time, she had certainly not yet adapted to the mouse-normal way of interpreting the universe through scent. This was potentially a cause of serious disorientation, and therefore fright. And fear was certainly ample reason for Sharon's delay in returning to sentience. Glasses had the potential of helping her a lot. If I was right...
If not, I was plumb out of ideas.
The family wanted me to stay in the cage with her, seeing how well their loved one reacted to me and having heard that I had enjoyed a few successes in bringing patients around, but my availability is limited. Even if I lived in cages full-time the rest of my life, I could never fill the demand. And Sharon had, I truly believed, a good chance without me. But the family wanted me to stay so badly! They saw the life of a family member at stake, and naturally could see no further. I had wondered if they were ever going to let me out- circumstances had forced me to use an ordinary cage for my evaluation, one without a release I could operate with my paws or mouth. They had stood around the cage and argued with me every time I asked to be released. Not in a nasty way, mind you, but in a pleading one. Finally, a doctor passing through had tripped the release while the family was gathered in the hall trying to figure out to get me to change my mind, and I had gotten out of Dodge.
If only my prospective patients and their families knew the truth. I was a bumbler, a know-nothing who had gotten lucky a few times with patients who would probably have gotten better anyway. But still, I kept getting more and more requests for evaluations...
I don't know just when it was that I started getting calls from around the country. God knows there's plenty to do right in town. All you have to do is stand outside on the shelter steps and take a good sniff to know how much suffering SCABS has brought to the community. But somehow I had gotten onto the databases as a lapine and rodent counseling and behavior expert. And, there being no others, that made me THE expert, even without a degree. I knew how weak my credentials were, how thin my training. And how close to the edge of the lapine colonies I stood myself most of the time. I felt like a fraud. But as Donnie and Dr. Derksen have pointed out to me more than once, these people literally have no place else to turn. I'm the only rabbit in town...
So I often take cases I have no business, in my own opinion, dealing with. Like the little joyous gathering I expected tomorrow morning. It was REALLY getting me down. I sighed, and headed for the parking lot with an understanding security guard in tow.
As soon as I got to the car the driver explained to me that the phone had been ringing itself off the hook. He hadn't even finished explaining who it had been all those times when it rang again, and to his relief this time I got it.
"Are you the rabbit?"
"Er, yes. This is Phil."
"Is he still interested?"
"The Dalmatian, for crying out loud. Dot Poiters said you were hooked up with a Dalmatian actor. Who else would I be talking about, for a part like this?"
"Yes! I'm tearing my hair out, trying to find a Dalmatian for George. This is supposed to be a town with a big SCAB community, and what do I find? Zippo! So, is he interested?"
"Oh, I suspect he might be. Tell me more." I was trying to sound like the agent this guy apparently thought I was.
"Sure, big guy. "Sunday in the Park with George"- you know it?"
"I didn't figure you would. It's a revival of an old musical. The story's loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, the pointillist painter. The pointillists..."
"...painted everything as a series of dots, large and small. Yeah, I've heard of them." I'm not ENTIRELY uncultured, damnit. And a Dalmatian lead? It was beautiful...
"Right. Anyway, who better for George, I figure, than a Dalmatian SCAB? How better to underline the changes fifty years have brought since the last time this piece came around? So I've come to town to recruit, and what do I find? Nada! Zip! Zilch! Tell me, this Dalmatian, he's not a total rookie is he?"
"Oh, he's performed a major Shakespearean role for Harald Wallace..."
Stunned silence. "No shit?"
It was in the bag. I'm no agent, but I've helped negotiate enough contracts and settle enough grievances in my time to know a little about the game. Bix was in, if he was half the actor Wanderer thought he was. "No shit."
"What... Where.... I mean, can you..."
"Hold on just a minute. You say you've come to town to recruit?"
"Yeah, absolutely! I WANT a Dalmatian, bad. Especially if this guy..."
"You're not with the community theater?"
"Community theater? Listen, rabbit-guy, I don't have anything against community work. I started there myself. But I intend to tour..."
Dot had utterly taken me to the cleaners- this guy was DYING for someone like Bix. For something bigger than I'd ever hoped. But, gleefully, she had extracted a promise from me anyway, a promise I would now have to keep.
No wonder she couldn't stop laughing. Hook, line and sinker, I had tumbled to it...
I couldn't help it. With the director still on the line, I began to guffaw at my own gullibility.
He was so excited about finding his dog he didn't even notice...
I got him to hold his horses just a bit- not an easy thing to do. I would get him in touch with Michael for a "Private Audition" (you could hear the capital letters every time the director said those two words together- someday I'd have to ask Wanderer if they were significant) , but only after Bix did some talking. He needed the role, needed to act. But even more, he HAD to learn to live with himself. To deal with his pain and needless guilt. To learn to talk to others instead of striking them.
To never need to try to remove his own face, his own identity again...
As expected, the session the next morning had turned out to be a bitch and a half. My clients were the remains of a family with a developing lapine father they were insisting on bringing home as soon as he finished changing. They wanted to see me for advice. Have you ever tried to tell an eight year old boy and a five year old girl what Dad's going to be like, once he finishes becoming a rabbit? It's no fun at all.
The Cohens had flown in from Miami, and judging by the expensive clothes and luxury rental car- they'd be lucky to get half of it back to the airport after parking near the Shelter- they were pretty well off. But SCABS is a great equalizer that way, there being no cure and no vaccine and not even an established vector. Their money wouldn't help a bit. In fact, given the details in the manilla folder sitting on my desk I suspected it might actually be a burden.
Dad would be better off never coming home. His brain was going to be just about gone.
Knowing what I did, I deliberately arranged to be grazing on all fours in the tiny lawn out front when they pulled up. The Shelter's eaters of grass had pooled resources and arranged for some interesting plantings to save on expenses and provide a little variety. As long as we didn't overdo it and the carnivores didn't do too much scent marking in the area, the little patch of green was a blessing to us all. And, I had used it more than once therapeutically.
I kept picking out the more succulent stems while I listened to the car doors close and the two kids being kept close by a worried Mom. When they came up even with the little boxwood hedge at our entrance I turned my back, brought my head up where they could see it, and continued feeding off higher growth. I wanted them to have to speak to me first, to recognize me as a person and a human despite my looks and behavior before we went any further. They were going to have to look far more intently to find the human in Dad...
I heard the steps stop, and there was a long silence. I kept right on feeding like I was oblivious to them all. They had to know me, or at least Mrs. Cohen did. I never get confused with anyone else any more. Since I was pretty full- the Cohen's had run late and I had gotten a bit carried away on the Summer growth- I sat back and scratched an imaginary itch behind my ear with my right hindpaw, making sure I caught the flea collar I wore with a few strokes to make it move and thus stand out. Like it or not, flea collars were a part of their future too...
Finally, the little girl- Sharon was her name according to the file- asked "Mommy, is this Daddy?"
My heart melted, and the hindpaw stopped in mid-stroke. Jesus, she was only 5. What a shitty thing to have to face at that age. How did I ever get into this counseling mess, anyway? Why couldn't someone else deal with little girls' shattered lives? But I was the rabbit on the spot... "No," I replied, turning around and reseating myself, "I'm not your Daddy. My name is Phil, and I look a lot like your Daddy will look in a few days. Except that he will have some big black spots, and even bigger ears."
Gosh indeed. How perfectly her innocence was framed in those four letters. Daddy's going to be a rabbit. Gosh.
"Is he going to be a bigger rabbit, or little like you?" Samuel this time.
"Actually, I'm on the big side as far as rabbits go- most of the time bunnies change even more. Your Dad will probably be smaller than me, though we don't know for sure yet."
"Do you really eat grass?" The girl again.
I rocked my ears and showed my incisors in a smile, or as near as I could come to one. "Yes, I sure do! All sorts of green stuff, in fact. And sometimes I can eat just a little bit of fruit or vegetable as a treat, but it makes me sick if I get too much."
"EE-YUCK!" the boy said making a face. "And vegetables as a treat...."
There was far worse, of course. But now was not the time to let the boy know about how rabbits digest cellulose. If Dad had enough brains left to appreciate the situation, he would get corrective surgery within months. And if not, well, bunnies had been doing it for eons. Current medical doctrine was to perform the "cud" procedure only on sentient lapines, as others have trouble adapting to cud as opposed to, well...
Much to Mrs. Cohen's relief, I suggested we adjourn to my office. She still didn't speak to me, but at least she acknowledged me by nodding. I dashed to the front door ahead of them on all fours, and activated the electric door for them to pass. Mrs. Cohen nodded again, but didn't utter a word. This was common, in my limited experience. Kids understand less about what is going on, and consequently have far lower inhibitions. But adults often just can't bring themselves to address a SCAB of similar form to one they love.
The kid's lower inhibitions showed again as they bounced and rubbernecked through the Shelter, "Oohing" and "Aahing" at the SCABs around them, many locked in full-morph or near full-morph form. By the nature of things, we tend to get the worst, most shocking, least functional cases. If the clients could adapt better, after all, they wouldn't be here. But kids are a universal tonic, and their presence, as usual, brought a wave of happiness to all the people they passed. SCABs who would never tolerate being stared at by adults actually POSED for the children, and in turn the kids were struck dumb with awe. Louie the Walking Stick was outside my office when we passed, and I suggested to Mrs. Cohen that he could give the kids a grand tour. She got the hint that I wanted to talk to her some alone, and Louie, as I suspected, was more than eager. His own grandkids never visited since he'd had the Flu, and he missed them horribly... She nodded again, and the kids cheered and headed off with the big insect.
But Mrs. Cohen still hadn't said a word...
By the time I took the seat behind my desk, I was getting worried. What kind of home support was Mr. Aaron Cohen going to be getting, anyway? The kids were adapting as well as could be expected, but the mother was the key. Everything hung on her. Everything.
Coldly, I chewed cud and waited. At this point, I would be damned if I spoke first. Silence is very empty, and most people can't stand empty spaces. Eventually she would talk- she HAD to accept me as human....
Within a minute, tears began to flow down Sarah Cohen's cheeks. Almost immediately after, she was crying great gut-wrenching sobs from deep inside of her. And I realized how badly I had wounded her with my silence....
I went to her immediately, and she hugged me crushingly and pressed her face into the top of my head, like I was a stuffed animal there to comfort her. Which I would gladly be for her, if I could. She had been stiff and emotionless because she needed to be brave for the kids, but with them gone her need for silence and apparent strength had disappeared as well. Aaron's prognosis was very bad, and his wife was at her wit's end... I could see it all, now that I'd already screwed up and made things worse...
I wished the floor would open up and swallow me. Taunting her with silence, rubbing her nose in my rabbithood, being cold toward her! This was horrible! I was horrible! How could I pass myself off as a counselor, when I hurt the clients this way? Did I do nothing but cut the already bleeding, injure the walking wounded, disappoint the hopeful? It was all too much for me- I had to get out of this lousy business...
As she continued to cry, my misery and self-pity deepened. Presently, I was crying too, with my eerie lapine wails penetrating even through Sarah's own. Perhaps I was over-reacting, perhaps I had just seen too much in recent weeks. But I needed to cry too. There was just too damn much sadness in this world, and I had made it worse when people were counting on me to make it better. Our tears went on for a long time...When we had blown our noses, each of us in our own way, I finally spoke. "Mrs. Cohen- I just don't..."
"No," she said. "Don't apologize. We needed to see what you've shown us, to understand what it's really going to be like for Aaron when he comes home. And for us. You had to make me confront you, to accept you as you are. Make me confront myself and my own feelings. You UNDERSTAND. You're the only one that UNDERSTANDS. You know what we need to learn to live with. And how it feels..."
If I understood anything, it was news to me. I had been a bastard! "Yes, well, but we should have come up with something easier on you..."
She laughed. A bitter, cynical sound. "Easier on me? How, Phil? I love my husband, love him with my body and my soul. My children trust and love him utterly. I had the family teen-age girls dream about- lovely home, adorable kids, great sex that never got old, and best of all a husband that I knew lived for me as much as I lived for him. And now it's gone- utterly gone. My husband won't even be dead- he'll be a cute, fuzzy animal that the kids can play with and forget to clean up after. I'll have to supervise to make sure they don't tease him or frighten him too much. Watch him to make sure he doesn't chew things up or mess the carpet. And, he'll always be there physically to remind me of the past. Maybe he'll even be able to perform an action or two to make me remember who he once was. And, the doctors tell me that he'll still see me as a source of sexual gratification for some time to come, most likely. So I'll have to decide- do I let him or not? And if I do, what will that make me? For God's sake, what will I be if I don't?" She began to cry again, more gently this time.
Yes, she was beginning to understand what she was up against. But just beginning...
I let her hold me again, and my fur absorbed her tears. If only it could absorb the hurt as well...
Finally, when the time seemed right I spoke. "There are places to care for Aaron. Places besides the lapine colonies. But you'll have to get him out of the country."
This got her attention. "What..."
I explained. "Here, the colonies are inevitable for your husband. I've seen his reports. The government will let you take him home, because they know you'll never keep him around. Once you realize how far he's gone, they figure, and how little human is left you'll soon tire of having to show him to your friends and neighbors. The first time a neighborhood doe goes into heat he'll turn into a major family scandal. Or, he'll get mauled and maybe killed by a pack of dogs. If he survives, the government will commit him for his own good. Eventually, you'll want to remarry, most likely. Do you think having your ex living downstairs in a hutch will improve your new relationship? The government bets against it. Eventually they'll take Aaron, and a big chunk of change to pay for the "expenses" of keeping him. And you'll be so relieved to see him gone in a way that assuages your guilt that you'll gladly pay. Then, it won't be long before you don't even think about him anymore..."
Sarah was shocked. She hadn't thought this far ahead yet.
"But the colonies are terrible places, from a rabbit's point of view. I've visited; I know. They're overcrowded, and dominance battles are allowed unchecked. Sometimes the orderlies bet on them. The losers become virtual slaves, no matter if there is considerable humanity left in them. Instincts rule- it's the curse of lapiform SCABS. Even the hutches are poorly constructed, drafty, and don't have enough cover. But the "patients" don't complain- most are afraid to, even if they're able. Rabbits are naturally quite timid, even me. Especially when we spend our lives surrounded by other rabbits. The instincts become stronger and stronger. We tend to accept our fates rather than complain..." I drifted off, remembering. My "visit" had been something more than that, though I still don't ever talk about it. I had contacted my lawyer from the hospital when I first had discovered that I was a rabbit, and her paperwork had sprung me. While a colony patient, I had lost a dominance fight arranged as "punishment" by a particularly nasty orderly. By the time Barbara had come to pick me up, I had almost totally assimilated and had even largely lost the power of speech. If she hadn't personally nursed me back.... I shuddered at the memory.
"Phil?" I had drifted away, and Sarah had noticed.
"Sorry. I was woolgathering. At any rate, other countries allow private non-nationalized institutions to take care of people like your husband. They do a much better job, if you can afford them. But you'll have to get Aaron out quickly, before the government realizes the situation. Otherwise, they'll figure you to be a potential revenue source and you'll never obtain a passport."
Sarah was shocked. Her last hopes had been drained.
I took an educated guess. "Israel has an excellent reputation for SCAB tolerance..."
"Really? Aaron always wanted to go to the Wall. And so do I."
"Then if you go as soon as he gets out of the hospital, the government types will probably figure that you'll be back. Besides, they won't try to commit him until he's given a chance to make his pilgrimage. It would make for bad press."
"Tell me," Sarah asked, "How is it that you are surviving independently? Doesn't the government want you in a colony too?"
"Yes, they've tried very hard. And the real world is a dangerous place for me- the colonies would be much safer. But I am more human than any other extensively morphed lapine I've ever met, by far. And I refuse to live in a big cage, isolated from humanity. Yes, I've become part rabbit, and I'm learning to live with it. But I am human too. I'll live free or die."
Most likely both, I added to myself. Eventually, SOMETHING would kill and eat me. But it was worth it. Freedom has always had a price...
The kids came back about then, and I distracted them by answering questions while Mom got herself put back together for the ordeal to come. Yes, I liked to dig, but I didn't because I had nowhere to do it. And they would have to very careful not to leave a dangling electrical cord- Dad would chew those up for sure once he came home. Why would he pick on cords? Because, I explained, they reminded us of roots growing across our tunnels and our instincts made us very annoyed at them. Yes, I thought I was lucky, but not because I had rabbit's feet. But the toughest one came from Samuel.
Was Dad going to be a wimp?
Well, I explained, his Dad would be living in a world where everything seemed to be out to get him. Because of this, he had to be really careful. And when you've been really careful for a very long time...
Samuel interrupted with "He's going to be a wimp!"
I didn't argue.
Eventually Sarah was ready to face the world again, and took over by thanking me for my time. She sounded very sincere, and a little less frightened. I thanked her for putting up with my amateur efforts, and she smiled and said I had done her more good than anyone else.
Frankly, I doubted that. What had I done but given her bad news? A fraud, that's what I was. A stinking fraud.
And the kids had begged to PLEASE let them scratch my ears- I complied, and they had gone to face their uncertain future. Together.
I sighed, and checked my clock. The session had taken far longer than I planned. I had 10 minutes to ready myself to deal with another emotional volcano.
The crowd was tightly packed outside the theater, and very threatening to my lapine leanings. If it weren't for Jon Sleeper on one side and Donnie on the other, I could never have stayed in a place like that without bolting. As it was I was continually starting at the slightest distraction; if someone stepped on one of my big hindpaws I felt I would lose it for sure. Splendor finally was the one who got me through it, standing behind me and scratching my ears gently until the doors opened and the bulk of the theatergoers had passed therein. The rabbit in me trusts Splendor implicitly. I'm still not sure why.
It was almost as bad inside, a big empty space that seemed totally bereft of cover until finally I convinced myself that I could fit under any of the seats. If I really needed to. That settled, I looked around me with human eyes.
The decor was magnificent, the rich red velvets of the upholstery contrasting beautifully with the plethora of gilded plaster carvings that seemed almost everywhere to emerge from ceilings and walls. Someone with a true gift for such things had created wall hangings just for tonight's presentation, some of them just abstract patterns of dots in various wild colors, and a few that looked like enlargements of genuine Pointillist works. There was even one hanging in a rather out of the way corner that appeared to represent dalmatian fur. Examining it carefully, a suspicion began to arise. That pattern looked awfully familiar. Had the artist actually modeled it on Bix? I wondered if Bix had even noticed it, and how he had reacted if he had...
Presently I heard a piercing whistle from behind me, followed by a familiar voice "Hey, Phil! Back here!" I sighed, and turned. Rubbing it in, was she?
Waving, rocking my ears even though I didn't feel like it, I simulated pleasure. "Dot! How are you tonight?"
"I came to see your Dalmatian friend. I didn't expect my Easter Bunny to be here, too!" Realizing she might be pushing it too far, the Director of the Chamber of Commerce tried to be contrite. "Phil, actually you look pretty good. I mean, well...."
"Yeah." She was a nice person trying hard to be polite, I reminded myself. And I had met many SCABs that looked a lot worse than me. "At least everything matches."
She smiled. "There is that. Phil, I gotta say it. I'd heard you would be perfect for next Spring, but now that I've seen you for the first time I know you're going to be wonderful. I'm making so many plans! You're going to love it!"
Love it. Sure.
Remembering what I had told Michael about inventing new tools for new jobs, I tried to keep an open mind. Maybe I could find a way love it in the end.
I doubted it. But I would try.
No need to ruin Dot's fun though. "Great!" I said, "Looking forward to it!" And I gave her my best smile analog, with ears all the way forward and my harelip opened to show my big front teeth. She giggled at the sight, covered her mouth with her hand in embarrassment, and reddened, unable to hide her glee at the sight. She was going to have fun next Spring, no doubt about it...
At the least, I resolved not to spoil it for her. After all, she had made this whole night possible...
The lights began going down, and a wave of anticipation went through the crowd. Jon, out picking up refreshments, came hurrying down the aisle to take his seat between his wife and me. This theater didn't cater to SCABs normally but tonight they were making an effort. Trying to be a good host to as many species as possible and realizing that some us would need to feed during the performance in order to be comfortable, management had set up a popcorn machine in the lobby. Unbuttered popcorn is a pretty universal dish for us herbivores, and it suited me fine. Unfortunately the Sleepers seemed to have trouble with it hanging up in their teeth. But I ate hungrily as the anticipation built- popcorn in a theater was something I hadn't experienced in a very long time.
Then the curtain went up, and I forgot the popcorn entirely. It was Magic...
If you've never been to the live theater, I pity you. You can have no conception, no idea of the beauty and power it conveys. There is a presence, an aura that is simply indescribable as the living figures sing and dance and perform their way through a powerful work. I sat rapt as the performers did what they do best, giving their all and giving it well.
I forgot who was SCAB and who was Norm, who I knew and who I didn't. Time stopped as the performance wove tapestries of art and literature, motion and music across the stage of my mind. I had been to the Theater before, but it had never been so powerful, so compelling. So immediate and real...
As soon as the curtain calls were complete, I KNEW that the director I had spoken to had a hit on his hands, and that everyone involved was going to come out a winner. Being part rabbit has advantages. Before the aisles filled I dropped to all fours- something I don't ordinarily like to do in public, but this was important- and sped to catch Dot before she left. I had one more favor to ask...
Night. From without, the city languishes in the heat of a dying Summer.
The Ritz-Savery. The Penthouse. The night of the First Attended Preview.
Yep. I'm here again.
Gawd, this place holds memories. I was here for the first time less than one year ago, at Wallace's damnable get-together after that one pivotal performance of Merchant of Venice that got me dropped from the show and stranded here in the City. Less than one year ago. Here is the couch where John was sitting. There was where Wallace stood, at a point precisely equidistant from the free-standing ash-tray and the wet bar. Here was me, wallflowering myself over by the food. (As usual.) And There, in that big open space, for maximum adoring-public accessibility, was the Divine Ahn-Drea, the brightest of the bright, the company starlet and overall Wonderworker.
There is the bathroom I retreated to when the overall stressfulness of the environment became too intense for me to bear. Beyond, the Master Bedroom, where I collapsed and, quite accidentally, fell asleep, utterly exhausted by the rigors of the evening. There is the mantelpiece against which Ahn-Drea was bouncing her baseball very early the next morning, whose noise awoke me from my inadvertent slumber. Here was where I was standing the very first time I realized that Drea wasn't the arrogant star-studded glamour girl that I had always presumed that she was. And here was where I realized that, when I was in her glorious presence, the horrid images that I bore (and still bear) of Jenny's suicide began, ever-so-slightly, to heal. Here is the foyer where I said goodbye.
And here is the very coffee table that Ahn-Drea fell against when I showed up at her room again that very night, twenty-four hours and one lost job later, when I came upon her overwhelmed with rage, pain and alcohol and, damn me to hell, hit her, the force of the blow and the resultant fall rendering her bloody and senseless.
It's all the same. It's all coming back, now.
I sip quietly at my tonic with lime, hold the vodka. It is a drink that has come to be very symbolic to me at a deep and personal level, a representation of my own self-control and a gentle reminder of how close I often have come to succumbing to temptation. Three extra syllables to the barkeep would mean the end of everything I've worked for ever since that one hideous night. My mind is and has always been a battleground, my raw and instinct-driven emotions engaged in a constant, desperate struggle against the walls of my sanity. Alcohol is the one weapon that my instinct needs to break down the barriers and, presently, gain conquest of all.
Beside me stands another. He is drinking a cola of some kind. It's a far more pedestrian drink, granted. But it makes me feel good to have someone to teetotal along with.
He is also an actor.
He is also a SCAB.
"Dear me." He says, smiling an easy lupine smile, and surveying the assembled Company. "Everyone seems frightfully nervous tonight, no?"
I grin anxiously at him. Wanderer is the only thespian I know who could possibly consider even putting on a front of relaxation at a time like this.
"I d'nno, Wand. I think we're kind of in for the long haul. Things are gonna get worse before they get better."
"How... erm..." He pauses and sips at his drink. "How did you think it went?"
I don't remember a thing. It's all one big blur. The lights, the noise, the sound, the...
Oh, God... the Smell...
Whirling around in a Technicolor maelstrom that had all the fluidity and fragility of a dream. The Holiness of it all. Two and one half hours of transcendent bliss. A window into the mind of God. The Music of the Spheres. Help me out, here. I'm completely at a loss.
And, suddenly, I realized that it was done. And with no real knowledge of how I came to be there, I found myself standing in the wings of Stage Right. And for some reason, everyone else in the entire cast was out there on stage... And people were...
...and there was something I was supposed to do and I don't remember what it was and then it was like, "oh, yes, now I remember" and it had something to do with walking out there, back into the lights, away from the shadows, and standing there and standing there for a moment as the People sitting...
...some standing, now...
...out there kept on making those funny noises with their hands that meant that they had liked something and...
...someone from the cast motioned to me and...
I stepped simply onto the stage, stood in the center. And took one, careful bow.
Thunder. Jesus God Almighty Father.
One last company bow with all the cast.
I sip at my drink. "I thought it went well."
He nods. "I think everyone is feeling that. It's a good sign. Plus, the audience really seemed to be enjoying themselves."
"Wand, you know very well that the mind of the Audience and the mind of the Critic are two different animals entirely."
He laughs in that pleasantly Britannic way. "I know, I know, dear boy. How long?"
I look at my watch. "Two hours until first release."
He peruses the corners of his mind for a second, and then says, "Do you think we'll make it?"
I look around at the assembled Company. Everywhere, the conversation is bright, brittle and snappy. We're wound as tight as violin strings. Rebecca has just barely managed to muster the coordination to refill her drink after accidentally dumping her previous one on a potted shrub, and Tim is eating from the small buffet as though tomorrow will never come. Somewhere close to the epicenter of Room Importance is Herr Direktor Barlow, who is fretting quietly to himself in a leather-backed armchair while trying to hold an intelligent conversation with Miz Sophia Danning. His leg is jittering slightly. And Roger... well... Roger is doing that thing he does with his horns again.
Did I mention Roger? Perhaps not. Roger is a SCAB. An Angus Bull of considerable size and phenomenal vocal ability. He has an operatic ring to his voice that most performers would give their right kidneys for. Why is he here? Well. Y'see, rumor had it that Alan Barlow of Windy City Rep, based out of Chicago (well, duh) but having accessory branches in many large cities in the East and the Middle West, had this queer idea that maybe, just maybe, for the fiftieth anniversary revival of Sunday in the Park with George a big spotted SCAB of some kind, let's say... a.... Dalmatian... would be artistically perfect for Sondheim's tribute to the Pointilists. Rumor also had it that, upon hearing that there was a director from a sorta-kinda-big touring Rep company recruiting in the city who was actually considering putting a SCAB in a non-trivial role, a certain other dashingly canidesque SCAB thespian decided to try his luck in the cattle-call lines. One thing led to another, and, sure enough, just as I had always suspected but never confirmed, people like me and Wand started showing up out of the woodwork, each with little more than a monologue and a dream. Dancers and actors and performance artists, all deprived of their canvases by the Martian Flu, suddenly seeing opportunities where previously there were none.
I got in through luck of the draw; Barlow wanted a Dal, he got one. Wanderer got in because he charmed Barlow's ass off up there. And Roger got in because of that voice.
Three of us.
Trying to prove a point to the world at large: that we could do it just as well as they could.
Anyway. Roger uses his officious voice very nicely in the role of the Soldier, and I was delighted that Wand got a chance to show off his skill in affected accents (with something other than his classic Shakespearean dialect) in the role of the German coachman, Franz. He was great tonight; I think all three of us are burning this one at both ends, throwing all our hearts and souls into this one, beautiful chance to do a Real Show. But I'm taking too much credit, here. We all worked hard. All of us. We're exhausted, excited, jittery and just plain overwrought. Roger is opening beverage cans with the tip of one horn, a little party trick that he only does when he's really, really antsy.
It is a sad but true fact that the Review is the single most important determiner of the continued success of a show. Live Theatre is an expensive art form to take part in; it's a simple fact about the profession. Ticket prices for the Performing Arts are higher, per capita, than any other exhibition of artistic prowess. As a result, people are very, very uneasy about shelling out what can amount to eightyplus bucks a pop or more for some of the larger shows. And so, before spending their hard-earned money, they turn to the Experts.
In our fair city, the resident Expert occupies the Theatrical and Dramatic Criticism desk at the Daily Sentinel. His name is Martin Zemler, and he might as well be holding the office two doors down from God. Martin Zemler has the power to make or break a show, by his very words, and the bastard knows it, too.
Thankfully, he is a relatively beneficent executor of the Almighty, but on the other hand, he is utterly fair. Forty-odd years at that desk gives you a little bit of perspective on how things work in the Business, and odds are, when Zemler says something is wrong, it's wrong. Regardless of whether you thought so or not. And if he notices enough things wrong, or worse, is simply nonplussed overall-wise-speaking, he will tell everybody. And, for the most part, he will be trusted implicitly. And people will stay away in droves.
We all hope Zemler liked us. Yes we do.
Because if Zemler liked us, we go on. Our Backers will be Impressed. A couple months here in the city, Evening performances and matinees, the whole shebang. High School Outreaches for all the French Students. Guaranteed sellouts, there. Then, if we're still pulling it in, knowing WCR, we'll hop around the Eastern Seaboard and the Midwest for a bit, weekend to weekend stints, one city at a time. Life on the Road. Living out of an endless series of hotel rooms, meals to go, beds made every morning by Housekeeping. Every week a different venue, a different skyline. Activity and Life.
A steady paycheck. ACTING.
Nice work if you can get it...
And if Zemler didn't like us... Well. You've guessed that, too. We'll run the rest of the unextended contract, maybe paper the house a bit, try damn hard for word-of-mouth and generally speaking, end up folding so fast that it'll leave our collective heads spinning.
This is a good show. We can feel it. But it is also a risky show. Damn risky. Three SCAB's in comparatively major, plotbearing parts. An historic moment in relatively big-time theatre.
We are hoping like hell he didn't have a headache or something.
Zemler always turns in his morning report in time for the Early Edition. Two hours away, now. Two endless, aching, painful, grind-yer-teeth-down-to-flinders hours.
We're at our wits' ends. Sleep? You gotta be kidding me. We had planned for this in advance. Barlow had rented the Penthouse as a nice, comfortable place for us to get together and pass the hours 'til the Word of God is revealed to us. Then... after that... welllll... we either hold the tiredest celebratory huzzah that the world has ever seen or we commiserate quietly until the cows come home. Either or. Whichever. And in the meantime... we sit.
Have I mentioned that we're anxious, yet? Good.
I snap my attention back to Wanderer. "Make it? Sorry?"
"Do you think we'll last the night without going utterly batty?"
I look again at the Company, perusing each face in turn, twenty-nine Studies in Sheer Anxiety. Rebecca drops another drink on the very same plant.
"Wanderer," I say quietly, "I don't know."
Suddenly, a squeaky-cute li'l voice from behind me. "Is everything okay?"
"Phil!" I say.
"Bunny Rabbit!" Says Wand.
And indeed it is my fuzzy little therapist standing there, holding a satchel slung under one arm and one of his odd paw-cups in the other. He gestures with it. "Brought my own glass. Wasn't sure if there'd be anything suitable, here. I only ask if everything's okay because it seems like everyone's all tharn here. Maybe I missed something, of course. I don't know what makes 'Great' theatre, but I sure as hell liked it. Mike, Wand, you were fantastic. I could kiss you both, except that I'm not going to. D'ya suppose they have vegetable juice at the bar? It's not like I'll die without it or anything. Mebbe I'll check. Whoa, hey, is that a Relish Tray over there? 'Scuse for a moment."
And he's off again. Shoom!
Wanderer looks at me. "Did you invite him?"
I shake my head. "Nope."
"I don't think he even breathed through that whole thing." I remark.
"I don't believe so." States Wanderer.
"Tharn?" I say.
"Richard Adams." Says Wanderer, solipsistically, watching Phil become distracted by the parsley garnish on the relish tray on his way back from the bar. "From the novel Watership Down. The old Brit used it to describe that sort of naked frozen horror that a rabbit feels in situations of massive distress. Our bunny friend is being arcane and literary on us. Happens when he get over-excited, you know."
Wanderer nods. "That's it."
I survey the Company. "Sounds 'bout right." I say.
A thought occurs to me, then. I look at my companion. "A whole novel about rabbits?"
"My dear boy," he says, "you have no idea."
That's about all the time we have before Phil returns, chewing up the last of a sprig of parsley, his cup newly full a suspicious red-looking liquid.
"Bloody Mary." He explains, ear-grinning. "Closest thing they had to a Jack Strafford. Ah, well. So much for this being a five-star establishment." He picks the obligatory celery stick out of the fluid and begins munching on it.
Wanderer re-assumes his cheery British lilt. "Michael and I were trying to recall who precisely it was that invited you here, my lagomorphic chum." He grins innocently. "We were unable to arrive at a satisfactory answer."
I grin at this as well, but mentally, I'm kicking myself. Phil hadn't been invited. By all rights, he probably should have been. I mean, he and I have been doing the weekly meeting thing for the past couple of months, trying to get my head screwed back on straight. Hell, he was the one who had gotten me the part in the first place. I should at least have offered an invitation. I've just been so focused and self-centered of late I didn't even think to ask.
Thankfully, he decided to make up for my faux pas by committing one of his own.
"Sorry 'bout that. I kinda took the liberty of inviting myself. Had some stuff that I thought you might be interested in." He sets his drink down and carefully pulls a manila folder out of his satchel. "Opening Night Reviews." He says, proudly.
I sip calmly at my drink. "Erm. No. Actually, they're not."
Phil peers at me curiously. "Why not?"
"Two common fallacies there, Phil. Firstly, this wasn't technically Opening Night."
He looks confused. "What was it, then?"
I assume the pedagogical mode. "Well, you see, this was the First Attended Preview, actually. Opening Night is a few days away."
"But you were in costume."
"Yes." I say.
"And you had the full Orchestra."
"Yes." I say.
"And there was, unless I'm very mistaken, a paying audience in attendance? Rather a lot of paying audience?"
"Well. Yes." I admit.
"And this was the first time this has happened, yes?"
"But of course." Interjects Wanderer.
"So..." He says, working this out in his brain, "Why... erm... wasn't it an Opening Night?"
Frankly, I've forgotten the reason behind it myself. "It's complicated." I explain. "A theatrical tradition."
Sufficiently vague. It satisfies him. Good. I hate looking stupid about things I'm supposed to be the expert at.
"What was the other fallacy?" He asks.
"Ah. Well." I say. "What you have there are notices. Not reviews."
Phil looks at the folder in his paws, then back at me. "Oh. Sure as hell looked like a review to me." He shrugs. "What's the difference?"
"Ego." Remarks Wand, sipping at his drink again.
I nod to Wanderer. "Basically, that's right. See, a notice is the published opinion of any theatrical critic, regardless of who he's working for. A review, on the other hand, is the opinion of a critic working for one of the biggies. Like the Times or the Sentinel. Notices are nice and all, but they really don't mean beans to the backers. It's the review that determines whether we live or die. Not the notices." There. That sounded intelligent. I turn my focus back to the crowd, trying to conceal my own unease as best as I can.
"Oh." Says Phil.
"That's why everyone's on edge tonight, Phil. There's two hours left until the Early Edition of the Sentinel."
"It's all we can do to keep sane." Remarks Wand, brightly.
"Hm." Says Phil. One ear moves very slightly.
"We're not trying to demean you, here." I say. "If you like, you can pass around your notices. It'll be interesting to see what they all thought and such." I peer curiously at the manila folder in Phil's grasp, trying to get a look at it. "Which of the smalls is it, anyway? The Icon? The Charter?"
"Not quite." He says. "Take a look."
He hands me the folder. I glance at the tab.
From The Desk Of Martin Zem--
Wanderer snatches it from me, wide eyed. "Where the devil did you get this?" He hisses at Phil.
Phil makes an idle, offhand gesture with one paw and takes a slog of Bloody Mary. "Got some connections up at the Sentinel. I kinda had the suspicion y'all would be interested."
It's all I can do not to let my jaw go slack. I look at Phil, then at the folder, then at Phil again.
He's doing that damnable ear-grin again.
Wanderer is just staring at the folder. It sits limply in his hands.
Elsewhere in the room, Rebecca has gotten tired of accidentally spilling her drink on the plant and has graduated onwards to accidentally running into things. Barlow is fumbling with the child-proof cap on an aspirin bottle and losing the battle. Selected members of the Company, including Roger, are staring mindlessly out the big east- facing picture windows as if waiting for the Second Coming. I notice that the bathroom door is closed and that Tim is nowhere to be seen.
"If you'd like, I could read them out l-"
"YES!" Shout Wanderer and I, in tandem.
He looks at me, blandly. "Just wanted to make sure I wasn't violating 'Theatrical Tradition' or anything." Another smile.
"Look, you bloody rabbit," I say, grimacing madly. "Just read the damn review already!"
"All righty then." Says Phil. He sets down his drink on a nearby coaster, plucks the folder from Wanderer's nerveless fingers and places it, open, on the coffee table. He clears his throat, and in his squeaky but surprisingly loud little voice, says. "Excuse me!"
Conversation patters to a fragile halt. Twenty-eight more pairs of eyes turn and focus on Phil.
"Excuse me, Collected Members of Windy City Rep. I have here an early release from the Desk of Martin Zemler."
The silence that follows is the most complete and total lack of noise that I have ever not heard.
Rebecca knocks over the plant. "Sorry." She says, lamely.
Silence again. Phil milks the moment for a few seconds longer, just because he's enjoying it so much.
"Well?" Croaks Barlow, finally.
Phil clears his throat and begins to read.
At the headline, a wash of anxious grins spreads across the room. The abstract brings forth even more. And when he reaches the principal summary, we are swimming.
Phil's words are liquid gold.
It's tail-wagging time.
Rebecca gets raves. Barlow's direction gets raves. Roger gets a chiding for overstatement, but a general plus. Wanderer gets a specific mention. The art direction is slightly panned for its invariance from the original production way back when, but we anticipated that. And me..?
Well. Zemler felt that I demonstrated a strong vocal presence and a wonderful intensity. He thought that the chemistry I displayed in my relationship with Rebecca was top-of-the-line, hinting always at the undercurrent of tension that was inherent in any interactions between these two characters. He did feel that certain selected bits hinted at the melodramatic style, and he would have preferred a simpler take. But overall...
He said I was lovely.
I am struggling with myself at the moment, attempting to stay true to the old actor's maxim to, for better or for worse, never take reviews too seriously. But this time, it's not working.
We've won. And it feels good. Damn good.
Barlow gets up from his chair at the end of Phil's recitation, the aspirin bottle completely forgotten.
"Ladies and Gents." He says. "We have ourselves a SHOW!"
Wild cheering and celebrations ensue. Barlow catches my eye and gives me a nod, which I dizzily return. He then goes off to hobnob, all smiles for the first time in days.
The sense of Rightness is unbearable. As the warm chatter of success grows around me, I feel the noise building in my throat. And I'll be damned if I'm going to suppress it this time.
I howl. A sound of pure, unadulterated joy. Scattered laughter and pitterpats of mock-applause. It goes on for some time, until I run out of air. Quick Pause. Breath.
"I LOVE THIS JOB!" I shout. And there are answering cheers that blend back into the noise of the party that will continue on until the coming of dawn
Somewhere amidst the swirl of the Company, I catch a glimpse of Phil as he leaves the reviews on the table for all to peruse and wanders over to the buffet. Watching the ongoing merriment with a vaguely self-satisfied air, he picks a single bright orange baby carrot off the relish tray, examines it for a moment, and takes one smug little nibble.
He then leans back, folds his paws across his fuzzy chest, and Observes the lot of us in our celebrations. Almost as though he were the one to have made the whole thing possible.
That might not be so far from the truth.
Friday again. Opening Night. Arch and me at the garage. It's late. Time 'til call: one hour.
"Start 'er up!" I yell. Archie complies, and the engine roars to life. I drum on the side panel triumphantly. "EEEYES!" I proceed to make a few victorious little whoofling noises, pump my fist a couple of times, then do a rapid series of foot-thumps which escalate into a quick little in-place dance, accompanied by happy yipping sounds.
Arch lets me go on with this foolishness for some time, looking on with an amused smirk.
"Somebody's in a good mood this evening." He says, finally.
I grin lopsidedly at him, panting slightly from my exertions. "Told ya a change of plugs would do the trick. Pay up."
He forks me a Washington. "Sure, sure, now you think y' have the right to get cocky with me."
"No better time." I say, glancing at my watch. "Ten more minutes and I'm out of here for good."
He smiles, wanly. "You don't have to sound so happy about it, f'goodness' sake..."
I put a bit of a damper on my exuberance, for Arch's sake, and do my best to convey textbook "sincere." I'm an actor. I can do this. "I know, I know, Arch. It wasn't you." I pause, looking about for a moment. "You run a good shop, here. The problem was with me."
"You're all right." He says, distantly. "Feels like we just got to know you, Mike, and now we're already letting you go. Don't suppose you'd maybe like to keep working half- or quarter-time or anything?"
I shake my head. "No offense, Arch, but the past few months have been kind of wearing me out. Now that I know this isn't just gonna be a one-shot deal, I'd kinda like to focus my efforts. You know." As I talk, I begin spiffing things up for the day's end. "Besides, I'd have a hell of a time making it in for work from Newark or wherever we're heading next with this thing."
"Well." He says. "You're a damn fine mechanic, Mike, and we're sorry to lose you."
"Thanks." I say, meaning it. "You've done me a couple big favors, Arch, and I hate to have to repay you like this."
He waves a hand, dismissively. "Forgetaboutit. Seems like the biggest favor I could do for you right now is t' let you go in peace."
"It's not as if I didn't like working here..." I protest.
Arch cuts me off. "But you didn't. No offense here either, Mike. I understand. Lord knows I'd be miserable anywhere else but this place. So I gotcha."
He looks around the old shop for a moment, reminiscing, taking in, as though for the first time anew, every detail of the place. The noise of the now quietly-running engine. The pleasant warmth of the repair bay. The smell of oil and grease and steel and ozone. Presently, I join him.
Arch and I really aren't all that different, actually.
We bathe in the aura for a moment, two modern and changed creatures surrounded by a world of stimulus and sense.
Arch sighs, then, hops back into the car and kills the engine. "Well. That's the last of 'em. Michael, it's been a pleasure. Stop back in sometime and say hi, awright?"
I nod. "Will do." I go back to cleaning up.
"F'get about that stuff, Mike. L' get it in the morning."
Same old Archie. "You sure?"
"Positive. Go home and relax. You got a show to do."
I shake my head. "We've got an early start, tonight. Won't have a chance to head back to the apartment. I'm going straight over to the theatre."
"Well. Whatever you do." He says. "Just take carea'yerself. 'Kay?"
"That's what I'm doing, Arch."
"Understood. Break a leg tonight." He gives me a quick patented Guy-Style Hug (one arm around the back, two thumps) and sees me off.
I leave Arch in his own Empty Space. And go off to find mine.
The route to the Wyndham House Civic Theatre is an easy one through the better and brighter parts of town. I walk the entire distance in a sort of breezy lilt, swinging my tote bag behind me, and in no time at all I am before the building which houses My Stage.
It is only then that I realize that maybe, just maybe, I might still have a chance to go home before the show tonight after all. In a manner of speaking.
It's simply a question of definition.
Resolutely, my head held, high, I walk forwards, through the great glass doors leading into the lobby, nodding once to the girl at the box office as I pass. I make my way through the lobby, and then forward from there into the House. The seats are red pseudovelvet, the carpeting is golden, and the Smell is...
...indescribable. I've tried already once before to convey in words the precise nature of the Smell of the Stage, and as I failed miserably that time too, I shan't do it again. Let "Indescribable" suffice. It's the only word for the job.
Up on stage, I see one of the techies finishing the last pass with a push-broom. He is illuminated by the glow of the obligatory single-bulb work-light that will be, shortly, removed, as the rest of the Crew begins preparations for the night's show. But for the moment, he and I are the only ones here.
Then, he flicks the last scatterings of dirt into his dustpan and is gone. Leaving me alone.
Quietly, I walk to the Stage and swing a leg up, pulling myself to the thin lip of the proscenium that comes between the Orchestra and the House. I stand for a moment, backlit by the ghost-light, and survey the vast expanse of empty seats before me. I breathe for a moment, drinking in the Smell.
Then, I remove from my tote a single, wine-colored circle of cloth, poomph it into the shape of a beret, and place it snugly on my head, taking care to adjust it to the exact precise absolutely perfect twenty-three degree Somewhat Jaunty Theatre-Person's Angle.
It's all coming back, now.
I raise my arms in the traditional posture of Thespian's Glory, and thusly salute the Space and everything ever to be therein. And it is good.
Her smell fills my nostrils.
"Hi, honey." I say. "I'm home."
Another day's work had ended, and I was absolutely beat. It had been a long one, a day of incessant fighting against SCABS and its scarring legacy. As usual, SCABS was winning. I had danced and skipped from side-to-side and ducked and weaved, but rarely ever seemed to land even a jab to counter the sledgehammer blows that the Martian Flu was beating into the lives of decent, good people. Folks were counting on me, trusting me...
But as always, I was failing. Making thing worse. Sticking my wiggly nose where it didn't belong. I wasn't a trained counselor, I was a phoney. Sighing, I caught a ride to the Pig. There, at least, I could get a little peace, and screw up my courage just a little bit more.
Splendor wasn't gong to like it when I quit my job. It wouldn't be tomorrow, or even the day after. But in my heart I knew it was coming. Soon.
It was quiet at the bar that night, and Donnie came right over when I hopped up onto the barstool that was just beginning the lifelong process of adapting itself to my behind. It was fully night outside, and the small crowd and dark windows gave the place an intimacy it rarely knew. I ordered my usual Strafford, and the bartender busied himself while I mused over my failures. Presently, Donnie came back with my drink, but there was something odd about the paw cup that I had come to know so well. As the drink was placed before me, I saw what it was.
The old, adjustable one-size-fits all cup had been retired. In its place was an expensive pewter custom job, with handles molded in my size, at just the right angle. Engraved on it were two simple words.
It was a magnificent and thoughtful gift.
"Who..." I asked, but before I could continue Donnie shushed me. Clearly, I was not to know. And before I could press him further, he headed back to a dark corner of the bar on some errand or another. Leaving me alone with my new cup.
Who could it be from? My mind raced as I wondered. It was so expensive, so thoughtful that I simply HAD to acknowledge it somehow, repay the generosity and square the debt. But who in the world was my obligation to?
Bix, maybe? It was possible. He wasn't a bad guy, just immersed in his own problems. Now that he had a found a little success in his life, a few good things to sustain him again he might well be capable of such a gesture. Probably it was Bix...
Then again, maybe not. It could have been Sarah Cohen, in cahoots with any of several Pig regulars. I had just gotten a note and picture from her in Israel. The letter thanked me for offering her a new direction to take in life, an option she had never considered. The picture showed the family visiting Aaron in a clean, modern facility light years away from the Colonies here in America.
Sarah could have sent the cup... I looked closely, but could find no evidence of Israeli manufacture on it. Hmm...
Then there was Sharon the mouse SCAB I had treated recently. Her new glasses from Dr. Coe had brought her quickly back to her senses, giving her mind a familiar way to interpret the universe once again. The grateful family had written a mass letter with 27 signatures apologizing for the way they had treated me and expressing their extreme gratitude. And, most touching of all there had been a tiny pawprint at the bottom, circled by a loving relative and simply marked "Sharon".
Yes, the cup could have come from there...
As I thought back, I realized there were others, too- people I had tried to get through different aspects of SCABS and back on their feet. It could have come from many people indeed...
Damn there were a lot of possibilities! I would never work it out on my own. And Donnie, well, he would never help me out either. Secrets were safer with him than anyone else I knew.
I thought on it some more. There were a lot I could rule out right away, fellow SCABS who I had worked with and benefited to various degrees who simply didn't have the money for such a fine present. Jane Doe, for example, my first cage case, who still didn't have her memory back but was at least talking to people and thinking of herself as human again. It was a good thing I could rule these folks out- there were so many that I'd NEVER...
Then it hit me. How many people had I helped enough that they might send a gift?
I had helped dozens of people deal with SCABS. I really had, credentials or no.
Wow! Somehow, I had never realized it before. The failures were so frustrating, the pain of the victims so intense, the victories sometimes seeming so small to me, that I had never counted the victories. Never tallied the true score.
No wonder I was depressed!
All my life I had suffered from a poor sense of self-worth, a terribly weak self-image. I knew this academically, but knowing it didn't cure it. Even when human I had been plagued by pointless depressions and vague feelings of directionlessness. And going in for the long-whiskered look courtesy of the Flu hadn't helped me a bit. Rabbits are not known for strong personalities.
Only this gift, this present from an unknown benefactor had let me see the truth. The cup was only a symbol- the true meaning of what had been given to me would probably never be known to the giver. Whoever it was had made their entrances and exits, left their footprints in my life never knowing the impact they had made.
The gin and carrot juice sloshed warmly around inside me, but not nearly so warm as my feelings. It had all been worth it- every heartbreak, every tear, every last minute of quiet desperation as I scrambled for new ideas to help my clients adapt. I'm not usually given to big displays, but just that once I had to speak out.
"Friends! Fellow SCABS and friends of SCABS," I shouted as best as my limited voice would carry, "Tonight you will drink on me!" And merriment ensued...
Quietly, during a little break in the impromptu party Donnie took advantage of a moment to discreetly dispose of the little cardboard box Phil's new cup had come in. On it was plainly written the name of a bartender's supply company, the one Donnie always used...
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