A throat is
cleared. One section of the crowded restaurant goes quiet. Ben
rises, newspaper in hand, to pontificate, ergo 'read,' but first he
needs a mental moment to prepare... (he takes a little longer)...
all to the tittering delight of his avid audience.
"The 'Royal We,' Ben?"
He nods, though his expression makes it clear he will brook no further interruptions.
"'We do not, as all my faithful rrreaders know, wrrrite rrraves.'" His rolled r's draw a whoop of approval. "'But last night this rrreviewer saw performances about which we must rrrave! The play? 'To Term,' by Elgin Watts. Its theme? Four crippled souls, whose amoral lives incestuously intertwine'—or drool together, I might have phrased it—'grapple with the issue of...'—dare I name the foul word, pronounce this noun we all denounce as verb, the bane of Motherhood, anathema to all that's pure and Holy, scourge of..."
"Get on with it, Ben."
Ben fills his lungs as if to blast the heckler, furrowing his brow, bristling with an ostentatious fury... then expels the faintest whisper.
The entire throng, not just those actors holding court in the corner, grows hushed—Ben's recitation having carried far beyond the attendant troupe and techies (a collateral effect that stokes his fervor).
"'The characters? In order of appearance: Laura Altar, wife of Jacob, deftly played by Janie Harkinson'—note that; 'deftly.' We each get an adverb, one each. God knows what the man would write were he unimpressed—'a professional whose forays into the business world are tentative. She hankers for security, provided by her husband Jacob, portrayed rrrestrainedly by'—yours truly—'Benjamin Gerber.'"
Janie's laugh, supported by Paul's, is further reinforced by Gillian's loud guffaw, as entranceways to the dining area clog; alongside regulars, curious onlookers—some of whom have likewise come from the theatre—strain to overhear.
"'Jacob is an embittered intellectual gone bourgeois, whose cynicism targets, among other things, the Christian Faith, his sneering attitude epitomizing our Age's Fall from Grace'—et spiritus sanctus." Ben blesses himself with the sign of the cross. The techies hiss. "'Enter'—ah, a Thespian, is our rrreviewer, through and through—'one RRRichard Stanley, played flawlessly...'"
"He remembered his lines for once."
"'... by Paul Hewitt, who captures RRRichard's plight as a man by failure cowed...'"
"'...whose absence from home, at the hour his wife is raped, is due to his sharing a motel room with Laura Altar.'"
More boos and hisses escape the techies.
"Ben, did he really write that? He's tipped the plot."
Gillian reassures him.
"Relax, Paul. No one reads his column anyway."
Ben moves on regardless.
"'...an affair of which Monica Stanley, stunningly portrayed by Gillian Gallipolis (rrreturned after a brrrief illness), is aware. With the shards of her traditional marriage crumbling underfoot...' (Ben spills tortilla chips on the floor and crunches them with his heel) '...she flees to a bar, in a seedy neighborhood, where she is accosted by three thugs, who follow her home, spring an ambush, mug, then rape her.'"
"He has! He's told the entire story! I can't believe it!"
Ben holds up his hand, imperially, commanding silence... gets it... then proceeds:
"'The play then hinges...'"
Someone imitates a creaking door.
"'...on the dilemma posed by Monica's rrresultant pregnancy. We won't rrreveal the ending.'"
"He's revealed everything but."
"Twin butts; a double asshole."
"'...by all means see this timely exposé. With sets designed in documentary black and white by Goya Lyndon, a positively chilling musical score composed and performed by Sterling Gant, provocative lighting by Daniel Freund, unobtrusive costumes by Sarah Willoughby, and the highly imaginative direction of Gerald Hurst, this production has to be the season's high-point, a definite MUST SEE. Let me rrreiterate, a definite MUST SEE.'"
Ben lets his hand, with the newspaper, drop to his side—overtly exhausted. The crowd applauds—revitalizing him instantly, his face aglow with a broad sardonic grin. He bows with a final, histrionic flare.
"Where? He wouldn't dare. We ought to shoot the bounder."
"But Paul, we're a hit. The run has been extended."
Paul turns to Janie.
"You didn't hear? It's already posted; three additional performances."
"Of this turkey?"
"With an option."
Gillian has been listening to this exchange. Paul's opinion of the play annoys her no end. As onlookers disperse, she spoils for argument.
Anticipating another tiresome skirmish, Paul decides to launch a preemptive strike.
"Don't tell me, Gillian, you agree with this megalomaniac's review, you who swear that you never read them, you who insist that 'the play's the thing,' that 'truth, in theatre, is paramount'—critics be damned?"
"Make fun, make fun. You know I'm right. Even if you won't admit it."
"Of course, I won't. All the flowery idealism in the world won't save this stinker."
"You're wrong, Paul."
"Then why are you so good in it?"
"Flattery will get you everywhere."
"I wouldn't have said that during preview week. Or even through the earlier part of this run. But there's a difference now. And don't you try to say you're haven't felt it; we were married tonight, Paul. I hated you so much I could have screamed!"
"That's just the kind of thing that makes you dangerous. We're playing up there, Gillian. Forget that, and the audience will turn. They'll either claim you're been preachy, or, worse yet, self-indulgent. Neither is theatre. Respect the third wall, my Sweet. Without it, you're raw meat before the hounds."
"And with it, Art's too safe. Don't you see that? If we don't take some chances, how can they? Most people live their lives inside very narrow margins. They settle for less because less seems more secure. But it isn't. It's just... less. And less gets tiresome. We offer people an alternative. It may only last a couple of hours, but, if we're willing to take a chance and tell the truth, tell it well, they'll get the message. They'll get out of themselves, for a little while, and see those selves from a different point of view. That's..."
"Halt! Stop! You've got it right, for a change; 'they'll get out of themselves.' Ninety-nine percent of the folks who sit out in that audience want nothing more than an hour or two away. From reality. Which bores them to tears. They want fantasy, instead—away, away, away; the further removed they get the better they feel. Your theories about spectator involvement, are better left for masochists—or highbrow aesthetes."
"Bullshit. Art is Truth. Truth is Light. Humanity is attracted to the light. People come because they sense we're being honest."
"How old are you? You sound sixteen. I haven't heard that kind of crap since drama school. 'Truth'? 'Light'? Grow up. You know, as well as I do, that 'Art,' like everything else, adheres to the Bottom Line."
Gillian's chest is breaking out in a rash; she is over-excited. She knew that Paul would stoop, in the end, to economics—a craftsman's mentality, weighing work on the scales of profits lost or gained. Profits and the Arts, in her opinion, are incompatible.
Someone has turned up the sound-system full blast. Paul and Gillian's debate goes effectively unheard; their lips move, their expressions connote intensity, but the pounding music drowns out every word.
♫I love rock n' roll♫
The Golden Spur, from stage to pit, is bustling.
Molly fails to hear what Chris has muttered; she is washing beer mugs. He directs her eyes with his own to a pair of men in plain-clothes at the bar's far end. With teeth overlapping his lower lip, Chris repeats his sotto voce warning.
"So what's the deal, Blue? We on a bust, or what?" (Blue sucks in his cheeks.) "Come on, will ya? No games, eh? Is this official or are we goofin' off?" Dean lets his eyes drink in Leanne. "I wish my wife had jugs like that. Mmwa!" He throws a kiss toward the stage. Leanne winks. "She's not half bad. Is she the one we're after?" (Blue crunches ice.) "I hope not. Hey, you gotta dollar?" Dean checks his own wallet. "Come on, all I got 's a ten." (Blue continues to ice-crunch as his answer.) "Hey, you're serious. This is a bust. It isn't dope, I hope. I've had enough o' that shit. Is it dope?"
"It isn't dope."
"My partner speaks!" Dean relaxes. "We gonna bust the owner?... No?... One o' the strippers, then?... Hey, what's with you, man?" (Blue catches Molly's eye for a refill. Cindy saunters in. Blue records her entrance with a hostile glance.) "That one?... No?... Too bad; I'd love to strip-search her." Dean follows Cindy's progress to the dressing room. "Legs, man. Can't beat 'em. Did you see hers? They started at her armpits. I wish my wife had legs like that... Hey, Blue. Speak to me, Blue. You're actin' weird, man. What's goin' down?"
Blue's teeth pulverize another frozen cube. Suddenly his face contorts with malice. Dean tracks its source. Debbie, standing half in, half out of the front door, cranes her neck and scans the bar's population. Blue calls down to Chris.
"Her name Debbie Meekum?"
Chris plays dumb; Molly seconds him... But Blue, evidently, needs no corroboration; one look has her pegged; he can see it all, imagine the circumstances, a pervert buying her way into a decent neighborhood with money made in a filthy dive like this, pimping herself for it, letting Lord-knows-what lay hands all over her, a woman like that—desperate, probably, because no grown man with any integrity would ever want her—waits in the doorway of her apartment building for a little boy to pass on his way to school, luring him in, offering him candy, or donuts, or whatever, making no move the first few times, building up the kid's confidence, until one fine day she's dressed in only a robe, invites him in, lifts him unto the kitchen table, like usual, tells herself—because the boy notices that she's nude underneath—that the kid must have sex on his mind, no matter he's only eight years old, but she's been imagining things so long that his natural curiosity gets twisted into the same sick shape as hers, so she lets her lapels flop open a bit more, giving the boy an eye-full of tits the likes of which he's never seen, not that he remembers, anyway, but that tug at something basic as she hoists one out and offers him a feel, sweet-talks him into touching it, tells him it's okay, breaks down the kid's resistance, holds it up to his mouth, says give it kiss, a suck, so he does, at which point things get easier because he's thinking about infancy and his first-ever pleasure; of course, they'll do it some more, next day, if he promises not to tell—not that it's wrong; they're only pretending, which soothes his guilty conscience and guarantees he'll show, when she goes further, shifting operations into the bedroom, suggesting that she has a "fun" idea, one that scares him at first; he knows he shouldn't, but she's so nice and gives him things and makes him feel good by explaining how body parts work, how his and hers are different, and what each is for, showing him what grown-ups do when they're naked together, dismissing the fact that children can't comprehend, much less satisfy, an adult's desires, especially hers, despite his getting stiff when she pulls down his pants, then his underpants, and puts her clammy hands on his hairless "Mister Dick," sending a strange sensation through his entire body, making him hide his face in his trembling hands, making him cry—not soft sobbing, but big boo-woo wails—as he tries to pull away from her; but she holds tight, can't let him go, not screaming his lungs out with his clothes half off, so she claps a pillow over his mouth to smother the God-awful noise, making them both freak out; if the brat won't stop howling, flailing his feet and fists, she may have to slug him one; but then his mother calls; that does it; the kid leaves now she's done for; she yells "SHUT THE FUCK UP!" shocking him into silence—which probably saves his life—then jerks his drawers back on and tries to tuck in his shirt, grooms him, he recalls, with a brush all clogged with hair, hers, remembering how it barely even tugged when she dragged it through, just as he remembers the stuff they did together, and how he'd be in trouble if he ever, EVER tattled, but he did anyway, as soon as she let him go, as soon as he ran upstairs and his mother started asking questions, like where he'd been and how his clothes got all mussed and who combed his hair, he told; Blue told; and afterward he wept like a snot-nosed sissy.
Debbie has disappeared (tipped off by Molly). Blue leaps from his bar stool, in pursuit, Dean trailing.
Molly stacks the glasses. Chris shifts behind her.
"We're short now. Give Michelle a call and see if she'll come in."
Molly, towel discarded, reaches for the phone.
A bell detonates in Michelle's living room; the easy chair, the curtain-less windows, the walls sans decorations, do little to absorb its grating tone...
...which blares again, echoing unobstructed through the hallway to the kitchen, bouncing off appliances in their claustrophobic nookc...
...as crowded as the bathroom is, where a third ring now reverberates, searching for a victim to distract, harangue, perturb...
...hammering the bedroom door, a fourth ring shrilly clamors, knocks it way inside; Michelle looks up (past hulking shoulders, past someone who abducts her pillow, face-down, eyes shut, grimacing, whose grunts and groans keep pace with urgent thrusts), her features drained: lips devoid of luster, hair in tangles, pores congested, a slick of sweaty oil adheres to pockmarked cheeks and chin—jolted into nodding (by the man who humps unstoppably), seeming to consent (who comes, with a boorish snort, in spurts) until her stare grows fixed in the onslaught's aftermath.
Displaying far more patience than her one-night-stand has mustered, the phone persists; then dies away. While he, above her, stays... still drains his loins (though screened from hers by a skintight sheathe of latex)... still breathes his boozy breath (though undetected; hers is worse)... still imitates a lover (though his name escapes her presently)... still represents a link to someone else (though how is vague)... still eases isolation (at the price of self-respect).
She contemplates a cobweb on the ceiling.
At least the blasted phone stopped ringing. Wonder who it was? Wonder who this is. He stinks of sweat and cum and gin. He also stinks of meat cooked rare... unless that's... Shit; my period!
Michelle crawls out from underneath her nameless guest's inertia. Looking down, she sees the telltale smears that paint her lap.
"Why, when they confront us with our own depraved reflections...?" I'll have to tell the dealer, 'swings both ways.'
Michelle plods off to the bathroom sink to douche.