Do You Party

That afternoon he visited grandmother in a small town, his hometown, a town with no name, not in this story anyway. She was talking about a lot of people who were dead to life but alive in her memory, perhaps because it was the day of her regular appearance at the local historical society, where she was a member. He replied it had always been his intention to visit the society; could he accompany her? At this she was radiant.

So they went together, the old and the young, words which mean less and more as you age. Mostly everyone there was older, and they were animated by his youngness. They asked about where he worked: a recording studio – where he lived: a certain neighborhood which had been in the news lately – did he feel safe: he was aware of his expression, of his phraseology, the need to be direct but respectful, to humanize and not patronize. It seemed his grandmother was proud, if a bit concerned for his safety.

What he omitted, what he didn’t admit, was that when he walked the neighborhood, people often asked “do you party?” They asked from a car like a Destiny’s Child song, from across the street like some parabolic priest, from profiling him as sexual preydator. There was partying: drugs and partying: sex. No one, even complete strangers, seemed to be confused at all that he tended toward the latter. And when it was asked, his word was no, but his face was yes, and they would always linger for a moment; an anguished moment in which he could feel his heart lean over the question, as water, seeing itself.

In the car, between the small town history and the big city present, a friend from the suburbs, a man his grandmother’s age, with whom he occasionally lunched, called. “I wanted to ask you at the restaurant the other day, but that didn’t seem the right place for it,” the man said. “Sometimes I go to parties, in people’s homes. They are parties with nude men. I just watch. You are welcome to watch. You don’t have to participate.”

“Oh. Oh,” he replied, “I appreciate you asking,” as if it were an old microwave being offered; “no,” he said. Old microwaves are too heavy, they get too hot, they take up too much counter space. They said goodbye, but he meant goodbye in a different way than the man did.

Parking near his duplex, he could see a party next door had moved outside. Their porches seemed like opera boxes, a great distance of theater between. Reaching into his pocket for the key, someone shouted, “how you doin’ neighbor?” and he smiled, “Good, you?” Unlocking the door, climbing to his level, collecting a drink from the refrigerator, a cigar from his backpack, a match from a drawer, he came down again. He slid a patio chair to the porch side nearest theirs and sat, waiting, knowing why he was waiting, not knowing why he wanted.

No one asked if he partied.

Anything’s Missing

Have you ever walked off a plane to see someone holding up a sign with your name on it? Me neither. But that was the feeling Parker had when watching Barbara Harris perform in Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? or, as Parker retitled it, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is This About Him When Allison Densmore Is More Interesting And Only Has One Good Scene? Parker wanted to perform it for an audition, a decision that majored on meta, since the scene is an audition, before turning into a dialogue with the director; really, though, it’s a monologue with interruptions, all of which Parker ignored; therefore, we will do the same, in our transcription:

“The best part was just coming up. I have three good notes. I never seem to get to them. I can’t leave. I can’t leave I’m sorry I – I can’t leave…I feel like I just auditioned for the part of human being and I didn’t get the job. See, it – it took me three weeks to get this audition. And I bought a new dress and I worked on my song and and I had my hair done – Mr. Max 22.50 a work of art with lashes – and now I can’t leave right away, I just can’t leave right away…Oh God, I hate these auditions. I’m not what you’re looking for. I’m not even Linda Kaiser. She’s my roommate. My name is Allison Densmore. I never use it because it sounds so old. Centuries old. It sounds like a lot of doilies to me. Very beautiful here with the lights out. This is a – this is a great set for Lucia de Lammermoor. Dawn on the Moors. I study opera every day an hour. Do you like opera? I have ’em all here. Opera’s the best. People live at the top of their lives and die very beautifully. Lucia and Edgardo – they meet on this moor at dawn. She saves him, in a way, but mostly he saves her from a wild bull. And she’s crazy about him. So they save each other. Mister, listen to me, I’m still auditioning. All the time I think I’m auditioning. I wake up in the morning and the whole world says, “thank you very much, Ms. Densmore, that’ll be enough for now…it’s not the audition. It’s not that. It’s my birthday. I’m 34 years old today and I’m not prepared. I’m prepared for 22. Right now I could do a great 22. I woke up this morning and all of a sudden I was not young…Not young enough for this dress. Not young enough to be a corporate librarian with three good notes and a briefcase of opera. Mister, I don’t understand what happened to the time. All of a sudden I’m going into my tenth year of looking for a new apartment. I’m not much of a singer. And I’m not a gifted file clerk either. The one good thing I’m good at is being married but my husband wasn’t. That was 10 years ago. I’ve never learned another trade. The time, Mister, it’s not at all a thief, like they say, it’s something much sneakier. It’s an embezzler, up nights, juggling the books so you don’t notice anything’s missing.”

Parker felt as though anything and everything was missing. Some of that could be dismissed as a symptom of cultural messaging, because he wasn’t married, didn’t own a home, didn’t have dental insurance, the last of which became important recently as a lump developed on the inside of his lip. Now his tongue passed over it – and he read the monologue – again and again. He was increasingly convinced of two things: 1) Not a word of it needed to be changed for his audition, not even the gender pronouns, and 2) He could not perform it for his audition, for the same reason you can’t lick your ear; it’s all just too connected. And, of course, if your tongue is preoccupied with a lump, that compounds the problem. For months Parker had optimistically ignored it, but one day he made the mistake of mentioning it to a nurse friend, which began her badgering him to call a local school of dentistry for a cheap appointment.

Yes, it was easy not to notice anything was missing, until you started grabbing for something. And Parker was getting grabby. For example: his roommate. The young man was just nice, not to mention straight, but Parker had a tendency to misconstrue gestures as overtures. One day, after Parker had put the kettle on and lit the wrong burner, causing a greased pan to smoke, the roommate noticed and turned it off, smiled and rested a hand on Parker’s shoulder; he nearly collapsed under the weight. One night, while the roommate’s back was turned, Parker took a picture, texted it to a friend, declared the body good. Since we’ve practically used the slogan, we might as well state that essentially Parker was one of those ’90s milk commercials, feigning coyness but completely prurient.

He thought about this while driving home late on a Thursday night, accompanied by the university radio station. The DJ had crafted a playlist with a fantastical theme, and when “Puff the Magic Dragon” came on, Parker felt as he was at the center of a push/pull shot: the car moved forward, but his mind went back, back, back, to when he was 10 years old, to the small town in which he was raised, in a vintage ice cream parlor, in front of a jukebox. Perhaps it was his first memory of music as a mode of transportation, taking you elsewhere.

I wish I had a pair of little magic glasses
That I could see the future just by looking through

Another song had started, a strange lullaby by – was that Johnny Cash? Yes, it was. Apparently he had done a children’s album. If “Little Magic Glasses” was any indication, it was a children’s album that parents would not like. Not because it was silly and obnoxious, because it was direct and vulnerable, states of being which adults carefully avoid.

Parker’s phone rang. It was someone he met in junior high; the friendship had passed the test of time, or at least the first 20 years of it. The friend was in recovery for alcohol, had relapsed. Their voice oozed through Parker’s phone, syrupy: “I’m out of excuses. I’m 34. I’m working at Pizza Hut. I come home in the uniform and my daughter says ‘I’m going to wear a uniform too,’ and I say, ‘no, no, honey, you’re going to do better, this is beneath you.'” The friend cried. Parker was quiet for awhile. “Still,” he responded. “Your daughter likes you. Sounds as though she loves you.” The friend exhaled. “My children are each a bell. Each of them ringing continually in my heart.”

Students at the school of dentistry examined it – Parker’s lump – and one of them left to find the doctor. Under the fluorescent lighting, Parker’s vintage cocktail shirt seemed dirty, as did his sneakers, which he had just cleaned that morning. The doctor arrived, touched the lump, and announced it was a mucus cyst that Parker must have aggravated somehow. The cyst could be removed, but there was a high likelihood of it returning. Parker opted to leave it, and, as if a need for attention had been met, it began to recede.

This Other Love

When my best friend stood with her sisters in front of the parish for her profession, the choir listed the saints she considered an inspiration, including Dorothy Day, who is not sainted yet. “They made an exception,” said my friend afterwards. Day is exceptional: she co-founded a movement that is still moving across the world, was listed by Pope Francis as one of four great Americans, and, most recently and curiously, was called a “great dramatic figure” by America Magazine. Part of the reason for this new honor is her portrayal in This Other Love, a play by Patty McCarty, enjoying its premiere at Acacia Theatre Company, where I am employed as Business Manager.

The story behind the play is receiving as much attention as the story of the play. This Other Love was submitted in 1994 and sank to the base of a pile until the Artistic Director and I uncovered it in a move just over a year ago. The top page was a cover letter with a phone number at the bottom. There was surprise on both ends of the line: me, that Patty’s number hadn’t changed; Patty, that Acacia still had her number. I complimented her on the lyricism of the play, how its style was reminiscent of Tennessee Williams. After we had settled the preliminary terms of a performance contract, Patty told a friend, who is head of a university theatre department in Kansas City. “22 years,” he exclaimed, “that takes the cake.” “So,” Patty concluded, in relaying this exchange to me, “I went out and bought a cake.”

Not everyone celebrated. Many people in the Acacia community legitimately criticized weaknesses in the script, potential directors declined it, some Catholics expressed dislike for Day, and very few actors auditioned. The Artistic Director and I questioned the decision. And I didn’t fully stop questioning until opening night.

At the blackout before intermission, I chased the director as she escaped into the lobby. “It’s the play we read,” I said to her, the first of an embarrassing number of times I started crying that night. Thanks to some good readings by good actors, the lines I had read before were reading me: “For every step we take towards God, God takes a dozen steps toward us”…“When my brothers were little, my dad bought them the biggest red wagon he could find. He said they needed something they could just barely move if they leaned into it. Sometimes I feel like that”…“Don’t get crosswise with God. You will lose”… “The church declared her a saint. Sure it did. Maybe it’ll do the same for you. But first you have to burn.”…“He’s giving you the opportunity to burn yourself up in an impossible cause and you can’t resist.”…“It won’t work any other way.”

I knew it wouldn’t work any other way, I had always known it wouldn’t, the rest was pretense, or rather past tense: a resentment of how I’d been made, or molded, until the resentment became entitlement, a permission to medicate through selfish behavior, until the entitlement became bereavement, a deep grief over the folly of my decisions, until the bereavement became repentance, taking the steps, barely moving by leaning in, getting crosswise with God, losing, and burning burning burning. Sometimes because I am called to. Sometimes because I want to call attention to myself. Most of the time, because it has a gospel logic.

The stage lights dimmed and the house lights rose, a reminder that there was a talkback and I was the facilitator. Taking to the stage, I invited Patty and the cast to join. There were questions asked, praises offered, memories shared. At one point, Patty remarked, “I don’t want to be anyone but me right now.”

Earlier, under the influence of doubt, I had diminished This Other Love to my best friend, who lamented missing it due to the beginning of her biblical instruction in Rome. Now I felt an urge to capture the play in my hands, like a firefly, and release its energy to her. Surely she would need strength for picking up the burden that is light, the burden of light. Surely we would.

“Moral grandeur is not a contemporary trait,” writes Margot Patterson. “Whether we watch depictions of her on stage or come to see statues of her in Catholic churches, Dorothy Day is going to haunt us. Like Antigone, her story makes us consider our ideals and how much we want to live them.”

Return to the House

“Right now he’s in a phase where if you touch him, and he doesn’t want to be touched, he just says ‘ow.'” Lily explained, of her two-and-a-half-year-old child, PJ. To her brother, Wren, the name, short for Peter Joshua, recalled Prince John’s line in the Disney version of Robin Hood: “PJ! I like that, do you know I do? Put it on my luggage. P.J.” Lily had only just resisted giving PJ some middle name starting with B, mainly because of the family’s entreaties to spare the child of future mockery from peers, although Wren knew all too well that such prevention was impossible.

Wren’s allegiance was with Lily, evidenced, perhaps, by his progression and regression through a series of terms of enfearment for PJ, including “the ejected,” “the thing from her black womb,” “the small assassin.” After he was convicted by an episode of “Grace & Frankie” wherein Mallory told Brianna that if she didn’t want to spend time with her kids then she wouldn’t be spending time with her – he apologized to Lily over the phone. Amends should be done in person, of course, but Lily, her husband Shane and PJ lived on the west coast, and anyway, she responded with, “you don’t have to apologize. I like all your nicknames for him.” Currently the three were staying at Lily and Wren’s parents’ house in the country for a couple of weeks, but Wren lived in the city, so he dashed back and forth, staying at the former Friday through Monday, the latter Tuesday through Thursday, and feeling like James Bond in that scene from Goldfinger, where the laser is about to slice him in half. Wren was easily overwhelmed.

However it’s easy to be overwhelmed while you’re reading the New Testament. Wren and a group of his friends were going through it together, and the further he got, the more disturbing Jesus became, particularly the passage describing that “when an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” Wren felt worse than the first. But no one was doing him any favors. Not the friend who sent an article declaring his Theology “puts kids on the street…tears families apart…[and] is a murderer.” And certainly not the friend who texted him the video.

It was a video of someone Wren didn’t recognize at first. A guy he had sporadically seen at parties for years, who was really outgoing or completely gay, and either way, adorable. Once, their interaction began to resemble flirting, so Wren said, “you’re trouble,” though in truth he was saying it to himself. In the video, everyone was on the porch, and since it was mid-Saturday on a holiday weekend in Wisconsin, they were almost definitely drinking. The friend was attempting to coach a kind of confession out of the guy, but he was resisting it with a goofy bashfulness that captivated Wren. There was an edit in the footage; the friend had stopped and started recording again. The guy seemed a little more prepared this time. With the chaste sincerity of a junior high boy, he said that he remembered Wren, liked him, would like to see him again. The video wasn’t long, but it was long enough to reach into the center of Wren, turning a knob slowly, opening something quietly.

He couldn’t watch the video again, he had to watch the video again, it seemed like The Ring, a curse that would end him; would reverse all the realizations, the repentance, the painful and tedious shuffling in the right direction he had done with his head down. It was a threat to celibacy, to recovery from approval, to a sane future. And it had come from a friend. Wren called his therapist, went over it all, went over it again. “It’s like some injured rabid animal,” he said. “It’s vulnerable, it’s dangerous, but I can’t stop staring at it. I want to come closer, but I don’t dare. To go closer is to go backward.”

Meanwhile PJ was going forward and getting cuter than ever, with red hair, an entourage of action figures, dolls and animals, an affinity for pink and black cars. Actually, he was Wren Redux, and everyone said so, even Wren, who relished in sharing with all his friends that PJ’s favorite words were “no” and “go away,” after which he would quip, “so we have that in common.” It was sort of an All About Eve situation, with Wren as Margo and PJ as Eve, and no attempts at rational thought on Wren’s part – that the child was not developed enough to be a threat, that they weren’t even in a Mankiewicz film – would shake the comparison. It was not that Wren disliked PJ. He didn’t. But he had a feeling the child was a little clone, some horrible replay, the moment when you see something about to fall and cannot form words of warning.

On a Friday, Wren closed his parents’ front door and set his bags on the carpet. Like much of south Wisconsin, they would travel north for Independence Day, to a cabin which contained the best of Wren’s childhood memories. Most of the children from then were having children now and Wren would have to sleep on the couch. Everyone was very apologetic about it, but Wren assured them the couch was a single man’s bed. And it was in a room for living.

Mother must have heard Wren close the door because she appeared from around a corner and with delighted eyes she stage whispered, “PJ discovered the dollhouse in Grandma’s basement.” Grandma had given it to Auntie, then Auntie had given it to Wren, and now it was being given to PJ. Wren followed mother to the dollhouse, which had been moved and placed onto two side tables, just at PJ’s height. She said he had circled it for hours, talking incessantly, putting the dolls in, taking them out; he was doing it now. Wren noticed the house was empty and remembered aloud: “there’s no furniture because it’s all in a box at my apartment.” PJ did not hear him.

Cliff and Susan

Between productions at a theatre company, it can be slow. Paused Ingmar Bergman movie slow. During these periods, Cliff, the Office Manager, spent most of his time trying to do tasks that couldn’t be done yet, trying to create tasks, or trying to do other people’s tasks without offending them. He was a taskhole. If it was a how-slow-can-you-go day, he would read plays that the Artistic Director was considering for the upcoming season. Sometimes he would just read random plays from the theatre’s library. That’s how he found Quality Street by J.M. Barrie, also known as the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Quality Street is kind of Napoleonic-era hybrid of Taming of The Shrew and Cinderella, only it doesn’t feature a shrew, or a fairy godmother, just a Phoebe, who feels her potential has expired, her looks have faded and life is a memory. Cliff liked her immediately. Plot had never been a priority to him, but for the reader, we will chart some of Phoebe’s course. As a young woman, she loved a certain Valentine Brown, a man who, typical of men, didn’t realize his love until enlisted in the army and serving in another country. Increasing the tally of cruel incompetence, Valentine had recommended an investment, to which Phoebe and her sister, Susan, devoted all their savings, only to see them evaporate.

Upon Valentine’s return, years later, they are operating a school “for genteel children,” though such a phrase flatters itself more than its subject. Valentine is shocked at the sight of the once sprightly “Phoebe of the ringlets” – older, tired and overworked – which she interprets as rejection. Through a comical series of misunderstandings and opportunities, she finds herself impersonating a younger and invented relative, Livvy, with the intent of reviving Valentine’s interest, or perhaps, having her revenge.

Cliff simply static clinged to this play. Was it his desire to be desired? His terror of being discovered? His fascination with the stage directions, which felt like a novel and read like a diary? Whatever the reason(s), Cliff wanted the company to produce Quality Street. He wanted a Barrie fan to direct it. He even wanted to play a character. Not Valentine – not any of the men, actually. He wanted to play Susan, the sister of Phoebe. He wanted to play Susan as a brother.

Here, perhaps, it is important to note that Quality Street is in the public domain. It was now in Cliff’s domain. He was going to remodel. No, not remodel, just redecorate. The Artistic Director believed the script was overrun with characters, needing some reigning, some discipline, some editing. Cliff agreed, although he would clarify it was simply the long distance relationship between one era and another; in person, in performance, it would be perfectly relatable, as is.

But he agreed; he didn’t want to jeopardize the Artistic Director’s approval or anyone else futzing up the script, although he was going to futz it up. While that was a crime, it was still legal, so there wouldn’t be consequences. Admittedly, Cliff wondered if, as a writer, he was violating some literary equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath? Maybe, and to justify it, he repeated to himself that the editing would be a minimally invasive procedure. Not long after beginning, however, he found some tumors:

MISS SUSAN. Phoebe, I have a wedding gift for you.

PHOEBE. Not yet?

MISS SUSAN. It has been ready for a long time. I began it when you were not ten years old and I was a young woman. I meant it for myself, Phoebe. I had hoped that he – his name was William – but I think I must have been too unattractive, my love.

PHOEBE. Sweetest – dearest –

MISS SUSAN. I always associate it with a sprigged poplin I was wearing that summer, with a breadth of coloured silk in it, being a naval officer; but something happened, a Miss Cicely Emberton, and they are quite big boys now. So long ago, Phoebe – he was very tall, with brown hair – it was foolish of me, but I was always so fond of sewing – with long straight legs and such a pleasant expression.

PHOEBE. Susan, what was it?

MISS SUSAN. It was a wedding-gown, my dear. Even plain women, Phoebe, we can’t help it; when we are young we have romantic ideas just as if we were pretty. And so the wedding-gown was never used. Long before it was finished I knew he would not offer, but I finished it, and then I put it away. I have always hidden it from you, Phoebe, but of late I have brought it out again, and altered it.

PHOEBE. Susan, I could not wear it. (MISS SUSAN brings the wedding-gown.) Oh! How sweet, how beautiful!

MISS SUSAN. You will wear it, my love, won’t you? And the tears it was sewn with long ago will all turn into smiles on my Phoebe’s wedding-day.

It was a scene Cliff couldn’t play, not at this company. But he could play it so well. Like Susan, he had been to many weddings, had given away the same gown, again and again, fully involved in someone else’s courtship and marriage, but feeling everything from the periphery, always out of sight, and yet, never overlooked by the author, right up until the end.

Surely by now the reader is a little disoriented, however Cliff has sworn me to secrecy about the ending of Quality Street, but might I remind everyone that the script is available online, to which, alright, I will not link here, but it’s easily found and Cliff is furious with me now. I would only exacerbate his fury with some theories on how dominant culture had not done any favors for him, just the refusal to truly represent people, instead pressuring them to plead guilty of their most unusual trait. Yet, in Quality Street, here Cliff was, represented and accounted for.

How could he cut the scene? How could he rewrite it? He didn’t need to make Susan in his image, she was already in it, she was a reflection, and you can’t change a reflection without changing the reflected. Naturally, he would still edit the play, he would still lobby for its selection and delight in its production, if that were to be. But he would not be written in to the story. He would have to write another.

Times Like These

“See you sometime,” Daria said, her voice cracking – grief? amusement? – but there was no watch, no clock on which you could find sometime; it did not exist. She would never see Evan again. Not in this Starbucks, in the office, or meetings, or onstage during his weekly presentations, which was, oddly, when she felt closest to him. A fixture over her life was being ripped out of the ceiling.

It had been wrong, of course, for Daria to bestow such authority on Evan. Such influence. Such power. Of course there were many wrong things about it, not the least of which was she viewed Evan as a father – appropriate, since her father had been gone since her 8th birthday, whereas Evan had never been here. He made eye contact, provided nonverbal feedback, used reflective listening. The effect was like one of those convincing sidewalk drawings – you were sure it was real, but it wasn’t, just art covering a hardness.

But none of that mattered. Well, it did, but it wasn’t supposed to matter for her recovery. Daria was only responsible for her recovery, as her sponsor told it. Tell that to her feelings. As of late they were like a computer, plugged in, turned off, consuming energy without using it.

After they parted, Daria got in her car, pushing the brake pedal, tapping the ignition button, shifting to reverse. Then she sat there, foot on the brake, scrolling through contacts, finding her sponsor. As she was about to push call, she realized that behind, and across, Evan had been waiting to pull out, watching her tail lights. Now he was slowly backing up. Daria slipped the phone over to the passenger seat, afraid that he would see, would know she was calling someone, would know it was about their meeting, would know she was talking about him rather than to him, once again, seeking approval from him, support from others, validation from all.

Stopping at the exit of the Starbucks, Daria looked around to be sure he was gone, then called her sponsor, who didn’t answer. At the beep, the words ran out of her mouth and did laps in the air. “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she said. But she did: gradually, imperceptibly, this job, this boss, this man, Evan, had become the standard to which her and the world were compared; they were a measuring tape that had unspooled all the way and now retracted rapidly into itself, stopping with a snap, without a tab to pull it out again.

Daria had enrolled in a beginner’s improv course and tonight was the first class. The instructor led them in some basic exercises and games, the point of which were to act instead of think. To say “yes.” To make a decision in the moment and not spend another one regretting it. Surely this was a forgotten spiritual discipline; energetic meditation? As though her mind were a full suitcase, stopped for exceeding the weight limit, and she was joyfully yanking things out of it and tossing them over her shoulder, not caring what they were or where they were landing. Now now now. She would only do now. Not The Spectacular Now, a film about an addict and the addict who wants to save them. No – just now, without adjectives, without doubt, without analysis – Yes.

As she drove home from class, Foo Fighters came on the radio. “It’s times like these you learn to live again.” Next week would be another improv class. Daria found her soul already pressing into it, like a cell phone against a window in a building with poor reception, wanting to be heard.

In The Cards

“Hannah’s engaged, did you know?” Valerie asked Devon, as they converted the couch to a bed. “No,” he replied, attempting to nestle a pillow in its case with repeated tugs. “She was probably going to tell you during this visit. I’m sorry,” Valerie shook her head and sighed.   “No,” Devon gave the pillowcase a good yank, “it’s better for me to be prepared.”

They discussed the particulars. How long had Hannah and her partner been dating? How long had they lived together? Devon didn’t know the answers to these questions, hadn’t asked these questions, had only exchanged texts with Hannah occasionally. His nomination as board member of the church, the crisis that erupted only weeks later and rolled into the next year, had kept his attention localized. The crisis, of course, was about gay marriage, and now it was moving from hypothetical to practical, from there to here, a toggling of the mind; for a moment Devon’s whole system became humid, thick, almost panicky. After he and Valerie said goodnight, he sat on the bed, wondering why Hannah hadn’t told him, wondering how she would tell him.

The weather that night was marvelous, early spring in the south, but the more persuasive reason for taking a walk was Robert DeLong’s album In the Cards, which Devon had downloaded recently. The guilt of feasting on music was justified by accompanying it with exercise. Devon put on headphones and started out. The music seemed inspired by the night, cloudless, windy. “Don’t wait up for me,” Robert sang. “I’ve got a restless mind.”

Valerie’s subdivision was rather Escherian in its design – circular, incestuous, repetitive. Even though Devon had been visiting for years, he still tended to lose the way. Passing someone’s back porch, there was movement in his periphery. He turned to look and almost gasped. The blackest shadowman crouched towards him. A demon from Ghost? A hit man assigned to him? It was a covered grill.

Still looking at the shadowman, and pulling out his phone from a front pocket, Devon searched “gay” on Twitter. The usual combination of his people and their porn appeared, and, slowly at first, for every user that provided the latter, he blocked. It was obsessive, it was satisfying, like cracking knuckles. He blocked and walked and blocked and walked and felt increasingly safe, strong, grounded, like the boy in that Gaiman novel who is instructed to remain in the center of the fairy ring, no matter what is said, no matter who says it, no matter how convincing they may appear or sound; the attempts are relentless and legion and the boy begins reciting poetry from Alice in Wonderland to distract himself.

About a half a block from an intersection, Devon saw a black car with tinted windows stop, although there wasn’t a stop sign. As he drew closer, the passenger window went down. Just keep your headphones on and keep walking, Devon instructed himself, but 20 feet away, he couldn’t resist, casually removing and resting them around his neck, like jewelry. He heard a few words – the end of a sentence – an interrogative sentence? Then the car drove away.

“Thank you for not drawing a line,” Hannah said the next day, but not to Devon; she was recounting her mother’s reply to the engagement. Actually, Hannah explained it all in a letter, which she gave to her mother, adding, “read it in front of me.” The letter was not the expected ultimatum – affirm this commitment or I will not associate with you – which her mother appreciated: “I just want you in my life.”

Devon felt the same but didn’t say it. He didn’t need to say anything. Hannah was saying anything, and everything – about the trip to Civil War sites, how her partner was so anxious that their accommodations would be in small homophobic towns, the painstakingly romantic proposal, how Hannah got her period the first day – and Devon was just overwhelmed, wonderfully overwhelmed, to be a witness.

Could he be a witness later, too? That was not a question for now. Not for himself or Hannah. Now they walked the city, smoking Marlboros, he a regular visitor, she a resident. At his car, they glanced about for the right background for a picture and settled on a stone wall; leaning against it, they held the phone far back, both trying to fit in the frame.

Shelter

“Do you have any socks with holes?” Grandma asked, and he almost said no, because he was afraid she would offer to don them, and is there anything more uncomfortable than someone donning your socks? Well, your underwear. Not to mention his discomfort with the very word don; it was both casual and formal; it was used in the mafia and the home.

In actuality, the reason she asked was that the local animal shelter accepted donations of holey socks, and threadbare blankets, and fraying towels, which they would use in the cages of the animals; it reminded him of The Velveteen Rabbit for reasons both obvious and not. He had always felt guilty just throwing those things away, but even more guilty donating them to a homeless shelter, like a child being congratulated for pooping.

So he began collecting them for Grandma, who, in her in old age, had developed an appetite for errands. It became a regular occurrence, him giving bags of worn undershirts, disintegrating mittens, etc. to Grandma. It was on one such Saturday that she asked if he would like to accompany her to the animal shelter. Perhaps it was because his Grandma’s voice might be able to cancel the noise in his head – perhaps it was because his only plans were hours away and there was way too much room for trouble – perhaps both of those perhapses were a prelapse – or perhaps they were all because he had just finished his taxes and marked that once again there was no spouse, there were no dependents. Grandma’s husband, Grandpa, had been gone for two years. And her house was getting bigger by the day.

They went to the animal shelter.

There were dogs and cats and children and the adults overwhelmed with caring for them. It seemed to both him and Grandma that unless a parent was enthusiastic about supporting another life, visiting the animal shelter with children was the stupidest decision they could make. But it was an easy to understand stupid decision; everywhere children were smiling.

Observation rooms were designed to look like playrooms. One room had a wall of kennels with animals of varying degrees of scruffiness. He noticed a dog in particular; black and moppy and immobile, just the sort of disposition he understood. He momentarily considered rescuing it, though it clearly didn’t need rescuing, and perhaps that was the reason why he wanted to. A challenge always energized him, unless it was in an area where he lacked talent or there was a high chance of failure. So most of the time a challenge did not energize him. But when it did: look out, look sharp and don’t look down.

Grandma suggested a stop at the local coffee shop and he agreed as caffeine was the kind of personality supplement he needed. She had a full hand of gift cards and was ready to play all of them on him, but he just ordered a double espresso and she just ordered a peppermint tea and they split a chocolate peanut butter buckwheat cookie and he wondered how many people were aware that buckwheat doesn’t have gluten in it.

They sat by the window, then, to the right of the front door where you could stare at the people who entered without detection. Nearly every time someone came in, Grandma would whisper, “I don’t know them,” as if that were concerning.

“Do you think they’ll move?” Grandma asked, after awhile, referring to his parents.

“Perhaps,” he replied. “Babies have that affect on people,” referring to his sister’s new – and first – dependent.

“You can’t live for your children,” Grandma declared, which he found amusing, since she always lived within four minutes of hers.

“I can’t imagine moving at this point in my life,” he said to the ceiling. Grandma nodded.

They sat there for quite some time.

Jam, Pt I

Billie did her best writing in the car. To be clear – and safe – the writing was in her head. Which is no writing at all. But she felt like a writer with limitless potential at those times. Perhaps it was the small space that contained her, centered her. Perhaps it was the music. She played the most atmospheric music in the car. The Free Design’s cover of “Light My Fire,” anything by The Blue Nile, Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoints, the soundtrack to Wait Until Dark, “You Don’t Know My Name” and “You Love Me” by Kym Amps. But inevitably she would run out of errands, or arrive at a destination, or worse, home, and that wide windshield of vision would be replaced with a blank white wall of Microsoft Word.

Recently it was Billie’s birthday, to which a numeric value will not be assigned, but apparently it was significant enough that her best friend, Lisa, wanted to take her out for a drink, because Billie was a delightful drinker. But, rather unexpectedly, not halfway through the second amaretto sour, the tone of the whole evening became regretful – the other side of nostalgia, not the good side, not the one that should be photographed. Lisa’s regrets beget regrets, and Billie found herself asking Lisa a lot of questions, feeling around for a precise decision or decisions to which the regret was attached. The passion with which Billie pursued it alarmed her; just who was being interrogating here? Was this some sort of Socratic projection? Did the sheer pretension of that phrase obscure its meaning? Simply too much irony here, even for 2017.

Admittedly, Billie wasn’t sure about much of her life, and that was the source for her writing; ergo, she wasn’t so sure about it, either. Did she even want to write anymore. Well, of course she didn’t want to write, no writer wants to write, but she wondered what the purpose of her writing was. Was it some sort of restorative justice. The need to assemble a circle of imagined readers and recount all the wrongs she’d done, the wrongs done to her that made her do the wrongs she’d done. And yet, what if she stopped doing it. What would she do with her evenings. Was this simply a case of misplaced identity. These weren’t questions, they were the companions of an artist. The friends of Job. What an unmerited and melodramatic comparison. It’s exactly why Billie needed a baby, or a pet, or a baby pet, something requiring focus and affection, and of course that is a terrible reason for bringing either into your world. Why was it so difficult for her to find a current – electrical or hydrogenic? Preferably not both as that would be fatal. Billie wanted to find what Richard Rohr called “the flow.” Or maybe it was just that she wanted to be really good at something and really go for it, without getting all guilty and confused.

Then Lisa mentioned the dance party.

It was going to be a Jam, a no-parking-on-the-dance-floor, no-need-to-keep-score, gimme-gimme-more, open-for-business-but-you-don’t-know-what’s-in-store, Jam. It was going to be at Lisa’s 2nd floor condo, but not until her 1st floor neighbor moved out, which was still in process, and all of her friends were just waiting for the date to be texted, the date they would disturb the peace in a protest against status quo, but without a neighbor to call the police.

Billie immediately began living for this event. She pictured her and Lisa like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters, determined to fuck it up so they could get down to business. She started a Gmail draft of songs for the playlist; she was adding, subtracting, dividing and conquering and multiplying the tracks. Let there be Amy Grant, Anushka, Disclosure, Eurythmics, The Gap Band, Goldfrapp, Hot Chocolate, Jamie xx, Klymaxx, The Knife, Ladytron, Little Boots, The Pointer Sisters, Robert Randolph & The Family Band, Sam Sparro, Sheila E, Sylvan Esso, Vince Guaraldi, Yaz.

Some nights Billie would sit at the kitchen table trying to write and discovered drinking a little Tequila and playing some Midnight Star suddenly made writing an absolute pleasure. Occasionally this resulted in her dancing in front of the kitchen windows, perfecting some pose, or move, or just ripping off an item of clothing on the beat. Would the dance party be this good? Could it be this good? She knew it could. And it would. She just had to get there.

The Christians

“A church is a place where people go to see something that is very difficult to see,” writes Lucas Hnath. “A place where the invisible is – at least for a moment – made visible. The theatre can be that too.” At the Steppenwolf production of Hnath’s play The Christians, we were in a theatre, but it felt like a Christian church. The two have been, if not separated, then in separate bedrooms, for quite some time; yes, there is Christian theatre, and there are plays with Christian characters, but even that distinction signals the estrangement, creating in both a negative space, populated with caricatures projected by assumptions.

Hnath’s play counters all of that from the moment it begins. At Steppenwolf it began five minutes before curtain, in a stage design masterfully indistinguishable from any American megachurch, with a full worship team. Some of the audience seemed a bit shifty. “Now this is subversive,” I said into my friend’s ear. The louder the worship became, the louder the people behind us talked. Admittedly, I was struggling to read a mixture of social cues from my understandings of theatrical and religious environments and the audience’s varying reactions. I can’t sing along, I thought, but I can clap. So I did. I can’t pray with the actor playing the Pastor, I thought, but I can smile when one of the worship team makes eye contact. So I did.

When the Humana Festival originally commissioned a play from Hnath, he studied the venue and its audience. Of his potential scripts he chose The Christians “because I’d come to learn that the festival has two very different audiences: the local Louisville audience and the theatre industry that comes in from out of town. And I had learned…getting to know subscribers, that a relatively high percentage of local attendees identified as Christian, while a comparatively high number of out-of-town attendees identified as ‘not’…[it was remarkable] how similar the reactions were. More or less, it seemed both ends of the audience in Louisville were on the same page. However…in NYC, the audience was very eager to hear the play as a satire. Most nights there were big laughs from the very start of the play.” It is difficult not to see this as a parable of how when we don’t love “the other” as our neighbor, they become our enemy. Even more difficult not to see is the “powerful urge to communicate” described by the Pastor as Hnath’s desire for the theatre to be a place where Christian ideas can live.

“‘There is only you and your fellow man,'” the pastor preaches in a sermon that follows the opening worship set, recounting words spoken to him by God. “‘You wanna see Satan – ? There’s your Satan. You wanna see Hell, you look around.’ And [God] said, ‘There is no Hell. And there is no reason to tell people that they’re going to Hell. Because they are in Hell. They are already there. You gotta take them out of the Hell they’re already in.'” If this reminds you of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, you are not alone, although after mentioning that book, we might be alone: it is a belief that divides groups of people like redlining, as they contend just what the blood of Jesus is saving us from.

Yet one of the triumphs of Steppenwolf’s production, and K. Todd Freeman’s sensitive direction, is the unity in diversity – hinted in the script, perhaps, through some shared language of church cultures – but embodied in the non-traditional casting.* And consequently, intractably, the church’s fracturing reaches the very bones of the play  – Greek tragedy** – because it is disconnecting people who urgently need to be sharpened and purified, together, in the presence of God.

“I think what you did was actually incredibly selfish…” the Pastor’s wife remarks, toward the end of the play. “You haven’t thought about how what you’re doing affects other people.” Hnath has confessed he was supposed to be a preacher, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ souls.” Then he was supposed to be a doctor, but didn’t want to “worry about other peoples’ bodies.” If he doesn’t still worry about both, the conversations of The Christians indicate he thinks deeply about them, and invite us to think deeply too – as an us.

– – –

*Formerly “colorblind casting”, this replacement term inspires the question of what tradition, exactly, is worth honoring here.

**In an interview conducted by Young Jean Lee and featured in the Steppenwolf program, Hnath states “the bones of the play are Greek.” All of the quotes in this post are from that interview, except for the first, which is from Hnath’s preface of the Overlook Press publication of The Christians.