Servers

Wren had to park a good distance from the venue. He wouldn’t have known it was the right spot, except the catering truck was parked there: just a gravel driveway, encroached upon with overgrown bushes and trees. If the country had alleys, this was one. As Wren turned off the car, Franny pulled up, so he paced gathering his things, trying to get out at the same time as her. Franny was one of the managers. She was about twenty years older than Wren, with a range of facial expressions that all conveyed disgust and a musical knowledge vastly limited to new wave bands. One time, at a small event with few staff, while they were setting tables, she played nothing but Tears for Fears and was delighted that Wren knew all of the words: “Going far, getting nowhere, going far, the way you are,” “It’s not that you’re not good enough / It’s just that we can make you better,” “The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had.” They had been devoted to one another since then.

Franny was a city girl, so as they walked on the shoulder of the road, she muttered, “I don’t want to be out here after dark,” and Wren began listing horror movies set in rural locations. The venue was situated in the countryside, but was still only miles from the freeway. It was a Stars Hollow sort of farm, with darling house, landscaped grounds, little stone patios under trees with lights hanging from the branches. At the back was a huge ancient barn that had been covered in some kind of glue to keep the boards level and dull any sharp grain.

In such an unincorporated area as this, Wren thought of Craigslist, partially because he was always thinking about Craigslist, but partially because his last casual encounter had been around here. In these parts, only the few and the desperate posted: the risk was higher, so your hunger had to be more intense, be it queer or curious. The immediacy, secrecy and security of it were what attracted and addicted Wren. How you could instantly connect and be charged by the knowledge you were desired. How you could delete everything until there was no evidence. How you could intermittently convince yourself nothing had happened. How you could become anonymous even to yourself.

The event was a wedding, which usually makes the entire catering staff nervous by association. Wren was on appetizers and charmed himself to the teeth: “Would you like to try some Spicy Chicken, which is coincidentally the name of my band?” But he needn’t have bothered, because the bride, groom, their parents, parties and guests were content. They were also stylish, diverse, smart and attractive. It was the sort of crowd that absorbed you, made you want to be better, made you believe that maybe you were better.

Wren was not better. He was worse. Worse wasn’t the right word, because that implied movement in some direction, presumably a dangerous one, but Wren hadn’t budged. He just dredged. Dragged up the same shit over and over again. Nearly every decision he’d ever made was wrong, he was wrong, it was all wrong. Of course, this way of thinking was wrong, too. Since the pact, Wren’s behavior had changed, but his mind and heart were the same. It was hard enough to stop the behavior, now he had to stop the thinking and feeling? The only reason to stop one thing was to start another.

Meanwhile, within 24 hours, he had to go from one wedding to another, from server to guest. Some would think of that as going from work to fun, but it was the opposite for Wren. At the first wedding, he could hover and observe, with no obligation to participate; at the second, he would have to engage and interact, so as to communicate his gratitude at being invited. The reality of introversion isn’t just that you can only be around people for a limited time, it’s that the time with them has to be unlimited in its depth of intimacy: small talk requires huge amounts of energy. And that’s all people have to offer at a wedding, unless you find another introvert and a bottle of champagne and a quiet corner somewhere.

There weren’t adequate corners in this venue, long, narrow thing that it was, like a galley. From where Wren was sitting, he couldn’t really see any of the ceremony; only hear the pastor’s voice, talking about the vine and the branches. And pruning. What a vicious job. You had to nearly kill the plant so it could grow.

Nearby, a boy in his early twenties wore a vintage brown tux, somehow both aware that he could work the look and unaware that it was tight in all the right places. Wren admired this briefly, then felt ashamed, as there must have been a decade between them. It was difficult having an aesthetic orientation that pulled every bit of male beauty with its tractor beam. If Wren wasn’t careful, his brain would beam up to another location where he could be with the beauty alone and talk about the weather, or maybe not talk; almost immediately it would beam back, blaming Wren for being so depraved, blaming beauty for attaching to a person. A crossbeam.

Though Wren had made the pact some years ago with a fellow addict – they had to stay off Oxycontin, he had to stay off Craigslist – he was seriously unsettled by recent news that the site had discontinued the personal ads, as if it were a collector’s coin he had kept, not intending to use it, just imagining the increasing value, knowing it could always be sold, but then found it had disappeared. It was like that quote from C.S. Lewis about thinking that if we are good enough, long enough, our poor deprived soul will be given permission to return to its fleshy desires.

Afterwards, at the reception, Wren provided commentary on the entire staff, a judge at an event: they hadn’t set the tables properly, weren’t dressed professionally, didn’t behave appropriately; he had plenty of adjectives and adverbs for them all. For example: someone spilled a huge bowl of salad near their table, and after 5 minutes of no one doing anything, Wren began cleaning it up with his bare hands. At this point a server walked by and asked if he needed a rag and Wren almost said “NO, I NEED YOU TO DO YOUR JOB.” It was his favorite part of the day, really. He was a guest, he was a server, he was a guest server, being invited into the work. He texted Franny about all of it and she replied, “give management a business card and say when they want good help, come find us.”

A week later, Wren remembered that he didn’t bring a card for the couple, which was the most he could do. It was frustrating when he didn’t do the most he could do. After reading a dozen cards, he finally selected one that had three panels – Faith, Hope, Love – connected with a ribbon that you could hang on the wall. There was a spot to compose a message. “Sincerest apologies for the delay in getting my shit together,” he wrote, “but there are few wedding cards that are not delusional, damaging or diabetically sweet. Instead, I found one that references the most challenging passage in all of the Bible! Never stop failing beautifully in your attempts to fulfill it.” He signed it with his name.

Some Greatness

It’s the sensation when you’re halfway to the airport and then, suddenly, certain you’ve forgotten something. You don’t know what it is, but you’re certain. This was how Ned experienced his life, most of the time – he should have prepared more, he should have accomplished more, more, more, more, it was an extended trance mix, on loop, in the background. He had reached that point in the mid-30’s where you are no longer judged by what you might do, but by what you haven’t done. Or maybe it’s just you who are doing the judging.

Ned had done things, but they weren’t good enough, they weren’t big enough, they weren’t enough. As he texted to a friend, “I am high on standards and low on self-esteem and have emotions that go up and down to meet both.” It definitely felt like Bibi Anderson and Liv Ullman in Persona, two faces blending together in a perpetual dissolve, both visible and in. He hated Ingmar Bergman films.

Occasionally, though, something would land, big enough to crush all of that with the weight of glory. Often it landed at a party. At the Doole house.

Everyone knew that Sheila and Prentice Doole’s parties were in their own time zone. They went on forever and were over in a flash. This one didn’t even start until 10 PM; the planning for it had started at the last one, around 2:30 AM, when Sheila was rhapsodizing about Twelfth Night. “We should read it together,” she said, with such authority that it became a commandment.

Ned didn’t need to be commanded, as he was always ready to obey Sheila, especially when a party was concerned. Somehow her invite list was invariably long on feelers, people who just radiated physical confidence and reached you with their rays. Normally Ned would swat away such intrusions to his personhood, but after drinking, his body’s drought would rise in a heat of demands. Simply put, there weren’t many opportunities for touch that were permitted by his conscience.

And, well, obviously he liked Shakespeare, too, and had seen the film adaptation of Twelfth Night with Helena Bonham-Carter years ago, remembering a rather electric scene where Viola, believed to be a boy, sat by a bath containing her master, Count Orsino. For those who escaped school without reading it, here is a synopsis: in the kingdom of Illyria, Count Orsino is desirous of Olivia, who is in mourning and denies his proposals. Viola washes up on the shore of this place, having been separated in a shipwreck from her twin brother, whom she assumes is dead. Determined to find work, she pretends to be a young man and applies at Orsino’s household, where she is hired as his page. Viola begins to fall for Orsino, as Olivia begins to fall for her, and things begin to fall apart, but because it’s a comedy, at the end, they are put back together again.

Not for Malvolio, though. And this was the role Sheila assigned Ned. Malvolio is the humorless steward to Olivia, whose other staff conspire to punish his pedantry by sending fake love letters from their mistress. Malvolio is flattered by this love, and even more so, preoccupied with the notion of becoming important by association, as Olivia is the daughter of a Count. From there, the deception devolves, each outrageous lie closer to the obvious truth, even as Malvolio continues to rearrange reality to accommodate his fantasy.

Ned found himself investing in this fantasy: first, as an actor, eager to give a worthy performance; then, as a sympathizer, appreciating the pain expressed in Malvolio’s need to believe; and then, suddenly, as one with the character, integrated, inseparable. And from that unity came an understanding; or, more precisely, a compassion.

All the attention to Malvolio, though imaginary, rouses an idea long asleep: that he could be great – no, is great – and has simply been awaiting confirmation; now he will commune with greatness. When the truth finally invades – his perceived value is a bubble, it has burst, and the very house surrounding has betrayed him – Malvolio is defenseless against it. So was Ned. And together, they sobbed. The emotion was a grounded floating, a kite with a long string fastened to a tall tree. Ned realized other actors had lifted heads from scripts: those outside of the scene, riveted by it; those inside, energized even further towards their character’s intent. There was a sort of power and he was trembling with it.

In Perelandra, the second installment of C.S. Lewis’ space trilogy, the titular planet has only two natural inhabitants, both uncorrupted, including the Queen, Tinidril. A tempter arrives, telling her tales of women pursuing their own desires completely, whom he characterizes as heroines. The appeal is the same: become great. Become like God.

Ned didn’t remember this until days after the Twelfth night, and then he couldn’t stop reading Lewis. In a sermon delivered a year prior to the publication of Perelandra, he writes:

“What I had mistaken for humility had, all these years, prevented me from understanding what is in fact the humblest, the most childlike, the most creaturely of pleasures – nay, the specific pleasure of the inferior: the pleasure of a beast before men, a child before its father, a pupil before its teacher, a creature before its Creator. I am not forgetting how horribly this innocent desire is parodied in our human ambitions, or how very quickly, in my own experience, the lawful pleasure of praise from those whom it was my duty to please turns into the deadly poison of self-admiration. But I thought I could detect a moment – a very short moment – before this happened, during which the satisfaction of having pleased those whom I loved and rightly feared was pure.

“And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when the redeemed soul, beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, learns at last that she has pleased Him whom she was created to please. There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride deeper than Prospero’s book.”

The book, of course, is full of magic, which Prospero throws into the deep, near the end of The Tempest. Ned couldn’t imagine anything better than all the spells, cast into the water, buried alive.

Der Leiermann

“This is not our usual assorted program,” the e-mail read. “Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ is a long and not particularly cheerful piece.  There will be continuous music for just over an hour – no applause, no jokes.” William paused, then replied: “Perfect match for my Valentine’s Day mood.”

The holiday happened to synchronize with Ash Wednesday this year. Perhaps the better choice would have been to attend a service at his evangelical church, but Will wanted to be somewhere with real wine. He wanted to attend an Event. He wanted to have an imaginary date.

Not like an imaginary friend – a real friend – two real friends – but an imaginary date. If that explanation is incomprehensible, recall Duckie awaiting Andie at the prom near the end of Pretty in Pink. If you cannot recall that, perhaps this story is not for you. Nevertheless: in this story, Will asked a friend, Frank, to the Schubert concert. They had met at a gay celibate support group Will frequented in the recent past, before it registered that he didn’t need to be supported so much as ripped apart and rebuilt. So he switched to recovery, which, if you’re doing it right, will make you question most of what you’re doing. In this process, the subconscious often loses its sub, because you take it away, and that makes the conscious very mad, because it loves a good sub, with so many toppings you can’t see the bread.

Will texted the concert information to Frank just a day and a half beforehand, asking, “care to join?” intending to seem casual, incidental, casually incidental, even to himself, as if he didn’t care, as if he hadn’t been considering it for days. Their responses to each other were consistently two hours apart; courteous, not obsessive, but Will had already begun drawing lines, lines over lines that were already there, new lines, with chalk, so they could be erased and redrawn.

Home from work the night of the concert, Will considered changing his outfit to dress slacks and a sweater with a V neck that plunged below sea level. But that was a too obvious cross. He needed to toe the line, to keep balance: he kept on the plaid button down, but removed the undershirt; paired with low rise jeans, in certain positions, the line of his underwear would be visible. Only once or twice in the course of an evening. A modest exposure.

Will was house sitting for friends in the country, friends with money, who had filled the refrigerator and given him a credit card for the added expense of the longer commute. Also they insisted he use the new car, a brand of which Will was unaware because the company wasn’t marketing to him, obviously. He had avoided the car for a week, afraid of even walking too closely by it in the garage. But for tonight, only it would do.

“Wow, is this your ride?” Frank smiled as he lowered into the passenger’s seat. “Oh, no, it’s my friend’s,” Will said. “They keep telling me to take it for a test drive.” He gestured above the dash. “Look at all the lights and buttons…it’s like we’re in the Enterprise.”

“And you’re picking me up?”

“Well, yes…I mean, I don’t do that anymore. But yes.”

They both laughed, but instead of the laugh coming out of them, it seemed to come at them.

The concert was to be performed at a “premier retirement location where an exciting lifestyle, a proud tradition and a confident vision of the future offer a better view on life,” according to the website. Within a matter of minutes, Will was seeing the vision and ready to move in. High ceilings, constant windows, a variety of fine art and something else: a tangible sense that courtesy was valued, even expected, here. Will was mistaken about the start time so they were a half hour early, walking around the building, feeling the need to be quiet. “I wish there was a bar,” Will stage whispered, and do you know, by the end of the hall, there was.

“We’re early for the Schubert concert,” Will explained to the bartender, “are we allowed to be here?”

“Of course,” she exclaimed in reply, with a big smile, gesturing to some high backed stools. They sat. The walls were decorated with those vintage Italian posters for food and drink, which some 20 years ago were rediscovered by America and then heavily trafficked so as to now be pedestrian.

There was an older woman at one end of the bar, appearing almost horizontal, though whether that was due to her back or the wine was unclear. Frank asked for a beer. Will asked for an amaretto sour. “Oh,” said the bartender, whom, at this moment, Will realized was not a bartender: “what’s in that?” Soon another employee was called over, who confided in them, “I’m not even 21 until a week from now.” Then another employee was called over, who Googled the cocktail on their phone and methodically mixed. After it was finished, they placed it in front of Will, like cupbearers, waiting for him to take a drink. He did. “Does it taste right?” They appealed. “Yes,” Will said, because really, anything with amaretto flavoring tastes right.

From there the conversation traveled to Nicaragua, where Frank went on a mission trip as a teenager. The chaperones were college students and older adults, but the latter had to return to the states immediately upon arrival, due to some health crisis? Consequently, it was a group of high school students supervised by a couple of college students in a foreign county, which sounded to Will like a poorly made and possibly racist teen comedy. The older woman interrupted then, having eavesdropped around for the perfect entry point, and recounted her years teaching in the central city. Whenever she asked a question and none of the students answered, she would command them to “just stand up and say you don’t know.”

The woman had a limited number of subjects and expressions, like evidence tacked to a wall, that she arranged and rearranged, expecting everyone to find the links. At any moment she would stop talking and/or listening to greet a resident passing by. Will found himself wondering what the Her of Now had in common with the Her of Then? Maybe a lot. Maybe not much.

It was nearly time for Schubert, so Will paid for the amateuretto sour and the beer. Friends buy each other drinks, yes? Wasn’t Will a friend to Frank. They strode down the hall, hissing and giggling about the woman with an affection that seemed to increase with distance.

“Winterreise” was presented by a singer and pianist who had been Will’s friends since they were all in college, more than 15 years ago. It was a friendship whose history had gradually become a substitute for intimacy. But of course, history has its own intimacy.  The concert was held in the Chapel, which had a purposely mixed design, incorporating elements of Catholic, Evangelical, Colonial and Modern. It was partially hospitable and partially displacing. As promised, they performed the whole piece without a break, and Will started to study Frank from the periphery. Was he bored? Quite a bit of movement there. Frank had ADD, though. Other audience members were reading the English translation of poetry as the German was sung. But Will wouldn’t. The music was sad enough, why get specific about it? At the end of each one, the same old person would release a tremendous amount of air, as if they were sighing and scoffing simultaneously.

Frozen Tears, Backward Glance, Isolation, Last Hope, Deception…Will was just reading the titles now. Just to know how long it would last. In the silence between pieces, someone whispered, much louder than they realized, “I’m going to try to sneak out,” and Will and Frank made eye contact, which, in such moments, is the murder of composure. They shook with a seizure of suppressed laughter, feeling like kids in church. They were in church, actually, though it was within another building. Why couldn’t more churches be inside of places?

Eventually, Will would have to share all of this with his recovery group. He would say, “I wanted the Boyfriend Experience,” or, if his fructose was particularly high, “I wanted to be Queen for day.” No one would judge him. No one would need to. The act contained its own judgment: a lack of imagination, a lack of faith, a lack of the ability to follow, to put one foot in front of the other, like a model walking down the runway, fixating on one point, oblivious to everyone though they’re all watching. But they aren’t. Not always. Someone else is.

At the very end was the song Will recognized. The singer had played it late one night after they drank, coincidentally, a significant amount of amaretto. The piano melody both predicts and fulfills, its mystery tinged with certainty. Will decided to read the lyrics.

Over there beyond the village stands a hurdy-gurdy man,

and with numb fingers he plays as best he can.

Barefoot on the ice, he sways back and forth,

and his little plate remains ever empty.

No one wants to hear him, no one looks at him,

and the dogs growl at the old man.

And he just lets it happen, everything as it will,

plays, and his hurdy-gurdy never stands still.

Wondrous-strange old man, should I go with you?

Will you accompany my songs with your instrument?

The Dress Up Box

“I’ve never told anyone this before,” Wren’s father was saying, “maybe because it’s childish or silly.” They were driving down country roads at night, a place without interruptions, unless you caused them. “But when I was in grade school, I told the teacher I wanted to be a philosopher. And she said, ‘you can’t do that. Philosophers don’t exist anymore.’” Wren considered remarking that was a rather philosopher-like statement for someone claiming they didn’t exist anymore, but instead he was quiet. “I was young, and in school, and you just,” father paused. “Close the door.”

They were driving to a Christmas display in a suburb of Milwaukee: model trains, Santas, reindeer, trees. Thankfully the nativity scene was in a separate building from all of that. Thankfully, too, PJ recognized them as celebrities: “Mama Mary!” “Daddy Joseph!” he would announce whenever they came into view, his voice inflecting as if this was both obvious and a surprise. It was the benefit to childhood: the surprise of the obvious.

This vacation – a word particularly appropriate here, since they were regularly vacating the house – was ordered by Lily’s three-year-old son PJ, or as Wren called him, Napoleon. The child had a need to explore new territories and claim them. On one such adventure, Wren and Lily took PJ to some strip mall retail space that had been converted to an indoor complex for kids. It was overflowing with them, like oatmeal that had been microwaved too long. A large area in the middle featured a playground of tunnels, and each side was lined with themed rooms: a science lab, laser tag, a castle. To Wren, it felt like the setting for one of those first person shooter games from the mid-late ‘90s. You never knew what would come at you from behind, from a doorway, from across the openness.

Eventually, PJ found the theater-themed room with the dress up box, which was inevitable, as Lily was the director and drama teacher at a small high school in Oregon. A girl was already in there, performing for her mother, drowning in a princess gown. PJ reached for her, for it, for her right to have it. Then he turned to the box, tossing every item to the side, until another gown appeared. He carried it to Lily, tried to put it on, expecting her to help. “Oh, no, honey,” Lily said, “why don’t we find something else for you?” But PJ’s expression was pained, her response, incomprehensible. He had found a costume and no substitute would be accepted. “Alright,” Lily resigned. “Your dad’s not here. Don’t tell him, okay?”

Wren watched this, as if his body was a robot, and he was inside it, staring out, frozen at the controls. He was remembering times before, with a preschool teacher, his mother, Lily, friends, people who wanted him to play and wanted to protect him and didn’t understand how it had become an either/or. Wren was about to speak, but could not; it was some sort of phantom stroke. Meanwhile Lily blocked PJ, ensuring that his dad was not approaching, that he couldn’t exit the room. Somehow, though, another boy bypassed her and entered. Wren tracked him with narrowed eyes and a hardening heart, readying words that could dig below ground level and cut the boy down, if he said a word about PJ’s wardrobe. He didn’t.

When they got home, Lily put in the recording of her recent production of The Sound of Music. Wren hated the musical with a hatred that is only possible in someone who played a Von Trapp child. If you asked him – although I would suggest asking about another subject – if you asked him, The Sound of Music was not a comforting institution; it was a huge bright awning that had hung around too long. But he loved Lily. They all watched it.

Mother Superior sang with astonishing age and authority, the backdrop of the hills was quite lovely, the Baroness gave good face throughout and there were some perfectly darling vintage shoes, which only fit high school girls anyway. The student playing what had been Wren’s part, Friedrich, was a gangly creature without much presence or instinct, yet his voice was pure: “I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye goodBYE!” He popped the high note like champagne, surprising, delightful. PJ, however, had very limited patience for anytime the stage was not occupied by Maria and/or the nuns, to whom he was completely devoted. Of course, thought Wren.

“I should have known not to trust a three-year-old with a secret,” Lily rolled her eyes to Wren later, when they were alone. “The first person he told about the princess dress was his dad. But he was mostly incoherent so I don’t think Shane understood.” Did Lily not remember? No, no, it was not her responsibility to remember, they were his memories, why couldn’t Wren simply reach back and pull them forward? Those years of confusion, of feeling like a gift that had been put in a box from a different store and disappointed everyone upon opening. But it had gotten better, hadn’t it? Just as they said it would? Yes. But not because of them. Because of who had given the gift of himself.

Wren was allowing the memories now. At around – 11 years old? – he was playing dress up with a friend and his father came in. He paused, looked for a long moment, shook his head, went out. Wren was wearing women’s shoes. They weren’t heels, just sparkly flats that made a fantastic sound when you walked. His father stared at his son, unable to reason, the man who should have been a philosopher.

All Saints’ Day

Cheesy pull apart pesto bread. Yes, devourable, but also simple, which was important, since every time Ned tried to follow a recipe it led him straight to hell. There were only four ingredients: bread, pesto, cheese, butter. First, you had to score the bread, slicing lines one direction, then another, resulting in loosely connected pieces. Then you poured the butter between. Then you spooned the pesto between. Then you stuffed the cheese between. And then you baked it at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

Of course Ned would not be baking it that night, no, brunch was the following day. The prep needn’t have taken very long, but he was drinking an exceptional Vouvray and slipped into a loop, just filling and overfilling every slit of the broken body of wheat with Mediterranean guts. Soon 45 minutes had passed, the bread was a latticework flourishing with basil and he had listened to an entire synthwave album on YouTube by The Midnight.

Speaking of which, it almost was. Hours earlier, at the beginning of an All Saints’ Day party, his friend Sheila had sent a picture of herself in some clownish costume that Ned was too Protestant to recognize. Now she texted, “we are dancing and you are not here.” YouTube’s autoplay suggestions were unconscionable, so Ned kept stopping the dishes and drying his hands to skip the track, and to text back. “How long, oh Lady?” He replied. “How long will you be dancing?” Who would know if Ned left, right now? No roommates, no pets, no guests, even his housemates were gone for the weekend. Sheila countered: “Saul wants to know what kind of a question that is.” It was a name dropped right on his head and she knew exactly what effect it would have. “Listen you smartalecks,” Ned texted Sheila and Saul. “I’m coming over NOW.”

* * *

Sheila’s condo had a front stoop, shared with the neighbor, and Ned could discern two figures on it, but there was a tree concealing them. He had drank enough Vouvray to thoroughly enjoy the sound of his own boots on the pavement and the entrance it afforded, although that meant they recognized him first. One figure was Rudie, basically a feminized version of Ned’s most tenacious anxieties and tendencies. Perhaps this was how Tennessee Williams felt about Blanche DuBois? And the other one, naturally, was Saul.

“Ned,” they proclaimed, with smiles and open arms, pulling him close. “You smell good,” Rudie murmured, and Saul hummed an agreement, and Ned concluded, based on such a reception – or maybe his reaction to it – he was below the suggested intoxication for this party. He could not remedy that without separating from the embrace, so he did, slowly. Sheila’s condo was on the second level, so Ned mounted the stairs in a sort of anticipation, feeling the presence of Saul, seeing Rudie in her toga; all of them ascending, angels along Jacob’s Ladder.

The door opened to reveal Sheila, host of all. Clever and wise, intuitive and inquisitive, the full range of each marvelous characteristic she was. Sheila and Prentice, her husband, cared about what made everyone comfortable and delighted in providing it. There was someone to their left with a gigantic bow and cloak around his neck, who was en route to the exit but nevertheless introduced to Ned. The table was a feast of appetizers that had clearly been attacked several times, but there were still spoils to be had and the guests who were left took Ned’s arrival as an opportunity to abandon dancing and return to nibbling.

As a guest list, it was lopsided with show people in their twenties and thirties; Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie had all worked on productions together, and the rest looked familiar. As any drama queen, king, nerd or kid will tell you, this crowd knows how to party. The playlist was loaded with the sort of music that can galvanize even guys with two left feet. Ned was one of those guys. He couldn’t dance, but he could drink, and once he had drank enough, he could dance. Assuming you are not an alcoholic, it’s a line of reasoning you should trace. The irony was, in this group of people, even Ned might not have needed the drink: the room was a rainforest, lush, humid, alive. But it wasn’t dangerous. Which is, perhaps, even more dangerous.

* * *

Ned performed some ferocious dance solos, to be sure, resulting in rug burn and disorientation, although the latter had been a constant experience since he was in 5th grade. But the night was advancing, rivers of blood were turning to wine and energy was depleting, so the small group remaining – Ned, Sheila, Prentice, Saul and Rudie – became a nucleus in the middle of the room, arms around each other – in their minds, swaying rhythmically; in reality, shuffling sporadically.

“Is it so crazy to assume we don’t have to talk all day, every day?” Rudie blathered about a relationship, which, within a matter of minutes, Ned, an officer in recovery ops, was defining as codependent, and exhorting that she was only responsible for herself, and everyone agreed. His right hand was curling long hairs behind her ear, as a sister; meanwhile, his left hand was on Saul’s shoulder, the small of his back, his neck, oh brother. Each hand knew exactly what the other was doing, careful to distribute affection evenly, not equally. Rudie leaned her head into Ned’s hand, Saul leaned his head into Ned’s neck and Ned was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, tilting towards a fall without seeming to move at all.

This was not the counterfeit intimacy he had previously trained himself to believe was legal and/or tender. Not like any of the casual encounters, the most obvious symptom of his addiction.  No, this was a bewitched bartering, a transfer of energy that did not short out and leave one in darkness. Ned was aware that his actions were not wrong, though his motives were, and yet – it had been ages, oceans, deserts – since he had been touched like this – like – there is no use for simile here, because he was touched as himself.

* * *

“In the improbability you do not already have plans, you should join me for a showing of The Thin Man tomorrow night,” Ned texted Sheila as he ate the leftover pesto bread, which was a disaster of multitasking, the oily fingers and screen requiring constant cleaning to prevent further autocorrecktage. “It is basically the source of my entire lifestyle…” Ned continued. “It is several thousand feet above adjectives.” The Film Society had all of its showings at a church and they decided to meet there.

The next night, walking in the same boots, Ned spotted Sheila a half block away, stepping out of Saul’s car. Immediately he accelerated his pace, nearly galloping, an ecstatic pony, until he had hitched to Sheila’s side. Breathing hard, he tried to greet them casually, but it came out as a giddy burst of “HELLO,” followed by Saul unbuckling his seat belt, climbing out of the car, scooting around it, and moving in for a hug, all as Ned was mumbling, “you don’t have to – ” but he did, evidently. And then Saul was back in the car and pulling out, and Sheila was saying, “I wish he was aware of his physical magnetism,” and Ned was saying, “yes,” but neither one of them wished that, truly.

They were two of maybe a dozen people who attended the showing, sitting in the last of only a few rows of chairs. The film went straight to their heads, as it does to any sensible person, and soon they were giggling and sighing. Eventually the Christmas party scene came, where two guests pop balloons on the tree, a man begs an operator to connect him with mother, some drunkenly sing around a radio, and Norah says to Nick, “I love you, because you know such lovely people.” Sheila leaned towards Ned. “Good heavens,” she remarked, “it’s my house.”

The projectionist sought forgiveness for the print afterwards, which admittedly was rather fuzzy at times, but Ned waved away the apology, declaring, “it was just so wonderful to see it on a big screen.” He and Sheila left then, walking into the night, the clouds as witnesses.

Endurance of

This year’s model of roommate had moved out. Normally such an event was a jubilee, setting Mandy on a frenzy of reclaiming the space and cleaning it completely, but her apartment, the upper of a duplex, was being covered in a slow dustfall and the stairs had more cobwebs than Miss Havisham’s; depending on when Mandy was leaving for work she could see a thread here and there, glinting in the sunlight. She was the host at a restaurant, The Junction, a job too boring to describe here. The only reason she continued was the owners, an old married couple, who were so nice, unless you came in with people and kept on your phone. Then they would shuffle by and whisper, “a screen is not a face,” which terrified everyone and delighted Mandy.

Honestly, the old married couple was not the only reason for continuing at The Junction – just the more entertaining one. There was also Mandy’s vocation, music, and she didn’t want any job competing with it, although recently she wondered if vocation was a word used for work that needed justification, to oneself or one’s culture. After a decade of writing and recording and gigs, with indifference from both the industry and the internet, there was just no compelling argument to continue that would hold up in the court of her mind. Nevertheless, some tired fantasy persisted that her music was worth defending.

Tired was the appropriate adjective, because lately, when Mandy tried to write, she ended up taking a nap. To be fair, LCD Soundsystem’s new album wasn’t helping. The songs were filled with white man spoken word about how he’s “still trying to wake up” and “got nothing left to say” and “in no place to say it” and MANDY COULD NOT STOP LISTENING.

But not tonight. A friend had invited her to a workshopped reading of a play. Mandy filled her travel mug with mostly Bailey’s Irish Cream and a little coffee, sipping it en route, ensuring she was in tipsy-top shape from the beginning. Attending a play of any kind is a perilous endeavor, let alone an original one that has not yet seen the darkness of a theatre.

Titled The Endurance of Light, it concerned a scientist attempting to recover from a miscarriage by having imaginary arguments with Hildegard of Bingen and Albert Einstein. Such a premise would interest anyone, but Mandy hadn’t read the premise, and anyway, it was better to be surprised. As the lead, her friend gave a detailed and dense performance, like a deep barrel of rice, imploring you to reach a hand in. Mandy put a hand in, then the other, then her feet, and by the end she was in the barrel; it was that good of a performance, and/or maybe that good of a friend, and/or maybe that good of a play. Afterwards, Mandy meant to just congratulate the playwright, but soon she was talking about the theme of “dryness” and suddenly her throat tightened and a half lid of tears closed over each eye and then she was leaving the theater.

It was the Bailey’s, it had compromised her sobriety more than expected, Mandy thought, but she drove anyway, went straight home. She baked a frozen pizza and resumed watching a BBC series from the early ‘90s, Prime Suspect, with a young(er) Helen Mirren. Had Helen Mirren ever been young? Even in the mid ‘70s, opposite Laurence Olivier in a piece by Harold Pinter, she seems in full possession of self. Mirren’s character in Prime Suspect, Jane, is obsessed with her work; it returns the favor by depleting her energy, time, relationships. To Mandy, this seemed like a fair deal: sacrifice a life for a sense of purpose. It was almost biblical.

Mandy was on series 3 of Prime Suspect, which follows the murder investigation of a rent boy. In a scene near the end, Jane is interrogating a man, Edward Parker-Jones, whom she knows to be guilty of numerous child rapes. Edward is a serpent, though, and the harder she squeezes, the more he slips. Out of ideas and in a fury, Jane begins reconstructing the night of the murder but is unable to finish, her voice choking on itself, face turning away, only to hear Edward reply, “no comment.” As he walks out, his lawyer assures Jane that “[she’ll] never have a case.”

Just then fellow officer reminds Jane that a journalist has been brought to the station for questioning, because they interviewed the boy hours before he was murdered. Entering the interrogation room, Jane asks if the journalist is still looking for a scoop. “I’m paid to expose the truth. It’s my job. A bit like yours,” the journalist asserts. “It is criminal that a man like Edward Parker-Jones is allowed to gain access to young children and all with the blessing of the social services…” Jane pauses in mid-rant. “A young boy called him the ‘Keeper of Souls’…it was his nickname. Good headline, isn’t it?” She slides the case file on the table towards the journalist, who stares at it, then Jane, asking, “Is Parker-Jones going to be charged?” But Jane leaves, closing the door behind her. The journalist opens the file, the music intensifying, the camera zooming closer and closer on a story waiting to be written.

The pizza was gone, and Mandy didn’t feel full, but then she hadn’t felt full since – regardless, she wasn’t hungry anymore. But she didn’t clear the dishes. She leaned back in the chair, laid a hand across her waist and watched the fade out.

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.