She felt confused as she read through the script for the first time. The coffee stain and the several markings done with pencil on page twenty-eight struck her eye, convincing her immediately that this section of the play must be especially emphasized. She had taken the copy from the casting agency when she went there for the audition. It was obvious to her that they had spent time on that page before she arrived. Although nothing of the content on that page seemed particularly vital. Could the stain and markings simply signify a cigarette or bathroom break? She went over the section three times just in case, to cover all her bases.
Having read the entire script 4-5 times, she found herself staring at the doorknob. It was as if she was hypnotized. At least five minutes must have gone by when she realized persistently blinking to rid her eyes of their dryness. She glanced around, observing the room she had rented a week ago: the Nile- green walls and the white-washed furniture. She tilted her head to see her reflection in the dressing mirror. The mirror was flawed. When she slowly moved towards the right bottom corner, she pretended it was one of those funhouse mirrors at the amusement park. And on the shelf behind her was that plush toy she kept carrying around with her.
This was once a spectacular plush duck with long bright white fur and a golden beak and feet. Looking at it now, she regretted not having had a ‘before’ picture with it—when they were both young and pretty, when she and her father used to sing that song and do their special duck-dance, prior to her father’s ingenious idea of throwing it in the washing machine which cost it its long beautiful fur, making it all wrinkly. But this is another story, and no one seems to have time these days for the kind of story that it is.
She had to focus. Having to memorize a fifty-page script for the lead in a one-woman play was challenging enough and required constant revision. Every time she was on the fourteenth page the duck song began to play in her head, which awoke in her a tender sense of nostalgia: a half smile, perhaps a tear or two. On the sixth time this happened, she decided she had enough of it. This was even worse than the sugar-free-gum-jingle incident of last year’s play. What’s more, neither the song nor the duck had anything to do with the journey of a powerful woman. She also could not remember half of the song, which, she knew was going to bug her for the rest of the day. She decided to do the duck dance routine, hoping it would help her remember. The moves were there—her arms automatically reenacted the dance—but half the lyrics were still lost.
She chose to skip page fourteen but on page nineteen the song was back. The play was in nine days. Her eyes moved back to the duck. She promptly got up, put her shoes on, grabbed the duck along with her coat and stormed out for a walk. When she reached the seashore, she made her way to one of the benches. A couple was sitting on the next bench. She heard them talking to each other, yet they weren’t looking at each other but looking blankly at the waves.
—“Is this all of your luggage?” he asked her.
—“Yes” she said. “And one of them is empty”.
She decided to head back home and left the once spectacular plush duck there on that bench, remembering how much her father always wanted to live by the sea in a far away seaside town. As far as “away” he used to say.
As she walked back, she was certain that she’d remember the other half of the song, most probably while on stage during the premiere.
She was a businesswoman, owned a medium-sized company that marketed ladder resistant pantyhose. Her son-in-law had recently invested $ 200k in it and paved the way for expansion abroad. Naturally, this meant late night sessions of transoceanic phone calls and nocturnal periods of emailing as a result of the time difference. And this was only one reason why she chose to work from home.
She used a payphone down the street from her home to make all these long distance phone calls. She believed —strongly—that using her home phone would be much more expensive. Her daughter pled that this belief was nonsensical. As a woman of principle, she refused to listen to her because this was clearly a matter of principle.
She needed to call Romania on one such night which was, incidentally, another country she would probably fail to locate on a map. “Rome-ania... I wonder if that’s anywhere near Italy,” she pondered as she put on her beige goose down coat. Although always well dressed, she did not look particularly wise. Due to a recent Lasik surgery, her left eye remained covered with an eye patch. No longer did she need the big horn-rimmed glasses she wore before the surgery which rendered them obsolete.
She nonetheless managed to convince her ophthalmologist that she still needed them for a short while more —just to adjust—and she asked for a replacement with unnumbered lenses.
As she left her apartment, she felt the heavy humid air on her skin. It felt like it was about to rain. It had felt like that for weeks now. The booth with the payphone was about four blocks away. She began to walk the distance. As she became mesmerized by a couple of gasoline rainbows on the floor, she asked herself out loud “Why is it that a gasoline rainbow on the ground does not excite us even a tenth of the amount a regular rainbow does? I’m sure the way both are formed is equally marvelous.” After thinking about this for about ten to fifteen seconds, she inadvertently started rehearsing the phone call she was about to make. She acted out both her part and her interlocutor’s, and somehow it was the latter who sounded much more real than she did.
When she finally arrived at her destination and entered the phone booth, the feeling of claustrophobia suddenly overwhelmed her. She opened the door, though only slightly—about three inches or so. She took a deep breath, checking if any air managed to get in the booth: the air inside and the air outside the booth were of a completely different quality. She began dialing the numbers, the cold metal buttons made her shudder.
In the end, the conversation was nothing like the one she had imagined and rehearsed but she did manage to extract a good deal nonetheless. Assuming she must still have enough credits for another call, she dialed her daughter Janice. When she told her about the deal, she heard everyone there scream with joy and could picture them dancing. “We should celeb...”—the phone was cut off before Janice finished her sentence.
She thought about her daughter a little more: her joy was always as tiring as her sorrow. Her son-in- law had just bought a house in Carlton, one of the wealthier suburbs in the city. This reminded her that she and her husband had always wanted to move there one day. Her thoughts now turned to her late husband, and she felt... indifferent.
She stepped out of the phone booth.
It was raining.
The results of his career aptitude test revealed a potential as a realtor and this made his father proud. These results reminded him once again—although he was easily reminded of it anyway—of how small his world was in comparison to all the books he read and the films he saw.
He got off the bus with a couple of other kids at Carlton station and started walking home. He chose not to carry his backpack but drag it on the pavement. When he arrived home, he discovered his parents were furious with his eleven year old sister because she was caught stealing. Her shoplifting attempt involved six Kinder Surprises, which she must have wanted for the toys—to add to the Kinder Surprise toy collection she owned. To be more precise, it was the parts she probably wanted because every item in her collection was a hacked-creation, an original. She mixed and matched parts from different toys and devised new toys.
A solemn silence fell over the house once the big fight was over. The patterns in his sister’s petty crime could be seen to derive from their mother’s long career of ‘collecting’—that’s what she called it—boxes and boxes of ‘Sweet’n Low’ sachets. Every time a family member rolled their eyes, she said they were for her diabetic cousin who lived in another city. He wondered about the last time they paid that cousin a visit. Thinking about it was enough to evoke the smell of Lysol and melon-scented air freshener that gave that house a distinct odor. Somewhat unfortunately, the same scent also reminded him of the night he lost his virginity. The girl was a bit of a germophobe. It was a fond memory nonetheless. He remembered staring at the freckles on her back while she slept. He connected them in his mind, imagining lines between freckles to make up constellations.
He turned on the television in the living room. Even just two bars of volume sounded too loud. He wondered why the volume one sets during the evening sounds too loud in the morning. This wasn’t the first time he pondered this. Maybe it was because their house was always very quiet. He decided to go up to his room instead. He laid down on the bed and dozed off.
He had no idea how long he was asleep, but it was again the same dream he had—he is in his house but everything is in the wrong place. He is at home, but he is not. Bleary eyed, he glanced around. The walls were covered with posters of rock stars and bands that he collected from music magazines. One could still see the places where the posters had been folded to fit in between the pages. He stood up and took a step towards the bookcase. With his feet, he pushed back the several golf clubs that had slid out from under the bed. His father had “gifted” him these. He had no use for them. From all this teenage paraphernalia that blanketed the bookshelves he salvaged a library book which was 6 years overdue. Then and there, he began to read it once again, after all those years.
Right when he was on page twenty-three, the silence haunting the house was broken by his father’s complains about the bathroom tap that leaked. How odd—he hadn’t realized it despite the lifeless silence. He knew his sister was in the clear now.
He followed the edge of the page with his index finger, then pressed hard to see if he’d get a paper cut. He did.
And a droplet of blood oozed from the scar, leaving a stain on his green pillowcase.
The woman took off her hat and put it on the table when her cell phone rang for a third time. She glanced at its screen to see who was calling. She then looked at the little boy sitting next to her and decided not to answer. They sat at the table that was located in the quietest spot of the cafe. It was also the one closest to the toilets. They always sat at that same table and, as always, the little boy, who must have been around 4 or 5, was playing with the same worn out corner of the table.
The woman was known for her extreme introversion. As was the little boy. The boy had not passed that threshold age when one ceases to mirror one’s mother or father. Neither the woman nor the boy uttered a word the entire time—thirty-two minutest to be exact—that they were there. At times the little boy seemed like he had something to say, but he avoided talking altogether.
He wore a red knit beanie with a set of letter-patches sewn on it. It was supposed to say, ‘Spiderman’, but the ‘s’ had fallen off. So, it said ‘piderman’ instead. A handwritten ‘s’—in green, and clearly in a child’s hand—was later added in the blank space where the original ‘s’ had been. It was difficult to see the addition though and, to the inattentive eye, it still read ‘piderman’.
The phone rang again. This time she answered on the second ring without even checking the screen to see who it was. “Ok”, she said, “I’ll bring him now. I’ll pick him up again Sunday afternoon”. While she talked, the little boy was blowing through the straw of his iced tea, making bubbles and overflowing the cup. The table was quickly covered with splashes. The woman took a bunch of napkins out of her purse and laid them on the table to absorb the liquid.
It was time and, as if they had secretly agreed on it beforehand, they got up to leave. They put on their jacketsandmadetheirway,walking,towardsthedoor. The waiter—after helping the little boy put on his jacket—said ‘Bye Sam!’ and began cleaning the mountain of dirty napkins that covered the
table. The little boy waved back at him.
As soon as they stepped outside, a stiff breeze assaulted the woman’s hat, but it resisted. As they headed over to the central station, the boy had to pace his steps to match the tempo of his mother’s walk. Every step she took, he took two.
Suddenly he asked his mother:
“Mom, have you ever been in a limo?”
The woman did not answer, the boy did not ask again.
She looked through her bookcase, again. The bookcase was extremely important as it was fundamental to the way she portrayed herself to others. As something did not feel quite right, she squinted and glanced through the shelves once again. She realized that the old phonebook—all bulky and phosphoric yellow—dominated her precious set of the Penguin Classics consisting of seventeen titles alphabetically ordered on the shelf, missing only Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky (which would be nothing less than a nonsensical purchase). She decided to move them to an upper shelf. She then went on to try how her Nabokovs would be next to the phonebook. Nabokov’s corpus was overshadowed just as the Classics had been. The way the phonebook dominated Lolita seemed particularly striking. Something similar could be said of a number of titles that she owned by M. de Sade. Although it was only visual, the overpowering of The 120 Days of Sodom—which was indubitably the case with the existing arrangement of her books—seemed like an impressive accomplishment for an out-of-date phonebook. She met her husband through this phonebook. It was a story for Hollywood—the only such story in her life. Not that she needed one, she thought. Except deep inside, she knew everyone desperately needed one.
She knew she was avoiding the problem by circling around it. So, she picked out the phonebook and began skimming through names and numbers until a peculiar name caught her attention: “Armitage”. She repeated the word “Armitage” to herself a couple of times. It gave her a sensation of jamais vu.
With a torrent of resolution she walked to her desk, opened the first drawer she came to and stuck the phonebook in. As she glanced over its cover before she closed the drawer, she took note of an old concert ticket, now sticking out under the bottom of the phonebook. She pulled it out and put it in her pocket. There was absolutely no reason for doing this, unless she wanted to hide the evidence that they had wasted yet another pair of concert tickets bought so that they would spend some time together.
Having taken a step back, she was suddenly overwhelmed by the feeling that the infinite sense of security she had with her husband was slowly slipping away. She wanted to hold on to that feeling of safety at all costs, so she strived to remember when it was that they bought the tickets. This only made her realize that she was already ten minutes late to her meeting with him. She was sure that he was going to ask for a divorce and she had known for a long time now that the day was coming, but pretended otherwise. In fact, she had been pretending so long that, for a moment, she found herself actually curious about what it was they were going to discuss.
As she left the house, she saw their old neighbor, taking out the recycling trash. When he saw her, he told her that he had finally rented his spare room to a nice young lady, and, trying to prolong the small talk, asked her what she was up to, “I don’t know,” she replied, “maybe I’ll go and see a movie,” and she started walking towards the cafe where she and her husband were going to meet, as she repeated the name “Armitage” once more.
She didn’t understand how she got there, but when she was conscious again, she saw a little boy, staring at her from the back corner. Her husband suddenly reached out to hold her hands. “I just want you to be happy”, he said, staring deep into her eyes; but before he finished the sentence, the waiter dropped a glass.
The glass bounced two times on the floor.
(But) it did not break.
Alfred Rhodes had been living alone in the country house since the divorce. The isolation had given him the luxury to undertake long writing projects, and although he knew he was just trying to keep his mind occupied with other things, he still wanted to take advantage of the circumstances.
As he kept scribbling on the yellow legal pad, he started writing his concluding paragraph for an article. He started from the last section and was going to end with the introduction, like he always did. But he was suddenly struck by how quiet the house had become. He could hear nothing but his heart beating and the movement of air down his trachea all the way down to his bronchioles. It felt as if he was in a sensory deprivation tank, and typical of the kind of idea one gets in such a situation, he thought of the discord between how perfectly the human body had evolved, and how poorly humanity had been collectively doing.
He wondered where Elwood might have been. He whistled, just as he always did when he wanted Elwood to come to him. The downside to this method was that it did not explain where Elwood had been prior his arrival. There was still an advantage to this strategy though: he didn’t have to get up. The soft tingling of the bell on Elwood’s collar, which indicated he had been lying down somewhere, was heard immediately after the whistle. This was followed by a crescendo of ringing, accompanied by a tempo of quadruped-beats.
As he had been trained as an archeologist and had practiced his profession for decades, Mr. Rhodes shared one distinct passion with his canine companion: digging. This is why he often took Elwood, the always-happy light caramel-brown golden retriever mix, on his excavation trips. Although they were both in excellent physical shape, considering their age—and for this, they owed much to each other (though Elwood could do less, due to his limited capacity as a dog)—they had not been on an archeological dig for many years now. Ever since publishing a collection of essays titled “A Collection of Essays”, on topics predominantly philosophical and thoroughly non-archeological—which became aNew York Times best-seller contrary to Mr. Rhodes’ expectations and desires—Mr. Rhodes found himself digging deeper and deeper into the conceptual ruins of humanity instead. His works had been attracting a growing audience, and some went as far as calling him the next Foucault or Rorty.
Elwood, on the other hand, dug exclusively in the back garden now, and Mr. Rhodes was certain that what he himself was involved with was—contrary to all the hype—nothing substantially different to digging in the back garden.
Mr. Rhodes stood up from his desk and made his way to the record player while Elwood’s gaze followed him as he traversed the room. He put Mozart’s Horn Concertos (No. 2 in E-flat major, K. 417) on the platter, hit the play button and closed the dust cover as the tone arm moved towards the now-revolving LP. He was already back in his seat when the hazy, full tone of the horn was heard and Elwood began accompanying it.
Elwood was a special dog. He was thoroughly thoughtful and acutely emotional. The first week with Mr. and (no-longer) Mrs. Rhodes, after they adopted Elwood as a puppy, was excruciatingly difficult until the Rhodeses discovered, by accident, how the French horn calmed Elwood. Mr. Rhodes even tried to learn to play the instrument to bond with Elwood, but when his lack of talent threatened his bond with his then wife, he gave up. He often wished he hadn’t—recently more so in light of which bond had survived as time passed. In any case, ever since their arrival at the country house, Mr. Rhodes developed the habit of putting on the horn concerto for Elwood to sing along. In turn, Elwood’s howling calmed him, and helped him concentrate.
On a bright and sunny Thursday in May 1982—the day Mr. Rhodes completed the introductory chapter to his article and decided to pick up the French horn again—, Elwood passed away peacefully in his sleep. He was 13 years old.
Mr. Rhodes’ second cousin on his mother’s side, a professional taxidermist, insisted that Elwood’s body should be stuffed in a digging pose. Mr. Rhodes however, did not want to pursue this idea.
She sat quietly on the uncomfortable bar stool. Her feet hovered above the ground, and the fact that she could not reach the floor made her even more uneasy. The bright yellow spotlights and the white fluorescents scattered around the studio created a cacophony of light that gave her a splitting headache. She managed to count five cameras situated at varying angles. The cameramen adjusted the lenses, and it felt like a firing squad was preparing to carry out its duty. The little red bulb on four of the cameras lit up, at once. They were recording. The fifth, like the clemency of a merciful hunter who’d changed his mind on the last moment, refused to work.
She kept asking herself what the hell she was doing. Every time they watched the show with her boyfriend—which was every time it aired—she told him of her desire to be a contestant. His response—which was the same every time—was that she was more of a “contestant's-cousin-who- came-for-support” type of a person. She now recalled how profoundly this irritated her. Was this why she ended up there? Was it because of her boyfriend? But why should she have not taken her chances? She was smart. She got most questions right, at least half of them, well, certainly some of them. It didn’t matter anymore, because she was there. She... made it.
She glanced at her feet. The distance to the floor was infinite. It looked as though she’d free fall for minutes on end if she decided to jump off the stool to split.
Her mom and boyfriend had come for moral support. They were sitting somewhere in the audience, watching her.
The first three questions were easy—as usual. The fourth was a bit more challenging: “What is the name for the controlled, three-beat gait that is usually slightly faster than the average trot, but slower than the gallop?” She tried hard to remember those Sunday afternoons when her mother used to take her horseback riding when she was 8. Hesitantly, though correctly, she answered: “Canter, B, final answer.”
The presenter was a charming charismatic guy in his 50s. He was a good-looking man except for the disproportion amongst his large nose, thin lips and abnormally partitioned eyebrows. Maybe he wasn't that good-looking after all.
With the fifth question the perspiration started—or more accurately, the sweating-like-a-pig. The initial uncertainty she felt about her choice of that light grey shirt was now a full-blown regret registering on a scale somewhere between “What was I thinking?” and “I must be an idiot!” She tried, desperately, to cover her armpits with the colorful scarf that she borrowed from her mother.
The seventh question—which proved to be the last—was a math question. According to her mother’s description, her boyfriend was ‘only a paralegal’. Yet he was annoyingly good at maths, especially arithmetic. So was her mother. They must have figured out the answer in three seconds. The moment the question appeared on her screen, she felt her boyfriend’s gaze piercing through the back of her skull. This was the second time in her life that she felt someone’s judgmental gaze this clearly drilling through her being from behind. The first time was when she dropped her father’s camera into an ornamental pool at the amusement park when she was 11. It was that day all over again.
She hated maths. She truly, deeply did. She remembered the time her mother could not, supposedly, believe that her daughter could not understand fractions. She must have been around 11 again. Would she have preferred being 11 again? Evidently it wasn’t a great time for her, but it might have been better than failing at maths in front of the nation.
She took a deep and slow breath, and started moving her fingers, using the tips to count. It didn’t help. She got the question wrong, but won 30,000 dollars nonetheless.
She left the production studio to smoke a cigarette. She knew that her mother would try to lighten the mood by making a joke. Something like, ‘Oh at least you won enough money for a maths tutor’.
She walked and walked, until she found a bench. The wooden bench felt like sitting on a cloud after that stupid bar stool in the studio.
She stared around blankly until she heard a woman ordering ice cream from a street vendor:
“If you can give me half-scoop portions, I’d like to have half a scoop of cherry and half a scoop of vanilla. If not, I’d like to have one scoop of walnut.”
Right at that moment, she pondered: “if that woman ordering ice cream and I were to silently vanish, no one would detect a change in the fabric of existence.”
She felt secure.
& 1 Play
(In order of appearance)
34. Medium height, medium weight, short ordinary hairstyle.
Cashier, 26. Tall, skinny. Thin, big nose. Resembling a ginger Bob Saget. Wearing glasses that are a bit loose, and a yellow apron with the logo of the food chain for which he worked.
MAN DRINKING FANTA
Customer, 32. Overweight, sloppy. Wearing an old t-shirt with CHILI- CHILI BABA (an American-Lebanese punk-rock band) printed on it.
Girl,16. Wearing red framed round glasses, chubby. Boy,15. Skinny, pimply face.
Customer,late 60s. White short hair, short, skinny.
A big-chain café/restaurant. Sells fast food and hot or cold non- alcoholic beverages. The tables and chairs are yellow plastic. There are a few customers sitting. A young couple, eating chicken sandwiches-the papers wrapping the sandwiches have grease stains. A man, wearing a CHILI-CHILI BABA t-shirt, is drinking Fanta from the can. There are white plastic salt and peppershaker sets and napkin boxes on every table.
(Before the curtain opens, A MAN enters and walks along the stage with a megaphone in his hand, turns to the audience and says: “Based on a true story” and leaves).
(Curtain opens, MARGARET enters. A strong breeze fills the restaurant. The YOUNG COUPLE and the MAN DRINKING FANTA are already sitting in the restaurant and with the sound of the door opening, they all check who enters. TOM, sitting down on one of the yellow plastic chairs behind the cash, sees that someone has entered and stands up. MARGARET swipes her foot on the door mat and slowly takes off her gloves. Walking towards the counter, she takes a look at the big board high up on the wall behind the counter, where the foods and beverages are listed.).
Hello! How may I help you?
Hello, son. May I please
have a small cup of coffee?
Sure, for here or to go?
Hmmm. I think I will sit
and rest a bit. It is very cold outside.
Sure, for here then! Would you like anything to eat?
That’s two dollars and eighty-five cents.
(Margaret takes out five dollars from the pocket of her coat, hands it over to Tom, who gives back her change. After about three minutes, Tom hands out a big full cup of hot coffee with no space for milk. Looking at the cup as if he is hypnotized, Tom hands it slowly and carefully trying not to spill.)
Ah, no, no, I wanted just a small cup of coffee.
Sorry ma’am, this is the only size we have.
(Margaret turns to the audience with dramatic gesture and looks directly at them.)
What a stupid world we live in.