The Show Begins
You walk into the theatre and sit down. The chair is springy and pilled. Half a dozen teenagers in matching school sweatshirts sit to your left. The lights dim. On stage, two women emerge from the curtain’s center slit and peel the heavy velvet back. They walk slowly. The clops of their heels are perfectly synced with one another. A heartbeat. A clock. What emerges is a gray horizon thick with clouds that float heavy like a drowned man from the rafters. The sightline ends at the farthest point upstage with the suggestion of even darker clouds and a flash of lighting looming ahead. The horizon appears to be made of silken fabrics wrapped and gathered around large pillows. It hangs so low, it seems there might only be space for a child to walk upright. The teenagers are silent.
As if on cue, a child walks onto the stage wearing a rat costume. He, or she, you can’t tell, is still, facing the audience, expressionless. There’s thunder. Then, the child begins to dance. Outrageous, exaggerated dance steps from a few generations before this child was born. The Charleston, maybe, something else with wind-milled arms. Two of the teenagers beside you lock arms and giggle into each other’s shoulders. You’re looking and looking and trying to find meaning here. The low storm, the dancing animal-child. You’re trying to place it within a relevant critical framework. You’re waiting to see what happens next. Some flash in your brain reminds you of baseball practice when you were nine, the most successful season your team ever had, a rainy spring, and how you used to cry alone in bed the nights after you won the games, rocking under your covers, imagining your dad’s face when you would inevitably lose sometime down the road now that you’d gotten your crowd so used to winning. You’d rock and rock and wake up with a swollen face that your mom kept trying to give you allergy medication for, it’s the pollen, probably, she said, but each Sunday morning you’d wake up with the same puffy eyes, until finally the week before the playoffs, she pulled you from the team due to allergies. But that can’t be what you were supposed to get from this performance. Surely not. Not at all.
You walk into the theatre and look for a place to sit down. The chairs are old and pilled, and each one in the row you turn down has a hole cut in the center. It looks like a toilet seat. You walk a few rows lower, to see if you can find a seat without a hole, but they all seem to have it, so you accept this as part of the art and sit down as best you can, spreading your cheeks as you shift for maximum contact, keeping your hands on the arms of the chairs so as not to fall through, should your balance slip. The stage is dark. There are no curtains. The only sound you hear is the shifting of audience bodies as they rearrange themselves on the seat or chat with their date. No set pieces are visible on stage. The part of your ass directly above the hole starts to feel a little cold as the cheeks warm against the seat and air blows up through the hole. You slide your hand underneath to try to block the air, and it feels nice for a few seconds until someone turns in from the vom to the aisle where you are sitting, asks if she can scoot by, and you nod, say sure, but are aware of the warmed ass hand that slides out from doing who-knows-what she might think, and how it brushes her hip as you stand to make room for her squeezing by. Sorry, you mutter, and she smiles a half-smile that means it’s both ok and not ok, and you wonder if that’s the purpose of these half-chairs, so much like a bad joke in company too polite not to chuckle. The stage is still dark. Nobody up there moves. You hear, then, the sound of a fart, but you aren’t sure whether it came from a neighbor or a sound recording, playing over the speakers. You aren’t sure at all. You miss the sound of a familiar fart, a little loved one’s fart. You strain your ears for another.
You walk into the theatre and sit down. The stage is a rectangular piece of wood in the center of the rectangular room, surrounded by chairs on four sides. Everything is painted black. Correction: everything was painted black at some point, at least a few years ago by its fade and peel. You can see that before the walls were black, they were beige. There are beige flecks. You wonder if this suggests a larger scale lack of concern here. There is a beige glow beneath sections of the wall where the black paint is too thin. Never mind. You turn your attention back to the stage. There are seven other people in the audience, sitting spread out from one another all the way around the stage. The lights dim. Several dark figures come onto stage from an aisle. You see their shadows move toward the center of the stage and you’re wondering what tableau they’ll form, but instead, they keep moving across the stage to the other side and climb the stairs between the rows of chairs and have a seat in the audience. You aren’t sure if you’re supposed to be seeing this. When the lights are black, there’s an unspoken agreement between audience and performer –yes, we’ll close our eyes with you and travel from a castle in one scene to a dungeon in the next, yes we’ll close our eyes with you and move from a mother’s childhood to her son’s office, yes.
The lights come up, and nobody is on stage. There are, however, more people in the audience. A song begins playing: “All You Need is Love.” You’re waiting. You’re waiting for the lights to go dark again, to jump time and space, for someone to come across the stage, climb the stairs closest to your aisle and sit down beside you as the lights come up. You’re waiting for someone’s arm to come close to your arm. You never knew how powerful this song could be. You’re hoping the person who sits beside you has soft, soft hair and long enough arms to wrap all the way around your shoulder.
You walk into the theatre and it smells like cotton candy body spritz and you sit down. On stage is a prison. All along the lip of the stage, black metal bars rise vertically from the stage floor and disappear into the curtain hanging a few feet from the ceiling. The bars are spaced half a foot apart from one another, and are as thick around as your daughter’s ankle when she was just born. The stage is dimly lit, with low fog rising a few feet into the air from the ground. One metal frame cot sits center stage, its head facing stage left, its feet facing stage right. You can barely make out the shape through the fog, and this makes you wonder what would happen if something with an already hard-to-define form, like a fish made of water, like a daughter made of smoke, were lying on the bed. If it was, indeed, a daughter of smoke on the cot, her wispy braids facing stage left, the curled exhalations of her toes facing stage right, would she be able to make any sound, and if she could, would the sound be strong enough for someone as far back as you are at the back of the theatre to hear? This is a great fear of yours. Making a sound that nobody can hear.
A sound suddenly comes from the cot. You thought if any person was on the cot, it was just your very quiet daughter made of smoke, but whoever is there, she is making a sound. The sound is the sound of many rubber soles squeaking along a waxed floor in near-unison. The bed is making the sound of constrained shuffling. This is a prison, you remind yourself. A prison is constrained shuffling. The organs in your smoke daughter’s body shuffle into one another and sound like metal gates sliding closed. The sound of the walking ceases, and is replaced by the smell of too much Lysol.
A sign drops a few feet from the ceiling with the noisy clatter of metal jangling metal. It reads, “Welcome to the Inside.” You have just enough time to read it twice when the set splits open, it must have been constructed as two halves on rolling bases, and begins turning, sliding backwards into the wings as another set, that must have been tucked very carefully behind it, is revealed. The set is full of brightly colored swings and park benches. Oversized insects fall from the rafters onto the floor and are blown back up into the air from below. You aren’t sure if this is supposed to mean the “inside” of what a prison is really like, or maybe some commentary on how a person in a prison still might be like a rainbow park on the inside, or what, but suddenly there is a baby crying. The baby who is crying has the exact cry that your daughter made of smoke had when she was just the smallest thing you’d ever seen, when you could fit her head on your palm and plant her flat feet against your bicep as you crooked your elbow. This was before she turned to smoke, your daughter, when there was sharp crusts in the sexual part of her eyes and a rasp made of phlegm and spit in her cough. The crying on stage does not stop and the insects the size of housecats keep plunging down and shooting back up and the red swings sit perfectly still beside yellow benches and even the bright wash meant to give the stage a mid-morning cheer illuminates ugly folds you never noticed before as ugly on the curtains surrounding the stage and you decide you’ve had your fill of art for the day, fuck imagery, you’re out.
You walk into the theatre and sit down. On stage, your daughter is wearing a rat costume. She is beside a man you do not know who is dressed as an alligator. Is it really your daughter? The man’s claws are dicing onions beside a simmering pot on the stove. His alligator head reaches far above his human head. Your daughter dumps a box of wooden blocks and plastic animals onto the stage. You can tell, in the way she’s sorting through the shapes, that she is going to build a tower like nobody’s ever seen in their lives. Is it your daughter? Flat edges are stacked and windows balanced, half-moons for the ceramic giraffe’s from the tea boxes. The man has moved on to peppers now, and your daughter speaks aloud. “Which animals could live together?” she says. “A t-rex would eat the sheep,” she says, and holds up a bundle of sheep made from cotton swabs that she brought home around Easter when she was seven or eight, pens them far away from the t-rex. You remember when she used to gives the animals hot dog skins to use as hammocks. You remember dicing tomatoes for her dinner. You wonder about what this play might mean if you weren’t you, how much less or more it could be, and you try to close your eyes and remember the artifice of this whole thing but it’s no use, your chest feels hot and throbby on the left and you have to take some big breaths to keep from crying out and the lights are dim all around you and an animal father and daughter on stage are talking through the day’s events and you sit alone in the dark trying not to creak your seat as you rock yourself slowly back and forth and watch what really didn’t happen, happen.
Tessa Fontaine spent the 2013 season performing with the last American traveling circus sideshow, the World of Wonders. Essays about this adventure have appeared at The Rumpus. Other work can be found or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School Magazine, Seneca Review, DIAGRAM, New Orleans Review, [PANK], Brevity, and more. Tessa got her MFA from the University of Alabama, where she learned to love good BBQ nachos, and is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at the University of Utah, where she’s learning to love snow. Find her at www.TessaFontaine.com.