Up here, as high and vast as you can travel. Through a crack in this moonlit night, past constellations bearing witness to the passing of eons, the birth and death of stars, to the outer reaches of the known universe; the future waits in the shape of a human heart.
Down here on earth, inside a crumbling myth-filled building, through a window broken long ago, memory slithers across the pocked marble floor. There is no love in this place which holds light from another century, so faint and forgotten. The stale air of past conversation lingers; no hope of ever being completed.
The large vaulted room in the adjoining hall is set for a funeral but the dead are no longer here. They haven’t been in many years, not since the place closed, from what the girl has been told.
But wait, there is still life. And obsession. High drama and intrigue. Tonight rehearsals begin in this grand room with its pillars and stage. The Great Playwright has written something hypnotic and musical and also a little other-worldly. Something he is determined to will into being. The girl’s heart, kind and open but also very wise, urges her not to get involved.
“But it’s just for the experience,” she reassures and vows to be cautious and accepts the job of finding items to use as props. The cast assembles; a small girl with red hair and a lisp, a dashing Hispanic boy in painter’s clothes, a girl whose overprotective girlfriend doesn’t want her in the play because of The Playwright’s reputation, and finally the lead. A friend of Prop Girl’s, a genuine and good friend; a wiry, quicksilver Saxophone player that everyone calls Doctor Tilt.
The Great Playwright, dressed in his flamboyant colors and scarf, has engaged his cruel and deep voice. He likes tantrums and forceful pacing. Moving the actors around the room with a roughness that makes Prop Girl feel exhausted. After rehearsals he says to her, “stick around”. She has a curious nature that has gotten her into trouble before but still, she can take care of herself. She climbs the narrow wooden staircase to the attic room where he lives with bad plumbing, a smudged bay window view of the fenced-in parking lot below. Abandoned buildings on either side. Through the small dark bathroom she can stand on the roof and look down onto the lonely street, an invasion of thistle and dandelions.
He says this is a place to think, away from the broken world out there. But to her, there is something broken right here. The room is not only uninspiring, it is soul-less. And this is not because of the unmade single bed piled with clothing by the naked window. Paper-strewn metal table and typewriter. Movie posters; classics, science fiction, crime, scotch taped to the peeling white walls. No. Rooms like this can be in disarray and still have a warmth, a depth. This room feels devoid of any life force.
She has known him a short time. He gives up no secrets, has played no real part in her life until now and yet, he is everywhere. As if capable of performing some kind of complex human mitosis, hatching new forms of himself that show up seated at a table in the cafe where she works; “just on the way home, thought I’d say hello”. At her door in the night, “didn’t I know you in ancient Rome?” Driving by as she walks to the only grocery store still open, ”hey, need a ride?” She finds herself mystified by his changeability; intrigued by the lunar storm that seems to disturb the air around him.
But then, there is this other side to it. She actually hates his contradiction (he moves easily between innocent and monstrous) and is sure that beneath it all, lies a freeze-dried heart. This mix of interest and repulsion, one of the human condition’s greatest mysteries. Like why you squint behind your fingers while watching a horror film where people are being killed.
They order pizza, sit on wooden chairs on the roof beneath an indigo sky. She might want to be part of things here a little too much, she thinks. Her heart agrees loudly but she ignores it and instead, listens to him.
“Do you believe in life on other planets?” he asks looking out into the dark night then at her, face bright as lightening.
“I never really thought about it.”
“Well, think about it now.”
“I’m not sure. Do you?” she asks and leans forward.
“Yes. And I believe that you and I are part of that.”
“I don’t think I am.”
“I dreamt that you are. I wrote this play for you. I think this is going to happen.”
“We hardly know each other.”
“Yes, we do,” he insists, as if needing to convince her.
“Well,” she thinks nothing is the right thing to say. “I didn’t have the dream.”
“I’m telling you, it’s real,” he pushes the pizza box to one side with his dirty tennis shoe.
“To you, it probably is.”
He gets up in a childish rampage, scurrying off to his typewriter leaving her there, half-eaten pizza going cold.
When she has gone he calls and whispers into the phone, “you will find the love of your life once you leave me”. She is surprised to learn that she is ‘with’ him, will leave him and that this will lead to love. Her head is muddled and she says nothing back.
“Every woman. It happens to them all.”
At the second rehearsal The Great Playwright is gossiping to her in the corner and says with a giggle, “did I tell you? I’m sleeping with my ex-girlfriend”. He is a believer in free love, he says. Love with whoever will have you. It’s his anarchistic creed. But, she thinks, he’s no real anarchist. He’s from a spacious law-abiding household in an upscale suburb with a fashionable lawn and two car garage.
The Ex arrives, “just want to see what all the excitement is about”, wearing unflattering tight beige jeans which Prop Girl thinks make her thighs look like sand dunes. She stands at the back of the room, her smug alliance with The Great Playwright showing as clearly as her panty lines.
But back to the play. The main action centers around a musician born from a magical pod. The pod is large, big enough for two people and appears one day in a parking lot. No one knows where it came from but everyone thinks it might be Outer Space. The set will be sparse. Apartment doors. Blank walls. A hallway where Dr Tilt will stand and play his Saxophone. The other tenants listen to his weird and unearthly mix of self-styled melancholy funk through closed doors. Everyone is too afraid to come into the hall; the music is too beautiful, too tragic, and it brings up all kinds of memories, so his life is lonely. Another musician, a violinist with brilliant red hair goes out into the hallway. Things end badly between them and then, there is a dazzling lightshow in the sky.
The Great Playwright scowls during rehearsals. He paces in an exaggerated huff, his colors brighter and he wears a feather boa. Prop Girl assumes this is because The Ex is present, although there is no reason for her to be here; she doesn’t have a function within the play. Her heart says, “this is a pathetic stunt meant to make you jealous”.
And now it is a few nights before the premiere. The Great Playwright asks Prop Girl to join him for Mexican food. When they arrive at the quaint but grubby Cantina de Los Locos, she is not surprised to see The Ex and her current Boyfriend waiting for them. The waiter swoops in, margaritas and guacamole are delivered, and the conversations split. The Playwright and The Ex become engrossed in what seems to be an intense series of coded messages. Prop Girl and the Boyfriend exchange trivialities then fall silent. The Boyfriend stares at his enchilada as if it is a visitor from another planet.
Then suddenly The Playwright turns to Prop Girl and asks, “you’re paying for this date, right?”
“I don’t think so,” she replies, stunned that he considers this a date.
His cruel voice is live for the first time this evening, “you said, you were paying”.
The Ex adds to the festivities brightly, “he’s right, I heard you”.
“Of course you did,” Prop Girl snaps back then gets up, places her part of the bill on the table and leaves.
Later, much later, the phone in her apartment rings and she hesitates before picking it up.
“You’re fired.” It’s The Great Playwright.
“What did you think you were doing. Walking out on me like that.”
“Hang on,” she demands. “You were ignoring me and by the way, her boyfriend.”
He seems to have not heard because he goes on to say, “you left me with the check”.
“No. I paid for what I ordered.”
“You are unprofessional. And you’re fired.”
The phone goes dead on the other end. Her heart spends the rest of the night reading out a list of, ‘I told you so’s’.
And then it is opening night. The day after the phone call The Great Playwright reinstates Prop Girl. Her wise heart reminds her that this is not love. It is not even friendship. He may not even be human, just a collection of compulsions and reactions wired badly together. She believes this to be true but the show must go on. The auditorium is set with folding chairs in rows before the stage. This theater has been here a thousand years, it smells of dust and the sweat of a thousand actors. The Great Playwright is dressed in a black suit, the trousers of which are too short and he is wearing striped tube socks and a Fedora. He has written himself into the play, a part near the end but no one knows what it is. He ignores Prop Girl when she asks about an object he has introduced, then thunders off backstage.
All of her own props are in place. The pod was not easy to source so she constructed it from cardboard and mesh and three silver dashboard window covers. It took weeks to make. She added extra details and a few odd but inspired touches regardless of The Playwright telling her not to. Everyone thinks it looks wonderful and authentic; like it really could be from another galaxy. Everyone except The Playwright. The lighting guy has worked out a sequence of bright Outer Space lights for the ending. The actors wait. The ticket person waits. Doctor Tilt winks at her as he passes.
The audience of twenty-four (including The Ex) seem to be enjoying the play. The music is soulful and eerie and original. The cast is on cue and perfectly in character. There are tense moments when after they play an exceptionally moving duet, the Violinist tells Doctor Tilt that she thinks she is falling in love with him. He sadly and painfully has to reject her (even though he does not want to) because, “where I come from, no one has a heart”.
After the failed romance and discovery that the pod is indeed from Outer Space (which the little crowd cheers) and just when the lightshow is about to begin, the little crowd is hushed by The Great Playwright’s appearance, stage left. He has changed out of his ridiculous suit and into an even more ridiculous costume made of lamé and rainbow feathers. He wears a silver mask and sneakers. No one seems to know what is happening. Dr Tilt is about to get into the pod to be transported back to his home planet. In the distance, a loud humming sound can be heard.
Everyone – the audience, the other actors, the ticket collector and concession (beer) provider, the lighting guy and sound person wait. Prop Girl is backstage, looking on in confusion. Facing the audience, center stage, The Great Playwright points in her direction and in a cavernous voice announces, “builder of the Pod, Great Architect from space, it is time to leave this planet”.
She looks at Doctor Tilt who is shaking his head, ‘no’. Who is this person shouting from the stage, is all she can think. The Playwright continues, “we have not succeeded in our mission. We must return home”.
She is in complete agreement with her heart when it demands ‘leave now’ and she starts to back away but he is immediately backstage and grabs her by the arm, dragging her out. Dr Tilt moves swiftly towards The Playwright who shoves him out of the way, knocking him off the stage. The Playwright gets inside the pod, pulling her in with him but she didn’t have enough cardboard, so it doesn’t quite fit two. She is half in and half out.
From her vantage point she notices that the lighting deck has been abandoned but bizarrely the lightshow bursts into life on its own, swirling bright strobes of color – white, red, yellow, purple and a deafening sound like a freight train approaching.
The Great Playwright shouts over the noise, “we will travel through space together, back to our home”, as he grips Prop Girl’s available arm tighter. She kicks him in the shin. He winces but undaunted produces the steak knife she questioned him about earlier and there are gasps from the audience. The lights become inhumanly bright, some people have to shield their eyes and the noise is what she imagines a Black Hole exploding would sound like.
The lighting guy is there now, at her side, tearing her away from the pod, away from the knife and the interplanetary ramblings of The Playwright, to the safety of backstage. She stands breathless and shaken and is trying to ask him about the lights and how, but the words won’t form and the stage begins to vibrate violently. Actors are scattering, the audience is on its feet, someone is helping Doctor Tilt to a chair and there is a blinding hot flash before the stage goes dark. And silent. The heavy air inside the theater smells sharp and foul with sulfur, burning wood and possibly hair.
Someone from the audience turns on the main stage lights and there where the pod and Playwright had been is a large scorched and smoking patch from the force of take-off.
‘The Pod’ first published in ‘At Love’s Altar’ by Labello Press (c)2020
All Rights Reserved