By Amy Dupcak
I never told anybody, but under the stage are four “rooms.” Without walls or doors, diagonally crisscrossed beams separate east from west and north from south. If you’re taller than five feet like I am, you have to walk hunched over, careful not to smack your head on the wooden ceiling. The smell down here reminds me of my grandmother’s grimy attic, where family photographs have been fading for decades in dilapidated boxes. So long as you avoid that ceiling, always wear shoes, and never drag your hands across the splintered surface of the beams, the “basement” serves its purpose.
Each month, we have two full weeks of rehearsal for two weekend shows. It’s always the same: someone offers a theme, all fourteen of us brainstorm and everything eventually gets pieced together. Last month’s theme was “illusion,” which was Sasha’s idea; personally, I just think she’s narcissistic. We did a version of “mirror mirror on the wall” and two scenes about waking life versus dreams. The month before was “escape,” which was Jorge’s; personally, I just think he’s depressed, but who wouldn’t be? We did one scene where we climbed through rectangular shapes to jump out of windows. In another, we sprouted wings to become birds, darting into the audience and flying through the double doors.
The themes are always of the vague, clichéd variety, although we steer clear of the overly obvious. Our troupe presents spacey, idiosyncratic acts, speaking or miming, dancing or lying, using props or distorting our bodies to ambient music. The sets are simple, bare even, and we dress in black. We are, all of us, self-defined “performance artists,” so none of this is new.
Arrive at 10:00 Friday or Saturday, nine on Sundays, and it’ll be seven dollars at the door. We tried charging ten when we started a year ago, but seven began to seem more appropriate. There’s coffee, tea, and assorted desserts too; dumpster diving allows us to offer Panera Bread goods for the mere cost of a single flashlight. A few dumpster-found loveseats are also in use, spaced out among black folding chairs that face the stage. The shows are only an hour long and afterward we’ll mingle with you and shake hands, if we feel like it. We forbid flash photography (it breaks our concentration) and ask that you turn your cell phones to silent (though I’d rather you smash them on the floor).
We have about thirty regulars who more or less support us; this kind of art isn’t the moneymaking type, and we sure know it. Of these regulars, several are independent filmmakers with whom some of us have made shitty, going-nowhere films. Several more are artist drug dealers who pretend they make a living with their psychedelic paintings or indefinable sculptures, but we see through it. There are a few retired dancers, a circus sideshow connoisseur, two publishers of underground ‘zines, a failed fashion designer, a cobbler who will customize your sneakers, a group of outcast high school kids, a glass-blower, two wannabe beat poets clad in berets (can you believe that?), and the owner of a downtown hookah bar where pot is sold on the sly. This is Olympia and this is not the scene, but it’s a scene in and of itself. Ambling in on various nights are the street performers making little sense for little money in the parks, the magicians who tie balloons into giraffes and broken hearts, the musicians who can’t afford picks, the photographers who take Polaroids, and the gothic crowd who crave talent but lack ambition. Never famous, never overtly interesting, these are our people.
You’ve probably seen me before, though you may not remember. I waited tables at Milo’s on Washington, that trendy Italian restaurant. I made coffee at Buzz Buzz on Legion Way, that chic café where to drink it black is hip and anything else means you’re only there for a caffeine boost. I sold yellowing paperbacks and hardcovers with broken spines at the generically titled Used Books on 9th, that hole-in-the-wall. It went out of business and was replaced by a Locksmith.
Aside from all that, I’ve been in one-act plays and artsy films, performed monologues on sidewalks, bore my soul at open mics, dressed in medieval attire for Renaissance festivals, and did a stint in Seattle with an acting troupe called “God is Dog” that used Biblical stories for inspiration. Our “Sodom and Gomorra” scene involved flamethrowers, staged masochism, and simulated fellatio. So, you say you’ve never heard of me? I’m not surprised.
* * * * *
I never told anybody, but I was once a kid who thought himself a pharaoh or sorcerer or prophet turning blankets into capes and magic carpets. Okay, perhaps all kids do that sort of thing, the way pretzels or pens become cigarettes you never need to ash. I bet all kids don’t pretend to be junkies, teenage bulimics, drown victims, Anne Franks. The upstairs hallway was a back-alley, the closet a gas chamber, the basement a murderer’s lair where I was held continually hostage, tied to the boiler pipe by an imaginary serial killer.
My mother’s knitting needles made the best track marks, or at least ones I assumed to be authentic. Poking holes into my arms by sliding the tips of metal needles under the epidermis, slicing skin until the redness of the under layers was exposed, bright blood spilling into my palm, became as necessary as combing my hair. Is it any wonder I turned out the way I did? Realism is always essential.
The basement only came into existence a few months after we started performing. Good hiding spots happen when you need them, not necessarily when you find them, and there we were: fourteen tortured souls scraping out a living, some of us semi-homeless, eating popcorn as nightly meals, some of us strung out on coke, chain-smoking through every rehearsal.
Micah’s stepfather was the one who gave us this rundown playhouse on 7th and Franklin. Well, he didn’t give it to “us,” he gave it to Micah after deciding, once and for all, that taking seriously his stepson’s creative abilities wouldn’t kill him. It was actually a reward for Micah’s recovery in rehab after ten attempts over five years at kicking a laundry list of amphetamines.
I don’t remember the playhouse’s supposed glory days because that was in the ’40s, ’50s, et cetera, and I was born in ’75, two years after it closed shop. I’ve heard stories of its popularity, having cast actors and actresses into semi-fame, or at least within the cloudy Northwest, which is, after all, a smorgasbord of lonely fucks dying from poisonous rain.
Essentially, the basement was Jorge’s discovery, but only because we wanted an easier way to store the ridiculously large amount of (mostly stolen) art supplies we collect for making props. To get inside the under-stage, you have to crawl through a square-shaped, two-foot-tall opening on the north end because it clearly wasn’t designed to be functional. To give each room its own color scheme, we duct-taped flashlights to the beams and stapled fabric to the floor.
The north room, Blue, is where the flattened cardboard, AV cords, blacklight responsive paints, crepe paper, glass shards, doll heads, broom handles, and other found objects and art materials are stacked. The west room, Green, is where everyone takes a breather, sprawled out in a daze or curling up to catch some Z’s. There’s a cassette player and several mix tapes, which are always unwinding. The east room, Purple, is where everyone gets a fix. Be it alcohol, coke, H, or hash, though the smoke is sometimes too intense. There’s a bong, small mirror, its surface a mess of white smears, and cigar box of supplies. The south room, Red, is where everyone gets laid. Even with two pillows, it’s never a comfortable endeavor, but we’re all either too high or too horny to care. Whenever anyone gets free condoms from some clinic, they go into a little jar labeled “Safe!” Of the seven girls in the troupe, I’ve fucked five, and only because Nadine dates Jorge, and Elena’s gay.
* * * * *
I never told anybody, but there’s a loose plank in the floor of east room. If anyone finds out, they might be tempted to steal what I’ve got stashed in that foot long space. Not that my stash is surprising; I shoot up with Mayleigh, Hannah and Gabe on a regular basis, but I usually claim to be too poor to provide so I mooch like the best of bums. If they knew I was such a selfish bastard, that I had the perfect connection, they’d use me for all I’m worth, not because they’re shits, but because they’re hungry. We are all hungry. No amount of sustenance can satisfy the empty pit.
I’ve known J for two years now. He offered shelter to this underage girl I was fucking; she’d run away from home, relaying one of those abuse stories you hear a thousand times. J was a big-time drug dealer in Seattle, but he relocated to Olympia when too many rumors about his lifestyle got around. I had wanted to shoot up ever since I was a kid, pretending lead pencils were syringes, but never had the a) money, b) hookup, or c) balls. J injected me for free, my fuzzy, lovely first time.
I never told anybody, but I used to have a soul.
I would develop crushes on girls so intense I would dream I had killed them so as to end my suffering. I would write their names on my chest and sweat them out, red stains like bloodspots on my shirts. One time, in high school, I stole money from my sick grandfather to buy this girl a heart shaped stone. She never wore it.
I used to envision myself famous, an actor having to hide behind sunglasses, even when it rains, for fear of drawing rapturous crowds. I’ve never been an attention-whore, but I want to be admirable, enviable, somebody. It was always that old notion of proving people wrong: all the girls who broke my heart, my parents who thought of me as nothing more than amusingly misguided, my teachers who criticized every word or painting I turned in. Anyone who laughed, scoffed, or spat; anyone who said it’d never happen.
Too bad they were right.
I would never consider myself a junkie because a junkie only cares about the next score, that moment of pure euphoria, but I want more. I don’t nod out on the street or show off my all-too-real track marks for the world to see. I keep it under wraps, a secret victim, mummified addict. When the troupe started up, the whole lot of us, knowing one another from this street or that club, I was already living at J’s shabby two bedroom on Pear, a few houses from where Kurt Cobain once lived with his ex, Tracy Marander. J claims he dealt to Kurt in Seattle, but he’s usually full of shit.
I was working at Used Books, auditioning for gigs, performing in bars and on street corners, and working as J’s personal sex slave for a daily supply of dope. I’d sucked dick for money hitching a ride to L.A. to see about a film that fell through, and I did it another time to give a casting director incentive, but five other dudes had the same idea. I guess they were better than me. Thing is, fucking J has been better than most jobs artists suffer through. I’d certainly rather swallow J’s cum then beg for spare change like a bum. It’s all business.
I don’t like girls anymore, and not because I don’t enjoy them, but because I cannot crave. The last girl I had a thing for, that real indefinable lump in your larynx when she walks by type of thing, was this chick five years ago who sold papier-mâché pots on Columbia. We lasted about five weeks. Her name is etched into the skin below my ribcage because I graduated from permanent marker to razor blade.
Out of all the girls here, I fuck Mayleigh the most. She’s a druggie too, covering her scars and cysts with an armload of bracelets that make a racket. We always get high in Purple, cooking with a bent spoon and Bic lighter, tying strips of latex or her scarves as tourniquets. Then we move onto Green, where we lie like dead bodies, staring at the rows of screws holding the stage together, listening to Zeppelin or Sabbath or whatever is on those tapes. Next we stagger to Red, where we strip from the waist down, like having some medical procedure, and she slides on top of me. The sex is sloppy, loose, in a lucid dream. Sometimes I can’t feel the surface beneath us, or the skin on my back; we’re adrift on mist, transcending gravity.
I always fuck Mayleigh for too long. With the other girls, it’s no more than ten to fifteen, a quickie to rejuvenate, to get our blood pumping, ideas flowing, to keep us engaged in the troupe. Everyone fucks everyone, except for Nadine and Jorge who keep their lovemaking out of the basement. Probably because it’s “love.”
Sasha shaves her pussy, Hannah’s left tit is bigger than her right, Mimi does it doggy-style, Anna doesn’t French kiss, and Mayleigh, well she’s usually body less, she just floats there on top of me like a mishmash of atoms that digest my own. I only fuck Mayleigh when I’m really doped up.
* * * * *
I never told anybody, but I think I’m going to kill myself tomorrow. I turn thirty-five on April 3, which is two days from now. Only the talented die tragically young.
Ever hear of GG Allin? That tough-as-nails hardcore punk who, on stage, would defecate, bash his head with the microphone until he was unrecognizably bloodied, shove broomsticks up his ass and beat up audience members? Well, rumor has it he was to perform the ultimate sayonara, a final anarchic “fuck you” to anyone and everyone. Before he could kill himself on stage, though, he overdosed on one drug or another. Nothing shocking about that.
I read a statistic somewhere that said the majority of suicides occur around a person’s birthday. Makes sense to me. If someone doesn’t value their life, they certainly cannot value their birth, not to mention that birthdays are unpleasant reminders of one’s past; his however-many years of pain. Years are long creatures, they loom ahead like long, blurry shadow stretched across pavement; your future ten steps ahead. You’ll never catch up, until the day you die.
* * * * *
So I’m thinking, maybe I should tell somebody, just for the fuck of it.
But Mayleigh doesn’t believe me. She’s sitting on the edge of the stage twisting her bangles and widening her eyes. “Are you serious? You’re turning thirty-five tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t lie about that.”
“I had no idea you were over thirty!”
What does a nineteen-year-old know? Now she’s rubbing the bruised skin beneath the bracelets. We shot up together and performed our usual routine four hours earlier. The basement is always chockfull on the first day of performance. Not that I care if anyone’s watching.
Micah scurries about the stage like a lost animal, tweaked out of his mind because he’s panicked. Everyone is clumsy the first show of the month, and it’s the only one his stepfather attends. Micah’s telling everyone we need to do this and we need to do that, don’t forget this and don’t forget that! No one really listens, we’re so burnt out. It’s nearly 9:30, he says, we have to hide in the hallway behind the black curtain. I help Mayleigh stand and we shuffle like sleepwalkers in our dark attire.
This month is my theme. I’ve been saving it for April, the cruelest bastard of a month.
While Micah and Nadine collect money and help people find seats, the rest of us are inhaling exhaling, stretching legs, fixing hair, clearing throats. It’s almost show time. Mayleigh removes her bracelets, one by one. She scratches dried blood with her long fingernails and pulls down the sleeves of her shirt. I shift my weight from foot to foot, feeling the cool metal barrel hidden in the inner pocket of my blazer. Another reason why fucking J has paid off: drug dealers are always packing, and I’m good at finding hiding places.
My act is last in the show because I planned it this way. From a very young age, I’ve been able to manipulate people without their knowing it; I got everyone to agree that my monologue should end the show, which is not, by any means, an easy feat. We all fight for our moments of fame, however mundane.
* * * * *
I hear there’s a journalist from a new underground arts magazine in the audience. Perfect. And, naturally, the regular assortment of the talented and talentless, the faces we know all too well and the few freshly anonymous. Excellent. Tonight, they are in for a real treat; they don’t even know it! Everyone wants to be the guy who saw the towers fall with his two own eyes. Ka-Boom.
Lights lower. Micah runs through his usual spiel of briefly describing our troupe, what we stand for and how we perform. He tells the crowd that our theme this month is “mortality.” He says to enjoy. Some people clap, some don’t. Micah’s stepfather, with his round glasses and bushy beard, sits in the front row. Sasha, Anna, Mayleigh, and Gabe slip through the slit in the center of the curtain to set foot onto the spot-lit stage. This is their scene, a series of movements. Dreamy music plays, poor quality surround sound.
I am picturing the movements I will take. Step by step, to the edge of the stage, so I can see everyone’s jaded eyes. At this hour, on this day, there is only one moment in my future and my shadow’s growing shorter with every minute that ticks by.
The next scene is a silent, interpretive reenactment of famous deaths. Jorge is John F Kennedy; Nadine, of course, is Jackie O. Elena is Marilyn Monroe because she’s bleach-blonde. Realism is always essential.
The most terrifying thing about death is the life flashing before your eyes part. I don’t think I’m ready for that. Anyone who chooses death never wants to be reminded of life, knowing it will haunt brain-time seconds before the big escape. It’s almost a good enough reason to avoid it altogether. It’s like preparing to be heartbroken, knowing you will choke and sink under your own weight. It’s like becoming an actor to erase truth. May the best, or worst, survive.
It wasn’t my fault that I turned out like this. If only that film director in LA hadn’t lost funding, if only that casting director hadn’t dicked me over. If only J didn’t shoot me so much. I am permanently Novocained; can’t taste food, or feel water, can’t love or ache or breathe, can’t wake up. It’s not my fault. The sunglasses are at home, waiting to shield me from the masses.
After one more scene, it’s my turn. All thirteen actors contortionists mimes, anarchists Dadaists eccentrics, addicts derelicts outcasts, prophets sorcerers pharaohs what-have-you, all of whom I hate almost more than myself, kneel on both sides of the stage, east and west. Our art is not for you to understand. Our art is self-destruction. Redesigning our bodies, creating lifeless zombies out of once ambitious boys and girls; it’s harder than it looks to be this flawed.
I stand as planned near the edge of the stage and am suddenly flooded with memories because I am over the south room, where I’ve been through dozens of free condoms with all of these girls. Mayleigh’s distorted soul appears in my mind like an abstract shape on television snow. She’s to my left, where my secret stash waits down below. I’ve shot up, alone, with her and with others, Indian-style on that green fabric more times than I dare count. I can smell the stale fumes through the floor, or the ceiling, but maybe it’s coming from my skin.
“There is a time and a place for everything,” I begin, the whole room silent except for my voice. I scan the crowd to remember their faces for that last second before impact. It’s too bad I won’t be around for the “after.”
* * * * *
I never told anybody, but I was five years old when a girl on my block slashed her wrists in my yard. Why she chose our grass I’ll never know, but she was wearing a long T-shirt and no shoes. It was one of those quiet blue evenings; my mother cooking dinner, my father not yet home, my older sisters gossiping in their room. I thought I heard a noise out back, a gentle scream, maybe a cat. The sliding glass door to the patio was ajar and I slipped out, barefoot on the wooden slats.
I never knew her name. I had seen her walking a golden retriever dozens of times; she always shot me a smile. I never knew that somebody her size could leak so much.
I never told anybody, no…but maybe, just maybe, there might be something left of my self or my soul in these poisoned bones. The clock is ticking. The faces stare and the mouths are open and the voices are waiting to scream at me, “No.”
So, maybe next show.