Large Anthropomorphic Canary
The only failure is not trying. And I’ve not been afraid to fail. Ask my agent. She knows. But in many respects, as I explained to her the last time she answered my call, failing was a necessary step toward amelioration. If not for failure, would I ever have learned to roller skate? Or swim? It flies in the face of logic to think that someone like me can roller skate, or swim. Yes, I almost broke my neck, almost drowned, but I learned. It was what the act required. Had a performance necessitated learning capoeira, I would’ve flung myself into the dance-fighting, chanting Portuguese like Ronaldinho.
“When did you retire?” a cobwebbed woman asks.
“Retire?” I say. “I’m always prepared to take on a new challenge—that is to say, a new role.”
“No, I mean from the kids’ show. When did that wrap up?”
“Nellie,” says a woman in pink behind her, “keep your voice down.”
“Do you know who this is?”
“Keep your voice down. The other residents are trying to eat their dinner.”
White-haired and hairless people at surrounding tables clatter and murmur. I look down at the plate set before me. Wilted greens and creamed corn. No protein source? Odd.
“They forgot my meat,” I say.
The pink woman fumes. “Today is chicken à la king day. Remember what you did the last time we served you chicken?”
My short-term memory has of late failed me, and perhaps I had indeed denounced chicken at some point. If so, it was a novelty. I can recall cast-and-crew fried chicken feasts at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, and beer and chicken wing blowouts at joints in Queens. If I suffered a change of heart, no memory of it remains. While things from the past appear neatly arranged in my mental filing cabinet, the present resembles an overturned trash can and its fetid cornucopia.
“Stop staring, Nellie!” the pink woman barks.
“You’re so yellow,” Nellie says to me.
“Well, yes,” I say. “That’s true.”
“Ever get tired of it?”
“Tired of yellow?”
“No, tired of pretending you’re someone you’re not.”
These words give me pause. I’ve always embraced Meisner’s precept that acting is behaving truthfully under imaginary circumstances. Problems arise when I’m asked to behave truthfully under unimaginable circumstances.
“As long as I’m able to walk and talk I’ll pursue my vocation.”
The pink woman scowls as if Id just uttered an indecency. Perhaps she has an aversion to performers, or to yellow.
“Excuse me,” I say to her, “but who the fuck are you?”
“You really want to do this again?”
She points to her name tag—Merrily.
“Do people ever tell you that life is but a dream?” I ask.
A man who looks parboiled starts screeching at a table. Everyone stops eating and gapes. The man slaps his head. Has the food gone down poorly? Is this a form of protest or subversion? Shortly, two broad-shouldered men in white with thick black belts and shoes dash to his table, grab his arms, and drag him out, still screeching.
“Why such harshness?” I ask. “Kindness goes a long way toward reaching goals. I’m proof of that. I never once lost my temper on set, not even when I caught that swine and slimy batrachian canoodling in a dressing room.”
“Do you love children?” Nellie asks me, clasping hands to her chin. “I adore them.”
“Of course,” I say. “Children are my bread and butter.”
“I have six grandchildren.”
“You have five,” Merrily says.
“Five? Oh my. Did one disappear?”
“They were angry about being discovered,” I continued, “and threatened to cashier me, but I killed them with kindness. And it worked! We had a good run despite the rough patches. We were professional. What are your goals today, Merrily, if I may be so bold?”
Nellie opens her mouth and vomits into her plate. This so startles me I knock my fork off the table. Merrily summons the men in white who rush over posthaste. Each takes Nellie by a skeletal arm, lifts her up like a papier-mâché dummy, and hustles off.
“She disrespected her food,” Merrily says. “Now are you going to finish yours?”
I glance at the greens and congealed corn on my plate and throw my napkin over it.
“Guess that’s a no,” Merrily says.
Sometimes when I get anxious I like to sing. Singing is a way of releasing withheld emotion. I’m not a great singer, but after years of training and performing I can hold a tune. Children like to hear me sing—at least they did back in the day.
“Row row row your boat …”
“Stop it,” Merrily says.
“Gently down the stream …”
“I’m warning you!”
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily …”
Merrily leans in. I stop singing but continue humming the melody. I can feel her hot breath on my cheek.
“I’ve had enough of this,” she says quietly. “Eventually you’re gonna have to let it go. You’re gonna let it go or we’ll make you.”
The men in white arrive before I can respond, seize my wings and pull me up. I tower over them.
“Take it easy, big guy,” one says, tugging left.
“Don’t fight it,” says the other, tugging right.
“Take him to the Quiet Room,” Merrily says.
If I wanted to I could crush these men. But suddenly I feel tired.
“Come on, you big galoot, move those clodhoppers.”
“Is he gonna stay in that getup?”
“That’s right. Long as I been working here. Anyways, we don’t ask questions, man. We just follow orders.”
The lock clicks and the silence of the Quiet Room envelops me. Despite this I do not despair. I’m not unhappy. I’m confused, yes, but one way to be less confused is to summon what you know, what’s real and true to you—and to use your instrument. My instrument has always been myself, its truest version. And when I reach into myself mere walls cannot enclose me. But I grow sleepy. My eyes shut. I’m not certain what this is or what this has been. And unless I’m dreaming I hear music. They’re pumping it in over the speakers:
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily …
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