When the old man next door died, his wife put him through a wash cycle
with the delicates and hung him up to dry by the loose skin of his
elbows out on the clothesline, along with a load of sheets. The sheets
came down a few days later but he stayed up, arms outstretched, like a
macrame crucifixion dried to the color of khaki. He’d grown small in the
sickness of his last years and when the wind blew he billowed with it.
He seemed at peace with the situation. Death had left a faultless and
easygoing kind of look on his face.
Though they had every right to complain, the neighbors indulged this
open interment with what they considered admirable compassion. The
presence of the old man did not bother them as much as they thought it
would. They took pride in this. It confirmed their suspicions that they
were composed of sterner stuff than your average neighbor. The old man
even provided some sense of nobility to the various suspended
unmentionables that appeared and disappeared around him intermittently.
Winter was mild and when spring arrived, birds found in him small places
to roost. Finches in his beard, swallows in the sheltered nook where his
head leaned against his shoulder. The neighbors brought company over in
the evenings to show them and to sit outside on their patios and to
listen to the birds coming home. At night, they often dreamed of clean
sheets flapping slowly and calmly in the wind and they woke smiling. A
state of truth seemed close at hand.
Summer moved like something injured through the line of birch trees
parked at the rear of the suburb. The old man began to change. There was
a smell, like flowers left too long in a vase. The wind sounded like
flies. His skin tightened and sagged indiscriminately so he appeared
sometimes swollen and sneering and at others like someone too exhausted
to cry. Wonder was lost. Decay spread. The old woman’s laundry yellowed
and holes appeared in her frumpy underwear. Or had those always been
there? What they once mistook for a world flush with mercy now felt
uncertain and raw. And had there always been so many moths? It seemed
that there were always moths now. Their porch lights were clogged with
moths. Their hair was full of moths. Their food tasted of moths. They
dreamed of creaking ropes and of fabric pulled wetly across their faces.
They woke gagging on wings.
The old woman trudged around, soft behind window glass or tending
outside to her small garden of rocks and zinnias. She sang sometimes to
the old man or maybe to the flowers or maybe just to herself. She seemed
content enough about the placement of all things.
Then one day, men in coveralls appeared and took the old man down. The
neighbors did not know what had happened, whether the old woman had died
or someone had finally reported her peculiar, and frankly illegal,
actions. She may have been carted off to one of those facilities that
smelled of electricity and cleaning supplies. The neighbors hoped it was
the former, for they still felt some fondness for the old woman and
liked to imagine that she and her husband were properly buried together
in a tidy little plot somewhere. They would have used the word “cozy.”
They felt they understood the appeal of a terminal comfort.
Trucks carted everything away and a sign appeared in the yard. Then the
sign came down and new trucks came with new things. The whole process
was self-evident, rigorously ordered. A young couple with ambitious
haircuts began to renovate. Digging machines appeared in the yard and a
hole appeared soon after. The young couple wanted a pool. The neighbors
went about their business and tried to ignore the feeling of the earth
moving under their feet. They sang sometimes to one another or maybe
just to themselves. They averted their eyes from the hole, which grew
wider and deeper with each day. They sought comfort in the familiarity
of things. The moths grew softer in their minds. The mountains,
forgotten until now, seemed to be doing just fine off in the distance.
Making a Scene
The stage should be set in the style of late seventies, early eighties
populuxe. That is to say, the open California modern floor plan of a Los
Angeles suburb after it became acceptable to approximate. Not one of
Joseph Eichler’s homes, but Eichleresque, the mid-century affluence
fading into dingy camp. White tulip chairs scuffed and cracked. An Eames
recliner lost of its luster. Faux-wood paneling, retro-futuristic
cabinets and appliances, hanging lamps with perspex shades. A single
column in the midground, once austere, now smeared with handprints.
There should be carpet on the stage floor, something long-fiber, the
goal here to emphasize the imminent stain. Light primary colors—white,
or yellow, or pale blue. Though counter-intuitive, a pink carpet has
been used to great success. Green will just turn brown and anything too
dark will render moot the whole effect.
While there may not be any children on stage, there can be traces of
their presence. For instance, there should be at least one toy
somewhere, be it on the glass-top coffee table or beside the knock-off
Jacobsen couch, or resting on its side in the carpet. The world enters
our lives and drops its clutter. Any more than one toy, though, tends to
produce an overly maudlin effect.
In terms of props, every actor on stage should have a drink. It is a
party after all. Domestic beers work best, but some cocktail glasses,
indicative of the odd martini or long island iced tea are fine. This
works best at a four to one ratio. One adaptation provided free drinks
to the audience to enjoy during the performance.
Footwear is obviously important, and should be adequately dressy. For
men, light brown dress shoes or loafers work the best. Black creates the
same problem as the too-dark carpet and white is too easy. Some actors
prefer to weight the tips of their shoes, especially after one
production ended with the lead breaking several toes. The protection
this offers is offset by the increased efficiency, sometimes making the
scene’s climax last only a few seconds where, ideally, it would be drawn
out for a bit longer. An ineffective, flailing motion is desired.
The actors should be attractive but not memorably so. In terms of
numbers, there must be at least two actors on stage. There can be any
number in excess of two but once you get down to one it’s a different
performance entirely. Ideally, there should be as many actors on stage
as possible. This can make blocking tricky but, generally, one or two
actors will be downstage, and the rest will give them a five-foot bubble
of empty space, milling about to the right and left and upstage. They
should speak constantly, make as much noise as possible. Gesture wildly,
clink glasses, guffaw, do impressions of current politicians, make loud
claims about the state of art today. One or two may acknowledge the
action unfolding downstage, but the majority should not. Oblivion often
occurs like this, in bas relief.
Lastly, and most importantly, one dog. The breed does not matter, but a
larger or more muscular breed is preferable, so it doesn’t fly off the
stage into the audience. Offstage rapport is important, especially with
animals, so whatever the choice, it is important that the actors all
befriend it. Stress to them that maintaining a positive attitude is
essential if one is to succeed. Remind them that they are here to do the
thing they have chosen to love.
Despite overwhelming critical disdain and disgust, there is almost
always some production being performed in an infinite array of
adaptations. One director used a toddler in the dog’s role, to mixed
results. Another replaced the entire cast with children, and while runs
of this show are never long, this particular one was canceled that
night. A series of flash-mob performances resulted in several arrests.
Those who have seen the show swear they will boycott any subsequent
productions. And yet, the theaters are always full. Birds leave and new
If you think it gruesome or over the top, well too bad, this is showbiz.
Besides, think of how the stage hand must feel, waiting in the dark with
a rag in one hand and a bottle of club soda in the other.
Ivan Davenny was born in Honolulu, HI, but has moved so many times that he just says he's from “all over.” He is currently a student in the MFA program at Virginia Tech. His work appears most recently in Olney's “Kiss Your Darlings” Anthology.