Carl was the only one who had no idea why he'd moved to Los Angeles. He'd simply followed his friends there.
One night he was sitting around with Fred. Without warning, Fred blurted, "I gotta go."
That startled and shook him. "Where?" Carl said. Fred never went anywhere.
"To acting class."
"I thought you weren't an actor."
"I'm not," Fred said. "That's why I gotta go to class."
"I thought you were a director."
"Directing classes suck. So I go to acting class."
Carl readjusted his body, giving the impression of, but not actually, sitting up. "Well, this should be strange. You leaving."
"I can handle it," Fred said confidently. "I'll be fine. Once a week is okay. Besides, I go there, get depressed, see everything is bullshit, and then when I come back here I appreciate being a sloth that much more. It revitalizes me," he said, jiggling his body joyfully. "...Say Carl, I've got an idea... Why don't you come along? It'll do you a world of good. You'll gain a whole new perspective on life."
"You mean lying on the couch will take on a whole new meaning for me?"
"Yep. It's helped me tremendously."
Carl sighed and scratched. "Oh, I don't know. I'm not ready for a revelation. Why don't you go—and tell me about it when you get back."
"...C'mon. We can't be late or they'll lock us out."
"You want me to go so you'll go."
"No, no, no," Fred said, not moving. "Look. I'm halfway out the door. I'm in the car waiting for you. We're there now and having a great time."
Carl was deliberating, Fred could tell. He was happy to see his friend buying into this manipulative yarn, and grinned with anticipation—while psychically keeping up with his victim, confirming each turn of events in Carl's silent fantasy of a fun night at acting class.
Then Carl, after snapping out of his reverie, said, "And now... we're back here, after your class, lying around and talking about it! Thanks for taking me, Fred!"
Fred frowned and pleaded. "C'mon."
"Nope,"Carl yawned, reclining. "I'm tired after all that acting."
"You won't have to act, if that's what's bothering you. Nobody does there, anyway. It's avante-garde. You can just sit in back of the room and make fun of everybody."
"...You're not going if I don't go."
"...Okay. I'll go."
"And you'll drive?"
"No. How much does it cost?"
"Nothing," Fred said, getting up. "It's free. You're a guest. I'll tell the teacher you're a pal from Idaho and not an actor so you won't have to do anything... So you'll drive?"
"Hey, Tom!" Fred said. They had made it to the theatre just in time. "I wantcha' ta meet a good buddy of mine, Mr. Carl Cummins. He's one of the best actors in the world—from New York—studied with Uta and everything. A genius. Wait till you see his work."
Tom perked up and smiled. "A real pleasure to meet you, Carl. How is Uta?"
Carl had to think fast. "Fine after getting over a cold but I'm not doing any acting today. I just had my hair styled this afternoon and I'm not used to it so it might throw me off," he said, bobbing and twisting a bit to show his body hadn't adjusted.
"I don't think his inner balance has quite fulcrumed yet," Fred interjected.
"Okay, Carl,"Tom said, valiantly hiding his disappointment as he closed and bolted the door. There was banging from outside but he ignored it. "I'd be interested in what you have to say about our technique. Perhaps we can talk after class."
"Carl doesn't discuss his Art," Fred whispered to Tom.
Tom nodded, was disappointed again, but understood fully. Then he stepped back and thundered, "OKAY, EVERYBODY! Using the entire space—You're locked up and there is no way out. And you know you're all going to die in 15 minutes. NOW GO WITH IT!"
The large room was drenched with a collective low moan. Some fell to the ground and cried. Others froze and couldn't be shaken. Several howled and beat their fists on the floor. A few shook violently and feigned throwing up. One man laughed insanely, licking and biting his fingers.
The most horrified and panicked person there, though, was Carl. He had to find cover. The problem was he had no idea where the "stage" was, the concept of "entire space" not really sinking in. There were groups of seats randomly bunched, and this also confused him. He thought maybe a good idea would be to find Tom and go sit there—for wherever that was would be "not the stage." Tom, however, was cheerfully bouncing and weaving in and out of the various impromptu scenes, stopping only for brief moments to fold his arms, look serious, and digest and consider each vignette.
Before long, Carl found himself hopelessly entangled in a maze of overwrought and strained theatrical improvisations. People were pulling, tugging, and screaming at him. He wanted to die now and not have to wait. Finding some empty seats in a corner, he eased into one and tried to appear objective, aloof, and altogether detached.
It didn't last long. A man standing to his left had been staring at him for a long time. He had sunglasses on so it was tough for Carl to really know what the guy was thinking. This made the "staree" very uncomfortable. Finally, the man came over and shook a finger at Carl. He kept shaking it. Carl didn't know why.
"We're all going to die," the man finally said. "Do you hear me? They're out there now and they're going to kill us all. But you don't care, do you? You don't care—you unfeeling piece of shit!"
"...Sure I do," Carl said, getting up and moving away. "Let me check it out and I'll get back to you..."
As Carl felt his way down the short aisle, he tripped over something slithering. It was a frail, red-headed girl underneath one of the seats. She had tangled herself up in the metal legs, and was sobbing and shaking.
"Whoops! Sorry!" Carl said, then reprimanded himself for apologizing to someone who was pretending to be a lunatic. After clearing the writhing, wet hurdle and had taken a few steps he wanted to go back and kick her—but didn't.
So he stood and watched, with arms folded—like Tom.
Carl spotted Fred. Fred, he remembered, was not an actor—and Fred was right. The "Director" was pacing back and forth with the phoniest grimace in the room. "Well, I guess I'm gonna die," Fred was saying, dipping his hands deep into his loose pockets and wagging them. "It won't be long now. So... this is what it's like. Why, these are probably some of the last words I'll ever speak. Wow. This is terrible. I'm really depressed..."
Things started to quiet down. Carl felt relieved, thinking the nightmare was almost over.
Then Tom climbed atop a chair and yelled "TEN MINUTES!" This kicked the communal, rumbling moan up to a shrill, unearthly yowl. Carl almost blacked out.
"SEX!" Allan shrieked. "I've got to have sex one more time before I die!" Allan was a friend of Fred's that Carl knew well. He was a maniac on and off stage. The women around him backed away, but a gentlemen with an extraordinarily long nose and gleaming, white teeth quickly began ripping off his clothes and hoarsely squealing, "Yes! Yes!"
"Never mind," Allan said, horrified. "Instead... I must eat something delicious! Order me a pizza!" he demanded of the now partially nude and completely disappointed actor.
There was a sharp tap on Carl's shoulder. He turned around. A thin man with a thin mustache grabbed his shoulders and looked "meaningfully" into Carl's eyes, then pushed him away and turned around in disgust. The man put his hands on his hips, swung around again, seized Carl's shoulders harder this time, looked even more meaningfully into Carl's eyes—then pushed him away again. When the man spun around a third time Carl ran away.
He didn't get too far. Someone tackled him and he went down. A porky, middle-aged bald man, someone Carl had recently seen on TV, he thought, was clutching and crawling up his leg.
"Help me," the man said.
Carl tried to pull away, but the man didn't let go.
"Ummm, what's the problem here?" Carl said, trying to appear calm while frantically scraping the guy off his pants as if he were a cluster of leeches. The actor started to wipe his tears away on Carl's trousers. Finally, the sweaty blob loosened his grip, rolled over, and started to buck and shake, spitting and drooling all over himself.
Carl had had enough. He got up and walked straight to the exit. As he began fiddling with the bolted door, a large man in an oily jean jacket grabbed him and threw him to the ground. "There's NO WAY OUT!" he said, hovering over Carl. "Don't you remember? There's NO WAY OUT!"
"Just checking to make sure," Carl said, meekly.
"I'll check," the man said, hoisting up his pants, brushing back his greasy hair, snorting like a horse four or five times, and then savagely beating, yanking and kicking the only known escape route. Carl was afraid for a moment this gorilla was going to somehow snap the handle, which might jam the whole mechanism—and then he'd never be able to leave.
"No sir! No sir! No way out!" The jumbo derelict announced assuredly, but blocked the door just in case anybody else tried to get away. Then he bowed his head and began to sob.
Along a portion of the wall hung a black curtain. Carl tiptoed over to it, thinking it might be camouflaging a dressing room or something—something that might not be "the entire space." He peeked behind it, but there was merely more wall. At least he could hide back there for a moment. Shimmying sideways, he bumped into a ladder. Relief. It had to lead somewhere. Slowly he climbed, dreading that any minute someone would nab him by the legs and he'd come tumbling down—meaning he'd probably get hurt—or even worse—meaning he'd have to 'act' some more with these scary people.
Carl found himself in a makeshift open-air lighting booth. Safe at last. He looked down and surveyed the appalling artistic muddle. Even from this removed perspective, it was quite shocking to Carl. He couldn't figure out how any of this could be called "creative." He tried to compare it to his aesthetic interest—architecture. Perhaps this was some formative stage of development, sort of like the churning of wet cement before dumping it into a wheelbarrow and hauling it off to the site.
Then someone bopped Carl on the head.
"You're not going to kill me, you son of a bitch!" she said, smacking him a few more times on the shoulders as he swiveled to face her. It was a very distraught woman with a plastic baseball bat. She poked him over and over again in the stomach. "I'll beat your fuckin' brains out first!"
Carl slammed his hand on the sill, then swung a leg over it.
His attacker crept forward. "I'll... get... you..."
Carl waved and wiggled both his arms, hoping to somehow dissuade the girl from coming any closer. He thought he'd clamped himself securely enough to the ledge, but his legs were rattling so much, he began to twist and tilt, sliding and swerving sideways like a too tightly wound toy. Finally, he lost his balance. Luckily, his fluttering arms magically entangled with some thick, black electrical cords, breaking his fall.
He swayed back and forth, dangling five feet above the ground...
"And Paul. Very good. Excellent the way you grabbed at the frustration as it related to the whole area," Tom said.
Everyone was sitting on the floor, staring up at the teacher. Everyone except Carl. Carl sat in a chair—the one nearest the exit. He was pulling and squeezing his upper lip, and blinking spasmodically.
"Marilyn," Tom continued. "I liked the beginning but it sort of dissipated as you went on... You know what I mean?"
Marilyn thought for a second, then sort of agreed.
"And Carl," Tom said, turning to him. "Carl's visiting us from the New York stage—a brilliant choice and magnificent interpretation. Almost Sartre-esque. Searching the room, much like Diogenes and his lamp, foraging for truth in the faces of others—but even more important, defining his own death by what he discovers in the eyes of those around him—and, in the end, flinging himself to his own certain demise—spitting at, mocking his executioners—only to pull himself back at that last moment—realizing, perhaps existentially, that there's still more to learn—possibly that one answer."
Carl didn't blink from his steady blinking. He glanced over at the door, and picked at his upper lip some more.
"Thanks for intellectualizing it for us, Tom," Fred said, stone-faced. "I felt exactly that while relating to Carl during the exercise—but couldn't quite grasp the significance of it."
The next day Carl received a phone call from a commercial talent agent. She said she was a friend of Tom's, and that he had recommended Carl to her. She also said Tom was sure he already had theatrical and motion picture representation, but would he be interested in possibly doing commercials? They paid well—and besides, lots of stage actors supplemented their income doing them so they could stay true to the stage—if this was what Carl wanted to do. Gielgud, for example, just wrapped one.
Quietly coached by Fred, Carl said he'd left his pictures and resumes back East, and was too busy to come and meet with her anyway. However, if she knew of any auditions in the next few days he'd try and make arrangements to be there.
The next afternoon Carl went out on his first casting call. It was for a hamburger commercial. He wasn't nervous or pushy, but rather blase' about the whole thing because he didn't care about it at all.
He got the job. The agency executive and the director loved his expressionless face and droll, monotone delivery. It was just what they were looking for, although they admitted they hadn't known this until seeing it.
After hearing about Carl's success, Allan and the two actress friends became thoroughly disgusted with Carl. They accused him of "selling out." Fred, of course, found the whole thing hysterical, but pretended to champion Allan and the girls' inane reaction to the whole thing just to mock them. He explained to Carl it would be like an architect with deep aesthetic principles degrading himself by designing garish drive-up restaurants for a hot dog chain.
At first perplexed by this censure, Carl quickly detected the flaw in the argument. He, you see, had nothing to "sell." He wasn't an actor, so how could he 'sell out'?
Fred sighed dramatically, saying it set a bad precedent. All artists in all the Arts should "Stick together."
The commercial, like most filmed, was never aired. The ad agency went with another campaign concept. Carl, however, got more work. And more work. Pretty soon, he had done two commercials which were aired, a cameo on a sitcom, and a small part in a low budget comedy-horror flick. The latter had him cast as a clerk in a convenience store who, when confronted by an eight-foot Cyclops with fangs the size of plantains, reacts as if nothing were amiss and proceeds to sell the confused beast a pack of Dentyne gum and a Newsweek. Carl pulled this off superbly.
The shit finally hit the fan when Carl arrived home one day and casually announced he'd been invited to be in an equity production of A Midsummer's Night Dream. The director, the guy who'd made the "Ken-L-Ration" commercial he'd been in, wanted Carl for the role of "The Wall" in the Pyramus and Thisby scene. He thought Carl would be perfect, convincing him only someone with a real visceral understanding of architecture could play the part.
Allan and the girls dry vomited and fell ill (Allan being especially unnerved, since he'd played that role in high school and was brilliant). The gag had gone far enough. Okay, so it was "funny" and "ironic" that Carl was getting work and everyone else was starving while slaving away at menial jobs—but desecrating the Bard like this was not acceptable. Here was somebody who'd never even taken an acting class ("One," Fred corrected) being cast in a classic theatre work? C'mon! And a "Director of Dogs" at the helm of a Shakespearian production? No.
Allan was the first to leave. He didn't like being poor. Then Fred left. The girls disappeared.
And Carl was the only one who stayed.
Chuck's piece "A Minimalist Afflatus" is featured in the 1997 Spring Edition of The Satire Quarterly. His work was included in the premiere issue of Typo and his "The Slobberer" is nailed to the ether in the e-zine Pogonip.