|Jul/Aug 2019 Humor/Satire
Multimedia artwork by Belinda Subraman
My objective as a playwright is to construct emotional experiences for my audiences, to help resurrect dormant feelings, restore humanity, and bring about spiritual renewal. This vocation requires endurance and a regular salary. Thus, I regard my employer as an artistic patron who takes eight hours of my day in return for funding. But is the agreement fair or punitive?
Consider a typical day at the office: my elderly co-worker Shirley discharges a battery of dry coughs until 10:00 AM. Intermittent throat clearing follows as the newly dislodged phlegm ricochets in her chest. I once inquired about her health in an unguarded moment. Her response? "I keep making mucous. I have lots of mucous. I'll visit my ENT. He's going to say, 'Shirley, you still have mucous!'"
I relax closer to noon because Cyndi has called to ask what I like to eat. She wants to make something special. Thoughts about this evening are calming but precious and gossamer because Shirley produces post-prandial belches by 1:00 PM. They barely register to the ear, but demand a pert Excuse me, sometimes in rapid sequence: "Excuse me... Excuse me... Excuse me."
Such propriety! Every sneeze gets a benediction: "Gesundheit!" "Bless You!" "Salud!" Every hapless soul traipsing into our office receives an intrusive greeting. Her personal phone calls are needlessly candid, providing unsolicited insight into her weekend plans, church meetings, apartment complaints, medical billing. I know her friends by name: Hilda, Tulip, and Jean.
And she calls me "Maestro."
"Old age ain't no place for sissies, Maestro," she says repeatedly. At 74, she suffers from reflux, candida, and arthritis, piously adhering to an array of self-prescribed remedies, such as costly herbal tinctures resembling Gothic potions, and all the world's herbs, packed into gelatin capsules she swallows throughout the day to defend her immunity. She displays her health fortifications like armaments in the run up to war, which attracts curious passersby. Given the unremarkable imaginations at work here, it's no surprise to see adrift coworkers crowding her space. Strategies to ensure longevity and well-being are always the topics of these impromptu summits with Field Marshall Shirley lecturing on the virtues of her intellectual and physical regimens. A purist, she restricts her intake to homemade vegetarian food, C-SPAN, Wallace Stevens, choral works by Bach and Handel, and a narrow range of abstract expressionism between Kandinsky's late phase and leading up to—but not including—Jackson Pollock.
"Isn't it grand, Maestroooo?" is her reaction to a challenging assignment. This rejoinder is meant to ridicule management's lack of intellect and talent. She then girds her strength and attacks the work like a First World War fighter pilot, donning goggles and a scarf, racing to the biplane, spinning the propeller with arthritic fingers. The engine coughs, and she's in the cockpit and rising to the firmament, her wings teetering on the hot currents above Verdun.
Shirley's indomitable courage quickens the pulse of co-workers who suffer from grandmother complexes. The forced joviality is agonizing.
My interactions with her are limited to controlled outbursts I deploy to contain her many odd behaviors. She expresses respectful contrition when she hears my feedback but requires constant reminding. If I stray from this vigilance, she'll crane her neck and invade my workspace, the smell of coconut oil lingering in my nose until bedtime. She'll whistle improvised tunes on her way to the lavatory, snap chewing gum, or absent-mindedly produce kissing sounds during periods of deep concentration.
Do murderous thoughts portend actual murder? I'm told that suicidal ones justify extensive, and expensive, psychotherapy. I like to think I have mastery over my imaginings, despite alternate realities enforced by the privileged, white consumer class. We all know who makes the rules in our "democratic" society. Morals and ethics, as we know them, are formulated in service of capitalist doctrine. My patriotic obligation is to accumulate property and possessions. The bourgeois minions who pay my salary—and yours—believe buying creates jobs, pollinates the economy, and fertilizes world markets. Modest spenders like me are traitors to the free market. Because the world's impoverished wretches are standing by, waiting for the wealthy to lift them out of their squalid shanties into comfortable middle-class havens. Eschewing commerce is inhumane.
These desperate rationalizations signal the arrival of late capitalism. And today's late capitalists are 22 years old. They worship at the altar of technology. They aspire to create companies with names resembling those of pop-rock ensembles. This one is called Kleph. The late capitalists are scrubbed and educated, disdain gluten, and work their bodies to the bone in fitness classes. At 33, the age of Jesus at death, I proclaim they should benefit from charitable volunteer work.
Near closing, my bank notifies me that the financial gears have shifted somewhere in my savings account. The message vibrates the phone in my pocket and reminds me of Cyndi's touch and loving words. "You're not skinny," she says, "you're svelte. You're not bald, you're streamlined."
My pleasant reverie ends abruptly: "You look dreamy, Maestro. Isn't life grand?"
"Now you're commenting on my facial expressions? Shirley, please!"
I stare like a Gorgon. Shirley's expression hardens, but not to the extent desired. She backs away, chastened—but for how long?
My relationship with Shirley was collegial at the onset. A Sarah Lawrence graduate, she expressed an admiration for literature coinciding with my own tastes, but her nose kept appearing over my shoulder. What'cha looking at? I found myself sharply exhaling coconut fragrance, my patience drained, temper roused.
I had been writing a dramaturgical trifle entitled "Call Me Effete," and the NEXT Theatre Company expressed interest. The artistic director said my work inspired him. He was willing to hire a master puppeteer who would construct and operate the white whale of my modest allegory. It would even have a blowhole! Then came the formal acceptance and a serviceable production, admiring reviews, and the unbearable restlessness that always follows.
With a daily packed lunch, I can budget two weeks pay for my rent and the rest for groceries. Healthcare is on hold, despite a tender swelling in my armpit. Is it any doubt I contemplate death? I sometimes wonder what an appraisal of my corpse would yield. You sometimes hear such things when archaeologists discover ancient human remains with traceable injuries from weapons and wild animals. What would mine show? Missing tonsils, an appendix scar, and a hairline fracture in my skull, courtesy of a sadistic older brother... and the broken toe incurred from Karate classes, intended to defend against aforementioned sibling.
Cyndi lives free, like a vagabond, impervious to melancholy, social pressures, and late capitalism's siren call. She abandoned an abusive family in a Pittsburgh suburb named Swissvale—though she tells me she's not Swiss at all, but descended from Polish and Slovakian peasantry.
She turned to acting to sublimate her rage, but the former steel city could not provide an adequate psychic crucible to contain her molten, bubbling emotions. She fled her parents "Smother" and "Pater Unfamilias" to find artistic haven in New York. Appearing at the "Call Me Effete" audition, she had asked if tattoos were a problem. The director said she didn't see any tattoos, but I have seen them. The centerpiece is an emerald dragon, more like a legged serpent, travelling the length of her leg and grasping her hip and buttock.
"Was it painful?" I asked.
"It was expensive," she said.
Against prudence, I gave her refuge at my own home. She was trapped in a dysfunctional living arrangement with another actress named Dora whom she befriended while auditioning, who licked her from toe to crown before assaulting her for borrowing a pair of shoes. Cyndi showed up at my apartment in flip-flops, sporting quite a shiner. "Flattered" wouldn't adequately describe the feelings that came over me when she appeared needy and disheveled at my doorstep.
With an empty suitcase and laundry sack, we trekked to Outer Slumtopia, which is my name for her emerging neighborhood across the river. Visitors to this bohemian enclave will observe narrow frame houses and filmy windows, a pathetic commercial strip with torn, dirty vinyl awnings, and chunks of concrete, upturned from the pavement like monstrous dental fillings. Yet even there I saw evidence of encroaching late capitalism: Amazon boxes folded neatly for recycling, two scrubbed, scraggly-bearded men carrying a designer couch up a flight of steps. Fleeing Dora's rickety, unpainted abode, Cyndi asked, "Are you sure it's okay if I stay with you?"
My roommate Blake has complained, of course. He's just out of college and bound for Silicon Valley, enrolled in a nighttime business program, attending fitness classes, and practicing his boss skills in the administration of our residence. An unapproved roommate is how he describes Cyndi.
Upon a recent arrival from the office, I saw that my 22-year old apartment overlord had engineered a makeshift ventilation system, wedging open the door with his ski boot to create a cross current with the adjacent window. The draft was warm on my neck and carried a formidable cooking aroma. "We have to air out the place," Blake said, waving a towel toward the stove. Cyndi had been promising to repay our generosity with a hometown meal, which she called "kolebossy." Evidence of her integrity was plain to see in the swollen, blistered links on Blake's stainless-steel skillet. The meat was blackened at the edges and shuddering in pools of grease. Showing up behind me in the threshold of our home was my thespian goddess, bearing leafy greens in a plastic clamshell. Sighting the open window and cracked door, she said, "What's all this?"
Blake recited complaints about the air quality and the commandeering of his cookware, but he was no match for her.
"Will you lighten up?" she said, carving a sausage right from the pan and raising the morsel to his mouth. He took the meat like a zoo animal, but then worried the Mittel European delicacy conflicted with his dietary program.
"Has anyone seen my iPad?"
Since it wasn't in sight, I gave him my phone where a few keystrokes revealed kielbasa to be a compatible option.
Cyndi smiled at me conspiratorially, which came as a relief. I feared they might find an affinity for each other due to their similar ages, but my jealous feelings quickly transformed into admiration for her canny manipulation of the future CEO. Exceeding all my satisfaction was the sight of his furrowed brows whenever she grasped my hand or rubbed my shoulders. Her attention to me rankled him. I responded with "Manger bien, riez souvent, aimez beaucoup." The comment drew curious glances from both of my dining companions. I kept my mouth shut after that.
When we retreated to the privacy of my bedroom, Cyndi said, "You're so special." Carried away by emotion, by her soft touch and slender, rococo body, I proposed she unpack and stay. "As long as you like," I said.
She fell into a deep sleep, and I returned to the kitchen to negotiate with Blake about having a third roommate, but he was distracted by his missing device. "If she took it," he said, "you're paying."
At work, around dry-cough time, my bank notified me again. I asked Shirley to pipe down, while feeling the vibration close to my body, thinking of Cyndi. Greeting me on the other end of the phone was a bank-security factotum. Judging by his harsh accent, I guessed he was an ex-police officer, now monitoring bankcard activity. "Have you been making repeated purchases?" he asked. No, I told him.
"Someone charged cosmetics, electronics, furniture and gift cards, two days in a row," said the security man. I imagined him in jackboots, caressing a bank-issued truncheon.
"If your bank hadn't grown slimy tentacles permeating society's very underpinnings, this wouldn't be a problem," I told him. "The technology is clearly beyond human control." I urged him to take the red pill, referring to a mainstream film that he could understand.
"Besides," I said, "My credit card is right here in my pocket."
"Could your read that last four digits of the account number?"
I groaned into the phone loud enough for him to hear, and then recited the numerals.
"Hmm, " he said, taking a long pause. "And what's the name?"
Now it was my turn to pause.
"Sir, are you there?
The name I saw, in raised text, was "Dora Remora."
Having defaulted on two prior cards, restoring my impaired credit standing would require perseverance and time, possibly years. Saving money to replace Blake's missing tablet would mean putting off a medical investigation of the lump in my armpit.
My suffering was immediate and exquisite. Mauvais quart d'heure, but I could go back to hating people, which came as a relief. And I had my art. Would such misfortune make for an amusing tale? The writer's job is to translate observation into experiences that can purge a body of its repressed feelings, lead to new insights, deliver cognitive renewal and purification.
I titled the chronicle of my ridiculous life, "Grand," which represents the sum that Cyndi siphoned from my bank account. Not to pile on the irony, but the story's word count matches the exact dollar amount. I have captured the dry cough and mucous, all the belching, brainless chatter and tee-hee-hee's confronting the impoverished artist. But I would need an editor.
"Roger that, Maestro!" chortled Shirley, who was pleased to volunteer. "Finally, meaningful work!"