by James W. Morris
My Sheila moving suddenly, extending her slender bangled right arm into the warm purple air between us.
Eternally hopeful, usually disappointed part of me instantly assuming she will be caressing my leg.
Nope. She expertly grabs the gearshift, taking the car from second to third. I think—never learned to drive stick.
Old habit: narrating events to myself.
Mild jealousy about the ability to drive stick. My Sheila knows something I don’t, has a skill I don’t have. Steady rainfall taps demandingly on the Honda’s roof while I think about it.
What is my Sheila like when I’m not around? Free from my orbit, you might say.
At work for instance. That failing non-profit, the name of which is what, again? Better not ask.
Anyway, picture her there, stuck in her gray cubie. Answering incoming phone calls. Take a moment to conjure her lovely warm voice. She’s keeping a cheerful tone, but everyone knows the place is finished. Her co-workers all a generation older, she has said—so picture them, and don’t worry about being unfair. Encircling pack of pear-shaped, frizzy-haired ex-hippies, then. Sheila younger, more competent, better-smelling—her new perfume reminds me of candy. The old hippies braying at my Sheila. Shrilly disappointed, middle-aged voices. Imagine the shallow and transient workplace friendships. Never-ending, joyously-delivered, back-biting gossip. Tiresome disputes about who might have taken whose last blueberry soy yogurt from the dirty communal refrigerator. And of course the scripted TGIF conversations as each long work week comes to its merciful conclusion.
And at home, on her own? The evenings I have to work late? Playing on her phone, texting friends a lot, and reading those fat books. But what else? Sheila not a watcher of television. Sheila saying she would not even have cable except for my sake. Sheila saying TV these days is all crap. Recalling myself disagreeing when she said that, stating affirmatively that TV these days is only mostly crap.
So—I ask. “What do you do at home, on your own, the nights I have to work late?” I say.
Short snort emerging from Sheila’s well-made profile. Used to my suddenly interjected conversational non-sequiturs. A few moments earlier we were talking about—what? In general terms about theater. Because that’s where we’re headed. On a storm-darkened Sunday afternoon. Sheila signed us up as volunteer ushers for the matinee at a small theater.
“Ah, well, Steve. If you must know,” she says, turning down the volume on the radio, sure sign she is either going to say something significant or attempt a joke. “Whenever you’re out I regularly host a series of well-attended, incredibly debauched orgies. Usually with a theme. Last week it was ‘Circus.’ We barely had time to take the trapeze down before you walked in the door.”
Me, playing along. “Oh, I didn’t say anything, but I had wondered about that giant clown shoe I found under the bed.”
Sheila’s profile smiling at my reflexive rejoinder. Typical sort of remark from me. But her reaction not rising to the level—the treasured level—of an actual laugh, a Sheila laugh being the very best kind there is.
Conversation dying anew.
Flashes of pale gold lightning. Whitewashing the wide puddled street ahead for a couple of seconds. Then shortly afterward driving through a foggy curtain of more intense rainfall. Watching Sheila’s lovely-fingered hand as she deftly twists the knob at the end of the stalk to adjust the speed of the windshield wipers. From leisurely to frantic.
Here’s the thing that must be admitted about my Sheila: she’s good. Actually an actively good person—on purpose. Okay, what about me, then—am I a horrible monster? No. Have I ever intentionally hurt anyone? Well. Maybe that time in fourth grade. When I kicked Jimmy Haas in the stomach for making fun of the new denim jacket my Grandmom gave me. That one with the fringe? Called it “girly”. Was kind of girly now that I think about it, although I believe I remember Grandmom referring to it as a “cowboy fringe”. What else? I elbowed a few of the shorter guys in the throat while running track in high school, but that’s part of the sport. Is there perhaps a school of philosophy which holds that goodness might be construed merely as the absence of evil? Just being not bad the same as being good? I don’t know; I’m an accounting clerk. An accounting clerk with a degree in Fine Arts, which is a sign of something. Yes, my Sheila is the genuinely good one. Continually committing good deeds, lots of them. Her inner arms—a galaxy of tiny scars like an addict’s, so many times has she donated blood and that golden yellow stuff. That adopted mile of roadside not far from our apartment where she can monthly be seen picking up trash. Not only expected garbage like cigarette butts, empty plastic bottles, and fast-food containers. One time a brand-new baby carriage. A purple bowling ball. And once a wad of money in an unmarked manila envelope, $4,114 in small bills. Don’t think about spending it, Steve, I’ve already donated it to the whales. A suspicion of mine—my Sheila might have put herself on a list to donate a kidney or bone marrow to any matching stranger who is sick enough to need them. Afraid to ask her if this is true. Used to call myself a minor cynic. Used to wonder if my Sheila’s constantly demonstrated goodness was pathological in nature. The result of some neurotic, deep-seated need to redeem oneself from an earlier life of crime and wickedness.
Don’t think so.
Can such goodness be a little annoying to live with, sometimes? Be honest, Steve. Yes, okay, yes. There, I’ve done it, demonstrated the true extent of my own evil: saying unfair things about someone I love in the privacy of my own head.
Deciding to re-start the conversation, return to the earlier topic.
“What about roller derby, Sheil?” I say. “Yep. Good old roller derby. Went a few times when I was a kid. Surely that qualifies as theater, as a kind of performance art.”
“No Steve, I don’t think so,” Sheila’s profile says. Her lovely countenance now colored a muted lavender by the dash lights—the air outside the car having darkened even further. The tone of her voice: a seasoned but kindly jurist turning down the plea of a petitioner with a weak case.
“Strip clubs,” I say. “Those are certainly theaters of a kind. And of course, lap dances are the ultimate way to promote audience engagement.”
“Ha,” Sheila says.
Why do I do it? I’m more mature than Sheila. Ostensibly. The evidence: a significantly earlier birthdate and three gray hairs. Why persistently play the fool, then? Why push the conversation forward by posing dunderheaded questions whose only purpose is to be irksome? Well, all right, I can admit why: my Sheila is very beautiful when riled. As long as the argument is not super serious. Which with us it almost never is. Even in this dim environment—the car’s interior—a fetching flush is detectable rising along the pleasing contour of her neck. Look at it, ascending thermometer-like from the base of her collarbone to the tips of her tender ears.
Sheila likes a tussle.
“I was just saying that it’s great that we’re doing this—that we should do it more often. Attend the legitimate theater,” she says.
What had I told Sheila about my childhood? Orphaned early? Check. Raised by my elderly paternal grandparents? Check. Was president of my class in fifth grade, and received the additional accolade of being voted the best overall student, the one whose many fine attributes qualified him to be considered emblematic of the ‘Spirit of Room 302?’ Check. The Boy Scout troop that I joined being disbanded only two weeks later, when the adults on a camping trip were discovered teaching some of the older boys to shoot craps? Check. That I had in fact attended what might be called the classical theater many times as a child, wide-eyed companion to my Shakespeare-obsessed grandfather? Mmmm, don’t think so. “Steven, all the wisdom you’ll ever need to know about human nature is manifestly available in the poems and plays of Mister William Shakespeare” was something Grandfather said approximately 576,000 times. Grandfather forcing me to memorize at least a dozen of Shakespeare’s sonnets, his favorites. Still remember them. But how often does an average schmo like me have occasion to recite a sonnet? But Grandfather’s favorite thing to do was attend the plays. My age when we started going to the theater together? Eight? Ten? Did I understand much of the complex language or take in any discernible amount of wisdom from the performances at that age? Nope. But I enjoyed hanging out with my Grandfather. And the sword fighting was okay. Grandmom? Not such a big Bard fan. So it was just the two of us. Went to any Shakespeare play, whether staged in one of the well-appointed, cathedral-like theaters downtown or the dank community center up the street. Grandfather’s habit to bring one of his tattered copies of the work being performed and follow along with the text. See the knobby finger he extends from his enormous hand to trace along the page as the actors declaim their lines? And there was a noise like a small grunt he’d emit. When encountering a mistake or elision. Whether from disappointment or satisfaction at having noticed the difference I could never discover. A performance I vividly recall: one of Shakespeare’s extremely violent revenge plays. The title of which was—what? Don’t remember—but in it, a young woman is sexually assaulted by two brothers from a clan with which her clan is feuding. And they laughingly cut off her hands and rip out her tongue so she can’t identify them. And she manages to do so anyway by writing their names in some sand, holding a stick in her mouth and grasping it between her stumps. And her family finds and kills the two men, and grinds up their flesh and bones, then cooks the remains in a steaming potpie and serves it up to the brothers’ unknowing mother. And I saw this staged in a church basement.
Opening my mouth to speak, to share this powerful memory. But Sheila speaks first.
“And by the way, Bub,” she says. “I know you. You’ve probably never had a lap dance in your life.”
She is right, of course. My Sheila usually is, about such things, anyway. Pay some skank to waggle her worn-out naughty bits in my face? I don’t think so.
On the other hand—
But look out! Sheila is about to rear-end a bread truck, which has materialized suddenly in the road ahead, out of the misty downpour, in our lane. Reflexively straightening out my arm. Having time to notice how dusty the dashboard is while Sheila stomps on the brakes.
Brace for impact!
Nope. No impact.
The car does turn sideways, rear end spinning out to the right. Coming to a stop. Ending up perpendicular to the flow of traffic. But there is no other traffic on this dismal Sunday. Luckily.
My mind automatically listing things I might say. Uh, driving a mite fast for conditions, Sheil, do you think? We’re fortunate there was no one in the right-hand lane, huh? You shouldn’t stomp on the brakes when it’s wet out—you pump them. Etc.
Now examining and appreciating the eminent fairness of my mind, which also supplies things Sheila might say in response. I was well within the speed limit, Steven. Not my fault that friggin’ truck chose to park in the middle of the street. Well, I didn’t hit anything, did I? Lucky I have young reflexes. You want to drive the rest of the way, Steve? Oh, that’s right, you can’t, can you? Never learned to drive stick.
That last one hurts, Sheila, even if you didn’t actually say it.
Not sure what is really going on in my Sheila’s head, but neither one of us saying anything about our near-accident, in fact. Somehow the moment passing when we could.
My Sheila turning the wheel, straightening out the direction of the car. Going slowly around the stalled, driverless truck. Each of us turning to shoot it a dirty look, which will teach it a lesson.
By the time we make it downtown, where the theater is, the sky is new. Beginning to clear.
The theater a nonprofit, of course. The manager an impressively tall African-American woman named Veronica. Very enthusiastic about life, apparently. Some people are. Also very enthusiastic about theater and volunteer ushers. Hugs us. Says she always hugs her volunteer ushers. We are so precious, blah, blah, blah. Unconcealed amusement on Sheila’s face when she sees this stranger hugging me. One other volunteer present, a large fellow named Gordon. Uneven crewcut. Hole in his sweater. (Under the arm.) Veronica explaining the job. The play a modern revival of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Theater seats 320, stadium-style. Two aisles. One volunteer stationed mid-way down each. Remind people to turn off their phones, give out programs, direct people to their seats. Veronica explaining how the seats are numbered. An open area in front of the stage for the third volunteer, which by unspoken consensus will be me. For those who make it past the other two. When the lights go down, we are to take any open seat we want. Veronica eyeing me and Sheila significantly.
“You two might not end up together,” she says.
People filing in. Seats nearly all occupied pretty quickly. That steady low murmur you hear from well-behaved crowds. Few needing my help, getting past Sheila or Gordon without a program in their hands. Both conscientious types. I do assist one old lady in taking her seat. Her arm, when I grasp it, seems thin as a breadstick. Also come to the aid of a younger couple, who don’t at first notice where the seats are numbered. Mostly just standing here with a fistful of unrequested programs, facing the rapidly growing crowd, nothing to do.
Taking a step back, leaning my shoulder blades against the stage. Weird thing happening, immediately, when I do this. Tremendously weird. Feeling a very, very, powerful URGE. Seemingly irresistible. As powerful as any URGE I’ve ever had to do anything.
I want to climb upon the stage and perform.
I’m no exhibitionist. Hate the idea of performing, hate begging for approval, hate attention. Hate people, some would say. With notable exceptions.
This URGE coming from where?
Steve, don’t forget an important fact about yourself—no talent. Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can’t dance. Can’t tell jokes. An accounting clerk, remember? Tax specialist. What could you do? A dramatic reading detailing the consequences of failing to file IRS Form 8889 with your tax return if you receive distributions from your company-sponsored Health Savings Account? Enthralling.
Trying to distract myself. Trying to ignore the URGE. Looking up at my Sheila.
Notice the way she interacts with the crowd. At ease, in her element. Helping an elderly man to his seat. He has a cane. After he sits, she puts her hand on top of his. On top of the hand resting on the head of the cane. Lowers her lovely face to his level and says something quietly in his ear which makes him grin.
It can now be said that my Sheila is also very beautiful when she is not riled.
So, to recap: Sheila young, beautiful, smart, funny, smells like Pez. Also genuinely good, genuinely kind.
And she seems to love me.
What, if anything, should I do next?
Closing my eyes, still trying to resist the URGE.
At what point in the last few minutes would I have climbed upon the stage?
Yet I see myself on it. Translated. With dream-like logic, from a place in front of the stage to a place upon the stage, with no memory of the trip between. Here’s me, noticing a few people noticing me. Mildly interested in the fact that one of the ushers has put himself where only performers belong.
I supply their thoughts for them: Hey, why is that dopey embarrassed-looking guy up there? Isn’t he one of the ushers? Is he making an announcement, or something? Does he think he’s part of the show? This isn’t one of those avant-garde things, is it, Mildred? Where ushers and ticket-takers and (God forbid) audience members are expected to suddenly jump up and perform, I hope? Hate those.
Continuity error: I no longer seem to be clutching the programs. What would I have done with them? Anyway.
Glancing up in Sheila’s direction. Okay. Taking a breath, and a step forward. Near as I dare to the edge of the stage. Raising my chin.
“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,” I hear myself declaring. Rather loudly. More loudly than I intended.
Effect is electric. Absolutely all chatter in the theater immediately stops. All movement ceases. People half-out of their coats. All heads turning my way.
Pausing. Taking a moment to notice how well my apparently impressive voice has carried. How deceptively confident and professional my delivery of the words sounded. I can still hear them a moment after my mouth is closed. Nice acoustics.
“Love,” I say.
I falter, then. Lot of gravity for a small word.
“What about it?” a thin voice says.
Looking down. In the shadows. To my left. The old lady with breadstick arms.
“Well,” I say. “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds. Or bends with the remover to remove.”
“Oh, no?” old lady asks.
“O, no!” I reply. “It is an ever-fixed mark, that looks on tempests and is never shaken. It is the star to every wandering bark, whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken—”
“What’s a bark?” a voice to my right asks. Young. Male.
“It’s a kind of little ship,” old lady explains.
Extending my arms. Palms down. A clear signal I need no further encouragement and, in fact, will brook no further interruptions.
Striding about the stage a bit. Owning the space. Think it’s a term actors use. Though where I would have picked up the phrase I do not know.
I continue: “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come. Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
Pausing again. This time for effect.
Stop striding, Steve. Stand still to finish.
“If this be error and upon me proved, I never writ…nor no man ever loved.”
Long moment passes.
My good luck holding. Timing-wise. The lights flickering, then. The real performance will begin.
“Enjoy the show,” I say to the crowd. My crowd.
Climbing down from the stage, trying not to look graceless doing so. Applause, not thunderous, but steady, washing over me. A very pleasant sound, all in all. I like it; there’s affection in it. No, affection is the wrong term. Fellowship. That’s a good word.
But of course I’ve already had my real reward, which was the look on my Sheila’s face.
◊ ◊ ◊
James W. Morris
James W. Morris is a graduate of LaSalle University in Philadelphia, where he was awarded a scholarship for creative writing. He has published dozens of short stories, humor pieces, and essays in various literary magazines, including Philadelphia Stories and Zahir. He has also written one play, Rude Baby, which was recently produced, and worked for a time as a joke writer for Jay Leno.