From WTP Vol. VII #3
Large Anthropomorphic Canary
By Salvatore Difalco
The only failure is not trying. That’s what I believe. And I have not been afraid to fail. Ask my agent. She knows. At least I think she knows.
But in many respects, as I explained to my agent last time she answered my call, failing was a necessary step toward amelioration. For instance, 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. But I learned. I almost broke my neck, almost drowned, but I learned. It was what the act required. Had a performance necessitated learning capoeira, I would have flung myself into the dance-fighting chanting Portuguese like Ronaldinho. Whatever was required I provided: the mark of a true professional. You meet many triflers in this walk of life, but how many true professionals do you ever encounter? Not many, I would hazard to guess. Not many.
“When did you retire?” a spider-webbed woman asks. Behind her looms a woman in pink with a furious face. “Retire?” I say, slighted by the assertion. “I am always prepared to take on a new challenge—that is to say a new role.”
“No, I mean from the kid’s show. When did that wrap up?”
“Nellie,” says the woman behind her, “keep your voice down.” Turning to her and pointing to me, Nellie says, “Do you know who this is?”
“Of course I know who it is, but keep your voice down. The other residents are trying to eat their dinner.”
I glance around. White-haired and hairless people surround tables clattering and murmuring. Am I trying to eat my dinner? I look down at the plate set before me. Wilted leafy vegetables and creamed corn. No protein source? That’s unusual. Where is my protein source?
“I think they left the meat off my plate,” I say.
The pink woman fumes. “Today is chicken à la king day. Remember what you did the last time we served you chicken?”
An aversion to chicken? Me? As it improbable as this seems, I must admit my short term memory has of late failed me, and perhaps I had indeed denounced chicken at some point. If so, it was out of character, a novelty. I can recall cast-and-crew fried chicken feasts at the Kaufman Astoria Studios, and beer and chicken wing blow-outs at joints and dives in Queens. If I suffered a change of heart at some point, I have no memory of it. While things from the past appear neatly arranged in my mental filing cabinet, the present resembles an overturned trash can.
“Stop staring, Nellie!” the pink woman barks.
Nellie studies me from behind the silk veiling her face, eyes like bloodshot sapphires. “You’re so yellow,” she says.
“Well, yes,” I say. “That is true.”
“Do you 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 am asked to behave truthfully under unimaginable circumstances, such as these. “I will pursue my vocation for as long as I am able to walk and talk.”
Nellie shuts her eyes and claps her talc-dry hands. The pink woman scowls as if I have uttered an indecency. Perhaps she has an aversion to performers, or to yellow.
“Excuse me,” I say to her. “But who the hell are you?”
She rolls her eyes. “You really want to do this again?”
The suggestion that we are reprising some hashed out scenario confounds me, as I have no memory of it. When she points to her name tag—Merrily—I am further confused, as I know for certain I have never met anyone called Merrily.
“Do people ever tell you that life is but a dream?” I ask.
She lifts her lip, exposing a clutch of beige teeth.
I chuckle to myself. Perhaps this is some kind of trick meant to trap me into admitting an absurdity—that I have met this Merrily before. Why would I even pretend to have met her? Was she in the business? I highly doubt that. There isn’t a performative bone in her body.
She leans over Nellie’s shoulder and grabs a fork. She stabs a piece of something gooey and white in the plate and brings it to Nellie’s lips.
“You have to eat. You have to eat every bit.”
Nellie rears her head and clamps her mouth shut.
“What’s for dessert?” I wonder aloud.
Nellie says: “Rice pudding or cherry pie.”
“You’ll get none of that,” Merrily insists, “unless you finish every bite.”
“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?”
A man who looks parboiled starts screeching at a table. Everyone stops eating and looks over at him. The man slaps the sides of his head percussively. I wonder why. 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, and without ceremony grab his arms and drag him out still screeching.
Merrily looks at me. “Aren’t you going to finish your dinner?”
“I’m not hungry, dear. But I will have a piece of cherry pie.”
“Me too,” Nellie says. “I like cherry.”
“You have to eat your dinner,” Merrily says, pounding the table.
Nellie’s silky face drops and she stares at her plate.
“Why are you being so harsh?” I ask. “Kindness will go a long way toward achieving your goals. I’m proof of that. Do you know I never once lost my temper on set, not even when I caught that swine and batrachian canoodling in a dressing room.”
“What are you going on about?” Merrily says.
“Even though they got all bent out of shape about it, and threatened to cashier me, I veritably 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 two broad-shouldered men in white who rush over posthaste. Each take Nellie by one skeletal arm. She doesn’t resist. They lift her out of her chair like a papier-mâché dummy and hustle her away.
“Why did they do that?” I ask Merrily, standing there, hands on her generous hips.
“She disrespected her food. Now are you going to finish yours?”
I glance at the limp greens and congealed corn on my plate and throw my napkin over it.
“Guess that’s a no,” Merrily says.
“I want some cherry pie.”
“I want some cherry pie,” she repeats in a mocking tone.
“You’re not very professional.”
Merrily glances at her wristwatch. “They should be back any sec.”
Sometimes when I get anxious I like to sing. Singing is a way of releasing withheld emotion. I am not a good singer, but after many years of training and performing I can hold a tune. Children like to hear me sing—at least they used to 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 comes to my side. I stop singing but continue humming the melody. She says nothing but I can feel her hot breath on my cheek.
“I’ve had about enough of this act,” she says quietly. “Eventually you’re gonna have to let it go. You’re gonna let it go or we’ll make you.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not.” Merrily smiles, but it is not pleasant or happy. It is the smile of the tormenter. It is a smile engaged by thespians portraying villains, fangs just visible, left eyebrow raised, brain boiling with malevolence.
The men in white arrive before I can respond. They seize my wings and pull me to my feet. They are thick, strong men, but I tower over them.
“Take it easy, big guy,” one says, tugging me left. “Don’t fight it,” says the other, tugging me right.
“Take him to the Quiet Room,” Merrily says. “He’s being aggressive.”
They pull me away from my table. If I wanted to I could crush these men. I could knock them down and stomp them until they were pulped. But suddenly I feel tired.
“Come on you big galoot, move those clodhoppers.”
“Is he gonna stay in that getup?”
“Yeah, yeah. That’s right. Long as I been working here. Anyways, we don’t ask questions, man. We just follow orders.”
“I hear you.”
The lock clicks and the silence of the Quiet Room envelops me. Despite this I do not despair. I am not unhappy. I am not lonely. I am confused, yes, but one way to be less confused is to summon what you know, what is 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 close. I’m not certain what this is or what this has been. Unless I’m dreaming I hear music. They’re pumping it in over the speakers:
Gently down the stream,
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily …
Salvatore Difalco is the author of two story collections, Black Rabbit and The Mountie At Niagara Falls (Anvil Press). He lives in Toronto, Canada.