The woman in the pink sweater is talking to her co-workers in a voice intended to silence any other conversation in the cafeteria. "Even though I don't like being reminded that I'm turning 40 ..." She pauses and smiles to provoke laughter. "I want to thank everybody for the presents and especially Miriam for the cake."
Across the room, the slightly older, slightly stouter, and slightly balding man who arrived too late for the festivities looks over at the half-eaten White Chocolate Macadamia Cake with Raspberries and White Chocolate Buttercream.
"Hey, Borman," calls the woman in the pink sweater. "Come over here for a sec." Warren Borman places his napkin over his half-eaten crackers and walks the six yards across the room. His eyes have returned to the cake, causing him to intersect with the edge of a table.
"You didn't get here in time for me to tell you," says the woman in the pink sweater, "about my Heather's school play."
"Regrettable," he says, taking a seat as close as possible to the dessert.
"It's Rumpelstiltskin and I'm selling tickets. Five bucks. Goes to support a class trip for the kids to see Tubbies on Ice.
Warren winces. "I'm afraid ..."
"Oh, come on," she says. "Everybody else pitched in. It's only a fiver."
"We know you got it, Borman," says a man with a double chin, his mouth still full of cake. "You sure don't spend your money on clothes." The room fills with giggles.
"The issue," Warren says, " has nothing to do with the expense. I find proximity to the exhibition of thespian craftsmanship, however nascent, to be tantamount to abhorrent."
The woman in the pink sweater scratches her head. "Does that mean you will buy a ticket or you won't?"
"It means," says Warren, "that I shall explain why the theater is an inappropriate place for children or sane adults."
"Oh, Christ, Borman," says the man with the double chin. "Lunch hour is almost over and none of us can afford to listen ..."
"On the contrary," says Warren. "None of you can afford not to listen."
* * *
A great many years ago (says Warren), I had reached the nadir of my struggling career. I was working as a docent at the World Cribbage Hall of Fame in a small mid-western city, known mainly for its strip malls and the smell of rubber manufacturing. The job offered minimal pay and even less stimulation. As a consequence, after work I often roamed the streets, searching for meaning in my bleak existence. It was on such a quest that my eyes first fell upon her.
Her diminutive size, almond eyes and slightly protruding front teeth bespoke of descent from Oriental potentates. One glimpse and I was in the throes of passion, certain our destinies were to become inextricably intertwined. I followed her up three streets and across two avenues. At last she turned down an alley and disappeared though double doors, above which was displayed in large letters, framed by unlit bulbs, "THEATRICKS OR TREATS." Grooming my hair with a moistened palm I pulled at the knob and stepped inside.
There she was, standing in a dim, pungent lobby talking to a woman whose Amazonian proportions dwarfed my Asian goddess as if she were a fragile, porcelain figurine.
"So solly," said the China doll. "Auditions tomollow."
Her tiny voice entranced me but her meaning escaped me. "Pardon?"
"Auditions aren't until tomorrow evening, Brainiac," said the Amazon.
"Ah," I said, not being able to evoke a wittier reply. Obviously they had wrongly assumed my intentions. "Yes, well," I said. "Thank you." I stood for longer than necessary looking at them, they looking at me. Finally I mustered my knees and began to back toward the door.
"Aren't you going to take a script, Shakespeare?" bellowed the Amazon. "How do you expect to audition if you don't know the play?"
"Ah," I repeated.
The giantess reached into her vast handbag and brought out a stapled blue booklet. "MYTH DEMEANORS," the cover read. "Written and produced by Pfiona Pflanders." Beneath the title was a photo of a woman whose jaw seemed capable of removing a bottle cap with a single bite. I looked at the Amazon and then back to the photo. There was no doubt. It was she.
The woman was staring at me as if I were a fungus she had discovered between her toes. Therefore I turned my attention back to the Far Eastern woman, struck by her resemblance to an image I had once seen on a Chinese take-out menu.
She extended a delicate hand and said, "May we."
I was taken aback. "Of course, we may," I said. "Anytime."
"That's her name, Numbskull," said the Amazon. "Mai Wi."
The girl lowered her eyes and bowed slightly. "I am the company dilectol."
"Borman's the name," I said, returning her bow. "But you can call me Wallen."
* * *
I spent the better part of that evening studying the script, weighing the pros and cons of pursuing an involvement with the theater. On one hand there was the script itself -- a repulsive posy of puerile versions of all-too familiar myths. On the other hand there was the opportunity to share with the world my untapped genius as an actor and, more importantly, an opportunity to pursue a romantic relationship with the inscrutable Mai Wi. It was a short dilemma.
* * *
"For God's sake, man, put on a shirt!" The entire melange of would-be thespians turned to where I was standing offstage on the following evening, waiting to audition for the role of Adonis. "We'll have the Board of Health close us down for Unsightly Flab Exposure."
It appeared that, as both Playwright and Producer, Pfiona was sole arbiter of fashion, and I was reduced to auditioning in my yellow and white checkered short sleeve seersucker shirt, something I doubted was ever contained in the wardrobe of the original Adonis. Under the circumstances, I couldn't give of my best, and I left the theater despondent, expecting never to see Mai Wi again. So I was astonished when the phone rang the following evening.
"Wallen, this is Mai Wi."
My hand trembled. "Herro," I said. "I mean, hello."
"So solly, Wallen. No Adonis. Too sholt and too frabby."
"No accounting for taste," I said, cooly.
"But I rike you, Wallen. I want you be stage managel."
"Stage managel? I mean, stage manager? Really? Me?"
"Yes, yes. Okay, okay?"
"Absolutely," I said, brightening considerably. The rush of adrenaline made me lightheaded. "Mai Wi, there is something I would like to ask."
"Okay, okay. Be quick. Many phone carrs to make."
"Would you, that is, will you ... may I take you to dinner after rehearsal tomorrow?"
There was a long pause. "You want date?" she said finally.
"Yes, yes," I said.
"Okay, okay, Wallen. I rike you. Arot."
I decided to take that as a compliment.
* * *
The next evening I had barely time to experience the anxiety expected in the hours before a romantic event. Pfiona provided me with list of my responsibilities which included helping with her many costume changes, for it was revealed that she had added Lead Performer to her list of roles.
I began to have a suspicion that Pfiona was not totally satisfied with Mai Wi's choice of stage manager. More than once that evening I overheard her refer to me as "that fat cretin." But my father rightly taught me that one must take the rough with the smooth, so I pulled in my stomach and waited until the end of the rehearsal.
After a rather forceful description of the many failings of the cast and crew by the Author/Producer/Leading Lady, the crowd started to disperse. I found Mai Wi in the dressing room, staring down at her black, round-toed slippers.
"Are you ready to go? I asked.
She looked up at me with what I suspected were moist eyes. "So solly," she said. "No date." I felt as if I had been struck beneath the fourth button of my cardigan. "Pfiona say dilectol no can date stage managel. Confrict of intelest."
As a virgin to the caustic world of theater, I knew no better. "Well, then," I said, "I'll simply resign from my position as stage manager."
She touched my arm. "No, no, Wallen. We need you. I need you."
"But surely you can ..."
She looked up into my eyes, something that women of normal height rarely can do. "I want you to be here," she said. "I want to be crose to you. Prease stay."
"Okay, okay," I said.
* * *
The weeks that followed tested me as I had never been tested. Pfiona Pflanders had a startling ability to detect the slightest personal flaws in any individual and elaborate on them in flowery, almost poetic form -- poetry of the street, that is, interspersed with words that are normally avoided in polite company. She seemed particularly keen on any aspect of me that fell short of her concept of perfection, as both stage manager and a human being. There was an unmistakable gleam of pleasure in her eyes when she would call me to center stage and expound upon my shortcomings in front of the entire ensemble.
But what was far worse was being close to Mai Wi and yet unable to develop a relationship. Whenever our eyes would meet, she would turn hers downward as if it were as difficult for her as it was for me.
There was nothing else but to throw myself wholeheartedly into my responsibilities. The play called for an unending parade of theatrical items that I was expected to hoist and lower with split-second timing. These included cardboard mountains, clouds, temples, and even Pfiona herself in the role of Icarus flying toward a blinking LED sun. I doubted if Cirque de Soleil had ever attempted anything as elaborate.
But I endured the weeks that followed with typical Borman fortitude, eagerly anticipating the day when the play would end its run and I could again ask Mai Wi for a date. So confident was I that Pfiona's theatrical catastrophe would close after its first performance, that I made a reservation for the following evening at the table nearest the Sauerkraut Bar at my favorite Bavarian restaurant, The Wurst Case. All that was needed was to again ask Mai Wi for a date.
Thus, an hour before I was to hoist the curtain on opening night of Myth Demeanors, I made my way to the closet-like room that served Mai Wi as an office. Even before my hand touched the knob, I heard the unmistakable voice of Pfiona coming from within. She was combining, in a most vigorous and caustic way, references to functions of bodily elimination with terms describing various aspects of the sex act.
I inhaled deeply and opened the door.
Mai Wi was crouched on the floor, covering her eyes with wet tissues. Looming over her like a German expressionist Mephistopheles with a gland condition, stood Pfiona in her Hades costume, shaking a red-gloved fist.
"Pardon me," I said. "May I have a moment alone with Mai Wi?" Emily Post could not have spoken with more etiquette.
Pfiona, apparently unaffected, turned to me. "Get out," she screamed, "or I'll gouge your eyes with my bare hands." Of course, I could have pointed out that to use her bare hands would have meant removing her gloves, an act that would require some effort as they were sewn into her costume. "And if anything," she continued, veins in her neck as red as her gloves, "and I mean anything goes wrong tonight I'll take a dull scissors and cut off your ..." Before she finished her anatomical description, I was already out of earshot.
Many will say that I acted less than bravely. But, I reflected, on the way to my position backstage, it was only a matter of hours until the theatrical fiasco would be over. I would then dry Mai Wi's tears with a frosty mug of Düssseldorf Roggenbier and a knuckle of Aachener Brot. Together we would refute the assertion that "ne'er the twain shall meet."
Sixty minutes later, I hoisted the curtain to a house half-filled with innocent faces, unaware of the assault that was about to be launched on their better natures. But it is said that the Lord works in mysterious ways and in the ninety minutes that followed, He never worked more mysteriously. Everything went off exactly as it was supposed to. The paper maché boulder of Sisyphus (played by Pfiona Pflanders) did not fall off the cardboard mountain as it had in every rehearsal. The foam snow fell upon Persephone (played by Pfiona Pflanders) at just the right speed and not in a lump as it had in every rehearsal. In fact, it was not until Act III, Scene 4 that anything which could possibly be considered amiss occurred.
I had helped Icarus (played by Pfiona Pflanders) into her harness and was waiting in the wings for my cue to turn the winch to begin her flight to the sun. It was then I noticed that the strap which held the harness was caught in the pulley. I climbed a ladder to free it, only to discover to my shock that it had been torn nearly across its width. I knew it would not take much, surely not much time with the substantial weight of a Pfiona Pflanders, to split it completely, thus letting whatever was hoisted the full thirty feet above the stage fall to its doom.
"And now, rising above all other mortals, I shall begin my ascent," came the forceful voice of Icarus.
It was my cue to start the winch.
"I shall begin my ascent," came the voice again, only a little louder and good bit more impatient.
I came down the ladder, stepped toward the edge of the curtain and met Pfiona's fiery eyes, glaring at me from center stage. Using simple gestures, I explained that a strap had been damaged in the pulley, and if we used the winch she would probably fall to her doom. For some unexplainable reason, the woman didn't seem to understand. "MY ASCENT! MY ASCENT!" she screamed. Then she thrust her index and middle finger at me, making a movement that was unmistakably that of a dull scissors performing a non-sterile surgical procedure.
* * *
"Holy shit," says the man with the double chin, his mouth falling open to reveal a small portion of White Chocolate Macadamia Cake. "What did you do?"
Warren shrugs. "What else could I do? I hoisted her to full height, locked the winch in place and quickly left by the back door. Then I hastened to my apartment, threw my belongings into a suitcase and took the first Greyhound out of town."
The woman in the pink sweater shakes her head. "I can't believe it. Did you ever find out ...?"
"It was many years later," says Warren, "that someone told me he had seen a Pfiona Pflanders on a poster promoting a charity for the handicapped, although I have no idea if it were the same Pfiona Pflanders. As for Mai Wi, she returned to the mainland of her birth and, in the Best Socialist Spirit, opened a chain of highly successful combination theater-gambling casinos for the enjoyment of the Far Eastern proletariat."
"Oh, Christ," says the women in the pink sweater. "Look at the time. It's way past lunch hour." With one swift movement, the entire party, with the exception of Warren, stands and makes toward the door. The woman looks across the tables at the assortment of paper plates, cups, and crumpled napkins.
"Please, don't worry about it," says Warren, placing a firm grip on the plate holding a half of a White Chocolate Macadamia Cake. "I'll clean up everything. It's the least I can do for your birthday."
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