OF MEN AND MEN
Annie went into the alley so Freddie, her parrot, wouldn't hear. Then she called David, whose dark eyes had caught hers on an Internet search for, "Animal Lover, Male," and she did the unthinkable, asked if he'd like to go out that evening. His reply was a long time coming. Time enough to watch two squirrels race each other down parallel power lines, upsetting a crow who had his eye on a mockingbird's nest. Time enough for the mockingbird to return and chase the crow to the top of a nearby pepper tree, where a pair of jays shrieked at him for interrupting their lovemaking. More than long enough for her to wonder if, like the male of so many species, this one resented the female taking the initiative.
Finally, he spoke up. There was a cabaret in Hollywood, equidistant to their homes.
A brilliant suggestion. Separate cars. Escape route.
She felt bad about lying to Freddie, receptacle of secrets, father confessor, unpaid shrink, fervid suitor during mating season (now), but the idea of her asking a man for a date would distress him on so many levels--well, she just couldn't do it to him. He'd been trying to lure her under the television console all morning; his siren cries echoed in every corner of the house. So she decided to tell him a half-truth. She steamed some rappini--a vegetable he particularly relished--and lay a cloth over her coffee table, for as fastidious as the Amazon was about grooming, he was a sloppy eater. She sat on the couch. He fluttered onto her knee, gurgling in anticipation. Slowly she fed him each hand-cut floret and stalk. When he'd savored his final floret, he tilted his head and gazed at her, his eyes suffused with a tender glow.
"Hold the mayo," he mewled.
She gently informed him that she was going out for the evening. With the sharp pincer of his beak he pushed her watchband a half inch up her wrist so it was more secure. He studied the hands of the Timex, then looked up at her and asked who with. She told him it was David, who worked in a pet store. His eyes whirled crazily in their sockets.
"A business meeting," she mumbled. "About the high cost of seed." Freddie clucked unhappily, shuffling from one foot to the other. He insisted on choosing what she would wear.
Squashed between two clothing racks in the dark, airless closet, the parrot reached from Annie's shoulder to pick through her wardrobe. He studied each article of clothing, then rejected it and moved onto the next. His process was so thorough, so methodical, that she had to glance at her watch several times. Finally there was only one item left, flattened against the wall. He lifted the sleeve of the drab gray shift—nun garb for a Halloween party she never attended—and squawked in satisfaction.
"I thought I threw that out."
His gaze never wavered.
The bedroom mirror threw back the image of a tall, undernourished girl in a dress with round white collar, no waist and a hemline that grazed her ankles. She looked ready to scrub floors in a nineteenth century orphanage. Freddie whistled in appreciation. She supposed she should let him have his way on this. After all—who had saved her life when she fell on her head off the Santa Monica pier, squawking feverishly until someone called an ambulance? Who'd fed her pain pills for four weeks and antidepressants for another three?
She palmed some earrings when he wasn't looking. "I won't be long," she promised and put him in his cage. A tiny "Annie" sounded from the back of his throat.
There was no street parking anywhere near the address David had given her, on an alley, just off Santa Monica Boulevard, so she was forced to park in a lot and fork over eight dollars to an attendant. She found David, a shortish boy with the spiky hair of a kingfisher, in black leather jacket and tee, leaning against the door of an unprepossessing wood and brick structure, chatting with two prostitutes or, rather, they were chatting with him. They were beautiful, brightly colored, in pink and orange. Flamingos. Above their heads a neon image of a busty girl in a top hat, smooshed into a champagne glass, legs in the air, blinked on and off. As did the name, "L-U-L-U-S."
"Oooh you sure can pick 'em," one prostitute snickered on Annie's approach.
"Sistuh, there's a church on the next block," said the other.
Annie cringed. Clearly a jean jacket and earrings had done nothing to disguise the outfit. David's eyes bulged, but he seemed relieved to see her, in spite of her dowdiness. She would have smiled, but the flamingos were watching.
"You're gonna love the show," one of them said.
"It is so f-i-n-e," said the other, who laughed lewdly.
"Let's go inside," David said and opened the door.
They maneuvered the steep, dimly lit staircase with care. The walls were covered in faded rose satin and posters of Broadway shows. Annie stared into the huge grin on Carol Channing's big blonde face--an advertisement for Hello Dolly. "You've been here before?"
"Never." He laughed, a high, unnatural sound.
He's nervous too, she thought with surprise.
"A guy I know said it was unique. Gave me free tickets."
At the bottom of the stairs, a fat, smiling cat of a man in a sparkly shirt sang, "Welcome to
The room inside was even darker than the stairs, so dark that Annie immediately landed on the back of a woman with very large breasts, one of which she was forced to clutch in order to right herself. She pulled her mouth out of the woman's heavily sprayed hair. "I'm so terribly, terribly sorry," she said and stepped on a foot. The foot belonged to the man on whose lap the woman was perched, facing him. "So sorry," Annie repeated, but heard no verbal response, only a slurping, sucking noise. Oh God, she thought.
She hoped David hadn't heard the sound. It suggested activities she didn't feel ready for. She couldn't see where he'd gone. The only light in the place came from votives on the tables. She made out what she thought was his shape, hovering at the back of the room, took a step and stumbled. Her elbow lodged in an ear canal. "Watch it," a man yelped. His companion snickered. David's hand found hers. With a surprisingly firm grip he hauled her into a seat.
She kept her hand in his until it began to feel like some dead boiled thing. Why did people hold hands; it was so unnatural. Slowly she began to inch her fingers out of his. This felt so peculiar that she violently jerked herself away. He grunted.
"Sorry," she whispered. "Hot hand."
Maybe that was the problem. She'd never felt entirely human. Maybe she had a parrot, not a human, heart.
The candle on their table spluttered. A glimmer of light reflected off her earring and pierced the gloom enough to illuminate one of his eyes. It looked troubled.
"This was a mistake," he mumbled. "Would you want a half a valium? I just took the other half. To get the edge off."
"Yes." Her stomach cramped. She was nothing but edge. And it was just half.
She felt, but couldn't see the crumbling pill he slipped onto her palm. Or the flask. "Just a sip," he said. It tasted like iodine.
Her eyes, at last adjusting to the darkness, could make out the shadows of fifteen or so couples seated about the tiny room, all facing a tinier stage. The sides of the stage were defined by maroon curtains, tied back with fuchsia sashes. The walls of the room appeared to be covered in the same dusty-rose satin as the stairway and gilt stars had been pasted on the ceiling. It was like being inside a candy box. With the lid down.
Had she covered Freddie's cage? She'd meant to. He'd be calmer, maybe sleep…
A Latino waiter materialized at their table. He sported an abundance of mascara and eyeliner, which Annie coveted. She'd run out with only a lipstick, and this had been chewed into globs, now gummed up in the corners of her mouth. Discreetly she wiped her lips with the back of her hand and ordered a soda, concerned about price as well as her low tolerance for alcohol. "Celts are either drunks or teetotalers," had been drummed into her head since she was small. It was true; the only time she'd seriously imbibed, she'd ended up in a tree, pretending to be a cat, meowing and hissing at a dairy farmer's son who had hoped for a different kind of adventure. She wouldn't get down until he'd called the fire department and they'd put up a ladder. Her entire family had been shamed.
But the waiter had no patience with abstinence and fluttered his eyelashes at her. "Get a
Margarita. Sooo good. We don't chintz on the liquor."
"Go on," David said, and made a sweeping arm gesture, as though she should order a sea of tequila. He asked for a whisky. She nodded. She would sip it very slowly.
The sound system abruptly blasted to life. Ethel Merman belted "There's No Business Like
Show Business." A spotlight hit the stage and the man with the sparkly shirt leapt into it, whirling a microphone over his head like a lasso. He lip-synched along with Ms. Merman, falling to his knees and splaying his arms for the final bars.
"Grotesque," David said.
She could hear his lip curling. The valium was doing nothing for either of them. Freddie was right; she should stick with the animals, never ask a man out, or go out at all for that matter.
The man on stage jumped to his feet, agile in that unexpected way only the heavy can achieve. He stared into the audience. "My name's Micky and tonight I'm going to get to know each and every one of you."
Annie shrank into the shadows. David shrank further. The comic whipped out an industrial-strength flashlight and strobed the room with it, while wailing like a police siren.
"Lets get out of here," David said.
"It's too late. He'll crucify us." She spoke from experience, having been called a "gutless bean pole" when she tried to escape a club act in Boston. Any move now would guarantee an obscene nun joke.
More siren sounds and strobing, then the light landed on the couple Annie had fallen over earlier. The man's tie was open, his forearm inside the woman's ruffled blouse. Her stiletto heels dangled from her toes. They appeared to be devouring each other's tongues.
"What have we here?" the comic salivated.
The drinks arrived. Annie sipped her Margarita in mortification. The liquor froze her throat and jabbed her brain with needle pricks, but then became a delicious river of warmth, heating her down to her toes. David crunched on an ice cube. A trickle of sweat ran down his cheek.
Emboldened by the alcohol, she leaned toward him. He smelt of the woods, a nice surprise. "Don't worry. I'll handle him when he gets to us."
The couple in the spotlight squirmed. The woman attempted to do up her blouse. "Hanky panky poo," cackled Micky, the comic. The light now swung maniacally over the audience, landing on Annie and David. "Let's hear it from the lovebirds in the back."
"My name's Gina. I'm an anthropologist. I work at La Brea Tar Pits. And I LOVE LOVE
LOVE LULU's," Annie yelled with fake enthusiasm.
"What about Romeo?"
Surprisingly, David lifted his hat. "String theory physicist with...the Rand Corporation. Name's Fred. And I too am extremely fond of Lulu's."
The comic staggered, holding his head as though in agony. "BRAINIACS!" He chewed his fingers in mock terror. "What if they give me an F on my performance?"
"Then you deserve it," David offered.
"Yeah," Annie said and punched his shoulder. They giggled. He punched her back and ordered another round. So fun.
Six freshly scrubbed performers, three men and three women, wearing pink shirts and black bottoms, skipped from behind the maroon curtains. Freddie would hate their outfits, consider them pedestrian. He must be worried about her. She would call him as soon as the show was over. Her voice on the machine would reassure him.
The performers, prancing through one song after another, slowly began to shed their clothes, a bracelet here, a necktie there. David's arm, a nano breath from hers, felt horrifyingly close. He asked if she had any mints. She listened as he chomped feverishly on them, then began in on what sounded like nuts, devouring them rapaciously. How like Freddie he was. Same table manners. She tried to hold the image of the bird in her brain and blot out her surroundings.
David bumped her with his elbow. He apologized. They shifted away from each other. Something slithered around her brain. What if he knew there'd be a striptease? Saw it as a turn-on? She snuck a look at him. He had pulled a pad from his pocket and begun to sketch the neck of the bald man in front of them.
"I'm into necks," he muttered.
He can't possibly see the page, she thought. Was he an artist? Or a strangler? She reached for the Margarita and glugged it to the bottom.
The bare-breasted six were down to little striped skirts over their privates. Smug-faced, they preened themselves before the audience. People started to clap, but the comic stopped them, screaming into his mike, "It ain't over till it's over."
"What more can they do?" Her laugh was slightly hysterical. She licked the salt off her glass, deeply grateful for the alcohol. David was watching the proceedings through his fingers. Maybe this was what people did when they went out…
One of the players skipped over to a maroon curtain and led out a young chimpanzee. He was small, compact. She guessed he was around three. The stripper theme from Gypsy began to play. The half-naked six lip-synched as the chimp rocked back and forth. He peeled off his shirt and flung it into the audience. Then he played with his protuberant ears and stuck out his tongue. Finally he pulled down his pants, hooted and stepped out of them. Underneath, he too was wearing a tiny striped skirt. The audience clapped wildly. And so did the ape.
Annie gurgled with pleasure at the chimp, so young, healthy and free-spirited. She'd never held converse with a simian. He didn't belong in a place like this, doing such a raunchy act. Exploitation really. She willed her energy into her eyes and lazered them at him, but the animal was too far away to notice. He was grinning from ear to ear one moment, staring into space the next. A performer nudged him. The chimp grabbed his hand and led him back behind the curtains. The others shuffled after them, and reemerged, chimp first, wearing top hats. The group formed a chorus line and, in one dramatic move, unhooked their loin skirts and tossed them to the side of the stage.
Annie and David gasped. There were no women on stage. Only men and men becoming women. And a male chimpanzee. In time to the music, the seven performers swung their members, first to the left, then to the right, then held them up with one hand and mimed blow-drying their scroti with the other.
She tried to down the last of her Margarita, but was overcome by a fit of hysteria and sprayed the last drops onto the bald man's neck. David said, "let's go," and grabbed her arm. She took a step and fell against the man, who pushed her away so violently that she toppled once again onto the make-out couple, sending them and herself, sprawling on the floor. The woman screamed as her wig came off in Annie's hand.
She found herself under a table. The commotion intrigued the chimpanzee, who leapt off the stage and bounded over. He leaned forward, cupped Annie's face in his palms and looked her right in her drunken eye. "Having a good time?" he asked.
She rocked back, banging her head on the table. "You know, it's highly possible. What about you?"
"Oh sure," the chimp replied, grinning again. "The hours aren't bad and I like to dance." He climbed onto her lap, snuggled into the nun dress and wrapped his long arms around her. "I'm very social, aren't you?"
"I want to be." She scratched his head. "But it's such a strain."
At that the chimp snatched the wig and somersaulted out of her lap with a lusty, "hoo hoo hoo." He ducked and wove out of the path of the she-he, whose hands clutched for her property, then jumped up and down, pounding the wig on his head like a bongo. "Let yourself go! Live for love!"
Annie nodded woozily. David was reaching for her, trying to pull her to her feet. The comic was on his way over. She stared at his face over the edge of the table. It was blotched with fat and fury.
"Get out," he snarled.
They careened toward the exit and stumbled up the stairs, laughing. She hadn't thought of Freddie in an hour. She could do this, let herself go. She had permission.
But then one of the prostitutes opened the door. The other was waiting in the alley and lifted her wings and squawked. David laughed. But Annie ran. She ran and ran. The sounds chased her all the way home.
Mary Portser won the "Otis Guernsey New Voices in Playwriting Award" and has had plays produced in Dublin, Los Angeles and New York. Wrecked, was developed at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference last June and has had readings across the country. Mary is also an actress and works in theatre, television and can be seen in movies such as Passion Fish, Household Saints, The Italian Job, and the upcoming Go For Sisters. She wrote and performed with the Paranoids, a comedy group, for eight years. "Of Men and Men" is an excerpt from Squawk, a comic novel.