We think “corpsing” is a British term for breaking character, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that we’ve adopted the word, a name for a game in which you cannot… break character. Corpsing is not easy. I imagine Tracy had this in mind when she suggested it. It’s especially fun when you’re drunk, but that wasn’t anybody’s intention that night, the night of the day I’d seen Ever leap. It all would’ve been easier for Tracy if it was.
The audience (those of us not on stage) describe a character that the one, on stage, must play. There are no cues, no help beyond the description. And the moment that character is broken, or, more, determined to be broken by the audience, the performer must wait in the Room of Shame until the game is over. The Room of Shame is always the bathroom. So, in a good game of Corpsing, you end up with seven of us packed into a small New York City toilet waiting for the last performer to get called out by the last member of the audience.
Okay. Now, Tracy’s plan:
Lose the game on purpose. Be sent to the Room of Shame. Get outside and find the truck instead.
“Is there something else we could do?” Connie asks.
The question startles Tracy because it strikes her that her friends, the way they are now, what they’ve become, may no longer be interested, or even capable, of performing. The fact that she’s got them into the living room is encouraging, but this game requires more than presence.
She will have to improvise.
“One round,” she assures Connie, her blood hot, her skin cold; Tracy feels as if she’s been experiencing a single chill, a single scare, in slow motion, for close to an hour now.
And when will it peak?
The rest of them eye her the way a much more conservative crowd might. I once dated a girl from a religious family. I imagine the audience Tracy attempted to rile up that day resembled Helen’s family on Easter.
It strikes Tracy that her entire plan could be jeopardized if Oliver volunteers to go first. After losing (everybody eventually breaks character), he would then be waiting for her in the Room of Shame. And might notice if she didn’t come.
So she chooses.
“Morris,” she says. “You’re up.”
Old Morris would’ve snapped with both hands and leapt to the stage before Tracy could sit down. But this Morris?
Tracy resists the despair she feels for the discrepancy.
“Very well,” Morris says. “But please don’t embarrass me.”
“We promise,” Tracy says. She’s all smiles but her lips feel cold. Her heart thuds sludge. For a miserable second she fears she could pass out.
She plops onto the couch.
There is no music playing. Nobody is properly drunk. Yet, Karen surprises Tracy by starting.
“You’re a funny man,” Karen says. “Some might even say acerbic.”
Morris eyes her a moment. He nods.
“Go on,” he says.
It’s not lost on Tracy that Karen is already describing the man Morris once was. She looks to her friend, hoping for a sign. Oh, for Karen to look her way and wink, to let her know that she, too, is not entirely taken by the crops.
“And you dress well,” Connie says. “Better than what you’ve got on now.”
Some light laughter. Nothing like the chorus I love.
And is this Oliver’s golden vision of his friends? Tamed wilderness? No edge?
“You’re aloof in front of those you are not intimate with. You carry an air of masculinity, a classy toughness, through your wit and consistency. But those who are fortunate enough to slip into your personal sphere, they know. They feel the warmth, smell the summer, and see a man who has not lost the tenderness of a child. He only acts like he has.”
Tracy has to physically bring her hands to her throat, to stop the emotion from escaping.
The room is quiet. Rodney looks to the ground. Morris looks away.
“Well,” Tracy says. “That’s quite a description. Going to be hard to remain in character. And nobody wants to be first in the Room of Shame.”
“No,” Morris says. “I certainly don’t want to spend an hour in the toilet.” He pauses. “Unless, of course I have the right boots for it.”
Tracy smiles. She hopes.
Morris, it seems, is in character.
“I’ll tell you what really bothers me about bathrooms,” he says, standing dramatically erect, chin high. “The paper in there always carries the same news.”
Rodney giggles. Tracy notes that not only is Morris playing something closer to himself, but he’s inspired a similar reaction in Rodney.
Or, at the very least, a familiar sound.
Morris, feeling it now, walking the tight rope of Corpsing, not wanting to spend time alone in the Room of Shame, steps from one end of the fireplace to the other, feet angled out, a funny walk.
And for one second, Tracy is back in New York. Morris is telling jokes that are either good or bad and it just doesn’t matter. He’s making us laugh.
“Bathrooms,” Morris says, “are no place to put on one’s face. The foundations in there!”
Tracy legitimately laughs. She wants so badly to believe Morris is back.
But he is not. He is acting. And while the last thing in the world she wants to do is discourage her fiend, right now, of all times, she looks for the quickest chance to do so.
“Once,” Morris says, “I slept the night in a bathroom. Tile floors, porcelain chair, curtains, royalty.”
They’re laughing. Most importantly, Oliver is. Has Tracy fooled him? Does he believe he’s altered his friends to the point of happy, happier, happiest he’s ever seen?
And is that what he’s even after?
“Corpsing,” Tracy says. The others are surprised. “We didn’t say you were a stand-up comedian.”
Morris turns to her.
“No. You didn’t. But a sit-down, perhaps? Depends, right?”
Laughter. Oliver smiles at Tracy’s and she takes a mental snapshot of his face before turning away.
Yes, she believes, Oliver thinks they are playing a game and nothing more. To him, this is it. The idyllic night he’s dreamt of for who knows how long, certainly since Tracy called him from New York, worried, suggesting we might come visit. This is what Oliver has wanted.
His version of happy.
“I had a friend once,” Morris says, “a guy whose entire house was made up of bathrooms. All except the dining room. Which is where he took his shits. And all day… all day he’d…”
“Corpsing!” Tracy calls. Because she needs this to move faster. She needs to take the stage. She needs to be sent from this room.
“Not a chance!” Karen says. Karen, who laughs at Morris’s jokes as the love of her life roams the fields beyond the willows. Baum may lie dead among traits. “He’s doing a terrific job.”
“I’m with Karen,” Connie says. “He’s pitch-perfect.”
“Okay,” Tracy say. “But one mess up.”
“Come now,” Morris says.
Tracy points at him.
Karen and Connie groan because they know Tracy’s right. Morris broke character to address Tracy’s complaint.
“You know where the bathroom is,” Oliver says.
Some boo, some clap. Morris leaves the living room.
“I won’t wait all night,” he says, closing the bathroom door behind him.
Outside, the sky has darkened.
Tracy makes to take the stage, but Karen beats her to it.
“I’m up,” Tracy says. “I’m feeling it.”
“If I don’t do it right now,” Karen says, “I’m not going to do it at all.”
Tracy considers making a stand. She looks to Oliver. There is no sign he has any idea what she’s planning to do. None.
“Okay,” she says, not wanting to change that. “The stage is yours.”
“Hit me,” she says. “Who am I?”
But while Tracy is playing the role of happy friend, that doesn’t mean she’s patient. As Connie suggests Karen play an “artistic type” who is also a “straight shooter,” as, again, her friends are asking the performer to act more like their true self, Tracy feels the anxiety crescendo within. It’s hot and it’s cold and she hardly notices that Karen is looking directly at her, waiting for her to suggest a characteristic, to build upon the role Karen is being asked to play.
“You’re a best friend,” Tracy suddenly says. The rest pours out: “The sort of woman every woman wants to have in their life. You’re a completely independent thinker, and have established a rapport with the people around you, an honesty, a candor, a faithfulness that has made it so you aren’t worried about offending anybody. Ever. You’re the kind of woman friends turn to when the situation has gotten so out of control, they simply have no choice but to seek out the truth. If I were, say, your friend, I’d call you my best friend, because, while there are little white lies in us all, there are certain personalities that can’t be faked.”
The room is quiet. Karen stares long at Tracy.
“Incredible detail,” Oliver says. “That’s a lot to work with.”
Tracy won’t look at him. Acting or not, plan or not, she won’t give him a smile or thank him for complimenting her attempt to reach a friend he buried.
“Alright,” Karen says. “Easy enough.”
She inhales deeply. Closes her eyes. Begins:
“I love my husband. But I do not worship him. I liken us to two books on two very different shelves. We’re not even in the same store. But we’ve heard of one another. See? From the lips of readers, real readers, those who travel from store to store, seeking the written word, and the revelations therein. Me on my shelf, I’ve heard of my husband, he on his. I’ve heard people speak of him, his pages, and the content of those pages. I know his title and I believe he knows mine. I know what he’s about. I know how rich he is and how deep he goes and the many ways he truly moves people. I understand that his is a kind story, an adventure experienced mostly within. The kind of tale some call quiet. But I can tell it resonates loud with those who have read him. These people are affected, those who enter his bookstore, those who have read my husband. Some are strangers, meeting for the first time in my store, happy to discuss my husband. They speak with pride, for having experienced him and I feel that pride, here on my shelf. I may seem alone, but I am not. I know where my husband is. I know who he is. And I know he is respected by those who’ve read him.”
It’s the kind of performance we would talk about for years after. We’d name it: The Time Karen Said She Was a Book. Like Oliver’s outburst at the Foxy Box, like Morris’s sudden one man show at Maxwell’s in New Jersey. It’s the stuff of legends and, despite Tracy’s unbearable impatience, despite all that has occurred out here on the farm, she fully understands what she’s just witnessed. Karen was not playing the part: if only for the duration of her speech, and possibly for the last time ever, Karen was Karen.
“Corpsing,” Tracy says, staving off tears. “You broke.”
Karen turns to her, surprised.
Nobody else is saying anything. They’re still processing the performance.
“How so?” Oliver asks.
Tracy thinks. She has to nitpick. But must make it so.
“While a book on its own shelf is certainly independent of one on another, you talked about your husband the whole time. We learned nothing about… you.”
Tracy doesn’t feel this way. But it’s a good argument.
“But we learned so much about what she values,” Oliver says, “through what she loves about her husband.”
“Still,” she says, “this is a different woman than the one we described.”
The others consider this.
“I think I agree,” Rodney says. “But I still think it was delightful.”
Which is very Rodney.
Tracy can’t help but hope that, by way of describing the people they truly are, by forcing two friends to act as their true selves, she may have glimpsed the possibility that all will be right again.
But she’s not foolish enough to think that is today.
“Fine,” Karen says. She flails her arms and smiles. “But I thought that was pretty damn good!”
It was amazing, Karen, Tracy thinks.
Then she’s up, taking the stage.
But so is Connie.
For a moment, both stand in front of the fireplace, as Karen exits the living room and enters the kitchen. Tracy sees her open the bathroom door, sees Morris standing inside. She sees the open French door, too. She feels the gumption, now, and can wait no longer. She’s struck by a horrific vision of only her and Oliver remaining. Tracy performing for Oliver. Acting like she’s acting like she’s acting. She needs to be next and she needs to fail at Corpsing now.
“Did you wanna–” Connie starts.
“I’ll go,” Tracy interrupts. “I’m feeling it, yes.”
Connie takes her place on the couch.
The stage is Tracy’s at last.
The rush of what this means comes close to overwhelming her. She imagines what comes next is inevitable, so long as she plays this right, and she digs for the energy to do so.
Morris and Karen are in the Room of Shame. There is only Connie, Rodney, and Oliver to tell her who she must play.
“Okay,” she says. “Who am I?”
But they’re thinking. And for a horrible beat, Tracy imagines the next words to come out their mouths will be, We know what you’re planning, Tracy.
“You’re conflicted,” Oliver says, a forefinger and thumb to his chin. The pose is so unlike the Oliver she knows, she’s shaken.
Something must be done.
She must act.
Oliver goes on:
“You’re the kind of woman who truly believes she knows herself but everyone around her knows she does not. Sometimes they say so, other times they keep quiet. Because you are also sensitive, the timing matters. You either happily, often drunkenly, accept their advice, or you get prickly. More than once you have caused a scene, refusing to believe the observations of those closest to you. You do not want someone else telling you who you are, yet you’ve never a good idea yourself. You’ve traded decent, complex relationships for vacuous, unchallenging ones, and you convince yourself this is okay by insisting an uncluttered life will not stand in the way of that which you want to do. And that is… performing. Acting. Like you are about to do now. But the hole in your logic is that you ignore the importance of passion. Passion not found only in the art form you adore, but in all manner of life, so that one might bring to the stage the fire they walk through. You repudiate those flames and, in the end, most audiences members can tell. That includes your closest friends. So while you believe yourself to be performing at a transformative level, the rest of us are witnessing a woman who thinks she’s doing something she’s not. In the end, for those around you, it’s bleak. And while your friends empathize with you (after all, who doesn’t lie to themselves some?), ultimately they feel sympathy. They are sorry for their stubborn friend who, had she listened now and then, had she opened herself up to the minds and opinions of those she has professes to love, she would be closer to the person she erroneously believes herself to be.”
The room is silent. Rodney looks to the floor. Connie squints at Tracy, considering.
“I have nothing to add to that,” she says.
She looks to Oliver.
“Thank you for the character. A lot to work with.”
But she can’t hide what his words have done to her. For, no matter how many of his own crops Oliver has eaten out here in the past six months, no matter how deranged his reality has become, she knows that he speaks his own truth.
Oliver is only partially playing the game. He’s told Tracy exactly what he thinks of her.
And how much of what he said is true? It’s natural, Tracy knows, to at first believe all condemnations.
She smiles. The smile I love.
Because if there’s one thing Tracy has proof of, if there’s one meaningless bright spot to the madness in which she stands center stage, it’s that, by way of not having succeeded in procuring profound change within her, Oliver Carpenter has proven he doesn’t know her at all.
Fuck you, she thinks.
Then she plays along:
“I don’t care what your opinion is,” she says. To begin with breaking would give her away. And besides, she has something to say. “A good friend once told me: before you feel bad about someone’s opinion of you, think about how they see the world. Do you have any idea how complex a person, any person, really is? Who are you to think your advice, or any, might help? Are you an expert on me? And furthermore… are you prophetic? No fifty-year old exists who doesn’t say their thirty-year old self is unrecognizable. Do you not know that we change, naturally, on our own, and the person you are opining on now is already changing, in ways you can’t see? You’re an expert on no one, and no prophet of mine. But don’t feel bad; there’s no such thing.” It’s all too on the money, too close to this reality: what Oliver said, what she’s saying now. He must know. He must be able to tell she’s about to do something. He can sense the rising anxiety within her, right? It’s so obvious, she thinks! The shelves in his head are probably prepped with the crops he believes she will need. “Advice, in general, is boring, long-winded, and off-point. I know what you really think of me. I know you don’t mean the things you say. I know there is something much deeper, deeper than any place you can reach, than you can change. You’re jealous of me. For reasons I do not know. You envy my makeup. You say I don’t know what my friends think of me, but what you really mean is that you, as my friend, aren’t sure what to make of me. I can feel your envy in every piece of advice you offer.” She needs to break. Now. The courage, the gumption, the plan, may not sit still.
Oliver violated her.
And he wouldn’t let her leave.
What’s to stop him from stuffing her face with naivety? What’s to stop him from keeping her in the barn?
“If I sound angry,” she says, “it’s because I am. You claim to have advice for a friend, but we were never friends to begin with. We were only two people who met in the most magical of places. We shared friends, yes, but never each other. Did we, you and I? Or have we have always been two moons, circling the others, never a moment alone.”
She readies herself to break now. It’s time.
But Oliver speaks before she has the chance.
“Corpsing,” he says.
It’s so unexpected that Tracy has her first genuine reaction since leaving the pantry.
His eyes glisten with tears in the firelight. Tracy, she realizes, has moved him.
Did she speak the truth? A truth? His?
“You were supposed to play a character that doesn’t know herself, while her friends do,” Oliver says. “Instead, you expressed an indisputable inner familiarity. And I applaud you.”
“Wow,” Connie says. “Jesus you guys are good at this game.”
“The Room of Shame,” Tracy says. “Who’s next?”
“Me,” Oliver says.
He’s up before Tracy can comprehend that she’s planned this wrong.
Oliver can’t have a view of the kitchen or she can’t go out the French door.
But things are in motion, if she stops now to consider he might notice. She’s shaking her head, oh poor me, I broke, smiling Rodney’s way as he claps for her performance.
Then she’s in the kitchen.
The pantry on her right, the bathroom ahead, she turns to see Oliver at the fireplace.
Will he see her go? Is he watching her? Or is he truly playing this game?
Is he thinking about her at all?
He’s facing the couch.
Tracy turns to the bathroom.
She steps left, out the French door, onto the deck.
Can Morris and Karen hear the game? Do they expect her to enter the bathroom?
She closes the door behind her.
Down the deck steps, quick.
She looks to the living room windows. Oliver’s back is to the glass.
It’s dark now, but the barn is partially lit by the moon.
She hears no movement behind her, no friend erupting from the farmhouse.
TRACY! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?
No movement from the fields either, no Farmer appearing, suddenly, to grab her by the wrist, to punish her for what she’s planning to do.
She sees no cars. Okay. Oliver had them parked up the road. Something.
But the truck?
It’s gotta be behind the barn.
She hurries, bangs a leg against a metal pipe sticking up from the ground. The pain is real. She grips her leg.
Still, no movement behind her. No uproar.
Halfway to the barn she sees a figure out in the fields.
Yes. She thinks so.
She can’t worry about him right now. She must find the truck. Must leave Gibbons. Must find help.
Behind her, no doors opening. No loud voices.
Almost to the barn, she thinks of what’s inside.
What’s been inside for a long time.
She ducks the branches of a sudden tree.
It doesn’t matter if the keys are in the truck. Tracy knows how to jumpstart.
I taught her.
We were in the city then, yes. Tracy and I. Our first date. We were out of our minds high on grass and out of our bodies for each other. From the start. It was like that. And that night we snuck into a cemetery, walked through the stones, talked about life and death and who each other were and we wanted to be. We spent hours inside, on our backs upon someone else’s bed. We made love on that grass, that dirt. On the way out, I told her of another cemetery, even better, bigger stones, more space for what was growing between us. But it was far. Too far. And when we crawled out, under the gates, I suggested the kind of thing only a man falling in love would do:
I said let’s steal a car. Go see the other cemetery. Then bring it back.
I might’ve worried that Tracy could’ve thought she had me all wrong. That my idea revealed a monster, a bad man, someone other than me.
But I knew she wouldn’t.
And she didn’t.
We broke into the car together. She asked if I’d done this before. But she knew the answer.
I showed her how to hotwire a car.
Now, coming at the barn too fast, Tracy raises her hands, plants them against the wood.
Still no movement from the house. Still no Farmer.
Trembling, out of breath, she walks to the side of the barn and sees there’s no truck beside it.
Behind it then. It has to be.
This is all so unlike her, so different than anything she’s ever done, that she wonders, mistily, how much of this is a result of what Oliver and The Farmer have given her and how much is not. Has she been fed forgetfulness? Did they plan on her forgetting what happened at the diner? What did they stuff down her throat when they brought her back? What miscalculations did they make?
She touches the wood of the barn as she walks its length. At the end, behind the barn, is a large pool of moonlight.
She follows the end of the barn to the side that faces the farmhouse again. Halfway down, the sliding doors are shut.
When open, they’re big enough for a truck.
She moves, her eyes on the house. The windows. The silhouettes within.
How much time does she have?
What if Oliver has already broken character and is heading to the bathroom right now? How many seconds before he sees she’s not in there, never was?
At the barn doors, she braces herself for what’s inside.
She slides a door open.
It’s all so piqued, so panicky, she expects a deafening alarm, a call to Oliver, and him to come running, arms full of jars.
But there is no alarm.
And there is no truck.
What there is… is light.
Some. A lamp.
Enough to show Tracy jars.
Dozens of them empty on long wood tables. Crops separated into piles beside them.
Tape and pencils.
Scissors and cloth.
She looks up to the loft.
Below it, shelves are loaded with labeled jars. And next to those shelves, a third of the way up the wall, is a landline.
Tracy thinks of Oliver’s voice on the phone, how different he sounded back in the days when she started worrying about him. She remembers telling Ever that, for as ridiculous as it sounds, what surprised her most was that Oliver had even been using a landline.
She picks it up.
Without her cellphone she doesn’t have the bank of numbers she normally does. So she calls the one number she has memorized.
As the loft creaks above her, Tracy calls me.
And I, I saw Ever fall from a building earlier in the day. I spoke to cops. I saw his body. I see a call from Michigan and I know it’s Tracy before I answer and I think she must be calling about Ever, must know, but I can tell immediately that I’m wrong.
“Come to the farm,” she says. “He’s dangerous.”
“Who is?” I’m already putting on my shoes.
“Okay. Where are you?”
“In the barn. Come. Now. Don’t let them see you arrive.”
“Tracy, you’re scaring me.”
I’m thinking of what Ever said. That Tracy headed west again when Oliver told her what was in the barn.
“Tracy, what’s in the barn?”
Tracy looks up to see eyes peering over the splintered, wooden edge of the loft.
Then she tells me.
And I imagine one half of the most turbulent relationship I’ve ever witnessed. I see Oliver storming out of another New York City bar.
And the woman he’s rushing after.
Tracy hangs up.
And I think of Donna.
That’s what’s in the barn.