Baum and Connie are on “stage.” This means they’re standing in front of the fireplace in the living room of Oliver’s farmhouse. We always split up the couples. Makes for new dynamics, less of a safety net when you don’t know what the other person is thinking. Baum is naturally shy. He’s made for being behind the scenes, but he’s also a good sport and there are some nights where I’ve wondered if his understatement isn’t the best acting of us all. Connie is the opposite of understated and so this should be fun. If I was there, I’d be excited to see what comes of it. But, as you know, but also as I can’t stop saying, I’m not. By the time Connie sets her glass of wine on the mantel, as Baum rubs his hands together and smiles, eyes squinting, I’m getting drunk. Makes me feels like I’m with my friends. I’m also texting them a lot, thinking they’re getting all the messages, which they’re not because nobody checks their phone during CUE. The mission of acting, really, is, of course, to be wholly of the moment.
And to be someone else.
“Line!” Connie yells. The living room windows are open and her loud voice sails outside, out above the fields that are getting darker yet. Usually this is done in a concrete square of a loft, neighbors be damned. Because it’s a totally new setting, the group plays the game with more spirit than they normally do. They’re isolated, after all. Can do whatever they want. Though, there is a slight sense of maintaining manners: Oliver’s place is clean because he’s cleaned up. But what exactly?
In any event, wine has a history of evicting decorum.
“I can’t believe how hard farm life is,” Rodney says from the couch.
Connie breathes deep, closes her eyes, then looks to Baum. Then, with what feels like a whole new face, like she’s a whole new person, a woman on a farm, burdened with the daily chores, she says, “I can’t believe how hard farm life is.”
And so the game is afoot.
“I warned you!” Morris yells.
All the others are gathered on the couch facing the fireplace. All six, squeezed side by side. Baum makes fists of his hands and puts them on his hips. He looks sternly at Connie.
“I warned you, honey.”
Everyone laughs. Honey. Okay then. Baum and Connie are a married couple on a farm.
They could be anybody at this point.
“You didn’t say anything about cleaning up wolf shit,” Karen says.
Baum nods her way. Good one. New element. Not your average farm story here.
Connie steps closer to Baum, eyes dead serious. “You didn’t say a Goddamn thing about cleaning up wolf shit.”
“Wolf shit?” Rodney says. “Where did you find this?”
Rodney wants to tell Baum how to deliver this next line, but that’s not part of CUE. There are other games that focus on directing. Here, you’re alone with the line.
“Wolf shit?” Baum says. He looks suspicious of this news. Rodney mutters yes because that’s what he was hoping Baum would do, the angle he would take. “Where exactly did you find this wolf shit… honey?”
Everyone laughs again. Baum is a natural. He’s so out of his element but such a good sport that you almost imagine he’s actually a sixty-year old man, content with his lot in life, not in the middle of Michigan making a house-call on a friend everyone’s worried about.
“I gotta be honest,” Ever says. “I couldn’t tell if it was a wolf or a man…”
Oooh. A scary story then. Just as the sky darkens outside. Just as Tracy sees the fields swallowed up into that darkness, the friends, my friends, fully reflected in the second, closed, living room window.
“Thing is,” Connie says, “I couldn’t tell if the shit belonged to a wolf or a… woman.”
Laughter all around. Good twist. A lady werewolf? Maybe. A mad witch outside? This is fun.
“Line,” Baum says. Because they’re all still laughing. Big glasses of wine, half full now. All except Tracy’s.
She’s sitting at one end of the couch, Karen and Ever between her and Oliver, Rodney and Morris on the other side of him. Karen is smiling at Baum, thinking of a good next line, and Tracy leans back just enough to catch Oliver’s profile. Everyone’s rolling, right? Drinking. Igniting the night. And here’s Oliver, that same expression he had when she sat with him on the back deck. Like he’s still overlooking the fields that fan out behind the farmhouse. Like he could turn to her, right now, and say, I’ll show you guys the barn later.
Morris starts to give Baum a line but Karen interrupts him. Yet, Morris is the one who usually interrupts, and Tracy just wants everyone to act like themselves right now.
“I don’t know anything about any shitting woman,” Karen whispers, the way a script supervisor would do off-stage.
Baum breaks character and smiles at her. Because it’s funny. Oliver’s expression doesn’t change, Tracy notes. She can’t stop looking at him. It’s as if he’s been in an accident, through some mysterious surgery, without a trace of a scare to prove it.
“Honey,” Baum says. He paces in front of the fireplace, leans an elbow upon it, all serious now. “I don’t know a thing about any shitting woman.”
It’s too much. Rodney cracks up. Almost falls off the couch. Mid-laugh, balancing his glass of wine, he looks to Tracy, catches her looking at Oliver. She notices. He raises his eyebrows like, Hey, you okay?
“Line” Connie says.
For a second nobody speaks. That’s part of the game, too. Gotta leave the person on stage stranded now and again. It’s no fun if everything goes too smooth.
Connie shakes her head.
“Line,” she mutters half under her breath.
Baum repeats his line.
“I don’t know anything about any shitting woman, honey.”
“Line,” Connie says. Like she’s lost. Because in a way she is. She’s forgotten herself on stage.
That’s a character, too, you know. The one who can’t remember their lines.
Rodney comes to her rescue.
“That’s not true and you know it. She was here again, wasn’t she?”
“Who?” Baum asks, unable to resist leaping to a next line.
“Your mom,” Connie says.
It’s not funny. But it is. And so Ever laughs. And then everyone’s laughing again except Tracy who looks to the window and counts too many faces.
“Wait,” she says, but nobody hears her.
She’s not smiling and she suddenly wishes she wasn’t at the end of the couch. Like the person in back of the line of friends, parading through the House of Horrors.
In the glass: Baum and Connie standing. Morris and Rodney at the far end of the couch. Oliver leaning back. Ever. Karen. Tracy.
And a ninth face. One not them.
“Oliver,” Tracy says.
Oliver turns to her, his eyes so present, so foreign, that it feels as if she’s gotten the attention of a wax statue.
“Is someone outside?” She asks.
“What’s up?” Ever says.
But when she looks back to the window she doesn’t see it anymore. There’s just the eight of them. All counted. All there. She looks to her friends. To the window. To her friends.
“Is someone outside?” Connie asks Baum.
“Line,” Baum says.
“Fuck,” she says. “I thought I fucking saw someone at the window.”
“Fuck,” Baum says, flailing his hands with flair. “I thought I fucking saw someone at the window!”
Oliver is at Tracy’s side before Ever gets there.
“Out there?” Oliver asks.
Oliver steps to the glass and cups his hands.
“Nope,” he says.
When he turns back to face the room, they’re all staring at him. Like Oliver is on stage now. He plays along.
Tracy, already standing, is on stage with him.
Baum and Connie take their glasses and squeeze onto the couch.
“Shall we?” Oliver asks Tracy. Then, “There’s probably nobody outside.”
Oliver looks so relaxed. More than that; the visage of a man who has arrived.
But at what?
“There’s nobody out there,” Oliver says. “Even if there were, it’s eight against one.”
“That’s no helping,” Karen says. Then, “Are you really worried, Tracy?”
“No, I just… the way you guys were moving… the reflection…” She’s tired of feeling pent up. Tired of not saying what’s on her mind. She wants to sit with Oliver and ask him how he is. She wants to stop comparing him now to what he was then.
She thinks of Donna. Way back when Morris helped Oliver mend a broken heart in a brick room on Avenue C, and as each of us took turns taking him him out to make sure he was still glued together, Tracy was the only one who visited Donna. Donna was living in Hoboken then and Tracy took the train to Jersey without telling the rest of us. Certainly without telling Oliver.
It’s one of the reasons I was once engaged to Tracy. Because she’s the kind of person that would check on the friend of a friend.
But her story from Donna’s house was a weird one. Donna wasn’t angry like Oliver said she was. Or at least that’s the impression Tracy got. Rather, Tracy framed it, Donna seemed more… afraid.
Afraid of what? I asked her then, all of us sans Oliver, tight together in the front booth at the Detroit Bar.
Tracy went on to paint a picture, Donna’s vision, of a darkness in Oliver that perhaps the rest of us should’ve recognized on our own. Yet, can you blame a friend for not seeing what a significant other can? There are things reserved for intimate eyes only. And while we all accepted Oliver Carpenter as a troubled, often brooding, possibly nihilistic friend, he was also endearing, charming, smart. Was he our odd man out? I suppose he was. But once you start keeping tabs on outs and ins… who’s centered?
The way Donna saw it, it wasn’t that Oliver had another man living inside him, someone else he wanted to be (we all have that), it was that Oliver would be someone else if the trade were offered.
I remember that night well. Remember feeling bad for Oliver. For Donna. The whole thing was a mess.
It bugged Tracy then and it bugs her now, standing on “stage” with Oliver the New, Oliver the Traded, Oliver the Unrecognizable, feeling still the dust from that trip to New Jersey, Donna’s perspective like headlights in Tracy’s winding road of a brain.
“Line,” Oliver says.
He doesn’t slouch. Doesn’t look out from behind low hanging bangs. Isn’t hard to find.
One of the reasons we all became such good friends with him was because of how explosive his performances could be. I’m not gonna lie and say he was a good actor, he wasn’t. But there were nights, two or three of them, when Oliver simply cracked the shell he lived in, when he exploded on stages, real stages, and touched the place within himself we’re all always trying to find in ourselves.
“I miss the city,” Morris says.
Everyone ooohs because that’s what friends are supposed to do. You’re supposed to ooh when a sensitive subject comes up during a game. Right? They ooh and Oliver says, “Ah,” before delivering the line in a way none of us have ever seen him act before. Like he’s no longer a punk thespian but Max von Sydow himself.
“I miss the city,” he says to Tracy. And Tracy looks back at him with such legit uneasiness in her eyes just hand her the Golden Globe on the spot.
“Line,” Tracy says. And so Ever feeds her a line.
“And the city misses you.”
Tracy breathes deep. Sometimes it’s intimidating to act in front of your actor friends. In some ways, I imagine it to be the biggest performances of any actor’s life, the way we show off or don’t, the moves we make, the characters we possess. And it’s not only a matter of they know. It’s not only because we’ve all shared teachers and classes and knowledge. I think it’s what being in a band must be like. You all know how good each other are, but you also believe there is no ceiling.
And anybody could touch greatness at any time.
“And the city misses you,” Tracy says.
There’s an intensity between her and Oliver. The kind that exists in no line.
Practical Baum steps up immediately with the next line for Oliver. Reliable Baum who could recognize a crack in a wall a hundred yards away.
“Then perhaps we’ll meet again.”
Oliver flashes a smirk. It’s an expression Tracy has never seen on his face before. It’s dismissive is what it is. Oliver is silently telling Baum his line is silly. Oliver has no plans on ever meeting the city again. Oliver is home now.
“Then perhaps,” Oliver says, shrugging as he steps toward Tracy, “we’ll meet again.”
Good move, Tracy thinks. Oliver altered the line with body language. He’s adding subtext. Tracy tries to focus on this. Oliver is playing for real.
“Let’s hope it’s not in an alley,” Morris says.
Tracy steps toward Oliver. She stares hard into his eyes. Can he see the real her? The way she feels right now? Does Oliver have any idea how much he’s put us all through over the past few weeks, the last six months, hell, since the day we met him? Can he sense the pain and worry he’s caused not only Tracy but everyone who is in this room, all who have come to visit him, to check on him, can he tell?
Then, a flicker. Something in his eye that says yes. He sees it! Is it sympathy? Is he sorry? Did Oliver just confess without opening his mouth, without turning away?
Tracy steps past him and spins like she’s out of a noir thriller.
“Let’s hope it’s not in an alley,” she says. “A little too in the dark for my tastes. I like things to be in the light, open, known.”
Tracy’s broken the rules and everyone knows it, but everyone also wants to hear how Oliver responds. Because, let’s be real, Tracy’s speaking for everybody now.
And theater is therapy for those who know it.
“Line,” Oliver says.
There’s some deflation. They wanted him to respond impromptu. I wonder now if I felt the disappointment myself, hundreds of miles away in a hotel lobby bar in St. Louis as I checked my phone and saw none of them had responded with an update.
“I’m open as a speakeasy,” Connie says.
Some laughter. Would’ve been funnier on a different night. But right now, Connie has put Oliver in an odd place, whether he knows it or not. That part’s hard to tell. What she’s done is force him to say he’s being himself when they all believe he’s not.
Oliver opens his mouth to speak, then turns to face his friends. He’s breaking the fourth wall and Tracy’s heart picks up speed. Oh shit, she thinks, Connie pushed the right button. Oliver isn’t playing the game anymore. His eyes are bright beneath the living room light that has only grown in intensity as the sky has darkened outside. He looks his friends straight in the eyes, one by one.
He pauses at each without blinking, as if he might say anything but the line that was fed to him, anything else in the world.
He looks at Tracy last. His lips curled again in a completely unrecognizable, cocksure smirk. This isn’t the philosophical punk from New York City who once passed out on the subway and woke up on Coney Island. This isn’t the man who was mugged four times in four years and if his friends were honest with themselves they’d admit it was because Oliver looked the part, looked like someone who might be mugged. This isn’t the guy who shocked his friends to Hell and back when he quietly, shyly, mumbled that he’d met a woman named Donna and that this Donna was his antidote to a life without meaning, a life without color, without light.
This isn’t that guy anymore.
Rather, this is the look of someone who is and has always been in complete control of how he presents himself. The strongest man in the world and the charlatan that demands you pay to see him.
“Who’s hungry?” Oliver says.
Morris rockets to a standing and raises his hand. “Me!”
Rodney raises his hand, too.
Then they’re all saying yes, fuck yes, we’re hungry, good God, good game, that was fun, that was one helluva run.
“Great,” Oliver says, looking Tracy’s way. “Let’s migrate to the kitchen. Let’s eat.”