there are five overhead lights set up, three across the front of the stage and two across the back. below the back light at stage left is a circle of six chairs. below the back light at stage right is a weight bench with a bar and weights set up for bench pressing. below the front light furthest stage right is an acoustic guitar on a stand. initially, the light above the chairs is the only one on. seven people enter from stage left. the people are all wearing gray sweatsuits.
they begin to play a game of musical chairs, but there is no music. they react by instinct. when one of them tries to sit down, they all try to sit down as if the music has stopped. the first one without a seat goes to stand under the front light furthest stage left. the light does not turn on. one of the chairs from the circle is removed. the game of musical chairs begins again.
the second one without a seat goes to stand under the front light furthest stage left with the first one without a seat. the light above them turns on. they begin to play a game of rock-paper-scissors, although the rules are slightly different. the game starts off normally, and both participants call out as they slam their fists into their palms “rock, paper, scissors, show!” if there is a draw, they play again. if there is a winner, however, the penalty for losing is the winner smacks the loser in the face. this is a real smack, and the first time, there is no response from the loser, but as the game goes on, there is anticipation and reaction. the loser begins to react by trying to hold the winner’s hand so there is no smack, but there is always a smack. the loser tries to plead with the winner, “please, no, don’t smack my face.” the pleas get more desperate as the game progresses.
one of the chairs from the circle is removed, and the game of musical chairs progresses.
the third one without a seat goes to the weight bench. the light above the weight bench turns on. the third one without a seat begins to bench press, doing as much as the third one without a seat can until there is complete fatigue. upon complete fatigue and with the bar of weights resting on his/her chest, the third one without a seat calls out for help. someone from the musical chairs game or the rock-paper-scissors game will come and help lift the bar off his/her chest. the third one without a seat starts bench pressing again until fatigue, repeating the call for help. as the weight lifting progresses, the calls for help will become more immediate and more desperate.
one of the chairs from the circle is removed, and the game of musical chairs continues.
the fourth one without a seat goes to the front middle of the stage and the light turns on. the fourth one without a seat begins to do a set of “burpees.” the cycle of a “burpee” is as follows: stand straight up, squat down with a knee bend, jump feet back into a push up position, complete a push up, jump feet forward into a squat position, jump up to standing, and repeat. the fourth one without a seat continues this process. as fatigue sets in, the fourth one without a seat will urge himself/herself on with chants like “come on,” “get tough,” and “don’t be a baby.”
one of the chairs from the circle is removed, and the game of musical chairs starts up again.
the fifth one without a seat goes to stand under the front light furthest stage right and picks up the acoustic guitar. the light turns on, and the fifth one without a seat plays a song that goes like this:
G D G D Em Bm D
i want a strong man. i want a strong man with muscles like coins in a tin can.
the song is repeated.
one of the chairs from the circle is removed. there is now only one chair and two people. they begin a subtle battle of wits for the final seat. when one tries to sit down, the other immediately pulls the chair out from underneath. if one actually sits down, the other will physically remove him/her from the seat and the circle begins again.
all of the stations progress like this. the progress is brought to an end by a sequential process of turning out the lights. the first light to turn out is the one over the game of musical chairs. when the light goes out, the game stops. the second light to go out is the one over the game of rock-paper-scissors. when the light goes out, the game stops. the two continue to plead with each other in the dark, “please, no, don’t smack my face.” the third light to turn off is the one over the bench press. as the light turns out, the bench pressing stops, the weight is racked, but this individual continues to plead for help in the dark. the fourth light to turn out is the one over the individual performing the burpees. he/she stops the burpee cycle but continues his/her self-psyching up in the dark. the final light to turn out is the one over the guitar player/singer. when this light turns out, he/she stops playing and singing. this is followed by a cessation of the psyching-up, followed by a cessation of the pleading to not face-smack. in the dark, the only thing that can be heard is the desperate plea for help. this will ultimately stop and the dance is over.
dancing for a wartime president
when i learned that my father knew the insides of thighs, that he was responsible for squandering moles and other birthmarks, i bought a pair of dancing shoes and polished them to ice. i walked to my rehearsals across asphalt, stepping out of puddles into new ones. i was taught the fox trot, the boston, and the cruella de ville.
i was wrapped in green, issued a helmet in which to keep my concussion, dusted with dandruff to encourage my own skin to stay clean. i was transported to the front lines as blood cupped in the hands of a pretty girl. in the faces of my superiors, i noticed crumpled bells harboring cotton hammers. only the smacking of tongues on teeth made sound. i was served cherry wine in a skull full of rotten brain, told that my urine was mine to keep, admonished that the brain must stay in the skull. i was informed that i was fit to meet the president, although it was clear to me that i was just a body writhing in a stream of breath like a bentup pinwheel.
i kept the static in my eyes and the mud in my heels. under a thatched roof, monsieur poltergeist demonstrated for me the freshest calisthenics. his brow was damp, and he glistened like all those skinless patriots with vultures clutching their hearts. my feet took to the step, the number busted my valves into a new rhythm, my head fell off and nothing changed, my ironclad shoesoles clicked out a code that both sides claimed to understand. brazen crows slumped against the back wall, gawked at the instruction, and massaged their amputations with little maggots sweating in the blackened plumage.
on the day of my performance, i was locked in a glitzy angel suit, and i could feel pain only in my wings. i was collected by monsieur poltergeist in his official off-roading vehicle, which smelled of salted highways and flowers pressed between encyclopedias. he deposited me at the performance hall and said, “son, let the shells crack and howl under your weight for you already have the meat in your belly.” i was then hoisted to the lip of a sevenfoot wall by two men in armored sleeves and pushed down to the other side. i could feel drifts of hair against my face, gnarled fingers against my diaphragm, polluted odors in my nose. i opened my eyes to a helplessness of people, and i was sinking into their agitation like a grass-stain into a tablecloth. i heard monsieur poltergeist barking, “dance! dance! don’t let them suck you down!” i raised myself to the curl of the crowd, stepping onto shoulders, pulling up on ears and eye sockets. i reached the top and started my dance on already bruised faces, already bloody noses, already broken wills, but my pace was unsatisfactory for monsieur poltergeist. he began to fire his pistol at my feet. restless bullets lodged in the throats of those below, ricocheted off my silver shoes, flirted with skin, and then crushed bone. when a body dropped, a new one was brought in. monsieur poltergeist counted time with bullets in my body. the movement progressed. blood clung to my clothes, blood pooled in the concavity of my glasses, blood divorced from its master found freedom in my wounds, blood was bartered in an unfair exchange. the movement progressed. as i inhaled for my final arabesque, there was a crack from the gun, my body toppled over into the throng, and air wheezed out of a hole in my head.
all of this blood, i thought.
wren james lives quietly near the ocean with his wife and children. recent work has appeared here and there. find him on the internet: @wrenajames and wren-james.tumblr.com