Barrett Warner is the author of two poetry collections, Why Is It So Hard to Kill You? (Somondoco, 2016) and My Friend Ken Harvey (Publishing Genius, 2014). His recent work appears in Real Pants, Beloit Poetry Journal, The Adroit, Entropy. and Reality Beach. Last year, he received a Maryland Individual Artist Award for his nonfiction, and he was awarded the 2015 Tucson Book Festival essay prize for a chapter of his TB memoir, My Thousand Year Old Disease. In May, he made his stage debut as the alcoholic burglar Selsdon Mowbray in a regional revival of Noises Off.
Dancing on a Big White Cloud of Silence
The problem with first dates is that they often lead to second dates, which was why Colleen Kelly’s grim father drove us to her school for its late autumn production of “No-No Nanette.” We’d had our first date a few weeks before. There had been six couples, between thirteen and fourteen years of age, attired in jackets and gowns for a patio dinner party which included Mrs. Kelly’s Watergate salad—a lime green gelatin clotted with pistachios. Our dinner talk was festive, coming in short polite bursts. We asked what our fathers did for a living, or what we wanted to do when we grew up.
“Judge, General, or Surgeon?” Mike Malone said, after paper—knife—stone?
Winning a game of hand signs meant nothing to me. One always beat someone, and one always got beat by another. I was sweaty, and dabbed my forehead with a napkin, worried I’d have to admit my father was only a plumber or that I wanted to be a diplomat in a country known for accordion music. I liked the bouncy sounds it made, and how polka dancing was like extravagant walking round. Conjugating the verb venir took me places. Wasn’t Chevrolet a French car? It sounded so. Mostly, I wanted to excel in what had been my father’s most difficult subjects—associative thinking, foreign language, a longing for “the other.”
Dinner was followed by the “Homecoming” dance at Colleen’s Catholic girls’ high school across the Potomac River. Her Prussian blue satin dress had some papery under-layers that made whispering sounds when she moved, like leaves having conversations on windy days.
I wondered what it would be like to live in a tree.
“An accordion, huh,” Colleen said, folding herself toward my arms. The band began “Stairway to Heaven,” its female lead shout-singing the words into the gorilla amp. The only way to distinguish shadows from sleep-walking couples in the strobe-dotted dark light was to glimpse their teeth. Some of those grins were covered in metal.
I blushed and reached for Colleen’s shoulders, inviting her close to me under the mirror ball. My fingertips rained on her strapless back; the drops slid down the window pane. I set my chin between her shoulder and her dewy neck. I wanted to hide my face. My leisure suit had begun to crease and push out. I didn’t know if my erection—my first in anyone’s company—was for her, or for the intensity of the moment. We’d been pals from the last grade and we were dating as friends, surely like two boys.
A few marauding Sacred Heart nuns proctored the slow dances. The palsied hand tapping my hip belonged to one of them. Our bodies edged apart, and we snuck out of the dance to wander the campus and its seemingly haunted grottos. I’m sure that Colleen had wanted to kiss but I was lip shy—the more excited I grew, the quieter I became. And the quieter our interaction the more my mind raced—to the night, to the chain bridge leading us across the muddy Potomac into Georgetown. Other couples walked past our lion-footed bench. Such moans we heard, as if yes and no were the same phonetic syllable. Colleen’s body nudged against me. Her green eyes. Her freckled décolletage. I was wracked with dread. I wanted so badly to hold my breath until I passed through the whirl. Colleen stroked my arm and found my hand. I gasped.
The next week I went down into our basement and phoned her. She answered in her bedroom and told stories about her American Government class. I’d never heard the word Federalism quite the way she said it, with a bigness that traveled from her sturdy diaphragm. How could she like me, a kid who only stopped babbling to mumble? We were different in other ways, too. She was exhilarated by literal reality. I was a dreamer.
“It’s a door,” she said with a smirk on the phone after I asked her to describe the latched planks concealing her bedroom. “You’re supposed to open it and walk through.”
“Door-ness,” I said. “Walking through-ness.”
I liked how there wasn’t always talking. I liked hearing her breathe in my receiver. I held it to my ear like a conch shell. Once I reached under my shirt and touched my nipples exactly how I imagined touching her larger ones. Doesn’t desire begin with curiosity? But I was curious about everything, and my desire was infinite.
Colleen suggested a play at her school. She knew some of the cast. I’d never been on a second date. In fact I had seldom done anything twice in a row. And I’d never seen a play. The only performances I’d seen were Bobby Sherman and David Cassidy concerts with my sister Liz at Shady Grove’s “Theatre-in-the-Round,” and an ice skating exhibition featuring Peggy Fleming, whose turns were so sharp my mother said, “She could ice skate on a bottle cap.” While she skated a folk singer played guitar. Peggy flung herself into leaping spins each time he belted the words, “Mr. Bo Jangles,” then landed on his spiritless echo, “Dance.”
Moments before Colleen’s father arrived for pick up, I pulled on my most sophisticated dark green sweater. It made me look at least fifteen. On the drive to her school Colleen sat in front with her Dad and made subtle corrections to his driving style. His smile was a weak one, as if he were constantly listening to an unpleasant newscast that reminded him Gerald Ford had not won the election.
At her high school, Colleen and I sat together in folding chairs amid a remuda of her friends. The lights dimmed. Our mimeographed Playbills fell under our seats.
By the time Tea for Two, and Two for Tea was hitched to the dark-haired salty soprano I was lost in the show, drunk for the very first time. Here was the brilliant snake of theater. It bit me once, it bit me fifty times. Far from carving an X to suck and spit, I relished the poison coursing through me. Our second date had revealed exactly what I was. No longer boy and not yet man, not a realist but not a theorist either, the high school production of “No-No Nanette” made my place in the world as sure as the nuns standing guard: I was an actor.
Right away, I wanted to tell Mrs. French. We’d gotten close, as close as a messy boy could get to his former starchy principal. A few weeks after our eighth grade graduation party—a kissing party, with a “three second” rule—I’d spent a few days writing an adoration poem to Mrs. French, repeating lines to myself over and over as I push-mowed neighbors’ fussy lawns. She was an effusive, dedicated former nun. Her hair was short and bushy. Her lips were large, and her omnivorous ivory was congested and yellow. Her favorite expression made reference to “the cold light of day.” She made good use of it when boxing up our loose ties or taking a pair of scissors to an errant shirt tail. Her air of authority competed with an air of mystery. As far as anyone knew, the matronly Mrs. French was still a virgin, like us.
We wondered if she’d come from Europe where all the countries on the map were painted a different color.
I put the poem into an envelope and we began a rich correspondence. “You must audition,” she wrote after I told her about the musical. “Theater lets you fall in love with an idea instead of the actual doing it. It’s perfect for stutterers.”
Holding her crisp note, I felt like an angel, swooping and soaring.
Our school for boys was known for having a bad football team and a decent drama department. In this it was allied with its sister academy; drama was the only co-educational program offered and perhaps this was why it was so competitive. The drama director, Father Heet, had decided on a revival of "Our Town" for the winter production, and with a cast of three dozen I had an excellent chance to be chosen to play a grotesque mid-westerner with a horrible past.
Father Heet called me into the casting room. Seated with him were a half dozen stars from the previous production of “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” one of them, my good friend J. P. Fitzpatrick who had coached me on the importance of being able to scream.
“If you can scream, you’ll get a part,” he’d said. And so I had spent the week rehearsing in my bedroom. I didn’t consider my voice flat—I preferred to think of it as balanced. I also ate dozens of apples. My mouth was small, almost too small for my face, and I tried to slacken my jaw by eating Courtland apples with large crushing bites until my face muscles ached.
I was one of four students who didn’t get a part.
“You mustn’t lose faith,” Mrs. French wrote. “You must learn the craft.”
I saw the play three times. I’d invited Colleen but she had other plans. Her Federalism had yielded to Civics and the greater good. She wanted to save the planet. I imagined she was with boys who were getting all the parts.
Father Heet had commandeered the lunch cafeteria so as to produce Our Town from four stages at each compass point. JP emerged in front of a queue of ovens, a cone of harsh light cascading around his crutches.
Should I give more details about the play? Of course not. Each one seemed to exhilarate me with my own trauma.
Soon there was talk of a spring production, maybe “West Side Story,” or “Guys and Dolls,” or “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” All of them, the ideal versus the actual; life versus what you hoped life would be, kissing versus the kind of deeper kissing that stung your throat dizzy with pleasure.
Father Heet wasn’t my kind of priest, and I was not his kind of student. He was gregarious. I was a silent loner. He possessed excellent posture. I had my father’s poor arches and calf knees, and my mother’s aloof circulation. My mulch-colored hair obscured my ears, making it seem as if I were never listening. My eyes were little help. Their Living Dead irises were pale and grayish, dull with dreaming.
My cheekbones were my most prominent feature. Shaped like persimmon lumps under my skin, they were the first thing anyone would notice in a photo of me. Since the rest of my face was so unremarkable, rather than look at my eyes, or my mouth, anyone who talked to me stared at my cheekbones. I’d long ago acquired the habit of a three-quarter profile, the better for my persimmon to focus someone’s gaze. It made me prone to stumbling. I was side tracked by phenomena anyone else would have censored if he’d been staring straight ahead.
Father Heet marched a boastful stride that made him hard to eyeball. And although he’d taken a vow of surrender to God, his close-cropped beard winked at a controlling nature. Perhaps he didn’t think of it as surrender to God. More like, a truce. His normal talking voice could deafen young elephants, and his famous scream—we’d all heard it—could smash cinder blocks. Hardly anyone missed his telling me that I was failing, and that if I needed two years to “process” The Scarlet Letter I would need four years to get through The Merchant of Venice.
I preferred the older priests—the silent, grouchy, stooped-over, and shuffling Father Godley who’d been a Golden Glove boxer in 1923, or the smokers like Father McNally—who always seemed surprised to find any students in his Morality Workshop. “Oh,” he’d say, raising his eyes from the Book of Samuel, “You’re still here.”
McNally hadn’t been outside the Oblate Residence since the 1950s, but his brief rollick in France had left an impression. He’d pause in a lesson about Glorious Mysteries to tell us about Montparnasse, or singing and running across the many-bridged Seine. He’d been in love, I was sure of it, and I was an eager little Bugatti to his Camus-era misadventures, and more than a little addicted to the sweet ashy smoke he constantly blew at me in class.
“We’ve all been brainwashed by the Renaissance,” McNally told me. “Hardly anyone knows that Moses had high cheekbones too, but it’s a fact.”
No one ever made an issue of the obvious. Neither Heet, nor Mrs. French, nor Colleen. Not the twenty-three students in our Eighth grade, nor the two hundred or so in our small Salesian high school. Not the jocks. Not the dope smokers. Not the actors. I had a speech impediment and while it was one of my secrets, it was impossible for anyone not to notice. Nerves worsened it, and auditions made a spectacle of it. My only chance for Hamlet would have been if Shakespeare had written it for a woodpecker with fish lips and a swiveling gait.
Despite my having long silences between spoken syllables, I felt put on this Earth to perform, but some black garbed creature with a rosary in his pocket had been put on the same Earth to make sure I didn’t. The simplest solution was to avoid Father Heet. There were lots of classes besides English and Drama in our lyceum. Four of these—science, drawing, Spanish, and French—were taught by women, the only ones on our campus except principal Father Norman’s receptionist, whose son was in my class.
Maybe if Sister Francis could help me become an artist, I could work in set design.
The funny thing about taking French and Spanish was that I had no problem speaking the words. As long as no one else understood me I could speak just fine. Hearing me recite Cervantes one day, the Model United Nations director Father Hurley suggested that diplomacy was a lot like musical theater and I should consider trying out. “What country do you want to be?” he asked. “Austria,” I said, remembering the hilly setting of “The Sound of Music.” He waved his hand and directed me to sit beside “Germany.”
Thursdays were for experiments in the science lab. We suffered hours of chemical theory for the moment that we could light Bunsen Burners—four of us to a beaker—to effect some fantastic reaction under the Bavarian scrutiny of Mrs. Egghart. But the science caught me unawares, and oxygenating water couldn’t explain why Hester had chosen that dark path into those gnarled woods. What had she been looking for? What had she been doing?
Thomas Lint found me one day behind the stage. Another shy one, but brainier than me, he had discovered my secret place in the prop storeroom. There were large cans of paint in there, klieg lights, and racks of costumes recycled from “Carousel” and “Cabaret.” I would slip inside from time to time, close my hands together, and pray for a part. Thomas and I got to talking. He was a pianist and knew some harmonies. “I’m running a special this week on half-diminished seventh chords,” he said. “Boy meets girl or girl meets boy?”
“Her name is Colleen,” I said. “She’s always taking the elevator and he’s always taking the stairs.”
“An elevator,” Thomas said. “I like that. And we can have escalators too, with horn players going up and cellos going down.”
“Can it take place in Montreal?” I asked. I’d recently learned French was spoken in Quebec. “It would make it sort of international.”
Thomas drove his own car. What times we had, sneaking into the Kennedy Center to spy the Cuban prima Alicia Alonso or the one-act miracles of Tom Stoppard. Then off we’d race to the Café du Paris at 18th and Canal Streets for an extravagant square of torte for which we had no money in our pockets to pay. The neck-scarfed waiters with gaunt Aladdin Sane faces let it slide, appreciating our modest attempts to wave sparklers at their hard-won ennui.
It was Thomas’ idea that I try out for the school production of “Bye-Bye Birdie.” He reminded me that I had a passing resemblance to Elvis Presley and—with a little spiffy pomade—I could use that to help me get the lead. After school I used a charcoal stick from art class to smudge sideburns in front of my ears. Thomas reverse-combed a wave into my crown, and feathered the back of my head into a “duck ass.” I turned up my pants cuffs. “Wait,” Thomas said as I motioned towards the casting room. He slipped two fingers into his vest pocket and retrieved an unfiltered cigarette which he wedged onto my ear. “Break a leg,” he said.
Father Heet was not enthusiastic. He interrupted the audition to suggest I join the football squad. It was my sixth acting rejection in less than two years, and the football team needed plus-sized bodies like mine. I went home to have the unpleasant conversation any son might have with his mother. “Mom,” I began. But then I was stuck. My consonants ran together. I was choking on basic words. “What is it, dear?” she said. “Did something happen at school?”
“Mom,” I said. I closed my eyes so I could speak more plainly into my own dark. “They want me on the football team. I need you to buy me a jockstrap.”
Coach Callahan was a three-sport coach, directing football, basketball, and track and field. His favorite expression was “the moral of the story” and he’d use it to motivate the company. He’d say, waltzing into the locker room in a swaggy, double-knit, off the rack suit, “The moral of the story is: you can look like a million bucks even without a dime in your pocket.” His wife or girlfriend—we weren’t sure which—was four inches taller than he. During basketball games, when he led her across the parquet court to the varnished bleacher seat, she carried her heels in her hand.
Except for one or two thrilling games a year, the football team consistently lost. Coach held dear the idea that the team needed a trick, a gimmick, a movie-worthy scheme to pull wins. One year, he blackened the windows of the gymnasium’s double doors, but everyone knew what was going on inside: Coach had hired a ballet instructor to teach the team better balance. At Helen Anastassov’s gruff insistence, our star running back, Tony Calabrese, jumped around on his toes, staging a rogue “Swan Lake” in helmet and shoulder pads.
The season had already started when I presented myself to Coach. There was a gleam in his eye; a hope that I might be the secret to a winning season. He sent me out to hit blocking skids, saying, “Hit them until you kill them and kill them until they’re dead.” On the field I saw myself as the picture of athleticism, imagining myself a hopeful foundling who finds himself surprisingly capable with pigskin in his hands. That my performance did not translate to actual prowess didn’t affect Coach Callahan’s hopes for my place on the team. He had me, and by God he’d use me somehow.
In the locker room after practice, my new teammates hooted and pointed in my direction. A linebacker taunted my crotch. “Are you afraid of getting hit in the ass?”
My testicles swung freely; I’d put my jockstrap on backwards. I’d had a fifty percent chance of getting it right and I’d gotten it wrong. The boys were silly with laughter. Alerted by the fanfare, Coach Callahan stormed into the locker room. “That’s enough of that,” he said. “To show me how much of a team you are, tomorrow I want all of you to wear your jockstraps backwards.”
Though he remained faithful in my role as talisman, Coach was reluctant to play me. I didn’t break a sweat for two games, but I ate a pile of quartered oranges anyway. In the third game we had a chance to score. Time was running out. We had to stop the clock. Coach’s fox eyes landed on me. “Warner, get in there,” Coach Callahan snorted. “Don’t get near the ball. After the play runs I want you to fall to the ground with a knee injury.”
It was my first acting job and I didn’t disappoint. I trotted onto the field fastening my chin strap, mouth guard flopping in front of my face mask. To keep the sun’s glare from sizzling my eyes, Thomas had streaked my golf ball cheeks with shoe polish. The quarterback Ricky Mondlach hustled off the play. I threw myself at linemen much bigger than I and when the play ended I lay rocking side to side on the turf, suffering as loud as I dared. Referees and teammates leaned over me. I threw my head back in anguish. My lids dropped as I feigned unconsciousness. Coach Callahan came running with first aid. He cracked two ammonium capsules—smelling salts—under my nose. The smell of horse piss stung the air and I shook my head. Suddenly alert, I felt like Dorothy waking from her tornado. Father Heet and Father Norman were there. In the nearly vacant bleachers Thomas held binoculars to his face. The six cheerleaders went down on one knee and held their pom-poms aloft as I was carried from the field, Coach Callahan passing the next play to Calabrese in a whisper.
Over the next three games I “separated” my shoulder, “tore” ligaments in my other knee, and “blacked out.” A concussion was easy to fake since most thought I was suffering from one all the time. We lost all of those games, but for two or three crucial minutes we showed that we could throw something on the rails that could stop a train. My injury theater bought our team some precious time.
Thomas gave each of my performances a standing ovation. The Oblates who ran our school, and a few pimply stragglers who’d come to watch the cheerleaders, were the only other audience. If the Fathers suspected anything, they only whispered in murmured Latin. Wasn’t that the point of Divine Eloquence—to discuss something that was Holy with words in a foreign tongue?
The mystery wasn’t whether my upside-down acting would end, but how. I disavowed Coach Callahan not to get near the ball and there it was, tipped off someone’s pad and falling towards the basket I made with my hands. For a brief second no one did anything. The big league opponents from Bullis High, who had by then heard of my acting skills, were shocked. My teammates were momentarily displaced; there wasn’t a player in my path as I started to run. I made six or seven squealing yards before my feet tripped over themselves and I fell to the turf. A nearby cornerback widened his skinny arms towards my ribcage, threatening to tackle me, and I looked to the sidelines for a signal.
“Grab your spleen!” Coach shouted, hugging his middle in a furious demonstration.
It was the sort of direction I needed. I could act, but only if the director were in the wings, yelling for more, yelling for tears, yelling for silence, yelling for dance, yelling me through every stride, scripting every motion and word that came out of me.
I pulled my knees up and choked on the pain; the cornerback held back his hands and my first play ended as my very last. I looked in the stands for Colleen Kelly, but she wasn’t there. Instead, gustily waving two thumbs up from the bleachers was my friend JP dressed like a greaser, taking a break from play practice. I wasn’t sorry he’d gotten the role of Birdie; he had one of those voices that made you wish he could always be singing to everyone.
I had never heard of an eighth grade class having a forty year reunion. I’d passed on my thirty year high school and college milestones. What did I care about those boys and the priests or the fraternity brats who had more heart than I? The Actual was still my biggest problem. But the idea of something—a hint of intimacy with Colleen—could eventually add up to a life that was sufficient if unmemorable. That was me. I was still in love with the ocean, but the swells made me nauseous.
The date was set for the last part of April, a week before the Derby. I would have three weeks to get my haircut. Three weeks to practice my screams.
Some years ago I’d heard Thomas Lint went to Kansas. I had no idea where—Topeka? Wichita? Life was too short to waste by asking, “Why?” The point of Father McNally’s Salesian bible, The Cloud of Unknowing, was to ask as little as possible and merely accept the disorder. But I often wondered what became of Thomas and whether or not he still played piano. We’d been so close, and then we’d never crossed paths again. I thought about him as I drove south from Baltimore on the interstate. No doubt, he would have been a better match for Colleen. I deftly pulled the scratched wedding band from my ring finger and buried it in my trouser pocket. Would she lean into me? Would she take my hand? Of course she wouldn’t. I was sure that she was married. In the lead-up correspondence she’d learned I lived with horses on a small farm. I’d learned she was one of the presidents of the Girl Scouts of America. Why had she yellowed her hair? I couldn’t say. Why was mine so gray? A thousand anguishes.
Outside Laurel, I passed a small brown sign with the words “Racetrack, This Exit.” I veered off the highway to find a coffee and a flakey treat and soon I felt better. My shaking stopped and the needles in my chest went back to their sewing kit. If I continued down this road a few miles there would be another sign: “The Winner’s Circle, Straight Ahead.” My car was idling. The light was green. One at a time, the queue of motorists behind me elbowed their horns. A few pulled around me with horrific pantomime on their faces. There were three possibilities to my stone-paper-knife. Take this way, or that, or this.
Maybe Colleen would wonder why I didn’t go to the reunion. I hoped so, and made a left-handed turn to the comfort of losing again.