Potion Magazine - Poetry + Fiction
Thomas David Lisk

    Tonight's performance was to be a Greek piece done "in sixties style," whatever that meant, probably something to do with hippies: bright colors, drugs, rock music and maybe some innocent nudity. Once in awhile the theater board gave in to a director and was brave about not trying to please the public.

    Pettibon had looked forward to the evening with his usual dread vying with excitement. He had been reviewing little theater productions for the Clemens Clarion for two years. He couldn't enjoy the performance, knowing that he would have to sit up until one or two a.m. typing his review to get it to the paper on his way to work the next morning. Reviewing was a hobby. His day job was as an associate attorney with Fulton and Stiles. He wanted to produce works of art. Instead he wrote briefs and memoranda daily, and occasionally reviewed little theater performances.

    As usual on opening night, the rest of the theater was almost deserted. Though the theater provided two tickets, the seat next to him remained empty. He disliked bringing anyone with him to work. Playgoing was a sensuous experience he preferred to enjoy alone.

    He sat in the dim theater in his usual third row aisle center seat, the usual two rows of seats partly filled with the usual season subscribers, nearly all women, nearly all over sixty. He wondered if it was different for full time reviewers at famous papers. Probably not. The public was waiting for his assessment, he thought, not without sarcasm. Nonetheless, as always, he had an innocent hope that the show might be wonderful, a hope he would not mention in his review, for it would make him appear naive.

    The lights went down and a handsome young woman appeared in front of the curtain. Dressed in a crinkly blue chiton, a minimal costume, she was stunning. If Pettibon could have her for an evening, would she love him into different life? The Greeks had slaves, but Pettibon was under the impression they weren't black. For her, he decided to suspend his disbelief.

    On closer examination, the crinkles proved to be wrinkles. The chiton was of thin cotton. "Trojans Succeed in Cotton Chitons." Was it Indian cotton? Did the Greeks have flatirons?

    The theater darkened.

    "Good evening, ladies and gentleman." Had she botched the plural, or was he the only male in the house? He checked the impulse to swing his head around. What momentous announcement was coming? The Greeks fathered culture, invented the drama and all that, but they could be shocking too, with their priapic mileposts honoring Dionysos and their bloodthirsty swordsmanship in hand to hand combat.

    "There's an error in your printed program. The part of Omphale will be taken by Emily Dickinson."

    Pettibon looked at the program. All the actresses' "real" names were those of women writers, Louisa May Alcott, Vita Sackville West, Aphra Behn, Sappho, even Felicia Hemans. The "writers" were to play Greek characters - or at least characters with anglicized Greek names: Eugenia, Phyllis, Myra, Melanie, Phoebe, Agatha, Cynthia, and so on. He decided the actress on stage must be "Melanie."

    Melanie's short chiton revealed long dark legs. Her thick hair was cropped like a man's, a style called a "natural" in the sixties. In ancient Greece, no enemy could clutch so short a coif to deal the death blow. The thick straps of Melanie's oily looking leather sandals appealed to Pettibon, but he knew the theater 's illusions. The sandals were surely as inauthentic as she was, not only not Greek, but not even leather. In his review he would compliment the lighting.

    Would the old women in front of him notice if Melanie wore no undergarments? Before she slipped behind the faded blue curtain the little theater had inherited from the high school, Pettibon couldn't be quite sure if her "brave vibrations glittered each way free" (he remembered the line from "Upon Juliaís Clothes" by Robert Herrick). Still, whether the unbracing of Melanie's bosom were real or imagined, Pettibon was tickled by a little tremor of desire. Why shouldn't the public be pleased?

    After a minute, reedy music in the Dorian mode came into the air from a recording playing in the control booth behind him, and the curtains parted. On the stage a second curtain, this one of robed women with their backs to the audience, hid all but the head of a young man. They were chanting, but he couldn't make out the words. Was it Greek?

    The young man uttered words of defiance, in English. A hand lashed out from the crowd of women and struck his face, and a woman rose out of the mob to turn and face it. Now instead of two curtains there were two audiences. Half the crowd gave way to make the rising woman visible to the theater audience. The other half concealed most of the man, who must have been standing on something to elevate his head above the women.

    Pettibon was pierced by an intense version of the brief thrill that always ran through him when the curtain opened. On stage there was always the expectation of great beauty, the possibility of great art. He hadn't read the play before he came. No one in the Clarion audience cared how literate he was. They wanted to know how entertaining the play was.

    The woman speaking now was beautiful in an austere middle aged way. She spoke in a measured voice, a glint of anger, a grumble in her tone. "This man," she was saying, "this man has wronged the city, our city. This man who once pretended to rule over us must die to purge our land and give us freedom from the plagues that curse us."

    Pettibon knew her, had seen her at the supermarket or the PTA, but he'd never noticed her elegant bone structure before. Or was it make up, in spite of the starkness of the production? He didn't know her well and had always assumed she was older than he was. Now he wasn't so sure. He tried to read the program. Medea? Virginia Woolf. She resembled Virginia Woolf, the elegant beauty of the girl in the gaunt, witty face of the woman. It pleased him that he had the maturity to see the beauty of this older woman. What did the folksong say? "There's no wrinkled crone/ In her dry skin and bone/ Who's not a young girl in her heart." And vice versa.

    The man on stage must have been a boy king. What play was this based on? The Lysistrata? The Trojan Woman? It didn't sound like either. A Greek Piece. That was actually the title. Pettibon couldn't even be sure whether or not it was supposed to be funny. He wished he'd done his homework. All he could think of was Dionysos and Apollo, chaos and order. Someone in his audience would be sure to know all about the play even if he didn't, and write a complaining letter to the editor, curse it. Actually, that had never happened.

    The crowd chanted in assent:
This man who brought us snakes and winds,
Who scorched us in the flames of warlike passion,
This curse of female life, this thing must die.
    Hokum. Surely a woman would rise from the crowd in dramatic defense of the man.

    "Pledge yourselves to this: I will have nothing to do with lover or husband, even if he come to me in strength and passion. I will do my work in perfect chastity and rest at home in a saffron colored robe to inspire the most ardent longings."

    That sounded like Lysistrata.

    "Bitches!" the man on stage said. A white haired woman in front of Pettibon jumped, then giggled. "Bitches, a pack of hounds tearing at the lion." No, no one would defend him after that. Why weren't more old women rising, offended, to leave the theater ?

    "Silence!" shouted Virginia/Medea.

    The crowd curtain opened to reveal the man tied to a stake over bundles of sticks. The stake he was tied to appeared to be a truncated telephone pole. Could this be a lesbian production, the work of a gay feminist supported by some newly liberated and newly liberal members of the board?

    The entire row in front of him let out a gasp. The young man was completely naked and had an projection so fat it stood out less than straight. Obviously fake, Pettibon reflected. The Greeks used a leather shaft: olisbos? This was something like pink plastic. No actor could perform like that by an act of mere will. As far as Pettibon could tell, the male's name was missing from the program.

    "Bring the fire," Virginia said.

    Choreographed like clockwork, the women all shifted slowly so that when the torch bearer came in, they were all nearly facing the audience. He'd expected a flame of cellophane, but the torch burnt too brightly to be ersatz, flame leaping like his heart. When would the army appear to rescue the man on stage? God forbid that Pettibon, a humble reviewer, might have to do something himself to rescue his fellow male. If in his review he praised the fellow's acting he might be taken as responding too favorably to his own sex.

    Music started behind him, eerily at first, reedy like the opening tune. A pounding bass beat became more pronounced until the women were dancing, bare legs and feet lifting out of the dark robes. He searched the corps for Melanie, but he couldn't find her. A whiff of kerosene finally hit his nostrils.

    One by one but always with a crowd still on stage, the dancers slipped off, reappearing moments later, having shed their robes and added masks of glossy ceramic. Besides the masks hiding their faces but not their bodies, all they wore were bikini bottoms, in an array of colors, mostly pastel. Unlike the homogeneous robes, the panties were individual. The production board would have had no difficulty getting local merchants to donate underwear for the show, Pettibon reflected, trying to keep his grip on reality.

    Virginia had disappeared, but a dark girl who had unbound her long straight hair arrested Pettibon's attention. Her breasts bobbled like exotic fruit whose name he'd heard but which he'd never tasted. A red haired girl with white skin and freckles he couldn't quite see danced across his vision. Then an ordinary looking brown haired high school girl with an opulent body made his heart stop, until a golden girl who looked as if she should have sunglasses in her hair caught his eye. The stage was full. The serene, unmoving masks equalized the actresses and gave the scene a peaceful air.

    "I have no right to experience sex this way," Pettibon thought. "I've got a wife and children at home. I didn't seek out or even pay for sex; the newspaper sent me. I'm a lawyer, not a sex maniac."

    The stirrings of his own desire filled Pettibon with yearning guilt. There was a world outside him that he couldn't have, a world of beauty he not only couldn't possess and which was in fact oblivious of his existence. Lust was more frustrating than great art. O for the great Dionysian revelry of the Greeks, the ecstasy, the standing outside himself! Instead he was pulled half out and left writhing, ignored, absurd. But he didn't know whom to blame. Had the women had pulled him out? Had the play? Or he had pulled himself?

    The dance went on, a slow motion snake dance, sinuous and hypnotic. The old women in the seats in front of Pettibon had once been beauties, had strong thighs, round buttocks and tight breasts. Would the dancing girls on stage be so lovely in a different light, a different time?

    "Not for the kids," he'd say in his review, though the kids might enjoy it more than they'd enjoy an actual Greek tragedy, more than the old ladies were enjoying these febrile young women prancing on stage, more than Pettibon himself had enjoyed Oedipus Rex the one time he saw it performed. Who was he to speak for the old ladies? But he'd spoken for them before in his reviews, telling them to come or not to come. In fact they paid him no attention at all. They bought their tickets before the season began, before the plays were even announced.

    Pettibon believed art should affirm life, and this play did that, stalling the old women as it was stalling him. He wanted the dance to stop so he could take the experience home and savor it. The play was altering his life, but was less than his life. He searched the dancers with his eyes, a starved man watching a table just out of reach. The experience was no different from the rest of his existence, just more explicit. He looked at women all the time.

    The dance stopped. Medea appeared with the torch in her hand. She made another speech.

    Curious what would happen with the fire, Pettibon squirmed at the sight of the stilled smooth backs of the women, flawless, all athletic and shapely. He tried to calm himself by thinking of false teeth, ingrown hairs and mentholatum, but that particular panacea was imperfectly effective.

    "How can you do this to me?" he kept thinking. The performers must have known the audience would have some response. After all, they were just pretending. They must have known some men in the audience might be driven crazy, or at least might not respond the way the performers wanted. But he didn't know how the performers wanted him or anyone else in the audience to respond.

    The bound man was young, and in spite of his alarming projection, girlish looking. "Burn the son of a bitch," Pettibon thought to the women. "Then you and I will be alone."

    One or more of the women in a frenzy of passion from all that erotic dancing would be bound to prefer a "real" man such as Pettibon himself, with thinning hair, a slack gut and patches of fur on his neck and shoulders. Actresses and actors, thrown together during rehearsals and performances, often fall in love, often find the roles they play similar to the people they are. Reviewers and actresses never fall in love with each other.

    Virginia/Medea addressed her captain, a girl Pettibon identified as Omphale/Emily Dickinson, a wraith like beauty with dark brown eyes and a chignon of thick auburn hair. Emily wore a sword in a scabbard on a sash across her bare chest. "He is the last man," Virginia said.

    "The others are dead," Emily answered.

    Pettibon detected a note of reluctant sadness in her voice. She was a skillful actress.

    "Stop!" a throaty voice shouted.

    In came a troop of soldiers, helmeted, with brass colored plates encasing their torsos and shins, and flourishing swords and bows. The rectangular nose protectors of the helmets hid their faces, making them harsh and metallic in contrast to the bright expressionless masks of the dancers. Virginia's and Emily's faces were naked, pale and exquisite. Pettibon wanted to hold their elegant cheekbones between his palms - but not if they were caked with make-up.

    "I speak mercy," said the armored chief. Pettibon sighed with relief that the men were not dead after all. If all the men had been killed, what would Pettibon's wife think of the responsibilities that would now be piled on him?

    "Kill the lion so the gazelle may be free," Emily/Omphale said, with Medea's obvious approval.

    "Kill rhetoric so art can be free," Pettibon thought.

    This was terrible play. But it affected him more than had some better ones he'd seen, perhaps because the acting was more natural a bizarre thought, considering the costumes and the dialogue. Maybe it was the dancing, a form of expression that stylizes mimesis in displays of natural skill. He suspected that eventually the Greeks would break up the drama, then reassemble as their alter-ego writers to discuss the play. Sappho and Virginia Woolf were "real" writers, Pettibon only a reviewer.

    "We will join battle and the victors will have this man," Virginia/Medea said, sweeping her arm around.

    The male leader assented. So the faggots wouldn't be torched after all. The male captain, whose name wasn't in the program (Pettibon squinted in the dim light trying to read his damp and twisted program), doused the flame in a convenient wooden bucket. The room went dark and the curtain closed, instantly opening again on darkness.

    Pettibon fretted that he might have seen the last of the naked women, then fretted that they might come on again and deflate his heart like a collapsed pig bladder. The way things were shaping up, he wouldn't sleep that night, but he wouldn't get the review written either. Good lord, what were they doing backstage, those naked girls and armored men, copulating in an orgiastic frenzy?

    Two women rose out of the darkness on stage. One held a candle, the only light in the windowless theater. They chatted in voices so low he couldn't hear them. He'd note that in his review. "Some of the supporting actresses did not project as well as they should have, but all in all the performance is worth a look." He had a terrifying sense they were talking about him.

    The stage emptied again, the curtain closed, then whooshed open on a fiery battle scene. Out of the welter of women thrusting at each other with foil covered sabers and whanging imaginary arrows from the tight arcs of their small bows, Emily and the male leader made their way to center stage and locked in combat. Arms raised, heads and hands clasped over their heads, they wove back and forth in an erotic dance that might have been choreographed by Balanchine to music by Debussy, though the noises sounded more like Schoenberg no doubt distressing to some of the ladies in the audience.

    Slowly he flooded with feeling for Emily, and suddenly he was in love with her, her hair loosened and swaying, her slender arms raised to reveal goatbeards of auburn hair in her armpits. He thought about leaving his seat to help her, then about leaving his wife to run away with her. "Man Leaves Family, In Love With Illusion." He could see himself walking arm and arm with Emily in some arboreal foreign city, where strangers would see only a pathetic old man and his nurse.

    The helmeted male stopped the battle, pointed at Pettibon and said, "You!" in a clear emphatic voice. Pettibon was aroused. The women in front of him turned.

    "Come!" the soldier said.

    "I wish I could," Pettibon said, not sure whether anyone could hear him. In the presence of this beautiful woman and forceful man, he felt like a turtle without its shell.

    "Come on," one of the old women said.

    "You must," the soldier said, tearing off his helmet. He was not a man, but was he Melanie in male get-up? If so, she was not a slave but the captain of the guard.

    Emily knelt and unbuckled the soldier's shin guards. The soldier undid her own arm guards and breast plates. Now Pettibon recognized the chiton. Tricks of lighting had made it appear a different color, had made the small parts of her body exposed under the armor appear male colored. Unlike the others, her breasts were covered by the bodice of her chiton. She lifted the short skirt and bent backward to thrust out her naked body. She was ready for him.

    Pettibon saw light glinting in the grey circles of the spectacles of an old woman in the audience twisted in her seat to look back at him. The lights were still aimed at the stage.

    "I don't love you," he said. He was thinking of his wife.

    "I don't care," Emily said.

    "Don't be a pansy," an old woman said.

    "You don't know who I am," he said to both of them.

    "I know who you are," Emily said. "And I've loved you since the first moment I saw you."

    Pettibon went weak inside. His desire melted. He felt very happy. "That's not love," he said. "That's infatuation."

    "We want you to be our savior," Emily said. "My personal savior." The implication was that the black captain {Melanie in fact) might hurt her. The two women seemed evenly matched.

    As if to verify the threat, Melanie said, "Come up here or I'll cut off your balls."

    "My mother never talked to me that way. She always had breakfast waiting."

    "See," said Emily, with a note of pleading in her voice, "he's nice. He doesn't have any balls."

    "Will there be wine at the intermission?" he asked, killing time. Somewhere along the way he had stood up.

    "He needs to pee," one of the old women whispered.

    "I do not," he snarled, "you do."

    "La de da," she clucked.

    "Stop stalling," the guard said.

    "I'll be thinner at forty than I was at thirty. I'm getting more exercise and I'm on a diet. Can't this wait?"

    "Honey, you look fine the way you are," Emily said.

    From the back, under the tiers of blue valances, the women chorused, "We don't think the way you do." The old women picked up the chant, stamping their feet to the rhythm.

    "Wait," he said. "My wife is a woman, like you. I can prove it. Her period began tonight and she's sleeping, and she knows I'm no film star."

    The old women said in chorus, "Men o pause! Men o pause! We're still women. Men o pause!"

    "You can't trick me," Emily said. "I love you."

    "You can't trick me," Pettibon said. "I told you, it's just infatuation." He blushed.

    "You can't trick me," the guard said. "I don't care about you personally. I want you up here at the count of ten. One." She looked at her wrist, but there was no watch, only a brass bowguard. Her wrist was lovely.

    "All right, I'm interested," he said, "but I don't believe you." He was standing in the remarkably wide aisle.

    "Don't believe what?"

    "Any of it."

    "That's what makes it fun," the guard said.

    "You're hurting me," Emily said, perhaps to him. She was looking at him. No one was touching anyone.

    Beckoning to the others to follow her, the guard leaped off the stage. Pettibon considered running, but his knees went weak. He decided to be brave and stand his ground.

    "Stop," he said when they were close enough so he could see their lack of make up and the radiant beauty of their faces. "What about them?" He waved at the old women. He had backed up a little so they were farther from him than they had been when the play began. "They're all going to have stiff necks tomorrow from watching."

    "That's your fault, not mine," the guard said.

    "Whose play is this?" he said.

    "Stand up and fight like a man."

    "What makes you think I'm a man?" he asked. Being a man, he reflected, is something you never recover from. Perhaps that profundity would give him the lead for his review.

    "Take off your pants and we'll see."

    "Wouldn't a chromosome test be more accurate?"

    "Please," Emily pleaded. He wasn't sure whether she was pleading with him to undress or with the guard to leave him alone.

    "We're all naked," the guard said. "What gives you the right to be covered?"

    "You're in a play," he said. "I'm just a person. I didn't ask for this."

    "So you're saying theater is like public sex?"

    "I'm not an artist," he said.

    "So you must be sexless," she said. "Undress him."

    The golden girl held Pettibon's arms behind his back. She was taller than Pettibon. "Women sometimes fall in love with shorter men," he said. Then he added for the benefit of the audience, "I never rehearsed."

    The man who had been tied up came through the crowd, his absurd apparatus bobbling. "Show him," the guard said.

    Pettibon was now standing with his trousers around his ankles. The other man grasped the bobbing projection as if to satisfy himself. His small hand barely fit around it. A quick tug and it came off. This actor too was female, with almost imperceptible breasts and smears of chest hair that from the third row Pettibon hadn't been able to see were charcoal.

    How had he been deceived about her sex? The pink appearing organ now revealed itself as a skin colored leather bludgeon filled with lead pellets he could hear scrunching as the girl slapped it against her hand. Two brutal steel balls dangled in a leather sack on the shaft.

    The guard slipped her hand gently between Pettibon's private parts. "Some weapon," she smirked and held the bludgeon against his fleshly equivalents.

    "A lot depends on you," he said.

    "Don't hurt him," Emily said, and for a second he believed she was on their side after all.

    "I can't hurt him any more than he can hurt me," the guard said. The play couldn't reach Pettibon any more than his review could reach the audience.

    "Well, you can hurt me," he said, adding by way of explanation, "I fall in love easily."

    "Not me," said Emily. "But I fall hard."

    Pettibon wondered if he would ever be alone with her, share secrets over coffee and cherry pastry, really fall in love. Adding "really," made him wonder if he'd ever been in love. He reached across the imaginary table under a leafy arbor to wipe a flake of pastry from her chin. He hadn't felt this way since he was nineteen.

    He would begin his review with a question. "What play has ever given you as much pleasure as an orgasm? Yet this is precisely what the Greek theater in its earliest form provided, and what some daring community people are trying to do at the little theater." The heading would be "For Men Only?" The question mark was important.

    Melanie the guard said, "That's the trouble with you. You think too much instead of experiencing. I want you to come into me and not think about it at all."

    "You'd let me do that?" he said to Emily.

    "I was hoping for something more uplifting," one of the old women said to a companion.

    "Like a religious service," he said. Yes, he thought, it should be like that too, that kind of experience, ecstasy not just sexual release.

    "I was thinking more of a cup of tea," the old woman's companion said.

    "You can't be an artist if your mother's looking over your shoulder," Melanie said.

    "It's true," he said, "I'd never get anything written." But he was thinking, "That's what a reviewer is supposed to do, write for the audience looking over his shoulder." He never got anything written.

    "And neither can I," she said, ignoring his remark and swinging the bludgeon back and forth.

    "I'll be honest," he said. "I always wanted to couple with someone like you."

    "Couple is a euphemism," she said.

    "Not to the Romans," he said, remembering his high school Latin.

    "Well, come on then, put it in," she said, parting her thighs. "Or do I have to use this?" He wasn't sure if she meant to hit him with it or put it between her legs.

    "I just love you and if you want to have sex with her, I don't care, I still love you," Emily said.

    He reached forward to touch Melanie's covered breasts. He had the idea they were large and soft. But before he could touch them, she tapped his hand away with the shaft and swinging balls.

    "Uh uh," she said. "Look but don't touch."

    "What is this, high school?" he said, sneering like a sophomore.

    All the women on stage had taken off their masks and panties and were doing backbends to show him their willingness.

    "Go ahead," Emily said. "I'll be here when you finish."

    He stepped out of his trousers. Melanie lay in the aisle with her head slanted downward. One of the old women produced a pillow from her voluminous purse, and Melanie settled her head on it. Pettibon stood up, looking like one of the Beardsley illustrations for The Lysistrata, bigger and harder than he had ever been in real life. "Jesus, art is wonderful," he thought.

    "The minute I get in you, I may lose control," he warned.

    "I don't care," she moaned. "Just get in me." She had dropped the dildo and was arching her buttocks off the floor.

    As soon as he slid into her, he felt physically glorious, like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" performed in June at Stratford upon Avon. And even though the downslope of the aisle made the blood rush to his head, when he rolled her on her side so he could put his hand on her bottom, it was emotionally satisfying. And when he found himself able to keep thrusting at a comfortable pace until she dissolved in sighs and had several waves of orgasms, it was spiritually uplifting.

    One by one he coupled with all the women on stage, then came back to Melanie, who was now naked, her nipples dripping warm nourishing milk, much better than wine, and better for him.

    "I was wrong," he said. "I didn't come off as easily as I thought I would."

    He sucked her milk until he was in paradise. When he finally let himself go, everyone in the theater applauded. Two seconds later the bludgeon came down on the nape of his neck.

    When he came to, he was in bed with Emily. The sun was shining. She had on a white gown. "My review!" he said, rubbing his sore neck.

"It's all done," she said and pointed at a neatly typed sheaf on the desk. "Sedate Reading Of Greek Classic."

    "I don't remember," he said, hesitating, "did I, did we -?"

    "No, but you were wonderful with the others. They all love you now."

    His neck hurt and he was exhausted but alive.

    "What about my wife?" he said. It felt good to be honest.

    "This is more important," she said.

    Pettibon was reassured. "Iím like a boy in love," he said.

    "Don't rush yourself," she said. "You and I have forever."

    "I just hope I don't wake up," he said.

    "Aren't you awake?" she said.

Thomas David Lisk's recent work has appeared in Massachusetts Review, Hotel Amerika, Bat City Review, Jacket and Borderlands. His poem, "Balloons at the Louvre," first published in Arts and Letters, appeared on the Poetry Daily website. Editors have nominated his work five times for Pushcart Prizes (but he never wins). His published books are A Short History of Pens Since the French Revolution and Aroma Terrapin. These Beautiful Limits is forthcoming from Parlor Press later in 2006.

Copyright 2006 Thomas David Lisk.