...SNAP OUT OF IT! Yeah it’s me. I’m back. I can’t just let you die, man, and you are about to die, you know. It was my guardian angel, jarring me back to reality. Time had apparently stood still as my life on the ship had flashed before my eyes. Now I could see my hat gliding down toward the pit, and I could feel the bench sliding out from under me. In all probability I was about to pitch over backwards, fall 10 feet, and crack my head on the corner of the bass amplifier.
E FLAT MAJOR SEVEN, the voice said. NOW! This made no sense to me—the Overture was in A major—but I lunged for the keys in desperation. NOT ROOT POSITION, FOR GOD’S SAKE. THIRD INVERSION. BOTH HANDS. HARD!
I grabbed that unappealing chord and found my hands threaded between the black keys. The bench tumbled to destruction below, and I held on with all my might. Then I painfully pulled myself upright, still clutching the keys in a life-saving handshake. E flat major seven, third inversion, rang out through the theater. The chord that rescued me was pure vanilla, the Jazz Police anthem, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” lite, Tony Orlando neutered. It was a sickly-sweet, ironic commentary on the unmusical Overture that had almost killed me.
The audience was hushed and confused. Probably out of compassion, two or three people clapped. Leaning against the piano, nowhere to sit, I nodded my thanks to them, a weak smile of gratitude on my face. That was the cue the other 498 people had been waiting for. In an instant the theater filled with applause, the audience’s collective genius apparently divining that my death-defying acrobatics were a choreographed prelude to the circus act ahead.
I looked down at Mike, who seemed considerably sobered by his act of near-homicide. He dutifully lowered the platform while Zap, the bassist, cleared the fragmented bench from my landing area. When I reached the ground, Zap leaned over and grabbed my arm. An excitable guy under normal circumstances, he was beside himself. “Are you okay, man? That was incredible, man, you have no idea. I’d be, I mean you gotta be pissed off. I can’t believe Mike, man, I wanted to kill him but there wasn’t anything I could do, it happened so damn fast. You know it did, man, right? Are you doing okay? You want me to get Buff or anything? Let me give you my chair, man. I can stand, that’s cool, really. Hey, here’s your hat. You sure you’re cool?”
My hands trembling and my knees rubbery, I sank into the chair. Remembering that the show must go on, and sensing that the orchestra would kick in any minute, I clamped on my headphones and covered them with the hat. Mike hadn’t said a word to me yet, and I had no idea what to say to him. The whole incident seemed utterly beyond comprehension, a practical joke gone pathological. I turned to glare at him. His eyes were squeezed shut, his brow furrowed, his face red, his head shaking. When he finally looked up and caught my eye, he reached behind him and sheepishly offered me the whiskey bottle. He wasn’t the type to apologize, but his gesture said it all: I didn’t mean it, I was drunk, I shouldn’t drink so much, will you forgive me and take a swig?
I considered the offering. I didn’t want to let him off too easy, but it was obvious he was already suffering. I was a nervous wreck and possibly still drunk; while the booze might soothe me, it might also make me screw up the rest of the show. Plus, I was visible from the audience, which was likely to continue scrutinizing me for the next few minutes. But I wanted a drink. I couldn’t make up my mind and we held our pose, Mike’s arm extended toward me, my eyes fixed on his hand clasped around the bottle.
Suddenly an angry voice screamed, “One, two, three, four,” and the tape was rolling. We grabbed for our ears in pain, eyes still fixed on one another. Mike threw his headphones to the ground and crushed them with his foot. Impulsively, I did the same. Then I took the bottle from him and drank the whiskey ravenously.
The diet pill poppers pranced into view for their opening number, stage smiles plastered falsely across their faces. I smiled back at them, closing my eyes. Reaching deep inside my artistic self, I prepared to join Mike in a new choreographic adventure. My ordeal was over, perhaps forever, and it was time for celebration.
LADIES AND GENTLEMAN! It was my subconscious savior begging for a curtain call, a well-earned privilege I wasn’t about to deny. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN... It sounded almost like the ever-jubilant emcee, but with an unmistakable hint of irony and condescension. LADIES AND GENTLEMAN... “Go for it, already,” I muttered, “there’s work to be done here.”
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN: THE GRRREATEST SHOW ON EARTH! On cue, I leaned hard into a cluster of notes, one fist and one elbow combining to elicit a loud cry of anguish from the piano. An alarmed dancer twisted in mid-flight, came down on the wrong foot and plowed into the stage bricks. Mike orchestrated the fall with a thunderous kick to the bass drum and an ear-piercing cymbal crash. A scantily clad acrobat, running on stage for her opening cartwheels, stubbed her toe and slid into Barnum, who had positioned himself for the initial dialogue. Unable or unwilling to deliver his lines, he turned to glare at the band, the first time he’d ever acknowledged our existence. Zap waved his bow at him, then joyfully laid into a note that made the canned orchestra sound very, very wrong.
I pointed accusingly under the stage, where 20 taped musicians supposedly lived their cramped and molish lives. Then, it was back to the task at hand, for there really was work to be done: For two glorious hours, the audience would at last get the Freak Show it deserved.
Copyright © 2001 by Bill Anschell ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
Used here by permission.
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