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I pass through dark and shaggy spruce that suddenly changes to the rough edges of a cardboard forest and emerge in a huge amphitheater. The glow of stalactites is gone. Fresnel lights blaze down on a hardwood floor which seems to be blotched with large—bird droppings?? Little surprise there. The place is full of winged creatures of all sizes, chittering among the bleachers, clutching tattered scripts in their claws and preening their varicolored plumage. Some are more humanoid and look like molting angels. Others are more birdlike on top, but have stumpy human feet. Still others are obviously people in avian costume. Joel is sitting on the bottom rung of the stony bleachers in deep dialog with an intense looking young man wearing classical garb and sandals. Joel is in full work mode, looking unshaven and happily intense. At my entrance he looks up and waves absently, as if he were expecting me, and will talk to me shortly. I retreat to the bleachers where the late great Capital Times reporter Bob LaBrasca, is frantically scribbling notes on a pad. He looks up through thick glasses as I join him. “Hey Clark,” he says, “glad you could make it! We’re making frigging history today! Do you have any idea what’s happening here. You know who that Greek guy in the toga is?” “Ummm…surely not—” “Aristophanes, man! Aristophanes of Athens! We’re doing a revival of The Birds here with Joel Gersman and Aristophanes codirecting! I ought to get a frigging Pulitzer for this!” A spotlight falls on me. Looking up at the light grid, I see Wiley Dixon Powell, that bearded Scottish leprechaun of a man from Kentucky who worked with me on several plays—beam cheerfully at me and wave a wrench from the top of a ladder were he is tweaking assorted lights and leicos. “Let’s have that spot back!” Joel bellows, and after lingering reluctantly for a moment, the spot moves back to the stage, illuminating a tall and regal looking bird with a chef’s hat who is dipping a huge spoon into a huge pot held in the nook of a wing. Joel mutters to Aristophanes in ancient Greek, sounding like the messages he used to leave on my answering machine when he was translating Homer’s Odyssey from the antique tongue. Aristophanes shrugs, gets up and mimes a man stuffing his mouth with food. “Right!” Joel says, turning to the cast. “Here’s the scene. The birds have set up a blockade in the air, intercepting sacrifices made to the gods, so the gods are getting hungry, right? So the Gods send an ambassador to negotiate, and the ambassador is Hercules—but Hercules is notorious as a glutton. So during negotiations, the birds send in the cook carrying all sorts of tasty dishes that are in progress for the victory banquet, right? And every time Hercules sees the food, he weakens and gives up a point in the negotiations—” “When the hell do we break for lunch??!!” bellows Hercules from the stage, an actor I don’t recognize—but who seems excellently typecast. “That’s it!” Joel shrieks. “Once more with feeling!!” “No! I’m serious!” snarls Hercules. “We’ve been rehearsing nonstop for hours! I’m starving!” The avian cook dips a spoon in the pot, passes it enticingly under the actor’s nose, and then lifts it to his beak, slurping loudly. “I’ll fix you, you overgrown chicken!” yells Hercules and leaps for the pot, spilling a cornucopia of fragrant meat and vegetables all across the stage.


With an angry squawk the cook seizes Hercules by the throat, and in an instant, stage hands, actors and the cook’s fowl friends join the fray, filling the air with flying food and feathers. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Joel looking suitably stunned and Aristophanes laughing uproariously. “Exemplary blasphemy! LaBrasca declares. “Truly exemplary!” He heads for the exit, notebook angled against the barrage, scribbling furiously. Someone taps me on the shoulder. It is my departed friend, John Tuschen, Madison, Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate emeritus: “Th-this way,” he says. “F-follow me.” I follow him down a long dusty hallway away from the melee. “I’m alw-ways get-ting you out of t-trouble,” he says. “L-like the time I had to get Hannibal to bail us out of j-jail when we got ar-rested for d-drunken hitchhiking on St-state Street!” He neglects to mention that we might not have gotten arrested in the first place if he hadn’t put out a cigarette on the back seat upholstery of the police car, and said “H-Home J-James,” when the officer turned in the driver’s seat to object. But I am so happy to see him that I do not correct him on this minor matter. “Y-you are a r-rascal like me,” he says, “and Byron and Sh-shelley, but far less t-talented.” How true—but so what? Talented or not, we are Wisconsin word boys all the way to the bone. Nothing wrong with that. He stops me at a doorway to a garden. “I have to g-go now, he says. Th-that’s the way to the gift shop and the way out. G-glad to see you, b-but don’t be in a hurry to come b-back.” I bid him goodbye and walk through the door. It is the garden behind the house where my wife’s sister Zoe used to live. The sun is shining through autumn leaves, and there on a bench is Arlie, my late mother-in-law, smiling at me. “You have a minute before they come get you,” she says. “Sit with me for a while.” I sit down of course. I always liked Arlie. “I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong,” I said. “I was never very good at following the rules.” She laughs. “I always got in trouble too,” she says,” “Like the time when I was seven and a friend and I borrowed a handcar on the railroad track and ran it right past the school house!” Then she looks serious. “You are taking good care of my girl,” she says. It is more of a statement than a question. “I try,” I tell her. “I really do.” “That’s all anyone can do,” she says. Bye now!” Suddenly, someone grabs me by the ear and drags me off the bench and out of the garden. “You are in trouble now young man!” the vice principal declares. “I’m taking you right to the principal’s office.” “Let go of me!” I protest. “I’m not in high school anymore!” “Oh! You’re not? ” He releases me, looking confused and uncomfortable. We have somehow arrived in the gift shop. Little coffins full of satin-wrapped chocolate and jars of gumdrops that look like skulls adorn the shelves. Through the dusty window in front I can see the parking lot I and my truck out there in, looking as tiny as a toy on a distant beach. The vice principal puffs himself up for one last try. “Rules are not meant to be broken young man,” he says sternly. “You came in without buying a ticket! You have violated a dozen LOTD protocols, you have gone places you had no right to go! You have engaged in frivolous and irresponsible behavior!” 

“But the tour was boring,” I protest. “The river was gorgeous. I got to see my brother and Arlie; I got to hang out some of my friends.” “To the principal’s office we go,” he says grimly. “You can explain it all to the man in charge.” “I don’t think so,” I tell him. I don’t know much about the string cheese theory of reality that holds this place together, but I know instinctively that this creep’s power is limited and that he can’t keep me here. “I never liked going to the principal’s office,” I explain. “I’m going home.” I select a red licorice skeleton from a tray on by the cash register and take a bite as I stroll toward the door. Indignant in his impotence, the vice principal nags me all the way to the entrance. I’m in trouble now. He will tell my teachers, tell my parents. I am a failure, I will always be a failure! But he shrinks back at the sunlit door—and I escape. Outside, the air is crisp and clear as a glass of Leinenkugel’s. Dogs are barking happily down by the river, and the October sun is setting like a red ball in the western hills. “You’re not going to tell everybody about all that cheap beauty and freedom are you?” he calls after me plaintively, a desperate note coming into his voice. “Why the hell not?” I tell him over my shoulder as I crunch over solid gravel back to my truck and the land of the living. “In fact, I’m thinking of putting it in a magazine.”