As students poured into the first two rows for class, California maneuvered into Wyhoff's line of sight, folding his long body into a seat near the stage.
"Oat toast," said one student.
"Oat toast," said another.
A new girl laughed and tried again. "Oat toast."
It was a game that Wyhoff played with students and members of this acting troupe, both of whom took classes from the director known only as "the Big Core." Wyhoff and the troupe's newer students were imitating upstate New York tonight. Wyhoff claimed you could tell where anyone in America or Canada was from by the way they said oat toast.
"Oat. Toast," said Wyhoff, flattening the O in a perfect Rochester. He looked like hard cold cash in his black silk SNL! tour jacket. "C'mon, Cali. Before the Big Core starts class. Say it."
California was turned around in his seat, watching the game. He said the phrase, not imitating any particular accent.
"Hmm. Sacramento? Chico State?" said Wyhoff, impersonating California. "Dewd, c'n yew score some owt towst?"
Everyone laughed -- it was dead on -- and California's hands got hot as he realized that Wyhoff had been paying such close attention to him.
The house lights went down, then came up again, sapping the laughter and chatter from the Edmund Fitzgerald's little theater. The Big Core was starting his class.
Wyhoff walked by to take a seat near T.Z., whispering to California, "Don't let the bastard get you down."
"Spot, Nakamura!" The Big Core's voice came from shadowy seats in the risers behind them. "OK, California, don't get comfortable down there."
A spotlight hit center stage and the microphone stand. The house lights went down for good.
Rather than walking around to the stairs, California jumped onstage (made from twenty or thirty old doors). Space was cramped in the Edmund Fitzgerald, a docked barge turned theater-and-bowling-alley, so the stage was small. He took the mic in hand so that he wouldn't have to stoop over the stand and inhaled deeply three times, breathing up from the floorboards, as his mother called it, "becoming the stage." California smothered his instinct to work the audience of fellow students. The Big Core had advised/scolded him about that last week. Just do the voice, California told himself, and remember: Wyhoff is watching you.
"'Judge me by my size do you?'" California began, keeping the voice reverent not comic. The Big Core hated comic imitations. "'And well you should not. For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is--'"
Elsewhere in the Edmund Fitzgerald, someone bowled a strike, followed by muted cheering. California white-knuckled the microphone, wondering what he had done wrong this time. The spotlight warmed him.
From the dark, the Big Core sighed and said, "How long have you been coming here, California?"
So tall that he had to duck through doorways, California felt conspicuous as a stop sign. "Over a year now. I'm paid through July," he reminded him, coughing. Yoda always hurt his throat a little.
The Big Core sounded curious and exhausted. "I don't know what I'm supposed to do with you."
When California looked down at them, the three young women visiting from Marquier & Joyce Drama Collective, sitting in the front row of this shoebox theater, bowed their heads over their evaluation sheets. He wondered if they knew he'd been rejected by Marquier & Joyce, before he'd come to take classes at the Edmund Fitzgerald. "This is a widely recognized voice, Core," said California. "Frank Oz is a genius with--"
"Frank Oz?" The Big Core was standing now, a silhouette among the old red movie theater seats. "You want to poison yourself with that indistinct hack? Why?"
California had grown accustomed to this from the Big Core. His Charlton Heston "lacked volume." His Antonio Banderas? "Too Spanish." The Big Core told California after the third class that he "batched" his imitations --his Ed McMahon/Jesse Ventura/Ted Baxter batch, his Clint Eastwood/Ronald Reagan/Floyd the Barber batch. "What do you have against Yoda?" California said. "I can hook the audience--"
"Oz batches even worse than you do. Yoda is Grover reading Chaucer!"
With the glaring spotlight in his eyes, California had trouble seeing the Big Core's face. "You asked for a popular, easily recognized voice delivering a spiritual soliloquy," he said. "I chose a character that grabs people before they can think."
"God, you're a living nightmare! Why is a stand-up comedian taking acting classes?" shouted the Big Core. "What we do here is not about 'hooking.' OK? It's not about 'grabbing.' What this company does is the opposite, he said for the fourteenth time, the op-poh-zit!" The Big Core took a loud breath and continued shouting. "Week after week after week, you make these ridiculous choices that call too much attention to themselves -- Margaret Thatcher speaking Ebonics; Jimmy Stewart being verbally abusive -- and I want to drive hot knitting needles into my ear drums!"
Another strike resounded from the bowling alley. California tightened his grip on the mic with anger. "What is it, man? What the hell do you want from me?"
"No. Excuse me, please?" said the Big Core, each word dripping with sarcasm. "I've told you exactly what I want. What the hell do you want from us?"
"I just -- I wanted--" California jammed the mic back into its stand, feeling angry and unanchored. The rejection from Marquier & Joyce. The Hideous Review of his first and last professional play. Now this.
"Well, you're right about one thing," said the Big Core with a stage sigh. "You've paid through July -- and really? That's all that matters. So get another soliloquy for next week, preferably delivered by someone who doesn't have a hand up their ass. And while you're out shopping, get a goddamn clue, California. Now please get off my stage before you give me a coronary."
California took a deep breath, ready to spew every profanity he knew at the Big Core, when he noticed that the class was reacting like an audience to a big money entrance.
Wyhoff, California realized, is standing right behind me.
He placed a narrow hand on California's shoulder. Though a foot shorter than California, with a build that was almost girlish, Wyhoff commanded authority in the troupe that equaled the Big Core's. He leaned toward the microphone, right hand shading his eyes from the spotlight, then his low, sweet voice boomed in the theater. "You don't have to be such an asshole."
The Big Core fell silent. There was no sound, not even a rolled bowling ball.
California couldn't move. It wasn't the Big Core's shouting that got him. He was paralyzed by the thought of being onstage with Wyhoff.
"Come on," said Wyhoff, lowering his hand to California's back. His well-trimmed black beard and kind eyes made Wyhoff look like a Sunday school portrait of Jesus. "Let me get you a cup of coffee or something."
"The rest of you, take out your pens and write this in your little notebooks," shouted the Big Core as California left the stage. "Big Core, 2004, said: We don't need to look for the 'spiritual' with little green space-puppets! We'll find it here, on this boring planet, in the tedious moments that everyone else ignores. OK. T.Z., you're up. Who do you have for us?"
Out of the spotlight now, California felt heated and chagrined, but Wyhoff's brotherly hand on his back was welcome. Just offstage was the door downstairs to the green room. The temperature dropped a good fifteen degrees as they descended below the Mississippi's water line, and the air down here felt good on California's hot face.
Built into the barge's old fuel tank, the green room looked like a furniture display in a second-hand store. Lime green sofa. A plaid area rug. Mismatched mirrors on opposite walls reflected one another, and a coffee maker burned coffee on its burner. Hanging ceiling lanterns swayed slightly. California could still hear people walking on the stage over his head, but "you couldn't hear a bowling pin drop down here," as T.Z. once said. California plopped his long frame into an overstuffed chair.
"You looked pale up there," said Wyhoff, removing cups from the painted tin cupboard. "I could see your freckles from the second row."
California spread his hands, like Whatta ya gonna do?
"You take sugar? Crappy nondairy creamer?" asked Wyhoff, shaking a jar to get California's attention.
"Black is good," California said, trying not to appear overly grateful for Wyhoff's kindness. Ever since that night at the Battle of the Bands, California had hoped for a moment like this with Wyhoff. He leaned forward and took the coffee when Wyhoff brought it to him. "Thanks."
"B.C. had no right to talk to you that way." Wyhoff pulled up a wooden chair next to California and cradled his cup in interlaced fingers between his knees. "The Big Core doesn't speak for all of us, California."
California pretended to be more concerned with the taste of the burnt coffee, but he digested this information as if it were food. "I don't want to waste anyone's time, I just want--"
Wyhoff set his cup down. "Out with it," he said. "Tell me what you were going to say."
He wants to know why I keep coming back, too, thought California. "I have a stand-up tour coming up this fall," he said, repeating the lie he had put on his application form. The Edmund Fitzgerald Acting Troupe was a hot theater company right now, so most didn't get into their classes without credentials. That and his mother's name had done the trick. "I really need some direction. Before I go."
"You do imitations, right? That's your routine?"
"Yes." California lifted his eyes to Wyhoff, whose imitations were stone cold perfect.
"Your celebrity impressions are hilarious," said Wyhoff, smiling, almost laughing. "I love your Dick Cheney as Lon Chaney as Wolfman eating the senator. Nicely layered. Each imitation distinct."
Wyhoff's approval and acceptance were all California had wanted for months, maybe since he'd first seen him here at the Edmund Fitzgerald over a year ago.
As an old barge docked on the opposite bank of the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul, the Edmund Fitzgerald had caught California's attention not only for its unusual venue as a club made entirely from recycled restaurant, cinema, and bowling alley parts, but for its wide array of theater. On any night of the week, one might see Brechtian cabaret, feminist one-act, or wild reinterpretations of classic sitcom scripts. After barely surviving his Hideous Review, California started coming here to chart a new direction, and his life changed when he saw Wyhoff doing Prince at a Battle of the Bands.
Wyhoff took the stage in purple waistcoat and purple boots, but his performance wasn't merely a tidy impersonation. Wyhoff was Prince, and he extracted all the musical derivations in Prince's style as though he were unpacking the Artist's brain, inventorying his personal archetypes. In the opening of "Raspberry Beret," Wyhoff cooed like Prince's Little Richard. In "Irresistible Bitch," his voice went high and gravelly like Prince's James Brown. Even Wyhoff's guitar meowed like Jimi's by way of Prince's stylized funk. This Prince hadn't been spotted in the Twin Cities since the late eighties. The crowd, and California, went crazy.
That was the night California's life changed midcourse. The Hideous Review was haunting him still, and the ego-wound sustained from Marquier & Joyce still bled freely, too. California knew that he didn't want to act anymore, but he had to keep his chin above water. He decided he wanted do what Wyhoff did, instead.
"But that's kind of your whole bit, isn't it?" Wyhoff said shrugging in his Saturday Night Live! jacket. "Stark incongruities between character and situation? You don't really want to blend, so you don't need our -- the Big Core's classes for that, do you?"
"I just need some direction." California looked down into his cup. He could take criticism from the Big Core, but not Wyhoff. "I thought your troupe could give me some."
Wyhoff leaned his elbows on the back of the chair. He seemed to be absorbing the image of California before him as if he were a crossword puzzle that he might never complete. "Think about what I'm going to say, OK?"
"You've taken our classes," said Wyhoff, sober, a grave warning in his voice. "You've seen everything we do."
California thought about the night he came back to the theater and saw Wyhoff do the astonishing policeman imitation. "Yes."
Wyhoff nodded slowly, as if trying to get California to nod too. "You know you can't be like us, right?"
California knew this troupe had something that he didn't, some artistic awareness or intangible gift, and every week this hard truth was in California's face as he watched Wyhoff become a bag lady, or a glad-handing patron of the theater, or a little boy playing a video game. Wyhoff was scary good, and Lorne Michaels was said to have tapped T.Z. and Kisper for SNL next, assuming Wyhoff did well. Though California could identify what made them unique, he feared that Wyhoff was right: He could never imitate as well as they imitated.
Ya better never let 'em see ya bleed again, Stretch! a comedian had once advised California, right after he let a heckler turn the crowd against him. Now, California lived by that. "Don't rub my nose in it," he said, smiling and doing his best to keep his grin from gritting. "I know I can't be like you."
Wyhoff looked shocked. "You do?" His eyes rolled as if someone had just hit him with a bat, then he stared hard at California.
How could he not? It had been driven into California after his first class, when he realized he'd left his backpack onboard. He'd tramped up the wooden dock and snuck back to the theater to find the troupe in a circle, passing an imitation around, and howling with laughter. The imitation was of a cop who had given Kisper a parking ticket. California watched them from behind the risers, loving it that they loved what they did so dearly. Kisper started the circle of imitations and his athletic build seemed to balloon into the body of a big-bellied man. California watched it happen, astonished. Next, T.Z. took the imitation and improved on it, adding to the voice. "You can't park this lemon here." He kept repeating those words until he had tempered his voice into a totally different sound, from his typically nasal twang into the bark of a tiny tyrant. "You can't park this lemon here." Each actor transformed themselves with the imitation. Pretty little Gertie's face seemed to bloat into the meaty visage of a moustached cop. Lastos's long hands became bear paws flipping that ticket book. And Wyhoff brought it all together, taking all their fawning details into a unified performance, so accurate that California pictured him in police uniform, a riot stick hanging from his belt, powdered sugar smeared on the sleeve. Was that California's imagination, that sugar? Or was Wyhoff so good that he could actually imply a powdered doughnut with gesture and manner? Holding his backpack in the back of the theater, California watched Wyhoff with lust and envy.
"Look, you have something I don't, so I know I can't be like you," said California. "But that doesn't mean I can't learn enough to join the troupe."
"It hasn't made sense to me up till now, why you put up with the Big Core's asshole-ness, why you study acting when it probably won't help you with stand-up." Wyhoff's voice had a weight that made California lower his coffee and listen hard. "Is this why you keep coming back? To join us?"
California didn't want to lie, but he couldn't just blurt out what he really wanted. He had to take his rejection in smaller doses these days. "Yes, to join you. That's why."
The doorboards of the stage creaked as a couple of students waltzed overhead.
"I've never been this honest with anyone," said Wyhoff. Holding his breath, he stared at California, then said, "We don't belong here."
California frowned and his freckles shined like pennies. We? Here? He waited for Wyhoff to explain.
"Or anywhere really. You know, California? We need to be accepted. Just like anyone, probably. Except, we need it more. We're like chameleons."
California heard the Strassberg quote his mother might offer in this situation, and though she tended to use it to put down bad actors, California thought it fit this situation pretty well. "The human being who acts is the human being who lives."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean you aren't 'like chameleons.' You are chameleons. You live for acting."
Wyhoff lowered his voice, as if someone might hear through the walls of the fuel tank. "But we don't act. We don't entertain. We need to imitate, to blend perfectly. See what I mean? That's why we built this theater. That's why I'm risking so much by joining SNL. We need acceptance, wide acceptance from -- normal people. An audience, I mean. But it's difficult because--" He caught himself as if he had said too much, then urgently, Wyhoff added, "Do you follow me?"
Perhaps California couldn't act, but he understood actors. "Of course I follow. It's hard for you to be normal. Actually, it baffles you."
"Yes. That's right," said Wyhoff with a wary smile.
California's mother had once been called a woman with a thousand faces by The Los Angeles Times. She studied with Lee Strassberg, John Cazale, and Meryl Streep in the seventies and, though it goaded her that she'd never achieved their fame, his mother had earned a fine reputation during the autumn of the acting technique called "the Method." Now, with her stage career mostly over, she had nothing but contempt for the next generation of actors. She'd raised California to watch people closely, to examine them --partly because she wanted him to be a great actor, but mostly because she hoped her son would achieve a success that she hadn't, and "pick the human locks that I never opened."
"You don't understand normal people," California said to Wyhoff as if talking to his mother, "their ways and habits. It fascinates you, but you can only approximate their behavior."
Wyhoff was dumbfounded. He nodded at California to continue.
"You wish you could understand human beings better, but you never will. You study them constantly because your greatest wish is to know what motivates them."
Wyhoff breathed his words in wonder. "How do you know this about us?"
"Because you're just like me." California sipped coffee over his lie. Wyhoff was like California's mother, not California. But maybe there was truth to it, since he wanted to be an actor as much as his mother wanted to understand humanity. "Anyway, I know that you will never get what you want." After his first professional play last year, California had received a letter from his mother. She'd written that letter in the form of a scathing theatrical review, the only language in which she was truly fluent. Imitations do not an actor make, read the Hideous Review. And while California is perfectly capable scene after scene, one soon realizes that his acting is yet another imitation, that of better actors. Where is his soul in this performance? Where is he? By relying on such tricks in the acting trade, years can vanish beneath a young actor's feet. This reviewer knows all too well: One cannot build an acting career as a man-of-a-thousand-faces.
The review had blown California off course for months, and afterward, he drifted between stand-up and dramatic auditions, afraid to commit to either. Finding Wyhoff that night, dressed in purple and high heels, California thought he'd found someone like himself, a great mimic for whom the imitations were enough. In the green room of the Edmund Fitzgerald, California knew he might as well have been speaking to himself when he said, "You will never be like the people you imitate."
Still looking at California as if he were an exotic animal, Wyhoff said, "I had a feeling that you understood our situation." He put his hand on California's knee. The lantern light in here made Wyhoff look like a silver screen star. "I'm so sorry about B.C. I -- he shouldn't have offended you like that when this troupe needs you so badly."
"You need me?"
"Yes. It has to be you, California. You have a great eye for detail. You see things that most people don't," said Wyhoff. "We have private classes that only I teach, but I need to train someone to teach them after I leave for New York."
"What are the classes?" asked California.
"Well," said Wyhoff. "They're special sessions about the mechanics of blending, fitting in. They're for . . . the uninitiated. And it has to be someone we know and trust. You can understand that, right?"
Wyhoff's hand was still on his leg and like a schoolboy, California was breathless, lengthening against his will. "Sure."
"It's a series of tests. 'Explorations' is a better word," Wyhoff said. "Initiates have to see the subtleties at play before they can really blend, so I start off by sending them to cash machines."
California laughed harder than he intended, but he felt giddy under Wyhoff's touch. "Great idea. What do they do at cash machines?"
"We don't act right around money. It's almost impossible for us to get it right."
"I've noticed," California said. His mother was the consummate helpless actress. She had such problems keeping her checkbook balanced that her agent had to pay her bills for her. "But I still don't understand how you expect me to teach people in this troupe. Everyone's so talented."
"By providing us with something to emulate -- imitate. That's what I try to do. But you'd be better at it, obviously."
California glowed with the compliment. "I guess most people don't even think about money when they're at a cash machine, do they?"
Wyhoff shrugged. "Don't they?"
"No." California pictured himself at his last ATM visit. He could barely remember it, the action was so routine. "Most people don't consciously perform actions. They don't perform anything. They just do what they do in the realest moments, almost thoughtlessly."
"Interesting." Wyhoff lifted his hand from California's knee, felt his tour jacket pockets as if for pen and paper. He couldn't find what he wanted, and slowly put his hand back where it had been. "California?"
California imagined he understood that serious tone. He kept smiling, charmed. "Yes?"
Wyhoff tightened his grip on California's leg ever so slightly. "Never let the Big Core or anyone else take away what you have."
California beamed. "What do I have, buddy?"
"Something -- I don't quite know -- so natural," said Wyhoff, as if searching for this mysterious thing in California's face, wanting to drink it. "It's just you. I think that's what it is," he said, his body radiating warmth, his breath a bit ragged. "But we must have it."
In that moment, California didn't feel tall or cloddish or unfunny or clueless anymore. The Hideous Review and the rejection of Marquier & Joyce were forgotten. He leaned forward, mouth parting. "I want you so badly," said California. He burned. He itched. He reached up and held the back of Wyhoff's head, urging him closer. "I adore you."
Over the speaker, the Big Core's voice crackled. "We're starting the circle if you want to join us, Dubya." The intercom squelched as the Big Core shouted into it. "Bring your little friend if you like."
Wyhoff's hands went to California's chest. His chin inclined, baring throat muscles. "Let's go back."
"No," said California. "Let's have some fun. No one will come down."
They kissed with California's hands brushing Wyhoff's neck and sliding over the smaller man's shoulders. Wyhoff shuddered and said, "I'm shy, California."
"You?" California chuckled. "You put your hand on my leg, buddy."
"I'm just a little shy," Wyhoff said, but he didn't look shy. He looked very curious about what would happen next. "Anyway, you wanted me to."
"That's right. So relax. Let it happen." California kissed Wyhoff's beard, which prickled from a fresh trim. "You're beautiful. Come on. Come on, buddy." His fingers traveled down the buttons of Wyhoff's shirt, detouring to stroke his chest. Wyhoff's look of curiosity melted into slack-jawed ecstasy for a moment, and California tugged Wyhoff's shirt tails out of his pants.
"Stop," said Wyhoff.
California froze, looking up into Wyhoff's face.
"I don't -- I've never--" Wyhoff stood from the chair, backing out of California's reach, his hot face looking sheepish and humiliated. "I don't know what to do with you."
California felt submerged in desire, but he paused. He'd learned long ago that there was nothing less sexy than an abject declaration of love, but the man was here. Everything California wanted had been in his arms a moment ago. "I want you so bad, I want to be you."
Wyhoff took California's hand and stroked the back of it. "Let's go slow. Things will develop on their own, and we'll find our way together."
It was such a stilted thing to say that California felt certain Wyhoff had heard a lover say it once, and he was repeating the words, holding California's hand and striking the same pose as that past model. Despite this, California couldn't refuse what Wyhoff offered. "OK, buddy. I'm sorry. Sorry I rushed you."
"No, I'm sorry." Wyhoff's head shake was too mannered. Overly sincere. "Come on, California. Let's go upstairs. The others want us there."
California glanced at the door as if the entire troupe was on the other side of it, waiting to judge him for his performance in the green room. But it wasn't a performance. It was the realest thing he'd ever felt. California wanted nothing more than to stay here, lying on the couch, stroking Wyhoff's beard. Outside this room was the Hideous Review, loneliness, and the terrifying uncertainty of where he belonged.
The smaller man seemed to read California with calm regard, the embers in Wyhoff's eyes cooling to glitter. The sexual heat in the room vanished or maybe California had never actually felt it, only witnessed it like embers in a mirror.
California said, "OK. Let's go."
They walked upstairs and onto the stage together. The students were gone, but all the members of the troupe were seated in a circle, laughing, teasing one other. They hadn't given California the time of day for months, but now they all looked at him with faces as curious and flirtatious as Wyhoff's had been in the green room. Kisper and Gertie scooted on their butts to open the circle.
"Where's the Big Core?" California whispered to Wyhoff.
"He doesn't really exist," said Wyhoff.
California snorted a laugh.
"He's a construct of the troupe mind. A collective defense mechanism. Now that I've told you what we are," said Wyhoff, "he won't protect us from you, anymore."
California felt annoyed by the ridiculous explanation. Did Wyhoff really expect him to believe that?
Gertie patted the stage next to her, and Wyhoff sat down. He kissed her on the cheek, then reached up and took California's hand.
California resisted, taking a step back.
The assembled troupe all turned their heads in his direction. Some grinned encouragement, some offered mock frowns as if confused by his resistance. "Don't go," said Gertie, leaning across Wyhoff and beaming up at California with a smile so glamorous it tugged at his stomach. "Play with us. We're going to do some mims."
California felt light-headed. "Mims?"
"Our special imitations," said Wyhoff, waggling his eyebrows.
California didn't understand why he relented, but he let Wyhoff pull him down, and he sunk to the floor.
Gertie offered the first "mim," a librarian answering questions at a reference desk. She stood with too-erect posture, a professional called upon to perform her appointed task. "You should check the microfiche," she said, lifting an index finger, bobbing it once, then lowering her hand. "You should check the microfiche," Gertie said, trying again, same hand gesture.
T.Z. picked it up next. His posture had the air of a woman who took her job too seriously. He said the key phrase, voice identical to Gertie's, but the emphasis was different, making his librarian sound slightly more disciplinarian than professional. "You should check the microfiche."
When it came around to California, he tried to beg off, saying that he hadn't their skill, as the classes had proved continually. Kisper told him to do the imitation any way he wanted. California said, "But I never saw the original."
"That's OK. Just do your version of it," said T.Z.
California felt suddenly irritated with the group. With Wyhoff. They all turned hot and cold so quickly, he didn't know what was real with them. He decided to test their patience. He stood and turned Gertie's librarian into a black diva, the whole stereotype, head rocking side to side, index finger raised as if a manicured nail were there. The kind of imitation the Big Core would hate. "Mmmmm, girl, you should check the microfiche!"
It was so broad and cliché, he expected dead silence in response. But it was the first time that California had gotten the whole troupe to laugh at once.
He did it again, making it blacker, so stereotypical he offended himself.
The troupe in unison laughed again.
California sat down. "You guys are a lot more fun without the Big Core around."
Another burst of identical laughter.
"That's because you're ours now," said Wyhoff. He looked around the circle of sparkling eyes. "I want to make you ours now. OK, California?" Wyhoff put one arm around California's shoulders and held his arm with the other.
His embrace and the smell of Wyhoff's hair anchored California. "OK."
Wyhoff straightened. "Here we go." He didn't stand. He just tilted his head back and said, "Let's have some fun."
The rest of the circle stared at Wyhoff, rapt, as if he had just offered them a feast of chocolate and wine. California waited for someone to react, pick up the mim. The troupe continued to stare with open desire, then Wyhoff did it again, adjusting his head, parting his lips. "Let's have some fun."
Then, like a slap, California realized what -- no, whom Wyhoff was imitating.
Gertie leaned her head back as if looking up at someone, parted her lips and said, "No one will come down." Her face paled. Freckles suddenly lit across the bridge of her nose. "Let's have some fun."
As if a predator had stalked into the room, an instinctual stillness gripped California. Oh my god, he thought, trying to comprehend how Gertie knew what California had said downstairs.
Oh my fucking god.
"Come on. Come on, buddy," said T.Z., eyes absurdly dreamy. He tried again, getting California's harder R, capturing his lust with half-shut eyes. "Relax. You're beautiful. Come on."
California's chest sunk and he slouched forward. His mouth clamped shut, and the theater felt cold and airless.
"I adore you," said Lastos, with a slight shake of the head upon uttering the verb as if shocked by his own admission. "I adore you."
Kisper said, "Relax. Relax," and pursed his lips, kissing an unseen beard.
"I really need some direction."
"I adore you."
"You put your hand on my leg, buddy."
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I rushed you."
"No one will come down."
"What do I have, buddy?"
"You will never be like the people you imitate."
"You're just like me."
The trembling twisted into a convulsion in California's stomach. Why couldn't he stand? Why couldn't he leave this circle, the stage, the ridiculous barge camouflaged as a nightclub? His teeth were clenched in an agonized smile as he bit back a confused, sobbing laugh.
"I want you so much I want to be you."
"I really need some direction."
"Let it happen."
He looked about at all the imitations of himself, like a ring of mirrors each showing California in a state of abject want. Was this really how he'd looked downstairs while speaking to his idol? Fawning. Fishlike. If so, California disgusted himself. He wanted to flee, but he couldn't stop trembling. California kept swallowing his fury and humiliation as a tear trickled down one cheek. Wyhoff leaned into him, brushing the tear away, and California jerked back as if from cold, dead hands.
"I adore you." Wyhoff wiped the tear on his pants and tried again, getting the face better than Lastos had -- the eyes almost perfect circles with fear of abandonment, the parted mouth that seemed to gasp for air -- and like that, Wyhoff became the wrecked and wanting California.
"I adore you."
Copyright © 2004 Barth Anderson
Barth Anderson's short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Mojo: Conjure Stories, On Spec, and a variety of other magazines. Barth writes frequently on issues of social justice in US agriculture and food systems. He lives in Minneapolis. For more on his work, see his website. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. To contact him, send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.