DANTE THE PILGRIM isn’t sure whether to head stage left, back to the vestibule of hell, or stage right, into the circle of the gluttonous. Seth, the director of this fiasco, isn’t faring well. His round Norwegian face blossoms heat-stroke red. Dante isn’t supposed to be going left or right; he’s supposed to fall straight down, the way our production seems to be headed.
“Do you have extra cash we can hand out at the door?” Seth asks me. “Because that’s the only way this show is going to get a decent review.” He looks at the stage where Dante heads stage left.
“No, no, no…” Seth says to Dante. “Faint out of pity for Francesca’s story. When you regain consciousness in the third circle of hell, you’ll meet Cerberus, the three-headed dog. Cerberus won’t step onstage until you faint and recover.”
Dante nods and smiles revealing a row of perfect white teeth. Three months of work on this production have taught him – like Pavlov’s dog—that this is the best response. Dante nods, but it doesn’t mean he comprehends. He continues nodding, fingers hooked in his belt loops.
Dante’s real name is Chuck and by day he’s a plumber. At the audition twelve weeks ago, Seth immediately fell in love with Chuck’s thick black hair, chiseled biceps, and movie-star good looks. Even though Chuck couldn’t pronounce the Italian names of the sinners he encountered in Hell—which I thought was a big red flag—Seth cast him anyway, promising to give him “private lessons” if necessary.
Seth doesn’t look sure of his decision now. He tugs on his bleached hair and rubs his eyes as though he wishes he could remove them from his head. “Dante, goddamn it, faint.”
Chuck remains ramrod straight. He looks at Virgil.
“Faint, Chuck, goddamn it. Faint.”
Chuck sinks to his knees and slowly slumps over. His faint is about as convincing as a kid feigning sleep on Christmas Eve. Seth sighs. He looks at me. I look at him.
“I suppose it’s no use having Virgil cue him.”
Seth snorts. We chose Horace Henderson for Virgil. His silver hair fell in large curls just beneath his ears and we imagined Virgil’s robe would hang well on his lanky frame. His hazel eyes were almond shaped and his nose was strong, forming the classic Greek profile. His voice was deep and steady. Who better to lead Dante the Pilgrim through the underworld? We chose Horace because he seemed wise; later we discovered he was a drunk.
“Oh, the humanity,” Seth says to me. “How do you go down from community theater? Prison enrichment programs?” He looks sweaty. “Send them home, Goose. I can’t face them. I need a cocktail and a hot bath.” He reaches for his coat, presses a cigarette between his lips, and heads for the door.
Once the door slams behind him, I face the group. Cerberus the Three-Headed Dog’s six ears poke out from behind the stage right curtain. Francesca adjusts the straps of her black lingerie and begins to pick at her fingernails. Chuck smiles. Virgil picks at his ear. From the balcony, Kermit plays a few ominous notes of the funeral march on the keyboard.
“Let me remind you that we’re not even out of Upper Hell yet. This is circle three; we’ve got to get through circle nine.”
The cast stares blankly at me.
“Run lines with your scene partners.”
The cast heads toward the dressing rooms. Once everyone has left, I turn off the lights, lock the door, and meet Kermit at the car.
KERMIT IS LEANING on the hood of his Honda. Our car is the only vehicle left in the community center’s parking lot. I slide into the driver’s side as he settles into the passenger side. He fusses with sheet music as I let his car warm up before beginning our trek back to the city. He’s composing an original score for Dante’s Inferno. Kermit wanted a full-sized organ hauled into the balcony; Seth’s budget allowed for a Casio keyboard with an organ sound-effect. Kermit wanted something to do, and Seth was an old friend, so he compromised. Twice a week, we drive to the suburbs together for full-cast rehearsals.
Kermit turns up the heater. “You can tell me, Goose. How bad is it really?”
“Dante’s lost in hell.”
“Too bad we’re not going for black comedy.”
“It’ll get better. It has to.”
Once we’re headed toward home, Kermit cracks the window and lights a cigarette.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” I say.
“Maybe I don’t want to live long enough to see the curtain go up. And besides, fuck the doctors. What good is a ‘few more months’ if you can’t enjoy them? I’ll take forty-five years and cigarettes, thank you very much.”
There’s no use trying to talk him out of it. He’ll do what he wants because he’s stubborn. I’ve been his tenant and by proxy his friend for two years. When he’s worried I’m short on cash, he rips up my rent checks as fast as I can write them; when he wants alone time, I could knock on his door until my knuckles bleed. Try telling him that his disappearing acts worry you, and he’ll remind you he has a mother.
When he finishes his smoke, he tosses the butt out the window. “Ah, Goose, how did we end up here?” He stares out the window at the other cars, the dark outlines of leafless trees, and the white blanket of snow periodically interrupted by rest-stop islands. I don’t answer what I know is a rhetorical question. His head rests against the window, and soon enough, he is asleep.
I drive toward the city, waiting for the transformation from the dark woods along the highway to the glow of urban life in the distance, signaling our arrival home. When the lights appear in the distance, the city looks like a million stars. The first lines of the Inferno run through my head – Midway along the journey of our life/I woke to find myself in a dark wood,/ for I had wandered off from the straight path.
Kermit snores in the seat next to mine. He was originally the assistant director, but he is getting weaker now. He couldn’t commit to the stress of the final weeks, right before Easter when the show opens. He has no way of knowing how he will feel. Better that he take a lesser role – music director. He convinced me to be the assistant director in his place: this would be a great way to use my art degree – a small production in the suburbs.Not that Seth hadn’t dreamed bigger. He lobbied every theater in Boston. However, no one was interested in producing Dante’s Inferno.
“Too bleak,” said one house manager.
“Too ridiculous,” said another.
“Too wrong. Who wants to go to hell? Don’t we have that around us daily?” The denials took various shapes and forms.
I agreed to do this not because I wanted to revive my affiliation with the arts or because I thought dramatizing the first volume of Dante’s Commedia was a good idea. I did this so Kermit would have a ride.
ONCE I PARK THE CAR, I wake Kermit and help him up the stairs. He’s grumpy, like a teenager reluctant to go to school, but eventually we climb to the third floor where he kisses me on the cheek and tells me he’ll see me tomorrow.
I return to my apartment. I slip into my pajamas, start water for tea, and prepare to go over my notes. Once I settle at the kitchen table with my work, there’s a knock at the door.
Boris stands in my doorway. “You still up? I need someone to talk to,” he says. He follows me back to the kitchen.
According to Boris, the common cold is the arch-villain of the modern world and one day he will be the Superman of science. He tells me this again as he sits at my kitchen table barefoot and wearing silky nylon shorts that ride too high on his thighs. His chest is as white and smooth as the snow which piles up on the fire escape and windowsill.
“Two hundred viruses can cause colds,” Boris says as I take the kettle off the stove. “Rhinovirus, coronavirus, Coxsackie virus, respiratory syncytial virus. That’s only the beginning.” He sighs and reluctantly accepts the cup of tea I’ve poured for him. His long fingers hold the mug as he inhales the steam. “I’m in a funk,” he announces.
I remember last June when Boris moved into the first floor apartment. He sulked around the hallway, stopping to press his nose against the screen door, as Kermit and I sat on the porch drinking whiskey and iced tea. “He’s depressed,” Kermit informed me as he squeezed another lemon slice in his mason jar. “Sunburn is the number one illness during the summer. Boris feels like he’s spinning his wheels.”
“Maybe it’s really as simple as bed rest, plenty of fluids, and chicken soup,” I tell Boris now.
“The Institute won’t give me more funding if I submit that as my proposal.”
Boris takes his work at the Institute seriously. Other researchers have gone on to tackle more threatening diseases and taken their funding with them. Although symptoms like congestion and achiness are an inconvenience, no one in recent history has died from the common cold.
“It doesn’t matter which virus causes the cold,” Boris tells me in the voice he uses for the non-scientifically inclined. “The body reacts the same way. But with nearly two hundred different viruses, it’s impossible to create a vaccine.” He rubs his fingers up and down the goose bumps on his arms and I can hear his teeth chattering.
“Want a sweatshirt?”
Boris frowns at me. “Don’t interfere with my research. I may need to use myself as a guinea pig.” If it were up to Boris, he’d work in his shorts, but the Institute has a policy against half-naked scientists in its labs. I sometimes pass him in the basement halls that connect his lab to the Alumni Records Office where I work. He seems like a caricature of the mad scientist: his wheat colored hair stands in a tuft off the top of his head, the lab coat flaps behind him as he anxiously races back to his experiment from the soda machine, his legs hang like two broomsticks on a scarecrow. When Boris first started coming up to my apartment bare-chested and in tight shorts, I thought he had romance on his mind. Now, I realize it’s all in the name of science. He’s trying to catch a cold.
Upstairs, Kermit begins playing warm-up scales on his organ.
“How the hell did he get that upstairs anyway?”
I shrug. “He was here when I moved in. I have no idea.”
“It makes me crazy.”
By listening to the music, I can tell what kind of day Kermit has had. If he’s happy, he plays Take Me Out to the Ball Park or When the Saints Come Marching In. If he’s not so good, he plays the church music he learned as a child, before he abandoned organized religion. He ends every evening with Every Time We Say Good-Bye, which loses some of its quiet grace on the organ, but I know Kermit plays it and thinks of Kenny.
“How do you live with this?” Boris asks. “I have to sleep with cotton in my ears or I dream I’m in a cathedral.”
“It’s Saturday night, and it makes him happy.”
AT THIS POINT, Dante’s Inferno isn’t making anyone happy. Seth calls on Sunday shortly after noon. As soon as I pick up the phone, Seth asks me, “Which circle of hell are directors who cast because of tight buns and sweet smiles relegated to?”
“The circle of opening night ulcers?”
“I’m working with Chuck this afternoon. We’re going to dumb it all down and remove the poetry.”
“He’ll either learn this script or I’ll drink enough to make a pass at him. Either way, he wins.” Seth chuckles. His coughing rattles through the phone line. “You know, if he’s straight, the duty transfers to the Assistant Director.”
“I don’t need your casting couch left-overs.”
The truth is, Chuck is strikingly handsome, but I don’t think he’s capable of a conversation. While I can imagine indulging in a night of steamy lovemaking with Chuck, the notion of having breakfast with him makes my skin crawl. This, I’ve learned, does not a strong relationship make.
“The good old days of casting couches,” Seth says, “the days when things were simple…when we weren’t afraid of things. I sound like a tired old queen. If you get bored later, you should ask Kermit to tell you stories. Kermit was a striking leading man. He made good use of the couch. I remember a time back in 1989… oh, well, I digress. But let me tell you this, if there were a way, I’d have him play Dante. Is he a little old? Sure. But
he’s talented. There’s just no way with his… well, you know.”
Seth quickly changes the direction of the conversation. “Have you heard him working on the music?”
“I have not. Casting couch? Did you and Kermit…”
“Child, look at the time…”
“I see how it is…”
“True ladies don’t kiss and tell.”
“I’ll check his progress on the score. Ha. Ha. No pun intended.”
I hang up the phone and realize how much I don’t know about Kermit. I hear bits and pieces, selected stories, the edited-versions of things. I see the final production, each line in place, each actor made-up and polished. He never breaks character in his real life.
KERMIT AND I AGREE that Boris is lousy to watch television with. On Sunday nights, I make microwave popcorn with extra butter and Kermit brings down a twelve pack or a bottle of red wine. Sometimes, if Kermit has an appetite, we order pizza. Boris stops by when he’s finished at the lab. He works weekends and holidays. He’s the only person I know who looks forward to going to work when he’s sick, as if the answer he’s devoted the last three years to may show up if he catches one of his sneezes on a slide and examines it beneath a microscope.
“That’s not really how it works,” Boris says. He points at the television. “They only give a partial medical explanation.”
“Oh, who cares?” Kermit asks. He doesn’t move over on the couch to make room for Boris because he’s hoping he won’t stay. “It’s television, Boris. Have you heard of this thing called escapism?”
“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” Boris answers and leans against the doorframe.
Kermit ignores Boris when he’s in this kind of mood. He’s looking to pick a fight, usually because he’s run into another dead end in the lab. Kermit picks a kernel or two out of the popcorn bowl.
“Really,” Boris continues. “When they come back from commercial the medical expert has results from the lab which prove their theories. What a load of crap. Science isn’t that fast or that easy.”
Kermit and I shove over on the couch as Boris squeezes in next to me. Even though he’ll complain for the next hour, he’s not going to leave. Kermit rolls his eyes and rests his feet in front of him on the coffee table. He wears fuzzy pink slippers that don’t match his navy silk pajamas.
“Kenny had such a crush on that guy,” Kermit announces and points at the show’s lead actor.
Boris stares intently at the screen, ignoring Kermit. “If you don’t shut up, you’re going to miss valuable information.”
“Have you ever been in love, Boris?” Kermit asks during the next commercial break.
Boris hesitates a moment, unsure if Kermit is baiting him. “No,” he says.
Kermit leans back into the couch. His face is pale and although I never knew him before he was sick, I imagine he was thick and muscular. He used to do landscaping. I’ve heard stories about him carrying Kenny into the bedroom, doctor’s offices, and warm baths. It’s hard to see it now.
Kermit sighs. “I’m not sure if meeting Kenny was the luckiest or unluckiest thing that ever happened to me,” he says.
As he leans back into the sofa, he rubs his hand on my knee. “I wish you could have met my Kenny, Goose,” he says. “He would have loved you.”
THAT NIGHT in bed, I listen to Kermit pace in his apartment. Since Kenny died, he has trouble sleeping. He walks so much I’m afraid he’ll wear a path through the floor. Sometimes I hear a muffled voice. I don’t know who he is talking to. Kermit’s phone rarely rings, and if it does, he seldom answers. His mother invites him back to Jesus. The doctors demand that he come in for check-ups. His former friends remind him of Kenny. Seth is the only person he still talks to.
Meanwhile, Boris sleeps downstairs. Boris may never have loved a woman or a man, but he has known a different connection, to his work. Boris is a
humanitarian who can’t deal with the particulars of human beings. He does not notice freckles or memorize laughs. The person who loves Boris will
have to understand that he loves with his intellect rather than with his heart.
Like Boris, I used to have a job I loved. I spent three years running a small theater. The grant money ran out and the doors closed. During the final
year of trying to keep the theater afloat, I rarely slept.
My mother had goaded me for years with comparisons to my more “successful” siblings. It was a shame, my mother said of me, for someone so
smart to constantly be on the brink of financial disaster, for a twenty-eight year old woman to be unable to make rent or sustain a meaningful
I took her advice and moved to Boston where I took a job as a software consultant. There, I learned the real meaning of heartbreak. The theater was filled with drama and divas, but at least their heartbreak made a noise. In corporate America, I found myself surrounded by hollow blue suits. They scoured the internet for chances at love and climbed Stairmasters in pursuit of calves. Living in the right neighborhood, driving an expensive car, and vacationing on the choicest beaches, promised illusory happiness. I quit. My mother was disappointed.
Now I believe a job should be like a reliable friend. I spend my days cataloguing: address changes, marriages, deaths, and donations to the Institute. I oversee eighty thousand people in my database without meeting one.
WHEN I COME IN FROM WORK, Kermit is sitting at my kitchen table. I nearly jump out of my skin.
“Make me a cup of coffee?” he asks.
“Isn’t this abuse of landlord privileges?”
“You’re not just a tenant to me.” Kermit plays with his heavy ring of keys. “You’re my friend, my confidante.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Funny you should ask. Kenny and I have been talking.”
Kermit raises an eyebrow at me. “You think I’ve lost it, don’t you?” He shakes his head. “I thought so, too. Even in death that damn man won’t leave me alone. It’s worse than A Christmas Carol.”
After my father died, my mother used to see him walking around the house. She swore he came back to torture her by playing the accordion. She swore that she’d know she was in hell if she heard accordion music when she entered the white light.
“What does Kenny want?”
“The same stuff he wanted when he was here. Don’t leave your hair in the sink after you shave. Take out the trash. Eat a vegetable.” Kermit sighs. “Where do you think he is? I just want to know he’s okay. I mean, I don’t think I believe in God anymore —or maybe it’s that God doesn’t believe in me — but I want to know what you think.”
I look at the crows feet around Kermit’s eyes. His pale skin and the scruff shadowing his jaw make him look tired.
I’m a cop-out agnostic. Content to say something exists, I am unable to pledge allegiance and servitude to a deity and unwilling to embrace the morbidity of eternity existing in a pine box burrowed through by worms.
“I don’t know what happens when we die.”
Dante fills my head and I wish Virgil could make an effort to save us. If life could imitate art, we would each have a guide, but in this life, nothing divine intervenes for us. All we have is each other.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT’S REHEARSAL goes better. We make it all the way to the brain-eaters from Canto XXXIII and Seth seems pleased. During a break, I ask him about his meeting with
“The good news is he’s single; the bad news – he’s straight.”
“That’s too bad.”
“He asked about you.”
“Did you tell him I have a leaky faucet?”
“I told him that your plumbing could use a good cleaning.”
“It’s a harmless crush. It could be worse. It’s not like I signed you up for an arranged marriage.”
After rehearsal, Chuck approaches me. “Hey,” he says flatly, reminding me of every boy I ever knew in high school.
“You’ve come a long way in learning your lines.”
“Seth helped. So did these.” Chuck pulls a worn copy of Cliff’s Notes from his jeans.
“Did Seth give you those?”
“You went to the library?”
Chuck ignores this. He hooks his thumbs in his jeans and inflates his chest. “I’ve got a question for you.”
Chuck’s eyes are a perfect shade of blue, the color of the sky right before it gets dark.
“This might sound stupid, but it’s bugging me. I thought this thing was supposed to be a comedy.”
I imagine the things Chuck might say to inspire laughter. I imagine he’s the type of man who mishears song lyrics and sings awful alternatives with a straight face. I imagine he misuses big words all the time: I’m notorious for my lovemaking skills.
“How can this be a comedy if nobody’s laughing?” He seems genuinely confused.
“That’s a more contemporary definition of comedy,” I say. “The classic distinction between comedy and tragedy depends on what happens to the character at the end. In tragedy, a ‘good’ person meets with a bad ending and the audience responds with pity and fear. In a classic comedy, the audience witnesses a rise in fortune of a character they like. Things work out well for a good person. In other words, there’s a happy ending.”
“So, I have to be likeable.”
“It helps, yes.”
“I can do that.” He stares at me and the pause is awkward. I button my coat. I see Kermit hanging over the balcony, and I’m suddenly self-conscious, a young girl on her first date.
“Yeah.” Chuck cocks his head to the side. “If I practice – being likeable – do you think you’d like to get a beer with me?”
My mind moves forward. I imagine how this will end: clothes on the floor, sweaty bodies, an overwhelming sense of regret. This is destined to be a tragedy.
In the balcony, Kermit clears his throat.
“I can’t,” I tell Chuck. “I ride share with Kermit.”
“Oh.” He bounces back from his disappointment quickly. “Okay, I’ll think of something.” He winks at me and walks away backwards, keeping his eyes on me until he’s at the door.
IN THE CAR, Kermit hisses at me. “What’s wrong with you?”
“He’s gorgeous, and you need a date.”
“I’m fine on my own.”
“God knows I love you, but I think you’re missing the point. You can’t spend your days caring for a man who’s trying to catch pneumonia and a frail, old queen who’ll die when he does.”
“That’s the reality of it.” He holds my hand. His fingers feel as frail as dried twigs. “I was the whore of Babylon. I flew by the seat of my pants – when I was wearing pants, that is.” His laugh turns to a dry cough. “Kenny had a way of making none of that matter. All of this,” he says, looking at me. “It’s been worth it.”
Kermit squeezes my hand. “You could be lonely for a lot of reasons, Goose. Fear, convenience, laziness… a bad experience with someone or something you loved.” He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s pretty easy to be lonely, but it’s also pretty pointless.”
IT’S LATE, BUT BORIS comes upstairs when he returns from the lab. “I’ve been thinking,” he says as soon as I let him in the door. “What about the market for a cold vaccine. Does it even exist? I bet most people won’t be willing to spend money until they get infected.”
His cheeks are red from the cold weather and excitement of deep thought. “Even if a spray could be created that would keep rhinoviruses from attaching to the ICAM-1 receptors on nasal epithelial cells, would people care?”
I nod. Boris rants about Ipratroprium, Naproxen and interferon-alpha2b. When he finally settles down next to me on the couch with a glass of wine, I declare a moratorium on science.
“Let’s talk about love.”
“Kermit’s passion; I’m logic.”
“Not true. People aren’t that easy. Have you or have you not been in love?”
“It doesn’t matter.” Boris fidgets as he sits next to me.
“Of course, it matters.”
“There was a woman. Before I began work on my doctorate.”
“What was she like?”
“What does it matter? She’s not here now.”
“But she existed. She was a piece of your life.”
“Exactly. Past tense.”
“Still, you must think of her now and then.”
Boris shakes his head. “She could be a housewife in Oklahoma or a showgirl in Vegas. It makes no difference.”
“You’re not curious at all?”
Boris snorts. “You and Kermit both equate love with a fear of letting go. Maybe I did the best thing by letting her leave. The memory doesn’t remember things as they were, but more often as we wish they’d been. Once a person leaves your life, you can change things. Who’ll disagree with you? You forget things: birthmarks, crooked teeth, hot tempers, until you’re more in love with the idea of that person. I choose not to do that.”
Boris is right, but I’d never tell him so. I still remember my leading men, even though we left each other long ago. I remember Cyrano’s drunken kisses in the costume room, the lines of Petruchio’s muscular arms, and Jack Worthing’s highbrow wit. Neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern ever gave me an orgasm, and Estragon and I mutually decided we could no longer wait for Godot. I remember how the Man from La Mancha never looked over his shoulder the last time he walked away from my apartment.
AT REHEARSAL, I sit near the back of the house. I try to take notes, but Chuck mesmerizes me. His lines are perfect. He’s animated. He’s given Dante the Pilgrim a sense of purpose. For the first time, we make it through the entire play in a single rehearsal.
Seth whispers to me as he stares at Chuck, “Is that our Chuck? This is too good to be true.”
At the end of the evening, Seth is glowing. He tells me, “I think we might pull this off.”
Once Seth dismisses the cast, Chuck jogs back and tugs on my coat to stop me from leaving. “Dante’s like a plumber, ” he says.
“Do tell. How is the author of one of the most profound poems ever written—like a plumber?”
“Dante’s got to go to hell to see people who have fallen into traps, who are making excuses.
Dante’s got to soak up all this stuff so he doesn’t make the same mistakes. Hell’s not only about wrong action. It’s also about wrong belief. Dante’s like a plumber because he has to get down in everyone else’s shit to know how he sees the world.”
Chuck is proud of himself. He smiles. “Have a beer with me?”
Chuck is still smiling. “Okay,” he says. “Dante waited forever, too. But in the end – once he gets to Paradise—he sees his girl.”
BORIS STOPS BY MY OFFICE at the Institute, so I know he’s excited. “December 8th. Mark your calendar.”
“What’s the occasion?” I ask, still trying to recover from the shock of seeing him standing next to my desk.
“The planets will line up.”
“Those things in the solar system, Goose. Monday night. I’m borrowing a telescope so we can see Pluto,” he adds over his shoulder as he disappears into the hallway.
SUNDAY MORNING, Kermit comes downstairs and hands me two tapes.
“In case,” he says and neither of us finishes his thought. “One for you, one for Seth.” He pours himself a cup of coffee and sits down. “I think it’ll fit what Seth’s doing.”
“How did you do this so quickly?”
“The script, some of Dante’s love poetry from the Vita nuova, a little bit of criticism on the collected works of Dante, and Kenny.”
“Were you talking with him?”
“Remembering him. After reading the love poems, I realized Kenny’s my Beatrice.” Kermit’s forehead wrinkles.
“Dante says that love moves from preoccupation with your own feelings, to enjoyment of the other person, to ultimate concern with the other person’s happiness. For Dante, this became concern with Beatrice’s spiritual well being because she died young. Like Kenny. Dante’s willing to go through hell to meet her again.”
Kermit looks out the window. “I was stuck in phase two, still thinking about how much I enjoy Kenny. This,” he taps the tape. “This is me in phase three. Me concerned only about Kenny.
“I met Kenny at a closing night party and we talked all night. I was scared shitless. Kenny was so smart, I thought there was no way he’d want to spend the rest of his life with a landscaper who dabbled in community theater as a way to meet men and get free drinks. But we were happy. Even now, some people may see this as a horrible way to die, but I’d do it again.”
BEFORE WE MEET FOR our television party, Kermit hatches a new plan for driving Boris crazy. At 7:30, I stop upstairs to see if Kermit wants a pizza and find him in a t-shirt, his pajama bottoms, and a tuxedo jacket with tails.
“What’s the occasion?”
Kermit leans out his door, hollers Boris’ name down the stairwell, waits for a response and then, with the grandeur of a prodigy, flips his tails and sits at the organ. The evening’s repertoire consists of songs originally about sunshine. He belts his way through standard favorites like Mucous on my Shoulder Makes Me Happy, You are the Rhinovirus of My Life, and is just about to hit the high note in You Are my Nasal Spray, my only Nasal Spray, You make me hap-PY when Boris bolts upstairs and begins bashing Kermit in the head with a red velour pillow from Kermit’s couch.
Even if Boris gets a kick out of this, he won’t admit it. Later, as I hand him money to pay the pizza delivery person, he tells me he thinks Kermit has too much free time, but I know it’s Kermit’s way of giving Boris something he thinks Boris needs.
BORIS CALLS ME AT WORK Monday afternoon to demand that I head for the train. I get home at five, and he’s on the roof, shouting for me to hurry upstairs.
“It’s only for thirty minutes. After 5:30, it’s all over for the next 100 years!”
When I reach the roof, Boris is fussing with the telescope. Kermit leans against the chimney of the building. He’s bundled tight in a thick coat with fur around the edge of the hood, fuzzy gloves, and a thick wool scarf. It’s hard to tell if anyone’s really inside the coat and snow pants until Kermit waves half-heartedly.
“It’s Boris’ coat,” Kermit says. “He didn’t want me to catch a cold. Go figure.”
Boris is pointing into the sky. “Fifteen more minutes and you’ll be able to see them the best. They’ll shine like little stars.”
Boris talks about alignment, the predictions of Nostradamus, and why he prefers astronomy to astrology. I stand next to Kermit, shivering. The wind is chilling, but the night is clear. Perfect for stargazing.
As I stare into the sky, I wonder who else is stargazing. While Boris talks about inferior and superior conjunctions, I think of our future. Singular life is not nearly as impressive as when taken in conjunction with others, like the stars which combine into a blanket of motion and light.
For the first time in weeks, Seth isn’t thinking about the play. He’ll sleep well tonight knowing that he has a chance of doing what no one believed was possible: a successful dramatization of Dante’s Inferno.
Eventually, this thing Boris loves will invite him in and reveal itself. He’ll be riding his bike to the Institute on a fresh spring morning, and the thought he’s been waiting his whole life for will be reflected to him in the glimmering light off the Charles River. Aha, he’ll think, I’ve waited a long time for you, but at last you’re here.
Kenny will have walk-on appearances as long as Kermit’s run continues. After closing night, Kenny will wait backstage, arms filled with roses. There, they will have the chance to love again without conditions.
And Chuck. Perhaps if he keeps asking, he’ll get the answer he wants.
In the last lines of the Inferno, Dante emerges from hell and notes, we came out to see once more the stars. Paradise, too, ends with the stars, and it is suggested that Dante the Pilgrim becomes part of what he sees. He does not understand, but he experiences. He journeys from bondage to freedom, and therein finds happiness. If our lives were a script, we could know how we end.
“Three minutes to show time,” Boris announces.
I feel a tug on my sleeve. As I turn to look at Kermit, I notice the wrinkles around his eyes. Until now, I’ve never noticed how old he looks, as if he is waiting not for something to begin, but rather for something to end. Kermit’s legs waver under him and he teeters, falling against me. He clutches my arm as he tries to right himself, like a man dizzy from age and exhaustion.
“Do you think Kenny’s up there?” he asks.
I take his hand and breathe. Yes.
Stephanie Johnson lives in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds a B.A. in English from Middlebury College in Vermont and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in The Rambler, where she is a regular non-fiction contributor.