"I like the fact that men are committing suicide in two of the stories," said Harriet grimly. "I vote we do either of those."

The discussion bounced around the circle without much conclusion, other than the fact that it cemented my suspicions that everyone there was insane. Maurice listened, smiling and nodding at whatever lunatic happened to be speaking. Obviously, he was loopier than the whole lot of them. It made me a little nervous, knowing that I was sitting in the middle of a bunch of people who really should’ve been locked up in padded cells. I was even starting to wonder about the stability of Jill’s mind.

"What about you, Frank," said Maurice suddenly. "Which story speaks to you?"

"Well, Maurice," I said, deciding that honesty was the best policy, at least for the moment, "all three of the plays disgust me. I find them revolting, dirty, sordid little stories. They’re the dramatic equivalent of the hairballs my neighbor’s cat is always coughing up on my lawn."

"That’s beautiful," said Maurice, nodding earnestly. "Just beautiful, Frank. Disgust and revulsion are powerful, positive, life-affirming reactions. Most of the audience threw up on the opening night of Andre Fournier’s critically acclaimed play La Triste Patisserie. Paris went wild! The critics swooned! I love how you validated your response with animal symbolism. People, you see what Frank did? Animals, people. It’s all about animals. We’re all animals at heart. If you can mesh together animals with your personal well of inspiration, your acting will be that much more heartfelt. Find the animal living in your well! Wonderful, Frank. Wonderful! You’re a natural at emoting rage. A little more work, perhaps some nudity–nudity and rage create a powerful psychological symbiosis–and you’ll be perfect at it. I think you have a real gift there."

Maurice began pacing back and forth in the middle of the circle. "People, I’m sensing a lot of affection for these stories. If we could, we’d do them all, but we need to pick one. As the director of the Westside Thespians, I’ll articulate the choice on your behalf. I’ll speak for you." He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Yes, yes. I can feel it. I can sense it. We shall do Concrete Flowers Deux."

The room burst into applause, except for Harriet, Jill, and myself. Harriet was frowning and shaking her head.

"That’s all for tonight, folks," said Maurice. "Remember, next Saturday is our performance. Be here at six o’clock sharp for costuming. Invite your friends for the curtain at seven."

"Excuse me," said Jill. "Did you say the performance is next Saturday? We haven’t even seen the script yet. We haven’t practiced."

"That’s right," said Maurice, smiling. "You did know that Westside Thespians is part of the nouveau instant-impromptu movement, didn’t you? We read, rehearse, and perform all at the same time. It’s very exhilarating. You’ll love it!"

Jill was unusually quiet on the drive home. She didn’t object to a quick detour through the Burgermaster drive-through. She even agreed to a Single Grandmaster with fries.

"You know, Frank," she said, taking her last bite as I turned off the ignition in our driveway, "I may have made a mistake."

"Ordering a Single instead of a Double?"

"No. Joining the Westside Thespians. Myra was so enthusiastic about it all, and it sounded so fun, but tonight was not exactly what I was expecting."

"It was exactly what I was expecting."

"Oh?" she said, grinning suddenly. "I’m not surprised."

We smiled at each other, sitting there in my truck. It was one of those goofy moments where you remember all over again exactly why you married your wife in the first place and why you want to stay married to her.

Jill leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. "I’m sorry I dragged you into it."

"Apology accepted. But we’re gonna see this through. At least for the performance."

"What?" she said, looking startled. "Are you serious?"

"It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I just can’t look away. I find it weirdly fascinating."

"You’re weirdly fascinating," she muttered. "Remind me again why I married you. Well, if we must, but after next Saturday we’re done and we’re even, deal?"

"Deal. We’ll go, have a good laugh at other people’s expense, and then grab some burgers afterward."

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Saturday rolled around like it always did, right after Friday. I got up bright and early and went out to the backyard to do some yard work.

"So, how’d the drama thing go last Saturday? Did you try the bathroom ploy?"

Murdock had one arm hooked over the top of the fence. He took a swig of beer.

"Nah." I shook my head. "I just toughed it out. I couldn’t desert Jill. She’s my wife."

Murdock sorrowfully shook his head. "That’s what marriage does. It softens you. Oh well. At least it’s over. Hopefully you’re a sadder but wiser man now."

"Actually, we’re going back tonight."

"You’re messing with my head?"

"Nope. There’s gonna be a performance, seven pm."

Murdock’s eyes narrowed. "Did they get some kind of hold on you? Are you brainwashed or hypnotized or something?"

"I’m not sure. The way I explained it to Jill, it’s kind of like watching a ten-car pile-up on the freeway in slow motion. It’s horrible. It’s an awful thing, with people screaming and dying and ending up in the hospital, but you can’t tear your eyes away at the same time. You know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I guess so," said Murdock reluctantly. "I was working down in Panama once, some years back. There was this old monkey who lived in a tree in the middle of the village where I was staying. The kids would creep closer and closer to the tree, just to see the monkey. He was a bad-tempered monkey. They always knew what was coming, but they had to sneak closer. Sure enough, that monkey would suddenly haul off and nail two or three of them with rotten papayas. He had a throwing arm on him like a major-league pitcher. Ninety miles an hour. Bam! Those kids would run screaming. Some of them got concussed from those papayas. But then, sure enough, sometime later, they’d be creeping back to catch a glimpse of that monkey. It’s sort of like that, isn’t it?"

"Well, a little bit. I guess."

Murdock nodded wisely. "And you’re one of the little kids, creeping closer. You just better make sure you don’t get nailed with one of those rotten papayas."

"Not a chance," I said.

Something stirred uncomfortably in the back of my brain. Maybe it was a premonition, or maybe it was just the memory of Svetlana’s eyes. I shivered.

"Listen, Murdock," I said slowly. "Can you do me a big favor? I need an insurance policy."

"What do you mean?"

I told him. He almost said no. He tried to say no, but we were neighbors. Friends, I suppose. And, in the end, he had to agree, even though when he finally disappeared behind his side of the fence he looked like that old monkey had just clobbered him with a papaya.

We left Tom in charge of the house for the evening. He didn’t seem too pleased about it, and neither did Jenny. The only one happy was Ben. That was because I’d bribed him with a Fudgsicle.

"We’ll probably be back late," said my wife. "Tom, you make sure Ben goes to bed by eight. Jenny, no talking for hours on the phone with your friends. Or texting. Keep the doors locked. If Grandma calls and wants to talk about her indigestion, tell her I’ll phone her tomorrow. Ben, you’re dripping chocolate on the floor. Tom, call the police if someone tries to break in or if anyone calls and breathes heavily on the phone."

"We’ll be fine, Mom," grumbled Tom. "I’m sixteen years old."

"Let’s go," I said. "We have a train wreck to catch."

The tension inside the church when we got there was palpable. However, as I’m not sure what palpable means, other than a vague idea that doctors do it during certain kinds of examinations, let me use the word "jittery" instead. Everyone was jittery, except for Maurice.

"Calm down, people," he said. "Calm down. This is just a performance, that’s all it is. True, there’s always the possibility that a Hollywood producer might attend incognito, looking for the next Robert Redford or Meryl Streep, but you can’t let that affect you. View tonight as you connecting with your public."

"I shall connect with the public," muttered Svetlana from somewhere behind me.

"When are we going to see the scripts?" asked Harriet.

Maurice patted the stack of scripts beside him. "Soon, very soon. Now, the performance will take place in the sanctuary. Some friends of mine from the theater guild have kindly put together some fantastic stage props, as well as lighting, so all we have to do is walk on and start performing. Remember your wells! Draw deep from your wells. Gordon, you know what that means."

"I do?" mumbled Gordon, his eyes looking slightly glazed.

"Honey," whispered Jill next to me, "I’m starting to feel very nervous."

"Don’t be," I whispered back. "We’ll get some bit parts and then enjoy the hideous spectacle from the wings. It’ll be fun."

"Okay," said Maurice, "we’ve got a few minutes to go. Let’s do another Popcorning exercise in order to warm up. Choose a partner, someone new. Let yourself go. Float with the current. Let your inspiration overflow! You’re actors, people. You’re special! You’re actors!"

I should’ve realized my partner was a premonition of things to come, but I didn’t. Sometimes I can be pretty dumb, but don’t tell my wife I said that. I somehow ended up with the man-hating Harriet. She glared at me like I’d just skinned and eaten her pet dog. I resolved to treat her kindly, but I’m afraid my resolve vanished when she opened her mouth.

"I’ll start," snapped Harriet. "I think men should be hunted down and eradicated from the planet like the vermin they are."

"When you say planet, do you mean this planet we live on, or some other planet inhabited by crazy people such as yourself?"

"You can laugh now, you cockroach, but you won’t be laughing when my sisters and I squish you like a bug."

"What I’m wondering," I said, in an attempt to tone down the conversation and lead it in a more theatrical direction, "is how you would channel your rage if given the opportunity to perform a classic role, such as the lead in Pride and Prejudice?"

"My character would throttle Mr. Darcy," she growled, her fingers unconsciously flexing, "and then stuff his worthless corpse down one of those Victorian privies."

"I assume you’re familiar with the mating habits of the black widow spider?"

"Bah! Mating is an outdated, Neanderthal practice perpetuated by patriarchal society. Though," she added grudgingly, "the black widow’s practice of killing and eating her mate is admirable."

Maurice clapped his hands and stopped the exercise. "Time, people! It’s time. Here are your scripts. You’ll notice that each of you is getting a personalized script. Your character name is written on the front, and then your lines are highlighted in yellow. In the instant-impromptu movement, it is expected and normal for actors to read from their scripts during performance. Keep up, keep going, and let your inspiration run wild! Feel free to improvise on your lines, but stick to the story. Proceed down the hallway on the right. The last door opens into the front of the sanctuary. I’m playing the part of the Narrator, so I’ll always be there to keep things on track. We’re on in five!"

I peeked through the door into the sanctuary. It took a while before my eyes adjusted to the shadows. The place was jam-packed with people. Hundreds of people. Where on earth had they all come from? Didn’t they have anything better to do on a Saturday night? My stomach shifted uncomfortably. A few spare lights shone on the stage, revealing a stool, a potted plant, and a stepladder. Were those the only props?

I glanced down at my script. My name was written on the front in bold, black marker. Beneath it was another name. George. I figured that must be the name of my character. I flipped open to the first page. My stomach didn’t just shift uncomfortably; it sank right down to somewhere below my feet. The page had a listing of characters, each with a short description.

The name George was accompanied by the following description: George Winter is the husband of Leanne Winter, the lead character. George is a repressed workaholic, pursuing the American dream as an appliance salesman. He spends a lot of time dreaming about becoming a dancer in Las Vegas. George is nervous around his wife, and sex makes him suicidal.

Nothing about what I read encouraged me. I’m sure Harriet would be pleased by the fact that my character was suicidal, but the fact that my character was the husband of the lead character was not a good sign. It was a reasonably safe assumption that I would have quite a lot of lines. A quick glance through the script confirmed my fears. Almost every page had a couple yellow highlights on it.

"You’ve got quite a role there, Paul Newman," said my wife, poking me in the ribs. "I’m sure you’ll knock ’em dead."

"What’s your role?" I asked. My mouth felt oddly dry.

"Neighbor #3," she said smugly. "I have one line."

"I wonder who’s playing the lead?" I said nervously.

"So, you are to be my husband."

I turned around. It was Svetlana.

"And we’re on!" announced Maurice.

He strode onto the stage and took a bow to a thunderous burst of applause.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Maurice, his voice booming, "welcome to the premier performance of Manolo Lefkowitz’s critically acclaimed play, Concrete Flowers Deux! Please, no flash photography or filming is allowed during the performance. Remember to turn off your cell phones. Donations will be collected during intermission. All the proceeds will go to the Theater Guild Fund for the care and hospitalization of actors injured by plastic surgery. And now, sit back and enjoy. . . Concrete Flowers Deux!"

There was another burst of applause. Maurice waited until the clapping died away, and then he opened his script with a flourish.

"It was the coldest day of the year," said Maurice, his voice deep and sonorous. "A frigid, freezing day, when even the concrete threatened to crack like ice throughout the city. On 12th Avenue, where the apartment buildings reached up to the winter sky like frozen fingers, a lone mailman trudged along with his sack of mail. . . a lone mailman trudged along with his sack of mail. . ."

He paused and looked impatiently offstage. "I said, ‘a lone mailman trudged along with his sack of mail’! Are you deaf?"

Gordon hurried onto the stage, clutching his script.

"Sorry!" said Gordon. He glanced nervously out at the audience. "I must’ve been on the wrong page. Oh, uh, it sure is cold today for delivering mail. I wish I had worn my long underwear. It’s a cold, frigid world, but it doesn’t get much colder than Manhattan in February. I feel so cold and frigid."

Svetlana lumbered across the stage and stood uncomfortably close to Gordon. He edged away from her.

"Good morning, mailman," said Svetlana, reading from her script. "You look like you’re very cold. Would you like to come inside and warm yourself with my fire?"

"Uh," said Gordon.

There was a long, tense pause. Gordon seemed either frozen in fear or somehow hypnotized by Svetlana’s lizard-like eyes.

"No, thank you," hissed Maurice. "I must deliver the mail."

"Uh, no, no thank you," gabbled Gordon. "I must deliver the mail."

"That is unfortunate," said Svetlana. "My fire is ample. Do you have any mail for me?"

"I, uh, why, yes. Yes, I do. I have this big, thick Ikea catalogue."

Gordon hurried off the stage.

"Oh, Ikea," bellowed Svetlana, her voice as loud and as thundering as the mating call of a hippopotamus. "I adore their meatballs with lingonberry sauce. How I wish I had a plateful now. What a nice, big, thick catalogue this is."

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