Buddy Alter sits alone, center stage, in a tall chair overlooking the crowd. His gaze oscillates slowly, row-by-row, pausing on each audience member before blinking on to the next. A few confront him like closed fists, oysters waiting to be shucked. Others have already fallen in love and return his gaze with doe-eyed longing. He scans the faces, registering the pretty ones, willing them all to open themselves up to him.
For Cass, sitting in the front row, the suspense is torture. He invited her to come today but had left the details loose. Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco, 7:00 am, was all she knew. She’d asked her mother Madelin for a ride to the city but, before she could finish her sentence, her mother had held up her hand. “Does this involve your father?”
“He invited me to attend one of his training seminars.” Madelin’s eyebrow kinked. “For free! For free.”
“And didn’t offer you a ride?”
“Well, his assistant called and…”
But Madelin had her hand splayed like a wall between them, so Cass got herself up at 4:45 this morning to catch a bus to the city. She wore the outfit she plans on wearing the first day of middle school: her best corduroys and a plaid shirt that never wrinkles, not even if you sleep in it. She sat right behind the bus driver looking out the window at the cables of the Golden Gate Bridge swooping up and down, seagulls swarming over dumpsters, and sleeping bodies piled in doorways. She got out when the driver told her to and found her nametag on a table in the hotel lobby, but when her father’s gaze finally finds her in the audience, he doesn’t even blink, just slides on to the woman to her left.
“So,” he repeats. “Let me begin with my story, so we can get all that bullshit out of the way. I might be Buddy Alter, but all identities are illusions. They are stories we tell ourselves, but they’re only lies. We’re all trapped in our own stories. That is life.”
He stands there, well-groomed and vaguely dangerous, the champion Doberman at the show. The woman sitting beside Cass responds by stretching and crossing her legs in a slow, flexing movement. Buddy’s eyes flit to her lap for a moment before he goes on.
“Part of the story I used to tell myself was that I was my mother’s son, my boss’s employee, and my wife’s husband, but those weren’t my stories at all. Those labels might be given to anyone; I didn’t own them and they didn’t own me. None of it was real.” Buddy ignores the hand that shoots up in the back of the room.“It was just a shared hallucination. As a child, I allowed others to define me, but since then I have expanded my reality. You might ask why my perspective is any more real than my parents’ was, and I would answer simply this: It is mine. Mine.”
He walks to the front of the stage and aims a finger at them. “How many of you have allowed your past, your family, your job, your small ideas to define you? And how many of you still blame someone else for how things turn out?” He punctuates each sentence in the air with his finger, then points to the back of the room. “How about you—you had your hand up. What do you think?”
Three hundred heads turn, craning to see who dared.
“If you want to speak, stand up and wait for the microphone. You’ve all agreed to follow these basic instructions.” Buddy perches on the chair while the man waits for the aide with the microphone.
The guy looks nice enough to Cass—round face, nervous smile. He clears his throat: “Sorry. Actually, I had a question about what you said about everything being false. No offense, but I was wondering if… well, if everything is a lie, why should I listen to you—or to anyone else, for that matter?” The guy ends with a clownish shrug and sits down.
The crowd holds its breath. Buddy sits calmly with his face framed in the ell of index finger and thumb. “Don’t apologize for yourself, my friend. Not only are you clearly trapped in a stagnant reality, but that question is a trap itself, and to give you the answer you expect, I’d have to join you there.”
Several people laugh. Buddy hops up and strides to the left edge of the stage. “I am offering you the opportunity to create a new reality, but you’ll have rise to the challenge, because I’m no god and I’m not your daddy. Here’s your chance to stop stunting your own growth. It might be your last chance, so do yourself a favor, do us all a favor, stop playing that old record. Just let it in.”
Applause booms like thunder. Cass stands and with the rest. She doesn’t understand what they are clapping for but she wants to be a part of it.
He waits for total silence before he continues. “That reminds me of a Zen koan–for those of you who haven’t had the luxury of studying philosophy as I have, let me explain: Buddhists ask unsolvable riddles to remind themselves of the folly of logic. For example, ‘What was my face before I was born?’ Think about that for a while and maybe you’ll begin to understand. What was your face before your parents were born? And their parents? What is your face now, for that matter? Is it really as beautiful or ugly as you think it is? Does it really belong to you? There is no answer, is there? But does having an answer matter at all, in the end? This year they created life in a test tube. A test tube! Think about it, people.”
Cass knows she looks a lot like her father. Anyone could see she gets her length and lankiness from him. Madelin says she has a little Buddy in her cheekbones and her chin and especially in her eyes, but that she has her mother’s eyebrows. Cass turns to the woman next to her and smiles, willing her to notice. The woman glances and smiles but turns back toward the stage.
But maybe her face has changed, maybe her father just didn’t recognize her. After all, the last time he saw her was almost five months ago, just before he went on tour, when they had dinner at a restaurant where he showed up with his new girlfriend.
She sees a fleeting image of her face, soft and malleable as a lump of warm play-dough, waiting to be lifted and held, firmly formed and defined by his hands.
Look at those hands, the way he brings his fingertips to his lips in a steepled prayer after saying something particularly profound; how they sweep up and out with a symphony conductor’s flourish, drawing imaginary quotation marks around the word “understand”; the hook of his thumbs, aw-shucks, into his pockets as he stands there, elbows akimbo, feet firmly planted slightly apart, an invisible cape billowing up behind him; how the bicep swells forward when he crosses his arms and holds his fists over his ribs.
She desperately wants to believe.
He says, “Guilt and resentment are useless emotions. The only thing that matters is what you do now. Don’t wait for god to answer your prayers. You must take action. You must act yourself into reality.”
The crowd is a vast pelt rippling with delight under his palm.
“Close your eyes and feel what it feels like to be here now. Not in your head, not in the past, not in your story-lies.”
She closes her eyes.
“See yourself in your ideal job, wearing the best clothes, sleeping beside your ideal spouse. This is how life should feel. Feel what it feels like?”
“Now open your eyes and do it. You have to act your ideal—only you can make it real.” He urges the crowd to repeat this line and they do, over and over, until the applause rises like a tidal wave.
“Transcend the bullshit!”
He raises his arms, indicating the sea of fluorescent faces, the conference room they sit in, and the crowd applauds with the unfettered enthusiasm of a thousand pigeons bursting from a cage. He receives the ovation like an ablution, his arms raised high.
“Enact your ideal!”
It must be after midnight when the last speaker puts down the microphone and everyone stands to file out into the hall to return their laminated nametags carefully on the assigned table and retire to their hotel rooms to sleep for six hours if they’re lucky before reporting back tomorrow. After they’re all gone and the lights have dimmed, Cass pulls her backpack onto her shoulders and walks up on stage, pulls herself up into the chair.
Everything looks different from up here. It’s the same room, the same beige vinyl seats, dirty carpet, the same stale air, but with just one step up and a 180 degree turn, everything looks different.
A little shiver runs up her spine—the thrill of overstepping her boundary, the fear of being caught. She looks around to see if anyone is looking and then hurries up the aisle before they close the doors.
“You’re late. It’s time to leave.” The woman holds out her hand for Cass’s nametag. “Cassandra Alter? You’re not any relation, are you?”
“I’m his daughter.”
“Really? Really! Well, how exciting. I am Sally. I’m a fifth rung volunteer here tonight and I’m just so pleased to meet you.” The woman pumps her hand enthusiastically. “How many times have you done the training, honey?”
“This is my first time.”
“Really? How old are you?”
“Oh, my. Well, you’re never too young to start living an authentic life. You must feel so proud of your dad. I’ve graduated sixteen times, can you believe it?”
Cass smiles and shakes her head.
“Well, you’re up late and you must be tired. Can I help you find your room?”
“No thank you. I can take care of myself.”
“Of course you can! We’re all responsible for our own stuff, right? Well, then, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow. Will you be joining us for breakfast at six in the staff room? I could save you a seat.” Sally grins wide and wrings her plump hands.
“I don’t think I can get here before seven, but I’ll try.”
“I’ll reserve a seat just in case. Well, good night sweetie.” Cass pushes the button for the elevator. Sally calls after her: “Buddy loves you 100%!”
Cass doesn’t notice much on her way down to the lobby and through the sliding glass. Outside, the fresh air slaps her cheeks and her eyes dilate to take in the tall buildings, dark sky, and a few cars rolling down the street–insulated little worlds, distant planets rolling along. The rumble of tires echoes against the buildings and her eyes follow their taillights as they escape into the distance.
This story is actually a chapter from my first novel, Nothing Sacred, which I tried to turn into a short story just to see if I could. What do you think? Does it work by itself? Is it too heavy-handed? What does it need?
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