Mickle Maher

The Invasion of Desire and the Resistance to that Invasion

I told Susan a number of times, I vowed and threatened a number of times, sometimes vowing in the form of a threat and other times threatening in the form or "style" of a vow, using both the threatening vow and the "vow-style" of threat, that if she didn't stop embezzling from the theater company I would stop sleeping with her. But I knew even while making these vows and threats I could never make good on them, these threats and vow-style threats, knew I could never make good on them as my physical desire for her was just too much for me at the time, a desire which looking back I've come to think of as being carried, like a strain of malaria or anthrax, in the pincers of some microbe which uncurled and sprang from its dormancy at the slightest hint of sensuous detail. A glimpse of hand lotion collected under her nails, a shirt button undoing, the relaxing of a zipper ten teeth -- any of these would be cause enough for me to abandon my threats and vows and fall again to the mattress.

So leaving aside the vows, the vow-style of threat and the threatening vow, I retreated to a much lower-key type of threat, a simply stated, sincere threat I thought sincerely would be much easier for me to carry out. I told her stop this embezzling from the theater company or I'll sleep with you less. The amount embezzled determining the amount of our sexual activity; that is, more embezzlement equaling less, less equaling more.

This is how that worked: Susan would come home with the evening's proceeds (which she was supposed to collect throughout the week and then deposit on Monday) and throw the whole wad in a shoebox on her side of the mattress. Now, we'd both hear that particular thud of cash on cardboard, of cash being nested in its proper place, but in the moment after that thud as she sat back on her haunches by the box swaying it was clear that while I took that thud to mean simply proper place, the proper place for cash to be stored until Monday, she obviously took it as her cue to fish in for a five or ten and head for the corner grocery. She'd hear the thud and fish in and go and come back with a sack of snacks and cigarettes, shampoo, twizzlers, plastic kid's jewelry, etc. And I'd ask for the receipt, which she was always careful to keep, and compare its total with that of the night before and the overall average for the week. All these totals and averages of totals I kept written on an old draft of a company script on the floor next to my side of the mattress. It was a script from a play both of us had had roles in some years ago and I had once thought to keep it as a memento but since realized I hadn't enjoyed working on the play much and so felt fine about using it now for my record keeping and the working out of my system.

I had worked out, or was constantly improvising really, a system that determined just how much physical attention I was to give and receive that night based on this record of totals and averages of totals. The whole thing -- the various figures and my notes on the appropriate levels of withheld affection corresponding to these various figures -- filled the backs of the script's last seven pages. Each night I'd sit down with these figures, all the old receipts and the latest receipt and, with Susan lounging by the stereo smoking Mistys and chewing chips, would come up with the evening's guidelines: the duration and intensity of kisses, the quantity and placement of caresses, etc. Susan always accepted these guidelines with a studious interest and respect, as if I was handing her an ancient potshard or a poem written by a dying relative. Mm, mm, she'd say, looking it all over, brisk. She never ridiculed the scheme but never expressed much enthusiasm, knowing, as I did, as I must have, that my seven pages of calculations and illustrations, my seven page system, was really just a sort of parlor game or magazine puzzle or thumb twiddling and really had nothing to do with or could really go nowhere in producing any sort of result as far as this embezzling was concerned.

This was not because the system of seven pages was in any way defective conceptually, or vague or unsound along any of the plotted curves that arced gracefully as swan's necks through its charts, or in the logic, rock hard, that anchored its equations. As a veteran, full-partner in the business of our shared passion I was fully qualified to gauge to the dime just what a nibble or moan was worth, to the penny the numerous values assigned to each ounce of my palm's pressure on her hips. The problem, which I couldn't do a thing about, was that the nightly receipts from the corner represented only a fraction of what she was pocketing.

During the day when I was out cleaning toilets in the city's parks, she was free to dip into her shoebox and take however much she liked for her lunatic spending sprees. When I came home there would be a whole new heap of fantastic trash, price tags still attached and fluttering in my face: a forest of lamps, some too tall for the apartment and leaning against the wall or stretched across the floor over the parts of a rowing machine. Antique fireworks and lollipop shadow puppets. A hill of shoes in different sizes. A stuffed raven. A chart of toads. Ten copies of the same book. Throw rugs draped over humidifiers. Rare sheet music stacked on metal cans of popcorn. Chocolate animals, crock-pots, birdcages, cork sculpture, on and on and on. And in the middle of this jungle the open, emptied shoebox, white scratches along its bottom where she'd clawed up the last pieces of change.

I would scatter my cleaning rags over the dinner, the dinner of lobster and mozzarella sandwiches she'd always prepare for these occasions, scatter my rags over the dinner and ask just how did she feel robbing her best friends blind? Had she kept an accounting? Did she have any receipts? No, she had forgotten. Every one. Well what did she suggest I do with my seven pages of figures, my seven page system which I hope she had some idea of how long it had taken to develop? The seven page system which she had never openly protested when I proposed it, when it was being developed, but now that it was somewhat developed, now that there was a significant pool of reliable data -- the various totals and averages of totals -- now that there was some foundation to build on she apparently felt it behooved her to wipe out this system through the obliteration of that foundation, wipe it clean away with this leaving behind of receipts. If she thought the system was just a joke why had she demonstrated a willingness to participate in it by bringing back the receipts, small as they were, from the corner? Why not forget those receipts as well? Was she just humoring me by bringing in those small receipts? Well why not humor me completely and bring in the receipts for everything? The lamps, the shoes, the raven, everything, just tell me how much was spent, I'll enter the numbers, and we'll be on solid ground once again, I'd say.

"Why don't you just count the money in the shoebox?" she would ask. "Why not just keep track of the proceeds -- how much I collect at the door and take home, and how much is left in the box the next day?" And I would tell her, of course, that it wasn't my business to do that. That the company had elected her treasurer, that the company trusted her to collect the money at the door, trusted her to count the money, bring the money home each night and deposit it all on Monday. If I started counting up the money at the door and counting it up before it went in the shoebox and recounting it again the next day and again on Monday at the bank teller's window, who would be company treasurer then? I would be company treasurer. And I wasn't elected to be company treasurer, she was. That was her job. And it's true that with her embezzling she wasn't doing a very good job but I think, I would say, that once I start replacing you as company treasurer, secretly, behind the company's back, replace you as company treasurer, then really where does that leave us? What is gained by that? It is true we would have a better record of how much you were stealing. In fact, we would know exactly how much you were stealing, the precise amount. But as I would have, in effect, replaced you as company treasurer, this amount would represent only the money you stole as an ordinary company member. The present system of seven pages is built up around the amounts and averages of amounts you've embezzled as company treasurer, only. It's designed around a particular office and the particular personality of that office. The office of company treasurer. How insane to think for even a second that a system custom-built around the single, specific office of company treasurer could be transferred hugger-mugger over to a completely different office -- or what's not even an office but a rank, I suppose, the rank of ordinary company member.

No, I told her, her ideas were no good. Nothing was any good. The guidelines we had been following each night were nonsense. The positions, the whispered words, the amount of candlelight, the stroking, the breathing, the sighs were all nonsense, had all been dictated by meaningless numbers. Without all the receipts, without a full accounting, meaningless numbers were the basis of our sex life. Really, of our entire relationship.

Then we would fight. Or, I would tip over the table and throw bird cages and chocolate animals while she retreated to the windowsill and sat looking over the roofs of weed-cracked tarpaper, over the dirty city, tracing patterns in the soot that had somehow found its way even to the inside of the pane. Mostly she would trace out the set design for the show the company was currently running. While I was heaving piñatas, scrimshawed tusks and ping pong paddles through the stuffy air, making a mess within the mess, a picture of staged order would emerge in the black grime. An order that existed in actuality in a small theater above a Swedish funeral parlor just three miles north as the bus drove. A theater whose funds were being filched away by the same fingers that now lovingly traced the set it held.

Using her nails and the tips of her braids she could produce incredible detail. Door knobs, the folds and tassels of drapes, the bits of tape indicating where a set piece was to be placed, all clear, all sharp. The actors too, in full costume down to the safety pins, were shown walking through their blocking delivering lines in word balloon. From the wings the boot of someone just entering, my boot, with its thick laces and heel worn down on the instep. Wonderful. I would be completely drawn away from my throwing and sucked into this tracing, this soot scraping, and would leave everything and come sit and watch her work, sit and watch with the heaps of torn and shattered goods behind me in the apartment. Behind me the heaps of torn and shattered goods and through the window the city's whirling garbage and rubble and on the window, on a thin sheet of muck, this emerging illustration, this perfection of detail that seemed the only thing in the world with any rational arrangement to it.

I would apologize. I would apologize for saying our relationship was based on meaningless numbers. I would say that I didn't really believe that, that our relationship was based on meaningless numbers, that of course there was much, much more to our relationship than meaningless numbers. That though it might be the case, actually was the case if we were going to be honest -- and honesty really was our only hope now, a rigorous, fanatical dedication to honesty our only hope -- actually was the case that meaningless numbers had certainly influenced we could say, or invaded, we could say, our relationship, it was certainly going too far to say they were literally the basis of our relationship. They had influenced and even invaded, we could say. But to say our attachment was built entirely on a few forgotten receipts was just not accurate.

Susan would continue scraping soot.

Now I should mention that neither of us had ever been given a very large speaking part in any of the plays, any of the forty-two plays including the one acts and staged readings that had been produced in the seasons we'd been with the company. And it's because of this, I think, that our attention, not so focused on memorizing lines or developing character, could be given over to the theater as a whole. The upkeep and cleanliness of the entire theater, a special care for the upkeep and cleanliness of the seats and lobby, the upkeep of the plumbing and electrical systems, the rigging and the lights and especially the upkeep and cleanliness of the set -- each of the sets for the forty-two plays. I often think there's a conspiracy in the theater world to encourage bad actors -- which is what Susan and I were, very bad -- to encourage bad actors from the beginning and train them to continue to be bad actors so that when joining a company and landing nothing but small roles, their energy -- that energy unique to the denied, frustrated bad actor -- can be channeled into custodial services. That it is a recognized and acted upon fact within the theater community that bad actors, when kept on a strict diet of nothing parts, make for excellent and committed janitors, cleaning ladies and handypersons. All for zero wage and working like bright black worker ants with a piercing sense for detail and an indefatigable need to scour over every plank and floor joist their fellow company members, the successful, good actors, will fret across when playing their magnificent, thousand-line roles.

But this conspiracy aside, whether there is or is not a conspiracy, it is a fact that Susan had this energy, this energy unique to the bad actor to attend to the upkeep of things, the maintenance of things, and used this energy primarily to make an examination of the set every night when everyone had gone home or to the bars. Teetering gently on high heels and drinking wine from the bottle she would walk the stage back and forth mumbling an improvised monologue and noting what needed repair or, in her opinion, could be improved on in some way.

Back and forth, for hours, into morning.

From the seats I would listen to the slosh of her wine echo up the light trees into the flies. And while I took pride in my own energy, that energy gathered from being denied the larger roles, this bad-actor energy, and took pride in the pouring of that energy primarily into my seven pages, the system of seven pages, I had to acknowledge that Susan's energy, evident in these nightly examinations and ultimately in the copious intricacies of her soot scrapings, had in terms of precision and attention to detail outstripped my seven pages decisively. The worlds she scrapped into that pane of glass made me feel like I didn't know the first thing about precision and attention to detail. System of Seven Pages! She missed nothing. Any imperfection she found in her nightly examination would find its way into her rendering: the smallest chipping of paint, the slightest warp in a flat: "See...here...and here..." she would show me, lightly tapping the glass. Then she would slip stroking, grit-black fingers under my shirt, covering my torso in a mesh of streaks.

"I don't think the system is working," she said one night as we lay on the mattress both checkered with grime. "I think we should abandon the system."

Flat on my back I wadded up the seven pages and threw them into the hall.

"See, I'm throwing the seven pages away," I said. "Into the hall, away. All gone."

They fell among some bags of Japanese garden gravel.

"See that?" I said. "I don't know what those bags cost, you don't know what those bags cost, which is a sad fact but it's a fact I have to face, I agree with you. It's a fact you've faced and I'm facing it now, now with the wadding and throwing of these seven pages into the hall."

* * * * * * *


What I told her next was if she didn't stop the embezzling I would continue to sleep with her and at the usual rate, but I would become progressively clumsier and inept. The more she continued to embezzle the more clumsy and amateurish I would be.

I told her this secretly, in my head.

While, yes, I had said that our only hope was a dedication to honesty, a rigorous, fanatical dedication to honesty, I felt with this strategy -- the strategy of increasing sexual clumsiness -- that I couldn't be honest or open, that the whole scheme had to be covert, my thoughts secret and alone. She had been able to subvert, intentionally or not, the system of seven pages because that system demanded her participation, her bringing of receipts. With this system, this strategy, however, she wouldn't have the slightest idea what was going on. She would receive the penalty for her theft, my increasing clumsiness, completely unaware that it even was a penalty. The penalty would be smuggled in. She would notice the increasing clumsiness, of course, would sense the increasing clumsiness' steady envelopment of all the agility our bed was home to, but would only link it to her actions, her thieving, unconsciously, somewhere in the lower levels of the mind's pulse where desires for sex and thieving interlock, or interbreed. That was the hope, anyway. That the whole operation, the clumsiness and her subsequent reform, would work something like a subliminal cassette for quitting cigarettes or losing weight.

It was a disaster. As it turned out, all the clumsiness, my intentional awkwardness -- which I still believe she never detected as being intentional -- was hot, exotic spice to her. The smoothness and sureness I had acquired over the years as her partner had apparently taken on a predictable, monotonous rhythm and tone -- like a bugle call or the rubbery scrape of a revolving door. But my calculated oafish, all-thumbs technique, my premeditated floundering, came on with all the jazzy rhythm of a rock slide, and Susan, after a big two hundred dollar spree, was more eager than ever to strip and drag me early to bed.

The more I laid it on the more she loved it. I would lick at her thighs with all the finesse of a dog at a mud puddle and she would go wild. I would drool and cough through every kiss, poke her breast stupidly with my nose for minutes at a time, slurp her nipples like Jawbreakers, grab her butt like a bowling ball, stick my tongue in her eye, fall off the mattress -- she couldn't get enough. If I didn't stub my toe against the nightstand when going for a glass of water she would pout. She'd growl for more when I knocked my chin into her ear, banged our shins and flopped on her like a wet hay bale. I like this, I like this, she said and started in with it herself. She started in with the increased clumsiness herself and each night became an unrehearsed slapstick routine, with a lot of elbows into jaws and knees into spines. Embezzled money went to buy a specially designed bed frame that would fall to pieces and crash to the floor at some random point in our love battle. The sheets were greased and trip cords of fishing line were stretched across the mattress. Gracing the headboard were whispery stains of diaphragm jelly squirted from tubes left among the blankets like banana peels to be sat or lain upon accidentally.

This went on for sixteen days and nights.

On the final night I remember limping to bed, in dread, my ear and nose bandaged, and seeing Susan in dim light, nude, balancing a bowling on each of the bed's four posts. Nicks and scrapes on her lovely arms. Welts in the small of her back. Her head misshapen with bumps. My lover's beautiful body marred through my efforts to reform her.

In that evening's session I broke two fingers and wrenched my knee from its socket. Susan sprained an ankle and suffered a mild concussion from one of the pins. In the morning, through bruised lips, I confessed everything, saying it was all a phony act this strategy of increased clumsiness, a bad strategy, a very flawed strategy that wasn't working and could we please stop, the both of us with this increased sexual clumsiness, please stop.

She was disappointed but touched that I'd gone to such lengths to help her with her problem and agreed to go back to our old, practiced ways. She asked that we keep the collapsing bed, however, which we did, reassembling it each night, repairing the joints and slats when necessary.

* * * * * * *


Just before she was found out, when a vague pathway between the piles of shopping was all we had left as living space, Susan herself proposed our last method of economy.

This is always a bad sign, a signal of impending break-up, I think, when the lover who has never had a single thought on how to solve a relationship's problems, gets one. Not a single thought, then a sudden inspiration -- the sort of inspiration that with all its suddenness you can be sure is indication that an inner-balance has been upset, a sure sign that whatever deep-set gyro that up until this point has kept the love craft level has been pulled from its casing and shattered. But an inspiration I nevertheless went along with -- an inspiration, or method, or idea I really had no choice but to go along with as I was by this point desperate and out of ideas myself, and, of course, in love. Everything else had failed while the problem -- the embezzling and the continued shopping -- grew around us like a smooth, odorless weed.

The pressure was getting to me. Half shots of sharp, acidic vomit rose in my throat in the night. I mistook the buzz of a fly for the drag of a gun muzzle across our window screen. I would give myself to any plan and really had no choice but to give myself to any plan as we only had three weeks. In three weeks a total of eight hundred dollars for the rent on the theater and for a special set piece -- a robot Spiro Agnew programmed to raise its arms and plead "no contest" -- was due. Up until now Susan had always managed to hold back just enough to pay the bills on time, so no one had reason to suspect there wasn't a sizable lump of savings in the bank.

But the show we were running this month, the operetta on Agnew, was a surprise flop. The critics disliked the Agnew robot, and as a pack condemned it as bringing too much a flavor of "cumbersome extravagance" to our "charmingly bare-boned, boot strap venue". Mechanical Agnew Makes Entire Evening's Performance Unwatchable, they said. Mechanical Agnew a Lousy Bore, they said. Kill Mechanical Agnew, and so on.

And with the rotten publicity and the small audiences resulting from the rotten publicity, the usual take at the door, the take Susan counted on each month to cover her tracks, began to dry up. All because of this mechanical Agnew that everybody hated.

And everybody, everybody, did hate the mechanical Agnew, the whole idea of a mechanical Agnew. That it was Agnew was bad enough, but that the Agnew was mechanical as opposed to immobile mannequin was what seemed to really fuel the catcalls and refund demands. When the curtain fell the audience would file out past Susan at her post at the door all up in arms about what they saw as gratuitous robotics. A crook, a thief, a dealer in graft and dirty Baltimore politics that was the Agnew I knew, they'd all say with torn pieces of program in their fists. Isn't that the Agnew you knew? they'd ask. And if that's the Agnew you knew, they'd say, then how in good conscience can you support or stand by and do nothing in the face of this representation of Agnew as mechanical man, as automaton. He was not, he was not, an automaton, they'd say. Agnew was not an automaton they'd say.

But in spite of this Agnew, in spite of the small audiences and no money resulting from this Agnew, there was a chance that if we could stop Susan's spending, or even slow it by a few degrees, we might have enough cash by deadline. Out of this hope, the hope of slowing the spending, Susan developed the plan that she outlined to me one morning sitting cross-legged on the mattress in a tattered bathrobe, sipping some sort of muddy liqueur from a cereal bowl, the last clean dish in the house.

"My idea", she said as I struggled to raise myself from nightmare, half-asleep, collapsed bed frame in pieces around me, "my idea is you as Assistant Treasurer."

This was an immediately rousing and renewing idea, immediately rousing words, just the words "Assistant Treasurer", immediately renewing words that -- even though I wasn't sure completely what she meant by them, what she was leading up to -- had the effect of rousing and shaking me both from my nightmare of dead mice wrapped in scouring pads and that general gray stupor that fills me, and I think would fill anybody, whenever involved with, even peripherally, a piece of theater such as the Agnew operetta that has at its core, or in the case of the operetta right at center stage, a clunking embarrassment such as the robot Agnew. The words "Assistant Treasurer" roused me both from nightmare and the stupor caused by the general depression of being involved in an irremediably bad piece of theater, theater involving a mechanical Agnew.

"Assistant," I stammered. "Assistant Treasurer."

"You as Assistant. Or Co-treasurer, really, would be better. You as Co-treasurer", she said, lighting a Dunhill and ashing into the shoebox she had placed on my chest.

This change from assistant, or promotion really, this promotion from Assistant Treasurer to Co-treasurer was, aside from it of course increasing the general sensation of renewal, the rousing sensation, also gave a clearer suggestion, with its introduction of the title Co-treasurer, of what Susan's plan might involve.

"What you mean by 'Co'," -- I said -- "by saying 'Co-treasurer', what you mean to suggest is an equal partnership, an equal share of power, some sort of arrangement where both you and I have equal say in what amount of money goes in and out of the shoebox. This is what you mean by "Co", to suggest a sharing of the shoebox, an equal sharing."

Certainly, this was obvious. Of course. "Co", saying "Co-treasurer", she told me, conferring on me the office of Co-treasurer meant exactly that, a division of her power into equal parts, into halves, she told me, one half of the shoebox being hers, so to speak, the other half mine, was what was obviously implied by the use of the term or title "Co-treasurer".

"Yes, but what's not clear to me," I told her, "What's not clear is just how these two halves of the treasurery -- the honest half and the embezzling half - are to come to terms regarding the amount of money put in and taken out of the shoebox, seeing as I want the shoebox to be completely filled with money and you, Susan, at bottom, really want the shoebox completely emptied. How these two opposite impulses, the impulse to fill and the impulse to empty, can be reconciled or if not reconciled, how exactly, in what arena, can these opposites be hashed out night after night, day after day -- how these opposite impulses will be dealt with is not clear to me at this time."

She elaborated.

First, there would be no question as to the amount or quality of sex we could have. This was, of course, what made the idea from the beginning so fundamentally attractive, the avoidance of any restrictions on the amount and quality of sex. However, questions of amount and quality aside, she explained, whoever was the initiator of any given encounter, whichever half of the treasury, the honest half or the embezzling half, felt the greater need to break down and initiate a sexual encounter, that half, it would be agreed, would be required to pony up a fifty dollar fee. A fifty-dollar fee for the initiator. All fees paid to me, the treasury's honest half, would naturally go straight to the bank, while all fees to Susan would go the usual way straight towards the cluttering of our rooms with pricey junk.

As she put it, the question of the next three weeks was who could be the better Rapunzeul. That is, who would be best at holding out in their tower, so to speak, keeping his or her braid back from the sill Rapunzuel-like until, as she put it, the request came to let it drop.

And because of this bringing in of Rapunzuel, Rapunzuel's name and the conditions of her captivity and courtship, because of Susan explaining her plan by way of Rapunzuel, the plan, in my mind at any rate, became known not as the Co-treasurer plan or the clumsy fee-goes-to-the-initiator stratagem but as the Rapunzuel plan, or because of the three-week deadline pressure we were under giving everything a much riskier, a much dicier flavor, the Rapunzuel Gambit.

And yes, I accepted Susan's idea, her Rapunzuel Gambit, immediately, because, as I've said, I was desperate, feeling the pressure, out of ideas myself and was ready to throw myself into anything, any sort of scheme, now with the money on the theater and the Agnew due in three weeks and Susan's shopping covering every inch of floor space in the apartment, leaving only the bed as a kind of sweaty oasis hemmed in by all the brass porpoises, hatboxes and whatnot.

And happy, I suppose, that I so quickly accepted, Susan celebrated the Gambit's opening moments by flicking her tongue across my lips and stuffing a fifty from the shoebox down my pajamas, repeating this same advance three times in the course of that day and night, leaving me two hundred dollars to the good. And naturally, two hundred dollars to the good, I felt then that there would be little or no problem making the required eight hundred by deadline, or at least coming close enough to the eight hundred so that the sale of a few bird cages and lamps could cover the difference. It seemed to me then, two hundred dollars to the good, that Susan had only proposed this particular scheme, this Co-treasurer scheme, this Rapunzuel Gambit, simply as a way to gracefully hand the funds over to my keeping, to artificially construct an honest half to the treasury, to the shoebox, a secure half, in which to hold the company's money. While in the rank of ordinary company member I had opposed unauthorized hands mixing with what were rightfully duties belonging solely to Susan's office of company treasurer, now in my appointment as Co-treasurer -- an appointment she as treasurer certainly had the authority to make -- I had every right and, in fact, a responsibility to deal directly with every dollar, to stick my fingers, so to speak, directly into the till -- a place she, with her promotion of me to Co-treasurer, clearly wanted my fingers to be. Clearly the Rapunzuel Gambit was originated by Susan as a way to, within a context of sexual playfulness -- or a sex play, actually, in which I was to be cast in the role of Rapunzuel -- a way to transfer all the funds and bookkeeping completely to my trust and so take care of not only the eight hundred dollars but the entire embezzling problem with a single stroke.

This is what I believed, that the eight hundred dollars due for the rent and the mechanical Agnew as well as all of Susan's embezzling would be taken care of through this new scheme, this Rapunzuel Gambit.

The night after I made that first two hundred, however, Susan lay on the sheets in the shadows of her heaps of shopping, an arm's length from me, cool as pencil lead, silent, not responding to my whispering of pet names. Pet names drawn at her suggestion the week before from the family of grocery store mushrooms.

"Crimini," I said. "Portabella. Shitaki."

No answer.

Over the roofs the wind flirted shreds of tarpaper. From the stairs loose change clinked in thick pocket as a neighbor dug for his key. The smell of cracking splinters and wood rubbing wood rose from the bed's delicately fastened joints, literally the smell of imminent collapse, just barely brushing the air of the room while the city's light slipped through the thin scratches in the window's soot and I whispered again, Crimini, Portabella, Shitaki, thinking she must be asleep, of course she has to be asleep and turning on the pillow saw her, flat and straight as a corpse on view, but with her head twisted and her face staring into mine, eyes stretched round and white -- like mushrooms, I thought. A look of furious reining-in, a fraught squelching. A squelching, as though her desire, like a jet of forced steam, was striking against an ever-hardening surface within and ballooning back in still-potent billows.

She now wanted the part of Rapunzuel. On this night I was the one who was to make advances, I was to be the initiator and as initiator pay the initiator's fifty-dollar fee, reducing my cache of two hundred by a full quarter. She clearly desired this now, clearly desired me to make advances and as a result forfeit first one fifty dollar fee and then another and another and so on until the little ground we had gained, the two hundred dollars of ground, would be swept away fifty dollar fee by fifty dollar fee just as the system of seven pages had been swept away one forgotten receipt at a time and the strategy of increasing sexual clumsiness had been discouraged one bruise at a time.

She clearly, at this moment anyway, staring with her mushroom eyes, wanted above everything for me to, by becoming the initiator, destroy any hope we had of paying the eight hundred dollars, and any hope that her guilt would go undiscovered.

And my guilt as well now, now in my recent appointment as Susan's co-treasurer. That is, if I were to give in and make my advances, thereby colluding with her, thereby becoming not only her co-treasurer but co-embezzler. And I realized that of course this is what Susan had intended all along by appointing me co-treasurer, by coming up with this Rapunzel gambit. Everything led up to this: an invitation to join her in her humiliation and possible indictment. She was offering me the chance to be equally guilty with her. To participate with her in this project she was so interested in, this embezzling project. What with my constant condemnation and my strategies and systems to reform her she had been too shy to ask me straight out "will you be my co-embezzler?" But now, silent and staring there across a few inches of sweat-damp bedding, she was asking, asking me to cross over to her side of the shoebox, to share her path to disaster and possible prison term.

She didn't want to be good, for whatever reason. Her resistance to it was clear in the strained bulge of her eyeballs. And what can you do if you're with a person who wants to be bad? If you're with a bad person and you decide, for whatever reason, that you're not going to be bad, you're going to be good, you're just going to do good things, then you can't really say you're really with that bad person, can you?

No. They're bad, you're good.

You have nothing to do with each other. You don't belong together. You should break up because you never really were together in the first place.

"It's quite a choice you're giving me," I said. "But after all, I suppose love does come in many forms and one very common form for love to come in is in the form of total catastrophe. Don't you agree?"

From the bed frame a low-pitched creak.

"After all," I said. "I suppose a successful relationship could be built not on compromise, but on a lowering, a descending into one another's worst qualities. Isn't that true?"

She closed her eyelids slowly, as though with great effort, then forced them wide again.

I reached over her for the shoebox on the nightstand, my lips pulling within an inch of hers. I took out a single bill and rolling onto my back again held it up in the scarce light to my face. It was a five. I crumpled it somewhere into the sheets and reached for another, reading and crumpling it as well.

"Anyway," I said. "What is love made of but moments like these? How better for love to prove itself then in just this sort of entangling dilemma?"

Through the night I continued counting and crumpling, with Susan sometimes watching, sometimes appearing to doze.

Once, at that hour so late there's only the one car to be heard, making its rounds through the lanes and alleys and off ramps, she said softly, over the distant roll of its engine:

"That Agnew wasn't so bad, really."

I paused.

"The real Agnew?" I asked. "Or the robot Agnew?"

She seemed puzzled by the question, and then, strangely, pretended as if she hadn't heard.

It was our last interaction until around dawn, when the bed collapsed. In a violent but graceful wilt, it seemed to me through sleepless eyes. Much as an office building appears viewed from a distance being demolished by dynamite.

The entire pile of money, wadded all around us, flew into the air, then gently down. A fifty, like a wounded moth, dropped onto Susan's damp hip.

And I did reach for it. And did kiss that hip when reaching.

And she plucked it from my fingers and stuffed it into the pocket of her pants, draped over the dwarf ginkgo in the corner.

Then she smiled and kissed me back.

From there the three weeks ran on and down, the fifty dollar fees flowing steadily from the treasury's honest half to its embezzling half and from that half to shopping bags filled with gourmet biscuits, thimble-sized bottles of exotic massage oil, and faux Pompadour lingerie, the items tending more to the erotic in those final days. Occasionally, Susan would surprise me with a kiss or pinch and abiding by the rules of our office I would receive fifty dollars which I would fold pointedly into my wallet as though in preparation for a trip to the bank the next day. The bank saw no more deposits, however.

I came to appreciate, even love, Susan's growing collection. The chart of toads hung above the back brace propped up next to the fireproof lunch bucket, etc. I wouldn't have sold any of it, even if it had been worth enough to save us.

Those closing weeks were the sweetest, everything fresh, as though we'd just met. Typically the afternoons would be spent collapsing the bed, then Susan would take me out for a fifty dollar evening: dinner and maybe a show put on by a friendly rival company, whose members often recognized us as being from what was now cruelly referred to as that Robot Agnew Theater, famous these days for our monumental flop. "Oh things are fine," we'd tell them when they expressed concern. "What's one show? We'll bounce back. It'll take more than one mechanical Agnew to bring us down." And when we said it, we believed it.

But the last day of the month came and far out on the city's west side the old, grey-toothed robotocist crept from his cellar workshop and (as I imagine) flew to the theater in a giant bionic squab, a spray of grease and tiny bolts screeching from his exhaust pipe.

He stuck his furnace-blistered head through the door to demand payment on his Agnew. Most of the company was there that afternoon, including Susan and myself, having an emergency meeting on just what to do with our failed production. While the proceedings paused, Susan stood and walked towards the stage. I suppose everyone thought then that she'd left her purse and checkbook there. She climbed up front and center and in a well-rehearsed turn on the balls of her bare left foot, spun to face us from the lip, the hem of her summer skirt swinging to her thighs. Behind her loomed the Agnew, with its quiet electric hum and shine of dark lubricant behind Plexiglas eyes.

From the diaphragm then, projecting to the back wall of the house she whispered in the most golden of tones:

"Out of motives that remain obscure even to itself, the body of officials responsible for the keeping of this company's funds has pilfered the treasury of approximately five thousand dollars. There's nothing left in the bank account. In fact, there no longer is a bank account."

When the bank was called and everyone was convinced of the truth of Susan's statement, there was a lot of yelling and indignation, of course. I was actually on the receiving end of indignation's classic gestural expression -- a stiff finger jabbed repeatedly into my breastplate by one of the company's outraged members. Beyond that, though, not much was done. No charges were pressed. There was a meeting where, going around in a circle, everyone was given ten minutes to tell Susan and me just what was thought of us, of what we had done.

Everyone took far more than his or her allotted time.

We were both made to get steady jobs and pay back the estimated loss in set, weekly installments. I got work at a cafe, while Susan was hired as a teller at the bank.

Sadly, everything in the apartment was taken by the company to be either sold or used as props. A great deal of it actually was used in the show just following the Agnew operetta, a play that -- very loosely -- told the story of Susan and me and our embezzlement. Originally, it was just a short sketch that parodied our performing styles and our personalities in general, thrown together by two of the actors in the company for a fund-raising benefit. But this sketch was such a success it was expanded to a full evening.

As you might remember, it became a big hit, going on tour, getting produced in New York. It saved the company. Put them on the map, actually.

The night Susan and I planned to go see this play was the night she left me. There in the empty apartment. She told me she'd started having an affair with her boss, the bank manager.

He seems like a nice enough person. Though I've only seen him from a distance, through the window of the bank, having lunch with Susan at his desk. She sits in his chair; he sits on the overturned wastebasket.

I ended up going to the play by myself, which was fine.

It's a good play. The actor, Alan, who plays me, is especially good. All the nights I've gone he's been consistently excellent. Absolutely hilarious. They're both good, actually, both actors.

And the play seems to work both for those people who know that the story behind it is to some extent true and also for those who don't, who assume the play is a complete fiction. That is, the play works both for people who know something of the truth, and for people who know nothing of the truth.

And this has become interesting to me. The puzzle of how an audience is or is not affected by their greater or lesser knowledge of the truth. I've asked the company permission to poll the members of the audience after each show as to what extent each of them is aware of the actual events behind the play they've seen, and to what degree they've found that play to be successful. Among other things, what degree of hilarity they found the play to have achieved, and among other things just how hilarious they found my character to be - both in the writing and the performance of that character.

The performance by Alan.

I hope to set up a small folding table in the lobby and conduct my poll from there, using the table as a surface on which to place a number of pencils and pens, questionnaires and all the various poll-taking paraphernalia.

It will be a small table. One that can be folded and stored unobtrusively, perhaps behind the counter where the company sells a variety of coffee and baked goods.

The company is currently considering my request.


Director, actor and playwright, Mickle Maher has worked in Chicago for most of the last twelve years. In addition to being a cofounder of Theater Oobleck, he's worked closely with (to name a few) Theater for the Age of Gold, Redmoon Theater, and the Curious Theater Branch. His work as a playwright has been produced by Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, Links Hall, 6 Odum and many others; texts and productions of his have been mounted across the country, from the Steppenwolf theater in Chicago, to the Dress Shop and Public Theaters of New York City. Most recently, his plays An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening and The Hunchback Variations were published by Hope and Nonthings. He currently teaches Theater History at Columbia College in Chicago.