Professing Caliban

by Richard Plant

Caliban creeps a dark path between the forest and the field. A cow opposite the barbed wire moans. Maybe it’s spooked by his presence, maybe it’s responding to the pressure of milk or time of day: dusk and cool for August. Caliban’s sat in the audience enough rehearsals to know how cow noise carries, but doubts it will be heard now, not above the pre-recorded tempest or the shouts of those first actors weaving their way to the stage in minimalist suggestion of a ship, its hull a thick ribbon raised and lowered according to the pitch of the waves, its mast a wooden pole in the hands of a walk-on sailor. The sail, a jagged bedsheet, dips and thrusts to the strobe-enhanced rhythm of the storm. Spirits in black leotards escort the ship with skips and pirouettes, waving streamers of blue. Caliban can see none of this now, of course, treading solo in the dark, away from the stage and all its turmoil. But he knows exactly how it looks. Because he is an actor, he depends on things unseen; he has a faith in precedents.

* * *
It looked to Vernon like a win-win proposition, this community theatre thing, his part in it. Not at first, not back in May when Conway LaRue, Jr., the show’s director and an Associate Professor of Communication at Piney Woods C.C. first clapped him on the shoulder in the faculty processional and asked whether he’d be around to do Shakespeare this summer. Back then, in May, broiling under his academic gown and with his whole summer stretching before him, unparceled, uncommitted, Vernon had tried to appear polite but disinterested, and Conway LaRue, Jr. had not pushed. That was mid-May.

The first Monday after Memorial Day, Vernon was scheduled for his end-of-year interview with Dr. Costello, his Dean. Mrs. Quigly, the Dean’s secretary, greeted him by name, taking off her glasses. “I’ll just see if Dean Costello’s ready.” She buzzed him. Smiled again at Vernon. “Yes, go right in. Can I get you coffee?”

Costello, Vernon noticed, was dressed in shorts and polo shirt. Vernon was sorry now he’d worn a tie, thankful that he hadn’t put his sports coat on. “Good morning, Dr. B!” Dean Costello was a small, square, bespectacled man with a booming voice, a business management professor who had risen through the ranks. “How’re you today? Becky offer you a cuppa joe? All righty then.” Dean Costello typically opened these annual meetings by reviewing his evaluation check-list, ranking the probational faculty member one-to-five in various areas. Over the years, Vernon had become comfortable both with these chat-sessions and his own reliable “fours.” Vernon took a seat on the paisley couch that matched Costello’s wingback chair. Some papers and folders lay on the coffee table between them. Vernon had already read his student course evaluations for the year. A kind teacher. . . I like it when he reads aloud. . . He showed us how to write proffesionally. Now he primed his ears for Dean Costello’s numbers. “Well, Vern. Here we are. It’s been quite a year, I reckon. And I just want to say I’m sorry. For all of it, I’m sorry.” (Why, Vernon wondered, thrown off-course. It wasn’t Dean Costello’s fault.) “To lose your Mom over Christmas Break… Then, well, Lydia… You know, research shows divorce is harder–I’m speaking psychically–on husbands than on wives. So how you doin’, buddy?”

“Okay, Charles. Thanks. Neither was, you know, much of a shock.” He had a quick and painful mental glimpse of Mama, long months dying, fettered to a respirator. Another quick and painful glimpse of Lydia as she must have looked while posing for Buck Arnold’s night class in “Life Studies.” He’d seen a sample in the student exhibition: Lydia, nude, staring at him from across the college cafeteria. This was in April, two months after she’d moved out. Struck nearly faint and nauseous, Vernon had to leave the lunch line.

“Well, Vernon, I must say you kept your head up through it all. Teaching classes, grading all those goddamn papers–I swear I don’t know how you English people do it. Plus you proofed the college catalogue. And I just want to say we’re grateful here. You’re a real survivor.”

Had there been a choice? Living alone now in a two-bedroom apartment, a few worn pieces of his mother’s furniture for company; finding himself an object of embarrassment and pity, somehow, to those few couples he and Lydia once socialized with, what did he have to occupy his time but work?

Dean Costello raised his coffee cup. “Here’s hoping next year’s much, much better for you, Vern.”

“Yessir. I’ll drink to that.”

Costello took a sip. “All right.” He traded his coffee cup for the folder lying between them on the coffee table. “Let’s talk about this tenure thing.”

* * *

The world has come alive once more and waits for Caliban to enter. “Ban, Ban, Cal-i-ban,” he chants sotto voce. He’s beyond the edge of the parking lot now, where a pair of bats swoop for night bugs, and coming through the trees into the meadow where cast and crew park their cars and pickup trucks. He does a kind of dance-in-place, hunched over, shaking both his hairy wrists down at the level of his knees. He raises his brown-stained throat up to the moon. “There’s wood enough within, ” he rasps. “There’s wood enough within.” He rolls his head from side to side. The moon rattles across the sky, sinking into a purple cloud, and the gristle in his neck cracks softly. Then Caliban goes limp, falling forward until he feels his chin touch down upon his necklace of bone, and his fingers dangle at his ankles. He hangs there motionless, as Ariel must have hung while trapped in that enchanted pine. Relaxed, he is working once more to shuck his old life, its sorrows and its fetters: Lydia’s betrayal, the close of show, the summer’s end, rain in the immediate forecast, Miranda’s disregard, the extra weight he’s picked up somewhere in his thirties, the death of Sycorax his mother. He is falling into character now. Caliban breathes deeply, in through the nostrils and out through the mouth, getting the kind of deep chest and diaphragm action that makes his director, Conway LaRue, Jr., a satisfied man. The air tastes of August heat, of woods and wet.

By now, he knows, the old man and his daughter will be on stage, expositing their royal woe. “There’s wood enough within.” One-handed, Caliban snatches a firefly from the air before his face. He shakes his hairy fist at the hide-and-seek full moon, then liberates the bug into the dark, pats his snout’s green scales, and slinks back to the island, where he slips into his stony lair. Stageside, a burlap curtain hides him from the audience. He peeks through its rough weave, squinting at the circle of light that defines this island world. What he sees, unseen, is like a warm, recurring dream. Winged Ariel bobs and genuflects to Prospero’s hoary threats. Miranda sleeps downstage, pillowed by her arm. The gentle curve her rump makes through her russet island shift, the way the grains of sand glint back at Caliban from the bottom of her ivory foot– his rocky lair must surely be the best seat in the house. This vision soothes his jitters every night. Crouched inside his chicken-wire monster’s den he flexes all his fingers. He wets his lips, coughs clear his throat, sets himself to answer Prospero’s call for firewood.

* * *

Tenure. Yes, why not. Because they had a way of sneaking up on him, fait accompli, Vernon was accustomed to rolling with the punches, acquiescing to the major milestones in his life: his parents’ divorce when he was fourteen, his various matriculations and birthdays, his courtship and marriage to Lydia, bagging (on the advice of his advisor) Herman Melville for a specialty in technical rhetoric, snagging the job at Piney Woods–just twenty miles from Mama’s nursing home–his mother’s death last winter, Lydia’s new passion for the arts. Vernon liked to think himself unselfish. A team player. As teams go, Piney Woods C.C. was triple-A, but over six years Vernon had grown used to being on the roster.

“Are you sure you’d want it, Son?” Costello asked, fixing Vernon with his owlish eyes. “I’d understand completely if you want to look around. The four-year colleges pay more, of course. I don’t see much chance P.W.C.C. will grow its offerings in your field, Vernon–not when the Trustees get their rocks off with new programs in truck driving and–what’s that other thing?–nurse-midwifery. Man-to-man, would you be comfortable teaching on this campus? Buck Arnold’s tenured, Son. So long as we’ve got FTE’s in fashion merchandising–and we got ’em–I can’t touch those long-hairs in the art department.”

“I can live with that. I appreciate your shooting straight with me. But overall, you know, I’m happy here.”

Dean Costello sighed. “Okay then. Had to ask. Let’s see how things stack up.” Flipping now through Vernon’s annual reports. Murmuring. “Can’t predict, you understand, how the tenure and review committee’s going to act in any given year… Criteria-wise, looks like your major ducks are in a row…” In a nutshell, Dean Costello’s favorite mode of discourse, Vernon’s course evaluations, syllabi, grading distributions looked okay. His annotations for the teacher’s copy of Business Writing for the New Millennium, his freelance authorship of J. J. Wilfong Sawmill’s human resource manual should count as scholarship. “Hell, this isn’t Vanderbilt,” Costello chuckled. Plus editing the college catalogue, three years running. Though that might count for College Service. Positive rec’s from his colleagues in the Language Arts.

Community Service. Here Costello frowned, studying Vernon’s most recent report and tapping his mechanical pencil against the page. Yes, there might be some question of that. Not that it was an emphasis, of course. Not here, where one taught four to five courses a semester. Plus a night course here and there. The occasional faculty workshop and in-service gig. Still, just playing devil’s advocate, Costello mused, abiding by the criteria as they’re listed in the faculty handbook, had Vernon anything to show by way of community involvement? Surely he could dig up something. Any number of things in Vernon’s life might qualify: activities and associations he probably took for granted. He might be a Lion or an Elk. A walk or run-a-thoner. A volunteer for Meals on Wheels. “Give this some thought,” Costello urged. “Look at your kitchen calendar, remind yourself of where you spend your evenings. Make sure the t & e committee gets a sense of where your passion lies, extra-curricularly speaking. Because you have the summer off, you should use this time to strengthen your tenure case, criteria-wise. Update the vita. Let’s see,” Costello counseled, “what you can dig up.”

And for a week or two, Vernon dug. He re-enrolled in a couple of professional associations whose memberships he’d let lapse after getting the job at Piney Woods. He wandered through his files until he’d found a copy of his three-page “Guidelines for Effective Memoranda,” commissioned by the local city council via MarJane Goss, who was a councilwoman besides being a financial aid director at P.W.C.C. Vernon found a copy of the talk he gave his mother’s chapter of the Association of University Women, three years back: sexism in language. And then, browsing through the two tech writing journals in the college library, looking for a “Call for Papers,” he’d run into a former student, Brandi Lockhart. Brandi was perched on a stool behind the desk in Periodicals, her long hair clipped behind her head the way young mothers wore theirs lounging poolside outside the window of his bachelor’s apartment. She hailed him first (“Hey! Dr. B!”). She asked if he was coming to auditions for Conway’s summer show.

“Hmmm? Say what?”

The Tempest? I thought you knew. Not the Piney Woods Playhouse but The Allegheny Players? Their fourth and final show? LaRue’s directing? I could have sworn he said you were a faculty recruit.” She smiled at him. “It might be cool to do another play together, don’t you think?”

Vernon had carried small parts in campus productions over the last couple of years, is what she meant. Howie Newsom in Our Town. A telephone repairman in Barefoot in the Park. Something to get him out of the house nights after Lydia started taking art classes. Cameos, really, that Vernon took as favors to Conway, who had trouble scrounging male actors on a campus where business courses and a truck-driving academy held the highest enrollment and many of the students worked full-time jobs. Brandi, he recalled, was a communication major with a theatre emphasis.

“I guess he did say something about it,” Vernon said. “A possible part. You gonna be there?”

“Well, yeah,” she said, dropping her gaze, touching the pages of her open novel with just her fingertips, spinning it in lazy circles on the counter. “Mostly just to see who all comes out. To read with different, you know, Ferdinands. I probably shouldn’t tell,” she said. And although the PWCC periodicals room was empty but for them, she cupped her hands around her mouth and converted her voice into a stage whisper. “I’m kind of, you know, pre-cast. Don’t tell I told you, Vernon.”

So he’d gone to the audition. By close of June it looked to be a win-win proposition. Because a role in summer theatre ought to count for something tenure-wise. Not just as community service, but because Conway LaRue, Jr. himself served on the faculty tenure committee. And it was Shakespeare–didn’t he teach English, after all, even if it was tech writing? And finally because by conversation’s end the black-haired library girl had called him Vernon, and not Dr. B.

* * *

During Intermission, Prospero lies rigid on a bench, his magic cape draped across his face. Trinculo and Stephano sit cross-legged on a picnic bench, playing poker. Conway LaRue, Jr. (even though it’s August, he wears his signature fedora and a scarf) appears to be in heavy conference with the kid who runs the light board, Artie Lester. And where’s Miranda? Dressed in white for her next entrance, in ACT III, she smokes a cigarette and laughs at Ariel, who cuts a caper, mincing air with someone’s sword. Ariel’s a travel agent in real life. During read-through, four weeks back at Conway’s house, he’d draped an arm ’round Caliban and offered his interpretation of their characters. “We’re kinda brothers, don’t you think? Slave and spirit, frick and frack. Twin freaks of man’s oppression, see?” Vernon can’t tell whether Ariel is gay or merely artsy.

The other spirits form their own society. They squeal and hop in place around the Coke machine. Two of the older kids live in his same apartment complex. They think it’s funny Vernon’s in the show. Now when they see him at the pool they call him “Mr. Mooncalf.” He tries hard to avoid them. They break his concentration; they blunt his sense of sexiness and danger.

Conway’s coming over. He lays an arm across Cal’s furry shoulder. “Monster lad! Great show so far! Let’s keep the pace way up tonight, okay?” He points his showman’s finger skyward. Caliban’s already felt the cooling of the air, the shift in wind. “It’s already pouring down to Stoneypike. Second half will be a race against the rain. So tempo up. Better spread the word.”

He’d like to wish Miranda luck, tell her how much he likes the way she says, “O brave new world” in that last scene, as if she really feels it. But he can see she’s busy, holding hands with Ferdinand, that high school boy. They’re practicing the dance they do together in Act IV. (The dance is Conway’s substitute for all that junk with Juno and the other gods, come down to bless the royal kids.) Watching, Caliban recalls the way her fingers felt upon his neck, behind his ears, an hour and a half ago when she was rubbing in his monster’s stain. And at the party after Friday’s show, she offered him a bite of her roast beef. For maybe half an hour she sat close to him on Conway’s couch, soliciting his thoughts about her future major as a transfer student (journalism, theatre, or pre-law?). She asked him if he ever played b-ball in college. The women in the cast, she whispered in his ear, have voted. Ariel and Caliban have tied for cutest buns. In what way should he build upon these small flirtations, these intimacies? Tonight’s the final show. This fall she’ll be a junior at Virginia Wesleyan.

* * *

Vernon had stood with others in the high school gym, reading bits of dialogue for Prospero and Caliban, Antonio, Francisco and the Boatswain. Conway LaRue seemed friendlier than usual. When she wasn’t reading for Miranda, Brandi Lockhart sometimes perched beside him on the bleacher, sharing inside info. Her long black hair was like a curtain or a cave, her animated face–uncovered when she flopped her tresses to the side–a sort of shining, hidden hearth. “LaRue’s a little worried about making cast,” she whispered. “His is, you know, the last show of the season and Oklahoma’s snatched a lot of regulars. The musicals are like that.”

No wonder then it seemed a little strange how Conway tried to “sell” Vernon the part the night he called. “Your height, your husky voice. I need you for the monster, man. I’ve got a high school kid for Ferdinand, Marv Johnson makes a great Antonio. So how about it? Caliban! A few less lines than Prospero, but what a kick. You get to be a wild man, Vern. You get to beat your chest and howl. Cuss other folks in perfect meter. Just between the two of us, Prospero comes off as a tight-ass, right? Look how poor Gonzalo’s made to suffer with the rest. Prospero’s just, deep down, this vengeance-happy despot. Then it’s like, who knows, he gets Alzheimer’s at the end, forgiving all the shit that’s gone before. At any rate, Bill Shiflett’s got the perfect beard for Prospero. You see him last year in The Man Who Came? Okay then, Vernon. Vern my man. How about it? Caliban!”

Ironically, for all the win-win look of it, he almost didn’t want the part once he’d heard Conway’s pep talk. Conway made the monster out to be a clown, some kind of hairy jungle dork. Was that the sort of role he fit? Could it be possible that this is how the other teachers, his Dean, his ex, maybe even students, think of him? Nonetheless. He said okay. A part of him just feared he might look foolish backing out. After all, he had auditioned. He is thirty-nine years old, newly divorced. It’s summer time. He’s been invited to portray a would-be rapist, a Renaissance Neanderthal. Picked specially by Conway and–it even seems–by Brandi Lockhart. It’s not that theatre folk are libertines, Vernon knows that in his heart. But between his Mama’s death, the break-up of his marriage, and now his tenure application, part of him is crusting over. He needs somebody who will grab and shake him, help him feel joy’s pain in hidden places. He’s taken on a couple roles successfully: Howie Newsom, that unremarkable milkman of Our Town, the college show in which Brandi played the lead. He’d pull an invisible horse behind him, what the hell. He’d even paste fake fur upon his hands and feet. Good sport, team player, he’d pay whatever dues love might demand.

And in just a couple weeks he’d grown much closer to the part, to Caliban, the moon calf. Stretched out beside the pool at his apartment complex, sipping beer and studying his lines, he tried to get a fix on Caliban’s true character, his motivation and his geist. Conway LaRue was right, he figured. Caliban would be the perfect part. The ultimate lone wolf. A mean and dangerous dude. (At random moments, guilty in his leisure, he practiced framing catchy titles for the summer monograph he hoped to somehow find the time to pen and tuck away among his tenure stuff: Caliban: Insult as Topos . . . “This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine”: Tech Writing as the Bastard Child of Language Arts. ) And so what if Piney Woods chose to reject him, after all? He’d kept his light–the one his mother praised him for, the one his dissertation doc fanned forth–under a basket here so long it had, he reckoned, almost flickered out. Maybe it was time he looked for greener pastures anyway.

By mid-July, rehearsing nightly, Vernon felt the part speak out to him in unexpected ways. It sucked from buried reservoirs of randiness, of bitterness and ire, called forth a love of language that he’d managed to repress those long, dry years of teaching precis-writing, business English. Plus Conway wanted him to grow his whiskers out. Vernon’s stubble had a reddish tint. Rubbing it, he kind of liked the scratchy feel. Vernon thought he might just grow it out for fall, a full-fledged beard. Let Dean Costello and his colleagues in the Language Arts do double-takes, maybe he’ll send Lydia and Buck Arnold his own comp tickets to the show, there’s sides to him folks haven’t seen before. Vernon thought he might be going through a metamorphosis. Caliban, he came to see, was Esau tricked of his birthright. He was Grendel, he was Kong, one of the mighty losers who leave a strong impression; a tragic hunk who–on any island Vernon knew–would mist the ladies’ eyes. As opening night approached, he sometimes fantasized how Lydia, his ex, sans her sandal-wearing beau Buck Arnold, would sit enraptured through the play. Then afterwards, her wet eyes gazing up at him, she’d stutter her apology. Vern, I didn’t know how much. . . I never recognized . . . I wish. . . I mean I’m sorry . . . Besides, just look how willing Brandi Lockhart was to lead him down the secret, pine needled path that led the actors exiting SR through groves of trees, out along a farmer’s fence line, then back to stage, SL. Early on, she’d shared with him some warm-ups and tongue-twisters that she’d learned in Conway’s oral interp classes. “Tin-tops-and-tent-tops-and-ten-dented-tent-tops,” they had chanted together, their lips exaggerating the words’ precise articulation. That first muggy night of tech rehearsal, he’d let her use his own insect repellent on her neck and arms. And opening night, backstage, when all the hugs, the break-a-legs were getting passed around, she’d stood on tip-toe to embrace him, gingerly, so’s not to muss his monster garb.

* * *

The lights have flashed. The intermission’s over. Trinculo gives Caliban a victory sign. “Beach-ward ho, my hairy fish!”

“You betcha,” Vernon says, and lumbers on alone into the trees, waiting for II.ii where he will play the fool and plot his master’s murder. The frogs are singing loud tonight. They help to mask his footfall. Crossing near the parking lot he hears a woman’s quiet laugh, so close it startles him. And for a second, he enjoys a fantasy of run-away: loping like some strong, dark spirit through the woods, away from stage, away from school and town. Lydia, Buck Arnold, Mama, Dean Costello, his shabby bachelor’s den, secret disappointments and ambitions reduced to shades of memory. Ban, ban, Ca-Caliban, has a new master. Get a new man. For the first time this summer he feels a hint of autumn’s presence just a couple weeks away.

On stage, beneath the burlap sack, cringing from the drunken clowns, he tries to separate the tape-recorded thunder from the real. There’s never been a problem with his lines, but still, tonight, somehow distracted, Caliban drops comic bits with Trinculo. Stephano’s wine, which trickles down his bare brown chest, feels icier than usual. Thankfully, he’s back in character again, able to lose himself in servitude when he delivers his “I-prithee let-me-bring-thee-where-crabs-grow,-and-I-with-my-long-nails-will-dig-thee-pignuts” speech. But then he feels a couple drops of moisture on his head, and as he starts his freedom chant to lead the actors off, his voice takes on a strain and ratchet in his throat.

By the middle of Act III the rain pours down in earnest. Although some members of the audience have brought umbrellas, the house has been reduced by half. Gonzalo stumbles on the rain-slicked stage. From where he huddles in the woods (it’s really not so wet beneath the pines), Caliban hears raindrops bullet the tin roof over the actors’ green room. Artie Lester in the treehouse light booth overhead is hissing through his headset, “Conway, would you please for christ’s sake call the show?” So this is how it ends. Without the drama’s denouement, there’s no forgiveness, no reconciliation between Duke and brother. There won’t be any curtain call, no post-show kiss from Brandi Lockhart in the woods. They’ll even come to strike the set another night, half-force and in civilian dress.

Where is Miranda now? He crouches, squints against the rain, tries hard to pick her out among the scurrying, bent figures. Although he hasn’t changed his clothes, he trots out to the meadow where the cast and crew are asked to park. He lopes along the line of cars. Some honk, some blind him as they switch their headlights on. He sees Miranda’s Cougar there, but empty. So he crouches down beside his own Plymouth Reliant (locked), and waits for her. He runs whatever lines remain to him, the ones he’ll never get to say. “Do that good mischief which will make this island thine own forever, and I, thy Caliban, for aye thy foot-licker,” and “We shall lose our time and all be turned to barnacles, or to apes with foreheads villainous low.” Hopelessly he conjures her. Her, or is it Lydia? Which woman does he picture in his rocky lair, her island shift stuck wet against her body, her hair a long black cord that chokes his heart? He feels his scaly snout collapse upon his face.

“Hey Vernon, you okay?” It’s Stephano, dressed in jeans and shirt. He holds a dripping program up against his forehead, tries to keep his glasses somewhat clear. “You better change your clothes!”

“Yeah, right,” he answers. “Anybody left?”

“A few. Art and Brian. Jill, Delores. . . Hey, Mrs. Arbogast, the makeup lady, she was hoping you could give two little nymphs a lift. Dude, are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. You seen Miranda?” He tries to ask it calmly, even though he almost has to shout, even though the wind is rattling the bones against his chest.

“Who, Brandi? She and Conway they flew off together, right quick soon as the rain got bad. Shit, it’s wet!” Stephano gives a final wave and puddle jumps to his Ford pickup some yards down. Vernon’s skimpy costume is soaked through. Struck suddenly by someone’s headlight, Vernon wonders how he looks to this new audience. And in those seconds that he contemplates the picture he must make, it suddenly occurs to him– ex machina, like Prospero’s own thunderbolt–his tenure’s in the bag. He feels some of the same calm certainty about his future stretch of bachelorhood, his lack of real advancement much beyond the life he’s living now. He’ll never be a Prospero, he’ll never see the big design or know the magic words but plug along regardless, win-win in his own way. Is this what Lydia rejected? Are these the very qualities that Conway recognized in him? And Dean Costello, too? A passion for mere competence? A secret comfort with factotumship and mediocrity?

The play is over, time to flee the forest and the storm. His hair lies thin and flat against his monster skull. (At least the play’s lush poetry is safe inside.) A line of cars that wait to leave the meadow wash him in their light. A droopy mess of feather, flesh, and bone, he shakes an angry fist and scowls. Then before he turns and slips and lurches back toward the shelter where those kiddies wait for him, their ride to town, Vernon shuts his eyes against the rain and howls.