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Vol. 5, No. 2

Fourth Angry Mouse
by David Schickler

It was on an ordinary Wednesday that Jeremy Jax became Fourth Angry Mouse. It happened quickly, and if Jeremy had had time to consult the darkness within him, he probably would have refused the role. But he was groggy from lunch when Michael Hye ran into the office.
    “Call an ambulance,” panted Michael. “Fourth Angry Mouse is down. Unconscious.”
    “What happened?” said Jeremy.
    Michael shook his head. “He was berating First Kindly Mouse, and he collapsed. Hyperventilated or something.”
    Of Mice and Mice had eight characters, four Kindly Mice and four Angry Mice. All eight actors wore almost identical mouse outfits, but the mice were distinguishable by the colors of their trousers and their habits of movement. Second Kindly Mouse, for instance, was partial to softshoe. Third Angry Mouse rode other mice piggyback.
    It turned out that things were serious. Fourth Angry Mouse, a habitual smoker, had suffered a collapsed lung.
    “Jeremy.” Michael pulled Jeremy into the office. It was four o’clock, still Wednesday. The ambulance had come and gone.
    “Jeremy,” said Michael. He spoke quietly, reverently. “The Lucas needs you.”
    “How’s that?” said Jeremy.
    Michael gripped Jeremy’s arm. “You’ve got to be Fourth Angry Mouse.”
    “Like hell I do.”
    Michael’s face was grave. “We have no understudy. The show opens Friday.”
    “Call Equity,” said Jeremy.
    Michael frowned. “Whenever it’s possible, the Lucas does things in-house.”
    “Whenever it’s possible,” said Jeremy, “I don’t play rodents.”
    “Don’t be flip, Jeremy.” Michael punched a calculator. “I’ll give you one hundred and fifty dollars a night till we can train a professional in the role, if that’s necessary. It’s virtually a nonspeaking part, it’s only a two-month run, and you know the show cold. Plus . . . ”
    “Plus what?”
    “Plus, I suspect you understand Fourth Angry’s sensibility.”
    “He doesn’t have a sensibility, Michael. He’s a fucking mouse.”
    Michael snapped his fingers. “That. Right there. The way you just spoke to me. That’s Fourth Angry’s tone. His Weltanschauung.”
    “Forget it,” said Jeremy.
    “Three hundred a night,” said Michael.
    “Done,” said Jeremy.
    Rehearsals began twenty minutes later. Jeremy suited up in a giant mouse outfit and took the stage. The other mice gathered around.
    “Who’s this guy?” they asked.
    “It’s me,” said Jeremy. His breath felt warm and close inside the mouse head, which was held to the costume’s body by hinges. Jeremy’s eyes peeked out through a grille in the costume’s mouth.
    “I’m Jeremy Jax,” said Jeremy.
    Third Kindly Mouse put his paws on his hips. “Michael. This is absurd.”
    “Yeah,” said First Angry Mouse. “We’re professionals. You can’t just stick some random employee into—”
    “The kid knows the part,” said Michael Hye. “Besides, Fourth Angry only has one line.”
    Fourth Kindly Mouse patted Jeremy’s back. “Let’s give him a chance.”
    “What’s his background?” said Third Angry Mouse.
    “He’s Robby Jax’s grandson,” said Michael.
    The mice all nodded, impressed.
    “Let’s hear him,” said First Angry. “Let’s hear him try his one line.”
    Michael urged Jeremy onto the roof, which was a giant promontory piece of the set. It was from this roof that Fourth Angry Mouse proclaimed his line.
    “Go on, Jax,” said Michael.
    Jeremy climbed the roof, looked out at the empty seats of the Lucas. A spotlight came on in the ceiling, singled him out.
    Three hundred a night, Jeremy told himself.
    “Do it up, kid,” yelled Fourth Kindly Mouse.
    Jeremy took a breath.
    “‘I have arrived!’” he shouted.

 

~

Within two weeks, an extraordinary thing happened. New York City fell in love with Of Mice and Mice.
    There was no rational accounting for it. Manhattan’s theater tastes had ranged over the preceding decade from men drenched in blue paint to maniacs thumping garbage cans, so the popularity of eight giant mice was perhaps only a matter of savvy timing. On the other hand, Of Mice and Mice’s playwright was furious. He’d intended Of Mice and Mice as a somber allegory about the divisiveness of the human heart, and audiences were finding the play outrageously funny. Children and adults loved the show with equal ardor, the way they might a classic Looney Tunes. Susan March, who wrote the editorial column March Madness for the New York Times, claimed that “these eight mice show us, with their tongues in their divine little cheeks, how laughable are all our attempts at serious human contention. Who would’ve expected such charm from the Lucas?”
    Receiving particular laud was the character of Fourth Angry Mouse. He wore unassuming blue trousers and had only one line, but there was something about his befuddled manner, his confused scampering to and fro among his fellow mice that endeared him to audiences and won him standing ovations.
    “Fourth Angry Mouse,” wrote Susan March, “is petulant, skittish, bent on private designs. But he is so convincingly lost in his own antics that we can’t help but laugh at the little guy. He could be any one of us, plucked off the street, tossed into public scrutiny. Would any of us seem less goofy, less hysterically at sea?”
    Compounding the intrigue around Fourth Angry Mouse was the fact that the program listed the actor’s name as Anonymous. This was unheard of. Benny Demarco, the character actor of film and stage fame, was carrying the role of First Kindly Mouse and garnering good reviews. Trisha Vera, as First Angry Mouse, had some brilliant moments, including a Velcro routine on the walls. But it was the unknown man behind Fourth Angry Mouse that Manhattan wanted to meet most. Some critics speculated that it was Christian Frick, reprising his Tony-Award-winning role as The Familiar in Coven. Most reviewers, though, suspected that a newcomer lurked behind Fourth Angry Mouse, a dark-horse tyro with few credentials beyond instinct.
    As for Jeremy Jax, he was flabbergasted. He tried in each performance to implement the critical notes he’d been given by Michael Hye and Of Mice and Mice’s livid playwright. However, Jeremy was no actor. He had no knack for detail, no timing, no sense of his body as perceived by others, and so no clear motives for how to move when dressed as a seven-foot mouse. He got upset at the laughter he aroused—he didn’t want his fellow mice to think him a showboat—but the more upset he got, the harder people laughed and the more money the Lucas made.
    Relax, Jeremy told himself. Relax.
    But Jeremy couldn’t relax. His fame was a farce to him. He wanted no one to acknowledge it until he decided if it was shameful. If he’d been a praying man, Jeremy might’ve consulted the spirit of his dead grandfather directly for some assurance that he was authentically comic. Instead, he got drunk at Cherrywood’s with Patrick Rigg.
    “You no longer suck,” said Patrick. “Why not spill your name?”
    “Because,” hissed Jeremy. “Because I’m a fucking mouse, that’s why.”
    Patrick shrugged. Outside of Michael Hye and the other cast members—whom Michael had contracted into secrecy—only Patrick knew Jeremy’s alter ego.
    “You might be a mouse,” said Patrick, “but you’re definitely the man. Everybody loves you.”
    Jeremy scowled. If I were a man, he thought, I’d be drinking vodka in Siberia. I’d be living on tundra, with a beefy wife.
    To cheer his buddy up, Patrick dragged Jeremy to Minotaur’s, a basement nightclub in the meatpacking district. Minotaur’s was a labyrinth of halls and dark corners. There were doors off the halls, some of which led to rooms of bliss. Other doors led nowhere. If you got separated from someone at Minotaur’s, you might not see him or her till morning or ever again. The idea, though, was to dabble in as many corners as you could, then follow the maze to its center, a wide clearing called the Forum. In this room were several bars, a high ceiling, a dance floor, and a stage that had revolving entertainment: house on Mondays, blues on Tuesdays, swing on Thursdays, ska on Fridays. Patrick brought Jeremy to the Forum on a Wednesday. Wednesday was Anything-Can-Happen Night.
    Jeremy groaned again. “Why am I here?”
    Patrick whinnied a high, eerie laugh. He pointed at the stage.
    “Watch,” he said.
    Jeremy watched. A person named Harold read erotica. A girl named Tsunami danced.
    “They suck,” said Jeremy.
    “Watch,” insisted Patrick.
    “Ladies and gentlemen,” said the MC, “please welcome back to Minotaur’s The Great Unwashed.”
    A whoop went up. The lights dimmed. Three young women took the stage, one at the drums, two on guitar. The girl on lead guitar had long black hair combed over one eye in a sickle that hid most of her face. Seconds later, she and her band were at it. They played simple, throbbing music, but what got Jeremy’s ear was the singer, the lead guitarist. Her face was hidden by her sickle, and her voice was awful but arresting, like Lou Reed’s. She told lyrics in a simple monotone, then her words rose and cracked and broke your heart. Jeremy felt the hairs on his neck ripple. He turned to Patrick.
    “She’s . . . she’s . . .” Jeremy wanted to say she was terrible. He wanted it to be a compliment.
    “She’s Freida,” said Patrick. “Freida from Hobart.”
    Jeremy’s mouth opened. Patrick was right. It was Freida.
    “She’s great,” whispered Jeremy.
    “I know,” said Patrick. “I saw her here last month.”
    “Why didn’t you tell me?”
    Patrick grinned, sly and easy. He knew things about Manhattan that only dead people should know.
    Jeremy found Freida after the show. She remembered him, and shook his hand. They went through a door, bought some drinks, went through another door, sat on a couch.
    “I can’t believe it’s you,” said Jeremy. “You were great out there.”
    Freida brushed back her sickle. “Your hair got gray,” she said.
    “So what do you do with yourself now?” asked Jeremy.
    Freida tapped her guitar. “I do this, stupid. I sing.”
    “Full time?”
    “Well, I’m a saleswoman at Saks. But who cares about that?”
    Jeremy stared at her. He wanted to tell her how supple her thighs looked under her miniskirt, how terrific it was that she was profiting from her awful voice.
    “What are you doing?” asked Freida.
    Jeremy downed some Ballantine. “I’m assistant to the director at—well, I work at the Lucas theater.”
    Freida nodded. “The Mouseketeer Club.”
    “Ha,” said Jeremy. He took another look at Freida’s thighs, which, if he remembered right, had a tiny spray of freckles on them up around the hips. He remembered his grandfather, who’d loved whispering to pretty girls. Jeremy glanced around. The room they were in was dark and empty.
    “Freida,” he whispered. He placed his hand on her thigh.
    Freida immediately removed it. “Nope,” she said. She smoothed her skirt, and looked at Jeremy, her eyes all business.
    Jeremy was surprised. He’d heard anything went in the back rooms at Minotaur’s, and he’d once taken this girl quite aggressively. He reached toward Freida’s lap again. Freida slapped his hand easily away. She made a little sound that could have been a laugh, then stood up.
    “What’s wrong?” demanded Jeremy.
    Freida shook her head. “Nothing’s wrong, stupid.” She picked up her guitar and walked away.

 

~

The more Jeremy thought about Freida, the madder he got.
    “She called me stupid,” Jeremy muttered. “Twice.”
    “What are you mumbling about?” asked First Angry Mouse.  
    The mice were backstage, in the greenroom, stretching, getting their heads on straight. The Saturday evening curtain was rising in five minutes, and rumor had it that Mayor Fillipone was in the audience.
    “Nothing,” snapped Jeremy.
    “Hey, Jax,” said Benny Demarco, “don’t step on my tail during the butter dance.”
    “I won’t.”
    “Well, you did this afternoon.”
    “Bullshit,” snapped Jeremy.
    Michael Hye popped his head in the door. “Places,” he said.
    Jeremy sighed heavily.
    “What’s your problem?” said Michael.
    “Fourth Angry’s pissed off,” said Benny.
    Jeremy gave Benny the finger.
    “All right, all right,” said Michael. “Everyone, relax. We’ve got the mayor out there. Places.”
    The mice scurried out.
    Jeremy moved upstage to the giant cheese grate, took his position behind it.  
    The curtain rose. The audience applauded. The mice began their story, strutting and fretting upon the stage. Jeremy remained cloaked in darkness. He didn’t appear until twenty minutes into act one. Most nights, while he stood waiting, he peeked through the cheese grate and scanned the audience for famous people. Tonight he looked for the mayor. What he discovered instead was a young woman in the tenth row with a sickle of hair across her face.
    “Freida,” whispered Jeremy.
    She wore a crimson gown and gloves that came up her forearms. Beside her was a handsome man in a tuxedo who had one hand locked around Freida’s wrist. With his free hand, using his fingertips, he stroked her bicep casually, possessively.
    Jeremy scowled. Relax, he told himself. Relax, relax.
    But he couldn’t relax. Not only had Freida called him stupid, she’d laughed at him, laughed at the immense, sexual, Russian darkness inside him. And now here she was, the lead singer of The Great Unwashed, hiding her awful voice behind her crimson dress and her sickle of hair. Freida was a celebrity, apparently, a healthy Manhattan aesthete out on the town with her lover. It made Jeremy furious.
    He rushed into view, two full minutes ahead of cue. The audience exploded with applause. The other seven mice stared at Jeremy.
    Michael Hye stood at the back of the Lucas.
    “Oh, no,” he whispered.
    Jeremy panicked. He squeaked loudly, twice, which was the signal for the butter dance, which wasn’t even part of act one. Chaos ensued. Half of the mice followed Jeremy’s lead and improvised a makeshift butter dance, while the other mice threw up their paws in protest. The audience laughed.
    Benny Demarco, as First Kindly Mouse, leaned close to Jeremy.
    “You’re ruining it,” he hissed.
    Out of frustration, Benny gave Jeremy a kick in the ass. Fourth Angry Mouse responded by shoving Benny into the butter churn.
    The audience roared. The playwright, standing beside Michael Hye, seethed and cursed.
    First Kindly Mouse began chasing Fourth Angry Mouse. The chase rambled through the butter dancers, over the cheese grate, onto the lower portion of the roof, off of which Jeremy flipped Benny. Benny landed on top of two other mice, collapsing them to the floor.
    The crowd was in stitches, even those who’d seen the show before and knew a bungle was under way.
    Jeremy stood panting in his mouse outfit, his face—his human face—gone beet red.
    Relax, he ordered himself. Relax.
    But, even as he thought this, Jeremy caught Freida’s face in the crowd. Her mouth was thrown open, bucking with laughter. Her teeth seemed to eat the air ravenously as she howled. The mouth of her lover was howling, too.
    Jeremy closed his eyes, hard, hating what he was: a funny man. He was funny in a tense, awful way, a way that infuriated him and delighted others. These others, the audience, were delighted even now. They laughed, pointing at him. He couldn’t bear it. He ran to the top of the roof.
    “I have arrived,” hissed Jeremy.
    He put his hands to his mousy head, tried to unscrew it. He cuffed at his face, boxed his ears, yanked at his headpiece.
    “What’s he doing?” squeaked the mice below.
    Michael Hye and the playwright caught their breath.
    “Oh God,” whispered Michael.
    The audience hushed. Fourth Angry Mouse was clawing at his cheeks, apparently trying to tear his own skull off.
    The other mice dashed for the roof.
    “Don’t do it,” squealed Third Kindly.
    “Wait,” barked Third Angry.
    “I have arrived,” warned Jeremy. He swatted stubbornly at his neck, loosening the hinges there.  
    First Kindly Mouse was only feet away.
    “Character,” hissed Benny. “Stay in character.”
    “I have arrived,” shouted Fourth Angry Mouse. He popped the final hinge in his neck.
    No, prayed Michael Hye, but it was too late. In a beheading that shocked the masses, Jeremy Jax revealed his feeble self.

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