Jeremy Jax wanted to be funny, like his grandfather.
Jeremy’s grandfather was Robby Jax, the famous comedian. In his seventies—which also happened to be the 1970s—Robby Jax was still performing at Cherrywood’s Lounge, on 42nd Street, and Jeremy attended the shows with his parents.
Jeremy was ten, and when he sat on the couches in Cherrywood’s, he expected that someone might read aloud to him from The Chronicles of Narnia. Bookcases lined the room. There were studs on the walls on which men hung their hats. The smoke in the air had a blue glow, and the smoke seemed to remain in the room, day or night, even when no pipes were lighted. At Cherrywood’s, women drank coffee with amaretto, and men drank ale. When someone sank a shot at the pool table, the ball fell snugly into one of six leather pouches.
In one corner, between two bookcases, was a small, hardwood stage bearing an upholstered chair. In this chair, drinking century-old Scotch, was Robby Jax. He sat down around eight on a Saturday night, drank silently until nine, then began to speak. If you were new to Cherrywood’s, you wouldn’t even know at first that a performance was under way. It would dawn on you gradually that the woman whose eyes you meant to seduce was having none of you. She was staring at the old gentleman in the corner, the one with the furry eyebrows. Everyone was staring at the old gentleman and beginning to smile, and the lights in the lounge had dimmed.
“And so,” sighed Robby Jax, “I told Emma Jean Bryce of Vassar College that she reminded me of a stalk of celery. And Emma Jean Bryce of Vassar College looked at me quite seriously and said ‘Robert, I don’t know what that means. I honestly don’t.’” Robby Jax sipped his Scotch. He glanced slowly around at his audience. He adjusted his vest over his thick middle. “And I said to her . . . I said . . . ‘Emma Jean. A man can do many things to a stalk of celery. But one thing a man cannot do to a stalk of celery is make love to it, Emma Jean.’”
The audience laughed.
Robby Jax shook his head. “The women at Vassar College,” he said sadly, “are virginal stalks of celery.”
The audience kept laughing.
“I’m in my first year at Vassar,” a girl called out, “and I’m not a virgin.”
“Not yet you aren’t,” said Robby Jax.
The audience roared.
Jeremy didn’t understand how it happened. None of the things his grandfather said were actual jokes. They were just stories, little pieces of life that sounded true. For all Jeremy knew, his grandfather made them up as he talked. But, somehow, the Scotch and the smoke and his grandfather’s tweeds warmed people up, got them laughing.
“What’s the secret?” Jeremy demanded one night when he was twelve. His grandfather had just finished a set at Cherrywood’s. He was drinking Scotch at the bar and whispering to a young woman in black velvet. The woman had a Southern accent.
“Well?” said Jeremy.
“The secret to what?” said Robby Jax.
“How do you make people laugh?” Jeremy had his arms folded.
Robby Jax scowled. He loved Jeremy, but he was a widower and young women in velvet were rare occasions.
“What’s the secret?” persisted Jeremy.
Robby Jax bent to his grandson. “Relax, kid,” he whispered.
“What’s the secret?” Jeremy whispered back.
Robby winked. “I just told you. Relax.” Robby stood back up, held his palm open toward the woman. “And now, Jeremy, I’d like to introduce you to one of the finest creations our Lord ever set down on Earth. She is called a brunette.”
The young woman giggled. “Hush, Robby.”
Relax, thought Jeremy. Relax, relax.
He thought this all through high school. He thought it when he worked stage crew for the productions of Smile and Frown, his high school’s drama club. Jeremy would’ve auditioned himself, but his voice cracked into falsetto when he got nervous. Jeremy figured that once he was eighteen, officially a man, his voice would be strong. Plus, he’d be at college, away from Manhattan. He could relax and become a brilliant comic actor.
Jeremy’s chance came in October of his freshman year at Hobart College. He saw signs around campus advertising an annual student talent show called The Follies and he decided to audition. There were slots for student singers, musicians, and performance artists, but the most coveted position in The Follies was Master of Ceremonies. It was in this role that Jeremy planned to make his comic debut.
The auditions were held in The Hovel, the on-campus student pub, on a Thursday night. The Hovel was dark and crowded. On most nights, it was a pit where students sought drinks and laughs. Tonight, though, it was meant to be a charmed, bewitching cave, full of human art.
“Don’t suck,” said Patrick Rigg. Patrick was Jeremy’s roommate, along for moral support.
“I won’t,” said Jeremy.
Patrick and Jeremy sat in the corner. Jeremy wore his black suit, the one that matched the color of his hair. This suit, Jeremy believed, made his green eyes look jovial and menacing, as if he were a funny but dangerous man, like Lenny Bruce. It was this sinister edge, this tiny malevolence within himself, that Jeremy planned to exploit as a trademark of his performing style. Still, as a nod to his grandfather, the more traditional storyteller, Jeremy ordered Scotch at the bar.
“No Scotch,” said the bartender.
“Perhaps Crown Royal?” said Jeremy.
The bartender snorted. “Perhaps beer,” he said. “Perhaps Jägermeister.”
Jeremy ordered the Jägermeister, which was served in a plastic cup. He returned to his corner to watch the competition.
A quick-eyed juggler performed onstage. A dancer danced. Three frat boys in Marx Brothers garb jabbered and received applause. An awful singer named Freida forgot her lyrics and wept and ran away.
“Jeremy Jax,” said the judges. “Auditioning for MC”
Jeremy took the stage. He set himself down in a chair amid the footlights. He smiled wearily at the audience, the way his grandfather always did. He drank his Jägermeister. Directly before him was a table where three judges sat.
“Say something,” suggested a judge.
Jeremy nodded. He understood what was required of him. However, he hadn’t planned any material. He’d expected a perfect, spontaneous anecdote to rise within him, but it wasn’t happening. A minute passed. Jeremy gulped at his Jägermeister.
Relax, Jeremy told himself.
A judge wrote something down.
“Um,” said Jeremy.
His heart lurched. He saw Patrick frowning. People stirred in their seats, whispering. Jeremy stared at the drink in his hand.
“What’s the deal with malt liquor?” he stammered.
One of the kinder judges smiled. “We don’t know,” she called out. “What is the deal with malt liquor?”
Jeremy didn’t answer. He sat motionless in his chair. There was a riot in his stomach, in his mind. He tried to think of a story, any story.
“Jägermeister,” he said, “is German for Master Hunter.”
Someone in the audience sighed. Seconds passed.
“Women are celery,” blurted Jeremy.
The Hovel fell silent. Patrick Rigg left. People looked at the floor.
“Thank you,” said the judges.
Outside The Hovel, in the darkness, in a clearing of trees, Jeremy came to himself. His first instinct had been to run from the pub, to get out into the October air. He’d expected himself to throw up or cry or gnash his teeth. He was perhaps on the verge of doing these things when he made out another figure in the dark beside him. It was a girl kneeling on the ground, her face in her hands. It was Freida, the awful singer.
“Hey,” whispered Jeremy. “Hey there.”
Freida looked up. Her face was miserable, splotchy with eye shadow.
“Are you great?” she sniffled.
Freida pointed at The Hovel. “I— I meant, were you great. In there. Onstage. Were you great?”
“No,” said Jeremy. His voice was hard. “I sucked.”
As he said this, Jeremy felt a chill inside himself. It was a cold, new rage of some sort. It was painful, but somehow good. It made him feel capable of startling feats, like bludgeoning his grandfather.
“I’m Jeremy Jax,” said Jeremy. He was practically shaking. “I’m terrible.”
Freida shivered. She wiped her face, took the hand of the furious young man.
“I’m Freida,” she said. “Come on.”
They went to Freida’s dorm room. In what seemed an implicit, mutually understood gesture, Jeremy removed Freida’s clothes. He did so violently, as Freida expected. Then they lay down.
Jeremy stared deep into Freida’s eyes as they screwed. He wielded his body into hers, taking a certain vengeance on the night. Freida made awful noises that weren’t so different from the awful noises she’d made at The Hovel. When it was over, they lay there. Jeremy’s hands shook at his sides. Freida’s eyes were closed. Jeremy tried to think of something to say, but couldn’t. So he got up, dressed, and left.
When he was twenty-three, Jeremy Jax returned to Manhattan. He had, by that time, a degree in Russian literature, a head of graying hair, and an Upper West Side apartment. He also had a job as assistant to the director of the Lucas, a theater on 51st Street that he admired for its history.
The Lucas was a dying theater. It had ruled Broadway in the 1930s, staging the world premieres of several famous productions, including Hunter Frank’s Killing Me Lately and Dazzle MacIntyre’s Eight Boxes. These plays and the Lucas itself had been renowned for their raw, aggressive candor. Killing Me Lately, in fact, had been investigated by the New York City Police Department in 1938 because the character of the murder victim was played by a different actor every night, after which that actor vanished from the cast. The owner of the Lucas at the time, Sebastian Hye, claimed it was merely a gimmick to fascinate the bloodthirsty. New Yorkers, of course, took the bait and bought tickets in droves.
By the early 1990s, when Jeremy Jax started work there, the Lucas had fallen from the grace of its early decades. The physical plant was in disrepair. The black plush seats needed reupholstering and the ceiling was full of echoes. Also, Michael Hye, the current owner and director of the Lucas, no longer wanted to produce sensationalist, frightening plays.
“Satire, fine,” said Michael. “Irony, great. But no existentialism. No amorality. No ennui.”
Michael was in his office, speaking on the phone to the playwright of the Lucas’ latest show. Jeremy Jax sat in his cubicle outside Michael’s office, eavesdropping.
“Now then,” said Michael, “there are flaws in Of Mice and Mice.”
Jeremy sighed. Of Mice and Mice, the Lucas’ new show, was scheduled to open in one month. It was a departure from traditional Lucas fare. It was a play in which all of the actors were dressed as giant mice.
“Act one is fine,” said Michael. “It’s act two. What’s driving the mice in act two?”
Jeremy sighed again. Since its birth, the Lucas had been owned by the Hyes, a famous Manhattan theater family. The Hyes had always served as the producers and directors of the shows, and sometimes even as the editors of the playwrights. It was an unusual relationship, but Lucas Hye, who founded the theater in 1890, had been unusually wealthy and could afford to be overbearing. The contemporary Hyes could afford it, too.
“Fine,” said Michael Hye into the phone. “I want the revised script by tomorrow.” The phone clicked.
Jeremy sighed one final time.
“I heard that,” called Michael. “What’s your problem?”
“Nothing,” muttered Jeremy.
Michael appeared in the doorway. He was six feet tall, like Jeremy, but pudgier and fifty years old. He had muttonchops and halitosis.
“Let’s hear it, Jax,” said Michael.
Jeremy had no love for Michael. However, Michael gave Jeremy good money, and decent hours, and when Jeremy sat in on rehearsals, Michael often asked him what he thought.
“It just sounds,” said Jeremy, “like you’re trying to make Of Mice and Mice funny, and it’s not supposed to be funny.”
“Question,” said Michael. “Is Jeremy Jax the expert on funny?”
“No,” said Jeremy.
“Question,” said Michael. “Was Ionesco’s Rhinoceros funny?”
“Well,” began Jeremy.
“No,” insisted Michael. “I saw it in London in seventy-nine. There were twenty people on that stage dressed as rhinoceroses and there wasn’t a chuckle in the house.” Michael put his hands to his hips. “The mice aren’t funny. The mice are dire.”
“Whatever,” said Jeremy. “Forget I mentioned it.”
In college, after his disastrous audition, Jeremy had turned his back on comedy. He found a home in Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. Russian writers, Jeremy felt, understood melancholy. They could be wry, but they believed in the Devil, and you didn’t have to like black clothes or coffee to get their darkness. In what he considered a kindred Russian spirit, Jeremy had embraced the darkness he’d discovered in himself during that night years ago, his one night with Freida.
They’d never had a relationship, Jeremy and Freida. They’d come together once, as failures, and fucked each other as failures, and avoided each other thereafter. Jeremy remembered Freida as a ragged, tragic figure, like a doomed Karamazov or a Faust. He thought of her sometimes after work when he walked down Broadway to Cherrywood’s Lounge, his late grandfather’s haunt.
Jeremy drank Cutty Sark at Cherrywood’s, sitting at the bar, glaring at the stand-up comedians who tried to take Robby Jax’s place on the stage. The comedians were male, in their mid-thirties, with thinning hair and decent suits. They rolled their eyes and quibbled about women.
“Comedians aren’t men,” said Jeremy Jax. He was speaking to his old Hobart roommate, Patrick Rigg. Patrick was on Wall Street now. He was famous for his handsome bones, and he carried a gun.
“Russians are men,” said Jeremy.
“Look at this guy.” Jeremy nodded toward the stage, where the comedian was making baby sounds in the microphone.
“He’s doing a bit about dating,” explained Patrick.
Jeremy sucked ice and Scotch. He sucked till the cold hurt his teeth.
“He’s mocking idyllic romance,” said Patrick.
Russians, thought Jeremy, do not do bits.
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, 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.”
“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.”
“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.