It was dull and cloudy outside so the view from the front window of Art’s Haus was less than inspiring, but it kept Phil from looking at, and hence wanting to strangle Margot Morelli as she prattled on about “…responsibility to our subscribers and to our mandate, as well as being mindful of the fiscal bottom line”. He was being backed into a corner, yet again, and he didn’t like it today anymore than he had when he was 8, nearly thirty years ago now. Ironically it had to do with the same subject in a round about way. He waited until he sensed her coming to a conclusion and then stood up and started to pace.
“I don’t care what the reasoning is…I can’t direct the damn thing, and I’m the one who’s going to have put in the hours.” He said, when she finally finished.
“I’m afraid the church is insisting. It’s a condition of their approving the extension of our lease.” Spencer Mackenzie chimed from the sofa, where he currently was currently horizontal, showing a complete lack of respect for the decorum of the meeting, but nobody was going to say anything.
Art’s Haus was technically Spencer’s house. He had inherited it from his Uncle Harold, and rather than bear the burden of the mortgage and renovations himself, he had invited a group of his artsy friends to move into the five bedroom monstrosity in Parkdale. Over the years, the place had gone from near dilapidation to structurally sound, but with a bizarre looking exterior that reflected both its owner and occupants. Stripes and solids clashed with patterns. Brick and wood lived not quite in harmony and, having used leftover set pieces from Rose North Players various productions, several divergent architectural periods were represented. It all made for a place that was interesting to look at, but not, in any sense of the word, pretty.
“Quite simply” Spencer continued “If we don’t do the show, we have to find a new performance and rehearsal space, which we basically can’t afford to because it will cost us half our audience, and we’re hanging by a thread as it is financially.”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is, Phil” Margot piped in. “It’s a good show and it’s a draw. We could make money for once! Is that such a bad thing?”
“The big deal, Margot, is that it’s a dated piece of pseudo religious hippy dippy, lovey dovey, singy songy crap.” They were, of course, talking about “Godspell”, the Stephen Schwartz musical based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew, that had begun life as someone’s doctoral, or at least that was what Phil thought he had read somewhere. “And since when do we give in to cultural blackmail?”
“Since you insisted we do “Hurly Burly” over the Easter Holiday last season” Spencer said, flatly.
It was true. And while Mr. David Rabe’s slashing indictment of Hollywood types, is a great piece of theatre, it also contains a lot of words not generally said in church, not to mention the sex and drug use. Even this would have been fine, had not the new Reverend’s wife attended a performance just before Good Friday, and been understandably appalled at what she saw. She had called the board, and the board in turn had called Margot, the executive producer of Rose North Players. The production of “Godspell” in time for Christmas was the compromise that had been reached in Phil’s absence. As artistic director he should have been there, but it was a morning meeting and Phil was still hung over from the cast party. At the time, he hadn’t taken it seriously, but they had set audition dates and were now deciding on a rehearsal schedule and he was forced for the first time to face the reality of the situation. It was not the optimum time for a director to decide he doesn’t really want to do a play, but that was Phil.
“Why the hell does it have to be that show? Why can’t we do Superstar? Same story, and that at least has some balls to it.” Phil grumbled.
“He gets crucified at the end! What more do you want?” Margot countered.
“I know, but in “Godspell” he gets crucified cutely. The whole thing is too cute. The clowns…The songs…”
“I like the songs” James Chaney chirped in at exactly the wrong moment. The newest member of the North Rose Players executive was a keener who had actually volunteered to be secretary, despite having no previous skills that the position would seem to require. He wasn’t that swift, but he sure was eager. That and he happened to be Margot’s Boy Toy du jour, made him a shoe-in for the job. Up until that point he had been sitting quietly at the big dining room table they had acquired for the Gurney play, pen at the ready to take notes that had so far not materialized. Then he compounded the error by starting to sing “Day by Day. Day by Day. Oh dear Lord, three things I pray…”
Phil fixed him with a glare that appeared to be able melt steel, and James wisely decided to stop the performance. Fortunately the phone chose that particular moment to ring. James had literally been saved by the bell. He was about to express that and then decided not to would be the safer course of action.
Phil picked up the receiver and nasally answered “Rose North Players! Cute Crucifixions are us! How may I direct your call?”
“Philson?” It was Marigold, the last person he wanted or needed to hear from today, so of course she called.
“Hello, Marigold I…” He was about to say that he was in a meeting and that he couldn’t talk right now, which is what he probably would have said even if he hadn’t been in a meeting, but he never had the chance because she cut him off.
“Oh Philson, I’m so sorry. I called as soon as I heard. Are you okay?” She sounded as if she had been crying, which was totally out of character for his Mother, the bitch goddess, so something must be terribly amiss.
“I’m fine, thanks for asking and heard what?” He was hoping that this was some incident on one of her beloved soaps, but her tone was all wrong.
“Oh Shit! You haven’t heard. You don’t know, do you?” And now he was aware that the Iron Lady of Ontario St. was actually in tears.
“Know what, Marigold? Spit it out!”
“It was just on the noon news. There was an accident” He could hear her stop and gather herself before delivering the punch. “Philson…Matthew is dead”
And that’s when time froze, and the world seemed to go out of phase.
Phil dropped the phone and walked out of the room. None of the others said a word. The look on his face was enough to tell them it was something really bad. They still heard Marigold on the other end of the phone calling her son’s name, but none of them wanted to pick it up for fear of finding out what had caused that look.
“Assume a Virtue…”
As far as Phil was concerned it wasn’t an accident that had killed his best friend, it was sheer stupidity. It was the stupidity of the student temp who had been cleaning the inside of the tanker truck , had dropped his goggles, and was then dumb enough to go back down into the tank to fetch them, where he was overcome by the fumes. It was the stupidity of the co workers who ran for their manager instead of doing something themselves. It was the stupidity of the manager, who also happened to be Phil’s best friend Matthew of taking it upon himself to go down into the tank to rescue the idiot kid, and then himself succumbed to the fumes, lost consciousness just as he was able to lift the kid to safety, fell backward, and broke his neck when he hit the bottom. It was sheer senseless stupidity all the way down the line.
But perhaps the stupidest thing of all was the fact that Matthew Blessing was still working at the goddamned brewery after all these years. It was only supposed to be a temporary job to pay his way through university, which it had. But in the end Matthew found that he was happier as a manager at Labatt’s than he would have been as a business administrator, Vice President of Exxon, or Prime Minister of Canada. It was a disappointment to his family, but they knew that when Matthew made up his mind, that was the end of the argument as far as he was concerned. The final irony was that Matthew Blessing didn’t drink. Not even the beer he ended up giving his life for.
When asked why he had chosen this particular path his reply was simply “I like the people”.
“Yeah, and look where liking people gets you” Phil muttered to the musty air of his cluttered room in Art’s Haus. After he had watched the news report on Pulse 24, he had turned off the TV, and went straight to where he had spent the last 24 hours, sitting on his bed, with the lights off, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing but the past…
They had done everything together since childhood. The incident with Marigold at the church was nary a blip on the radar of their friendship. And the fact that they were such opposites in everything seemed to make their bond that much stronger. Matthew was the sensible, grounded one while Phil was the artsy, fartsy , space cadet.
From grade school to high school and then onto University, they were together even though they had completely different majors. Phil continued to pursue his theatrical bent, hooking up with Spencer and the other residents of Art’s Haus along the way but his ties to Matthew remained strong. That was until he became engaged to Amanda. Then it became more difficult…
Phil thought of their last real night together. It was a week before the wedding and, being he was Matthew’s best man, Phil was determined to take his friend out for one gigantic fling. The fact that he was probably going to be the only one doing any flinging was not lost on Phil. Spencer had wanted to join them, but Phil shut him out. He wanted Matthew to himself this night, because somehow he sensed that it would never be like this again.
Prior to going out Matthew had made Phil promise to behave, and Phil kept his promise. The problem was that Matthew hadn’t specified how he should behave, so Phil chose badly. Against his better judgment Matthew had let Phil talk him into going to Doon’s, a seedy joint in the west end which offered females taking off articles of clothing for entertainment purposes.
They sat at a table close to the stage, where the divine Ambrosia was dancing to Prince’s “When Doves Cry”. She had strategically placed doves covering various parts of her anatomy, not real ones of course. That would have been too high end for a hole like this. Matthew was still sipping his first ginger ale, while Phil was on his second screwdriver.
“Oh yes, come to me to me Miss Audubon.” Phil said, chairbopping to the music.
“These places always bore me” Matthew stated, honestly.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s it, baby! Yeah! Work it! Martha Graham would be proud of you, honey!” He grinned at Matthew, who was determined not to laugh.
“I mean, seriously, what’s the attraction?” Matthew asked
Phil pointed to Ambrosia “She is! The mostly naked woman up there doing the interpretive dancing! She’s the attraction!” Ambrosia grinned at Phil for the compliment, and Phil blew her a kiss in return.
“I don’t see it”
“You don’t see it because Amanda’s got you so whipped you’re starting to look like Quasimodo on the pillory”
“Not true” Matthew replied, aware that he had done so a little too quickly
“It’s totally true, and you know it. For instance, what’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get home tonight?” Phil stared at his friend and arched an eyebrow waiting for his answer.
“Close the Door”
“And the second thing?” Phil leaned in.
“Lock the door” Matthew hedged. He knew where this was going.
“And once you’re finished playing with the door, what will you do?” They were practically eye to eye now.
“Call Amanda and tell her I’m okay” He gave an exaggerated sigh just for Phil’s benefit.
“Aha! My Point, I believe” Phil cackled, triumphantly.
“She worries about me, you know”
“Yeah, and she especially worries about you when you’re out with me” Phil finished the second and was signaling the bartender for a third.
“Well, you are a heathen” Matthew observed with a stone face.
“And I’m damned proud of it too! A heathen he calls me, no less. Well at least I’m not about to marry someone I met at Bible camp, when I was 14.”
“I was 15 not 14, and we were both counselors”
“That’s even worse!” Phil was getting louder. Even he noticed it, but it didn’t stop him “At 15 you’re supposed to be listening to the siren song of young budding hormones eager to spread themselves over anything that moves. You are not supposed to be getting engaged to the first femme who strikes your fancy…I mean if you’re into that sort of thing. I myself have never liked for my fancy to be struck. It’s painful, and not in that ‘hurts so good’ way”
“We didn’t get engaged until last year and you’re getting drunk” Matthew said, matter of factly.
“Yeah and you’re ducking the issue. And tomorrow…I’ll probably be getting drunk again.” This last was said quietly, almost as an aside.
“Anyway you’re hardly in a position to criticize me on that score, Old sport” Matthew grinned slyly.
“Should I stand up? And what’s with this ‘Old Sport’ shit? Are you suddenly Jay Gatsby?”
Matthew ignored him. This time it was his turn to lean into his friend “You’ve been in love with the same woman since you were 8 years old”
“Fuck off. I have not. I just liked her”
“You’ve been tongue-in-the-dirt-puppy-eyed-freaking-Barry-Manilow-humming in love with my sister Faith since you were 8 years old, and don’t bother denying it.” Matthew sat back in triumph.
In the meantime Phil’s jaw had dropped open. “Freaking? Did I actually hear St. Matthew Blessing actually use the word ‘freaking’? Gosh Matthew, that was nearly ‘fucking’. You must be serious”
“Listen , Sparky, just because my best friend has a potty mouth, doesn’t mean that I have to” Matthew took another sip of his ginger ale then continued “ And speaking of “nearly fucking”, have you ever “nearly fucked” my sister, Faith?”
Phil looked at Matthew blankly for a moment before he responded “No. No, I haven’t nearly fucked your sister, Faith. I haven’t even actually fucked your sister Faith. Oh, and Matthew?”
“In the future, I would suggest that you leave the use of the words “fuck” or “fucked” or “fucking”, or any variations thereof to the professionals like me. It just doesn’t sound right when you say it” Phil said, meeting his friend’s eyes.
“Why’s that?” Matthew asked
“I don’t know…It’s just that you make it sound like a dirty word” Phil answered.
“It is a dirty word, Phil”
“Well, yeah, the way you say it.”
They looked solemnly at one another, then simultaneously burst out laughing.
Once they recovered, Matthew was still curious. “You’re telling me nothing ever happened?”
“…nothing ever happened” Phil echoed.
“You were in a tent with my sister, Faith Blessing, of the famous Blessing Triplets, all alone for 2 days in the wilderness. And you’re telling me with a straight face that you didn’t make a single move on her? A woman you’ve been in love with since the first time you laid eyes on her, and you didn’t do anything?”
Phil stared at his drink “No, I didn’t”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but why not?”
It took a long time for him to answer, but when he did he decided to try to be honest for a change. “I didn’t do anything because I was scared. I didn’t want to screw things up. It was too important to me. I didn’t want to intimidate her, I didn’t want to take advantage of her, and so in the end I ended up doing nothing.”
“Then why did you ask her up there?”
“What me? It was her idea. Are you kidding? I never would have had the nerve to ask her to go camping. I hate nature. I’m a city kid. I was born at the corner of “Down” and “Town”. Anyway it was a long time ago…Its dust”
There was a brief lull in the conversation, and then Matthew began to chuckle softly. “I just find it really funny that the same guy who can walk up to virtually any woman and charm the pants off them, figuratively and literally, can’t even talk to the one woman he really wants.”
“Oh hell, we talked. We still do occasionally. She and I have had great conversations. She even knows how I feel about her. But I could never follow through because…well…because she’s Faith”
“I think maybe you should have tried a little harder” Matthew concluded.
“And I think you should stop trying to pimp your sister. It’s unseemly. And speaking of unseemly…” Phil’s eyes traveled to the latest eccdesiastical marvel taking the stage. She went by the name Nyoka, the Jungle Queen. She wore leopard skin in places Tarzan never dreamed of and had a Bettie Page style hairdo. Phil, who was a big fan of retro in movies and, of course, strippers was immediately smitten. He stood up.
“Come to me you nubile young sex monkey!!” He then unsuccessfully attempted the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan yell. He was about to take another shot at when his view was blocked by an escaped Gorilla, complete with nose rings, dressed in a leather jacket.
“Did I just hear you call my girlfriend a Monkey?” The Gorilla asked, with astonishing clarity for a simian, Phil thought.
“Not just any monkey, Koko. I called her a Nubile Young Sex Monkey. It’s a very rare breed indeed. You’re a lucky primate” Phil clapped his hand on the Gorilla’s shoulder, then gave him a congratulatory handshake, and was out the door before the great ape realized he was gone.
Matthew came out of the club a few moments later. They began walking down the street in silence, until Matthew finally said “Nubile Young Sex Monkey?”
“How was I to know that Konga was her boyfriend? Hey, it was worth a shot. The Nubile Young Sex Monkey is known to be very fucking fickle…or is that very fickle fucking? I must remember to ask Jane Goodall. Either way I might have gotten laid if it hadn’t been for Digit back there. Let’s see, now where shall we spread our special brand of Joy?”
Matthew sighed “I don’t know about you, Dr. Leakey, but I’m going to spread myself over my bed. I’m tired.”
“Again? Aw Jesus Christ, Matthew” Phil shouted, and immediately regretted it.
“Hey!!” Matthew warned.
“Sorry…Fuck…Shit, I did it again” Phil moaned.
“I don’t mind the “Fucks” and the “Shits”. It’s the use of the name I object to”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry, but don’t kack out on me again tonight, Matthew. It’s you last week of freedom, and it is my mission as your best man to send you into wedded bliss as totally debauched as humanly possible”
Matthew was quiet for a moment then cautiously said “Okay, this one time, but you know I don’t debauch easily”
“I know that about you, St. Matthew, and I respect it. I don’t completely understand it, but I respect it. And it’s because of that very respect, and the fact that you are my very best friend in the world, that I plan on doing most of your debauching for you” Phil smiled, benevolently.
“You’re too good to me” Matthew said, in mock gratitude.
“And don’t think that I don’t know it” Phil agreed, and then he added “Hey, can I borrow 20 bucks.”
The evening continued much as it had begun. They found another strip joint. Matthew watched Phil drink and get rowdy, but they both laughed and were having a good time, until it came to the drive home. Then the tone shifted. As they headed towards their respective homes in the west end along the 401, there wasn’t much in the way of talking. The radio was set to Matthew’s favorite oldies station and Michael Jackson, the younger, and his brothers were pledging “I’ll Be There”
“So what’s next for you?” Matthew asked, finally
“You mean after the Wedding? I told you. We’re prepping “The Comedy of Errors” for October.” Phil replied. He was tired and not as drunk as he wanted to be.
“I meant what are your plans for the future?” Matthew glanced over at Phil.
“I plan on getting me one of those flying cars, like in the Jetsons. I’ve always wanted a flying car” Phil quipped, in a vain attempt to steer the conversation from where he was sure it was headed.
“I didn’t mean…”
“I know what you meant,” Phil interrupted testily “I have no idea. I don’t think that far ahead, you know that. You’ve always had the answer to all those questions. You’re the original answer man. You’ve always known where you were going, who you were going to marry, where you were going when you died, and presumably what color suit you were going to be wearing at the funeral…"
“Blue” Matthew said, quickly
“Of course, blue. But in case you hadn’t noticed in lo these many years, I’m not like you. I’m the Question Man. What if I don’t like where I’m supposed to go when I get there? If I don’t ever get married, will people think I’m gay? And if I’m getting cremated anyway, does it really matter what colour suit I’m wearing.?"
“You missed one” Matthew observed
Phil started to answer then stopped himself, sort of. “Oh, no you don’t! I am not getting sucked into this conversation yet again. Sorry, but I pass”
“You brought it up”
“And I’m letting it back down again” Phil said with finality
“Okay” Matthew said, but he knew his friend well enough to know that once started it wouldn’t rest for long.
“I don’t feel like doing this tonight” Phil griped
“I mean it, Matthew!”
“I know you do, Phil”
There was a loaded silence between them, filled by the Monkees singing ‘I’m a Believer’. Finally Phil couldn’t stand it anymore. “Okay, what?!” he demanded
“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it” Matthew grinned.
“Just spill it so we can move on” Phil grumbled.
“I was just thinking that I was worried about you, you know. I mean for all your external confidence you seem like you’re lost. And I was just going to put forward the notion that some of your questions might get answered if you took of your soul for a change, instead of denying that you have one. Minor stuff like that” He had said all this while staring straight ahead at the road.
“Fuck off” Phil said, simply
“Good Answer!” Matthew replied without missing a beat.
“One of the reasons that you and I have remained friends so long is that, but for the occasional slip up like Easter, 1978, Christmas 1985, and now, you have never tried to push your religious beliefs on me. Let’s just keep it that way, okay?” He feigned trying to go to sleep, but it was a non starter and he knew it.
“Hey, I would never push my beliefs on you. You know that. Besides, I have ample evidence that what works for me wouldn’t work for you. Not to mention the fact that I wouldn’t want to risk crossing Marigold again. I just see you kind of floundering, what with all the drinking and indiscriminate fornication. I get the feeling you’re looking for something that you’re not going to find by either method.”
“And where would you suggest I look, Pope Pius?” Phil was not enjoying this conversation at all, but he couldn’t help himself.
“Somewhere inside yourself, which could end up leading to somewhere outside yourself” Matthew said gently.
“I don’t get it” Phil said, resorting to the familiar.
“And I can’t help you to get it. Especially at the moment on account of I’m too tired and you’re too drunk, and besides you’re home”
Phil stared at Matthew for a long time, then was suddenly aware that his friend was staring right back at him. They had come to a stop in front of Art’s Haus, and he hadn’t even realized it.
“Are you going to be okay?” Matthew asked, sincerely
“Apparently…Apart from my immortal soul, that is. Don’t try to save me, Matthew. I’m not drowning.”
“Not yet…And I’ll never stop trying to save you. You always were a lousy swimmer” He grinned in that perfect Matthew way. “I’ll call you tomorrow. We have to pick up the tuxes.”
“Not too early, I plan to be ill” Phil managed to figure out the door and got out , and then as an afterthought added “I still think Lime Green is the way to go”
“I’ll think about it” Matthew restarted the Civic
“Good Night, St Matthew” Phil said, with genuine affection
“Repent, you heathen, you!” He reversed the car and then drove off.
That had been 10 years ago. In the intervening time they had remained, close. But it was different. There were always other people around. It was rarely if ever just the two of them. There was Amanda, of course. They had never had kids, but they were active with various children’s charities and had actually recently been discussing adoption. Phil had the theatre company, and all the thrills and headaches that that entailed. They would get together at performances, holidays, and the occasional party, but it was hard to avoid the fact that the once dynamic duo were leading largely separate lives. It was never intended to be that way. It was just something that happened. It always does.
Now Matthew was gone. He was gone because of stupidity, and because he was always trying to save somebody.
Phil finally got into bed, pulled the covers over his head and wept quietly for his lost friend.