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The Octopi, An Excerpt from All Things Considered: A work-in-progress for one actor

By Adam Langer


Published:

A bare stage with a black backdrop save for a tiny yellow taxicab visible in the distance.

A MAN stands on stage carrying three suitcases, two duffel bags, and a rolled-up poster of Bob Dylan.

A moment of silence.

Then, BAM: Twelve stuffed octopi fall from the ceiling.

 

MAN

12 sets of octopi in multi-colored stockings and Borsalino hats approach me walking in a chorus line down Broadway. 96 multi-colored octopus legs moving in unison to the tune of “One Singular Sensation.” 12 sets of octopi in matching Harvard cub ties and blue blazers with gold buttons. 96 octopus arms pointing me in 96 separate directions. Where to go what to do where to go what to do. One of these octopi must be able to tell me. 12 sets of octopi singing “Comedy Tonight” from A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum as they stand in front of twelve steel doors.

“Something appealing, something appalling, something for everyone. An octopus tonight.”

12 octopi. 12 steel doors. Each with a different word or phrase scrawled across it in indelible red script. One says FAME, one says RELIGION, one says INTEGRITY, one says PROSTITUTION, one says SUICIDE, one says FAMILY, one says COMPROMISE, one says MADNESS, one says RETREAT, one says MONEY, one says THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE, and one says nothing at all.

Push open the first door, weighed down by three suitcases, two duffel bags, a car radio and a poster of Bob Dylan. Not the Self-Portrait one. The other one. The one with the wig that looks like what that guy in the bleachers at Dodgers Stadium with the Bible passages used to wear. Push open the first door. The door marked FAME.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely,” leading you into an immense, cavernous golden and crystal ballroom where tuxedoed paparazzi pop flashbulbs in your face and Entertainment Tonight reporters thrust phallic microphones in your face and ask you inane questions like “How do you like Hollywood?” “Do you think you and Harrison Ford might work together on a project?” and “If you could be any person living or dead, who would it be?” and you stand up there before the Academy thinking anyone but me, thinking about your newfound friends who whisper about you jealously in the hallway, waiting for you to fall on your fucking face so they can come to you with a comforting caress. And you sit alone in you private Xanadu assembling enormous jigsaw puzzles and planning picnics and thinking “Anyone but me. Anyone but me.”

So you push open the second door, the door marked RELIGION.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And you find yourself standing in the center of a huge stone structure, surrounded by stained glass Biblical images of Abraham preparing to slaughter Isaac and Jesus with his loaves and his fishes and Buddha in stained glass. Yes, an image of Buddha in stained glass. To your left, rows of men in black with long, chimney sweep beards rocking and cantillating the same phrases over and over: “Abarbanel, Birnbahm, Cohen, Abarbanel, Birnbaum, Cohen” and you stare straight in front of you and there are thousands of men in gray suits and women in Sunday dresses bent down on their knees, staring up at the cross saying “Forgive me father, forgive me father. Johnson, Westbrook, Thompson, Johnson, Westbrook, Thompson.” And so you turn to your right and there are solemn men in saffron robes seated in the lotus position as the scent of incense is wafting through your nose and they’re saying words, but all you can distinguish is a BZZ or a hum. And you turn and you’re in the middle of a concert hall populated by a sea of bobbing heads and you can see a tiny tiny tiny Mick Jagger raising his hands to the sky and yelling “YOU DON’T WANT ME TROUSERS TO FALL OFF, DO YA?” and everyone starts singing “Jumping Jack Flash” and you run for the door screaming “This is all the same. This is all the same.” So you run back through the steel door and you choose the third door. The door marked INTEGRITY.

Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

So you push through the door and you find yourself in a room filled with temptations. On a glass table, there is a stack of hundred dollar bills and a sign that says “You can take these bills and stop or leave them here and go on,” so you leave them there and you go on until you come to a beautiful mermaid lying naked in a green Olympic sized pool and at the bottom of the pool, there is a sign which reads “You may fuck this beautiful mermaid and stop or give her a kiss on the cheek and move on.” So you give her a peck on the cheek and she giggles and you move on until you find yourself in a dark, musty bar that smells of stale peanuts and cheap beer and standing behind the bar naked is your sworn enemy, the person who has done everything in his power to make you fall and as you stare at him standing there, your eyes filling with rage, an octopus hands you a loaded revolver and says, “You may kill him here and stay or leave him be and go on.” So you put down the gun, leave him be and go on. But as you head for the door, like Lot’s wife, you take one look back and you see your sworn enemy there and now the gun’s in his hand and he shoots and he shoots and he shoots and you feel yourself falling down an immense rabbit hole where you pass the giggling mermaid and the table full of money until you arrive smack dab in the INTEGRITY ballroom and you realize there’s nobody here. They’ve all left. There’s nobody here. It’s empty and still. So you make your way back through the steel door and turn to the next door, the one marked PROSTITUTION.

Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And when you enter, everything is the same as before, except this time you take the stack of hundred dollar bills, you fuck the shy, giggling mermaid over and over and over and you shoot your sworn enemy, shoot him dead until there’s blood spurting out of all of his pores and you feel yourself falling, you feel yourself falling until you find yourself back in the INTEGRITY ballroom, which is now full of people and you know that you don’t belong. You know that you don’t belong. So you run out the door until you’re back where you started and you push open the next door, the door marked SUICIDE.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And the room you enter now is white all white, a gleaming white and there are dozens of octopi with pink eyes walking on stilts coming towards you and one octopus clutches a bottle of pills, one clutches a razor blade, one clutches a plastic bag, one clutches a jar full of poison, one has an arm outstretched toward you ready to lead you over a cliff and they close in on you in on you and they close in on you in on you until you cast your arms out saying “Nothing’s as bad as all that. Nothing’s as bad as all that,” sending the octopi flying and spinning around the room in a frenzy, octopi whirling and twirling until they’re all joined together, arm upon arm upon arm until they’ve formed an octopus noose which wraps around your neck, pulling tighter and tighter and tighter and you say, “No. I will face things,” choking, “No I will not run away. I will not.” But you run away anyway, flinging off octopus after octopus until you’re back through the door and you’re standing in front of Door #6, the door marked FAMILY.

“This one sounds safe,” you say to yourself as you push open the door.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And now you’re back at home, in the family home. And you’re back in bed, your childhood bed and all around there is the smell of fresh rutabagas being sautéed in butter and you tramp downstairs in your new feet pajamas and mom’s still in the kitchen cooking 12 kinds of vegetables and 12 kinds of meats and 12 kinds of soup and your sister’s in the basement with 12 loads of laundry folding it so it’s just right while she’s thinking of some new stalker boyfriend and your brother’s on the couch and there are twelve minutes left in the Bears game and he’s cursing Rashan Salaam and your father’s on the front porch reading page 12 of the Chicagoland section of the Chicago Tribune” Yitgadal Yitcadash Abarbanel, Yitgadal Yitcadash Birnbaum Yitgadal Yitcadash Cohen.” And you feel like the Jewish Emily from Our Town in the immigrants’ ghetto of Grovers Corners and you say, “I can’t doing anything here. I can’t do a thing.” So you stumble out frantically back to the doors and you choose the next one, the door marked COMPROMISE.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And you open the door and you’re in the downtown district of some cloned mid-sized city where you hear the clock chime 9 and an octopus gives you a suit and a tie and an octopus greets you warmly as you step into an elevator where an octopus elevator operator presses your floor and you walk out into the octopus air into an endless office where octopi stare at computer screens and you sit down at your octopus cubicle and look down at your octopus fingers and stare at your octopus screen and look at your octopus face reflected in the octopus glass and you hear the octopus clock chime five and so you push onto the octopus elevator and get on the octopus bus and you push through the octopus passengers and get off at your octopus stop and walk to your octopus home and you eat dinner with your octopus children and fall asleep watching TV in the arms of your octopus bride until you hear the alarm clock ring and you say, “Oh no not again. Oh no not again.” And you run back for the doors and you find yourself standing before Door #8, the door marked MADNESS.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And you’re alone in a room with a piece of paper and a black Pilot pen and all you can do is write about octopi, all you can do is write about octopi, and everyone you see on the streets is an octopus and the president of the United States is an octopus and your mother she’s an octopus and your father he’s an octopus and your brother he’s an octopus and your sister she’s an octopus and everyone in the synagogue is an octopus and everyone bowed down in the church is an octopus and you look in the mirror and all you can see is an octopus and you say, “Am I going mad? How have even I become an octopus?” So you walk back on all right of your legs and you push open the next door, the door marked RETREAT.

“Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And all of a sudden, you feel safer in here. You feel safer because you’ve given up. It feels homey and comfortable as you lie on your back in the YMCA bed, 12 day old laundry stacked up beside you, unpaid telephone bills scattered around the disconnected phone, sooty windows looking out bleakly onto a city where things happen to other people, where other people do things, where lives don’t seem to always play out to the wail of your rusty saxophone upon which you play Broadway standards to make a dime or two so you can count out enough change to fuel you for a night on Chicken McNuggets and Supersize fries and keep your bloated hairy stomach satisfied until the aching hunger of morning when you set out in search of inviting Chinatown restaurant dumpsters filled with the remains of yesterday’s Kung Pao Chicken and General Yang’s Shrimp so you won’t have to stand in line for more of that dreadful government cheese, thinking to yourself, “If I only had a dollar or two, this might be all right. If I only had a coupla bucks…”

So you go back to the doors and you push open Door #10, the door marked MONEY.

Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

And suddenly your pockets have filled up with coins. The pockets are bottomless, but still you want more and you stand in the middle of the trading floor holding up eight fingers, buying up futures on Fruit Loops and grains and papayas and mangoes and they keep pouring coins into your pockets and still you want more and still you want more. So you take your coins and buy a convenience store and you sell the convenience store and you buy a grocery store and you sell the grocery store and buy a department store and they keep filling your pockets up with coins and still you want more and still you want more, so you sell the department store and buy a chain of pink islands in the South Pacific and you swim out in the ocean from island to island to check up on your investment, but your pockets are so filled with coins that they pull you down into the ocean down past schools of octopi who wave at you mockingly as you sink down to the ocean floor and all that’s left on the surface of the ocean are a few lonesome bubbles like headstones memorializing your descent and you sink down further through the floor of the ocean through the tectonic plates and the fiery magma bubbling away at the Earth’s core and you sink even further, through the head and the earth and the grime until you arrive clear at the other side of the world where you stand again in the octopus room before the eleventh door upon which is written THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE. So you push that door open.

Congratulations,” an octopus says. “You’ve chosen wisely.”

But when you push through that door, all you see is another door and that one’s marked FAME and you push that one open and all you see is the door marked RELIGION and you push through that door to the door marked INTEGRITY and you push through the door until you arrive at the door marked PROSTITUTION which you push through to find the door that’s marked SUICIDE which you push through to find the door that’s marked FAMILY which you push through to find the door that’s marked COMPROMISE which you push through to find the door that’s marked RETREAT which you push through to find the door that’s marked MADNESS which you push through to find the door that’s marked MONEY which you push through to find the door that’s marked THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE and then you do it all over again and again and all the time you hear the octopus saying, “You’ve chosen wisely. That’s an excellent choice” as you push through door after door after door after door until you arrive at the last door of all, door #12 that says nothing at all. But you push through it anyway.

And you find yourself alone at a crossroads in an empty green field with three suitcases in your hand, two duffel bags, a Bob Dylan poster and a car radio and you look up to the sky and the sky falls away and you look down to the ground and the ground falls away and you look to the horizon and it falls away and everything that was there a moment ago has all fallen away, disappeared in an imperceptible mist.

And you’re sitting alone in the back seat of a Yellow taxicab bound for O’Hare airport with National Public Radio blasting loud and there’s still time to catch your flight and there’s still time to catch your flight. And you’re still sitting in the backseat of a Yellow taxicab and you’re still sitting in the backseat of a Yellow taxicab. You’re still sitting. You’re still sitting. You’re still.

This monologue first appeared in MAKE #2, “Winded.”


Adam Langer was born and raised in Chicago and is the author of the novels Crossing California, The Washington Story, Ellington Boulevard, and The Thieves of Manhattan, as well as the memoir My Father’s Bonus March. His essays, stories and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, Selected Shorts, and All Things Considered, among other publications. Contact Adam Langer at langer@forward.com, or follow him on Twitter at @adam_langer

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