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The Poisoner on the Train
by Claudia Stevens
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Light comes up on performer seated at table with keyboard, stage right, playing “traveling” music.

Maybe it was the pantsuit – the Italian designer jacket, the slithery dark brown trousers – that attracted the Poisoner that day in March. He must have taken it all in while we were still in the station. My new look: thin and rich, the new Virginia Slim me, just-shaped hair framing my aging face still grimly clinging to beauty. Unlike me, the Poisoner hadn’t looked after himself at all well. He was my age, I could see that immediately. But way too thin, what was left of his pale hair pulled back into a greasy pony tail. And emptied-out eyes that bespoke all he’d consumed and been consumed by. And the walk – like someone just emerging out of incarceration or a wasting illness. Maybe I’d noticed him in the station, maybe not.

But now, here he was, after I’d taken my seat by the window, settling into the aisle seat next to me. Soft spoken, “Do you mind if I sit here?” And I, never very quick and not a practiced liar, couldn’t think to say, “My husband’s sitting there,” so I just said, “Why should I mind,” or something stupid like that and edged myself further against the window. He told me his first name and – before I stopped to think – I’d said mine, regretting it immediately. The Poisoner carried a small backpack and two very large water bottles, which he positioned in the seat pocket in front of him.

“You have very beautiful shoes,” he said presently. ( I’d bought them to match the pantsuit.) What does one say when complimented on one’s shoes? I couldn’t respond in kind, he was horribly and cheaply dressed. So I sat very still, very cool, like some women do when receiving unwanted attentions. Being preyed upon. This should have been easy for me. I am, after all, an actress of sorts. I could look smooth and unruffled. On top of my game. Like nothing could touch me. I was not trembling on the brink, along with all humankind. And months had passed since the fall . . .

(light fading with music, then coming back on performer seated at another small table)

In late summer of 2001 I’m sitting in a café at the Sacramento airport. I’m in jeans and a tee shirt, comfortable sandals. I’m fifteen pounds heavier. Opposite me, my older sister, age fifty-four. An occasional private nurse with one patient, a quadriplegic she takes care of, empties bags of his body fluids. They watch videos together. Here in the airport she wears a diaphonous pink scarf, a startling headdress of some kind, leopard clogs. She is gesturing wildly, her voice rising. People from the next table are staring at us.

(putting on headdress, as “Delia”) “But I’m ready, I’ve got my gun, and when they move onto my land I’ll shoot to kill.”

(off headdress) I’m on my way back East, she’ll be hitching a ride back to wherever it is she lives, I’ve never seen it. With her, always expect new places, hangouts in the city, or living off the land somewhere with little bands of other people, enlightened or disaffected, depending on your point of view. My sister and her friends once made the scene in Haight Ashbury. They disrupted the Democratic Convention in Chicago, befriended the Black Panthers. Occasionally I’d drop by in those early days, have my fortune told – tarot readings, the I Ching. My sister claimed to be clairvoyant. By now most of the friends have graduated to suburbia, retirement plans, poolside parties and fundraisers. Not so my sister, still sounding off in unabated fury. Only . . the tune has changed.

(as “Delia” in headdress, singing, tune of “Pirate Jenny,” from Threepenny Opera) “They’re just parasites, all of them! Filthy Mexicans, spreading AIDS, they don’t even use condoms. They have sex with anyone, like animals. They are animals, breeding. One baby after another that WE pay for! They’re taking over the whole state! It’s gonna be armed conflict, you’ll see. And that goes for the queers, too, they’ve ruined San Francisco. It’s them or us!”

(off headdress) I’ve promised myself this time I won’t get drawn in. I’ll just let her talk. But now I can’t just sit there. I’m thinking of my old school friend, a gay man, murdered in his bed two summers ago. I wrote a piece about it. I’m thinking about storm troopers and gas chambers. So I say, calm as I can, “So who’ll be left? And who do you mean by ‘us’? What about the Jews? Are they included?” My voice is rising now. People have started moving to other tables.

(as “Delia,” singing) “ If you mean that shit judge, that Jew who wouldn’t even hear my case, threw it out, like I was garbage, a non-person, just let him come on my land! I’d as soon shoot him dead as all the rest. Sooner!” (aside: my sister apparently has some problem with the deed to her property - access or right of way.)

I fire back, “ So maybe we should get taken out, too, you and me! Hey, why not, another Holocaust . . .”

My sister is looking at me with a scorn she must hold in reserve for smug women with husbands and bank accounts. (as “Delia”) “That Jewish identity crap, that was your choice. I didn’t go there.” (aside: As though one could GO there or not GO there.)

I reach for my carry-on, get up to go to my gate. “ Let's part friends,” I say. But my sister is still going on, she’s following me. (as “Delia,” singing) “And you, you’re just another stupid liberal. Look at your kids! You’re ruining their lives, they’re not living in the real world! All those big shots in New York with all the money and all the power. You’ll see what happens to them. There’s gonna be blood flowing. And I’ll rejoice!”

“Good-bye,” I say, walking away. I’m standing at my gate, but she’s come up behind me, and her voice is shaking, her neck coming up red blotches. (as “Delia”) “You always were a silly little girl trying to show how smart you are!” I turn to her, a small distorted woman in pink and leopard and I’m playing straight man - a circus act for the bystanders. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m sorry. . . .” (light slowly fading, traveling music returning. . . )

After his remark about my shoes the Poisoner’s attention drifted to my dark brown designer jacket. “You’re wearing such beautiful clothes,” he said. “I wish I had such nice clothes.” Was this a weird come-on or did he really envy me? He asked me what I did, and I said, “a little of this, a little of that,” which was true, where I was going, so I said “only to D.C. for the day.” He was going to New York to visit someone. Maybe he’d go to see Ground Zero, he hadn’t made up his mind yet.

The Poisoner described himself as a caretaker. He looked after his aged father, who had amassed a large collection of original watercolors. The poisoner wondered if, maybe, the Virginia Museum might want to buy them. I couldn’t resist saying - a new edge to my voice - this usually happened only when the artist was known, it had nothing to do with the quality of the paintings. Was this to show how smart I was? Or had he just pushed one of my buttons - name recognition and its absence. Such a blunder! I’d revealed myself. And so soon. I could feel him rearranging his perception of me. I became talkative, mentioned I’d just seen on TV how the next day two towers of light at Ground Zero were to be projected hundreds of feet into the air where the twin towers had been. Maybe he would see this. A thing of beauty and meaning. The Poisoner took a long drink from one of his water bottles. (light fading, silence . . . )

For me 9/ll was a terrible shock. I saw everything happen in real time, running between the TV and the phone. I was doing the same as Laura Bush, calling my kids at college, calling my mother. “Yes, we’re OK. We won’t panic. We’ll be strong.” And then I called my husband at the university, my voice still quivering, got his machine. When he phoned back later he sounded . . irritated. Here was not an attack on our nation, life as we knew it. Here was yet another intrusion on his day. An imposition on his time. Like my phone call. Irritated.

But, as I look back on it, maybe it wasn’t mere irritation. How about something deeper, something I’d not yet allowed myself to give a name, something like resentment, and yet not mere resentment . . . perhaps I should let him speak for himself.

(as husband in beret) “OK, so a few thousand white lawyers and stock brokers bite the dust. Thousands of people die every day of hunger, in floods, only they don’t count for some reason. Why all the attention now? Because it’s our guys this time. It’s them and us! Good for box office! And lets not stop there. How about those evil pilots! Were they brainwashed? Were they breastfed? Were they latent homosexuals? Lets obsess over them! Give them our complete, undivided attention! Attention that could be, should be, bestowed on someone else. A creative artist forced into academia. An unsung composer, an unpublished poet. Attention rightfully MINE!” (special spot, as husband, singing, dancing, parody from Beggar’s Opera)

The first time at the looking glass
the artist sees his image,
he’s struck with such delight and awe,
the world should pay him homage!

Each time I look I’m fonder still,
and all my charms grow stronger,
Who cares if other people’s eyes
can see I am not younger?
(spot crossfade to usual mode)

Later that evening he seemed to soften, cried a few tears reaching for my hand during the replays of people jumping, being blown to their deaths out of the burning towers. And a few days later more tears when they released that bald eagle at the opening of the World Series. My husband was a New Yorker, a Yankees fan. As well as an artist. (light fading, incidental music returning . . .)

By the time the train reached Fredericksburg the Poisoner’s antecedents, family connections and social standing had been imparted. A plot in Hollywood Cemetery, brimming with Virginia’s first families, Confederate dead, even a president, awaited the Poisoner’s failing father of the water colors. The Poisoner himself had attended the best private school in Richmond – even though he’d dropped out – alma mater of a famed, aging iconoclast and man of letters who wears a white suit and blasts the art establishment. Was all this a fabrication? Could he be who he purported to be? But then, when he claimed to be a direct descendent of the composer John Gay, whose portrait hung in the family home, I knew it must all be true. NOBODY knows who John Gay is anymore – unless there’s a family portrait. Nobody, that is, except for the Poisoner on the train. And me.

OK, who is John Gay? An eighteenth century literary figure, a Brit who’d thumbed his nose at the opera scene - all foppish Italian imports – and composed a slight musical in English called the Beggar’s Opera with criminals, murderers, pimps and whores who sing cute tunes. It became a colossal hit, everyone knew all the songs. Here’s the title song. I’ve updated it just a bit. (singing, original ballad, special spot):

Through all the employments of life
Everybody screws over his brother
Pimp and whore they call husband and wife
All the professions debase one another
See the priest call the lawyer a cheat,
the lawyer debunk the divine
And the artist, because he’s so great
thinks his soul is bigger than mine.
(spot crossfading back)

You get the idea.

As it happened, I’d actually conducted this opera early in my career, a college production. I’d arranged the parts, rehearsed the soloists and the pit orchestra. Not that I let any of this on to the Poisoner. But I guess I couldn’t suppress an impulse of recognition. He could tell. I knew who Gay was. I knew about the Beggar’s Opera. No one is supposed to know these things, least of all a glamorous woman in an Italian pantsuit on a train. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw something new in his look. Not long after that he revealed himself. He told me what he had done. (light fading to dark, then coming back up)

For a few weeks after 9/11 I was either crying or watching TV, sometimes both. One night Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” was broadcast from New York. I sobbed through the entire half-hour “Farewell, ” crouched on the floor. My husband left the room. Soon after, he began to communicate with me by email from the other end of the house, mostly attachments, articles by noted journalists on the whys and wherefores of the calamity.

In October my husband went up to Baltimore on the train. He seemed unconcerned about the terrorist threat, the anthrax scare. Just eager to see how Lotus Blossom, his former piano student, was settling into her grad study. Lotus was the best student he’d ever had. She might even have a career of her own one day, maybe win a contest. I was uneasy. A
possible bomb had been spotted at the Richmond station. Trains were being stopped along the entire corridor. It turned out to be nothing, someone’s electric shaver. When my husband came home that night I was already in bed but not asleep. He put his hand on my hip, an intimate gesture. “Sleep,” he said. And I did sleep, the deep sleep of a woman freed from worry, whose man has come home. The sleep of smug, frumpy middle-age. A month later my husband asked me for a divorce.

Earlier that day, under I-know-not-what impulse I’d gone into his music studio. His poetry notebooks were everywhere, metastasizing over the floor, the walls, the piano, choking out the music. And I’d done a bad thing, looked into them. Snooped. The poems were full of Lotus, she bloomed on nearly every page. Most telling was a love poem with Lotus springing out of my husband’s forehead, like Zeus giving birth to Athena. (My husband had once taken a course in Greek literature.) She must have been easy to love, all he had to do was look at his own head.

I confronted him later that evening, a woman in a novel. I was going to say, “Never see her again, or else.” But he had the jump on me. “We were going to wait,” he said. “WE were going to wait until you got back from Michigan” – my next gig. My husband had already left me, we were already through. Lotus was twenty-two, my husband was fifty-eight. (light fading with Indian music interlude, then coming up a deep red)

Baghwan Shree Rajneesh. This is a name one could sing. A highly singable name. (singing) Bagwan Shree Rajneesh. It has a ring of more than oriental splendor, like the Parsee’s hat reflecting the Indian sun. You could name a town for it. In fact, a town was named for it. In 1981Baghwan Shree Rajneesh, AKA the Golden Guru, and his group of followers worldwide, all clad in red, decided to transform the high barren desert of central Oregon into a Shangrila. They bought the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco, which became Rancho Rajneesh, and took over the nearby town of Antelope. Many of the Rajneeshies came from wealthy families, disaffected people sick of all that money and privilege, dropouts from fancy private schools in towns as far away as Richmond, Virginia.

But, almost immediately, there was trouble on Rancho Rajneesh. Oregonians didn’t take kindly to the commune. There were said to be suspect marriages between U.S. citizens and foreign followers. Rajneesh himself came under scrutiny. It turned out he owed millions in unpaid taxes to the Indian government. And then came internal dissension. A follower named Sheela and a small breakaway group of some twenty were suddenly gripped by inexplicable hysteria, experienced a theretofore undreamt of urge. A desire to make a difference. A perhaps artistic impulse. In April, 1982 they expressed themselves by committing the first act of bioterrorism on U.S. soil. They spread salmonella bacteria on salad bars, poisoning hundreds of people in the community nearby. Sheela and her gang went on from this, masterminding a massive electronic evesdropping system, stockpiling assault weapons. They were implicated in the murder of Baghwan Shree Rajneesh’s personal physician, who turned up drowned under mysterious circumstances. Under siege, Baghwan proclaimed that they had turned the commune into a fascist concentration camp, tried to escape to Bermuda by private jet. Baghwan was apprehended, plea bargained and eventually managed to return to India, where he declared that the U.S. was just a wretched country. The people of Antelope reclaimed their town. Sheela and her followers were indicted on federal wiretapping charges and the salmonella poisoning of 750 people. By that time, Sheela had fled to Germany. But the followers, one of them a descendent of John Gay and caretaker of an ailing wealthy watercolorist, did time in minimum security prison. He told me what he had done. He drank from his water bottles again and again, flushing himself out. (red light crossfading to usual mode)

I flew to Michigan the day after my husband torched our marriage. On that day in November there were four passengers on the 737 jet to Detroit. The day before, there had been yet another plane crash in New York and nobody was flying. I felt no fear. In Michigan I gave my two performances – at a museum, a college, spoke to hundreds of high school students. Over three days and nights I didn’t sleep, ate nothing. Pounds slipped off. I noticed my face and body changing. I began to look my new part.

(to audience, slowly, meaningfully) I am not what I am. (singing, tune of “Ballad of Immoral Earnings,” Threepenny Opera, special spot)

Lay bare your soul, I swear I’ll never tell
It’s only me so come on, come on spill!
Am I the kind to use another’s pain?
So I draw the foul, that’s how I suck them in
I just can’t help it, I simply can’t refrain!

(refrain) I act all passive, like I’m not even there
They drop their guard, give me ever better fare
And when they’re finished I pretend I haven’t heard
But every single thing they’ve done, every word,
I take it in, I never miss a beat!
I’m an exploiter to the nth degree!

(music fading with lights, pink spotlight coming on “Ada,” an elderly woman with a heavy Central European accent, in wig, composing a letter at table, stage left. As “Ada,” speak-singing) “March 20, l993. Dearest Claudia, I had a cold and could not answer before to your questions about our family during the Holocaust. But I write to you now, your old Auntie, with the sad story of all the antisemitisms - which begins with the character of the Jewish male – and the poor Jewish girls without money or rich relations. The Jewish male who is always lusting for the blond shikse in every country and in every century, way back to the bible. As soon as a Jewish male climbs up to a new position, what is his triumph? A blond shikse. A rabbi’s son in Zurich, Switzerland, he married a shikse, she wears the shortest miniskirt in Zurich. My sister, your Aunt Zoe, got to England, worked hard for her husband’s success, he betrayed her, ruined her health and finances, she passed away very young. In Vienna before Hitler came I worked as apprentice in the fur trade, and in the summer I had a little money to rent a rowboat on the Danube. A nice Jewish boy offered me the Saturday afternoon in his own boat. I was very happy, it was very platonic. His mother, a widow kept by her dead husband’s doctor, was intrigued by her son’s interest in me, so she came to visit my mother, your Granny – who she saw scrubbing the kitchen floor on her hands and knees. She left very quickly and sent her precious son to Yugoslavia for an indeffinite time, he never came back to me.”

(aside, off wig) Ada was just getting started. She’d ended up marrying a half-Jew, who couldn’t consumate the marriage and cheated her out of their apartment. When Hitler came, the husband demanded an official divorce, showed up in court in SA uniform.

(as “Ada”) “ I was glad to get rid of that swine, I hope Adolf sent him with the first lot to the front to fight for the fuhrer.” (aside) And there was more, lots more, there were the cousins and neices, even the Auschwitz survivor, deceived, betrayed, robbed - this apparently Ada’s personal, private Holocaust. Ada, now 89 years old, still clings to life in a small flat in L.A. Six years ago she stopped communicating with the family by written or spoken word. Her letter to me might have been among her last expressive acts.

(as “Ada”) “ I could write a book of the rotten deals the Jewish girls have. But please, dear Claudia, read my letter and promise to burn it. I don’t want it printed or used for any other purpose. Keep well and happy. Love, Ada.” (light crossfading to usual mode)

I got back from Michigan and engaged an expensive divorce lawyer, got the house, the good mutual fund, the antique furniture. I bought new clothes to fit my new body, made travel arrangements. I began to think about writing a new piece.

But now, here I was, stopped in Quantico, seated next to a would-be mass murderer, someone who’d once sabotaged the salads of hundreds, and fear gripped me. He knew my first name. He knew that I knew about art and music. Was that enough, could he find me later on? He was, after all, a convicted eavesdropper and wiretapper. Would he plant botulism in my faucets? And why had he told me those things, in some burst of penitence? Had he become a penitent Poisoner? Or was I witnessing the same impulse he’d once had in Oregon, a desire, a burning need shouting, “NOTICE ME!” Not the mere wish for nirvana or black-eyed virgins. Something deeper, more real. Something like . . . ENVY! (as “Poisoner,” “husband,” “suicide pilot,” speak-singing )

“Hey, that could be me! I could be making more noise!
I could impact the world!
What’s MY life, anybody’s,
against such need, such crushing need,
What are 750 salad eaters, 3000 burned up, smashed up New Yorkers?
What is a bludgeoned-to-death middle-aged marriage,
When there’s THIS . . . when there’s ART!”

(blackout, then small spotlight coming on position far stage right, director’s chair or high stool)

Someone said - maybe it was David Bowie – something like, “Hitler was the greatest pop star of all.” We all know, Hitler was a frustrated painter rejected by the art establishment of Vienna. But, goddammit, if Bowie is right, the murderer got his way. Crime as art – it’s become a virtual cliché. So, what about the reverse?

Thirty years ago I was a kid traveling in Germany, doing music festivals, making the scene in places like Darmstadt. That’s where I crossed paths with Karlheinz Stockhausen, already the most important modern composer of the day. Karlheinz! Picture him. All in white, forty something, thinning hair falling uneasily to his shoulders, lofty, serene. A guru holding court among wannabes, along with Mary, his wife all blond braids, an aging Rhinemaiden. It was all very early seventies. One day I got to see another side of Stockhausen. That morning an improv group performed – a bunch of kids playing random instruments in a wild frenzy. (to keyboard, playing) They were randy and unwashed. Sexy. The audience loved them. And later, someone took on the great Stockhausen, in the middle of his presentation, “Hey, Karlheinz! They were just improvising! But it sounded just like your stuff. Only more so. Tell, us, Karlheinz! What have you got that they don’t?” Stockhausen had been lecturing on his new composing technique, using principles of quantum mechanics to achieve absolute randomness. I saw his face darken. He’d been dissed. It was “the process,” he explained. “Der Prozess.” Here, then, was the essential difference, the ultimate value. I saw pique. I saw irritation. Or, wait . . was it, could it have been . . . envy? Of those punk players? Was he, deep down, a wannabe hooligan?

(strobe effect or revolving spot over keyboard, music continuing) A few years later Stockhausen embarked on a massive compositional project to rival Wagner’s “Ring.” It was called “Light,” each part devoted to the seven days of creation. It was about the struggle between good and evil, with angels and devils. In the mid eighties I crossed over from my classical career, became a performance artist. So I thought I’d try out one of Stockhausen’s good and evil pieces called “Lucifer’s Dream.” It takes place at the piano. The score cost $75 (showing it, stripping to leotard like performer on cover photo). There were wails and moans, tongue clicks, kissing noises, while playing the piano. (demonstrating) There was heavy breathing, playing the keys with one’s behind – left and right buttocks were specified. Rockets were set off. There were very precise instructions how to do these things, all in meticulous detail worthy of the composer’s Prussian heritage.

Thing was, none of this was anything new, I’d done it all before, just improvising. OK, maybe not the rockets. Nor was any of it fun, or halfway scary. No Lucifer, not much dream. I tried to return the score, but the publishers wouldn’t give back my $75. But hey, this was darkness and light! The ultimate universal struggle! (strobe effect, music ending)

In September, 2001 at the Hamburg Festival, at the age of 73, Karlheinz Stockhausen – who had by then reached Friday in the creation – told the world that 9/11 was the biggest work of art anywhere, for the whole cosmos. (as Stockhausen) “Think of it! Five thousand people are blown to the hereafter in one moment. I COULDN’T DO THAT. COMPARED TO THAT WE’RE NOTHING AS COMPOSERS!” Stockhausen’s remarks created an uproar. He later asked for forgiveness, explained, qualified. But he’d shown his true colors yet again. He was one jealous bastard. (light fading, then coming up with traveling music)

The train to Washington had reached Alexandria, the last stop before Union Station. The Poisoner became wistful. With his prison record he’d not been able to contribute much to society. But, he added brightly, he had become an artist. In fact, a gallery in Richmond was now showing some of his work. I made a mental note not to go anywhere near this gallery. A long silence ensued, the kind that sometimes comes near the end of a short relationship. The train was pulling out of Alexandria. And then I turned to him and blurted out, “Maybe that’s why people live longer now than they used to. To make up for all the past mistakes. So we get another chance . . .”

But I knew somehow that, even if he could, the Poisoner would not take advantage of such a chance. That further up, maybe between Baltimore and Wilmington, some other petite woman would hear his confession, maybe grant him absolution, this to be the sum total of his atonement. Maybe it was enough. At Union Station I got up and smoothed down the jacket of my dark brown pantsuit – not long after on tour, somewhere between Omaha and Lincoln Nebraska, it would be stolen out of a luggage rack, disappear into some void reserved for things once indispensable.

And then the Poisoner turned to me and said, (singing) “Thank you. For your wisdom and your beauty.” And suddenly I felt ashamed. For what I had not given him. What I would likely take from him. And I moved quickly off the train and down the platform. I did not look back. Maybe I was afraid he’d be trailing along behind. But the Poisoner had gone on his way. Up North. Perhaps to see the light in the sky where the towers had been. And I continued on my own way back into the world.

(stagey lighting as performer takes up bass drum or tambourine, exit into audience, singing, parody from Threepenny Opera):

There is no more to add
The world is poor and men are bad
We would be good instead of base
If this were just another place . . .
etc., etc. (stopping) OR . . .

(tune from “Song of the Insufficiency of Human Endeavor,” text from Beggar’s Opera)
But think of this story
and put off your sorrow,
The wretch of today
may be happy tomorrow.
(theater dark)

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