“Isn't this exciting?” chirped Charlotte to Claire who smiled nervously back.
“Yeah,”said Topping, “I think it's great you have gotten into this spoken word thing. It's so cool.”
Claire blushed, but not for long as her mind refocused on memorizing her words.
Ned sat beside Claire, and Bartholomew settled into a seat behind Ned and put his hand reassuringly on Claire's shoulder. Claire didn't acknowledge the support but kept rehearsing silently.
The theater was packed. Except for a handful of performance veterans and a few parents, it was wall to wall young people. Busy voices buzzed as the vibe of good energy and hormones pushed to the ceiling. The room darkened, the crowd hushed only slightly and a middle-aged Latina woman walked to the mic.
“Welcome to Slam104!” A cheer went up from the crowd. The woman on stage waved at people in the crowd she knew and waited for the cheer to come down. “I am 'Rissa...” another cheer, “and I want to thank you all for coming out tonight to help us celebrate the power of our voices.” Another cheer went up from the frothing rolling and boiling sea of youth. “Tonight we have some amazing talent lined up for you. Some are veterans, some have been performing for a short while and some will perform for the first time. At Slam104 we work to bring a voice to those who often don't have one and to those who need one. If you are interested in becoming a part of our community, you can talk with me afterward or talk with Tony Curtis. Tony, stand up.”
A big man in the front row wearing a colorful sweater and a leather hat stood up and raised his arm to the crowd. A cheer went up. He sat down and 'Rissa continued. “Alright, let's get this party started!” A big cheer. “Let's give it up for our first performer who comes from right here in this neighborhood, JoJo!” Clapping and cheering greeted a young petite woman to the stage.
“I am JoJo and I am sad this day – and every day.
Cuz when I walk down my street I wonder which way I should turn.
Turn like you, turn like me, turn like those who don't want people to turn.
All I know is I must turn. So I turn and I turn and I turn until I....”
JoJo's performance continued and faded in and out of Claire's consciousness. “Turn, I turn, must turn,” thought Claire's brain. Next up was a young man named Mouse. He wore thick-framed glasses and a cotton print flower shirt. His performance was punctuated by rhythmically yelling “burn it down, build it up!” fifty times and then bowing his head and leaving the stage. The crowd cheered loudly. “Burn it up, build it down,” seeped into Claire's brain.
The next several performances drifted through Claire's internal perfomance. She’d ocassionally snag a line or phrase on the rough surfaces of her concentration. Her friends were enjoying themselves. Topping and Charlotte seemed to be having the most fun, yelling and cheering for most of the performers. Bartholomew liked some of the performances more than others and would lean forward and say something to Ned after most of them. Ned responded by nodding in agreement or by laughing. Ned, for his part, found most of the performances a bit tedious. He couldn't understand why everybody was yelling their lines. They all seemed angry.
Tony Curtis walked up to the mic. The theater hushed. In a strong calm voice he began:
“I am a man.
Sure as you are what you are.
I am large, powerful. Do I intimidate you? Do I inspire you? I am a man.
I look over this crowd and I see my past. I used to dream, too.
Yes, I used to dream, but I do not anymore. My past is no comfort. I am a man.
I used to dream of a Land of Promise, a place called Hope.
My dreams have left me empty, though many have come true. I am a man.
I see you all taking the flame into your hearts, seeking to cross the Jordan.
I take pride in your hope and your passion and... I... lift... you... up. I am a man.
My time has passed, I no longer carry the flame.
Some would call me cynical, some lazy. Perhaps I'm jus' tired y'all. I am a man.
I am not angry, I am not haunted, I am not lost.
I know who I am. I no longer struggle and question. I am a man.
I have grown beyond the struggle you now take up – the struggle you use to define
When I look at you I do not see 'the future,' I see what has always been and always will
be. I am a man.
be. I am a man.
I see a school of fish in a stream, one of many streams full of fish all heading to an
ocean full of even more fish.
ocean full of even more fish.
The ocean you swim in is not made of water. It is made of Love. I am a man.
To struggle is to sharpen one's mind. To love is to soften one's heart.
Youth is drawn to struggle, but the Elders understand the true life is of love. I am
It has been a long road to where I am and deviations were part of the journey.
Your journey is just beginning, what deviations lay ahead no one knows. I am a man.
Sure as you are what you are.
I am a man.”
Tony stepped away from the mic and his footsteps rang through the theater as he walked to his seat. The silence lingered like a thick soft frost clinging to tree branches. Little murmurs began to patter through the audience. 'Rissa came forward and leaned into the mic. “Now, we have a first timer, Claire.”
There was tepid applause as people were still inside Tony's performance. Claire's friends, especially Charlotte, patted her on the shoulders and gave her encouragement as she rose from her seat. Tony Curtis smiled and gave her a thumbs up as she made her way to the stage. The mic was just a bit too high for Claire. She tried to adjust it but it wouldn't budge. She cleared her throat and raised up on her toes. She began:
“I, um, I,” Claire flicked the hair out of her eyes and went flatfoot. “I mean, I can't imagine...oh, okay.” Claire searched for the first few words of her performance. She was nervous but if she could remember the first sentence she would be fine. Back up on her toes, she began:
“I can't imagine what it will be like once this planet is done with us.
When I heard the bluebird call, its sweet voice singing in my heart,
I loved this world with its beauty and majesty and...”
Claire went flatfoot her eyes looking inside her head for clarity. Back on her toes.
“...its sweet voice singing in my heart,
I loved this world with its beauty, majesty and heart.
The trees sway in the wind and call my name. Claire, Claire, Claire.”
Topping adjusted his seat. Ned was heard giving a sigh. Bartholomew sat quiet, his mind drifting off to kale. The air in the theater shifted, Tony Curtis' performance was very quickly gone and replaced with something writhing in pain. Charlotte beamed at Claire, devouring her every letter, her every movement.
“I and the world, this planet, are one.
You can't tell me anything different. I know it is true.
Chickens and I have a million year history. We speak the same language.”
Ned sunk down in his chair. A quiet “ba-gaack” was heard from the back of the room. A few people laughed lightly. Claire did not hear, the driver and pushers were in and heads down in this bobsled of a performance.
“But they did not care for you, oh Earth. No.
The Man dissed you and choked you and raped you.
And his henchmen and that stupid Mayor Dick laugh and spit on you.
They think we cannot see, but I can! And I can hear you, too!
Do you hear me Mayor Dick? I can hear you.
I can hear you like an atom bomb.
I can hear you Mayor Dick! You are ruining the thing I love!
You are ruining me!”
Claire's voice cracked. She was breathing heavy and paused to compose herself... she did not pause long enough.
“I HATE YOU!! MAYOR DICK!!
I HATE YOU!!! YOU ARE KILLING ME!!!
STOP IT!! STOP!!”
Tears were streaming down Claire's face, her nose was running. Her eyes pleaded with the audience to come to her side, to join her in shouting down the horror that was Mayor Dick. The crowd was quiet.
“Remember the chickens,” Claire said and left the stage. She did not go back to her chair but walked out the side door and collapsed on the loading dock of the theater. Claire could not catch her breath and heaved heavy sobs into the dark night sky.
“Cawww!” said an old friend. “Chickens? What about me? Remember me?”
Claire's mouth was so full of embarrassment she could not speak. So the crow did.
“Child! Still can't find your bridge, can you? You have no home. You have no...cawww!”
The crow melted into the night as Charlotte came out the door. She said nothing and came to sit next to Claire. Charlotte wrapped her in her arms – and her friendship. There they sat, the both of them. Both crying. A moment later, the guys were there. Bartholomew and Topping hopped down off the dock and stood in front of Claire and Charlotte and joined the hug. Ned paused. He stared blankly at her while his eyes looked inside his own head for clarity. Then he knelt down, kissed Claire on top of the head and put his arms around her. Cacooned in the flesh and bone of friendship, Claire let herself melt into a blubbering puddle of anguish.
Claire Speaks Out is the 25th story in The Book of Bartholomew. The story is written by Mark Granlund and illustrated by Meghan Hogan
\Claire tries spoken word and ends up needing more than a little help from her friends.
You can see the full-color flipbook version of this story, with back stories and additional illustrations, here.