Jeff Phillips: The Digestive Wrecking

A spotlight shines against the red curtains as they begin to part, revealing a rotisserie chicken that is hanging center stage. The chicken slow rotates on a string. A minute goes by and the audience starts to chuckle, anticipating what may break the pseudo stillness of a slightly spinning rotisserie chicken against a black backdrop.

Then red flakes sprinkle down from the rafters high up above the chicken. It’s apparent they’re spices, and it looks like snowfall, as if the angels were itching bloody scalps. Even though they’re just savory spices, the audience almost gets the impression of irritated skin raining down, and groans.

A spotlight shines on a lone audience member, a middle-aged man, somewhat overweight, sitting dead center in the auditorium. Just as quickly, a waiter comes down the empty aisle in front of him, to deliver what appears to be a plate with three large chicken drumsticks, and cheesy tater tots. The crispy skin of the “hot” chicken is a blackened red, with two slivers of pickle on top. The melted cheese on the tots appears to be a blend of different cheeses. It’s a large portion.

Coming up the other side of the empty aisle is another waiter, carrying a tray with a bowl of hot, steaming chili. The tray is handed over to the audience member and he reluctantly guides it down to his lap and looks around uncomfortably. The waiters gesture for him to go ahead and eat. He is still reluctant to eat in front of all of those watching eyes, there must be at least two hundred and fifty people sitting around him. Those in front have twisted around to look at him, those to his side have swiveled towards him, and those behind him lean up on their seats.

The people start to clap, urging him to get on with it, he’s part of the show now and they’re all eager to see where this goes. The audience member starts with his chili. Everyone is watching him eat, so he tries to slurp quickly, but the diced tomato and ground beef and kidney beans are still so hot and he can feel it burn his esophagus. He’s self-conscious of the sound of his slurping, so he tries to slow down. But everyone is still watching him so closely, he wants to get this done with as soon as possible. It’ll take a while to cool. He blows on it a little but decides to accept the burning of his esophagus to just get through this.

Then it’s onward to the hot chicken, which is spicy hot, his tongue feels inflamed and his eyes are quick to water. The audience erupts with laughter, they find this hilarious. He gets through two drumsticks before he has to give up. His eyes are so watery, everyone around him is just a blur of a body fidgeting around consumed by a giggle fit. A wet pressure floods his sinuses. He wants to wipe his eyes, blow his nose, but he’s got some of the spicy rub on his fingers, he asks for a napkin but the waiters ignore him.

There’s still the mound of cheesy tater tots, but they’re too hot, and not spicy, so he shovels them into his mouth until the plate is clean. Except for the third piece of chicken, which he refuses despite the waiters waving it in front of his nose, and the audience clapping and stomping their feet in unison. Finally he grabs the drumstick, takes a big bite; he feels the rub heat his tongue and his eyes water more, the amount of tearing feels impossible. He drops the drumstick down onto the plate and yells “I’m done! I’m done!” He’s hard to hear as the clapping changes tempo to become more congratulatory, less of an egging on. The waiters then hand him a napkin and exit down the row, back up the aisle, and the spotlight above him dims, but it stays on him.

A man in a ponytail wearing a white lab coat enters stage right and approaches the rotisserie chicken that is still hanging there. In one hand, this scientist holds a simmering pot of gravy, in the other he carries a baster. He dips the baster into the pot to siphon some gravy, then lets it drip on the chicken. Some of it slips off on down to the wooden tiles. The scientist repeats this as the chicken glistens and a puddle forms below and the audience is rapt.

Meanwhile, the audience member who just devoured a meal in front of everyone, is experiencing a bit of acid reflux. As it really starts to burn, a video stream is projected on the stage, right on the scientist doing his work. It’s hard to tell what it is at first, because it’s not directed on a smooth white screen, the images are bent and warped by the spinning rotisserie chicken and the scientist moving his arm, but the man is able to make out that it’s an endoscopy of someone’s esophageal muscles. There appears to be some ulceration, some enlarged veins.

Within a few minutes of that, his belly starts rumbling, there is a discomfort deep in his gut. He has to fart, but he’s trying to hold it in. The spotlight above him brightens and one of the waiters comes back down the aisle with a large ice cream sundae, several scoops capped with hot fudge and hot caramel. He is handed the sundae, and he knows the drill. Get it down as quickly as possible and hope this is the last of it. He’s so full, the thought of filling his belly up with more food is terrifying, but something milky might help cut the spice that still has his tongue feeling a little numb.

He gets most of it down when the fart he’s trying to suppress rips forth, and the sound is amplified, as though there are microphones beneath his seat. He’s mortified, but the sugar rush also has him feeling somewhat delirious. He can feel his heartbeat in his fingertips, and he’s a little woozy. He laughs a little, too, along with the audience. The waiter takes his sundae bowl and exits. The spotlight above him goes out, as well as the spotlight on the stage. The projection of the endoscopy lingers but crossfades into something more colorful, what looks like an MRI of someone’s intestines, and it dawns on him that it might be his, as the movement in the bowels is in sync with his own continued rumbling.

As his butt starts to sweat, a mist sprays down from above, and it smells like dirty gym clothes, a little like an outhouse. The people around him start to gag a little, it smells like ass, really. The audience member is also feeling like he has to take a shit, sooner than later, so he takes advantage of this distraction to get up and start squeezing by the other patrons.

As he’s almost out from the row, the rotisserie chicken falls from where it hangs and makes a loud splat noise in the puddle of gravy. The rest of the audience around him goes “ooh” and he runs up the aisle, to the bathroom. It’s single occupancy, and someone is in there. Now that he’s standing, he feels the need to shit even more, the butt sweat is wetting his boxers. He shifts from side to side, wondering if maybe he should run across the street, but soon enough he hears a flush, the running of the water as whoever in there is taking an excessively long time washing their hands. Then finally an old man comes out, smiles at him, and he rushes past, locking the door. There is some pee on the seat, so he has a take a few moments to wipe it down, then layer it with a fortress of toilet paper before sitting down. He typically prefers sitting on a protective layer when using a public restroom, but if the need to go is urgent, he’ll skip it if the seat seems clean. He’d have liked to skip it this time around, but there was that goddamn pee on the seat, and he’s flush with anger at how inconsiderate the man before him was to spray all over it.

It’s a relief when he gets out what he needs to, but the toilet paper is rough, it cuts him a little as he wipes. He can see the blood streaks. When he flushes, he discovers the tank hasn’t quite filled and there isn’t enough water pressure. The mass of bloody toilet papers sits in there, unable to drain. He waits, standing over it, ties to flush a few more times, but decides to give up. He’s going to swallow his pride and let an usher know the bathroom needs some attending.

As he washes his hands, he gets the whiff of raw sewage belching up from the drain. This causes him to cough, which transitions into gagging. In a sudden paroxysm, a rush of acid and undigested food shoots up his throat. He leans down, into the awful smell, and hurls. There’s a fair amount that needs to come up. A tan mash sits in the sink, and when he runs the water, he finds there’s another clog he can take credit for. With the one paper towel that’s left, he carefully wets it, as not let any of the vomit water splash up onto it, and wipes his mouth. There’s a residual burn at the back of his throat and the inside of his nose where a chunk of spicy meat shot up into. He spits into the trash can and follows it up with a thick snot rocket that bangs on the aluminum bottom. He could use some water to swish his mouth clean, but he doesn’t dare make any more use of the sink.

He exits the bathroom but finds the lobby empty. There was an usher there earlier. He notices there’s no one stationed at the concession counter either.

He isn’t sure he wants to stay for the rest of the show, but he left his coat draped over his seat, so he at least needs to go back for it. Maybe if there’s an intermission he can sneak out then. As he reenters the theatre space, a new image is projected onto the stage. It’s a close up of the toilet he left clogged.

The house lights come up, there’s some half-assed clapping. The audience is quick to stand up, get their coats. They’re not in the jovial mood they were in while he chomped away at the beginning of the show, it seems that image up there has disheartened everyone. And as they come up the aisle, they notice him, and their eyes tell him what he has done is not forgivable.

On the loudspeaker, there’s a glottal groaning being broadcast, and he recognizes it as the sound he sometimes unconsciously emits when a meal doesn’t agree with him. The sounds mutate into a song, similar to whales. He didn’t recall making such a noises as he did his business, but then again, he isn’t always aware of it.

As he dodges the punishment of their shoulders, with his eyes cast down in shame, he walks upstream to retrieve his coat. He can already feel the chapping of his ass. This is hands down the worst theatre going experience ever he’s ever had, much worse than that time he went with his family to see Gallagher, when he was ten, and smashed watermelon pulp got in his eye.


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