By CARL BROOKINS
You see, if you come an hour late,
you have to put up with cold meat
Later, when I’d had time to think about it, I realized it was those banging metal trash cans in the lobby that marked my initial entanglement in the Marshall affair. Sometimes, when I dream about those noisy trash cans, I wonder what might have happened if I’d followed my first instinct, left the rehearsal, and gone to the theater lobby while the killer was still there. That thought makes me sweat, sometimes, in the quiet dark of an early morning.
* * *
The day of the murder hadn’t been one of my better days. I’d stayed late in the college’s Office of Student Services because that’s what directors have to do to keep up with the workload. Now, well after the cocktail hour, I found myself in an uncomfortable seat, cold, bored, waiting. Waiting for my entrance in this creaky, drafty barn of a theater.
Weeks earlier I’d let my eagerness for the play get the better of my judgment. When the community theater group loosely associated with our college, City College of Minneapolis, announced they were going to produce Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People,” I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I happen to like Ibsen a lot. Here was my chance, I told my friend Lori, to really stretch myself. If I landed a part, even a bit part, what an experience! Ibsen. Wow! So I auditioned. And I got a part.
“Wonderful,” one would say. “Just what you wanted,” another will say.
“Rats,” I’ll say. It was a much bigger part than I ever anticipated. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was too much part for me. Besides, I knew it would take up most of what little free time I already hadn’t enough of. I should have declined, but I was the director’s first choice, so pride entered into the equation as well as opportunity, and I was lost.
Dr. Stockman. Enemy of the people. That was to be my role.
That had been weeks earlier. Now here I was, facing an obsessed director, Delton, he said his name was, a graduate student from the big university across town. The small college for which I labored had no theater department so the acting company usually hired a grad student from elsewhere. Funny, this same director, when he’d called to offer me the part, had seemed pleasant, logical, even charming. No longer. I was fast becoming convinced that this mere child of a director knew no more about Ibsen’s time and the dragons that drove the good Dr. Stockman than did that janitor, banging about in the lobby outside the auditorium doors at that moment.
What was it with that janitor? Didn’t he realize the noise would distract us? I finally rose from my seat, intending to go to the lobby and snuff out the continuing banging. I had almost reached the double doors when the noise stopped. Silence fell on stage at the same moment. I glanced back and realized most of those in the auditorium were looking at me, or more precisely, looking in my direction.
“Well, Delton?” I shot back. Quick, that’s me.
“I believe you have an entrance here,” the director growled.
“Ummm... right. Sorry.” I’d lost track of exactly where in the act we were when I started up the aisle toward the lobby. I was still curious about the now absent noises, but decided I’d better get on stage, playbook in hand. I trotted back toward the proscenium while Delton stalked off, deep in conversation with someone whose face I couldn’t quite see.
As I approached the stage, I was conscious of the people scattered throughout the big auditorium. There were actors, stage crew members, set and costume people. Some were alone, some in small groups. All eyes seemed to be on me, but I couldn’t positively identify everyone in the auditorium because the light was strongest from the stage, which threw many of their faces into shadow. The assistant director, a student whom I vaguely recalled from one of my counseling classes, fell into step just behind me and we made a short parade.
Because I was tardy for my entrance, everybody else had to wait. They didn’t like it, although no one said anything. They were unhappy because we’d learned by this time that director Delton ran long rehearsals and delays added to the time. You’d think the guy was directing professional, paid actors. Professional actors probably wouldn’t take the verbal abuse we’d already received, and it was still early in the rehearsal schedule. I found my place, did the scene, and we made it through Act I. It got on to eleven and just when I began to think Delton was going to have us start over or, worse, go on to the next act, he took a big, tired breath and kind of whooshed at us.
He stared slowly around at the assembled cast. That night he wore a frayed, shapeless green coat of some kind over a sweater and faded jeans. The coat might have been military surplus and it seemed to be about two sizes too large. His narrow shoulders slumped forward below his receding chin. He said, “Tomorrow night at seven, please. Do-not-be-late.” He punched the words for emphasis. Another thing about Delton I didn’t like was his eyes. At times they seemed to bore into you, as if there was a recording machine inside his skull instead of just a brain. Maybe that was just me. He’d made it clear from the start that he considered me a distraction to his art. It was unclear to me why he’d chosen me for the role of Dr. Stockman.
Dismissed, we collected our belongings and wandered through the backstage area, past old flats left over from God knew what ancient production. Backstage was a vast cavern inadequately lit by a few dim unshaded bulbs hung on long black snakes that descended from somewhere overhead. The grid of lights, sandbag weights, ropes and other trappings of live theater resided about twenty feet above us. The ceiling of the building was somewhere above that. We left in a group through a back door, into the cold November night, and somebody locked up. As I shrugged into my jacket and went out, I remembered the noises from the lobby.
The tiny space where we were allowed to park was just a narrow gap between the tall dark buildings. It felt oppressive, confining. I hunched my shoulders. I left my fellow thespians and turned the other way down the alley. I walked around the building to the marquee on Eighth and peered into the dark interior. Nothing. “All’s well that ends well,” I muttered aloud.
I didn’t try the doors. Later I wished I had.
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Bloody Halls is available as an e-book from Fictionwise and will be released in soft cover in January, 2008 from Echelon Press. It will be distributed through the usual sources and available widely from chains and independent bookstores.