by RW Spryszak
We walked past people who wept in silence. We found the end of the line and took our place. The searchlights in the sky scratched at all the low clouds. There were birds, or something like birds, inches above our heads. They passed in great numbers, felt more than seen because of the dark. We waved our hands to keep them away. All the streets around the theater were dark and silent. Windows and doors shut tight. Only the meaner taverns were open. The ones for workers and other poor men. The people inside watched us from these black windows. Dirty, angry faces lit like candles. We in line waited our turn to show our tickets to the gypsy in the booth. We moved our hands along the grimy brick walls as we went, and added to the scrape of shoes with our own.
I expected to see murderers move between the buildings. An odor at my sleeve. Deep in shadows. Drug fiends skimming the line for easy marks.
There were sirens down a side street where all the lamps were out. The marquee above the theater announced the play on all three sides and jutted out over the sidewalk. Though many of the lights were out. Perpetual Motion Demands Reality. No one understood the name of the play. But it had a quality, when spoken, which demanded a whisper.
It seemed we would never get to the booth. Never show our tickets. Never get inside. The next moment we handed our tickets to the old woman. There was a dirty yellow scarf wrapped around her head. She grabbed at our tickets like a snake. Deathlike and steady.
How the atmosphere changed once inside. Where once we stood in the dank threat of night, now we walked in a golden glow. The wall sconces shimmered in this air, and threw holy light into every corner. As if the light turned into clouds of sweet frankincense. A sheen of gold bathed the whole interior. This safe, enclosed world seen through expensive tinted glass. It colored the carpets. The walls. The people. There was a heavy scent of white lilies, which turned my stomach. There is a quality of death about the smell of lilies. Dead bodies. Old dead bugs. Rancid and heavy. I could not wait to get out of the hall and into the theater. From the corner of my eye I saw my friend watch me. As if he enjoyed my discomfort.
I smiled, as we were about to pass through the heavy wooden doors carved in immaculate dragons. What a beautiful theater, I said. It’s so lovely in here. Yes, my friend seemed to sneer. I assumed I covered my hatred of lilies well. But I couldn’t be sure.
Our tickets put us between a red ruby and a pinched nose. We mocked them while we waited for the show to begin. It was much cooler once in the theater. People were well dressed. Not as shabby as they seemed when we were in line outside. Perhaps we should have worn a tie, I said. My friend nodded.
But here we were at last. About to see what all the talk was about.
Over the winter people said there was a curse on the play. Evil things happened in there, they said. There were questions about the morality of the production. The rumors fed the frenzy. Secrets and whispers. The whole company was under suspicion.
One night people ran from the theater because they were sure it was on fire. But it was later reported there’d been no fire.
Cast and crewmembers disappeared between shows. The police dismissed it all at first. But as time went on they recognized they had a problem on their hands.
Whatever else there was, it was the role of The Young Nobleman that fueled all the fires. This was where all the talk came from. The exact point where it all began. Late in the first act this character gets shot. A fine scene, they say. Well done. A good stage trick. Realistic. But maybe too much so, if you listened to the rumors. In the over two hundred performances in the play’s run there have been over two hundred actors in the role. And every night a new young actor takes the job while the one from the night before is never seen again. Coincidence, they explain. The papers seem to agree. There are never official questions. Not right out in the open. But in the crowds it never goes away. It is just not true, some say. You don’t know for sure, say others. They have ways to hide the truth.
There was word the authorities wanted to close the play. Shut it down. But it made a lot of money. Every night a sell out. People clamored for tickets. We’d bought our tickets three months before. Our friends warned us not to go. But if we didn’t the same friends would have called us cowards.
Did we come too early? – My friend asked. I don’t know, I told him; it’s taking a long time to start. At once the lights dimmed and the curtains pulled back. As if someone read our minds and listened to us for a cue. There was a living room bathed in devil red light beyond the curtain line. A good effect. But the dialog was silly. A scene from a light comedy. Not from the sinister machinations everyone whispered about. It disappointed me at first. My friend felt the same.
My good friend. My companion since we were boys. We’d known each other a long time. Been through many things together. We hated each other. If something bad happened to one or the other we would show care and support, of course. But deep inside any kind of misery experienced by the other was a reason to rejoice. It was the kind of hatred only close friends could understand.
I wanted to see him break. That’s why I suggested we see the show in the first place. I wanted to see how much of this play he could take before he cracked and ran out to the street. I wanted to have the weapons to taunt and embarrass him at will from then on.
It was always this way ever since I could remember. Back to younger days. It was an axiom – He could not stand to be the one to lose a game. Checkmate his King and he would move it three squares out of danger. Then he’d look at you as if it never happened. If he lost a game, you could point at the rules right under his nose and still he would not agree they said what they said. Beat him in a game and spend another hour in an argument about how and why the game was over. It wouldn’t matter. To him games were miniature life. They were not an exercise or a simulation. They were real. The rest of the world did not exist when he played a game
Yes, he was the better player. His talents were such that he won a majority of the time. He rarely lost. Foresight was a certain power with him. He could project his strategy far ahead of my usual tactics. And, to listen to him tell it, that was the natural order of things. The way the world ought to be. So I lost most of the time, and hated him for it.
But the handful of times I would win he would deny and denigrate and pout and change the rules at the last minute. Or he would become so broken down he sulked in silence for days. Or knock over the board and storm off. This is why I wanted to see him crack in public while we watched this particular play. So that in the future, whenever he went into his dramas over a game, I could beat it into his head. Remember the time you cowered like a little boy and soiled your pants because a mere play was too much for you? This would redeem a hundred lost contests.
And the play itself was all rather mundane until the young woman began to mutilate herself. This brought out a whirl of different emotions throughout the audience. To me it seemed gratuitous at first. Too obvious. Oh yes, here is the scene where they mean to shock you. My heavens, the fat suburbanites gasped. How prosaic and expected, I thought. The angelic little face. Joan of Arc deluded. Nonsense. A pathetic attempt to be shocking.
Though it was true, the knife and the scene came out of nowhere. There was no hint that it was about to happen. It revealed the inner struggles of the character that before seemed so light and happy. Yet all the while she was a tortured soul misunderstood by everyone. Who knew, until that moment? Truth to tell, she was a brilliant young actress. You could see how people could take it as real. The bright red stream that ran down her arm didn’t seem to come from inside the knife. You couldn’t see the usual trick of a hidden sack powdered into the color of her skin, punctured by the knife. And there was the distinct smell of hospital in the air. The smell of real blood. Everywhere.
I could sense my friend go a bit rigid next to me. His posture stiffened. He struggled to keep his poise. Tried to hold on until the shock wore off. His resistance was a little impressive. I saw two people beyond him swoon. I took great comfort in this. I was winning.
As soon as I recognized that we were up to the scene where the young man gets shot, I began to calculate. Strange how the mind works. Mathematics and figures below the level of simple awareness. Advanced thought. Angles and curves. Geometry. Probability. Opportunity.
It was the famous scene that so many people said was a real murder. The talk of the town. The event. What every audience waited for every night. The young man on stage leaned against a long rail at the top of a stairway. He poked a hole in a raw egg and sucked the insides down into his mouth. When I saw the gunman appear far upstage of the victim I started a series of involuntary calculations. If it was a real bullet the angle at which the killer would fire would make the perfect ricochet off a wall fixture. One of those comedy and tragedy masks on the wall to the side of the audience. It was just at the correct angle. All the dark figure upstage had to do was shoot two inches to his left. If the bullet bounced off the ancient plaster it would pierce my friend’s temple with its angry heat. It would have been perfect.
My teeth started to grind. My mouth opened wide as I waited for the gunshot. After all, the perfect crime isn’t the one no one was ever arrested for. The perfect crime was the one no one ever knew happened.
The pistol fired. It jumped in the killer’s hand. A cloud of red pus shot out the actor’s chest. A women screamed. The actor fell. My friend made a long, thin smile. His lips were tight and hid his teeth. It all troubled him but he didn’t want to let on. The killer didn’t miss. My friend was still alive.
The scene didn’t seem all that bothersome to me. But I don’t know if it was disappointment that my friend was still alive or not. I put it down to well done special effects and an acrobatic actor with a convincing fall.
It was the end of the first act and I needed two quick drinks to help me enjoy what remained of the play with a bit more personal intensity.
So far I am disappointed, I said as we waited in line. Yes, my friend replied. It’s a great show for the rubes, but I can’t see how this caused such a stir.
We were so proud of our sophistication. So jaded and unaffected compared to all these insignificant people. I could imagine our noses pointed high in the air as we walked away from the bar with drinks in both hands. It was important to us that we appeared so much better than all this.
The foyer lights blinked. We swallowed our drinks and left four empty cups on a seat beneath a bad portrait of someone nobody knew. It was time for the second act.
At the start of the second act police arrested a man in a red coat seated near the front. I couldn’t make out what he’d done. There were four officers. And they pounded him until he went limp and then they dragged him up the aisle. One of the officers pulled a gun from the man’s coat pocket as they passed.
People were nervous after that. The sight of a real gun bothered them. I am not an expert in crowd psychology. But I could sense that this was how hysteria grows. It begins with a certain electric sense in the air. A blanket of unreality. I felt my heart speed. I had to regain my composure. I kept my eye on my companion.
The play seemed disjointed from then on. It was difficult to follow no matter how hard I tried to concentrate. There was a drunken uncle. A Bulgarian fish merchant came in and out for no reason. Someone sold a horse that turned out to be dead. And there were more disturbances in the audience. For a while they seemed to be constant, and someone behind us wondered aloud if these were part of the play. Who could tell? Uniformed police were at every exit at one point. Then a door slammed somewhere backstage. Even the actors on stage jumped at the sound. The police along the wall rushed backstage. There were shouts and what sounded like a struggle somewhere behind the set. The actors shouted their lines so the audience could hear over the commotion.
A beautiful woman entered from stage right. She opened a white box and bats flew out of it. Dozens of them. We could hear their leather wings flutter above us. It was much like when we stood outside in line. My friend flinched. His elbows popped up for a second. A telling reflex, I thought. I enjoyed his unease. Some people still believed bats like to get tangled up in your hair. Their hands covered their heads even if none of the bats were near them. I knew better. My hands never left the armrests of my seat. I was proud of that.
The second act ended soon after the bats. When the house lights went up you could see them hanging from the ceiling. Like sick black drapes tattered by some ancient wind.
Soon enough they’ll start dropping their shit on us from up there my friend said. He was nervous and scanned the ceiling as we went back out into the lobby. Ever smell bat droppings? There is no more vile smell in the world save for penguin rookeries. How do you know what a penguin rookery smells like, I asked. And is ‘rookery’ what they’re called? I don’t know if that’s what they’re called or not, but you knew what I meant didn’t you? I said yes I did. He stared at me. So why question if I’ve used the right word or not? You agreed to understand what I was talking about before you questioned me. I felt heat rush to my brow. I didn’t agree to anything, I complained. I only have to try and interpret some of the stupid things you say, and I guessed right this time. We scowled at each other for a second.
It was competition more than conversation. It was always this way. We ordered more champagne, one for each hand, and didn’t speak the rest of the intermission. He didn’t know if the place where penguins sheltered was a rookery or not. And he didn’t know what they smelled like either. He wasn’t that smart. We watched more faint hearts check out their hats and coats and leave. But we were silent. I hoped the third act would give him a heart attack so he would die.
What was different about the third act wasn’t clear all at once. When the curtain pulled back I heard the drone of an engine somewhere offstage. It started slow and worked itself up to a wild fury. Then it eased back. Then it repeated. Faster. Slower. Over and over. And each time it began to idle I heard a voice The familiar voice of a long dead uncle. One who tormented me when I was a child. The one who thought his tease was entertainment to me. I could smell the exhaust.
But my friend laughed. Not at me. He was oblivious to what I saw. I watched him laugh. He’d wait and listen, and then laugh again. He was watching a comedy. And in the row behind us two women began to sing. They swayed side to side as if singing along with a musical number I couldn’t see.
We all saw something different. And no one reality impinged on another. Each person in what remained of the audience experienced what others did not. The play had divided itself into separate, personal performances.
How did they do it? By hologram or hypnosis? A combination of both? Some trick or power yet unexplained?
Someone down the row wiped away tears. Someone else stood up and shouted. “I do not come to a play to get a lecture on politics,” before he stormed up the aisle and out the theater. Another person shook his fist at the stage. A man and a woman three rows behind started a terrible argument with each other. It was madness.
And all the while the subtle changes in the engine I heard kept on and on. Faster. Slower. Voices I couldn’t make out. Faster. I put my hands over my ears, unable to endure more. My companion stood and clapped his hands with great enthusiasm. As if someone was taking a bow. He shouted the word – Bravo. He was the only person doing this.
The curtain moved like a slow tide and closed before our eyes. The house lights came up. The audience began to withdraw. The air was blue with exhaust and the stink of burnt steel and oil. Acrid. Metallic.
That was a hilarious finish after all, my friend said. He slapped my back as we walked up the aisle. I’m glad we came. Let’s treat ourselves to a drink before we go home. What do you say?
I found myself agreeing. Agreeing to the drink. Agreeing to his explanation of the comical finish he saw. I agreed with all he said because I was no longer certain of what it was I’d seen.
We walked down streets unlit by lamp or window to one of the bleak taverns. The belching exhaust from the factories overhead. Tall brick walls black caked in soot. Such were the times we lived in. Though the sun was up, the thick air swallowed all form.
RW Spryszak‘s surrealist lemmings have briefly died in Slipstream, The Lost and Found Times, Peculiar Mormyrid, Paper Radio, Mallife, Sub Rosa, and a host of other miasmas over the years. He is currently managing editor of Thrice Publishing and is no relation to anything at hand.