“Stage Manager” – Fiction by Rebecca Ann Jordan

GhostLight
Ghost Light on Stage, Photo by Jon Ellwood (c) 2014

Rebecca Ann Jordan‘s “Stage Manager,” one of the short stories from our Spring 2014 Issue, has a delightfully waggish voice, though that doesn’t diminish the eeriness lurking in its wings.

{ X }

EVERY THEATRE HAS A GHOST. Ours has three.

“Stage Manager is a thankless job.” This was from Stage Manager, the man I was currently apprenticed to. “Director gets artistic credit. Actors get the glory. And everyone loves the beautiful set, the lights, the costumes.” He shrugged thin little shoulders and tore purple spike tape with nimble fingers. I was a good head taller than him, with his faerie-red hair and green eyes, and I didn’t yet know the art of tearing spike tape without a pair of scissors, tucked now in my pocket like a rumble knife. “Most people don’t even know there’s such a thing as Stage Manager.”

“So why do you do it?”

“Well,” he said, “someone has to.”

We ate lunch at 8:35 exactly. A chocolate muffin, hot chocolate, and a carton of Cherry Garcia to split. It was his idea. I had no complaints.

“Do you know we have three ghosts in Smothers?”

I didn’t really want to know about it. Nightmares really liked me. “Oh really?” I wanted him to like me, too.

“Yeah.” His pixie eyes lit up. “One is an unwed bride, haunting the stage in her wedding dress because her fiancé jilted her.” I highly doubted the first place a bride-ghost would go would be Smothers Theatre, but I nodded anyway. “The second is a crying baby. You can hear it sometimes, wailing on the catwalk.”

We were back in Smothers, sitting down on stage and alternating between spike tape and ice cream. “You ever heard it?”

“Me? No. But I’ve seen the bride.” He grinned. “The last one is my favorite. The Stage Manager.”

I laughed. “The collective ghost of all the managers jilted from glory and appreciation?”

“Something like that. I usually lock up. First to arrive and last to leave…” He ripped the spike tape and raised it, a toast to me, and I followed him as he eyeballed its placement. “You can hear him clapping.”

I tucked the finished tub of Cherry Garcia under my arm and grabbed the opposite end of the spike tape as he strolled to stage left. “You’re so full of shit.”

Stage Manager smiled. “You’ll see,” was all he said. “You can lock up tonight.”

“No thanks.”

“I mean, I have to go work on Millie.” The other play he was managing. He was determined to get as much opportunity to be forgotten as possible. “Here.” He tossed me the keys.

Maybe I would get one of the stage hands to stay with me afterward. Unfortunately, I believed in ghosts.

{ X }

Director was an endlessly energetic woman. “No, no!” she said, leaping out of her chair and going to skinny Male Lead, who had black eyes and dark hair that he had to constantly push out of his face. “I don’t believe you.”

“I don’t believe me, either.” Male Lead kicked at a box, which I had made with my bare hands, so naturally I was leery of anyone testing its structural integrity.

“You look uncomfortable standing still.”

“I’m restless. I want to roam.”

“Then roam – but for God’s sake, remember Maus.” Director lifted her head to the room at large. “Did everyone read Maus?”

Everyone gave a resounding “Yes,” even though I’ve spent all my time here setting up spike tape and handling machetes and other props, and there was no way I could possibly have had time to read Maus.

Director looked at me and pointed a strong hand. “Assistant.” It was interchangeable with my name. “What, would you say, was one line from Maus you would give to Male Lead to put some fire and brimstone under his ass?”

Everyone looked to me. “Let me look at my notes,” I mumbled, “I wrote it down…” I flipped through the Bible I’d made, an ironic name for our compendium of all Goodness. There were no such notes. What made me think they’d magically appear, I have no idea.

Stage Manager glanced at the Bible, as if curious about my notes. I didn’t even see him slip a line in neat handwriting under my fingertips until I was reading it aloud: “Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… Then you could see what it is, friends!”

“Aha!” Director clapped her hands and rounded on Male Lead. “You see?” She made her fists grind against each other. “There’s the tension. You want to help, but it’s not your job. You want to feel sympathy, but you’re just going to tear her up and spit her out in next week’s newspaper. It’s survival.” She thumped his chest and he took a few steps back. “Let it fuel you! I don’t give a damn where you want to walk on the stage, fucking go there!”

Stage Manager smiled at me. Assistant Stage Manager smiled back.

Stage Manager left rehearsal early because he had to go get ready for Thoroughly Modern Millie. The rest of us huddled around and read the script for the hundred and first time, with directives to read with new eyes; to emphasize new things; to talk about what it means to be in the middle of a genocide, to blindly love evil, to be a person who could both kill and love, to follow orders. Every word had three meanings.

It was 11:38, eight minutes over Stage Manager’s precise schedule, when the Actors left. 11:43 when Director left. 11:59 by the time I’d finished cleaning up. I trundled out onto the stage, grabbed a staff shaped much like a microphone stand, placed it on the appropriate spike tape, and turned the ghost light on.

{ X }

 I was pretty sure that Male Lead liked me. At least, whenever the Actors were goofing off before rehearsal, he would glitter his black eyes at me. I watched his lean body prowl the stage. He stopped to smile at me. My heart almost stopped dead. “Line,” he said. Trying, I assume, to seduce me.

I jerked my attention back to the Bible. “Um… ‘Do you believe in your own death?’ But that wasn’t right, that was Female Lead’s. I tapped my pen to stall for time and said, ‘Were there camps?’”

“Were there camps?” he said, and resumed his prowling.

Director caught me afterward. “This is genocide,” she said, and smacked the back of her hand into her palm. “These are important issues. You have to be paying attention.”

“Just distracted,” I mumbled.

“By what? Is it a boy? Girl? Sex?”

“No,” I said, and started looking like I had somewhere more important than the theatre to be.

“Sex is fun, but not fulfilling!” she called after me, shaking a fist in the air. “You want to feed your soul! Only the theatre can do that!”

“Okay,” I said, and darted to find Stage Manager and leave him with the keys. Actors had gone out drinking and Male Lead had gone with them. I had no intention of being the last to leave today.

For weeks, my dreams were like this: The Playwright, in a play about himself, is being played by Male Lead. He orders us to a board meeting, at which he explains the reasons he has to kill us. And if we don’t go, he will kill our families, too. I say a tearful goodbye to my father. I am dragged back to the board room, where Male Lead points a gun at me and asks me questions: ‘How much do you know about Goodness? Line? How many ghosts are there?’ There is a song: ‘Horiyatsa, Hamuzani waka.’ Actors come to me, mewling for milk, and I give them my breasts, but they’re dry because I haven’t eaten a thing myself. Our ghost-jailors prowl the edges of our prison. Each day they take another one of us out to slaughter.

But I couldn’t avoid the theatre forever. Stage Manager was going into Hell Week for Millie, which meant all former Stage Manager duties were now Assistant Stage Manager duties. I was sweeping the stage, not realizing that an Actor was behind me with a machete in his hands.

“Derek?”

“I found this.” Male Lead held it out lazily, like handing me a pen to sign a contract. “Shouldn’t it be locked in the prop box?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” But there was no Assistant to the Assistant, and no one to pick up the slack if I forgot something. I took the machete and went to lock it up. When I came back, Male Lead had scrammed. I finished sweeping and pulled out the ghost light. At the edge of its dim rays, I thought I saw a white dress shimmying into the dark. And the gentle swish that went with it–though that was probably only my broom.

{ X }

It’s Hell Week. For a theatre like ours, that’s more precisely two weeks of Hell in the scramble to remember what was on the list we started when Director first said, “Let’s worry about that later.” Usually it’s Director who says it, and Stage Manager who does the subsequent worrying.

“Okay, from the top,” Director said, for the three-hundredth and twenty-first time. It was my job to count.

“Ten minutes until we close up,” I piped, watching my watch.

“Ten minutes my ass. We’re staying until I see something I like,” Director said.

Stage Manager winked Irish eyes at me, persistently optimistic. It was going to be a late night.

They sang “Horiyatsa.” It was the song from my nightmares. The Actresses’ voices soared and pitched so high they squalled like babes. “I’m trying to write a play…” Male Lead said. And then “Jesus. But she was –”

Female Lead: Pregnant with his child.

Supporting Actor: Two lives on its points.

Supporting Actress: He was innocent.

Villain: Cut out the disease.

Male Lead: Where’s the damn machete?

That wasn’t in the script. I started to make a line note until I realized that Male Lead was looking at me, and this time it wasn’t for a line.

“Sorry.” I leapt up, forgetting that I’d forgotten to break out the weapons from the locked chest. My foot caught the leg of the card table. It shuddered, a mini earthquake. Director’s water spilled across the Bible.

Supporting Actress shrieked in laughter as Stage Manager stood up and pulled paper towels out of his back pocket, and began mopping up the mess, doing his best to save three months’ worth of careful notes.

Director huffed and puffed. In a way it was a blessing the pages were wet, else they would have been blown down everywhere. “Let’s take a break!”

“Sorry,” said Male Lead.

“My fault.” I gave him a glare to suggest it was anything but my fault. “You don’t even need the machete for five pages.”

“Just following orders.” He handed me his script as a sort of apology. “I took notes.”

“Thanks.” Even though his notes would not be as detailed as the cartography we’d charted and I’d drenched.

Rehearsal didn’t go well. We split apart in a foul mood, wondering if the play would ever be ready in time for the show. At least Stage Manager ran to the store and bought me some Cherry Garcia. He held it out, a second peace offering. “We’ll put it back together.”

“It’ll take all night. I can sort of read some of these notes, but I’ll have to print it out again and re-type all the line notes and re-draw the stage blocking…”

“I’ll sweep, then.”

I ate the ice cream ravenously. “We’ll both sweep.”

The stage has some sort of sacredness when you’re there alone. No Actors and no Audience, only empty pews. I mean seats. We didn’t break it with jokes, just breathed in the dust, the rotting curtain’s mold, the lines that seemed to stick to the walls.

“There,” Stage Manager said. “Hear that?”

I stopped sweeping. At first I thought it was an Actor who had stuck around to practice vocals, singing “Szerelem, szerelem, átkozott gyötrelem,” but the voice was wordless. A baby crying.

We grinned at each other. I pretended that  I liked impending nightmares. “I have to go print. You finish up,” I said, and ran out of the theatre.

 { X }

Opening night comes when you least expect it. The house was packed. Thrilled, everyone in the company had invited their friends for this ground-breaking performance.

At 5:05 I swept the stage and set the props, yes, even the machete.

At 6:10 the doors opened.

At 7:03 Male Lead said, “I’m trying to write a play…”

“Do you believe in your own death?” Female Lead said at 8:25.

I hadn’t got Cherry Garcia that day, which turned out to be a mistake, because I was an emotional wreck, crying in the dark. There was no reason for it; the play was going stupendously. “Szerelem,” they sang. It was lucky I had no Assistant to the Assistant, because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I was sure Stage Manager heard me, but he did not look at me, only peered through the wings as the lines moved wordlessly on his lips and Actors called them out like ventriloquists’ dolls.

“What did you think?” I snuck out to the lobby to ask this of Roommate, to whom I’d eagerly given my one comp ticket. The play was a success; only two and a half lines forgotten but quickly improvised, no props missed, Actors prowled as the spirit moved them.

Roommate smiled blankly. “It was a nice play,” she said.

“Nice?” I laughed. “I don’t think ‘nice’ is the right word for it.”

Roommate was a very Nice sort of person. Everything she did was Nice. So she smiled, nodding, and said, at length, “I don’t think I’m smart enough to get it.”

“You don’t have to be smart.” It was probably an offensive thing to say to one’s Roommate. “What did you feel?”

“Sad, I guess.”

Nice and Sad. After three months of hard labor, of nightmares and emotional exhaustion, it was what our play had equaled.

“Congratulations!” Director boomed. She was beaming as she slapped me between the shoulders. “Without a hitch. What do you think of that trial scene? Especially good tonight.”

“Yes. It was nice.”

I didn’t wait for everyone to leave to start cleaning up. Let them take it as a hint. The machete went last, back into its box.

“I have to go do Millie,” Stage Manager said, apologetically.

“This late?”

“Only time to do it.”

He hugged me and I was left to sweep alone. In an attempt to stave off sleep, when nightmares would come, I dragged my feet about it. I even mopped the stage and took out the machete again to polish it, marked line notes for the Actors and re-taped the spike tape that had come up, torn by their heels. Finally I dragged the ghost light out and flicked it on. It must have been the wrong switch or a faulty wire connected to the sound board, because slow applause punctuated the thick theatre air. It was a good sound, and I stopped to listen.

{ X }

RebeccaJordan-21REBECCA ANN JORDAN is a speculative fiction author in San Diego. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex. With poetry and flash pieces in Yemassee Magazine, Bravura Literary Journal and more, Becca regularly columns for DIYMFA.com. She believes in ghosts, bad dreams, and dance-magic. Quibble with her @beccaquibbles.

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