Behind the Curtains

As the grays softened, the whisper of leaves in a tune of the wind’s breath (cold but unafraid), Cal’s questions mellowed and he noted the facts: He was still alive. He was in a tree (but on boards)… house. The sun seemed to think it was either morning or evening. His shoes were still on. His clothes were not pajamas.

He looked down at his pants and remembered when he put them on. Brown khakis that had a mirage of corduroy. He noticed that they were carefully rolled up, something he did at times to avoid mud or dust. Noteworthy, as he found signs of neither on his shoes. The subject was cut short as he looked at his chest. A crewneck? He didn’t own one because they made him feel too early-90s. Also, he certainly would have remembered owning anything with this crewneck’s adage: Complete and Total Bullshirt, above a crude drawing of a bull. To top it off, the sweatshirt was at least one size too small. His mind was awake enough by now to find placement for some of the pieces, but the picture overall remained a mystery. Like the caption (“Is the fact that it’s a crewneck self-fulfill the bullshit part of calling itself ‘bullshirt’?”). Also, there was folded paper in his hand.

He held up the letter, opened it, and the script’s fingerprint alone sharpened the focus. His cousin Dave had written it because Dave had recently begun treating mailed letters like they were the newest form of social media. Cal got one every three months or so, full of random facts about members of that side of the family. Each letter read so much like a soap opera that Cal often wondered how much of it was even true.

This letter here though, he was about to recall, was different. Something dark and mysterious. He read it again, finding a memory gain purchase with every word. There was a kidnapping about a week ago, here in the city, and Dave was curious if the victim had been one of Cal’s friends. Cal thought it funny that Dave, having never lived in a city, didn’t realize that shit like that happened every day. It was like trying to recognize a specific pinch of sand on a beach. Still, something about it unsettled Cal now, but he couldn’t tell why. Maybe that was one of his blank spots.

He started thinking while his right hand (having replaced the letter to his pocket) reached up and felt the scar on his head, etched across a bald canvas. He didn’t even have to use make-up anymore to cover it up (something he had impressed members of his support group with). The blackouts were also becoming more and more scarce. Now they mainly came beneath a certain brand of stress. After which he’d be left with whole segments of the past ground to dust—which he’d then spend at least half a day trying to shape back to something he recognized.

He sat up and looked down at the crewneck again, wondering what day it was. It felt like Sunday, but that was only because his last memory was of a Saturday, when it had finally rained. Then he’d gone out to meet someone, and he scratched at who that had been. He didn’t even try on any familiar faces, as he knew it was someone new.

Like his phone had been waiting to answer a question, it grumbled against the floorboards next to him. He picked it up. Calendar Invite: Group meeting. Leave at 11:30am to arrive on time.

He felt a weight being lifted from his chest.

“Okay, cool,” he whispered. “Only lost a day,” because self-narratives spoke to the only person he knew who really understood. He glanced at his watch (which he was relieved to see was still there and presumably accurate). It was 10, and probably AM as the world outside had already lost shadows. “Psh, you got this,” he said to his self-audience as he stood up to explore his sense of direction.

The first thing he noticed outside was the dry ground, so it was amply beyond the last Saturday he remembered. Walking to the house out front he saw the dead windows behind a For Sale sign and it eased him a little bit. To discover the forgotten is second only to being forgotten yourself. The whole neighborhood seemed like it was waiting for someone to arrive, and Cal figured this must be what his own block looked like on weekday afternoons. And Sundays of allegedly pious neighborhoods, when everyone was at church. He saw his Pinto parked a few houses down and climbed aboard, relieved to notice that the keys were still in his pocket. Looking just as he last remembered it, his car’s interior provided no clues. His Pins of Light cassette was still in the tape deck.

He made it to the meeting at 11:15 and saw some regulars orbiting the coffee pots. One or two he’d even been with back at the recovery ward, close to a year ago by now. As he took inventory of the usual suspects, he saw a girl (he didn’t quite recognize) who was watching him, and a memory tried to surface. Nothing. Still, he made an involuntary step toward her and she drilled her eyes into his. She put her right pointer in front of her closed lips that seemed intent not to smile. Then she turned away, leaving a wake of her coffee’s steam. It was always kinda funny to see people he didn’t recognize at these meetings, but after seeing that girl, he now looked more carefully at the attendants: beyond the new faces, he felt a strange and careful vibe upon those whom he did.

As he sat in the circular formation with everyone else, his eyes kept meandering back to the Mysterious Shusher. Judy said hi to everyone, always being so nice, and Cal couldn’t tell if he had just imagined her double take on him. It made him take out his phone and check what he had assumed, the day. He was wrong. It was actually Sunday, not Tuesday. This made him feel a familiar nudge of having caught the wrong train. As he took the time to gather his inventory during Judy’s monologue, he noticed again the odd flavor to the make-up of the attendees. They seemed more curated. No mumu lady; no Jim who reminded Cal of one of his dad’s friends; no So & So, nor Such & Such. Though that fog was cleared as Judy dove on in:

“I know we are all really excited. We just need to be patient. I’d like to use today to go over each of our duties. Round-robin, starting with me: As you know, I have been appointed stage manager and have been training many of you as my stagehands. None of the actors know our intentions, as they often tend to forget that we even exist or have any say in how well a stage production turns out. Uh-hm. That aside, as the play opens, I’ll be going over the vibe of the attendants. Seeing what they notice. More importantly, what they don’t. I’ll report back the following Thursday and we’ll go from there. Every time we meet up at the theater to fine-tune the lights, props, et cetera, I will be filling all present in on what the general focus will work best as. Oh, also, as we draw closer to opening night, while I’ll be working at the theater to get everything set up with the lighting and props and so on, I’ll constantly be going over some possible ruse with whoever is present and involved.

“I’ll pass it on from there. Again, we’re being very general today, mmkay? Let’s go clockwise. Joslin?”

Cal listened to them take turns. They illustrated nights in which they would attempt to convince an audience that Drake’s Theater (where they had originally been having their meetings before the theater’s latest production began rehearsals) was haunted. A way to stir the momentum of a conversation and the newest plan to help revive the city’s interest in live theater. Cal was quickly reminded that a lot of those who attended these meetings had been victims of the Big Stadium Collapse last year, and were avid theater-goers. Since then, the already faded portrait of theater attendance had really been gasping. Cal’s interest gained girth as the plans materialized and he was getting more and more excited to be a part of this. Still, he had yet to jog the specifics of his involvement. And that Shusher kept looking at him.

Then it came her turn to speak. She looked right at Cal.

“As some of you may not realize, the Big Stadium Collapse affected me terribly, as my mother was one of its victims. All the more so, because she had been laid off at Drake’s just before that, and if the theater had been making as much money as it deserves, she would be alive today.” She began glancing generally about the group. “I’ve volunteered to be part of the production company, and help with the play’s predominant scene changes. Which had been my mother’s forte. I’ve been at every stagehand rehearsal working on scene and costume shifts. The most important of which will take place during Act Two, Scene Two, as the setting goes into The Cave. In addition to my more subtle touches throughout, this will be the one that is sure to get heads turned and mouths moving.” She again looked Cal in the eye and he tried to seem like he completely understood. “Cal here,” she said, “will be my assistant.”

A few moments passed before Judy coerced. “Details please, Andie.” Andie, Cal thought. That’s right. Andie. With an I and an E. Andie looked from person to person and Cal noticed she didn’t include him. Then Andie said, “I will be—we will be placing stink bombs in the cushions of The Cave’s couch so that as the actors, namely Peter and Meredith, take their seats, they are apt to make subtle distinctions in their faces, being the mediocre actors that they are. Then, Cal will go down to the boiler room and turn up the thermostat. We’ll pay close attention to the audience and the actors, each with their own type of discomfort. When the time is right, Cal will go out to the lobby and turn on the AC before returning to the basement to turn off the heat. I will then spritz perfume into the ducts. By then the stink bomb will have drifted out to the audience and the combination of that and the perfume is sure to create a nausea and a reflected focus, in both the actors and the crowd. I’ll also be making laps on the outskirts, each time wearing a new face and costume, and remaining just within the crowd’s periphery, to make it clear that I am not part of the show’s production.”

Cal noticed himself wondering if this was maybe just the second half of a dream, from which he only thought he’d awakened in the treehouse. Maybe his head was still just churning the silk. Then he pinched his leg, because confirming a cliché helped. That was when he noticed the man next to him. The man was acting like someone who knew there was one to three ants crawling around beneath his clothes. The man would scratch his turns, from a shoulder (take a rest), then to a calf (another rest), scalp (again), tummy (and so on). A rotation that may have felt invisible so long as the epicenter kept moving. Then it faded when Andie was done talking.

When it came time for this fidgeter to speak, he worked it in general poetics that seemed to make sense to Cal, who also ignored the fact that he kinda had zero idea what the man’s task would actually be. All that stuck for Cal was that the man’s name was Roger.

Then it was Cal’s turn to speak.

“Hi, um. So…” he decided to recite the Cliff Notes of Andie’s speech and his own reflections. “I am new to the group and have yet to fine-tune my sonata—um. Yeah. I’ll be compiling with Andie in hers. Less a sonata than a masterpiece really. I’ll be a single violin in her concerto.” The eyes upon him seemed to be bobbing for sense. He looked at Andie though, and her expression reminded him of a boulder telling a pebble to shut the fuck up. “But yeah, I’ll be helping in the Stink Bug Drop Op before getting on Thermostat Detail. I’ll also help Andie in her costume exchanges.” Again, looking over at Andie’s expression he felt it clear that he’d somehow put his foot in it.

The meeting ended and everyone meandered. Cal saw Andie once, then was accosted by Jeff (who had been at the rehab clinic with Cal last year). Cal tolerated the conversation, then when he looked back, Andie was gone. He noticed The Fidgeter had vanished as well. Huh, he thought. Guess I’ll find out the plan at the next meeting? He left feeling thankful that no one seemed to take note of his crewneck.

He drifted through a couple more meetings, still trying to assume a better understanding of Andie, and becoming more and more acquainted with mental narratives that had her as the star. She would look at him in ways that he could never describe, and he came down with what he regarded as Boners of Terror. When he would go to bed, he’d feel the cloak of nighttime hide him from all but her lustful form. He also noticed, on the two times when they had gone over their Stage Hand rehearsals, that she seemed pretty chummy with the man who wouldn’t stop discovering himself the other day, the man named Roger. Cal was having a tough time figuring out what exactly Roger’s duties were, as he never seemed to take part in any of the actual scene change rehearsals, but he would always have a few words with Andie before vanishing. Cal assumed the guy went into the bathroom to jack off whenever he was done speaking to her. An alibi that checked out to Cal. Either way, as Cal worked to make sense of his own involvement in this Fake Ghost Plan, it all technically found ground. But there often seemed to be one other thing on Andie’s mind—something she assumed that Cal knew, but refused to directly address. He hoped they had had some sordid love affair on the night he had blacked out, and the tension from it all was why he had lost himself, really. Maybe it was after opening night when they would finally be able to admit to Self-Groper that Cal and Andie planned on running away together.

Then, opening night arrived, and it was time to see.

He put on the pants that he had woken up in that morning in the tree house, the brown ones. They seemed appropriate to wear. They had been like a fragrance that remained from his blackout and he left them preserved in a heap in front of his hamper. The Total Bullshirt crewneck, on the other hand, he had given to a homeless man who looked small enough to wear it comfortably.

Cal made his way over to Drake’s Theater. The time had come. The stagehands all ran around, making final touches on the props they had arranged last night, sharing glimpses beyond the shoulders of any actors with whom they tested and placed the props. Cal felt like another bee in a swarming hive, function to their chaos. He and Andie had the actors Peter and Meredith find each of their specific spots on the couch, where Andie then placed single strips of Scotch Tape. Cal noticed that Andie was avoiding his eyes so he did the same. Before long, the hum of the crowd could be heard and it was time to part the curtains.

Cal had never been a part of a play’s gear-works. He loved dressing in his all-black outfit tonight and seeing the mechanics churn behind the curtains. The Fake Haunting involvement brought a whole new face to it, and excited him. Especially when it came time to make their extraordinary moves. He and Andie had been tossing both scarves and glitter from various deposits of darkness and he would always notice at least one head turn in the crowd. Then came their opus: They placed an unholy amount of Stink Bombs beneath the taped spots on the couch cushions, and pulled it out onto the stage. Andie nodded to him and whispered, “To the boiler room.” Her lips and breath gestured against the tiny hairs on his ear.

He went down to the boiler room to turn up the heat, and the first thing he saw made him stop in his tracks, soundtracked scarcely by the play’s happenings above. It was Roger, The Fidgeter, also dressed all in black. He stood beside a box full of costumes that Cal assumed would be used by Andie as she began making her strides down the aisles in a bit. But beside that was a girl, sitting, confused and afraid. Cal felt like he was seeing the lost scene of a movie he thought he knew well. All he could do for a beat or two was look and try to process the ciphered scene that only a dormant lobe of his mind understood. Then he moved, trying to look natural, to the thermostat, and turned up the heat.

Roger watched him and it was clear to Cal that Roger was testing his wherewithal. Cal simply nodded to him as he passed. “We doing this,” was all Cal could think to say, having seen a good amount of crime dramas. Roger simply nodded. Cal’s eyes went to the girl, who was looking at him. She had urgency in her face and two words materialized in Cal’s mind: the kidnapping. Just then, he watched her mouth the words “your cuff,” carefully. He blinked at her and went back up to the lobby, where he saw Andie.

“What the fuck took you so long?” she rasped at him.

“Nothing. We’re on point,” he said, still assuming she thought he knew what the hell was going on. Then she rushed downstairs.

Cal looked down at the cuff of his pants. They were still rolled up as he had noted when he woke in the treehouse, and he bent down to find a folded piece of paper within, just as the aroma of Stink Bomb was flitting about his nose. He opened it and read, feeling like Dorothy as she steps from black and white to color. Here it was: the letter was from the girl downstairs. Her name was Rosa and she was who Cal’s uncle had written about. The girl who was kidnapped. She had spoken with Cal the night he blacked out. Andie and Roger had kidnapped her to get the town talking. It was she whom they were to dress up in different costumes to go up and down the aisles, not Andie. Then, after the audience had seen her, Cal was expected to help slay Rosa and dump her in the theater, to be found tomorrow. Cal’s duty was applying makeup on the girl to make her seem like she’d been dead since back when she was first kidnapped. He touched the scar on his head, where he’d so impressed the support group with his make-up application.

He turned the letter over and saw, written in his own hand: Cal, you’re probably going to black this shit out cause it’s super gnarly. But don’t let it happen. Rosa is amazing. You’re both in love and you didn’t know it until you started helping these goons with the kidnapping. It happened over the course of a single night, but be aware. She’s the one. Don’t let them kill her. Andie and Roger both be cray-zay. Andie will go backstage to prepare Rosa’s planted spot. When she does, go down to the boiler room and SAVE THAT GIRL!



            Just then, Cal watched as Andie wisped by, her eyes on him as he tried to exude that he knew what to do and when to do it, according to her plans. She vanished past the backstage door. Cal crept down to the boiler room and saw Roger putting the finishing touches on Rosa’s costume, preparing to lead her to the theater’s lobby. Roger looked over at Cal with surprise, and Cal moved before there was a chance for the waves to calm. He bent and grabbed the mop that leaned against the doorway, then shoved the muddied tendrils in Roger’s face. “Ugh, What the fuck?!” Roger managed, trying to swipe the mop away. Cal saw Rosa stepping away from them both. Beneath the drapes of confusion, she remerged, now holding a ukulele from the costume box. She smashed its body against the floor and shoved the shard of its neck into Roger’s throat, all in one motion. Cal then pushed the mop into his face with enough fury to send him toppling, his gasps singing their finale behind a falling curtain of blood. Rosa grabbed Cal’s hand and they rushed upstairs.

They didn’t even stop to see if Andie was coming. They simply ran outside and Cal lead her to his Pinto, opening the door for her. As she slipped inside he started to say, “No encore for them,” but Rosa interrupted: “Here she comes!” Gesturing back towards the theater, where Andie was emerging.

Cal jumped in, throwing the car in reverse and stomping on the gas. He heard a muffled thump followed by a crash of bushes behind them. He looked in the rearview and saw Andie laying against the foliage, eyes closed. “Let’s go to the cop shop and explain ourselves,” he said to Rosa. She simply smiled and nodded.

“We’re gonna be okay,” he said, speeding off into the night. “I know,” she said, and he tried not to look too startled as her hand found his. “I probably won’t remember much of this, if anything at all. I can tell by my heart beat.”

“I know,” Rosa said. He looked over at her as she then said, “I’ll tell you what happened in the morning.” She smiled and laid a head on his shoulder.

After a few minutes, she looked out the window and said, “I think I just saw a homeless guy wearing my Total Bullshirt crewneck.”