Chapter 9 - Saving Sneaky Fitch


October, 1981

It's dark and it's musty. I'm dressed like a cowboy.

I'm surrounded by whispers and black curtains. Flashes of color. My knees buckle, but I catch myself before they give out completely. Yellowish bubbles of light obscure my vision, and my stomach does a slow roll under my fringed leather vest. The orbs of yellow dissolve into the darkness around me, and I hear the distant, fading echo of birdsong.

There's the low hum of a crowd somewhere to my left, and in front of me is a dimly lit stage. There's a heavy blue curtain on one side and a backdrop painted like downtown Dodge City to the right. Cardboard cacti are scattered in between. Someone whispers in my ear:

"Fifteen minutes!"

The play.

I'm in a mother-fucking play.

---

As the light and the birdsong fades, the hum of the audience grows from the other side of the velvety blue curtain, and I sneak over, edge my way through the 10 other cast members struggling for a peek, and place my left eye over a frayed hole in the curtain. Someone beside me trips over their cowboy boots, and we all scramble to grab a flailing limb as the curtain puffs outward toward the audience, his toy cap gun bounces onto the gymnasium floor, and a chorus of "SHHHHHHHHHHHs" erupts that is louder than the clattering gun. Then another, louder chorus shushing the original shush. 

I can hear Scott through the curtain as we drag our cast mate to safety and the stage manager rushes to retrieve the wayward pistol, but I can't find him or mom or dad when I peek through the hole. Debi and Tami are at college. They haven't come home this weekend. I'd give anything to film the performance and show it to them later, but such technology doesn't exist. Not for this. There is a camera tucked away in the back of the library, but its use is reserved for more important things. Football and basketball games. Wrestling matches. There's endless footage of me sitting on the bench or standing on the sidelines while my team mates play their games, but no record at all of what I do best beyond a few grainy still photos.  I've joined the yearbook staff to make sure they're prominently featured.

Scott's excited voice echoes through the packed gym: "Dah!" and "huh-huh-ha!" I can picture his enthusiastic gestures toward the stage. I pray that he stays enthusiastic. That he doesn't get frustrated. That he doesn't "throw a fit." A fit would remove both him and my father from the audience, probably for the rest of the performance, as they struggle through the crowd and out to the lobby or the car or some other quiet place where my brother can more discretely express his frustration in the only way he knows how while dad restrains him to keep him from hurting himself.

He's getting too big to restrain, and dad isn't getting any younger. And I won't be able to leave the stage to help, as I've had to do increasingly at home and in stores and in restaurants.

I wish they would have gotten grandma to watch him, though I know he wants to be here.

I wish he could talk. I wish we would have continued to teach him sign language beyond the bare minimum of "Tree" and "Train" and "Bird." Those are things he says when he's happy. Maybe I should take it upon myself to teach him. He could have learned it. Instead, he has no good way of telling us when he's not happy. No way to make us understand what we can do to help him. And his frustration inevitably erupts into rage as wide-eyed bystanders struggle not to stare and point and whisper and his screams fade into the distance as I glare at them defiantly, daring them to say something.

"It's not his fault," I think to myself as I pull away from the curtain. "He'll be fine." Another whisper in my ear: "Ten minutes!" And I reach for my Walkman. Time for one or two songs to clear my head. I place the soft, foamy headset over my ears and thumb the play button. It's an old mix tape made for me by D. 

D should be here, I think. D would have known what to say. Though he never would have shut up about how we should be doing Shakespeare.

I miss D.

I wish I could see him again.

I sit on the floor and lean back against blue and white rolled-up wrestling mats as D's music blasts into my ears. It's a rebellious-sounding song, an oddly comforting song, a song I know well by an artist I can't identify, a song about flirting with disaster.

I close my eyes and move my lips to sing along.

---

It's only 4 years earlier that D first introduces me to Shakespeare. Actually, my English teacher introduces me to it. D merely explains it to me. Or tries to.

It's the only time I can remember any mention of Shakespeare in my junior high/high school career, and it can't possibly compete with the sci-fi and Stephen King that makes up the bulk of my personal reading time. I refuse, as a matter of principle, to enjoy anything that I've been ordered to read for school. If it's been assigned to me, it's homework, and homework is not enjoyable. Those are the rules.

I will later re-think these rules when I'm assigned "To Kill a Mockingbird" - flexibility is the Seventh Most Important Thing - but for now A Midsummer Night's Dream lives firmly in the world of homework and is therefore an unwelcome distraction from The Shining.

It's also incomprehensible.

As overjoyed as D is to learn that I've been assigned Shakespeare, he's also disappointed at the play that they've chosen.

"There's so many better ones," he complains.

"They would have to be," I reply. He throws his pencil at me and I block it with my book.

"And Cliff's Notes is cheating," he says, practically recoiling at the sight of the yellow and black cover.

"She said we could use it." I pull it away before he can take it from me.

"Yeah, you can, but you're supposed to read the actual play as well," he says.

"I will."

"Yeah. Right."

"I WILL!"

"Mm-hm..." He can't take his eyes off the Cliff's Notes behind my back.

I do read it.

Slowly.

But I might as well be reading the phone book. D's enthusiastic explanations help, but only when I'm actually listening. He's too happy to get me away from comic books to notice if I'm listening or not. His jealousy when he finds out my class is traveling to Lincoln to see a professional touring company perform the play is so all-encompassing that I wish there was a way I could send him in my place.

"I want to hear everything about it," he says before I leave.

He doesn't speak to me for 3 days when I tell him I fell asleep 15 minutes into it.

"You're a writer," he says to me when he finally deigns to speak at all, "and an actor."

"I did the talent show once," I correct him.

"You're an actor. And a writer," he insists. "You can't hate Shakespeare."

"Well, there's a first time for everything."

He looks at me like I've just refused a case of chocolate Nehi, and we study in silence for a bit as he shakes his head

"You're going to love it," he says, finally breaking the silence.

"I am?"

"Just wait."

I laugh at the thought of it. "OK. When?"

"Just wait," he says, nodding and ignoring me.

"OK. I'm waiting, What if I don't live that long?"

"Just wait," he says again. "You can't hate Shakespeare."

And that's his final word on the subject.

---

I punch the stop button and remove my headphones as the song finishes and the stage manager approaches holding up five fingers.

Five minutes.

Pre-show music fills the gymnasium on the other side of the curtain as I stash my Walkman behind the mats and make one more check of my costume and props. Old-fashioned saloon music mingles with the murmur of the crowd and Scott's excited interjections. It's music that seems wrong somehow as it springs from the fingers of our prim church organist.

One more peek through the hole. Someone slaps me on the back. "Good luck!" they stage whisper, and I wince. You're not supposed to say that.

"Break a leg," I mutter under my breath.

The activity around me has doubled. The final pre-show song nears its end. I hear at least three shouts of "shit! I enter from the other side!" followed by a clamor of running boots. I jump up and down in the wings as the curtain raises and the first line is flubbed. I wait... and wait... I goes more smoothly as they  get rolling... and wait... and wait...

And I finally make my entrance.

---

The stage and gym during play practice are like a warm, welcoming embrace. Like a home that I'm only allowed to live in for a month each year. I spend that month lounging on the wrestling mats swilling endless Pepsi from the vending machine, memorizing lines, and waiting for my turn to go onstage. The play this year is The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch. Starring me. It's a western, it's a comedy, it's got a touch of drama. And I get to die. Twice. It's my dream role, and I can't wait to start. But two events make this year's rehearsals more eventful than those of the past.

This year, in addition to the music teacher, there's an "assistant director" - the fifth grade teacher. I suppose this is because I've talked them into doing a straight play for the first time in years, and the music teacher's not as confident in her non-musical skills But while it's certainly true that none of us really know what we're doing when it comes to theatre, the fifth grade teacher obviously knows even less. Her input makes no sense, and I have no problem telling her so, all of which culminates in me walking out of rehearsal one night after yelling that she's stupid, and flipping her off as I leave.

I blame the lingering influence of D.

There is, of course, a visit with the principal the next day. My mom has been summoned. The Clueless One is in attendance. And there is much contrition and shameful head-bowing on my part throughout her endless airing of grievances and the stern head-nodding of the principal. Finally, as we exit the office, mom puts her hand on my shoulder, leans in close to me as we walk, and whispers "I would've flipped her off too." I return to class with the reassuring feeling that, if he could, the principal would have said the same thing.

There's a silently agreed-upon distance between she and I throughout the rest of the rehearsal process, and for the most part I'm able to restrain my unwelcome commentary.

I do not, however, follow any of her direction, I refuse to let her presence ruin the experience, and rehearsals continue pretty much as they always have.

Until the night I'm almost shot by a sheriff as I'm walking home.

It's a Wednesday night. I'm leaving the school with another cast mate. We have our cap guns out and we're engaged in a running shoot-out from either side of the street when a sheriff's car rounds the corner and skids to a stop several feet away from me, lights spiraling overhead. Our town is too small for a police force, but the county sheriffs roll through fairly regularly. This one is currently bursting out of his cruiser and crouching defensively behind the car door with his hand on his pistol.

"PUT IT DOWN!" he shouts. We stop and stare.

"What?" I finally say.

"PUT IT DOWN!" he repeats.

"What?"

"THE GUN! PUT IT DOWN! PUT IT DOWN!!"

My brain is still several steps behind.

"This?" I finally say, raising my cap gun. There's a long, red ribbon of used caps protruding from the top.

"PUT IT DOWN! PUT IT DOWN! PUT IT DOWN!" He crouches lower behind the door, and I see his right elbow raise. I put it down. "BACK AWAY!" I look around. My cast mate has somehow escaped, so he must be talking to me. I back away.

"STAY RIGHT THERE!"

"OK."

"RIGHT THERE!"

"OK."

He approaches slowly, his pistol half out of its holster. He nudges my gun with his toe.

"It's a cap gun." I volunteer.

"Quiet!" He nudges it again. Picks it up.

"See?" I ask. "Those are caps. It's a cap gun. We're doing a western." I say, indicating the school building. He doesn't look like he knows what "doing a western" might entail, exactly.

"Yeah, well..." he says, replacing his own gun and hesitantly handing mine back to me. "Well... you can get in a lot of trouble with those things," he admonishes sternly, but he won't look me in the eye.

"OK," I say. He considers my cap gun for another moment, rechecks his own gun, then silently returns to his cruiser, shuts the door, and drives away around the corner without looking at me. I watch him go, I spin the pistol on my finger and fire a couple of "shots" into the air once he's out of sight, and I turn to walk home. It occurs to me as I walk that I was never afraid the whole time he was shouting orders and grabbing at his holster.

Of course I wasn't, I think.

There are more dangerous things than a confused sheriff with a loaded gun.

---

But now I'm on stage, I'm in the lights, sweat is running into my eyes and blinding me, and the audience is laughing in all the right places. Scott has enjoyed himself with the exception of some worried exclamations the first time I "die."

He finds it hilarious, however, when I come back to life.

It's the second act now, and the action is coming to a head. I've terrorized the town enough it seems, and it's time for the final showdown. I face off with the hero, and we wiggle our fingers menacingly over our holsters. The music swells. We draw. There are five or six impotent clicks before the hero's cap gun finally pops meekly, and I fall to the stage, mortally wounded.

And all hell breaks loose from the audience.

"NAH! NAH! NAH!" Scott yells. I can see him now through slitted eyes as I lay dead at the front of the stage. They're on the far left side of the audience, strategically close to a side entrance. I see a flurry of action as dad restrains him and mom shushes, but Scott won't have it. He's moving toward the stage, moving toward me, screaming and spitting. The rest of the cast soldiers on, trying to ignore the mayhem in front of them. Dad finally gets a good grip around Scott's waist and begins dragging him toward the exit as Scott continues to scream "NAH! NAH! NAH!" They make it through the door, the sound becomes muffled, but they continue to struggle as the show comes to an end and the lights go down to the distracted applause of the audience. I lie there, waiting for them to come back up. Waiting for the curtain call. The left side of my face is cool against the stage floor. With my right ear I hear Scott continue to fight as they finally exit into the evening air. 

And I smile.

I'm suddenly unsure whether the lights are up or down, but I make my move to stand as yellowish blobs obscure my vision, and from somewhere a chorus of birdsong fills the room. The audience spirals in front of me, and I feel myself pulled into it, but I'm not alarmed. I'm relaxed. I dive forward.

If there's one thing I've learned through the years, I think, it's that Scott will always have my back.

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Next:
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Chapter 10

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