Focus

Another tournament tomorrow, an E and Under. Goal this time is to maintain focus, something I have yet to master.

So many distractions — doubt about abilities, anxiety over results, anger at minor inconveniences. All overreactions caused by my heightened emotions, as was my response last tournament, which was to act like a goofball.

Tomorrow, I just want to fence. Focus on doing what I can on strip, and forgetting about all the other nonsense.

Doubt? It is the execution, not the outcome, that matters. If I execute properly, it does not matter if I land the touch or make the parry.

Anxiety? Tomorrow’s results will not determine my future in this sport. Win some or not at all, I’ll be back at practice next week, and enter the next local E and Under.

Anger? If I make a mistake that causes a setback, or something happens beyond my control, don’t react personally. Apologize, shrug your shoulders, then move on.

Tomorrow is supposed to be a happy day, a time to enjoy participating in this fantastic sport. If I can say that I had a good time fencing, that will be a victory.

Chapter 5 – January 8B

A third, fourth actor walked onto the stage, The Bird instantly recognizing the third as Mitch Saunders, who had played a role in a Moliere production her mother had been in that summer.

Welcome, Horatio.

Has this thing appeared again tonight?

I have seen nothing.

“What are they talking about?” Annie directed a harsh, quite shhhh at Butch, as Rune urged him to just keep watching.

A dramatic piano cord sounded over the loudspeakers, as another actor, dressed in armor with head uncovered, walked on from stage right. The Bird had never seen this actor before.

Look where it comes again!

In the same figure like the King that’s dead!

“So that’s Hamlet?”

“No, that’s the king.”

“Oh! So he’s a ghost?”

“Yes, Butch.”

“So how come he doesn’t look like a ghost?”

A pained groan, which not even The Bird could avoid, rippled through the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team.  Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, tapped Butch on the shoulder. “Perhaps you should just watch for a while.”

Mitch/Horatio rushed at the unfamiliar actor playing the Ghost. Stay, illusion; if thou hast any sound or use of voice, speak to me. The sound of a rooster’s crowing blared over the speakers; the Ghost turned, left the stage, followed by the other actors after a brief exchange of dialog.

The stage lights dimmed for a scene change. Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, whispered in Butch’s ear. “You get all that?” Butch nodded, The Bird seeing in his eyes the same confusion he exhibited most times during fencing practice. Mr. Jacobs leaned back, and Annie leaned over towards him, The Bird making out the words in her rushed whisper.

“This is going to be a long night, isn’t it?”

Mr. Jacobs tilted his head back, opened his mouth for a silent laugh.

Chapter 5 – January 8A

The lights on the back wall dimmed, along with the overhead lights in the theater. Music played softly through the loudspeakers as the stage lights dimmed, then faded as the stage brightened in dark blue light.

From either side, an actor walked onto the stage, their faces barely visible.

Who’s there?, called the actor on the left side of the stage.

Nay, answer me, demanded the actor on the right. Stand and unfold yourself. The Bird recognized this actor’s voice, but not having been to any of this performance’s rehearsals, she could not make a sure identification.

Long live the King!

Barnardo?

He.

You come most carefully upon your hour. The Bird nodded — Mr. Erickson, an accountant in the city. Did the family’s taxes.

‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.

“What’s going on?” Sitting in the row in front of The Bird and to her right, Butch sounded just as confused as when straining to understand an instruction given by Coach — Mr. Jacobs — during fencing practice.

“Those are guards,” Mr. Jacobs explained in a sharp whisper, as the scene continued onstage. “There at Els — a castle, in Denmark.”

“And their king’s just been killed,” Rune added, “so everybody in Denmark’s a little on edge.”

“Oh!” The Bird saw Butch’s shoulders relax.

Chapter 5 – January 7E

The Bird felt the slap of paper against her leg. “Sorry,” Annie called, quickly grabbing the program she had dropped. The Bird couldn’t remember the company giving out programs for dress rehearsals before — they must have prepared them just for the students. She looked down, read the program, if for no other reason than to recognize names of friends, or at least her mother’s friends, from earlier productions:

THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET
by William Shakespeare

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark — DAVID MOSES
Claudius, King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle — HENRI FOUCAULT
The Ghost of the late king, Hamlet’s father — STEPHEN JACOBSON
Gertrude, the Queen, Hamlet’s mother, now wife of Claudius — JANET WERNICK (The Bird always found it odd that Gertrude, the role her mother always seemed to play, was listed after The Ghost, despite being in more scenes and having more lines)
Polonius, councilor of State — WAYNE KASS
Laertes, Polonius’ son — E.J. HILDEBRANDT
Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter — SARA PHILIPS
Horatio, friend and confidant of Hamlet — NICHOLAS RATKIEWICZ

Chapter 5 – January 7D

The lights on the back wall flicked off, then on. “Oh!” Butch turned suddenly in his seat, concern wrapped on his round face like a failed illustration. “Is — something wrong?”

For a second, The Bird thought Butch was joking. Yet when he didn’t laugh along with everyone else, she realized that he was sincerely as worried as he looked.

“That’s just letting us know the show’s about to start.” Double-J could not hide the mockery in his voice. “You’ve been to a theater before, right?”

“N — no.” Butch quickly scanned through the faces in the back row, their mirth dissipating in his embarrassment like ice dumped on a green lawn during a summer afternoon. “Mu — my parents don’t let us go to — plays. They — they think — ”

“Reverend Goodman.” Double-J waved a dismissive hand in the dark. “Say no more. Surprised they let you come tonight.”

Butch turned, looked squarely at Mr. Jacobs, the teacher’s curly hair and black beard accentuating the shadows on his face. “Coach Dan — called them.”

The man who The Bird still considered Mr. Jacobs (because she wasn’t on the Bark Bay fencing team, after all, she just showed up for practice, so he really couldn’t be her coach) hmmphed a laugh. “Told them it was a school assignment.”

The Bird saw Butch’s eyes grow wide. “You lied — ”

Mr. Jacobs waved his arm forward, across the dozens of rows of empty seats, towards the stage. “Show’s starting.”

Chapter 5 – January 7C

The Bird leaned forward, her chair squeaking loudly even under her slight weight, and asked Rune how he knew so much about Shakespeare.

Rune looked back, made eye contact with her. “I don’t, really.” He shifted in his seat again, so that he was again facing the stage. “We had to read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ last year in CP English, and everyone was all like I’ll be glad when this is over.” An appreciative chuckle percolated among his friends as Rune waved his right hand dismissively over the greasy waves of his red hair. “But when I started reading it, I was like, cool. Took a while to get used to the language, the thees and thous and wherefores — what made a difference one day was when actors came in to play the roles, the way they said the words, it made a lot more sense then.”

The Bird nodded in the darkness, and remembered the recordings of performances her mother played when preparing for a Shakespearean audition or performance. Her mother would often read along to those performances, and would give her daughter the same play to read, if she liked. The television and stereo not being options at these times, The Bird had learned that reading along with her mother would at least make the time seem to go by quicker.

“We had to do an essay about ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and I got an A on it.” The Bird saw a contented smile on Rune’s face, as he gazed across the rows of empty seats at the stage. It was the most relaxed she had ever seen him. “Miss Guthrie, she gave me a copy of ‘Hamlet’ to read at the end of the year, for the summer. Had a lot of notes in it.” He smiled like he didn’t care what others might think of him. “Read it in a week. It was — awesome.”

The Bird saw Mr. Jacobs lean forward, place a gentle hand on Rune’s shoulder. “Good for you.”

Chapter 5 – January 7B

A voice commanded from a man standing in the distant front row. Start in five minutes. The man dropped into a seat, only his head now barely visible to the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team.

“Everyone knows the story, right?” Mr. Jacobs’ voice was an urgent whisper.

“Sure.” Two seats to Mr. Jacobs’ right, Double-J made no attempt to lower his voice. “Hamlet sees a ghost, says hey man, I’m your old man, and I was murdered by my brother. But Hamlet, instead of going out and getting revenge, killing his uncle, he goes around talking a bunch of nonsense.” The Bird, sitting four seats away, saw Double-J throw his right hand dramatically into the air. “To be, or not to be.”

Mr. Jacobs cleared his throat. “That’s — one interpretation.” Double-J lowered his hand, then tilted his head back against the wall.

“We’re studying ‘Julius Caesar’ in English this year.” It occurred to The Bird that Annie’s explanation probably wasn’t necessary, since Mr. Jacobs taught English at the school. “We study ‘Hamlet’ next year.”

“Really?” Butch sounded worried.

“Only CP.” Butch sighed in relief at Rune’s explanation.

Rex leaned forward in his seat, his head high above the seats. “Is it a good idea to talk about the play before we see it?”

Mr. Jacobs replied in what seemed to The Bird his Coach Dan voice, definitive and assured. “For this play, yes.”

“And it’s what they did, back in Shakespeare’s time.” Rune, sitting in the row in front of The Bird, had turned his greasy red head so that he could easily make eye contact with everyone. “Outside the theater, they’d post the plot of the play, so people could read it before it started. They called it the argument. Back then, they didn’t worry like we do about ‘ruining the surprise.’ All they cared about was the performance.”

A dismissive snort spurt from Double-J’s upturned nose.

Chapter 5 – January 7A

Janet Wernick separated from her daughter as they approached the auditorium doors, walking off to the left towards a hallway leading to the back of the stage. The Bird proceeded forward, noting the scratches on the wooden door as she pushed it open and stepped out of the bright light of the lobby into the darkness of the auditorium.

“Over here.” Mr. Jacobs’ voice called from the back row of the auditorium, the same area where she had been sitting earlier, hoping to read as she waited for her friends on the fencing team to arrive. She made sure the book was still in her left hand, that she hadn’t put it down sometime between Teddy Jasper’s introduction and her friend’s early arrival.

The Bird caught Mr. Jacobs’ eye, and told him they could sit closer. No more than twenty or so other seats in the large seating area were occupied for tonight’s dress rehearsal.

Mr. Jacobs waved her over. “Figured if we sit in the back like this, you can ask questions during the performance.” The Bird nodded, shrugged, scanned the shadowy faces surrounding Mr. Jacobs, recognizing everyone by their distinctive features — Annie’s pony-tail to Mr. Jacobs’ left, Rune’s greasy red hair to her left, the two of them giggling conspiratorially as Butch’s round face sat to their left, sitting closest to where The Bird stood in the aisle. Tall Rex sat on Mr. Jacobs’ right, Double-J and his moustache to Rex’s right, his head tilted back and resting on the back wall, eyes apparently closed.

The Bird began walking in to the back row, when Mr. Jacobs stood abruptly. They needed a seating change, he announced, to better enable conversation. He pointed to the row in front, commanded Butch and Rune to sit immediately in front of him, with an option for Annie to join them which she declined. The two teen boys rose from their seats quickly, Annie waving at Rune as he left, and as they took their seats The Bird moved closer to Annie, who patted the seat to her left on her arrival.

 

Chapter 5 – January 6O

Teddy Jasper’s pencil moustache wrinkled up to his nose, then smoothed over into a diplomatic smile, directed first at The Bird, then towards her mother. “See you after the show.” The Bird, standing to Teddy’s left, thought she saw him wink with his right eye at her mother, before brusquing past her towards the door leading to the seating area.

As the door began closing behind Teddy, The Bird’s mother stepped into her view. “What was that about?”

How long have you known him, The Bird asked, pointing towards the door.

Her mother shook her head. “This isn’t about me and him, it’s about respect — ”

How about respecting yourself, The Bird shot back, instead of selling yourself, again

Her mother slapped her, The Bird’s head turning to the left. A mélange of emotions filled the slender teenaged girl — hurt (but no, there was no pain), humiliation (but no, there was no one else to witness the action), anger (but no, there was no reason to be angry). Shame — this was hardly the first time her mother had slapped her like this, and The Bird suddenly remembered the words that always immediately followed. You should be ashamed of yourself. The Bird swiveled her head back so that she now faced her mother — and smiled.

“You should be — ”

I’m not, said The Bird. Ashamed, no, not at all. Her smile broadened a bit, then fell. She waited a moment, for the severe expression on her mother’s face to dissolve like ice under a heat lamp. The Bird pointed to the auditorium door again.

How is this going to end up any different than before, she asked her mother. How do you know this, Teddy Jasper, isn’t going to be like any of the other agents you’ve worked with, the ones who’ve lied to you, used you —

Her mother straightened, the severe look returning to her face. The Bird suddenly realized her mother had begun playing the role of Queen Gertrude, regal and aloof. “I’ve learned from my mistakes. This time, I’ve asked the right questions.” She smiled, resuming her role as her mother. “Mr. Nestor speaks highly of Teddy — ”

Bullshit. A small voice in The Bird’s head congratulated her for having the courage to open that door.

Her mother recoiled, her face contorting like a cobra preparing to strike. The Bird braced herself for the impact, and felt disappointed when her mother only laughed.

“I believe your friends on the fencing team are waiting for you.” Her mother reached over, touched The Bird’s shoulder, her daughter drawing close and hugging her with greater strength and meaning than usual.

Chapter 5 – January 6N

The pencil-thin moustache above Teddy Jasper’s lip twitched slightly as he stepped past Rune, their conversation clearly ended. Mr. Jacobs called the team members over to him, said it was time for them to take their seats in the auditorium. But before The Bird began walking with them, she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

A moment later the two were alone with Teddy Jasper in the center of the lobby. The Bird watched her mother’s face, staring intently on the auditorium door, waiting for it to close behind her friends.

What’s wrong, The Bird asked. She heard the soft sound of the door settling into its stationary position in the doorway. Her mother, dressed as Gertrude, waved a hand to her left, towards Teddy. “Sandy, I’d like you to meet — ”

“Oh, I’ve already met your daughter!” Teddy stepped toward The Bird, leaned down, his pencil-thin moustache looking like an underline to his nose. “I believe she likes to be called The Bird.”

Yes, said The Bird. Teddy says you’re in business together.

Janet Wernick closed her eyes, then opened them, smiling. “Teddy is an — agent. Talent agent.”

The Bird groaned, remembering all the previous agents her mother had employed. She didn’t remember their names, only the promises they broke, the hopes they frustrated.

She didn’t remember — the slender teen shook her head, then asked her mother why she was telling her this.

Teddy Jasper leaned down again. “It’s just — we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.” He looked back at Janet. “I hope.” Janet Wernick smiled weakly.

The Bird told her mother that she needed to speak to her. Her mother shook her head. “What — ”

Now. Alone.