Gray Metal Faces – January 15

“What hast thou done?” Hearing the Queen’s next lines told The Bird her mother was still in character.

Double-J pointed his bloody rapier at Hamlet. “All I ‘hast’ did, was what sunshine here shoulda done two acts ago. Or scenes, or whatever the hell you call it.” The teen smiled viciously, a drop of blood falling from his blade, and splattering on the stone floor. “Don’t mind if I do the dirty work, do you?”

“Nay, I know not.”

Double-J snorted, turned his attention towards The Bird. “Sorry ’bout your friend here, but he kinda had it coming.”

Confused by Double-J’s statement, The Bird looked down at Polonius’ body again — and brought her hands to the sides of her head in horror. During Double-J’s attack, she had been too surprised to notice the victim, though wearing the same clothes as the actor who had been playing Polonius, was not that actor. The lifeless face she now saw wore a distinctive, salt-and-pepper beard — “Mr. Nestor!”

“Hate to kill and run, but I got things to do.” Double-J began walking out the chamber door, only to be stopped by Hamlet.

“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!” The teen scoffed, pushed Hamlet aside, and extended the middle finger of his left hand, before exiting.

Still in shock from the multiple surprises of the last few moments, The Bird remained still until she felt a hand grabbing her left forearm. “You need to get out of here.” Her mother was speaking in her own voice, not that of either Gertrude or Sav-Anna. “You, and that boy. You don’t belong here.”

“I know.” The Bird laid her hand gently on the wrist grabbing her forearm, and was relieved to feel her mother’s grip relax. “I — don’t know how we got — ”

Rushing footfalls from the hall, approaching their doorway. The Bird recognized the sound, not the hard clopping of leather, but the squeaking of rubber —

Mr. Jacobs rushed into the room, the other members of the fencing team — Annie, Rex, Rune, Butch — quick on his heels. “What happened? Was Double-J here?”

“O what a rash and bloody deed!” Janet Wernick’s reply was in the accent of Gertrude.

“Dammit!” Mr. Jacobs looked quickly around the room, pointed at The Bird — “Come on, we gotta get outta here!” Moving with a confidence that his order would be followed, the man called Coach Dan by The Bird’s friends rushed down the stone hallway, followed by his four students.

“So you brought all your friends?” The Bird’s mother crossed her arms across her chest.

The Bird shook her head — “I didn’t bring anyone. I don’t know how they got here, because I don’t know how I got here!”

“Get them out!” Her mother began pushing the teen out of the chamber. “I don’t want any of you showing up in the next scene and ruining it, like you did this one.”

“Ruining?”

Her mother turned sharply, eyes wide with anger. “Did you really think Hamlet and I could conduct the rest of our scene, after what your friend did?” She pointed down at the corpse of Polonius, now being dragged by Hamlet across the floor, leaving a bloody smear pocked with flecks of flesh. “Teddy Jasper must be beside himself now, wondering what all of you are doing.”

The Bird wondered if her mother had noticed that it was actually Mr. Nestor being dragged away. It didn’t make sense to her — but then again, nothing that had just happened had many any sense at all.

“I’ll find them.” Those were the only words that made sense at the moment. The Bird took a step into the hall, only to be stopped by her mother. The anger in Janet Wernick’s face fell, as she offered a weak smile, taking her daughter into her arms.

Her mother drew back. “I love you.” Tears filled her eyes, like shallow swimming pools overflowing. “But you and your friends have to get back in that audience, where you belong.” The Bird nodded, then raced off in the direction of her friends.

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Gray Metal Faces – January 14

The Bird opened her eyes. Hamlet was approaching her mother — no, this was a play, Hamlet was approaching his mother — no. That wasn’t. Right either. The woman Hamlet was approaching, the character being played by Janet Wernick, was wearing a Bride of Frankenstein wig, horn-rimmed glasses with saucer-wide lenses, a pink sweater over a white blouse that seemed ready to burst over its inflated breast. And. The unmistakable red lipstick of . . .

The Bird blinked. “Save-Anna?”

“Now mother, what’s the matter?” Hamlet did not appear to notice that he was now speaking with the local television commercial star, who seemed ready to explain how he could save 10% on his next purchase of $100 or more at his nearby Stop-N-Save.

“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended,” replied Save-Anna/Gertrude/The Bird’s mother.

The Bird sensed something else was wrong. Their voices, sounded different. Cleaner? Then she realized — she wasn’t hearing them over the auditorium’s loudspeakers.

“What’s the matter now?” The Bird could see the perspiration on Hamlet’s face, that shouldn’t be possible, she was sitting in the back row of the auditorium, with Mr. Jacobs and her friends.

“Have you forgot me?” And as her mother followed Hamlet’s pacing about the stage, her eyes caught her daughter’s, and widened in surprised recognition.

The Bird looked down. She wasn’t sitting in her auditorium seat, next to Annie. She was. In an armchair. On the. Stage, no more than. Three. Feet from her. Mother.

“You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and, were it not so, you are my mother.” Hamlet rushed past The Bird without even a glance in her direction. Her mother blinked, regaining her composure — “Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.”

Her mother’s head was tilted to her right, projecting her voice toward the audience. The Bird looked in that direction, hoping to locate her friends —

But there was no auditorium, the fourth wall was missing. In its place, was — an interior wall. In Queen Gertrude’s chamber. Of Elsinore Castle.

The sudden realization sent a shock through The Bird’s body, causing her to rise quickly from her chair, almost bumping into Hamlet as she gained her feet. She saw her mother’s eyes and mouth draw back in horror, but the actor playing Hamlet seemed not to notice their exchange as he grabbed a mirror from a dresser next to the bed, then rushed to her mother (his mother? their mother?). “Come, come, and sit you down, you shall not budge.”

“What wilt thou do?” Her mother had resumed playing her. Role of Gertrude, despite being dressed as. Save-Anna. She recoiled at the. Site of the rapier in the actor’s hand. “Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho!”

“What, ho! Help!” The Bird recognized the muffled sound of the actor playing Polonius, his body outlined in the curtain behind which he was hiding. Hamlet turned in the direction of that voice, his eyes filled with hatred. “How now? A rat! Dead for — ”

SLAM. The door to the bedroom opened, crashing into the interior wall. Everyone in the room — The Bird, her mother (dressed as Save-Anna, playing Gertrude), Hamlet, even the outline of Polonius in the curtain — turned toward the doorway, where stood a figure. All in shadow.

The Bird instantly recognized that figure’s shape. Only the knowledge that she was somehow already in the scene made her accept the fact that Double-J was now rushing into the room, a rapier in his arm, his eyes wild with excitement.

Double-J pushed Hamlet aside with his left hand — “Get the HELL out of my way!” — and with a delighted roar, drove his rapier into the outlined form of Polonius. “That’s for spying on your kids, asshole!”

The curtain fell from the wall, revealing Polonius, his face twisted in pained horror. Double-J drew his arm back, his rapier’s blade drenched in blood, not the red theater blood but something that looked to The Bird like the blood from a wound, or her period, brown as much as red. It dripped from Double-J’s blade, as if the rapier were drooling from hunger, and quickly spread from the wound in Polonius’ belly.

Double-J thrust the weapon forward again, the blade stabbing through Polonius’ chest and crunching into the stone wall behind. The blade withdrew, blood gushing from the wound like vomit, then struck again, and again, each blow driving back its agonized victim, the back of his head making a bloody imprint in the stone.

Another thrust, and upon this withdrawal the perforated body of Polonius fell forward, twisting in descent so the old man was staring face up. His eyes fluttered open — “O, I am slain” — then shut, the lively tension of his body collapsing.

Double-J sneered down at him. “No shit.”

So Far, So Good, So Much More To Do

I find it curious how my metawriting posts, where I write about my current fiction projects, often get as much and occassionally more attention than my fiction itself. (An insecure writer might see that as a comment on one’s fiction; fortunately, I only feel insecure when I’m being ironic.) In that spirit, here’s where the Chapter 5 revision stands at the moment.

My goal at the start of July was to revise the first draft, over 47K words, down to approximately 24K words by the end of the month; this length would put the chapter in line with the revised versions of the first four chapters. I began with an outline that took the draft’s initial 23K words down to 16K by the end of third weekend, culminating just before the chapter’s dramatic turn. Reached that point in the narrative yesterday, with a cumulative word count of 16,191 — barely more than 1% over my “budget.”  Had to make a lot of cuts to get there, and while I had trouble letting some of that material go, I’m satisfied with the knowledge that the narrative is more cohesive and manageable. (Besides, I still have that first draft saved in a separate file, and can always return to that cut material if it seems necessary.)

Now comes the hard part — getting the final 23K words of the draft down to 8K. Many cuts will be easy, as there’s a lot of self-indulgent material that on further review doesn’t advance the narrative or enhance the characters in any significant way. But even if that cuts out half the remaining material, that still leaves me thousands of words over my goal. Knew this was going to be a challenge, which is why I scheduled this part of the project for the final two weekends this month.

If it were easy, everybody would do it. When I think about the challenge ahead, I envision channeling the energy that will be required to get the job done. No it won’t be easy, but the effort will be exhilirating. Have some outlining to do before I begin on those final 8K words, but believe me, this project is going to be completed.

Gray Metal Faces – January 13

The Bird rose from her seat, explaining that intermission had arrived, as the other members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team rose with her and followed Mr. Jacobs out of the auditorium.

Standing alone in the lobby, the lean figure The Bird already recognized as Teddy Jasper turned slowly in her direction, bestowing upon her a crooked smile of condescending recognition.

“My sweet bird.”

The Bird hesitated, studying Teddy’s face. From behind she heard the voices of her friends  — Rune explaining something in earnest to Butch, Double-J and Rex laughing together — she could not hear Mr. Jacobs —

“Hello.” To her right, Annie extended her hand toward Teddy. The slender man took her hand, a curious look on his face.

“You must be one of The Bird’s friends, from the fencing team.”

“Yes.” She stood straighter. “Team captain, actually.”

“Indeed! So that would make you a senior, yes?”

She shook her head, her pony-tail waving behind. “Sophomore, actually.”

Teddy seemed legitimately surprised. “Really! You seem so — big isn’t the right word — athletic, perhaps? You certainly don’t look 15 — “

“Sixteen. June birthday.”

He waved his right arm quickly, up and back, glancing down as if bowing with the motion. “I think I understand now why you were named captain. Physically, you seem to be a match for anyone in this room — and you don’t appear willing to back down to anyone.”

“Thank you.” Annie nodded curtly, then turned quickly to The Bird. “Excuse us.” Annie twitched her head in the direction of the bathroom, The Bird nodding and following close on her heels.

Alone in the pale light of the bathroom, the two teens compared notes on Teddy Jasper. “I remember him now,” Annie ripping a paper towel from a wall dispenser, “he was at the New Year’s party, at my uncles’ office in the city. Don’t know what they were talking about, but my uncles did not look happy.” The Bird explained that Teddy was his mother’s new agent; Annie nodded in acknowledgement, tossing her towel into the trash.

A moment later they walked back into the theater lobby, the large chandelier catching The Bird’s eye. With her next step, the chandelier began swinging violently, straight across the ceiling towards the auditorium entrance; she then felt waves rippling the tiled marble floor, so she stooped down, preparing for the wave’s impact —

Annie’s grasp on her right bicep was firm, commanding. “You OK?” The chandelier stopped flying, the wave ebbed over the still surface of the floor. Mr. Jacobs, and her friends on the fencing team, had rushed up to where The Bird had stumbled. The Bird told their worried faces that she didn’t know what happened, she just got dizzy all of a sudden.

“The lights.” Annie twitched her head back towards the bathroom. “It’s pretty dark in there. Probably just had trouble adjusting back to the lighting.”

“Have you been sick?” The Bird looked up at Mr. Jacobs, said that she had just gotten over a cold. He smiled, nodded. “Congestion’s probably throwing off your equilibrium. How do you feel now?”

The Bird looked up at the chandelier. It did not move. She said she was fine.

The lobby lights flicked off, then back on. “We gotta go back,” Rune walking towards the scratched wood paneling of the auditorium doors. The Bird let Annie guide her back into the darkness of their seats, and for several minutes watched absently as the performance resumed, her mind not registering the action until the actor playing King Claudius was alone on stage.

Oh my offense is rank!

From behind Claudius, the actor playing Hamlet stepped forward, a sword in his hand.

And so am I revenged.

The Bird winced, slumped forward in her seat. She felt Annie’s hand on her back. “You all right?” The Bird replied she felt fine, just a little light-headed.

To take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No!

“Oh for Christ’s SAKE!”

“That’s enough,” Mr. Jacobs’ voice commanding, as if telling one of his fencers to watch their distance.

The Bird looked at the stage. She saw Hamlet bouncing without moving any part of his body, like a marionette.

“What’s going on?”

There was a touch of impatience in Rune’s explanation to Butch. “Hamlet doesn’t want to murder the King while he’s praying, because he doesn’t want him to go to heaven.”

The Bird almost said something to Annie, but when she saw Claudius burst into a giant sunflower, she smiled, and remained silent.

“So if you pray while dying, you always go to heaven?” The Bird understood why Butch was confused, seeing as Hamlet was now hovering at the ceiling. I know a hawk from a hand-saw. He was flying to heaven!

The stage lights dimmed. Growling, Double-J stood up, exited the aisle. “I gotta take care of business.” A dagger of light stabbed briefly into the darkness as he opened the door to the lobby.

The Bird heard herself calling to Mr. Jacobs, telling him Double-J needed to return to his seat. “He’ll be all right.” Why didn’t he recognize her concern? “So long as he’s back for the last scene.”

The distant stage began to grow with light, like a time-lapsed film of the dawn. The Bird looked up, saw Hamlet still flying at the ceiling. On the stage, Polonius was talking to the Queen. Mother!

He will come straight.

It was starting, The Bird said to no one.

I’ll warrant you, fear me not.

She looked up at the ceiling, saw Hamlet circling down, down . . . no, this wasn’t right. She could see the face, the actor playing Hamlet was clean-shaven, this man had a line above his lip, thin, like it was drawn by a pencil — Teddy Jasper? The Bird threw herself back into the chair, slammed fists into closed eyes, felt Annie’s hands grabbing at her, telling her to calm down, it would be all right, but The Bird knew something was starting, and whatever thing would happen next, it would most certainly not be all right.

Withdraw, I hear him coming.

Gray Metal Faces – January 12

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

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

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.

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. We had to do an essay, 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 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.”

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

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
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

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.

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

“What’s going on?” The Bird thought Butch sounded just as confused as when straining to understand an instruction given by Mr. Jacobs during fencing practice.

“Those are guards,” Mr. Jacobs explaining in a sharp whisper, “they’re at Els — a castle, in Denmark.”

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

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.

“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.

“So that’s Hamlet?”

“No Butch, that’s the king.”

“Oh!”

The sound of a rooster’s crowing blared over the speakers; the Ghost turned, left the stage, followed by the other actors. A moment later the stage exploded in light once more, revealing a crowd of actors. The Bird noticed her mother was off to the left side of the stage, her arm around the seated actor playing the role of Hamlet. The Bird remembered the last time her mother had played Gertrude — two summers ago, a Shakespeare festival in Canada — she’d had her arm around King Claudius at the start of that performance.

Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, in the direction of Butch. “That’s the King.”

“Oh!”

After years of rehearsals and practices, The Bird knew Gertrude’s first lines by heart.

Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

“But I thought the king was dead.” Rune explained to Butch in a rushed whisper. “Oh!”

whose common theme is death of fathers

“I have no idea what’s going on.” Rex’s sarcastic outburst was not at all in character.

“I’m with Rex.” Annie’s voice was unusually petulant.

The Bird saw the short curls of Mr. Jacobs’ head shake back and forth. “Just keep asking questions.” He reached forward, patted the shoulder of the greasy-haired teen sitting directly in front of him. “Rune here seems to know this pretty well. Sandy — The Bird, I think she does too.” She nodded. “Just ask one of us.”

The stage lights came on again, The Bird recognizing Mr. Kass, playing the role of Polonius. He spoke in fatherly tones to the actors playing Laertes and Ophelia.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan often loses both itself and friend,

“What a pretentious piece of shit.”

“I don’t know.” The Bird wondered if Rex was trying to start an argument with Double-J. “That guy sounds pretty reasonable.”

The stage fell into scene-changing darkness again. Rex continued his thought. “What did that guy say, about being true to yourself?”
To thine own self be true.” To The Bird, it sounded like Rune wasn’t just repeating the line, but reciting it, performing.

“That’s a load of crap.” Double-J’s tone was as dark as the theater around them. “What if you’re an asshole? Still a good idea to be true to yourself?”

“Can you be quiet?” Annie sounded ready to raise the stakes in this game. “It’s hard enough to understand the language without you chirping all the time.”

“I wasn’t the one talking!”

“All right, settle down.” Mr. Jacobs waved a hand toward the stage, which began to glow again with light.

The actors playing Hamlet and Horatio walked onto the dimly lit stage, began reciting their lines.

Rex grunted. “They might as well be speaking Pig Latin.”

Double-J laughed. “Amlet-hay ucks-say.”

A dramatic flourish of horns sounded through the loudspeakers, as the actors playing Hamlet and Horatio drew back at the approach of the Ghost. Butch pointed at the stage — “Why’s the Ghost wearing armor?’

“Oh for crying out loud!”

“Guys, guys, just settle down — ”

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. Murder!

“And if he only listened the first time, this play wouldn’t take so damn long!”

I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on

“Arctic expedition?” The Bark Bay High School team engaged in a collective giggle, as Rune put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Antic disposition. Means he’s going to pretend to be crazy.”

The stage lights dimmed as the actors playing Hamlet and Horatio left the stage. The black burly figure of Double-J rose from his seat, began exiting the row. “Gotta wrestle with the champ.”

The stage lights came on again, The Bird seeing her mother with the King and two other actors she did not recognize.

Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

“Friends of Hamlet.” Rune sounded comfortable, even pleased in his role as the team’s guide.

“They just agree to spy on Hamlet?” Out of the corner of her eye, The Bird saw Mr. Jacobs’ nod in response to Annie’s whispered question.

How pregnant sometimes his replies are!

“Why can’t Hamlet hear Polonius?”

“It’s an aside, Butch. He’s talking to the audience.”

“Oh!”

You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will not more willingly part – except my life.

“But aren’t they all talking to the audience?”

JUST WATCH, the Bark Bay High School fencing team responding in unison.

The back theater door to the right opened, light from the lobby splashing the back row of seats as Double-J walked in.

I know the good King and Queen have sent you.

“YA THINK?”

SHHHH! Annie’s sharp whisper was even louder than Double-J’s catcall.

“Oh come ON! They can’t hear us from way back here, and it’s not like we’re bothering anyone. It’s as empty here as it will be opening night!”

The Bird said opening night was sold out, even though she had no idea whether that was true. She did know opening nights at this theater always sold out. Well, close enough, anyway.

“Can we just watch the damn play?” Rune’s complaint silenced his teammates.

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god.

“There you go.” For the first time that evening, Double-J’s voice carried a tone of sincere appreciation.

“I don’t think he meant it.”

Mr. Jacobs’ pre-empted the giggling that rippled through his students. “What makes you say that, Butch?”

“Oh! Well, it was . . . the way Hamlet said it, I guess. It was like when a baseball player drops an easy fly ball, and someone in the crowd yells, ‘Nice catch!'”

“It’s called sarcasm.” The Bird could feel the smile in Double-J’s voice. “Some people, they can’t help themselves from being sarcastic.”

“Oh!”

I know a hawk from a handsaw.

“Like who?” Not even Mr. Jacobs could refrain from diving into the pool of laughter.

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause

“What the hell is he talking about?”

“Sorry Rex, this language’s too sophisticated for anyone who’s not at least 400 years old.”

The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

The stage lights dimmed, as ominous music played over the speakers. In the darkness, stagehands hurried to prepare the next scene. The Bird saw Mr. Jacobs’ dark outline lean forward, offer a quick explanation before the lights rose for the next scene.

I hear him coming. Let’s withraw, my lord. The King and Polonious hid behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, as Hamlet walked in from the right.

“Oh gawd.” Double-J groaned like a sick man. “Here it comes!”

To be, or not to be —

“That is the question.” Rune’s finishing of the line generated a ripple of laughter through his teammates.

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune —

“Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them.” The laughter ended rapidly, like a wave losing its energy on sand.

To die —

“To sleep, no more.”

And by a sleep to say we end —

“The heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

“Jesus!” Double-J’s tone was more appreciative than mocking, but a quick motion from Mr. Jacobs’ arm silenced him.

‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

“To die. To sleep — ”

To sleep — perchance to dream.

“Ay, there’s the rub.”

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

The Bird realized she had been holding her breath.

Soft you now, the fair Ophelia!

“He’s up to something.”

“Yeah, well, he’s Hamlet after all.”

Annie seemed annoyed at Double-J’s reply. “No, I mean — ” she pointed toward the stage — “him and her.”

Get thee to a nunnery!

“Jerk!”

Mr. Jacobs laid a hand on Annie’s arm. “What’s wrong?”

Annie waved at the stage again. “It’s just — the way he’s treating her, that’s all.”

“Why’d he tell her to become a nun?” Mr. Jacobs leaned forward, whispered in Butch’s ear. “Oh!”

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched, that sucked the honey of his music vows —

Double-J roared with laughter, prompting a rebuke from Annie.

The scene ended, stage lights fading then glowing again to reveal the actors sitting to the side of a raised platform, Hamlet and Ophelia closest to the audience.

Lady, may I lay in your lap?
No, my lord.
I mean, my head upon your lap.
Ay, my lord.
Do you think I meant country matters?

“Hey Rune –” the teen looked back at Double-J — “you’re the scholar, right?”

“Yeah?”

“So, that line about country matters — where was the stress?”

Annie stood up suddenly, like a soldier coming to attention. “Can you knock it off over there?”

Double-J sunk back into a snicker, as Mr. Jacobs rose to intercept Annie.

The King rises!

“What’s wrong?” The Bird saw Rune lean over to his friend, whisper an explanation. “Oh! So everybody now knows the King killed Hamlet’s father?”

“No, only Hamlet knows what the Ghost told him.”

“So — why didn’t he tell anyone else?”

JUST WATCH.

Horatio left Hamlet alone on stage, and several lines of dialog later his quick exit was followed by an ominous minor chord played by a cello. All lights in the theater went out, followed almost immediately by the overhead lights flooding the seating area.

Gray Metal Faces – January 11

A moment later they 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.

The Bird asked what was wrong, as she heard the soft sound of the door settling into its stationary position. 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 raised his hands, as if waiting for The Bird to embrace him; when it became evident the teen would not move, his pencil-thin moustache wrinkled under his nose. “I believe she likes to be called The Bird.”

Looking back at her mother, The Bird said Teddy had told her he was in business with her.

Janet Wernick closed her eyes, then opened them, smiling. “Teddy is an — agent. Talent agent.” The Bird groaned; Teddy Jasper reached a hand towards her shoulder — “We’ll be seeing a lot of each other.” The teen recoiled from his touch.

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

Her daughter stamped her foot — she needed to speak with her mother now, and alone.

Teddy Jasper peaked his eyebrows, then with a smile and what The Bird thought was a wink towards her mother, excused himself before brusquing towards the auditorium door.

As the door began closing behind Teddy, Janet stepped in front of her daughter. “What was that about?”

The Bird pointed towards the door, and asked her mother how long she had known that man.

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

How about respecting yourself, The Bird shot back, then demanded to know how she expected this relationship would end up any different than before, how did she know this, Teddy Jasper, wasn’t going to be like any of the other agents she’d worked with, the ones who’d lied to her, used her —

The slap on her cheek was swift yet painless, The Bird’s head turning to the left more from reflex than force. 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. The Bird swiveled her head back to face her mother — and smiled.

“You should be — ”

The Bird said she was not ashamed, 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. Then, suddenly, her mother straightened, the severe look returning to her face, as she began playing the role of 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, The Bird’s reply echoing off the marbled lobby floor.

Her mother recoiled, her face contorting like a cobra preparing to strike. The Bird braced herself for a second slap, 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.

Gray Metal Faces – January 10

Mr. Jacobs stepped aside, which The Bird took as her cue to do the same, and into the irregular circle of the theater’s lobby walked Ed Nestor, her mother’s friend and advisor for as long as The Bird could remember. His short-cut graying hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and generosity towards she and her mother had made The Bird, at an early age, think of him as an elderly member of the family, like the grandparents of her friends at school. He wasn’t, of course, but given that The Bird did not have an actual grandfather (her mother’s father had died the year before The Bird was born, and she knew even less about her father’s parents than the little she knew of her father), she allowed herself this fantastical indulgence.

“Hello, young scholars!” Ed Nestor’s face beamed in cordial greeting as his arms swept to his side, his tweed jacket swishing audibly. “I understand you have some interest in stage fencing?” When his enthusiastic question was answered with blank stares, Mr. Jacobs’ voice suddenly boomed, echoing in the near-empty lobby of the theater. “I asked Ned, Mr. Nestor, to talk about his choreography for the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.”

Annie raised her hand, and Ed Nestor nodded his gray head in her direction. “Coach Dan says you’ve worked on Broadway.”

Ed Nestor smiled diffidently, his salt-and-pepper beard bristling with energy. “A long time ago, yes. Hollywood, as well.”

“You’ve been in movies?” Rune’s voice was filled with excitement.

“Just behind the scenes, young man.”

“Which films?” Rex sounded genuinely curios.

“Oh, mostly pirate films, low-budget fare.” He rattled off a few titles, Double-J cutting him off after the fourth — “So why the hell are you out here now?”

Ed Nestor’s back had been to Double-J, so he twirled dramatically to the burly teen, a broad smile on his elderly face which conveyed no consternation. “There is no place else I’d rather be, young man.” He walked slowly, confidently towards Double-J, like a lawyer making his closing argument to the jury. “I’m surrounded by eager, hungry actors, whose love of the stage is far greater than their desire for riches or fame. Here there are no divas or prima donnas, no Machiavellian directors, no impossible mandates from production companies.” He stopped, right foot landing loudly on the tiled floor of the lobby, less than a foot from Double-J, who looked back impassively. “This –” Ed Nestor pointed down with both index fingers — “is where the theater still lives. And that, is the reason why I am here!”

Mr. Jacobs clear his throat. “Ed, perhaps you should explain, how you work with your actors.”

“Ah yes.” Ed Nestor returned to the center of the lobby, then crouched down into en garde position. “First I show them how to stand, hold their arm. What your coach probably taught you on your first day.”

“And still do.” Self-conscious laughter rippled through the team.

Ed Nestor came out of his crouch, resumed his professorial stance. “But your average theater-goer probably doesn’t — appreciate the sport of fencing like you and I, so for stage fencing, the body movements must be, shall we say, exaggerated.” He stepped back, quickly removed his tweed jacket and tossed it to Double-J, who caught it with a reluctant smile. “Coach, would you care to help me demonstrate?”

The Bird watched Mr. Jacobs purse his lips, nod sideways, walk to the spot where shirt-sleeved Ed Nestor had pointed. “On your guard, Coach.” Mr. Jacobs crouched down as commanded, as did Ed Nestor, the two men facing each a mere few feet apart. “Now this, is a standard attack and parry — ” Ed extended his right arm slightly outside his torso, the hand at shoulder height, then lifted his right foot slightly and slowly lunged his body forward, pushing off his back leg. Mr. Jacobs calmly brought his arm across and deflected the invisible attack. “Very good — ” Ed went back to en garde — “but for the stage, the action will look like this.” His right arm flew out, swift and wide and high, the student fencers laughing at what looked to them a wild, undisciplined motion; Ed followed with a lunge that looked like he was trying to take flight, and Mr. Jacobs responded by swinging his arm not straight across his body but looping up, in what seemed to the students a miserably ineffective parry.

Rex clapped, and his applause was picked up by the other team members — save for one. “Nice show.” Double-J walked forward, holding Ed Nestor’s tweed jacket at arm’s length. “This mean I don’t have to stay for the play?”

Ed Nestor laughed sourly, as Mr. Jacobs pointed up at the lobby’s high back wall. “Twenty minutes until the start.” A quick look back at Ed Nestor. “Understand we have the theater to ourselves.”

“Some family.” Ed pulled his jacket back onto his body. “Not many.”

“We should sit in the back.” Coach Dan had returned to the center of their circle. “It’s a difficult play, want to give you the opportunity to ask questions.”

The Bird said they should wait, her mother had wanted to meet the team before they began. Double-J groaned and looked away, as the other team members gathered around The Bird. Rune had a wide, sarcastic grin on his face — “You mean, we get to meet Save-Anna?”

The Bird nodded. Save-Anna was a character her mother played in a series of commercials for the Stop and Save grocery store chain. Anyone watching television for more than a few hours within a hundred-mile radius was bound to see Save-Anna and her foot-high bouffant, wide eyes brimming with excitement behind absurdly large horn-rimmed glasses, ridiculous-red lips shouting with incredulity at the UNBELIEVABLE deals available RIGHT NOW at your local Stop and Save, her histrionics accentuated by exuberant banjo chords accompanied by a chorus of background singers pleading Oh Save-Anna, won’t you shop for me?

“Nobody’s meeting Save-Anna today.” The Bird was grateful for Mr. Jacobs’ proclamation. “Janet — The Bird’s mother — is playing Gertrude tonight. Hamlet’s mother. And that’s the role she’ll be discussing with us.”

Ed Nestor attempted, without much success, to engage his young audience in a discussion of the play’s meaning. The arrival of The Bird’s mother, fully dressed for her regal role, came as a relief to everyone.

Janet Wernick greeted Mr. Jacobs warmly; she then put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “And these must be your teammates,” her other hand sweeping across the width of the lobby.

The captain of the Bark Bay High School fencing team strolled in front of Janet, extending her hand — “Annie Hutchinson. Pleased to meet you.”

“Hutchinson!” The Bird’s mother tilted her head back. “Isn’t your father — ”

” — running for state senate, yes.”

Janet smiled at the teen politely. “Impressive, yes.”

The Bird pointed at Rune, introducing him to her mother; she squinted, as if trying to listen through her eyes. “Roan?”

“Rune,” the greasy-haired teen steeping forward and extending his hand. “It’s what they call me — ”

” — he likes to print runic letters.” A small flinch of annoyance crossed his face at Annie’s explanation.

“I see.” The Bird’s mother shook the teen’s hand. “And before they started calling you Rune, what was your name?”

“Banks. Hugh Banks.”

Janet looked up momentarily. “Banks. There’s an accountant in town, named Banks — ”

“That’s da — my father.”

“A pleasure.” She smiled, nodded, turned to the teen on Rune’s left, notably heavier than the other students in the lobby. “And are you on the team as well?”

“Hmmm? Oh!” The Bird couldn’t understand why Butch seemed surprised. “Yeah, I’m on fencing. Just doing foil now, Double-J wants me to try saber, but I just started, you know what I mean?”

Janet blinked, her face revealing she had no idea what Butch was saying. She shifted her attention towards the thin teen standing to Butch’s left, and looked up — “And who is this tall drink of water?”

Rex snorted a pleasant laugh, extended his hand. The Bird’s mother extended hers, and could not hid her surprise as Rex clasped her hand, raised it in a polite yet assertive motion, then greeted it with a light, audible kiss.

When the tall teen raised his head, the woman who was about to play Gertrude met his gaze with a calm learned from years on the stage. “That was . . . unexpected.”

The Bird told her mother that Rex had a flair for the dramatic.

“How sad.” Rex’s voice did not sound in the least bit unhappy. “Simple politeness, manners — what does it say about our world, that such behavior is now considered unusual?”

“Hmmm.” Janet considered his face carefully. “You seem a bit — sorry, don’t take this wrong, but isn’t fencing a bit rough?”

Rex’s eyes widened, but it was Rune that replied. “Well, yeah. How many other sports use a weapon?”

Several. Attention in the lobby turned almost in unison to the sound of the voice coming from the side wall of the lobby. “Archery. Skeet shooting. That Olympic sport where you ski cross-country, then shoot a rifle.” The Bird recognized the voice at the same moment she caught sight of its source — Teddy Jasper, the man who had been whispering to her in the auditorium before the team arrived.

“Biathlon.” Rune focused inward a moment, then beamed. “But in those sports, you don’t use your weapon against another person!”

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 as The Bird began walking with them, she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder.

Gray Metal Faces – January 8

“Sandy.” The Bird darted her eyes up, relieved to break the gaze held on her by this man, Teddy Jasper, who called himself her mother’s business associate. She hadn’t recognized the voice, but when she looked out to the aisle and saw the man whose short gray hair was a perfect complement to his salt-and-pepper beard, she instantly knew who it was.

She rose from her chair, eagerly called Mr. Nestor’s name. Ed Nestor responded by shuffling into the row behind where The Bird and Teddy Jasper had been sitting, then enveloping the teenaged girl in a warm embrace. As always, he was wearing the brown tweed sports jacket whose fabric she found so comforting against her skin.

Mr. Nestor broke their embrace, shuffled back, then nodded down at Teddy Jasper. “Ted.”

“Ed.”

Mr. Nestor put his right arm across the back of The Bird’s shoulders. “Sandy, you must come out to the lobby with me. Your teammates have arrived!”

Gray Metal Faces – January 7

The Hilltop Theater was old, older than any of the actors, directors, or staff of the Piedmont Shakespeare Company, even older than most of the company’s subscribing audience. The Bird enjoyed the Hilltop, the sound of its wooden floors creaking even under her own light feet, as if the building itself were speaking to her.

Janet Wernick kissed her daughter in the lobby, then hurried towards the dressing rooms in the back. Carrying the book she had brought with her, The Bird walked over the worn red carpet into the darkened auditorium. A handful of people, mostly family of the cast like herself, were already seated. A middle-aged woman, hair filled with sticks and glue so that it seemed to sprout from her head like an overly manicured shrub, caught her eye, waved hello. She waved back, and when the woman (wife of the actor playing Polonius, the teen believed) turned away, The Bird took this as a sign that it was safe for her to continue with her original plan, which was to sit by herself near the back, and read. At least until the members of the Bark Bay High School fencing team arrived.

The Bird entered the second to last row, shuffled three seats in. Years of exploring had revealed that of all the seats in the auditorium, this was where the lighting was best. She opened her book to the bookmarked page, sank in the seat to allow the light from behind her to hit the page — and then nearly jumped when she felt a hand touch her right shoulder.

Oh! Sorry. It was a male voice, whispering behind and above her. The Bird turned, saw a man wearing a suit and tie. The light from the wall behind him cast shadows over his face, yet The Bird was able to see the trace of a smile.

I didn’t mean to startle you. The man’s whisper was barely audible, the teen picking up his meaning more by context than hearing.

The Bird looked up at the man’s shadow-hidden face, and told him he didn’t — she stopped herself, realizing she was whispering, then continued in her normal, soft-spoken voice — there was no reason to whisper, she told him, the actors actually liked hearing voices in the audience before dress rehearsal.

The man stepped out from the row behind her, the light from the back wall of the theater catching his face. He looked around thirty, with short brown hair and a pencil-thin moustache above his lip. The light seemed to gleam off his teeth as he smiled, approaching her.

“You must be Kassandra?” The Bird nodded. “Your mother tells me you have a few nicknames, how should I call you?” She replied that she liked to be called The Bird. The man’s eyebrows arched soundly, as if controlled by an enthusiastic puppeteer, as his hand reached over and squeezed her left shoulder. “Bird! She didn’t tell me about that one.”

He removed his hand from her shoulder, an action that brought The Bird much relief, and brought it down to within an inch of her chest. He smiled, his teeth white as sugar. “Theodore Jasper. Call me Ted.”

The Bird grabbed the man’s hand quickly, as if warding off an attack. She said it was a pleasure to met him; it seemed to her the safest thing to say at the moment.

The man who called himself Teddy Jasper withdrew his hand. Your mother is a very talented actress. He was whispering again, but The Bird no longer felt the need to correct him.

She whispered a thank you back to Teddy, and raised the book she had brought to her chest, like a shield.

Do you like to read? The Bird nodded, and fought her instinct to flinch as Teddy Jasper reached over and grabbed a corner of the book, lifting it until light from the back wall reflected off its cover. Teddy Jasper furrowed his brow, sniffed. Don’t know that one. Are you reading it for school?

The Bird asked Teddy Jasper how he knew her mother.

Hmmm? Oh, Janet. She’s a — business associate. The Bird replied that her mother was an actress, not a business woman.

Teddy Jasper threw his head back and laughed loudly, his ha-HAAAEW echoing across the empty seats of the theater. A stagehand adjusting a prop on stage turned in their direction.

“Sorry,” Teddy Jasper called with a wave towards the stage. He turned back to The Bird, leaned close and whispered under his pencil-thin moustache, as if speaking in confidence. All of us are in business, young lady. It’s just that for some of us, our business is more — he waved toward the stage — creative.