“Chicken pox?” I said, not ready to believe the words. “Chicken pox?”
Audra nodded. The Zazu to my Mufasa, she was often the first to hear the morning report at Findlay Theater, since she worked box office from nine to eleven Mondays. I was unable to arrive until nine thirty, when my bioethics class let out.
Springer was probably composing an e-mail to me at this very moment, offering her perspective on the situation.Dear Jesse,
I imagined it read.The unthinkable has happened. The kid with the tumor was voted off
American Idol. Stephen Sondheim has turned to crime writing. Woman has walked on Jupiter.Grady Herzgod has chicken pox and won’t be running lights for
A Bluer Sky.As I lay in bed last night, listening to the horrible, shrieking grind of reality against my dreams, trying to compose a letter to my loved ones saying all the things I always mean to say but never do, ready to plunge into the ocean of circumstance and let myself be dashed upon the rocks of misfortune, I realized something.We’re going to be okay.Because I have you stage managing my show. You’ll run lights and call the show at the same time if you have to. And while I know that Grady is the finest light board operator Hollander College’s theater department has ever seen, though he is affable, sure-fingered, punctual, and possessed of catlike reflexes that allow him to correct an errant cue in a fraction of a second, we will make do without him. Because we have you. The stage manager. Uncredited god of our production.You are an inspiration to us all.Your esteemed director,Springer Lofton
Yes, an e-mail of roughly that ilk would no doubt arrive in my in-box shortly. But for now I had Audra’s intel to go on.
pox? You’re sure?”
“Say it into my good ear.” I leaned forward, presenting my good ear.
“Grady has chicken pox,” she said into it.
I nodded. “All right. Well. This isn’t the end of the world. Far from it. I’ll run lights if I have to. We can—”
“They already got someone to do it.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Who? Audra, who did they get to run lights? It’s not Todd Allinder, is it? Audra, tell me it’s not Todd.”
“It’s a guy from New College.”
“New College? That program they run out of the Parris Hall basement where students make up their own majors?”
“He’s a theater minor.”
I couldn’t begin to process this. “Audra, legend has it somebody from New College graduated last year with a degree in robotanics. For her senior thesis she built an animatronic Venus flytrap out of Legos and pieces of an old HAM radio. We can’t—I repeat, we can’t—
have someone from New College running lights for A Bluer Sky
Audra shrugged. “He seems pretty nice.”
him?” I led her to one of the benches in the lobby. “Where? When? Tell me everything.”
“His name’s Simeck.”
“That’s not even a name. Good Lord, do they let them choose their own names in New College too? Is it some kind of cult thing?”
“He told me he liked my top.”
“Are you going to fall for every pinch of flattery someone tosses into the dough of your being?”
“Are you calling me fat?”
“No. I’m saying for all you know, he could be majoring in diplomatic deception. You can’t
trust him. Where did you meet him?”
“Upstairs. In Sayida’s office. A few minutes ago.”
A boy stood on the stairs that led from the lobby to the second-floor offices, one hand on the wooden banister. He had straight, shiny, sandy hair, and the fringe of his bangs stuck in his eyelashes. His face was going to be perfect in another year when those last lingering spatters of adolescent acne faded into the creamy pallor of his cheeks. His eyes were—I didn’t know what color. Did it matter? Because suddenly my logical mind was dancing a deadly tango with statistics and probability.
I knew who this stranger must be.
“Hey,” Audra said, waving to him. She smiled. Audra only ever smiled at pictures of dolphins, and even then her smile was decidedly understated. “That’s Simeck.”
Simeck hopped down the last few steps and approached, holding out his hand to me.
He was short. A little Shorty McShortson. I wasn’t saying this affected a person’s ability to run lights, but it hurt his credibility in my eyes, being short and
from New College.
“Simeck Whedon,” he said.
I shook his hand, not yet too numbed by circumstances to note how warm and fine and fragile it was. Not a light board operator’s hand. That was the hand of someone who painted the fingernails of custom-made dolls, or tested rejuvenating creams for cosmetic companies.
“What’s your major?” I demanded.
“I don’t have one yet.”
That was too much. “You’re in New College. Isn’t the whole point of New College to instantly declare some whimsical and impractical major of your own invention?”
He laughed. “You’re funny.”
I had not worked my buttons off through three years of a theater arts degree to be called a clown. I decided to steam quietly for the moment, though, as I had become distracted by his eyes, which were a very dark blue, like the gel over an unlit Fresnel.
“I’m Jesse Ferelit,” I said finally.
I turned to Audra. “Goodness, I hope we don’t have difficulties making each other out in the booth.”
“It’s not a very common last name,” Audra said.
She was like the skipper on Captain Obvious’s ship.
“Jesse Ferelit,” Simeck Whedon repeated. “I’ll be running the light board for A Bluer Sky
“Do you have any experience with lights?”
“I’m in a theater tech class right now.”
“Uh, let’s see. Andy Welks, Yale Foster, Br—”
“Who teaches it?” I asked impatiently. This guy was a few sentences shy of a full paragraph. But what could you expect from an undeclared major in a program whose gross national product was made-up majors?
“That’s set construction. That’s all but useless to you when you’re running lights.”
“She tells us some stuff about lights, though. I just learned what a gobo is.”
learned what a gobo is?”
He was staring at my chest. “Hey, nice shirt.”
I looked down at my My Fair Lady
tee from my internship at the Nawalla Valley Theater last summer.
“We did that play at my high school,” he said.
I brushed some lint off the shirt. “Yes, well, I stage managed a preprofessional production of it at Nawalla Valley last year.”
His lack of awe only confirmed my suspicion that this boy was as green as a Prius where theater was concerned.
I was going to have to educate him. He had to be perfectly groomed and near-encyclopedic in his knowledge of lights by Thursday.
And he’d missed tech Sunday.
“You missed tech Sunday,” I informed him.
“Yeah, that’s what Professor Okhovat said upstairs. That’s when all the light and sound stuff gets added in, right? But she said it’s all right, since light board’s not that hard. “
“Not that hard?”
Simeck looked uncertain. “She said basically you’ll say ‘Go,’ and I’ll press the button.”
“I used to do lights,” Audra said. “It’s really easy.”
“Audra,” I said. “Are you going to imply to our new colleague that there is no artistry to his work? That he’s simply an automaton who sits awaiting my command? That there is no on-your-feet thinking involved, no crises to be averted, no subtle craft to timing the press of the button? If it were that simple, my rat Craybill could run lights for every show at Hollander, and Grady Herzgod could remain in bed with chicken pox for the rest of his life.”
“It’s pretty easy,” Audra repeated.
I looked at Simeck. “Well, there you have it. What do you need me for? I was going to open the door to the library of my mind and let you browse the volumes on stage lighting. But I guess I’ll just go to the men’s room and then check the prop table. Sounds like you’ve got your job all figured out.”
“Wait,” Simeck said. I looked over my shoulder at him. He appeared to be fighting a smile, which was annoying and somehow charming. As was his fitted Shiraz-colored button-down that complemented his eyes reasonably well—though a deep violet with more blue than red would have been better. I wondered if he was clever enough to dress himself, or if some outfit coordination major in New College did it for him. I mean, who wore a button-down so tight that others began to imagine they could see the faintest outline of nipple-ature through the cotton/polyester blend?
“I really don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “Maybe we could both get to the theater early tonight?”
“I will be at the theater already,” I informed him. “When I am not forced out of this building to attend my nontheater courses, I am here. If you have not arrived by five o’clock sharp, I will request a new light board op. End of story.”
“He’s always like this,” Audra whispered to Simeck.
“I am always like this,” I confirmed. “And that is why I have been selected to stage manage eight of Hollander’s last twelve productions.”
“What happened with the other four?” Simeck asked.
I was studying abroad in London. Othello,
Chelsea Kropp needed an SM credit to graduate, so they gave her the gig. How I Learned to Drive,
I was set to SM but stepped down due to a personal issue. South Pacific
was the first show of my freshman year, and I still thought I wanted to be an actor.”
“Okay then.” Simeck nodded. His chin tapered almost to a point, which made certain people look like the devil or Reese Witherspoon but actually worked in Simeck’s favor. If he’d had facial hair, it would have been all wrong. He’d have looked like a goat.
“Any questions?” I asked.
Simeck pressed his smirky little mouth into a straight line. “No, sir.”
My blood jumped oddly at that. “Five o’ clock.” I pointed a finger at him. I turned and stalked off to the men’s room.
I didn’t even really have to pee.Simeck
Well, I’d been warned.
When Professor Okhovat e-mailed to ask if I could fill in on lights for A Bluer Sky
, I was all about it. I’d declared my theater minor at the beginning of the semester, and I knew I didn’t really have the acting experience to be onstage, but I’d been hoping to try some tech stuff.
When I met with Professor Okhovat this morning, she’d told me Jesse was kind of particular.
I told her I’d once worked in a restaurant where my boss sent me home for wearing navy pants instead of black.
I didn’t even really know what a stage manager was. I thought it must be another term for the director.
Turned out the stage manager did, like, everything. He or she sat in on rehearsals, took notes for the director, scheduled rehearsals, and contacted everyone anytime there was a change in plans. Before performances, the stage manager kept the actors updated on how much time they had until curtain. He or she checked to make sure all props were in place and that the stage was set up correctly. During performances the stage manager called the show—which meant reading cues from the prompt book so the sound board and light board ops knew when to press their buttons.
It made sense to me that a stage manager would be “particular.”
However, Professor Okhovat failed to tell me that in this case “particular” translated to “complete psychopath.”
A shame, considering what an unexpectedly handsome psychopath Jesse Ferelit made. Not that I was in the market. I’d made a very romantic-comedy-heroine decision last week to swear off men.
Tip: it’s probably never a good idea for the president of a well-attended but underfunded collegiate organization such as the Queer Campus Project to date the VP, no matter how much said VP looks like the best possible combination of Charlie Day and James Franco.
The baggy My Fair Lady
T-shirt didn’t do Jesse’s body any favors. His derelict Converse knockoffs were in need of a good throwing away. And—just a personal thing—I was not a fan of black-framed glasses. I knew they were trendy and all, but what happened to good old-fashioned wire rims? At least with those, you could tell what people’s eyes actually looked like without having to make excuses to keep meeting their gaze so you could determine shape, color, and the degree to which they were melting in response to your smile.
Luckily, I’d had a lot of practice looking past trendy frames, and I knew Jesse Ferelit’s eyes were brown, large but not overwhelmingly so, and lit with a fervor that would not have been out of place in the eyes of a South American dictator.
What gave a stage manager such good arm muscles? Throwing unsatisfactory light board ops out of the booth?
Oh well. I’d survived working with difficult people before. Usually all I had to do was smile. Though when I’d smiled at Jesse Ferelit, he’d been decidedly undazzled.
I had some time to kill before my wilderness survival seminar. Comments like the one Jesse made about New College inventing majors—I got those a lot. It was partly true—we did get to design our own programs in New College. But we had required courses just like everyone else at Hollander. And we couldn’t just major in anything.
We had to come up with a major Hollander’s curriculum could support.
Mostly what being in New College meant was I got access to some unique seminar courses like wilderness survival or the mathematics of street fighting. It wasn’t a bad place to be if, like me, you weren’t sure what you were cut out for even after a year and a half in school.
I walked through the lobby, past the framed picture boards on the wall showing photo collages from previous productions. Past the box office. I popped into the lounge. It was a small room with a wooden desk and a sink. There was an alcove on one side with a fridge. I opened the fridge and found a sack of apples, a bottle of mustard, and half a jug of limeade.
I left the lounge and pushed open the heavy wooden door to the Marion Findlay Theater. I stepped inside, letting the door fall slowly shut behind me.
The theater was cool and dark. I used to do that in high school sometimes: hang out in the auditorium when no one was using it and look at the dark stage. There was a kind of magic in an empty theater. If you closed your eyes, you could almost hear the voices of the characters who had struggled, fought, wished, and loved on this stage.
From what I’d gathered, A Bluer Sky
was an original musical written by a former Hollander student about the War of 1812. The set was simple—a backdrop of scraggly grass and dark, skeletal trees. Two plywood trees in the foreground. I’d helped paint one of them in set design class. Bedrolls on the stage floor.
I looked at the empty seats and imagined them filled. Women with hair so big whoever was behind them had to strain to see. Geezers fanning themselves with their programs in the front row, because geezers were always too hot. Students slouched in their seats, required to attend for some class, texting with their phones in their laps. The actors’ families and friends, sitting up straight, not too concerned with the play itself but waiting for a glimpse of whoever they’d come to see.
I wondered how many people would come to see Brayden Matthews, the lead. I’d seen Brayden in a couple of shows last semester, and on the picture boards downstairs in the gallery. He was in high demand, and no wonder—he was built like an athlete, with a smile like a movie star, and a clean, strong baritone. If Brayden Matthews had gone to my high school, I would have been a walking hard-on.
I tended to fall hard and fast for the Braydens of the world.
I wondered what the booth looked like. It was going to be my home for the next six nights and then for two more weekends after that. I didn’t even know what a lighting board was.
I turned and looked at the booth’s glass window several feet above me. I couldn’t see anything inside. There was a door to my right that led to a narrow hall with shelves on one side. On the top shelf was a bottle of fake blood and some coiled nylon ropes—I assumed for the show. The hall ended in another door, and behind it was a staircase.
I went upstairs.
The booth was small. You wouldn’t be able to shut more than four people in there without them having to vote on which one to kill so the others could get enough oxygen. There was a long table along the glass window. On one end of the table was a board with a bunch of buttons and sliders. In the center was a computer, and beside it, what looked like the top half of a music stand screwed into the table. On the other side was another board, this one with even more sliders. It was black and silver and had a raised back and reminded me a little of a pinball machine.
I heard a thump
somewhere in the building and started, but when I listened for a minute I didn’t hear anything else. I turned back to the board, taking in all the knobs and switches.
I reached out to touch it.
“What are you doing?”
I leaped high enough to set an Olympic record and turned.
Jesse Ferelit stood in the doorway. He strode forward and got between me and the board and literally shielded it with his arms. “What are you doing
It reminded me of the scene in Beauty and the Beast
where the Beast catches Belle trying to touch the rose in the west wing.
“I was looking,” I said.
“The booth is off-limits
during the day. I only have the door open because I’m making changes to the prompt book as per Springer’s orders.”
Springer Lofton. The director of the show. I hadn’t met her yet, but I would tonight.
“Sorry.” I smiled apologetically.
“You don’t touch
anything in here. That was the sound board you were about to fiddle with. It’s state of the art. When I tell you to, you will touch the lighting board. But not until I tell you to. Understand?”
“I wasn’t going to fiddle with anything,” I said, my amusement at Jesse’s quirkiness wearing thin.
Jesse whispered something to himself.
“What?” I demanded.
“Grady. I miss him. He was a good soldier, and now he’s fallen victim to a first grader’s disease. It isn’t fair. Why couldn’t it have been you?”
“Who got chicken pox.”
“You don’t even know me, and you’re wishing chicken pox
“Grady was guilty of nothing but the occasional booth fart.”
guilty of nothing but stepping in and saving your ass.” I moved toward him. “I don’t know whether you think you’re funny, or if you really are psychotic, or just a dick. But I am here to help
. Try to appreciate that.”
He was tall. I liked tall. But I didn’t like asshole. When he stared at me, I held my breath. “Please leave,” he said. “I’ll see you at five.”
That was it? I’d been expecting this confrontation to go somewhere a little more dramatic. But Jesse was composed—or as composed as he could be when he had enough sticks for a bonfire up his ass.
“Five,” I agreed. “And if you treat me like you did just now, I’ll quit. And I’ll make sure Springer knows exactly why.”
I left him, not gaping exactly, but mildly surprised, as though I had whapped him in the face with a shoelace.