A purple bunny, going to California. A strawberry with sunglasses, going to Nebraska. A lion, its tongue hanging out like a friendly dog, destined for some tucked away assisted living facility in eastern Tennessee.
For each stuffed animal Andrew snugged into its box, he expertly tore one piece of packing tape, always the perfect length when his two index fingers smoothed it over the small gap where the two cardboard edges met—safely and serenely entombing the fuzzy prize for the journey to its next life.
The house had a room dedicated to this part of the business, but Andrew preferred to do his morning packing in the living room. The view through his massive windows afforded him the luxury of watching the sun spread across the valley below, the shadows cast by the bluffs reluctantly ceding territory to the advancing light. A river twisted its way through the valley. On one side was a small town. Dark Bend, it was called.
Despite having had a Dark Bend postal address for a fifth of his life, Andrew almost never set foot in the town itself. On those rare occasions when he did so, it was usually at the twenty-four hour gas station, where he could blend in as a motorist only passing through.
He checked his printout and wrote the last address on a label, affixed it to the box, then carried the boxes five at a time down the two flights of stairs to the garage, where a faded green pickup truck was parked next to a Ferrari and Jaguar. He loaded the boxes into the back of the truck, the only vehicle he ever actually drove. Morning work accomplished, he went back upstairs and rinsed out his coffee mug before throwing it in the shimmering dishwasher. He didn’t have a housekeeper, even though he could have afforded an army of them. Outside of the business, he had little to do other than put things away after he used them, and he didn’t want to deny himself those small pleasures.
Later, after an afternoon spent shooting baskets and solving crossword puzzles, he backed the truck onto the brick-paved driveway. He circled past the fountain, which he hadn’t gotten around to cleaning out and turning on this year, and coasted along the road down the bluff. The cover of the pine trees only let up well after he left his private roadway behind.
The UPS store was in Eau Claire, forty-five minutes to the north. Andrew made the trip four or five times a week, even in the dead of Wisconsin winters. He could pay for someone to come to his house each day and pick up the shipment, but he enjoyed all the driving. He liked watching the hills and farms roll by, even the same ones he had seen year in and year out. As he drove, Andrew looked out at a farmer plowing a field. For a moment, their eyes met. The farmer thumbed the bill of his cap up his brow and gave a curt nod, and it gave Andrew a strange thrill.
After the UPS store, Andrew went to the mall. He tried on clothes at Younkers. A red and black striped shirt, an “after-party shirt” according to the label, looked pretty good on him. The medium proved too big in the shoulders, so he selected a small and took it to a vacant dressing stall. Here, under the glare of the fluorescent lights, it seemed to Andrew that his eyes were sinking farther back into his face, even as he watched them. His brown hair was thinning, too. Before he left the fitting area, he tossed the after-party shirt into the take-back bin. He didn’t go to any parties, anyway, so it naturally followed that there weren’t any after-parties, either. He shared an imaginary conversation with a female mannequin at the front of the store that went on longer than it probably should have, then he took the long way out of the mall.
The orange sky had given way to stars by the time he got back to Dark Bend. Instead of turning onto his driveway up the bluff, he kept on Highway D, taking a right at the stop sign and veering into town. He passed the gas station, then drove down the hill and onto Main Street. Red bricked buildings stood on one side of the street, a continuous wall that broke only to allow the occasional cross street a way in. A string of Christmas lights was still hanging above the opaque window of a closed-down barbershop. On the other side, the river ran, black and lonely.
There was a McDonald’s built into the gas station, the only fast food restaurant in town. After filling up the truck and paying in the store, Andrew crossed over and studied the menu above the counter. He was carrying a sack of McNuggets back through the gas station when he saw a yellow flyer on the bulletin board, one that looked out of place among the taxidermist ads and yard sale flyers. “AUDITIONS.”
Andrew approached it to read the smaller writing below. “The Dark Bend Community Theater is seeking actors of all ages for THE MERCHANT OF VENICE by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. Auditions will consist of cold readings from the script. No preparation necessary, but a Shakespeare monologue is optional. For more information, call Debbie Tyson, director.” There was a telephone number. “General Auditions on Sunday, August 26, and Monday, August 27, 7 pm, at St. Cajetan Church.” The actual show would run just two nights, a Friday and Saturday night at the end of October. He reread the flyer once, then again.
Back at home, he went up to his second-floor office, took his Norton Anthology of Shakespeare off the shelf, and looked at the cast of characters. He paused, allowing himself to laugh at the thought of him, the recluse who never revealed himself to his adopted hometown for fear of what they might think about a millionaire who had shown up out of nowhere to block the town’s view of the stars, auditioning for a play. A community theater show, no less, and him the very antithesis of community. Then again, maybe it wasn’t as crazy as all that. In college, he had minored in theatre. It was the only time he felt a sense of belonging, something that always eluded him in the monastic computer labs where he did his programming. His friends in the theatre crowd had been the only ones he trusted enough to let in on his idea for the mobile gaming app. They hadn’t laughed at him, much to his surprise. And when it started to take off and the money came pouring in, had they ever treated him any differently? Andrew had always suspected that they didn’t really believe he was getting as rich as he said he was, but still. He wondered what had become of them all, and he wondered why he had let too many years pass before it occurred to him to invite them all up to Wisconsin for a party they would never forget. He could have worn the shirt.
But now, it was too late for all that. Too late to reconnect with his college friends, maybe, but was there still some possibility of inserting himself into the small community on whose outskirts he had chosen to station himself? Dark Bend. He had grown fond of it, or at least what he imagined it to be, gazing on it from above. The very fact that the tiny town had a community theater was the sort of reason he loved it, he decided, despite this all being new to him. And, it was Shakespeare.
In college, he had figured Shakespeare was exactly the sort of antiquated notion he ought to rebel against, but that was before Illinois State put on its spring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream his junior year. He probably wouldn’t have gone if he hadn’t been required to as part of his set design class. It was an outdoor production, in the sunken garden beneath the stained-glass windows of the old university chapel. Artificial trees, lit up as though it were Christmas, stood side by side at uneven distances from the audience, allowing the actors to weave among them as they made their entrances from around the sides of the chapel into the flowered garden.
The set was nothing compared to the language, poetry that flitted through the trees and lingered in the soft colors of the lights. When the show was over, the mechanicals having performed their overwrought tragedy-within-a-comedy and the Athenians and fairies having retired to their separate worlds to practice their rituals of love, the thought struck Andrew that he didn’t want it to end. He had never felt that at the end of a play before, nor a movie, even.
He had read The Merchant of Venice, but it had been years. It hadn’t been among his favorites, but he could recall little more than that. He would still catch scattered speeches and phrases from the play now and again, though. His secret passage necessitated that much.
There was an icon on his desktop computer that said “Secret Passage,” accompanied by the picture of a door foregrounded with a question mark. Part of the joke was that such a key was so overtly hidden in plain sight. When Andrew clicked on the icon, a coded message scrolled across the screen, one that was always different. This time: “MND 3.1.877.3.” Any Shakespeare buff would recognize MND as the standard abbreviation for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sometimes, the randomized code would spit out Rom., sometimes JC, sometimes 1 Hen IV, all the way down to the abbreviations for more obscure plays such as Timon of Athens (Tim.) and Troilus and Cressida (Tro.). Andrew had been hoping to get an MV code today, but MND was still pretty good luck, he thought.
The code was linked up to the Norton Online Shakespeare, which meant it corresponded perfectly to the volume Andrew kept conspicuously on his bookcase’s middle shelf. The bookcase didn’t turn around when he pulled the volume out, no, though he had thought of that as a possibility, initially. He had decided to forego the kitsch value of the bookcase secret passage for something a little more complex, but the necessity of a hardcover book was a nod to the classic secret passages he had grown up dreaming of.
MND 3.1.877.3. The first 3 referred to the act number, the 1 the scene number, the 877 the line number, and the second 3, naturally, to the order of the word from that selected line. Midsummer was near the beginning of the anthology. Act 3, Scene 1, Line 877 read, “You can never bring in a wall. What say you, Bottom?” Andrew punched “never” into the computer, then hit enter. There was a sound of air casters inflating. A couple of mechanical pops, and then the great stone fireplace began to turn. One hundred eighty slow degrees later, a shaft was open leading down below the fireplace floor.
Down he climbed, between the walls of his kitchen and laundry room, until his feet touched concrete. Gas lanterns on the wall lit the narrow hallway, lined with bricks that curved up the sides until they met in symmetrical arches above the passageway. Andrew stepped carefully over the legs of the skeleton that was propped up against the left side.
Yes, he had a skeleton. A real one. He had bought it from an online site called The Ossuary. In the first few months after his house was finished, Andrew felt it was lacking in character. It lacked the lived-in feeling of an old home with a rich history. So Andrew decided to force some history into it by getting a skeleton to sit up and grin in the secret passageway. Sometimes, he would surround it with stuffed animals as a joke to himself, but at the moment there was only a black stuffed toucan leaning on the skeleton’s pelvis, hard to see under the lanterns. He watched the skeleton out of the corner of his eye as he eased his way past, careful not to touch the ribcage. The skeleton sat there, content and seemingly uninterested.
He flipped a switch at the tunnel’s end. The torches went out and the skeleton was lost to darkness as the end of the passage split open, allowing Andrew to emerge behind the counter of his basement bar. Behind him, the shelves crept back together, moving so slowly that the bottles and glasses barely even rattled.
He poured himself a whiskey, then walked to a door on the other side of his rec room. Behind it, there was a humming, like the activity of a robotic assembly line. He opened the door and walked to the center of the room, where he stood surrounded by one hundred claw machines, the kind of carnival game one would find at an amusement park or in a restaurant lobby. They all brimmed with prizes, making the room a rainbow of yarn, terrycloth, felt, and plush. Some of the claws hung stationary, but the vast majority of them swung about in motion, dipping, clutching at toys, and rising, seemingly controlled by some unknown operator. In each machine, a rotating camera whirred, zooming in on interesting toys, then zooming out to survey the geography of the small plush mountains surrounding them. Andrew sipped his whiskey, watching it all.
Two weeks from the following Sunday, Andrew was in the basement of St. Cajetan Church, filling out an audition form. There were only a handful of other auditioners, eight or nine. Hardly enough for a Shakespeare play. Most of the others knew each other and were chatting in the first row of metal folding chairs. Andrew sat in the second-to-last row, alone. He was trying to think of what to put down as his occupation when someone sat down next to him.
She was a girl, maybe five years younger than him, big brown eyes and short hair in a pixie cut. “Someone new,” she said, sizing Andrew up. “That doesn’t happen often.”
Andrew tried to think of something witty to say. “Yeah, I guess not.”
“I take it you don’t live here in town.”
Andrew had prepared a response for this. “Yeah, I live a ways out, kind of out in the boonies.”
“Even in town is the boonies,” she said, with a face that seemed a little too serious. But then her expression reversed, and her eyes suddenly seemed to take up most of her face. “I’m Allie.”
“Andrew.” He felt his face burn. The director, a woman who introduced herself as Debbie, went over the audition instructions. She asked for a volunteer to go first with a monologue. No one raised a hand. After some awkward seconds, Debbie pushed on. “I guess no one has one. Let’s just go right to reading some scenes, then.”
Andrew had a monologue prepared, of course. It was Cassius’s speech to Brutus in Julius Caesar, where Cassius insists Caesar is no more than a man, despite his pomp and title—a man who can be overthrown. Andrew had rehearsed it continually, to the point where he could pronounce the words perfectly even as he brushed his teeth. But before he could gather the courage to say he had a monologue, Debbie dropped a script into his hands, sneaking a hard look at him over her round glasses. “Andrew Fischer,” she said. “Why don’t you read for Antonio in this scene?”
Afterward, he walked with Allie out to the parking lot. It had grown dark; moonlight etched out crosses atop old tombstones in the church cemetery. “Heading back to the boonies?” Allie asked.
“Yep. No better place to be.”
“We’ll probably go out to the Bow Tie downtown, if you want to come.” Allie indicated her friends, who were congregating in a corner of the parking lot, some of them slapping packs of cigarettes against their palms.
“Yeah, maybe. I don’t know.”
“What, you gonna turn into a pumpkin? You don’t live with your parents, do you?”
“No,” Andrew said, too quickly. “They live where I’m from,” he added, trying to speak with a measured pace. “In Illinois,” he added, as if he needed to round out the statement somehow. It struck him that he was still speaking in blank verse.
“You’re lucky. I still live with my folks. So I didn’t mean it like it was a bad thing. Just curious.”
Andrew realized he had left his living room light on. He could see it over Allie’s shoulder, like a low-hanging star. Allie turned to see what had grabbed his attention, and she, too, gazed up at the gleam from the faraway mansion. Andrew thought he saw her eyes narrow, her expression harden. “I can’t go out tonight, though,” he said. “I have a bunch of work stuff to do.”
“What do you do, anyway?” she asked.
“Financial stuff. I work at home, mostly.”
“Some other night, then. I’m sure I’ll see you at the first rehearsal.” Then, she was off, laughing with her friends without a second look back at him.
Debbie was still in the church basement, gathering her things. “Andrew,” she said, both surprised and in a way that showed off she recalled his name. “Forget something?”
“I have a monologue,” he blurted out, before his resolve failed. “A soliloquy. Well, not a soliloquy, because it’s someone talking to another character, but…it’s a monologue.” Debbie nodded, her eyebrows raising. Andrew spoke, imagining Brutus standing just to Debbie’s left. Brutus had to know Caesar was but a man. A weak man, at that. He urged Brutus to consider the way Caesar had lost to him in a swimming contest, and how he had whimpered in pain when he was overtaken with fever. As the monologue progressed, Andrew felt his mind wander to Allie’s friends. They were all together, at this bar, the Silk Tie or whatever it was. They were friends with her. And for what? Because they had grown up with her? Because they were from this town, where she had lived her whole life, while Andrew was merely a transplant? Didn’t he have as much right to know her as they did, to be among them, laughing at an off-color joke with a glass in his hand? Debbie watched with seeming interest. As he neared the end, she thumbed through her stack of audition sheets and pulled one out.
The Dark Bend Public Library was on Main Street, its rear windows facing the river. The parking meters outside only took coins. Despite having $271,119.78 in his checking account, according to the ledger, Andrew didn’t have a cent in pocket change, nor could he find any nickels in the crease of his car seat. He parked the truck in a grocery store lot several blocks down.
The cast list was the only sheet of paper on the bulletin board in the library lobby. He started at the bottom, allowing his eyes to work their way up one line, one role at a time. There were names he recognized from the small crowd who had come to his night of auditions. He saw Allie’s name near the top. She was Portia. His eyes flipped up to the next line, where the role of Bassanio, Portia’s love interest, was listed. It was a name he didn’t recognize. But there, up above, on the second line from the top, was Andrew’s own name:
Rehearsals were held in the Parks and Recreation building, a former elementary school up the hill away from the river. The smell of first days of school hit Andrew as soon as he walked in the front door, even though the classrooms lining the hall had been remodeled into offices and meeting rooms. He passed what had once been the cafeteria. The open kitchen was still there, along with the lunch counter where students had pushed plastic trays along metal sliders in decades past.
He found Debbie in the gymnasium. “I tried to get the high school auditorium, but they have some band and choir concerts,” Debbie explained, rather apologetically. “And we can’t move into the Ella until the week before the show.”
“The Ella?” Andrew asked.
Debbie explained that the Ella was what everyone called the Ella Boyce Memorial Theater, the turn-of-the century building where the community theater put on its plays. “You know, that old movie theater downtown,” she clarified.
He felt someone hit him playfully on the back. “Andy!” Allie exclaimed, her smile snapping across her face. Her hair was pink.
Debbie let out a small groan and shook her head with mock horror. “Allie, good God.”
“It’s just a temporary dye. It’ll be out in a couple weeks.” Allie twirled a finger in her hair, as if she were wrapping up a stick of cotton candy. “What do you think?” she asked, directing the question to Andrew.
“Bold,” he responded. “I like it.”
“No you don’t, you liar,” she said, grinning.
The first couple rehearsals focused on blocking. Debbie was a director with a plan. She knew exactly where she wanted her actors, sometimes directing them to hit a spot on an exact word. Andrew felt clumsy trying to walk around, read his script, talk as he imagined Shylock would talk, and look at whomever he was supposed to be talking to, all at the same time. A couple of times he even crashed into people, like they were in some British bedroom farce. Debbie just laughed whenever he screwed up, and Andrew started to grow more comfortable.
Even as he began to find his footing, he still found it strange to be rehearsing in a gymnasium. There wasn’t much of a set to work with, so he had to use the basketball markings on the floor to orient himself. The free throw line marked about center stage, meaning that most of the downstage soliloquies were delivered somewhere around the top of the key. It struck Andrew that Shylock spent a lot of time prowling around in the low post just outside of the paint.
One day, during a break between running the second and third acts, Justin, a tall guy playing Antonio who was all knees and sideburns, pushed a cart full of basketballs out of a storage closet. He flipped one to Andrew, prompting, “Take a shot, Shylock.” Andrew dribbled out to the three-point arc, pivoted, and let fly with a jump shot. The ball made a graceful parabola, seeming to pause momentarily at its apex before diving down and swishing through the net. Some of the other guys in the cast turned to watch. Justin bounced the ball back to Andrew, who crossed to the other side and dropped a second perfectly formed three-pointer. He did so twice more before finally missing his fifth shot. “Damn, man,” Justin said as he dribbled the ball after retrieving it. “Who would’ve known Shylock had game?” Andrew would have known. His indoor half-court, after all, did give him ample opportunity to polish his jumper.
The twenty-somethings in the cast went downtown to the bar called the Bow Tie after the rehearsal, as usual. This time, Andrew accompanied them. The Packer game was on TV. Some of the younger barflies sported faded green and yellow jackets, many of them with oil stains worn like badges of honor. Justin was wearing a Packers sweatshirt. Even Allie had on a green t-shirt with the logo, despite it clashing loudly with her pink hair.
“One of these days, I’m gonna make it out to Lambeau,” Justin said as he passed the pitcher to Andrew. “What about you? Ever been?”
Andrew made the split-second decision to tell the truth. “Yeah. Back when I was a senior in college. Fair warning, though. I went because they were playing my team. The Bears.”
“The Bears?” Justin replied, goofily faking a heart attack. “The fuckin’ Bears? You gotta be kidding me!” He cupped his hands and called out to the whole bar, “Hey, we got a fuckin’ Bears fan over here!”
The guys on the bar stools booed and cursed, but grinned as they did so. From somewhere Andrew didn’t see, a few popcorn kernels were thrown at him. Justin laughed and slapped Andrew on the back. “Hey, we can at least agree, fuck the Vikings, right?”
“Fuck the Vikings,” Andrew concurred, and they clinked their glasses.
“How’d you get to be a Bears fan, anyway?”
“Not a whole lot to it. I was born in Chicago.”
“You’re from Chicago?” Allie asked. “How did you end up here?”
But the Packers scored a touchdown on TV, and the ensuing revelry saved Andrew from figuring out how to answer the question.
When he got home, he fired up the big screen TV in the basement. The post-game show was on ESPN. Andrew listened as the talking heads dissected the Packer victory. He fished around in the fridge under the bar until he found a bottle of mineral water. Needing to go up to the second floor bathroom to get the aspirin, he decided to take the secret passage, just for the hell of it. The skeleton sat against the stone wall. Andrew made as if to give it a high give. The skeleton grinned.
Once the show was blocked, Debbie had the actors focusing on their characters. Andrew noted he wasn’t getting much direction. Justin, however, constantly had to endure Debbie cornering him onstage and pulling his face into hers. “Get your nose out of that book!” she yelled, referring to his script. “There are other people up here with you, you know. Make eye contact with them!”
Andrew wondered where his own reprieve came from. He knew that Justin was ten times better at connecting with the other actors onstage than he was. Despite Debbie never saying anything to him about it, Andrew was painfully aware that he hadn’t, not once, spoken one of his lines directly to another actor, looking in their eyes as he addressed them. It was if Andrew was being chewed out by proxy.
“What was up Debbie’s butt tonight?” Allie asked as she and Andrew stood by the small pond behind the Parks and Rec building, skipping stones. Allie’s casts sent her pebbles flipping acrobatically halfway across the pond.
Andrew shrugged. “We’re three weeks away from opening. She’s stressed.”
They walked through the humid night to their parking spots, Andrew to his truck, Allie to hers. “You’re so easygoing about everything, Andy.” Allie flipped open the driver’s side door to her truck, which Andrew noted she hadn’t locked.
“Maybe I get that from my parents. They hardly ever got mad.” Andrew dug through his pockets. “Shit,” he intoned, patting the extra pocket on his cargo shorts.
“What?” Allie asked.
“My keys. I left them in the gym, I think. I set them on a chair when Justin and I were shooting baskets.”
“Do you have a window open at home?”
Andrew’s house was not the sort of house easily broken into. He didn’t say this to Allie. Instead, he asked her if she wouldn’t mind sticking around while he saw if anyone was still in the building. Andrew went around the old school, knocking on windows without success. He found Allie with her head thrown back, singing along with the crackly radio when he returned.
“Any luck?” Andrew showed her his empty hands. She nodded, then kicked open the door of her truck.
A half mile outside of town, Allie turned onto a dirt driveway leading to an old white farmhouse. Its front porch was wider than the house itself. In the side yard, what appeared to be the top, but only the top, of a church steeple sat planted in the grass. “Well, this is it,” Allie announced. “The lap of luxury.”
Inside, a woman sat at an uneven kitchen table, painting a china plate. When she looked up, Andrew saw Allie’s eyes and nose, floating above full cheeks. “Well, hey, lookie here,” she shrieked as in a religious ecstasy, “Allie’s got herself a boyfriend!”
“Shut up, Mom,” Allie retorted. “This is Andy. He’s in the play with me.”
“Ohhhhh,” Allie’s mom said, pronouncing the word as if she were sharing in some private joke. “Nice to meet you, Andy. I’d get up, but, you know, it’s hard to get my big ol’ patootie out of this chair.”
“No need,” Andrew said.
“I’m Renee, by the way. Or you can call me Mom. Or toots, or cutie pie, or whatever.”
Allie’s father, who had been watching the conversation from the flannel couch in the living room, abandoned the TV and met the others in the kitchen. “Hello, Andy,” he said, extending his hand. “I’m Mark. Allie’s pop.” He was a small man with wisps of hair over his scalp, but his grip was strong. He looked at Allie as he opened the pantry. “This is the earliest I’ve seen you home in a long time.” Mark selected a can of cashews, then hopped spryly onto the counter to sit.
“Andy locked himself out of his truck,” Allie explained.
Renee laughed, a short, resounding snort. Then, as if she felt like she might have offended Andrew, she followed up, saying, “If I had a nickel for every time I did that.”
“You guys need something to pick a lock with?” Mark asked. “I’ve got a set of auto jigglers out in the barn.” He threw a cashew up in the air and caught it in his mouth. Andrew felt like he was showing off. “Don’t know if those things work at all, but might be worth a shot.”
Allie spoke up. “Nah. His keys aren’t in the car. He left ‘em in the Parks building. But they open up early in the morning, and I figured Andy could just spend the night here and we’d go over there before I have to be into work.” She turned to Andrew. “That was the plan, right?”
“I didn’t really have a plan,” Andrew shrugged. “But that works.”
“What, you’re thinking we’d put him up in the guest room?” Mark asked, shifting himself on the counter. Allie put her arm around Andrew and flashed the hereditary smile.
“Aw, come on, Dad. Andy and I thought we’d shack up together in my room. We’ll try not to keep you up all night, but no promises.”
Renee snorted again, and Mark smiled, too, but he shook his head violently. “Don’t say things like that. You’re a minister’s daughter, and don’t you forget it.”
“Dad’s a pastor,” Allie explained.
“We run a small church in the outbuilding back there. One service, Sunday morning,” Mark continued. “That’s not my full time job, but I’ve got enough of the preacher in me that I always get my guard up when it comes to these sorts of things.”
“Come on, Dad, we’re kidding. We’re just friends. But,” and here she threw her arm around Andrew again, “when we turn into lovers and start doing all kinds of things unbecoming of a preacher’s daughter, you’ll be the first to know.”
Renee set Andrew up in the guest room at the back of the house. “Good thing we’re having an Indian summer,” she said, pulling a green afghan out of an armoire and setting it at the foot of the bed, which was already cocoon of quilts and throw pillows. “This room gets mighty drafty in the winter. Could be the ghosts passing through. Hope you don’t mind your room being haunted.” Andrew returned her grin. “You need anything else, you just holler.”
“This is more than enough. Thanks so much for the hospitality.”
She cocked her head and smiled. “So polite.” She left, closing the door behind her. Andrew wondered if Allie was still up. But within a minute the hall light went out, and the house was silent. He crawled onto the topmost quilt and pulled the afghan over his shoulders.
He was on the cusp of some forming dream when he thought he heard tapping. Sitting up, he heard it again, for sure this time, coming from the window right behind his head. He pulled one of the checkered curtains aside, and there was Allie, grinning at him. Andrew knelt on the pillow and opened the window, trying to be quiet. Allie held out her hand, and Andrew pulled her up.
“Pathetic, right? Sneaking into my own house like this,” she whispered. “Mom and Dad would’ve heard me if I went through the hall, though.”
Andrew pushed the window down, wincing as its sides groaned along the frame. “Man, that’s loud.”
“Don’t worry. I bet Mom already knows I’m in here. She won’t do anything about it. Dad, he’s a different story. He’d freak out, but Mom always knew I snuck boys into my room when I was in high school.” Allie clicked on the nightlight next to the bed. “She caught me once, but she didn’t say anything to Dad.”
“Wow. You were a teenage rebel,” Andrew smiled.
“You’d never have guessed that from the way I looked.” Allie had opened the closet. She pushed aside some suit jackets, then found what she was looking for. She passed Andrew a large book with a hard purple cover. “Page forty-six.”
Allie had long hair in her senior picture. She wore a yellow sweater, resting her cheek on a closed fist and smiling as she seemingly looked at something to the side of the camera. “I was such a dork.”
Except for the longer hair, to Andrew she looked exactly the same. “What are you talking about? That’s a cute picture.”
She sat down next to him on the bed. “You’re nice,” she said after a while.
Together, they went through all of Allie’s high school yearbooks in reverse chronological order, and then one from middle school. Allie kept apologizing to Andrew for subjecting him to it, but every time they closed one of the books, she was already telling him about something he just had to see from a previous year. Sometime after three o’clock, Allie put the books back in the closet and opened the window. Andrew knew he could have kissed her then. He knew he probably should, in fact. But some other part of him decided he should wait, and instead he helped her lower herself out the window and onto the wet grass.
A week before the show, the cast and crew moved the set pieces and props from the Parks building into the Ella Boyce Theater. Andrew found himself caught off guard by the building’s austere interior. He took in the view from onstage. The house was no more than a hundred and fifty seats, divided into a lower level and balcony, and even a couple of VIP boxes on the sides that looked like they were made for John Wilkes Booth to jump from. Along the front of the balcony, marble busts of grim, mustached men were interspersed with ornate electric candelabras.
“Not bad for a little town, right?” Debbie had joined Andrew now, sharing in his vigil over the silent seats. “The lumber barons had it built, back when Dark Bend was a logging town. People used to actually have a reason to come here.”
Thursday night was the dress rehearsal. Andrew shared a dressing room with Justin and a couple of the other male actors, the guys playing Lorenzo and Bassanio. A half-length mirror, framed by light bulbs, reflected four guys, dressing up in tights for a Shakespeare play. Andrew smiled, despite himself. He found the outfit he was supposed to wear as Shylock in various parts, spread across several different hangers with his name masking-taped to them. Besides the black tights, there was a pair of short tan breeches, and over that he draped a maroon tunic. He donned a pair of spit-polished black boots, then pulled a dark overcoat off its hanger. Putting it on was like crawling into a warm pile of hibernating bears. There was a white scarf for him to wrap around his neck, and then the final piece, a black yarmulke, which Andrew placed over his ears with cautious precision, as if he were placing the magical top hat onto Frosty the Snowman.
Later, Andrew sat alone in the dressing room, carefully gazing into the lit mirror as he applied his stage makeup. He had been required to take a makeup class as a theatre minor, so this wasn’t entirely unfamiliar territory. He had started with an olive-colored foundation, darkening himself up a bit to begin the aging process, and then he added the shadowing under his cheekbones and below his eyes. He furrowed his brow so he could trace the wrinkles, then squinted to do the same with his crow’s feet. He was drawing lines on his lips to make them appear cracked when Debbie entered with a makeup kit. She turned Andrew’s face toward her with her hand and studied him in the light, before nodding her approval. “What have you got there?” Andrew asked, glancing at the kit.
“Finishing touches.” Debbie pulled out a fake beard. It was slightly darker than Andrew’s hair, but it would pass with most of his own hair tucked under the yarmulke. Debbie slathered some yellowish goo on Andrew’s upper lip and cheeks, then pressed the beard onto his face. Andrew instinctively closed his eyes. He felt her breath on his eyelids as she worked her fingers over the beard, sticking it down evenly across his cheeks. “There,” she announced. Andrew looked in the mirror. The beard might have been his own.
Debbie popped the lid off a bowl of flesh-colored putty. Scar wax, Andrew recognized. Debbie pressed a glob onto Andrew’s nose. He watched her slate-colored eyes shift around, considering the nose from several angles, before she reached for another pinch of wax. She put it on his nose again, then worked the putty like she was pulling taffy. Andrew followed her pupils as they trained downward, focusing on the hint of the hook she was forming out of the wax. “Turn toward the mirror,” she said. Andrew did so, allowing her to study his profile. He saw her reflection as she nodded, apparently satisfied, before leaving Andrew with his crooked new face.
After Debbie had arranged the curtain call—Andrew was to bow last, even though he wasn’t the hero of the play—the actors made their way back to their scattered dressing rooms. Justin and the others in Andrew’s room were out of their costumes in five minutes, and Justin was already lining up people to go to the Bow Tie. “Make sure you wash all this shit off your face,” he said. “Anyone showing up downtown with eyeliner is guaranteed an ass-kicking.”
The revelry carried its way outside, and Andrew was left behind in the dressing room. He wiped the foundation from his face, but the hardened scar wax was caked on his nose. He tried scraping it off with the unsharpened end of an eyebrow pencil, but it was like trying to wash out a pot that had been sitting for days. Finally, he grabbed hold of the hook in his nose and yanked. Andrew yelped as the prosthetic nose came off, taking some skin along with it.
Allie entered the dressing room, not bothering to knock. She was out of costume, but she had left most of her makeup untouched. “What was that all about? Shit, what happened? You’re bleeding.”
“I’m fine. Can you get me some paper towels?”
Allie sat with Andrew on the back steps of the Ella as he held one last tissue against his nose, waiting for the blood to finally clot. Even Debbie had gone home by that point. They were alone.
“So what are your plans?” Allie said.
“Think I’ll go home. I don’t know how I feel about going out with a huge scab on the end of my nose. What about you? Gonna head out with the hedonists?”
“Nah. Tomorrow, I’ll paint the town red. Tonight I’m just going to take it easy.”
The moonlight skipped across the concrete steps, and a car honked on the other side of the building, on Main Street. There would be no other moment as good as this. “Why don’t you come over to my place? We could just hang out, or watch a movie.”
Allie just stood up and pulled him to his feet, and they both walked toward the parking lot.
She had laughed in disbelief when Andrew had led her around the building and revealed the waiting blue Ferrari parked under the trees. But when he drew the key fob out of his pocket and started the car, she went silent. She hesitated for a moment when he opened the passenger side door, but she did get in. Now, the two of them were rolling along Highway D. Allie was watching the lights of Dark Bend get smaller as the Ferrari ascended the winding road along the bluff. She turned to look at Andrew briefly when he veered onto the driveway and punched in the key for the gate, but her eyes went back to the window as they drove up to the house. The fountain in the front was working. Its colored lights danced beneath the falling water. Andrew took an extra turn around the circle drive, wondering if she would say something about it. She did not.
He had the route they would take on the tour of his house all planned out. The lower level of the garage led into the basement. Allie’s eyes swept across the room, taking in the arcade games and pinball machines, the seventy-inch TV on the wall, and the bar, lit up in greens and blues.
He showed her the TV in the living room, the largest one in the house. “Want me to turn it on?” he asked, picking up the remote from the couch. But Allie had crossed the room to the massive window, the one Andrew used to gaze out at Dark Bend while he did his morning packing. Andrew hit a button on the TV remote, and the living room lights dimmed. Allie’s reflection faded from the window, replaced the town at night. Most of the windows were dark, but the neon hues of the bars lit up Main Street, and then there was the gas station, the McDonald’s, and a few scattered white dots along the hillside. Andrew watched Allie as she took it in. She was searching for something. “Your house is there, way over to the left. See? The porch light’s on, and you can see the lamppost next to the chapel out back.” They stared together at the two little white specks. “If you think that’s cool, come check this out.” She followed him, slowly, looking back at the window.
He led her back into the basement, into the room with the claw machines. As if they had been waiting to be watched, several of the machines sprang into action, and the room was alive with buzzing and humming. In one of the machines near Allie, the robotic arm jerked back and forth above a fuzzy lime green toy that looked like some miniaturized hybrid of a saxophone and trumpet. The claw descended, grasped onto the instrument’s bell, but lost hold as it snapped a ninety degree turn on its return trip to the chute. “When I was a freshman in college, I had this idea for an app,” Andrew said to Allie, who was winding her way among the machines. “A claw machine game. Those already existed, but my idea was to make it real, tied to a real machine that you controlled in real time. Each machine has a camera, see? The user controls it along with the claw.” Allie watched the same claw make another grab for the trumpet-sax, losing it at the same point. “If you win, you get the actual prize sent to you. That was by far the hardest part, figuring how to keep track of what user won what prize.” Allie peered into another machine, watching its claw catch a stuffed dragon by the tail. “When I was a junior, I sold the patent and the license to the software. That’s where the money came from. But I wanted to keep the business. Just to have something to do with my time, I guess.”
Allie looked at him. “Why did you come here?”
“That view you just saw,” he answered. “After selling the patent, I wanted to build a house. I searched all over the Midwest for a piece of property with the perfect view. And this was it.” Allie turned back to the machines, watching as one of the claws rapped against the side glass several times before diving into a pile of pink and orange fur. “Here,” Andrew said, taking her arm. “There’s something else I want to show you.”
He brought her into his office. He clicked on the computer icon with the door and question mark, causing the numbers to scroll across the screen. He pulled the Shakespeare anthology off the shelf and started to flip through, but then thought better of it and passed the book to Allie. The code, according to the screen, was “LLL 126.96.36.199.” He prompted her to turn to Love’s Labour’s Lost in the anthology, then to find Act 2, Scene One. “There should be line numbers on the side,” he indicated. “Find line fifteen. What’s it say?”
“Beauty is bought by judgment of the eye,” she finally responded.
“OK. That’s a good one. So the ‘seven’ means it’s the seventh word in the line, and that’s”—he counted to himself—“oh. It’s ‘the.’ That’s kind of boring. Well, whatever. At least it was a cool line. Want to type it in?” Allie closed the book, but shook her head. Andrew shrugged and hit the three letters, then pressed the enter key. The fireplace turned, causing Allie to jump.
She watched as Andrew made his way from the computer to the newly exposed hatch on the fireplace floor. “You’re not afraid of enclosed spaces, are you?”
“No,” she said.
“Good thing. There’s not a lot of room, so do me a favor and don’t fall and break your neck. Or if you plan to, you go first so you don’t fall on top of me.” He flashed a grin, and she responded with a smile of her own, although it looked different than her usual one.
She was half a minute behind him in getting down to the passageway. The small flames danced under the lanterns’ glass domes. “You’re the first person who’s ever been in this thing since it was built. Besides me, I mean. Well, and not counting this guy here.” Andrew pointed down the hallway. The skeleton flickered under the erratic light. Allie gasped again.
In the skeleton’s outstretched arm was a plush toy, a fuzzy pink rose with bugging-out eyes. Andrew had put considerable effort into making the skeleton strike that pose. He had been able to get the right arm limply extended by bending the left arm in front and nestling it between the pelvis and ribs, using that arm as a support beam for the right one, but getting the boney hand to clutch onto the flower had been more difficult. He had ultimately needed to resort to glue.
“It’s real,” Andrew said, bringing her toward it. “I got it off the Internet, if you can believe that.” Allie backed against the other side of the passageway, keeping her eyes on the skeleton.
“How do I get out of here?” she said.
“What, you’re not afraid of it, are you? It’s just a bunch of bones.” Andrew demonstrated by turning the skull to look away from her. “It can’t hurt you.”
“I want to get out,” Allie insisted. Andrew flipped the light switch. The wall at the end slowly divided, revealing the martini glasses and beer mugs on the shelves under the bar. Allie pushed past Andrew. He followed her uncertainly as she half walked, half jogged toward the hall leading to the garage. He found her in the passenger seat of the Ferrari. “Take me back to the theater,” she said. “Please.” Neither spoke as Andrew pulled the Ferrari out of the garage and drove down the winding road along the hillside. Nor was anything said when Allie got out into the parking lot at the Ella. Andrew let his car idle, watching her walk to her truck. She got inside it, but Andrew never heard the roar of the engine, never saw the headlights flick on. The truck was still sitting there, dark, when Andrew finally drove out of the parking lot five minutes later.
His dressing room looked much emptier when he returned to the Ella the next evening for the opening performance. The only hangers on the wardrobe rack had pieces of his own costume. Justin and the others were nowhere to be seen. He stripped down to his boxers and undershirt, then sat in front of the mirror and did his makeup, everything but the nose. He pulled his black tights on, then stepped into the breeches and throwing the tunic over himself. The gigantic coat was next, and finally the yarmulke. He sat in front of the mirror. Bits of conversation flitted in from the adjoining dressing room, but he did his best not to eavesdrop. He checked his watch. Debbie was not coming. He pulled the lid off of the scar wax and elongated his nose.
There was no one else backstage. The house sounded nearly full, but he didn’t see a single other actor around, nor could he find Debbie or her stage managers. It was like a bad dream, like would be going onstage alone, forced to act out all the parts without having learned the lines.
He was in the wings, stage left, and he was able to sneak a look at the crowd through a tear in one of the side curtains. There was no one he recognized.
Faintly, from below him, he heard voices. As if Hamlet’s dead father were whispering to him beneath a trap door in the stage. He recognized Debbie’s voice. There was a general cheer. The rest of the cast was in the basement green room, engaging in some preshow ritual or pep talk.
He stayed where he was, leaning behind the proscenium arch, until the house lights went down, the crowd quieted, and the stage lights went up. Justin strode out from stage right, telling the young men following him, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.”
Andrew only half-watched the first scene. He mumbled his lines, pretending to prepare for his first appearance, Scene Three. However, when Allie entered from stage right for the start of Scene Two, Andrew gave up fooling himself. Her hair had been dyed once more. Red brick-colored curls over her shoulders clashed with her gold dress. With her hair half done up, she looked taller than normal. From her first line, she commanded the attention of everyone, onstage and off. Like always.
He realized for the very first time that Shylock and Portia only appeared together in one scene, that being at the very end of the play. For that, he was thankful. He would get a chance to lose himself in his own make-believe idea of Venice before he would have to face her. Things might soften. Maybe she would forget herself, too.
There was a hush from the crowd upon his first entrance. It only lasted a moment before it gave way to a discernible murmuring. The stage lights prevented him from seeing the audience clearly, but he was able to perceive the outlines of husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, lifelong friends who spent the majority of their lives as next-door neighbors, all whispering to one another, nodding and judging him. He was not Andrew Fischer. His name was Shylock. He was a man who cared little whether he was judged or watched. He locked his eyes on the actor playing Bassanio, whose real name he suddenly could not recall, and delivered his opening line. “Three thousand ducats; well.” The voice came from some previously unknown part of himself. Bassanio, caught off guard, did a double-take before responding. And so it was that Andrew became Shylock.
The intermission fell between Acts Two and Three. He retreated to the hiding spot he had claimed in the wings, swaddling himself in his coat as a sign that no one should disturb him. He counted out the fifteen minutes for intermission, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, all the way up to nine hundred Mississippi. When he got there, he unwrapped himself from his coat like a vampire, impatient for the next act to begin.
In Act Three, his eyes adjusted to the stage lights, and he could fully make out the audience. They were unknown to him—and to Shylock, he tried to remind himself. But when he saw Allie’s parents up in the front row of the balcony, he could not refrain from delivering his lines to them. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” he spat at Mark. “Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” He did not break eye contact, nor would Ally’s father. Andrew turned his gaze to Renee. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” He thought he saw Renee’s lips curl up at this, as though she were suppressing a laugh. He threw the rest of his speech at her as hard as he could. “If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”
By the time Act Four came around, he had mostly cooled. Whatever newfound hatred he had for his castmates, for the audience watching him, had been replaced by a methodical desire to see Antonio meet his downfall. Justin had been brought before him to be judged, but Andrew did not see Justin. There was only Antonio, whose pound of flesh he was eagerly salivating over. In fact, he had not even seen her, had forgotten entirely that she was in the scene, until she spoke directly to him.
“Is your name Shylock?” Allie asked.
An unearthly pause swept over the stage. Andrew felt his body turn icy. Long seconds passed as Andrew struggled to remember his line.
Allie was just starting to repeat herself when Andrew sputtered out, much louder than was called for by the moment, “Shylock is my name!”
From there, he went on autopilot. His lines came out of him, but they were merely the byproducts of countless rehearsals of the words. He did not see Portia and Antonio. He saw only Allie, who had run away from him as if he were a monster, and Justin and the rest of them, who knew nothing of life other than what passed for an existence in Dark Bend, Wisconsin. Them, who scraped together enough money for pitchers of cheap beer with their part-time jobs as waitresses and cooks. Them, who lived with their parents. Them, who failed to fully comprehend the very ideas of the play they were now in.
Allie would not look at him, even as she delivered Portia’s long speech to Shylock, imploring him to be merciful. He felt his breath catch in his throat. He would make her look. Her, ask for mercy from him? For what? For coming up with the claw machine app? For making a fortune and choosing to move to their town? He had done nothing wrong. He owed them nothing. They owed him everything.
He couldn’t even allow her to get to the end of the speech before his next line erupted. “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond!”
She stopped. For the first time since see had seen the Ferrari, she looked at him. And it was clear there was nothing left of the girl he had met at auditions. Not for him. She delivered her next line, crossing away from him, much earlier than was dictated by the blocking.
The applause following the curtain’s closing was subdued and polite. It rose in volume a little upon the reopening of the curtain and the first group of actors’ bows. Andrew had retreated to his offstage nest following his final scene, where he had watched the rest of the play, no longer clouded with dark thoughts. In fact, during the course of the two scenes that wrapped up the play, he gradually brought himself to the conclusion that he had just been acting all along, calling up fictions of greed and vengefulness the way any good actor would for his role.
There were a few scattered whoops among the clapping when the actor playing Bassanio took his bow. Then Justin strode on, removing his sword from its scabbard and brandishing it with a flourish as he bowed. A few people in the back row stood up, probably a group of Justin’s buddies. Several more audience members stood up for Allie, her parents among them.
He reached up to adjust his yarmulke, then crossed out to center stage. The rest of the cast had parted ways to make room for him, half on stage left and half on stage right. He came down to the apron of the stage. Those in the audience who had been standing for Allie were now seated. Clasping his hands together and interlocking his fingers, he bowed.
He would never be able to recall where it had started. When he would try, it seemed that it had begun somewhere in the back, underneath the overhanging balcony. Not that its beginnings mattered. However it happened, it started small but grew rapidly: a few lone boos at first, gathering support, blending into others, like faint candle fires being struck in several places, burning into the floor and crawling into one another until the room was aflame. Everyone in the crowd was booing. Some of them cupped their hands around their mouths, directing their boos at him so he could actually feel them in his chest.
He slunk off, stage right this time, heading for the backstage door into the parking lot. He did not get in his truck. Instead, he trudged down the small hillside until he picked up the path along the river. He followed it westward, taking it away from downtown. The lamp posts that were evenly spaced along the concrete pathway eventually ended. The path itself turned to gravel, and Andrew found himself stepping along abandoned railroad tracks.
It wasn’t until he was walking up the winding road to his mansion that he realized he was still in costume. Still in the black yarmulke, the giant coat. Still smeared with stage makeup, still traced with wrinkles, still wearing that ridiculous nose.
He entered his house by the front door. He found it difficult to force the door from its frame. It groaned with discontent as he finally got it open. He started up the spiral staircase, but he stopped, turned around, and went down to the basement.
In the secret passage, he sat across the wall from his skeleton. Andrew picked up the stuffed rose, which had fallen to the ground. He felt the scar wax built up on the tip of his nose, tracing his finger along the side, trying to discern where his nose ended and the wax started. The skeleton across the hall returned his stare. In its sinking eyes, Andrew saw a dark nothing.