The George Spelvin Players
by Rebecca Makkai
Barnes Harlow was actually Jason something, but no one dreamed of calling him that. He was Barnes Harlow when he was robbed of the Daytime Emmy, he was Barnes Harlow all twelve years he played Dalton Shaw, Esq., and he was Barnes Harlow when, in that guise, he married Silvia Romero Caldwell Blake, poisoned his mother-in-law, opened a restaurant, burned down that restaurant, was drugged by Michaela, and saved the Whitney family from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Soledad shared these details with the core company, who sprawled exhausted on the stage. In the five minutes since Barnes had left the theater, Soledad had relayed the basic history of the fictional Appleburg, Ohio, and told them what Barnes Harlow looked like with his shirt off. “Not greasy-smooth,” she said. “Just, you know, TV-star smooth.” She swore her grandmother had tapes of the show, stacks of VHS cassettes in her basement.
“On a more professional level,” Tim said, “what did we think? Star-struck aside?”
Beth vowed to speak last. Last week in the green room, Phyllis had accused her of treating every conversation like a race.
Phyllis lay back, staring into the rafters. Beth could see up her skirt, not that Phyllis would care. “Isn’t this your decision, Tim?” Her smoker’s voice lent her authority. “Cast him or don’t. Regardless of his chest-hair situation.”
DeShawn said, “You know how much they memorize on the soaps? You can’t be a slacker.”
But it would be different, Tim said, with someone like Barnes among them. (Tim undid and redid his ponytail—his deliberation pose.) Women who’d watched Barnes on Splendor of Love, who knew he’d moved back to Missouri to care for his mother and recover from whatever ego or amphetamine issue he was dealing with, would flock from miles around. They’d throw roses. They might throw underwear. At Bob Cratchit. With children in the audience.
“It’s called publicity,” Soledad said.
“Something’s wrong with him,” Beth finally offered. (Quickly—before Phyllis rolled her eyes, before Soledad crossed her arms like she was being bullied.) “Sure, they killed his character, but that happens all the time. They don’t leave New York and try out for, I’m sorry, a dinky-ass theater’s obligatory Christmas play. In what’s essentially a basement. I think we’re his rock bottom.”
DeShawn said, “All the soaps are getting cancelled. And his mom has lupus.”
So it was decided. But when Beth looked back later, she had to admit no one was thinking clearly that night. Tim had barely resisted stroking Barnes’s hair. All three women were involuntarily smitten. DeShawn, who had eyes for no one but his Dave, still couldn’t stop grinning. Barnes Harlow had been hired by five excitement-starved actors who were, every single one, sexually attracted to him. What they should have done was consulted Kostas, who was backstage writing up the performance report. A straight guy with a crush on Soledad would’ve been the first to call Barnes a prettyboy, to suggest they check his arms for track marks. Barnes’s good looks (the bone structure, that hair, the green eyes) were so cheesy, so predictable, that perhaps each of them felt alone in seeing through all that, seeing that the real Barnes Harlow—Jason, in fact!—was vulnerable and lonely. And the great danger in believing you alone understood someone was the sense of ownership that followed close behind. Beth knew this from hard experience, but it didn’t come to mind. Instead she mused that playing Mrs. Cratchit would be more tolerable this time around.
They herded up the stairs, dropping people at each floor. Tim lived on the second, across from the young librarian who was the only non-theater person in the building. Beth lived above the librarian, across from DeShawn-and-Dave. Soledad and Phyllis somehow coexisted on the fourth. Back in the seventies, an original ensemble member had owned the building, built the theater space, and willed the whole thing to the company. The librarian’s rent helped offset utilities, and between tickets and donations and extra jobs (Beth was brunch hostess at The Bullfrog), they managed to keep the theater running and not starve. They did their laundry in the costume room. Tim’s partner Len kept the books, DeShawn’s partner Dave did the publicity and advertising and even acted on occasion, Kostas lived across town and stage-managed and designed the sets and was Technical Director too, and Aunt Jacqui, the actual aunt of some original, long-gone ensemble member, did props and costumes. Locals and college students filled out most casts. It was a bizarre setup for a theater: half-residential, half-repertory, non-equity, barely tenable, always teetering between ruin and success, between embarrassment and artistry. But it was steady work (unheard of, unless you wanted to move to Branson and sing about riverboats), and everyone, with the exception of Phyllis, was young and headed (they hoped, they hoped) for bigger towns. Every few years, someone left for St. Louis or Chicago to try their luck. It had never happened before now that someone had come in the other direction, voluntarily.
Beth called her sister that night to tell her about Barnes Harlow. But her brother-in-law picked up the phone, started bantering in his lawyer voice. “How’s life in the M.O.?” he said. “Still acting?”
“Still lawyering?” she responded, and almost hung up, but took a deep breath and didn’t. He was family. Or at least, this was how the rest of the world defined family. People who married your sister. People who shared your vision problems and allergies. You called them twice a year and caught up. And then you went back to your real family, the one you’d chosen, the one you’d built things with.
When rehearsals started, Barnes Harlow was nothing but professional. He memorized quickly, asked questions but not too many, watched everyone else’s scenes with dark eyebrows pleasantly raised. He remembered their names. “Beth,” he’d said at their second meeting. “Beth with the red hair.” She wanted to answer, “Barnes. Barnes with shoulders of Adonis,” but of course she didn’t. They comported themselves more professionally when he was in the room—not snapping at Tim, not swearing, even after the children playing the young Cratchits had gone home. They were still performing Uncle Vanya at night, so they rehearsed afternoons, plus Saturdays for the Cratchit family scenes. They’d already switched to their seasonal habit of referring to Tim as Big Tim, just to differentiate him from Tiny Tim the character. Barnes joined in gamely. The first time the toilet flushed above the stage—the librarian had been warned about evening performances, but they knew if they restricted her plumbing all day long she’d move out—Tim turned a sort of spaghetti-sauce shade Beth had never seen on him. The sound was impressive, a churning waterfall on all sides as things traveled through the pipes and out over the lobby.
“Our secret’s out,” Tim said. “We perform in a sewer.”
“It’s like a guerrilla theater from the sixties!” Barnes insisted. “You know, doing shows in some warehouse in the Village!”
DeShawn, positioned as Scrooge behind her, whispered in Beth’s ear: “I can see it. A Nude Christmas Carol. Bongo drums and strobe lights. One of those deals where everyone’s covered in chicken blood.”
Barnes sat in the audience for the last performance of Vanya and started the standing ovation. He joined them at the cast party up at Tim’s, but he stopped at one beer, as if on principle—as if a second beer would compromise his integrity. He recycled the bottle, clapped Tim on the shoulder, and took off. Of course they talked about him the rest of the night. Beth tried changing the subject every few minutes: “Did you see that woman with the transparent shirt?” she said. “In the front row?” And she said, “Let’s never do a play with a gunshot again. I aged twelve years.” But each time, it was seconds before they were back on Barnes and what costars he’d dated. Had he been on Splendor of Love when Meg Pemberton was on Splendor of Love, before she changed her chin and moved to Hollywood and made Julia Roberts obsolete? Yes, he definitely had. He’d kissed her! Soledad was sure. Were they still in touch? Would movie stars stay in touch with people from the soap world? A plan was hatched: Soledad would find a magazine with Meg Pemberton on the cover, and she’d read it in front of Barnes to see if he said something. “This is sick,” Tim said at regular intervals. “We shouldn’t talk about him.” And then DeShawn would say, “He’s kind of tall for TV, don’t you think?”
There was a term Beth had learned in a sociology class, though she couldn’t remember it now, for a society where people had more than one connection to each other. In a big city, a guy would be your mailman and nothing else. But in a small town, he might be your mailman and your cousin and your neighbor, and his wife is your boss. She wondered what her sociology professor would make of the George Spelvin Players—who not only lived and worked together, but whose constantly shifting fictional relationships were also vivid, if not real. Beth had been Tim’s mother, his wife, his sister, his therapist. He had killed her in six different plays. Now, as Jacob Marley, he was her husband’s dead boss. Beth had kissed most of them, even Phyllis. She’d been naked under a blanket with DeShawn every night for five weeks. She wondered if what they were trying to do with Barnes, through this obsessive examination, was to weave him into their complex fabric. They refused to let him be simply a colleague. They wanted to envelop him: talent, legitimacy and all.
Late that night, Beth started to tell them this theory—or at least DeShawn, who was near her on the couch and would actually listen—but then she remembered she was practicing restraint. She’d stopped telling DeShawn he and Dave were codependent, and she’d stopped telling Phyllis when her hook earrings were about to fall out. Part of her was sure that if her hair weren’t flaming red, people wouldn’t think she was so loud. But it was red, and so they insisted she talked too much, and so she was trying to accommodate them. It was her new thing.
That next week, during dress and tech rehearsals, things started to go missing. First it was Scrooge’s candlestick, which DeShawn and Aunt Jacqui both swore had been on the prop table. They could hardly think of anywhere to look; they both just stood staring at the X of glow tape where it belonged. Then it was Soledad’s phone, which finally showed up on the back of the green room toilet though she hadn’t used the bathroom all night. The next day it was the festive bonnet Phyllis wore as Mrs. Fezziwig, its labeled clip still on the clothes rack.
Tim rattled the chains he wore as Marley’s ghost, till they all looked at him like children in trouble with the PE teacher. “If this is part of the prank war,” he said, “it’s not funny. We don’t cross this line.” The prank war was vague and unending, with some origin story about a broken-down car. The war might occasionally come onstage—the letter you were handed as a Russian peasant might, in fact, bear a pornographic image—but theft was beyond the pale. It slowed rehearsals. It cost money. Aunt Jacqui would have to stay late to lock things up, Tim announced. Beth could hear Soledad and Phyllis whispering, and she knew they were asking what the point was, when everyone had keys to everything.
On Tuesday night, Beth and Barnes hung around so Tim could reblock the end of the second act, where they danced together around the table. Again and again, Bob Cratchit swung Mrs. Cratchit through the air. Their chests pressed together fifty times in a row. Laughing and giddy, Beth wiped the sweat off Barnes’s forehead with her apron. It became clear that they were both waiting for Tim to leave—that they were following another script, larger and more inevitable than any Dickens adaptation. Beth’s veins were on fire. Her body could believe this luck, even as her brain could not.
It was late enough that the librarian started making noise again upstairs. The dishwasher, then loud talking. There were two sets of footsteps, one heavier than usual. “Lucy’s got herself a date,” Tim said. “Go, Lucy.”
Beth said, “So do you. Isn’t Len waiting?”
He gave a sort of checkmated look. “I’ll walk you upstairs, Beth.”
Barnes waved goodnight, but Beth knew he wouldn’t really leave the building.
Tim stood with an arm on her doorframe. “It’s not worth it,” he said. “Is it? This could be so messy. He’s a real person, not just some fantasy.”
“I’m the only one who didn’t fall for the fantasy. I’m the only one not stalking him on the Internet. You do not get to accuse people of having fantasy issues, Tim.”
Tim threw his whole head back so all she could see was his Adam’s apple. He stomped downstairs and slammed his own door. Another sociological complexity: Tim was her boss. Yet she was allowed to yell at him on an almost daily basis.
Ten minutes later, Barnes knocked on her door with no pretense or excuse, just a loopy grin.
Beth noted that soap stars don’t kiss with any remarkable skill. But they’ve been coached in variety, in camera angles, so they never stop moving their faces around. Up, down, left, right, neck, to please the invisible director. The sex was a good deal less acrobatic. Soap stars are not coached in sexual positions, she figured. Just in strategic sheet placement.
She decided to wash her linens the next afternoon. It wasn’t that Barnes’s smell was some disgusting thing she wanted to eradicate—it was just that, unless a man was her actual boyfriend, she didn’t feel like finding his hair on her pillowcase. She’d had the habit since college, to the point that when her sophomore roommates saw her heading out with the laundry bag, they’d screech and groan and give her the third degree.
But when she got to the costume shop, Lucy the librarian was there, and the washer and dryer were both full.
Lucy jumped when she saw Beth. “I’m so sorry!” she said. She never seemed to figure out that she was the only one who paid rent, that she didn’t need to apologize for taking up room on the staircase and in the parking lot. Beth glanced at Lucy’s plastic laundry basket. Just a few wet clothes waiting to be air-dried. She wanted to lift them by the corners, to see if there were small, pilfered props hiding in the wet cups of the bras.
“Don’t worry,” Beth said, and she hoisted herself to sit on the sewing table. “How’s the library?” She was aware that when she tried to make small-talk, it came off as condescending. And maybe she did feel sorry for this woman, younger than herself but pasty and baffled, her clothes a mess of rumpled layers.
Lucy smiled graciously. “Can I ask something? That new guy.”
“Oh, that’s Barnes.”
“Did he just move to town?”
“Crazy beautiful, right? And he speaks Italian. Hey, did you know we’re having a theft problem?” She watched Lucy carefully, to see if she’d cover her mouth defensively, if blood would rush to her neck.
Instead she said, “In the building?”
“The theater. Props and stuff.”
“But nothing valuable?”
“Props are valuable to us.”
“Oh, I know. That’s terrible.”
“Tell us if you see anything weird, okay?”
The dryer buzzed, and Lucy began scooping things out. “I wanted to ask, though,” she said, and her voice echoed in the cavern of the dryer. “He looks so familiar.”
“He was on Splendor of Love.” It suddenly occurred to her that Lucy was actually quite pretty, even with the stringy hair and the skin that showed every blemish. She added, “I think he’s still dating someone from New York.”
“That fits. The New York thing. Because I thought I recognized him from that old Head & Shoulders commercial. The one with the high school teacher, and the kids are laughing at him?”
Beth doubted it was true. It wouldn’t be plausible for high school students to laugh at someone who looked like Barnes, no matter how many white plastic flakes were sprinkled in his hair. “Huh. Maybe. Soap actors do a lot of commercials.”
“For soap, I guess.” Lucy smiled like they were supposed to bond over this.
“But he’s not worth it.”
“Not worth what?”
“Like, pursuing.” She saw that she’d insulted her, that this had never been on Lucy’s mind, so she kept talking just to cover up. “Or employing, for that matter. He’s got a New York ego. And the rest of us are just here to have fun. I mean, you know why we’re called the George Spelvin, right?”
Lucy shook her head. “Was that the founder?”
“God, no. It’s an old theater joke. If you’re in a play that’s so bad you don’t even want it on your résumé, that’s what you put in the playbill. Like, ‘the role of Hamlet will be played by George Spelvin.’ So can you imagine? The whole theater. The whole thing is a joke. That’s the message.” Though none of them believed it really. Hadn’t August Platt done so well when he got to Chicago? And he wasn’t so much better than the rest of them.
“I love it,” Lucy said. “I can’t believe I never knew.” She was ready to go, her basket a heap of dry clothes on top of the wet bras, the last load spinning in the dryer.
Beth waved her fingers and put on a witchy voice: “Things are so seldom as they appear.”
That night in the green room, Tim gave her a searching, accusatory look. She wasn’t surprised when Soledad and Phyllis did the same. DeShawn just giggled.
Barnes walked in, his black leather coat spotted with snow, and they all stared at their scripts, their costumes, the mirror. Beth asked him about the second act, if the new exit gave him time to change back to the Charles Dickens costume he wore as narrator. Barnes looked a little startled, maybe even a little hurt. Beth assumed he was used to a more moony-eyed version of the morning after. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure. We’ll find out today.”
The Cratchit children had homework spread on the floor: Wyatt, whose emaciated frame was perfect for Tiny Tim; Liberty, a tenth grader with a fierce crush on Barnes; and Micah, who’d played Tiny Tim just four years ago. Soledad was small and squeaky enough to play Martha, the oldest Cratchit.
Here was Aunt Jacqui, glasses pushed up into the mess of her hair, shirt smeared. She said, “I am losing my mind.” She’d taken inventory last night, but now the long green cape for the Ghost of Christmas Future was missing. Fezziwig’s shoes were gone. Scrooge’s porridge bowl, his top hat, Martha Cratchit’s sewing. Kostas planned to station his biggest college kid, Double Denis, by one prop table. He’d stand at the other himself.
Backstage, Tim whispered to Beth at every opportunity. “Could it be Kostas?” he said. “Could Kostas be jealous of Barnes? Like, is he mad at you?”
“Kostas is in love with Soledad.”
“Still. Didn’t he have a thing with you once? Maybe it’s like an alpha male deal.”
Beth looked across the stage and into the other wing where Kostas stood guard, picking his ear. “It couldn’t be the kids. They weren’t here.”
“It’s someone who lives in the building. Right? It’s someone with keys.”
The other adult cast members, the ones from town, were unlikely suspects as well. Palmer the retired lawyer, playing Fezziwig; A.J. from the bank, playing Bob Cratchit’s brother and other small parts. They were both so tired at the end of rehearsals that Beth couldn’t imagine them lurking around the building an extra hour just to make off with props.
Tim’s face was flushed, and he adjusted his ponytail again and again. He was thrilled, she saw, in the true sense of the word. To be honest, she was, too. Who were they, as actors, but people who manufactured and played at excitement every night of the week? And here came a real mystery, a real drama. If she weren’t exhausted from staying up with Barnes, she might have met Tim’s energy level. They might have grasped each other’s arms and jumped up and down.
That night, as she brushed her teeth, she looked in the mirror and saw an empty spot on the shelf behind her. It took a minute to remember what had been there: the candle shaped like a water lily. It was old and caked in dust, and she’d only lit it once. She looked on the floor and behind the toilet and even under the sink. She concocted an elaborate scenario where Barnes had knocked it on the floor, and was so embarrassed to have broken her candle that he flushed the pieces down the toilet. But she knew that wasn’t it. She felt sick and electrified at once. She washed her face and then walked through the apartment.
Her jewelry was still there, and her wallet. The little dragon statue by the stereo. She went to her bedroom. Barnes was never there alone, but she’d been half-asleep when he left, and it was dark. His glass of water still sat on the nightstand. The photo of her father, though—a parrot on his arm at the Disney World bird show right before the cancer, the little pewter frame—that was gone.
There were two more days, two more rehearsals, till opening night. In the women’s dressing room, Soledad gave a report: “So he overlapped with Meg Pemberton for five years,” she said. “They aren’t close, but sometimes when she’s back in New York for an opening, she’ll drop by the set.”
Liberty, pinning up her hair at the mirror, squealed. “I bet he has pictures of her!”
Phyllis said, “Have you noticed he never mentions his mother?”
Liberty said, “My English teacher grew up watching Splendor of Love. What if some of his New York friends come to the show?”
“No,” Beth said, because she could see Liberty had her hopes up. “Not here. Not going to happen.”
It was technically Thanksgiving but no one had plans, not even Barnes. There was some vague talk of sushi.
Backstage, Beth hooked a finger under Barnes’s suspender and said, an inch from his ear, “Come visit again tonight.” Why this should be her instinct, she couldn’t fathom. But her later justification went something like this: When you have a suspect, you want him in custody. You want to question him, whether or not he knows he’s being questioned. She could smell him now, musk and makeup and sweat. He said, “Yeah. Let’s do that.” His lips brushed her forehead as he turned back to the stage.
She poured them each a glass of red wine. Barnes took two sips, then set his glass down and didn’t touch it again. Beth said, “I haven’t gotten to know you very well.”
He grinned and did a fake chin stroke. Of course he thought she was falling for him, that she’d brought him here to peer deep into his soul. And maybe she had, but not in the way he expected. “I’m a pretty normal guy,” he said.
“Do you think you’ll ever go back to New York?”
“Too soon to tell. I grew up here, though. I like the weather.”
Maybe it was the mention of weather that sent Beth into overdrive. She wasn’t going to sit here listening to chit-chat. She said, “Isn’t there stuff you miss? Like, doesn’t everyone in New York have a shrink? Don’t you miss your shrink?”
He laughed as if she’d simultaneously charmed him and scared him. “I underestimated you. You’re a firecracker.”
Beth said, “I take it back. I don’t think you do have a shrink.”
“You’re unable to talk about yourself.”
He ran his finger down her neck and seemed to attempt some kind of hypnotizing trick with his eyes. “You know, your skin is perfect.”
“Case in point.”
She slept with him—what was the harm, as long as she didn’t leave him alone?—and tried again afterward, when he was tired and bare-chested and theoretically more vulnerable.
She said, “I think everyone’s basically deranged. Don’t you? I mean, when I was little I would push my sister into walls. And I’m afraid of microwaves. I have to leave the room if the microwave is on, because I think it’s trying to irradiate me. That’s what I want to know about you. What brand of crazy you are.”
“I’m boring,” he said. “Is that a brand of crazy?”
“It might be. I’m pretty sure it is.”
Tim had called a meeting. Three PM in the green room, before the final rehearsal (an early one, so they could head down to promote the play at the tree lighting ceremony in town). Kostas glared—not just at Tim, but all of them—leaning against the wall. He had things to do, a scrim to fix, missing light gels to replace. His crew was there, five guys from the community college, too techy to care about missing costumes, too scared of Kostas to dream of pulling pranks. Aunt Jacqui sat on the couch with her face in her hands, glasses hanging down her back on their chain. The actors: Soledad on DeShawn’s lap, Phyllis on the piano bench. Palmer the lawyer and A.J. from the bank. Wyatt with his mom, Liberty and Micah without theirs. DeShawn’s Dave, even, and Tim’s Len, over by the door, just because they lived here. Blair, the college girl from the ticket office. Barnes looked uncomfortable in the blue chair. But then, it was a really uncomfortable chair.
Tim stood in the middle of the room, turning slowly. Theater in the round. He said, “If you want the show to fail, if you want the theater to close, this is the way. The collection bucket is gone, the Christmas goose is gone. Soledad, your whole Fan costume is gone.”
“And my wallet,” Aunt Jacqui said. “Don’t forget my wallet.”
“I don’t even know what to say anymore. Props and costumes will be locked in my car overnight. Don’t complain if they smell like smoke.”
Aunt Jacqui let out a sort of sob.
Soledad said, “Can I point something out?” She didn’t wait. “Whoever’s doing this isn’t suddenly going to confess everything to the entire group. This is a waste of time. Some of us need to rest.”
Tim ignored her. “We can call the police, but they’ll mess everything up.”
Phyllis cleared her throat, and they knew from long experience that she’d keep doing it until they were all looking at her, so they turned quickly. Beth even forced herself to fold her hands in her lap and lean forward. “There’s something obvious we’re overlooking,” Phyllis said. “The one person with keys who is not in this room is that librarian.”
Because it seemed relevant, Beth told them the librarian had seemed jumpy. She didn’t tell them about her own apartment, to which Lucy wouldn’t have a key. Maybe it was a red herring, after all. She checked Barnes’s reaction. He was nodding and chattering with as much interest as the rest of them.
Tim said, “This is fucking ridiculous.” But then he unclipped the ring of keys from his belt. “She doesn’t get home till five-thirty. Who’s coming?”
Phyllis wanted to go, and of course so did Beth. They talked Barnes into coming too. Len volunteered to stand guard in the hall, pretending to fix his doormat. Everyone else got back to work, and Soledad promised to help Aunt Jacqui sew replacement pieces. DeShawn would drive to Target for sadly un-Victorian props.
Tim knocked on Lucy’s door, and when he was sure the apartment was empty, the four of them walked in. Len, in the hall, sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” If he stopped, it would be a sign. Barnes hung back a little, bemused but along for the ride. Beth whispered, “You don’t think badly of us, do you?” She was baiting him. If he was as innocent as he looked, she wanted him to grin at her, to admit that this was fun. She wanted a crack in the façade. And if it was his fault, she wanted him stung by the irony of it all.
“No,” he said. And there was no hint of either exuberance or guilt. “You gotta do what you gotta do.”
Beth walked ahead and took in the apartment. Stacks of books along the walls, but no shelves. An antique coffee table with an open box of crackers and a few magazines. A tiny television. There was something haphazard and temporary about the whole place.
“There’s nothing on the walls,” she finally said. “That’s what’s so creepy. Hasn’t she been here a few years?”
Phyllis came out of the kitchen. “She has nice appliances. You know she’s not a real librarian. She just works at the library.”
“What does that even mean?” Beth said.
“Kind of like we’re not a real theater.”
Beth opened the cupboard under the sink. She looked in the coat closet. Lucy’s bed, in the back room, was just a mattress on the floor. There wasn’t much to search.
She realized a part of her had really hoped, really expected, to find the missing props there. Aprons and candlesticks and wigs and pipes, all surrounding the rubber Christmas goose. Some strange shrine born of jealousy or psychosis.
Tim said, “Are we satisfied? Do we feel sufficiently horrible now?”
They gathered in the living room, where Barnes had been standing alone. Beth saw him touch the pocket of his jacket, checking something. She wanted to turn him upside down and shake everything out. Every pilfered scrap, every ticket stub, every coin, every toothpick. She scanned the room, but she couldn’t possibly know what was missing. Barnes gave her a look she might have described as imploring—but then he didn’t know she was on to him. So what was the look, then? She examined the last edge of it. Coy. Conspiratorial. Apologetic.
DeShawn had found decent candlesticks at Target, and a porridge bowl, and new wine glasses for the Cratchits’ table. Best of all, he’d convinced the owner of the hardware store to loan him the plastic turkey from the display in the window. It was the wrong bird, ridiculously large and rigid, but Beth held her tongue. The final rehearsal was not a time for complaints.
Soledad and Aunt Jacqui had sewn a new handkerchief for Bob Cratchit, a new green cape for Christmas Future, a decent nightcap for Scrooge. The new aprons were fine. Beth didn’t know Mrs. Cratchit’s dress was missing till she was presented with a new one—her dress from Vanya, with the brooch removed. It was too formal, and far too rich, with a high, lacy neck and puffed sleeves. Maybe Jacqui could give it a lower neckline by tomorrow night. At least a tattered shawl. But then she looked at Aunt Jacqui, at the red streaks on her neck, where she must have been scratching compulsively. She walked into the bathroom to keep herself from saying anything.
Backstage, DeShawn whispered: “What if Jacqui’s doing it herself? Maybe it’s a cry for help.”
Everything onstage was askew. The props were wrong, of course, but the timing too, and Kostas’s guys missed half the light cues. In the first act, the Cratchit home suddenly plunged into darkness. Liberty, seated at the dining table, shrieked, and Wyatt started laughing. Soledad got out her next line, and then Wyatt remembered himself and asked, in his Tiny Tim voice, if his father would take him to watch the ice skaters. Beth and Barnes were standing behind the children, and unconsciously, she had reached out to steady herself with a hand on his chest. She didn’t know she’d done it till he backed away. The lights came back then, and Barnes had a line, and then Micah, but Micah was silent, confused.
In the time between the light and the silence, she saw again the same look Barnes had given her upstairs in the librarian’s apartment. But this time, accompanied by his ducking away from her hand, she finally understood. It was pity. He thought she cared deeply about him, that she was in over her head, and he wanted to let her down easy. She remembered, in college, calling a boy she’d had a fling with—just to invite him to a party, not to propose marriage!—and he’d said, in the most cringing voice possible, “I actually have company right now.” If you could have boiled that sentence down into a syrup, and put that syrup in a bottle of eye drops, and squeezed it right into someone’s eyes: that was the horrible, horrible look Barnes was giving her.
Beth opened her mouth, thinking she’d say something to cover Micah’s flub, but she must have been holding too much in today—because what came bubbling out like magma was directed at Barnes. “You need to put it back,” she said. Barnes stared, and she could feel the three children and Soledad, at the table behind her, turning and wondering where she was taking this scene, how they could help, what had gone wrong. “I don’t know what you took from the librarian’s apartment, but you need to put it back. If you want to screw over the theater, if you want to ruin the production, that’s one level—but she doesn’t even know you. She doesn’t know we were in there.” And then, just to hurt him: “Jason.”
Barnes stuck his arms in the air as if she were pointing a gun. He laughed and looked out at the empty seats. Backstage right, Beth could see Tim and DeShawn and Phyllis and Palmer the lawyer. She could see the silhouettes of the guys up in the light box.
Barnes said, “This is uncalled for.” He took a step back.
She expected Tim to stop her. She waited for Phyllis to tell her to shut up. She realized, when they didn’t, what she ought to have known all along: It was as obvious to them as it was to her. They all knew. They all knew it all along. They had just each, for their own strange, small reasons, kept quiet.
Barnes must have realized it too. A good actor can always judge his audience.
What he said next, Beth wasn’t sure she heard correctly. It wasn’t till they’d gathered in Soledad’s apartment late that night, repeating his words to each other until they were certain he’d said what he’d said—only then did she start to put meaning to them. At the time, all she could decode, of the syllables leaving his mouth, was that he was deeply unwell. That something foreign—some drug or chemical or messenger of neurological imbalance—was in his veins and in his eyes and in the strange tilt of his head. That he would not, under any circumstances, be playing the role of Bob Cratchit tomorrow night.
What he said was, “You’re not real. I made you up.”
Beth could think of nothing but to repeat herself with authority. She said, “You need to give it back.” On instinct, she angled her body was between his and the children.
Barnes reached out one long finger and poked her, hard, on the shoulder. “Did I make up that sex, or did I make up all the sex ever?”
He poked her again, on the other shoulder. His whole body wobbled, and she thought he might fall over. For a moment, it seemed he would vomit.
Kostas shuffled from backstage, more ticked off than scared. “Okay, buddy,” he said, and Beth felt something drain from her head, a terror she hadn’t realized the extent of. “You want the hospital, or you want to go home?” His hands were out, ready to react to Barnes.
“I was rearranging the set,” Barnes said, or really, whined. “You think the set stops at the edge of the stage? I knew this place the second I saw it. I knew I made it up. You,” he said, and he pointed at Kostas. “You I didn’t invent.”
“Nope. And I’m the guy who’s escorting you from the building.”
“When I walk out of here,” Barnes said, and he looked around with something like hatred. He stared at Liberty and Micah the longest. “When I walk out of here. Puff.”
And he did just that—he walked out, with Kostas and Double Denis trailing—but none of them vanished in a puff of smoke, if that’s indeed what he’d meant.
Much later that night, Soledad would Google “kleptomania” and announce that it didn’t go together with delusion. Tim, reading over her shoulder, argued this just meant kleptomania was the diagnosis when it was only theft, when the theft wasn’t part of some larger psychosis.
They would sit around Soledad’s living room watching the Splendor of Love tapes that had arrived from her grandmother. They were out of order, just random episodes, the Barnes of twelve years ago looking tanner but less chiseled, the Barnes of last year somehow smaller and flatter than the man they’d known. But what could they possibly learn from his lines of recited dialogue? They’d watch a scene where he consoled a woman in a police department. They’d watch him hide money in a hollow book. They’d watch someone shoot him dead. Then, as the killer walked away, they watched him open one slow, vengeful eye.
At 1AM, the volume down, they would go through the contents of his duffel bag again. He’d left it in the green room, under his black leather jacket. There was Liberty’s calculator, and the inkwell (his own prop!) and a phone bill with the librarian’s name. There was half a bag of marijuana that not even Tim wanted, on the grounds that it might be laced with something hallucinogenic. There was a bottle of Vicodin, and gym shoes. His wallet must have been with the street clothes Kostas had shoved him into.
Tim would say, “Beth, I’m glad you said it. The next time I curse you and your big mouth, remind me: I love you, and I’m glad you said it. Because no one else was going to.”
Soledad would give a fake moan. “Beth broke the soap star.”
But all this would happen long after midnight, after they should have been in bed, after they’d had hours to digest how thoroughly they’d been played for fools.
Right then, as Kostas and Double Denis left with Barnes and reappeared a minute later saying they’d locked the doors, everything was still adrenaline and confusion. Tim clapped his hands together and came onstage in his Marley costume and said, “Okay. We need a Cratchit. DeShawn, what’s Dave doing right now?”
DeShawn called Dave, who gamely ran downstairs and suited up. Dave couldn’t stop sniffing the sleeve of the costume, as if it would tell him what was wrong with Barnes. They decided he could carry a stack of papers in the office scenes, and something that looked like a bill in the home scenes, until his lines were memorized. “Just for a couple nights,” he promised. “I’ll do nothing but study!”
They tried to rehearse, but it was perfunctory, mostly for the benefit of Dave and the lighting crew. Beth was still shaking, well into the second act. She led Dave around the table in a simple, tripping version of the dance she’d rehearsed with Barnes. Dave was taller than Barnes, with a belly that didn’t suit a Cratchit, but he was here and he was kind, and he believed Beth existed. All points in his favor.
And finally Tim said, “It’s time.” Beth struggled to remember the reason they’d rehearsed early to begin with: The tree-lighting. “Without Barnes—” he said, “let’s just have the Fezziwig scene. Then Wyatt can come out and do ‘God bless us.’ Just that. We have to go.”
Downtown, they wove through masses of bright-hatted children, parents with coffee, the Girl Scout troop that had decorated the bottom half of the tree with birdseed stars, the kids from the high school choir with yellow robes pulled over their coats. The actors assembled in front of the tree. Tim rung the hand bell (a Target replacement for a gorgeous old one they’d never get back) and announced that they were the George Spelvin Players, that tickets were still available, that they wished everyone a joyous season.
Kostas started the CD, and the Fezziwig party began. DeShawn as Scrooge showed up with Soledad, the Ghost of Christmas Past. The rest of them laughed and danced and shouted a few lines out of order. Only a quarter of the crowd watched. The high school choir was already gathering by the risers, and people were still waiting to buy roasted chestnuts from the Elks Club.
The crowd was more visible than it would have been from a stage—no footlights sealed off the fictional world from the real—and Beth could make out individual faces. She scanned the crowd for Barnes, worried he’d show up shouting, show up with a gun. He wasn’t there. But oh, God: The librarian stood at the front of the crowd, an encouraging grin, hands around her Starbucks cup. Beth knew that if she looked that direction she’d lose it, fall on the ground and confess everything. Who were they to feel victimized by a psychotic thief when they themselves, under their own delusions, had violated her home? Had fingered her belongings, seen her naked walls? Someone can invade your life, can rearrange your world, and you don’t even know it. So Beth ignored the blocking and turned back toward Dave.
Right then the microphone by the risers turned on with a horrible shriek. It stopped, then started again. The choir director leaned into it and said, “Sorry, folks.” The crowd laughed and turned that way, and in a moment the Spelvin Players had fully lost the crowd. Voices swelled around them, and a child ran right between Soledad and Beth to touch the tree. Liberty swallowed her next line. They glanced to Tim. It was the second time in one night that their little balloon had been completely punctured, and it was too much. Soledad whimpered—actually whimpered—and put her head on Beth’s shoulder.
But Tim had that Manic Tim Look on his face. He ran up to DeShawn and took both his hands, and said, in his loudest voice: “Ebenezer. Ebenezer! I love you, I’ve always loved you! It’s always been you and only you. And you don’t have to love me back. But I can die happy knowing I said it.”
DeShawn said, “I have always depended on the kindness of ghosts.”
Phyllis stopped her jig to call, “Marley should have died hereafter! There would have been a time for such a word!”
And they were off, the Spelvin players, on a spaceship of their own manufacture. Only a few heads turned back, and then a couple more. One older man looked particularly amused, elbowing his wife. The librarian kept smiling, confused but supportive. Beth understood that the goal, from this point on, was chaos rather than publicity. It’s not that you’re ignoring us; it’s that we’re laughing at you.
Beth said, “All Russia is our orchard!”
Micah—when had his voice grown so deep?—dropped to his knees and shouted “Stellllla!”
At the same time that Beth was reveling in the strangeness of it, in the sort of Artaud-invades-a-tree-lighting-ness of it, she felt deeply dizzy, like something fundamental had come unglued. Maybe this was the way Barnes experienced the whole world: a bunch of actors reciting made-up lines, out of order, out of context. She saw the closest people in the crowd, the ones still watching, or watching again, move their lips, and she guessed what they were saying: “I don’t get it.” “Doesn’t the one with the ponytail look like what’s-his-name? The tennis player?” “Everything’s about sports with you.” And none of it made any more sense, really, than the nonsense coming from her own mouth.
The lovely vacancy of memorized lines had always been the escape part of acting, for Beth: being the empty vessel from which someone else’s words flowed. The litany of it. But if she ever went off the deep end, if she ever fell as far as Barnes—she could see how everything might come to sound like a disembodied quotation, how every tree might be painted scenery. And she, too, might then want to take control in strange and illicit ways. She might poke people to test if they were real. She might steal the world’s trinkets to create, if not order out of the chaos, at least her own small chaos within the larger one.
The dance (what was left of it) swung her from A.J. to Dave.
Tim, in his best Lady Bracknell drawl: “The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means!”
Wyatt, either joining the fun or trying to do what he’d been told: “God bless us, every one!”
Beth noticed a boy with glasses, watching with utter glee and tapping his fingers together. He was ten or eleven. Standing on his actual tiptoes, as if this were not only the most exciting thing he’d ever seen but also the funniest, and the most heroic. They’d kept the dialogue between themselves to that point, but Beth found herself approaching the boy as the others kept chattering and dancing, the crowd filtering right through them now. She said to him, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
He answered back: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.” A grin.
“We must cultivate our garden,” she said.
The tall man behind the boy tousled his hair, sort of strained-jovial, and said, “Hey buddy, we don’t want to miss the lighting.” Even though the tree was right behind Beth.
“You know what would be awesome?” the boy said to Beth, ignoring him. “It would really be incredibly awesome if it turned out they were lighting the tree on fire.”
The man gave a quick chuckle and drew his son back into the crowd.
“Yes, Torvald,” Beth said to no one. “I’ve changed.”
When the choir climbed the risers, the Spelvin Players gave up—no finale, no bows—and joined the audience. They caught their breath and listened, quiet and respectful, aside from Tim pointing at DeShawn on “round yon virgin.” Soledad broke out a flask, and Beth tugged at her lace collar, tight and ridiculous. They were ridiculous people, putting on a ridiculous play. She’d known this yesterday, but she knew it more starkly today.
The conductor was short and enthusiastic. This was clearly the biggest night of his year. Beth watched the singers, their faces glowing from the candles they held. They looked so earnest, so untrammeled. She was projecting, of course. Surely some of these singers came from terrible homes. One of the altos was probably pregnant. Still, she felt exhausted in comparison, as if something had passed her by. As if her whole life—not just the show—were a sort of make-believe she’d suddenly grown far too old for.
At the front of the crowd, the librarian sipped her Starbucks and closed her eyes. Good God, you could never know a person at all, could you? Not even if you’d touched her bed. Not even if you danced with him every night. Or watched his undoing.
Perhaps, after all her efforts to reign herself in, it was true that Beth’s greatest talent in life was to tell people what they ought to know. And in this moment she told herself, pointedly, the difference between someone like her and someone like Barnes Harlow. The difference was: Barnes Harlow looked down at the crack in the universe and fell right in. She saw the crack and stepped quickly over.
Or at least she could pretend so, until the panic had passed. And she was a fabulous pretender.
Around her, the sing-along had started. “Winter Wonderland” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The louder she sang, the less she cared. Barnes was the one who didn’t exist, she decided. They’d made him up, all of them together. He was a character on a soap opera. A figment. A ghost.
Just beyond the librarian stood the boy who wanted to light things on fire. Hadn’t Beth been like that once? Hadn’t she intended to set the whole world on fire? Hadn’t they all?
Tomorrow they would open to a full house. They would acknowledge nothing missing.