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A sample from HOW NOT TO MAKE A WISH!
I love the theater. The theater is my life.
At least that's what I told myself as I suffered my third sneezing fit in an hour.
Standing in the costume shop at the Fox Hill Dinner Theater, I extracted a linty tissue from my pocket and blew my nose, trying not to pay attention to the clouds of dust swirling in the overhead fluorescent lights. If I let myself think about how much debris filled the air around me, my lungs would seize up and I'd collapse in front of a dozen feather-covered costumes from Gypsy.
"Gotta have a gimmick, Kira Franklin," I muttered to myself.
A gimmick—that was the name of the game in the cutthroat world of Midwestern dinner theater. And without one, Fox Hill would be out of business in less than a month. Anna Harper, the dinner theater's artistic director and my boss for the past seven years, was fully aware of our company's dire straits. She'd been hinting for months that I should get my résumé out, that I should try to nail down my dream job at Landmark Stage, the Twin Cities' newest theatrical darling. In fact, she'd pretty much told me that my next paycheck would be my last—the theater loved me, couldn't work without me, but just couldn't afford to keep me, blah, blah, blah.
Alas, my Fox Hill credentials weren't likely to spark interest from the Landmark. Like it or not, I'd limited my marketability by staying with Anna for as long as I had. Every time I applied for a position with the prestigious Landmark Stage—even just working in the ticket office—I received a polite, anonymous, form-letter rejection.
Nevertheless, barring a miracle, Anna was going to have to cut me loose. But we wouldn't go down without a fight. Prior to hiring some starry-eyed kid right out of high school, Anna had decided on one last money-making scheme: selling our old costumes to the public. We were trying to be as festive as possible as we launched our last-ditch bid for survival—we had taken out full-page ads in both the Minneapolis StarTribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press announcing our grand sale: Evening gowns! Dance wear! Halloween costumes for young and old alike!
We played up the glamour, providing a long list of our hit shows from the past decade. We kinda, sorta, maybe hoped that no one would focus on the fact that most of the costumes were designed for a handful of quick outings on stage. We absolutely refused to make any guarantee that seams would hold, that sequins would stay attached, that feathers and ribbons and bows would last through a single wearing at a glamorous society ball.
That's why we kept a costumer on hand during all performances.
A costumer, someone to run lights, someone to run the sound board, people to change sets and hand out props—it could take more than a dozen backstage folks to mount one of our productions. And I was the person in charge of all of them, at least until I was laid off. Kira Franklin, stage manager extraordinaire.
OK. That wasn't really the way that I thought of myself. I always stopped after the "manager" part.
But my father added the "extraordinaire" when he dutifully attended each of our productions. And so did my high school debate coach. And the handful of friends that I managed to rope into seeing individual shows, most often by handing out coupons for free dessert at our luscious gourmet buffet table (two entrées nightly!).
Come to think of it, most of my friends had dropped the "extraordinaire" a few years back, too. Maybe it was our Christmas production of Miracle on 34th Street, with a well-developed seventeen-year-old playing the little girl role, because we just couldn't find a kid who could stick to our rehearsal schedule.
Truth was, the Fox Hill Dinner Theater was not a leading light in the Twin Cities’ theater community.
Let me explain a little more about who and what and where we were. You've probably heard of the Mall of America, right? The largest shopping mall in North America, with more than four hundred stores? Employs 12,000 people? Built around an amusement park, with a flight simulator, aquarium, and real live (okay, dead) dinosaur walk? Visited by forty million people each and every year?
Fox Hill was about a mile south of there.
We were located in an old strip mall, space we took over from a Woolworth's that was driven out of business by the big box stores even farther down the road. We had a decent-size "house" with seating for five hundred. There were two steam tables to serve dinner, and a thrust stage that reached into the audience, bringing musicals so close that patrons could practically touch them. But in a metropolitan area with a thriving artistic community and more than one hundred theaters, large and small, Fox Hill had its work cut out for it.
And things weren't exactly helped by the fact that our next-door neighbor was a porno-movie theater¾the Fox Hill Cinema . You might have thought that dirty movies were a losing business proposition in the wake of the Internet and perfect-for-home-viewing DVDs. The fading grande dame, though, had cleverly diversified to stay in business with its three-screen emporium. Two showed the latest skin flicks, and one showed art films.
It could be really interesting to watch the line at their ticket window. It was pretty easy to tell who was in line for the Truffaut retrospective, and who was waiting for Goldilust and the Three Bares. At the dinner theater, we tried to promote ourselves to the first group, and we hoped that the second crowd didn't wander through our doors by mistake. You had to take your customers where you found them, though. Isn't that one of the primary rules of business? Well, it should have been.
"Kira? Are you in here?"
As if to answer, I sneezed again. "Yeah. In the back room."
Maddy Rubens pushed aside a sliding rack of thirty-six identical dresses—the irresistible Paris Originals from last year's overly optimistic production of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Maddy was a lighting designer who had worked at Fox Hill on occasional gigs between the handful of dream jobs that she'd landed in New York, the more usual local productions, and the rare-but-lusted-after West Coast projects. More important, Maddy was my housemate and best friend.
"Jules and I finished going through the jewelry," she announced. "There's enough crap out there for a dozen high school proms. Tiaras up the wazoo, and enough pearls to strangle a decent-size horse."
"Gives all new meaning to the phrase 'costume' jewelry," I said.
"We're calling it a day and going to get burritos. Are you coming with?"
My stomach rumbled. Even though I'd had an Egg McMuffin with double hash browns for breakfast, I'd worked through our supposed lunch break. In fact, I'd had nothing but coffee since coming in that morning—four of my jumbo java mugs’ worth. I'd brewed it first thing, taking elaborate care to put out the sign that read "Kira's Stash." I liked my coffee twice as strong as anyone else did, and I'd finally conceded the necessity of labeling my own carafe after poor Anna had been kept awake for thirty-six straight hours following one particularly long dress rehearsal with nothing but my java for sustenance.
"Burritos sound great," I said, "but I want to finish up Kismet."
"The costumes will still be here tomorrow," Maddy said, reasonably enough. "You work too hard."
I sighed. "I don't work hard enough. I told Anna I would have all of this stuff ready by last Friday."
"The same Anna who's signing your walking papers next week?" Trust Maddy to tell it like it was.
"Come on," I said. "Could you just walk out? Leave all this behind?" Maddy snorted, but I knew that she was every bit as tied to the theatrical world as I was. We weren't in it for the money—both of us, along with Jules, could barely afford to pay my father rent on the second-floor apartment he provided us at well below market rate. We were in the theater because we loved it. It made our hearts sing, as corny as that sounded. We loved the creativity, the feeling that we were making something from nothing.
Either that, or we were bug-eyed crazy.
"Yeah, you're right," Maddy agreed reluctantly, as I'd known she would. "But you still have to eat. Let's go! Jules is treating. We're going to get chips. With extra salsa. And guac-a-mo-le…" She turned the last word into a seductive song.
I shook my head reluctantly. "Nope. I wouldn't enjoy it, with this stuff hanging over my head. But tell Jules that buying tonight doesn't get her off the hook for the Scrabble victory dinner she owes me."
Jules—Julia Kathleen McElroy—was the third occupant of our apartment. She was an actress. After spending years trying to top the charts in the Twin Cities theater scene, Jules had settled into a comfortable career doing industrials, training films for companies. Her most successful role had been "Stubborn Defendant" in You're Being Deposed? Expect the Worst.
"Fine," Maddy said with a resigned sigh. But then she took a step closer to me, resting her blunt-fingered hand on my arm. "Just tell me with a straight face that this doesn't have anything to do with today's date."
"Today's date?" I asked, and I almost managed to sound puzzled. What could I say? Acting wasn't my strong suit. I knew it would be overkill to say, "I don't have a date today. Do you?" Besides, I could never be quite that blasé about the greatest disaster in my entire life.
"Kira," Maddy remonstrated.
I shook my head. "It doesn't have anything to do with today's date." I said the words with the rote certainty of a small child reciting multiplication tables.
"I don't believe you."
I raised my chin and looked straight into her piercing blue eyes, forcing myself not to blink my muddy-brown ones. (Read: I braced myself to lie through my teeth.) "Madeline Rubens, I swear on my next and last paycheck and all else that is holy that my skipping burritos tonight has nothing to do with today's date. Cross my heart and hope to die." She just stared at me. "What? Do you want me to spit in my hand, so we can shake on it like five-year-olds? Make a blood oath?" I looked around with a cartoonish manic grin. "There's got to be a dagger or two in here somewhere. Where's the stuff from Camelot?"
Maddy rolled her eyes. "Okay, then. We'll see you at home. Cheerio!"
"Wait," I called before she could walk away. "I thought you and Colin broke up last week."
"We did." She shrugged. "I just haven't broken the habit of saying 'Cheerio' yet."
I couldn't help but laugh as she left the costume shop. Maddy changed boyfriends more often than the porno house next door changed its movies. Colin had lasted two full weeks, which was typical. In the five years that Maddy and I had been housemates, only one guy had made it to a month, and that was because Maddy had spent three weeks on a road trip.
No fuss, no muss—when Maddy was bored she moved on, pleased to have learned a few words in a new language, or a couple of idiomatic expressions. Colin had actually taught Maddy the rules for cricket. Come to think of it, Gordon had taught her those rules a couple of years ago, and Nigel, a few years before that. Cricket comprehension didn't last much longer than love, in Maddy's book.
My life would have been so much simpler if I could just treat men, treat relationships, the way that Maddy treated hers.
I'd lied to her. Of course, my decision to skip burritos had everything to do with the date. January 7. One year ago today, I had been left at the altar by TEWSBU, The Ex Who Shall Be Unnamed.
Okay. Not quite literally at the altar. We'd planned a civil ceremony.
But I'd worn a white dress, with a veil and a train and everything. Maddy and Jules had stood beside me in personalized bridesmaid gowns. Their dresses had been made out of an emerald-green silk that actually worked well for both of them. Predictably, Jules had selected a stunning strapless sheath that showed off her willowy form, while Maddy enjoyed something substantially less revealing. My father had worn his tux. Judge Saylor, one of my father's former law firm partners, had stood at the front of the room, smiling and friendly as the minutes ticked by.
But TEWSBU never showed.
I wasted a couple of hours imagining every possible disaster that could have befallen him. People who worked in the theater were superstitious by nature, our imaginations heightened by the dramatic fare we consumed every day. I pictured my beloved mutilated in a car crash. I imagined him cut down by robbers when he stopped at the drug store for a silly, unnecessary disposable camera. I panicked that the stress of the day, the excitement of fulfilling his lifelong dream of perfect, permanent married love, had all proved too much for him, had brought on a heart attack.
Drawing on my experience as a stage manager, I'd started phoning hospitals. I had created so many contact sheets for so many shows—complete with blocks of emergency contacts in boldface type—that I knew most of the numbers by heart. My cell phone grew hot beside my ear as sympathetic nurse after sympathetic nurse reported that they had no patients matching my professionally accurate description of my fiancé.
Sometime during phone call fourteen, he left a voice mail. My so-called beloved was a director. His message used our common language, the patois of the theater that we both lived and breathed. He was sure I'd understand eventually, he said. He'd only just realized it himself. The blocking of our entire relationship was just not right.
Blocking. Where the actors stood when they said their lines.
I had spent the night of my would-be wedding, precisely one year ago, kneeling on the bathroom floor of the Hyatt Regency. Maddy and Jules had taken turns holding my torn-down updo off my face, offering me damp paper towels and glasses of cold water to rinse my mouth.
The guests—cast and crew from dozens of local shows, long-lost relatives, scores of my father's law firm partners—had pasted on fake smiles and eaten their filet mignon with merlot reduction, their potatoes Anna, their haricots verts. And I had eaten nothing as I tried to imagine how I could possibly face everyone the morning after.
I had eaten nothing that night. But I'd made up for it during the intervening year.
For twelve months, I had solaced myself with alternating treats of sweets and savories. In my frequent bouts of self-loathing when I thought about what I was doing to myself, I was disgusted by the amount I had consumed. Sure, I was tall—five foot ten—but there was a limit to the pounds that even my height could camouflage. A monolith of empty ice cream pints towered in my mind, mortared together with crumpled bags of Doritos, shredded boxes of Cheez-Its. My candy wrappers alone, laid end to end, could have spanned the Grand Canyon, and I couldn't bear to picture the veritable ocean I had consumed of the perfect comfort food: homemade Tater Tots hot dish.
I also couldn't stand to think of the four different wardrobes crowding my closet—four different sizes of clothes, laid out in a neat sequence, like my stage manager scripts. After rebuying jeans for the third time, I'd gotten smart and given in to elastic waistbands—bulky sweatshirts, fleece pants, all in black because I desperately believed the color was slimming.
What did it matter? I spent most of my time backstage in a dark theater. Why did I need a real wardrobe, anyway? It wasn't like the dating gods were showering gifts upon me. There might be dozens of theaters in the Twin Cities, but TEWSBU had friends in all of them. Stupidly, I was still caught off guard when theater people nodded as I introduced myself, a distant glint of recognition in their eyes. I was that one, they all seemed to say. And then they all darted not-surreptitious-enough glances at my ever-expanding waistline, silently saying, "Well, no wonder he left her."
A lot of theater people could be superficial. That came from judging actors on their body types, day in and day out, defining whether they could fill a role based on how they looked. But the most frustrating thing about all of my weight gain? My chest was still flat as a board. At twenty-eight years of age, I could still get by wearing an undershirt, instead of the engineering feats of lace and wires that other women proudly sported.
I was jilted, fat, flat, and miserable.
And the absolute worst part was, I couldn't even drown my sorrows in alcohol. Sharing a few six-packs with girlfriends had carried me through the loss, years back, when my boyfriend broke up with me freshman spring at the U. And when I kicked out my sophomore beau, I already had a bottle of chardonnay waiting on ice. Tequila shots dulled the pain when my junior year beloved turned out to have a side thing going with my then-best-friend. And each and every time I broke up with one of those meaningless senior-year guys, a legally purchased martini had marked the occasion.
But at some point in the past six years, since I'd been cut loose from the serious business of college partying, I had become allergic to alcohol. It was really strange—if I took a sip of wine, a swallow of beer, touched my lips to anything stronger, I could feel my cheeks turn bright red. The handful of times I'd tried to go beyond that warning sign, I'd been rewarded with blotchy hives that itched like the devil.
My doctor had shrugged and told me that allergies sometimes develop later in life. She'd shaken her head at my dismay and reminded me that I was actually pretty lucky. After all, no one really needed alcohol to make it through the day. I could avoid it easily enough, she'd chided. It wasn't as if I had a severe allergy to eggs or wheat, to something that would put me constantly in danger of a reaction worth a hospital visit.
Yeah, that was me. Lucky. Lucky like a Minnesota Vikings fan, watching my team forever slip out of contention.
I brushed my hands against my black fleece pants and turned toward the rolling racks of Kismet costumes. There were a dozen outfits for dancing girls—long, flowing harem pants in pastel colors, each matched with a scandalous golden bra. The boys' outfits featured similar pants, but in saturated hues.
I started to hum "Stranger in Paradise" as I attached price tags to each of the frothy creations. I couldn't imagine anyone actually wearing one in public, but then again, there were a whole lot of men and women who thought nothing of donning slut-wear for Halloween. We just had to find a lot of people willing to buy almost a year in advance.
Somewhere nearby, we must have stored the accessories from the show. If I remembered correctly, the dancing girls had worn elaborate veils in one scene and necklaces of gold coins in another. The men had sported ruby-studded sashes, and we had to have at least a dozen scimitars. The Kismet cast would never have made it through airport security. If, you know, they were actually going anywhere. It wasn't like Fox Hill productions traveled to New York, or Hollywood, or anywhere else smacking of theatrical power or prestige.
Absentmindedly, I tugged at the third rolling rack, ready to find the small pieces and finish my work for the day. A loud, metallic clatter made me jump back, and I bit off a curse. If the necklaces had fallen, they'd send coins flying all over the shop floor. It would take me forever to collect the debris.
I quickly realized, though, that no jewelry had fallen. The clatter I'd heard had been loud, echoing, not the tinkle of scattered metal. I squatted beside the rolling rack and reached beneath to retrieve whatever had fallen.
That motion had been a lot easier thirty pounds before. My hand came down sharply on something metal. I dragged it back and sat down hard, eager to relieve the pressure on my knees.
A brass oil lamp, with a high delicate handle and a long, gently curved spout.
It must have been one of our props—we had dressed the set with all sorts of pseudo-Arabic bric-a-brac. I could still remember the props master coming in from Goodwill, thrilled to have found a string of glass beads that looked like they'd just surfaced in the local bazaar. We'd joked about who’d had such tacky decor in their own home before donating it for our greater good.
The oil lamp in my hands was absolutely filthy, so caked with dust and tarnish that I wouldn’t have thought it metal if I hadn't heard it fall.
Huffing and puffing more than I was willing to admit, I clambered to my feet and stepped back to the center of the costume shop. I raised the lamp toward the bare light bulb overhead, hoping to make out some stamp on the bottom, something that would let me jack up its price for our current desperation sale.
Shaking my head, I pulled the sleeve of my sweatshirt over my wrist and rubbed at the brass, trying to polish off its coat of grime. Pressing harder, my fingertips brushed against the curved brass spout.
An electric shock jolted through my arm. The force was strong enough to make me yelp, and I dropped the lamp with another ungodly clatter. My fingers jangled violently, and I shook my hand as if I could make the pain fall away, drip off like splatters of boiling water. My heart pounded so hard I couldn't speak, couldn't even swallow, and for just a second, I thought that I had somehow, impossibly, managed to electrocute myself.
I kept on breathing, though. Kept on breathing, and kept on watching, even as my jaw dropped in disbelief.
Fog poured out of the brass lamp's spout.
Okay. I was a stage manager. I knew how to generate fog onstage. I knew how to make great billowing clouds with dry ice. I knew how to generate clammy banks that hugged the floor, twining around actors' ankles, making audiences shiver in anticipation of London accents and wolves howling on moors. I knew how to create a soft, fuzzy mist with fine droplets of heated oil, a shimmer that could diffuse spotlights and make a crowd believe that they were lost in a dream, that they were in the company of Broadway stars who belted out ballads as if their fictional lives depended on it.
I could order up atmospheric effects in my sleep, recognize them—any of them—from twenty paces.
This was no atmospheric effect. This was real. This fog swirled as it emerged from the lamp, shimmering with its own inner light. It expanded and twisted on itself, writhing like a living thing, glinting beneath the fluorescents. I could make out flashes of cobalt and emerald, ruby and topaz.
I blinked, and the fog disappeared.
In its place was a man. A man wearing a white polyester suit with wide lapels, and a black synthetic shirt with an ungodly, buttoned-up white vest. He was tall, a good head taller than me, and so skinny that I wondered if he might be ill. As I gaped, he shot his right hand up in the air, striking out his left leg in a perfect 1970s Disco Fever dance pose.
A tattoo wrapped around his right wrist. The ink was compelling; it drew my eyes, even as I gaped at the bizarre sight in front of me. I could make out a delicate tracery in red and gold, individual tongues of flame outlined in jagged black.
The design made me shiver, as if it spoke to some dark, secret memory deep inside my brain.
As I stared, absolutely speechless, the guy smiled and tossed his blow-dried hair in a way that I was apparently supposed to find seductive. "Hey, foxy lady! Ready to boogie on down with a wish?
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