There was silence, cocooned in a stillness so thick that you could actually hear faint echoes— like the memory of rain tapping on a window pane long after a storm has passed— from the sounds of the Spirits of Theater Past that held court here now: hearty applause whirled in the corners of the house, mingled with the sounds of laughter and tears; smoke dissipating on the breeze of time.
Visions of shows gone by melted into the walls like fading shadows. Disassembled scenery flats leaned here and there— drooped-in middles— stern judges bent over their benches waiting to proclaim their rulings.
Assorted costume pieces— Robin Hood’s hat, feather yellowed with age, a lion’s tail from the “Wizard of Oz,” an old rusty oil can, a decrepit bouquet of plastic and silk roses— were scattered around, looking like long-discarded refugees from an elaborate Halloween party.
Snips of rope lay disloyally on the ground— theater snakes—waiting to ensnare unwitting victims.
Mannequins were the only audience now. Seated on the edge of the stage, bent over at odd angles, craned backwards for a better look at the ceiling through the surrealistic, thickened light of the auditorium. Plastic people.
Mostly, there was silence. A respectful, reverent silence. Homage to the art itself—
“Hey, what is this?” Landon asked. The stage tech was a fish-eyed twenty-something who had spent too much time indoors asked much too loudly. One of the mannequins on the edge of the stage teetered on the brink of falling as the loud voice cut through the house. He swung a small receptacle around over his head by a raggedly cut cable protruding out one end, adding a hollow whistling sound to grind against the sound of his voice in an asynchronous duet.
Mason, another of the stage techs, dropped his broom, glad for the break. He went over to his partner, cupped match to his Marlboro. “Hold it still for a minute, would ‘ya.” He examined the receptacle through the blue smoke of his cigarette. “Oh, Teddy ripped that out of the number three light bank.” He smiled at his own cleverness. “Says he wants you to stop at AB Lighting to pick up a replacement.”
He ripped the receptacle out of Landon’s hand and whipped it across the stage in one motion. It smacked the opposite wall with a loud, hollow whack, like a firecracker exploding inside an empty coffee can. This was enough, and the mannequin on the stage’s edge tipped off in slow motion, crashing onto the hardwood floor.
Landon startled at the sounds, which did nothing to enhance his mood at the idea of having to stop at AB Lighting to pick up a replacement receptacle. “Why me? What’s the matter with you doing it?”
“Dawn of the Dolls opens the day after tomorrow,” Mason said. “I have to go Warehouse Hopping.” Warehouse Hopping was a game they had made of locating set pieces, where they would jet around the city, stopping at the scattered warehouses and storage lockers to pick up required equipment and props, in the shortest amount of time. Last one back to the theater had to clean up after the week’s worth of shows, and buy the weed for opening night of the next show. “Unless of course, you want to switch?”
“No thank you,” Landon said, physically removing himself from the conversation by sidling over to the monster light board that controlled the theater’s aging light show. “I’ll pass on that one.” He began to play with the big board, randomly flipping switches up and down. “Man, I hate Warehouse Hopping.”
“Yeah, you and me both.” Mason picked up his broom and resumed sweeping. “Those places give me the creeps.”
“Amen to that.” Landon looked intently at the controller. “Number three, huh? I can’t find anything wr— ” He had slid the number three slider up and was interrupted by a sickening crackling noise coming from the theater’s large auditorium, and a small, angry outburst of bright yellow light from one of the‘banks half way up the center aisle.
“Yo— shut it down, y’idiot! You want to start a fire?” Mason had thrown his broom to the deck and stood on the edge of the stage. He looked out over the house as one of the light trees erupted in a shower of sparks. He indifferently flicked his cigarette into the seating area, where it struck the top of a chair and went out as its cherry exploded on impact, adding angry red and orange sparks to the show.
The air began to smell of ozone from the short, and the theater was filled with a noise that sounded like someone crumpling up a piece of loose leaf paper in front of a microphone.
“Sorry,” Landon said as he threw the main breaker and shut the panel down.
“Why don’t you clock out while there’s still a clock left to clock out on. We’re just about finished, anyway.” Mason leaned the broom against the wall and pulled out another smoke.
“Yeah.” Landon nodded. “All right, I’m outta here. See you tomorrow.” He scooped up the blown receptacle and headed to the door. “Don’t forget those props.”
“Not a chance.” Mason went over to the bulletin board and pulled off the prop list for Dawn of the Dolls. “Let’s see what’s on the scavenger hunt for Warehouse Hopping today: twelve shrubs, six large trees and three small ones, seven rocks, the costume rack, and six mannequins. Six more mannequins? Shit, I hope they’re union— they’ll fit in well with the rest of the dummies around here.” He lit his cigarette, then held the match to the corner of the prop list. He watched transfixed as the yellow paper caught, slowly curling upward into itself, like a fist full of fingers, before he pursed his lips and blew the small fire out.
He crumbled the singed sheet into his pocket and went over to the door. He switched the lights out and stood in the stilled blackness for a moment.
The lingering smell of ozone was— transformed?— in the darkness, taking on a rotten tang as it spread across the auditorium—ominously, if Mason knew the word— like the dark clouds of a coming storm. He shivered reflexively and stepped out into the night.
* * * * *
“That’s it, for what it’s worth.” Mason made a quick scan of the clipboard, then shoved the final mannequin into the back of the truck with the leverage of the bottom of his boot. The mannequin’s left arm, stuck on one of the wooden trees, bent in its socket almost to the breaking point. “Stupid bitch,”Mason said pushing the plastic statue harder. The arm snapped off at the shoulder, but the main body of the mannequin collapsed into position. He nodded with satisfaction, a gruff smile playing at the corners of his mouth. “Thanks Charlie.”
“Okay babe. See you next show.” Charlie did not like Mason. He thought the tech was a little too nonchalant with the theater company’s property, as he had seen him tossing stuff around rather carelessly, and he didn’t care for the attitude that drove the actions. Into that bargain, he didn’t like Mason’s condescending attitude the kid tried to foist off onto him.
He smiled expansively, the better to hustle him out, and slipped back into the warmth of the warehouse. He shook his head. “Asshole.”
With a patronizing wave Mason pulled the truck out of the loading dock and maneuvered it onto Callow Hill Street. The rear end slid a little on the fresh snow as he made the right turn. For a moment, he lost control.
“Asshole.” He wrestled the truck out of its slide. Mason was in a particularly good mood— he was able to get all of his props for Dawn of the Dolls in one stop— always a bonus.
Reaching down to turn on the radio, he flipped on WXTU and started to tap the wheel in earnest to a Kenny Chesney song from a few years back. “There goes my life.” Mason sang to the radio with enthusiasm, way out of key. “There goes my future, my everything, might as well kiss it all good-bye, there goes my life.” He glanced at his watch and saw that it was just past six thirty. Another late night in the making.
He drove the seven blocks to Delaware Avenue, where he made a right. The old panel truck fish tailed again. “Shit!” He pumped the brakes ever so gently to bring the truck under control.
He cruised uneventfully the rest of the three miles to the onramp for I 95, and got in the lane marked southbound. Kenny Chesney turned into Alan Jackson, who turned into George Strait. Mason increased his speed. There was no traffic at all on his side of the super highway, and almost none on the other side.
“I’ll make good time tonight,” he said to Mr. Straight as they sung a duet, accompanied by the metronome of Mason’s windshield wipers. “Sometimes I feel like Jesse James!” One of them was flat.
About a mile and a half down the road, he and George were just finishing up Troubadour, when he was interrupted by a loud thump! from behind him, inside the back of the panel truck.
Mason reached over and spun the volume knob on the radio, listening carefully. He looked into his side mirror and saw nothing. “A kid with a snowball,” he said. He smiled, knowing that the side panels of his truck made excellent, large targets for snowballs. He pulled out a Marlboro and began to hum along with Carrie Underwood, who was telling him that there wasn’t enough rain in Oklahoma to wash the sins out of that house.
Thump! This time the sound came as a knock.
Right behind his head.
He lowered the radio again and listened. It repeated twice more, as if in answer.
“What the hell!” He swung the truck into the breakdown lane. “If this is a joke, I’m gonna get the last laugh.” He imagined Landon or Charlie crouched in the back of the truck, hands slapped over their asshole mouths as they tried not to laugh out loud when they felt Mason wrestle the truck to a begrudging stop.
Wait, Mason thought as he threw the truck in park. I saw Landon leave. He left the heater on as he swung his legs out the door to crunch down into the snow. And I saw Charlie standing on the loading dock as I pulled out. His breaths appeared before him in little puffs of vapor. He clapped his hands together, just to hear the sound. “Sh-shit it’s cold!”
As he stood at the back of the truck, Mason vacillated. Doubt crept across his face like a ground fog drifting across a lawn. He shifted from one foot to the other, trying to make up his mind. Finally, he barked out a laugh and dug into his pocket for the key to the padlock. Uneasily, he leaned forward and slid the key home.
Mason chided himself for his trepidation. The door went up smoothly, belying its age, with a thunderous roll, sounding like an old wooden roller coaster coming down its first hill. He couldn’t suppress a smile as he contemplated facing his practical joker.
He hopped onto the lip of the truck. His foot met the wrist of the disembodied mannequin arm he had broken earlier. “Stupid thing,” he said, and kicked it further inside the twilit truck. Leaving little puffs of his breath to cling in the air behind him as if refusing to follow him into the murky interior, Mason entered the belly of the truck.
* * * * *
Several police officers were on the scene, drinking coffee and bustling around, struggling to keep warm, trying to look as officious as possible under the circumstances.
An exceptionally bureaucratic looking Chevy Caprice pulled up and crunched to a halt in the snow. The door opened, and an exceptionally bureaucratic looking plainclothes detective stepped out, obviously annoyed at being out in the sub freezing cold. He walked over to the truck, where a young, uniformed officer was completing a form.
“Harris,” the detective barked, recognizing one of his subordinates. “Fill me in, son. And make it quick.” He looked at his watch and shook his head.
“Inspector!” The young officer jumped. “Yes sir!” Harris completed his briefing quickly.
The inspector moved to the truck and squinted into the back. “The list.”
“The list, sir?”
“The prop list.” He started to roll his eyes, but caught himself. He was working on his temper, as according to his doctor, it was easier to calm a growing temper than to calm a growing ulcer. “Let me see the prop list,” he said more quietly. His hand slid into his coat pocket and he pushed two Tums from a half-eaten roll.
“Yes sir!” He handed the list over to the inspector, who had pulled himself up onto the lip of the back of the truck.
“Was there a physical inventory yet?” He chewed the Tums slowly. Cherry and orange.
“Yes sir,” Harris said.
“And?” The inspector’s eyebrows rode high on his narrow forehead.
“Everything accounted for sir.” Harris looked a bit nonplused. “Nothing— ah— missing.”
The inspector looked down at Harris, then turned and entered the truck, almost tripping over the end of the disjointed mannequin arm. He scowled, and looked around at the other props. “Let me see here.”The mannequins looked at him expectantly. He glanced at the list: “Twelve shrubs.” He paused and looked around the back of the truck. “There we go.”
He spotted four of the shrubs leaning up against the wall on the left side, the other eight on the right side. He flipped through them quickly and counted the twelve. “Okay.”
“Nine trees... nine trees... nine trees.” He looked for the trees. “Ah, there you are.” He counted them to his satisfaction as they stood a good foot taller than the mannequins. “Good. Now, seven rocks.” These he found readily, as they were stacked one on the other towards the front of the truck. He was making swift progress, and swift progress made him happy. He looked at his watch and smiled before he counted, “One... two... three... four... where—oh, okay— five... six... and seven. All right, and,” a look down at the list, a look up, “One costume rack—got it.”
He paused to check the list for the final items. “Six mannequins. Let’s see here,” he said, and spotted the plastic people leaning to and fro throughout the truck. “Okay— one... two... three... four... five... six... seven—” Seven? He counted again, quickly. Seven. Not six, as the list suggested, but seven. Maybe a mistake on the prop list itself? That wasn’t very tidy, and things that were untidy slowed things down, and things that were slowed down tended to slow down exceptionally bureaucratic looking plainclothes detectives who had schedules to keep. He thumbed two more Tums from the roll. Two lemons this time. “Harris!” His voice was legion in the back of the truck. One of the mannequins teetered on the edge of balance, shifting, nearly startling the inspector out of his shoes.
There was a loud noise as Harris sprang onto the back of the truck and tripped headlong over one of the props, rocking the medium-sized panel truck like a boat at the dock. The erstwhile unsteady plastic person tipped further, it’s hand knocking into the side panel. This time both men jumped reflexively.
Collecting himself as quickly as he could, Harris said, a bit too loudly, “Yes sir?”
The detective startled one last time, and willed himself calm. He held the prop list out to Harris. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this say six mannequins?”
Harris scanned the document. “Yes sir, I believe it does.”
“And how many mannequins do you see in here?”
Harris moved around the inspector, and began counting. When he finished, he looked up puzzled.“Seven, sir.”
“Seven,” the inspector confirmed with a nod. “Was anything else found earlier, Harris? Anything at all?” He tried to keep the condescension out of his voice, but any modicum of patience he had held on to was evaporating as quickly as his body heat in the cold morning air and the roll of Tums in his pocket.
Harris’s face went pale; a vacant look filled his eyes. He slid down the wall soundlessly, stopping only when he had sunk into a full crouching position.
The inspector looked at his junior colleague, feeling his ire build in spite of the man’s obviously compromised condition. “Harris! What the hell’s the matter?” He leaned down and gruffly slid Harris back up to his feet.
Slowly the vacant expression faded from Harris’s face, though the face itself remained pearlescent. Harris mouthed something once, twice, and then, the third time, audibly: “One set, sir.”
“What? What’d you say, Harris? One set of what?”
Harris had recuperated enough to elaborate. “When we found the truck, there was only one set of footprints—”
The inspector looked at his junior colleague, understanding hanging just beyond his reach.
“From the cab of the truck back to here. That’s all we found in the snow, sir. One set.” At this, Harris looked at the mannequins again, and jumped out of the truck as quickly as he could. Falling out of the truck would have been a better observation, as his feet caught on the edge of the truck and he swan dove into the snow.
The inspector stood there a moment, his eyes had followed Harris before he turned to gaze at the mannequins. Seven.
When stared at long enough, even the most inanimate objects can take on animate properties.
The seventh, unlisted mannequin, unable to maintain balance in the wake of this latest indignity, crashed to the floor of the truck with an almost human-like groan.
The inspector hastily joined Harris outside in the frosty sunshine.