Joyland

New York |

Ghost Theater

by Robert Schirmer

edited by Brian Joseph Davis

Terrence Sheppard wasn’t sure why he decided to run in an isolated wooded section of Prospect Park that afternoon.  Usually he jogged one of the paved roads that divided the park into sections, or else satisfied himself with a couple laps around an open field where people tossed shiny Frisbees and chased their hyperkinetic dogs back and forth.  But he was in a more restless mood than usual—he could feel a ragged pulse in his blood—so followed a dirt path that turned increasingly narrow the deeper he ran into the woods.  Soon the blood pulse weakened, and with it, his energy.  After another minute of increasingly sluggish running, he slowed to a walk and then sat to rest on a roughly cut tree stump just off one side of the trail.  The scribbles of sky visible through the trees were gray and overcast.  An abandoned strip of yellow crime tape—Do Not Enter—hung in tatters from a nearby tree that had a couple of nails pounded into its trunk.  Beside the spiked tree was a pair of fresh tire tracks, or they looked fresh to Terrence, although vehicles weren’t allowed in the park as far as he knew.

The park had cleared out because the low-lying sky threatened to unleash an October downpour, so the woman who stepped from the shadow of trees caught his attention instantly.  She looked at once voluptuous and trim, her high breasts and somewhat curved waist tapering into narrow hips and absurdly thin legs.  She wasn’t pretty so much as commanding, with tough squinting eyes and a snaky coil of hair flung over one shoulder.  What most caused her to stand out was her T-shirt, a violent red with dissolving white letters on the front: GoST.

“James?” she asked in a way that, later, Terrence would remember as sounding slightly too pointed.

Terrence was going to answer no, then remembered, in a peculiar flash of recall, that his grandfather had called him Jimmy when he was young, a variation of Terrence’s middle name, Jamison.  He was momentarily swept back, and so nodded absently.

The woman stepped back into the trees.  He heard a brief exchange back and forth—someone else was in the trees?—then a woman with a shaved head rushed out of the brush toward him.  Two men stormed out behind her, one dark-haired and the other wearing a beret, their mouths drawn, fierce, cryptic.  They wore identical GoST T-shirts, only with the sleeves chopped off at the shoulders.  Startled, Terrence stood up, but before he could run, the man with the beret circled an arm around his neck.  The shaved woman stuck a strip of black masking tape over Terrence’s mouth so he couldn’t scream.  The second man, who had a gash in the lettering on his shirt, grabbed Terrence’s feet, and the T-shirted trio carried him, thrashing, into the cover of the trees.

There were still more T-shirted people in the brush: two pale women with punk style and monkey faces, who looked like sisters, and a black man whose hair was dyed ocher but only in spots.  The man with the beret released Terrence, and Terrence’s hands shot automatically to his taped mouth. Only he sensed he shouldn’t pull the tape off, they did not want it off, and so his hands simply froze.

The group circled with their angry faces, shoving him back and forth, a mocking revolutionary dance.  Occasionally one or the other would hiss something—Traitor, cadre, pig—but he paid no attention, trying to find an opening so he could break free.  Only the more he tried to escape, the tighter the circle closed.  Then the dark-haired man with the slashed T-shirt elbowed Terrence in the head, very lightly, but Terrence dropped instinctively to his knees.  The shorn woman grabbed his nylon running jacket, snapping the zipper as she tore the jacket from him. The others joined in, yanking his T-shirt over his head, the colorless shirt that offended them.  While the two sisters held his arms, the men punched his bare stomach and chest, still not hard, almost deflected blows, as if their intention wasn’t to harm so much as terrify.

And their eyes were focused on him, furtive waiting eyes—but waiting for what?

Then the shaven woman opened the trunk of a beaten-looking car half concealed by the brush.  The men pushed Terrence toward it; he let out a yell silenced by the tape. They grabbed his arms and legs and lifted him, meaning to forcibly stuff him into the trunk, into death’s unventilated dark mouth.  Terrence kicked and bucked until the man with the torn T-shirt lost his grip and one of Terrence’s arms dropped free.  He seized the opportunity to swing his fist at the man’s face.  The man grunted and stumbled back, looking surprised by the blow, then insulted.  The other two men dropped Terrence onto the ground; he expected to hear his spine crack like an egg shell.  With simian sneers the sisters tugged at his sweat pants. He panted for breath as the sisters wrestled his sweat pants off his legs and yanked his running shorts to his knees.  The cool air struck Terrence’s naked skin; he was utterly helpless, his brain feverish and lightweight.  He turned away so he wouldn’t have to watch what these terrorists did to him next.  The woman he’d first seen—the one with the commanding eyes—stood apart from his circle of attackers, balancing a camera on her shoulder, aiming it at the melee.  He stared into the lens but saw nothing, no reflection, nothing.

A couple of hot drops of rain splashed down on his back, until he realized it wasn’t rain but blood from the lip of the man he had struck.  “Shit, I’m a bloody mess!” the man said, distracted, and brushed his fingers over his mouth.

The woman with the camera turned it off, mouthed an obscenity and stepped over to them with an utter lack of patience that struck Terrence as familiar.  “For Christ’s sake,” she said to the injured man.  “Schoolboys take harder knocks with their hockey sticks.”

“He hit me for real,” the man protested.  One of the monkey sisters withdrew a bit of embroidered cloth from her pants pocket and handed it to the man, who dabbled at his split lip.

The others stared suspiciously at Terrence.  The world hung in a vague nether place, real yet not.  Terrence stared at the woman with the camera, willing her to understand what would have been too unwieldy for words even if his mouth hadn’t been taped shut.

Somehow she did understand.  “I don’t think he’s acting,” she said.

The man with the beret shook his head and straightened his hat.

“Shit.”  The injured man held the cloth primly to his lip.  “He thinks this is real, then?”

The black man ripped the tape from Terrence’s mouth.  The woman with the camera kneeled beside him and sized him up.  “Please tell us you’re James Maddox from Wolff Casting.”

Terrence let his silence answer for him.  Except for his running shorts, which were slanted half-off his buttocks, he was naked in front of these strangers, and no words could make sense of it.  Terrence coughed, pulled his shorts back into position, and sat up.  The black man crumbled the tape into a ball and dropped it to the ground.

“I wonder what Nietzsche would make of this,” the camerawoman said and turned to the zealous bald woman.  “Give the man back his pants.  He’s not our actor.”

He’s not our actor, he’s not our actor…the woods might have echoed these words, or the sky, or the past.

With a small frown the bald woman handed Terrence his sweats.  “You acknowledged that James was your name,” the camerawoman muttered, staring into the car trunk’s still open mouth.  “You can’t blame us if you answer to the name of someone you’re not.”

Terrence couldn’t begin to explain.  The boyhood nicknames, his grandfather’s blackened lungs and slow death made tolerable by morphine.

“Listen, this was an honest mistake.”  The camerawoman looked back at Terrence.  “We had no way of knowing who you weren’t. We’re shooting a scene for our film, is all.”

The sisters nodded, having already abandoned the monkey ferocity and embraced human compassion, as if in a few brief moments they’d scaled millions of years of evolution.  It occurred to him that now he held some power over them, the man to whom justice had turned its blind eye.

“A guerilla film, actually,” the woman continued.  “We don’t have a budget so we need to be off-the-cuff.  Anarchists of a sort.  Guerillas of Street Theater, that’s us.”  She indicated their GoST T-shirts.  “Have you ever heard of street theater?”

The absurdity of the situation left him speechless.  He held his running sweats over his lap, unable to bring himself to dress in front of these lawless thespians.

“No one knows street theater these days, I guess,” she said.  “I suppose we owe you the full story after all this.”

Yet her explanation struck Terrence as random, incomplete, gaping with narrative holes.  For years GoST had been enacting scenes and improvising political scenarios in parks and on public sidewalks, in front of corporations as protest of lethal environmental practices, in front of prisons as protest of the death penalty…But no one paid much attention anymore to “protest theater,” and GoST was growing tired of yelling into a void…They’d decided to turn to film and make their own rough and tumble production, and possibly the collective voices of GoST might be heard at last…One of the scenes they’d created “collaboratively” involved a political abduction, and for this scene they had decided to use a volunteer actor, a man unfamiliar with GoST, but one nonetheless open to unscripted work and skilled at improvisation.

“We were shooting for the element of surprise,” the camerawoman explained.  “We wanted an unrehearsed actor for the abduction scene so we could record his reaction.  Because none of us knows what’s coming for us, do we?  The rawness would be lost, that delicious sense of existential imbalance.” The longer she talked the more it gnawed at Terrence that there was something about her he’d once known.  “We told Wolff casting only the bare bones.  James Maddox should show up at the park ready to improvise.  We warned that the scene might involve nudity.  We were as upfront as we could be and our hands are clean.”

She paused.  Was it Terrence’s reaction she was waiting for?  He gave her none.

“We don’t care much for traditional entertainment,” the camerawoman continued with an implied sniff.  “Theater has become just another pastime for the cultural elite who want to gaze from the safety of their seats and watch shadows flit across the stage.  We’ve become so terribly comfortable with the passive. But that makes dead theater to us.  Dead.  Toast.  This movie is our last stand, our Alamo.”

Yet her smile was edged in defeat.  She could see—all of them could—how their little film of unrest was doomed.  The whole aesthetic they were fighting for, in full flower fifty years ago, was no longer valued.  They’d been born after their time and left to flounder, futilely bucking their collective heads and talents against a world grown indifferent to radical art.  The actors could feel this defeat as they stared down at Terrence, his very nakedness a reality they couldn’t interpret any other way than as a glaring symbol of their own vulnerability and failure.

The man with the beret held out his hand to help Terrence to his feet, but of course Terrence couldn’t accept the gesture in his present state.  “Just leave me alone, please,” Terrence said, tightening his grip on his clothes.

“We’d better get going then,” the man with the beret said.  “Gabriel’s neck is already on the chopping block for letting us drive up here in the first place.”

The others nodded and began to clamor into the front and back of the car, first the sisters and the black man followed by the bald woman and the man with the beret, who slammed shut the door of the truck.  The man with the split lip squeezed into the back seat, still fussing with his delicate hanky.  The camerawoman stood and turned her back to Terrence; it was then his mind yielded and a name emerged from the cobwebs of memory.  “Diane?” he said.

The camerawoman opened the door to the driver’s side and turned to meet his eyes once more, apparently unsurprised that he was calling her by some other woman’s name.  She sighed and climbed into the car, crowding it to capacity.  In a moment the ugly unwashed vehicle had pulled away, rumbling down the dirt path, scraping against brush and tree branches as it passed.  Terrence followed the car with his eyes until it had disappeared from his view.

 

Terrence dressed quickly, methodically.  Once he was home, he would throw the clothes away.  He looked to see if anyone had wandered onto the path while he wasn’t paying attention.  But the path remained as empty as before, too empty for a park in Brooklyn, even in a dense wooded area during an afternoon that threatened rain.  He picked up the ball of black tape with which they’d gagged him and stuffed it into the pocket of his sweat pants.

He walked a few minutes before he’d emerged from the woods and was back on a main trail.  Diane Cleary.  Why had her name come to him—that tormented exacting woman—in the midst of all this?  For of course Diane was dead.  Allegedly dead, he corrected himself.

The brownstone where Terrence lived was in a historic neighborhood like many in that section of Park Slope, a neighborhood where people of reasonable means lived.  What did it mean that he lived on such a block?  He worked as a “creative supervisor” for an ad agency and Ione was an assistant professor of history at NYU, but that seemed insignificant now.

When walking home he hadn’t been much aware of himself or his physical presence, but now, while climbing the four flights of stairs to his apartment, his arms and ribs felt stiff and there was an indiscriminate pain in his back.  No one had struck him hard and yet his pain was real enough: his body awakened in some way, outraged and protesting.  A bruise on his forearm appeared harmless but stung nonetheless.  His mouth felt wrong now that it was free of the tape, almost as if he’d been fitted with an altogether different mouth, one from a prisoner-of-war or a man recently flogged.

Ione had not returned yet from her afternoon historical analysis class.  On Thursday afternoons she stopped at a Manhattan gym for an hour-long yoga session on her way home.  Terrence stepped into the bathroom, removed the clothes that he’d so hastily put back on in the park, and stuffed them into a garbage bag.  He began to shower but the water’s spray struck him as abrupt and brutal, so he turned the shower off and filled up the bathtub.  He lay in the yellow water for some time, scrubbing half-heartedly at himself.  There was a strange spicy odor to his sweat.  His skin was sensitive and tender…old, they’d made his flesh feel old while his mind continued to rail behind in youthful ignorance.

Actors!  The cretins, transgressors, shape shifters!  Who did they think they were, staging attacks under the guise of guerilla filmmaking?  He should have taken down their names, threatened to sue, had them arrested for assault or reckless endangerment.  Ironically, he’d once imagined he might be an actor someday.  This had been during his sophomore year of college, when he’d taken an acting class to fulfill a fine arts requirement.  He’d been cast in a couple of college productions, although they had all been small disposable parts, subservient roles—one as a waiter, and the other as the valet to existential hell in a student-directed production of Sartre’s No Exit.  Diane Cleary had cast him as the valet.  During tryouts he’d performed the part of instinct, playing his scene with an irony and a devil-may-care wit that had surprised and delighted Diane, who had cast him “on deepest intuition,” or so she’d told him later, at the time when she’d begun doubting all her intuition. 

Terrence climbed out of the tub and started drying himself.  Once rehearsals had begun for No Exit, his performances had worsened rather than improved.  Over time he’d lost sight of that playful invention he’d tapped into during tryouts.  Where’s the valet I saw during auditions?  Diane was prone to call from the empty seats.  She’d been a high-strung young woman of the Dark Poetess variety, her hair parted too far to one side, causing her hair to fall across her face in a haphazard way that a tired romantic might have found sexy.  Terrence found it somewhat sexy. 

He shrugged and said he’d try harder, but his performance felt rutted now in a dun-colored earnestness, so drab a performance he feared he was single-handedly turning hell less and less existential and more and more lifeless.  He couldn’t even honor Diane’s instructions that he stare out toward the lights and not blink, part of Sartre’s conception of hell as a place utterly without respite.  Terrence stared into the upper reaches of the theater, neither at the audience nor the lights, and willed himself not to blink, but his eyelids refused to paralyze on cue. 

Diane Cleary: soon after No Exit had played out its several performances, she’d disappeared from campus and her own life.  A statewide search lasted for weeks, but she’d vanished without a trace.  No body had been recovered, nor was anything apparently missing from her apartment that might suggest she’d decided to move away.

The assumption was that she was dead, but this had never been proven.

Terrence examined himself in the bathroom’s full-length mirror.  In Sartre’s hell there was no glass or mirrors, no possibility of seeing one’s own reflection.  Was hell the absence of vanity, then, or deeper, the absence of control, or even the absence of self?  These were the kind of questions Diane would have asked, questions Terrence thought he’d lost interest in after college, but now they were sneaking up on him again.  The aimless bruise on his forearm seemed to have moved closer to his elbow.

this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses and never quite hurts enough.

Terrence heard the sound of Ione’s key in the lock as she stepped into the apartment.  He couldn’t account for his nervousness at the prospect of facing her.  He stepped into his fresh clothes.  Maybe he wouldn’t mention his troubling afternoon.  The whole incident was an aberration of experience, so absurd there was no understanding it.

Only wouldn’t she notice, at the very least, his raw and tender stranger’s mouth?

Ione was sitting on the sofa, still dressed in her ballet leotard, one shoe off, massaging her ankle.  When he stepped into the room, she glanced up, sparing him a forced greeting.  He waited for some change in her expression, some register of surprise at his altered appearance.  His bruised lips throbbed.

“My ankle,” she said, continuing to massage her foot.  “I twisted it, or should I say it was twisted for me.  This man on the subway literally stepped on my heel—“

She described the accident and didn’t seem to notice anything different about him.  He was relieved and fascinated by this, how he could be beaten (not beaten?) and no one would notice, how he could suffer such an outlandish experience (non-experience?) and even the woman closest to him saw nothing.

 

That night Terrence lay on the bed in his briefs, fighting an oncoming chill that had gathered over the hours, not a severe chill, yet persistent enough so that he couldn’t ignore it.  His legs were spread wide so that, if Ione was observant and looked up from the twisted syntax of the student papers she was grading at the desk across the room, she might notice the scratches along his thighs.  These marks had come to him, he assumed, when the sisters, in their clumsy guerilla fashion, had yanked off his sweat pants.  Monkey, guerilla—he couldn’t help but smile.  Ione looked at Terrence the way people do when they sense themselves outside the private joke.  “What?” she asked, setting down her pen and removing her glasses.

Terrence had met Ione in college and they’d been together since, except for a few brief months when they were twenty-eight and had experimented with being apart.  Eventually they’d come back together and had been sharing an apartment and expenses ever since.  Although Terrence, at thirty-five, considered himself ready for marriage, Ione was still hesitant, unwilling to sacrifice the comfort of their present arrangement, which offered the benefits of marriage and few of the confinements.  When he thought about it, he was amazed at the number of years they’d been together, comfortable and content if not exactly burning with desire.  “Do you remember Diane Cleary?” he asked.

“Diane Cleary.”  Apparently the name meant nothing to Ione. 

“She went to college with us,” Terrence reminded her.  “She was older, a senior when we were sophomores.”  This was a year before he and Ione had begun to date.  “She directed me in No Exit.”

“Oh yes.”  Ione giggled, remembering.  “Terry Sheppard, boy actor.  You weren’t supposed to blink, but there you stood beneath the sweltering lights, batting your lashes like Vivien Leigh.”

Terrence looked at her mildly.  “What if I told you we slept together once?”

“You slept with Vivien Leigh?”  She raised her brows in arch surprise.

Terrence wasn’t sure why he’d mentioned any of this.  He should be sharing with Ione how he’d been roughhoused in the park, but instead was lingering on a woman he hadn’t thought about in years, a silhouette in his life, a footnote, a whispered aside.  He recalled Diane’s small cluttered apartment.  He’d expected a sparse room, neatly kept and imperious.  Instead he’d found the walls decorated with framed movie photos of Cary Grant and William Powell; books cramped with furious annotations tossed across the sofa and antique desk; unscoured dishes heaped in the kitchen sink; clothes washed in the bathroom sink and hung to dry in various corners, a few of these men’s clothes.  A narrow bed had been shoved against a thumping radiator, which turned the sheets hot, a fire hazard even before they’d lain down together.

“Or sort of slept with her,” he amended.

“I’m very interested in this concept of sort of sleeping with someone.”  Ione walked over to the bed and lay down beside him so they were barely touching.  “Am I sort of sleeping with you?” she asked, running her fingers along his stomach and beneath the elastic of his underwear.

Her fingers stalled at the scratches on Terrence’s legs.  She turned on the bedside lamp for closer inspection.  “Terrence!” she said.

Terrence knew then what she must be thinking—had she caused the scratches without realizing it, and if not her, then who?  Now was the time to douse her suspicions by confiding his humiliating experience with GoST, the violation he’d felt even though, in the end, his had been a false attack.  But he couldn’t tell her, or did not.  He might as well have had the black tape strapped over his mouth again.  Why hadn’t he torn the tape away when he first had the opportunity?  But he’d left the tape on, which suggested a complicity of some kind, a caving to intimidation, a mild acceptance of the whole degrading experience.

“The bruises just appeared,” he said.  “After a few days, they’ll disappear.”

 

The next day at work, Terrence spent most of his time secretly, and for some reason, guiltily, searching for information on GoST.  He was supposed to be spending his time brainstorming ideas for a meeting next Monday on how they might best market a new sugary brand of breakfast cereal, but instead he scanned the Internet for an acting group called GoST or G.O.S.T.  He wasn’t sure what he meant to do with the information once—or if—he found it. 

When the Internet yielded nothing, he phoned Actor’s equity but found no group listed by the name of either GoST or Guerillas of Street Theater.  He tracked down Wolff casting, but the receptionist he spoke with did not recognize a performance group calling itself GoST, and couldn’t say whether they had or had not received a call requesting an actor for an independent feature of the sort Terrence described.  In desperation he called directory assistance in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, and still he came up empty-handed.

“We have a listing for a Ghost Theater,” the operator offered.

Terrence asked her to spell it.  She complied.  “No, that’s not it,” he insisted.  “GoST.  Guerillas of Street Theater.”

“We have nothing by that name, sir.”

Nothing.  Being and Nothingness.  No-thingness.

The more frustrated his search for GoST, the larger Diane grew in his mind, an ink stain spreading, the rude house guest demanding more space, refusing to sit cramped in one meager room like a redheaded stepchild.  Diane had had a burn scar across her left hip, somewhat fresh, a scar she would not discuss.  When his fumbling hands caressed her that night they’d lain in bed together, she’d said as a preemptive strike, “We’ll not open the cisterns of that hell tonight.”  She smoked obsessively, then worried obsessively that all her clothes would smell like “ash rot,” which accounted, he supposed, for the clothes hung to drip-dry around her apartment.

At the end of the day Buster Carlisle stopped by to see if Terrence was interested in their usual Friday Happy Hour at Four Leaf.  A drink, and quite possibly several, was exactly what Terrence needed, so he agreed.

Four Leaf was almost full by the time they arrived.  He and Buster claimed one of the last tiny tables squeezed in the back next to the bathrooms and the pay phone with its receiver broken off.  They both ordered vodka from a waitress with a decal of a shamrock on her forehead.

Buster was an average looker whose amiability just made him dull.  He proposed a jumpstart on Monday’s meeting by brainstorming together about the breakfast cereal.  “Breakfast cereal is such a cliché,” Buster said. “We have to make it distinct, transcend breakfast itself—“

Buster continued to speak, not noticing that Terrence’s real company was not him, Buster, but Diane and the GoST actors.  He tried to picture Diane as a member of GoST, charging at him with mysterious fury.  She would never have approved of guerilla theater.  She would have found it ridiculous, misguided, a mockery of discipline and of text.  Once she’d demanded a special rehearsal with Terrence a week before No Exit’s preview performance.  They’d met in the college theater, although Terrence has gone reluctantly, not all that interested in receiving private instruction from her, the equivalent of an acting tutorial.  Remedial Thesping 100.  Yet he’d grown doggedly possessed by the need to hear the full extent of her criticism, and so he’d trudged across the snow-beaten path to the edge of the campus where the theater was located.

He sat beside her on the edge of the chilled stage, looking out over the empty seats.  She sipped from a cup of bitter coffee and carefully held her copy of No Exit, which had broken into pieces that she kept attached with a giant paper clip affixed to the spine. His own copy of the play looked relatively clean. Even his own lines were not highlighted, as if he’d planned on selling the book back at a discount. “Lift your performance from the page,” she instructed him.  “My God, Terry, everything you need to make the valet live is right here, hiding in the words, you just have to burrow deep like a mole and rut them out.”

Burrow deep like a mole?  “You couldn’t pick something easier?” Terrence asked.  “A one-act by Williams or Wilder?  Sartre for a student production, you’re just asking for trouble.”

“Ah! If you’re looking for a stylist, go to a hair salon.” She lit a cigarette and flicked ash into the last of the bitter coffee. “I picked this play because it’s about ideas.  The characters are trapped in hell by the choices they’ve made, which ideally would urge us to reflect on how we exist, trying to choose in the face of all that Nothingness.  Next to Nothingness, manic spinsters and overgrown hothouse virgins just don’t compare.”  Her eyes reflected a strange gleam.  “Unless there’s some reason the hothouse virgins interest you more.”

Terry only looked at her.  “And are you a virgin, Terry Sheppard?” she asked.

The question sideswiped him, pushed him into a brief mental freefall—because he was still a virgin, damn it, although he was nineteen, nineteen!, and felt his own sexual lack when drifting off to sleep at night, picturing a bus filled with sated and ripe women who politely waved to him as the vehicle lumbered past.  He didn’t have time to construct some plausible lie because the truth was so plainly etched on his face.  “That’s why my deepest intuition was right,” she said.  “A brilliant piece of casting against type, the young innocent playing hell’s lightly disdainful valet.  Delicious, Terry. You have to nail this.  You can nail this.”

Nail.  The word itself embarrassed him.  She explained how the valet, as the play’s escort into eternity, already knew what torture awaited the characters in their Second Empire drawing room.  Wouldn’t that give the valet an immense power over them, and didn’t Terry imagine, even if the valet didn’t flaunt that power outright, it might show in his voice through irony, tone, inflection?  “You’re a bit of a flake in real life,” she revealed to him, “or so you’d prefer the world to think.  But on stage, you’re so grave.”

“He’s a valet in hell,” Terrence said stubbornly.  He still couldn’t believe that Diane knew he was a virgin. “He’s dead.”

“To small minds, yes.  Just because these characters are in hell, just because they’re dead in the literal sense, doesn’t make them lifeless, doesn’t mean they lack vital essence.  Leave the grave up in the living world.  The valet is past the grave.”

“All right, all right.  Let’s just get on with it.”

He’d forgotten those were the last lines of the play—“let’s get on with it”—but didn’t reveal this to Diane.  Let her suppose he was at least capable of cleverness.  They rehearsed the play’s opening scene several times, which constituted most of the valet’s appearance.  Diane read the part of the lead male, Garcin, while Terrence continued to butcher the valet.  “When I said you could nail this, I didn’t mean nail the words into the ground,” Diane said.  “Use your voice, my God, can’t you control your instrument?”

She was always asking him to use his voice and control his instrument, only now she said these words in a different way, with a strange and knowing heat in her eyes.  He supposed his virginity was making him attractive to her.  As they rehearsed the scene yet another time, Diane, inspired, took the role of the valet to demonstrate how Terrence might lift his plodding portrait to a higher level.  To his surprise, she was stellar in the role.  In her interpretation the valet existed as more than a device to usher the doomed lead characters onstage; he hinted at both profound and absurd mystery.  Terrence was becoming more and more incongruously attracted to Diane, stubbornly riveted, which made it all the more unusual that an evil, subversive little idea came to him then, while watching Diane effortlessly embody the role that had escaped him.

“I threw the play,” Terrence said aloud to Buster.  He just remembered now.  Buster didn’t seem to hear and continued undeterred with his pitch for transcendent breakfast cereal.  “Buster, Jesus, stop,” Terrence said.  “Let the damned cereal be.”

Buster floundered, both aghast and sheepish.  He picked up his glass for a nervous sip, only the glass was empty, so he pretended to drink the last remaining nonexistent drops. “Come on, Buster, tell me something I don’t know about you,” Terrence prodded.  “Let’s get personal.”

Buster shrugged and scratched his arm.  “I’ll start,” Terrence said.  “I once threw a play.”

“You mean, at someone?” Buster ordered them another round.

“Small minds, Buster.  I mean, I was once acting in a college play, and I was having a rough go of making the damned part come alive, so my director kept leaning on me, criticizing me.  A graduate of the Tough Love School of Direction.”

The waitress returned with their drinks and a basket of popcorn with scorched kernels that Buster immediately began to eat.  “She pushed so hard, finally I just gave up on the performance,” Terrence continued.  “It meant so damned much to her, and she’d lost all faith in me.”  Terrence leaned back in his chair.  “So I stopped trying.  I’d deliberately give the flat performance she was so afraid I would, just to punish her.”

After a moment Buster said, “Served her right, if she was crapping on you like that.”

Terrence lapsed into silence.  Speaking to Buster was like speaking to a shallow puddle; he was depthless.  No one would strip him in a park.  Terrence threw some money down on the table, stood up and walked out before Buster could protest. 

The subway ride home was somewhat crowded, even if it was long past rush hour.  Terrence stared around the train for someone who looked like Diane.  He wanted a manifestation, a physical evocation of her in front of him that would leave no question.

When he arrived home, Ione was talking on their landline phone.  Was she talking to someone about him?  It seemed unreal, the assault in the park, someone else’s hallucination forced upon him.  The only past that was real was Diane and the damaged No Exit production over fifteen years ago during a virulent Minnesota winter.

He undid his shirt, then his tie. He cracked open a cold beer, then lost interest and placed it back in the refrigerator.  Ione hung up the phone.  “That was Buster,” she said.  “He’s worried he said something to upset you.  He said you just took off and disappeared.”

Disappeared.  To call walking out of a bar in a pique a “disappearance” was just like Buster, instead of disappearance as in without a trace, as in, cease to be.

Terrence walked into the bedroom and started undressing.  Ione followed him and stood in the doorway, eating noodles out of a bowl with a thin pair of chopsticks.  “Buster’s like talking to dead wood,” Terrence said.  “A stump, a log.  He’s a shallow puddle.”

“Maybe you should tell me what’s going on,” Ione sighed.

He didn’t much want to talk about any of this with Ione, but his conscience was opening up or else forcibly pried open, some delayed reckoning.

“He said the two of you were having a regular conversation,” Ione said, “then you started talking about getting personal and throwing plays around.”

Terrence picked up the ball of black masking tape from the windowsill.  Hadn’t he thrown that away?  He tossed it at the trash basket, but he missed and the tape rolled under the bed for him to find at some future point, possibly to wonder anew if he hadn’t thrown it away.

Matter and memory were the same in that regard.

Ione studied him as if just now understanding Terrence was battling some internal struggle, something of which she was not wholly a part.  “Does this have anything to do with that dead woman we were talking about last night?”

“Diane Cleary. She’s more than just a dead woman.” Terrence paused, ready to burrow deep. “Is it possible to rape a woman by withholding sex?” he asked.

“You’re serious?”  When Ione saw he was, she said, “No, of course not.”

“I’m talking about violating someone’s trust by withholding sex.  Abusing her, I guess, by the promise of everything and the giving of nothing.  What is the word for that?”

“I don’t know if there is one.  Rape wouldn’t be it, though.  A tease?  A bastard, maybe.”

He looked out the window at the swirling wind, as if he could see swirling wind.  “A bastard,” he said.  “That’s right. Terrence Sheppard, cunning virginal bastard.”

“And why are you referring to yourself in third person?”

Third person—if only he could feel as if someone else had said and done all those things to Diane, a gremlin Terrence, a GoST Terrence.  He explained to Ione, as he’d tried with Buster, about having thrown the play, of making the conscious choice to transform himself from a hapless bad actor into an actor delivering bad performances by calculation.

After a moment Ione said, “That was so long ago.  Why is it bothering you now?”

Because I was attacked and stripped by a group of rebel actors who thought I was someone else, a third person, he might have said.  But of course he still couldn’t articulate certain things. “Because less than two weeks after No Exit closed—after I’d slept with her—Diane disappeared off the face of the planet. There one minute, gone the next.”

“Didn’t you only sort of sleep with her?” Ione deadpanned and sat on the bed.

“Don’t get ahead of us. You have to understand the kind of focus it takes to go onstage and act badly on purpose.  Opening night I got cold feet, convinced I couldn’t do it, couldn’t just not try to make the scene work.  But then I started seeing her face in my mind, stronger than any reflection, and from that I found the energy to breathe the valet with lifelessness. Sink the valet, what a movement!  After every performance, Diane begged me to try harder, the scene wasn’t working. But the more she pleaded, the more determined I was to sound the one imperfect note in this Diane Cleary production.  I was beating her, you see, in some battle that had been going on between us since she first cast me as the valet, a goddamned manservant.”

Ione’s expression had turned uneasy, as if she suspected Diane’s memory had grown so vast in Terrence’s mind that it had overtaken her, Ione, making her small and mortal.  “You said you went to bed with her as an apology?” she asked.

“After the play was over, yes.”  He could still picture the closing night party thrown afterward in the theater lobby, people drinking wine and nibbling on crackers and cheese and milling about.  Only Diane had not been in a celebratory mood, although she was dressed, almost defiantly, in a short clinging black dress, as if in mocking celebration of her own failure.  She refused to acknowledge any compliments about the play, even though, with Terrence’s contribution the exception, No Exit had played very well for a student production.  Some professors and students had been embarrassed to glance in Terrence’s direction, uncertain how to small talk around his stilted performance, not understanding how it had been a triumph, if of a perverse personal nature.  Soon anyone in the room with sensitivity and perception—and being artists and theatergoers, surely that was all of them—could see how Diane’s eyes were focused on Terrence, studying him from across the room.  And in spite of himself, Terrence couldn’t help but stare back.

“We were connected that night, by even more than this stupid failed dance of a play,” Terrence said.  “I wasn’t surprised when she crossed the room and said, Come with me.  An order, still the director, leaving no room for debate.  And on this, I didn’t want to defy her.”

He’d followed her into the bitter winter night to her car.  He rode beside her, neither of them saying a word, as she drove the two miles to her apartment located in a neighborhood of Laundromats and machinery repair shops.  Terrence understood now, better than he had then, how Diane wanted more than simply to sleep with him.  She wanted nothing less than to claim his virginity.  “Maybe she thought she had a right to it,” he told Ione.  “I’d failed her in the play, after all.  To her way of thinking, I owed her some satisfaction from this whole experience.

“We drank more wine once we were at her place.  I sat on the sofa and she sat in a chair across the room.  She just studied me, so filled with…I don’t know what.  Disgust, maybe. Disappointment, despair—and desire, sure.  We must have small talked back and forth.  I can’t remember what we said but we must have said something.  We couldn’t have sat there for thirty minutes or an hour, just staring at each other.  Could we?”

“It must have been hell,” Ione said.  Terrence laughed before he realized she hadn’t meant this as a joke.  “And then?” Ione asked.

“And then I knew she was in charge again.  I thought I’d one-upped her by ruining the valet, but yet I’d come to her turf under my own will and placed myself right back in that position of powerlessness.  All, again, under my own free will.”

He glanced at Ione but she was not looking at him.  Her eyes were downcast and she was staring into the bowl of noodles, nudging and probing them with the chopsticks.

“Finally, she asked a question. You did it on purpose, didn’t you? I don’t remember how I answered. Probably a denial of some kind.  And she said, Liar. You didn’t even try.  You gave up. 

“How could I answer?  I was too trapped in my own guilt.  I was grateful when she said, Come here, my little failed valet.  Of course I stood up and went over.  Take off your shirt, she said—”

“She’s not blameless then,” Ione muttered. 

“—and I did, I took it off,” Terrence continued, as if Ione hadn’t spoken at all.  “I wanted to, in a way.  Maybe I thought I was about to lose my virginity and couldn’t wait to rid myself of it.  Now the belt, she said, and then, the shoes.”

Under her demanding stare, Terrence had stripped down to his briefs.  A sound clawed deep in Diane’s throat. She stood up and kissed him. 

“At first, it was like she wanted to devour me,” Terrence said. “There was something desperate about her. Hostile.  But then she softened, probably against her will. What was happening between us was no longer just about what she felt was her due.”

While he spoke Terrence sensed that his mouth, still raw from the GoST black tape, was shaping the confessional according to its own needs, determined to present the full story whether Terrence wanted to or not.  He shared with Ione details about how he and Diane had worked their way to the bed beside the temperamental radiator, and how the both of them had started removing Diane’s clothes, Diane pulling the black dress over her head with impatience and outright contempt.  All the while Terrence was aware of how Diane’s growing desire and need created an emotional chasm inside of her, and on that chasm’s precipice, he was reluctant to balance.  He hesitated even though he had already grown erect.  Go ahead, Diane said.  Now, and at that moment his two contradictory impulses merged, hesitation and arousal. Terrence understood what it was he meant to do.

“I pulled away,” he told Ione, “and I stood naked over her so I was looking down into her eyes, into that frantic sinking yielding that was all for me, after I’d suffered two months of humiliation waiting for one encouraging word from her.  She’d let go of all the hostility at that moment but I couldn’t.  I couldn’t. I looked dead into her eyes and I said: This is what you’ve always wanted, Diane.  At last, I have control of my instrument.”

He didn’t turn to look at Ione.  He looked out the window, although all he could really see was his distorted reflection in the glass.

“At first I said it half as a joke, but after a couple seconds, it was clear to both of us that I’d meant every word.  Imagine the look that came over her, the fear and need, the recognition and disgust.  For a few seconds she was still, terribly still.  Paralyzed with loathing, I suppose, but not loathing of me, really, although she had every right.  Then she grabbed at me—“ Terrence stumbled at his next words, yet he couldn’t recreate the complete picture without it “—grabbed for my cock, and held it tight in her hands.  I thought she meant to hurt me, you know, really make me sorry for what I’d said, for thinking I could ever get the upper hand with her.  But she hadn’t grabbed me to inflict pain.  No, she had hold of me because she was trying to pull me into her—forcing me, against my will, inside her—“

Ione shook her head.  “I shouldn’t hear anymore.”

“But if I don’t tell you, who’s left? I can’t bear witness to her.  She’s dead—isn’t she?  But she was alive once, and she needed so much at that moment.  The complicated part was, I still wanted to make love to her.  Do you understand?  I did. But the punishing side of me needed to frustrate yet again that thing she wanted most.  So I just stepped away from the bed.”

Which was how the spell had broken between them.  Diane lay defeated across the sheets, not looking at Terrence standing over her, only making small choking sounds of her grief and humiliation.  Get out, she whispered at last.  Ash rot!  Leave me.  Ash rot.

Ash rot: words with the powerful and corrupting force of an incantation.  Ash rot.  Was he no more than ash, less than the waste of a cigarette that she stomped beneath her foot?  A light snow had begun to fall outside Diane’s window, a snow of ash, or so it had seemed to Terrence.

“I stood beside her bed for a minute, not sure what I was trying to prove.  I got no real joy over what I’d done, no feeling of triumph, that’s the strange thing.  Diane opened the window and allowed the winter chill and the snowy ashes inside.  Then she lay with her back to me, holding one meager blanket over her.  I tried to explain, in my stupid stumbling way, that she’d catch cold with the window open, but I guess sickness looked better to her than I did.”

“She wanted not to exist,” Ione said vaguely.  “You just kept reminding her.”

“I left her soon after that,” Terrence continued.  “I left her with the snow falling over the bed.  I went into the other room, put on my clothes, and…just left.  That was the last time I spoke to her.  I saw her once more, on campus a week later in the student center.  I wanted to walk away, but by then guilt had set in and I thought I owed it to her to at least face her, and maybe that would ease my conscience a little.”  Even now he winced at the memory.  “But she looked right at me, no expression, as if I didn’t exist, as if I wasn’t even there.”

A feeling was creeping up around him that he couldn’t identify at first, but then it announced itself.  Nausea, Terrence thought, and that seemed about right.

“The police questioned me after she disappeared,” Terrence said.  “It was no secret after closing night of the play that something had ignited between us.  But I had an alibi. I was clean in the legal sense, but then there’s the pesky ethical sense.  I don’t know, you see, how much of a part I played in her disappearance.  Maybe none at all, and then again, maybe more than I’d ever care to know.  But the whole thing felt a little like getting away with a criminal act, to have her disappear and never having to account to her for what I’d done.”  He released a breath, his back tight with a nagging pain that reminded him of yesterday.  “And then yesterday it all came back to me.  Diane returned with a vengeance to taunt me again, to torture me, force me to remember, just like the dead others in that damned play she loved so much.”

Terrence was finished.  Beyond this story, this telling, lay tomorrow.  He didn’t turn around when he heard Ione quietly leave the room.  He opened the window to let in the night air and stepped out of his pants.  Ione had abandoned the bowl of noodles on the bed, so Terrence moved the bowl to the end table as any good valet would.   Then he turned off the light and lay down on the bed, spent and exhausted, the kind of exhaustion that came from relived memory, not of a great love, but of an irreversible personal cruelty.  He rarely thought of himself as a cruel man.  He would have preferred telling Ione that some momentary madness had overtaken him, ambushed his senses all those years ago, but what had become more and more clear to Terrence, as he lay undressed in the darkness of his bedroom in Brooklyn so many years later, was how deliberately he’d hurt Diane, not once but twice.  At the same time he’d yearned for her approval and respect and something more, too, although what that more was eluded him still.  If he closed his eyes tightly enough, he could envision a haggard Diane standing in front of an open window, naked, snow ash dusting her hair as she motioned to him.  But when he opened his eyes again, the room was dark and earthbound, thick with the disturbed silence that rises between man and ghost when they are trapped alone together between four meaningless walls.

At first Terrence didn’t pay much attention to the sound of the bedroom door opening and then closing again.  Ione, he supposed, had glanced into the room to check if he was asleep.  But after a moment, he heard her in the dark, the soft exhalations of her breath as she undressed.  He said nothing, only watched while the pale outline of her body swayed back and forth on the far side of the room.  She could have been anyone.  And when, at last, she lay down on the bed and touched him, Terrence imagined this was what forgiveness might feel like, if it were to pass through the wind and the years, to rest beside him now.