“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” the King said. Not to me, but to the Mayor. At least, that’s what Carl Gibson told me while we waited together in line at the bakery that morning. Carl was a good friend of the Mayor’s, they’d been neighbors for a while before the Mayor became the Mayor and moved into the house behind City Hall.
“I’m taking my talents to South Beach,” the King had said. According to Carl. “Tonight’s performance will be the last, and then I’ll be on my way.” Carl didn’t say if the Mayor had said anything back. If he had argued, tried to offer the King some reward for sticking around, or if he had just nodded and wished the King good luck.
I went straight down to the theater once I left the bakery, a fresh loaf tucked tight and warm under my arm. Getting tickets to the show had been impossible for over a year; they were sold out weeks in advance, even after the King asked them to raise the prices up. But Monday’s shows were always the sparsest, and I figured if I got there fast enough I might be able to get some standing seats near the back.
Even though I arrived first, half the town had crowded around the theatre doors by the time the box office opened at noon. There were no signs announcing the King’s decision, and the morning paper had already been printed by the time the news broke. But Carl wasn’t known for keeping secrets, and the Mayor had a fairly loose pair of lips himself.
There was no line or anything, just all of us in a mess. Mary Jamison, the young widow who was working the box office that morning, didn’t know what to do, and for a while we all stood and argued over who had been there first, with me shouting loudest because I had been there since that morning. I had that bread to prove it. Then Morris Williams gave Mary his hat, the hat he wore in any weather, rain or shine, and suggested we draw numbers. I wasn’t in favor of that, given how some makeshift lottery gave all the latecomers the same chance as me. But then I pulled lucky anyway, proving there is a little justice in this world, and I bought my pair of tickets and almost ran back to my sister’s house. I had been staying there while I looked for work.
“Some good you are,” my sister said when I came in and put the bread on the counter. “Been waiting on that bread for half the damn day.” She was slicing up carrots for dinner, making the same soup we’d had every that week. Carrots in chicken stock. Not my favourite, but I wasn’t paying her or her husband anything, for room or for board, so I wasn’t about to go complaining.
“The King’s leaving,” I said. “Heading out of town, going down to South Beach, tonight’s the last show. I got tickets, that’s what took me. One for each of us.”
She paused in her slicing, then started up again harder, her knife pounding deep, straight lines into the counter’s wood.
“I heard,” she said. “And I don’t want that ticket. We took care of him for five years, that boy. A boy when he showed up and still a boy today, he hasn’t grown up none. But we took him in, made his name for him, and this is how he repays us? He can die on the road to South Beach, for all I care.”
I didn’t say anything for a minute. She had a very gentle disposition, so I was surprised by her anger, by the edge she carried on her voice. And I hadn’t considered this way of looking at things, so excited was I by the pair of tickets tucked tight inside the back pocket of my pants. I hadn’t considered that she wouldn’t appreciate them, just as I hadn’t considered that the King had made a decision in leaving, that there was choice involved. A choice made of his own will, a choice to abandon all of us here behind him. I grew angry, too. But I was still going to use those tickets.
“Bring Stuart, if you want,” my sister said. “He’ll be home soon, and he loves the show.” Stuart Hickson, her husband, ran the town’s bookstore. Soft-spoken and serious, I hadn’t thought much of him before they were married. But he had been the one who suggested I move in with them after the factory closed down, and we had become friends since.
“Alright,” I said. And then she asked me what I had paid for the tickets, but I ignored her and went down the hall to my room and closed the door, not showing my face in the kitchen again until a few hours later when I heard Stuart come in.
“Alice says you’ve got tickets to the show tonight,” he said. He had started straight into dinner without even taking his jacket off.
“One’s yours if you want it,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “The King’s a son of a bitch for leaving, but last show, bound to be something.”
My sister came out of the washroom, wringing her hands. Still angry. At me or the King, I didn’t know.
“He is a son of a bitch,” I said, looking down at the table as I took my seat.
“We built him that whole theater,” she said. “What’s going to happen to that now? Whose responsibility is that?”
We had built the theater for the King. It didn’t have his name over the doors or anything, but no one else performed there. He had been just a kid when he first arrived, doing the show in a field on the edge of town, inside a big tangerine-colored tent. Then the people started coming. They traveled from other towns, even other states, just to see the King. And since they had the money to travel, they had money for the hotel, and the restaurants, and all the other places in town. Money like that hadn’t been around since the factory closed down. So we built the King a theater, using the factory’s old bricks, carrying them one by one to the centre of town and putting them back to use. It was a simple building, when we finished it, but sturdy and big, with more than twice the room the tent had. The whole town pitched in. I was there every day, carrying those bricks, leaving my own memories of the factory behind. It had felt good to work again, even if I wasn’t getting paid.
“Something will find itself a place there.” My spoon scraped at the sides of my bowl. “There will be other shows, other performers. It’s only the King who’s leaving.”
“Well it’s only the King they come to see,” she said.
“That’s the truth,” Stuart said. “There’s shows in every town. Not as big as the one in South beach, but still bigger shows than ours. But the people come here anyway, because it’s only us that’s got the King.”
“Had the King,” my sister said.
No one said anything. We knew he was right. The King was what the town had become known for, the reason we were more than just a name on the map. And the question we thought but didn’t ask aloud was what would define us tomorrow, once he was gone?
“I haven’t been to see the show in a while,” Stuart said. The night was cold, and we kept our hands in our pockets as we marched towards the theater. “I used to go all the time, when I was a bachelor.”
“Me too,” I said. “But it’s been a while.”
“He wasn’t even called the King at the beginning. You remember that?”
“I do,” I said. “He earned the name, though.”
Back in the days of the tent, we had called him the kid, because he was one. Fresh out of school, people said, and he looked the part. But it was clear from his first show that he was special, that standing before a crowd was what he’d been born to do. Everyone in town now claimed they had been there that evening. Old crones and shoe shiners alike had a story about how they’d been just a few feet away when he first performed, done things no one had ever seen before, things no one had even thought possible. Not just escapes and illusions and levitations but real magic, wonders that crawled inside your mind and gave color to your dreams. Overnight, it seemed, the kid became known as the King.
I said hello to Mary Jamison for a second time that day as I passed her our tickets at the box office, but she stared at her fingers as she tore the stubs in half and handed them back to me. She had moved to the town within days of her young husband passing away, the baby on her back so new it had yet to be given a name. Moved because of the work, and because it gave her the chance to see the show every night. She was a great fan of the King, an apostle. Would she trail behind him to South Beach, I wondered? Follow him towards the best chance of something better?
Stuart and I found ourselves places just behind the last row of seats. The audience was mixed, and the women had all dressed up. The scent of their perfume mixed with the cigarette smoke that hung like a cloud above our heads. Conversations among the crowd were somber, jokes quiet and personal. People smiled rather than laughed. The house lights dimmed slowly, and by the time they were extinguished the theatre had grown so silent that you could hear the sound of your own rasping breath.
As always, the King went on last. And though the performers who preceded him were fantastic in their own fashion, there was an impatience to the applause that followed each of their routines. After an hour or so, I felt a pressure below my belly, and I tugged on Stuart’s sleeve.
“I’m off for a piss,” I said.
“You can’t go now,” he said, not turning his eyes from the stage. Laura Parker, a local girl, was swallowing swords. But the real attraction was the silk costume she wore, its white folds wrapped tight around her curves. “The King will be up soon.”
“I’ll only be a minute,” I said. “Just make sure you keep my space.” I turned before he could protest further, twisting and ducking my way back through the throng.
The theatre’s lobby was empty, even the ushers having crammed inside for the show, and I squinted at the light of the bare bulbs that lined its walls. Coming from the standing room of the crowd, it felt strange and exciting to be so suddenly alone. Propelled by some mischievous and unexplainable urge, I crossed the lobby briskly, away from the washrooms and towards a plain, unmarked door. To my surprise, it was unlocked, and opened onto a short hallway that concluded in another door. Beyond it, someone was humming, a wordless tune whose end transformed into its beginning. My hands shook as I cracked the door, aware that I was in a place I was not intended to be.
He sat with his back to me, bent over, tying his boots. Yet I knew immediately who he was.
“Come in,” the King said. He pulled his laces tight and then stood, shifting to face the door. I let it swing open, but did not enter the room.
“Can I help you?” He lowered his chin to fasten a button on his jacket.
“I was looking for the washroom,” I said. The words came out in a guilty tumble, the desperate excuse of a schoolboy caught cheating on a test.
“They’re in the lobby,” the King said.
“Of course,” I said. “Thank you.” I took a step back, but remained in the doorway. There was something about his bearing, a confidence that suggested he couldn’t imagine being challenged by anyone. And that nonchalance bothered me. Because it wasn’t fair. Because no one else in this town could imagine a life free of challenge.
“So this is it?” I said.
The King paused, looked me up and down. I felt as if I was being measured.
“Yes,” he said. “This is it.”
“Why?” I said. My hand balled into a fist at my side.
“Because it’s time,” the King said. “You must understand that.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I don’t understand. Did we not make you welcome? Don’t you know we need you?”
“Yes.” The King sighed. “You were very kind to me, all of you.” I had never before been so close to him, and it surprised me to notice that he was still very young. Although he was handsome, traces of teenage acne gathered at the corners of his mouth.
“So stay,” I said.
“I can’t,” the King said, and then turned to face the mirror. “I want to become something...greater. A legend. Someone they tell stories about. And not just them, this evening, but their children, and their grandchildren. Their stories, too. And that won’t happen here. I need a bigger stage, bigger crowds, bigger...everything.” He paused. A tremor of fear had entered his voice. “But maybe I’ll come back, one day. If you’ll still have me.”
The door behind him opened and a small man slipped into the room. Seeing me, the man’s lips peeled back into a sneer.
“What are you doing here?” he said. Thin, with an angular face and pale, slanted eyes, he looked like a serpent that had grown limbs.
“I was looking for the washroom,” I said again.
“Well keep looking,” he said, and seized the King at the elbow. “Are you ready?”
The King nodded. As he turned towards the door, he looked back at me. His face was sorry, and afraid.
I half-ran back through the theatre, skipping the washroom and returning to my place just as the curtains swept back to reveal the King, alone in the spotlight.
“You didn’t give yourself much time,” Stuart said.
The performance felt wrong from the start. A strange tension had crept into the audience, a sensation more suited to a boxing match than the show, and it festered as the King began. He plunged the theatre into absolute darkness before making its lamps reappear one by one. They floated from their fixtures, dancing into constellations above our heads. He reversed the alphabet, and our thoughts briefly ran backwards inside our heads, transforming our memories into our future and our predictions into our past. He turned all our right feet into lefts, and the whole village wobbled in place, placing our hands upon the shoulders of our neighbours to keep ourselves from falling down. Then he conjured an invisible brass band, which launched into a jaunty tropical two-step as an ocean breeze swept through the theatre. Grains of sand materialized within our pockets, and as we removed them they transformed into caramels in our palms.
I remembered the King’s early performances as boisterous, almost arrogant. Yet, even though these were his greatest hits, magics we had all witnessed before, on this evening he seemed very cautious, stuttering and halting like a boy leaning in for his first kiss. He paced the stage, carving such an erratic path that the spotlight began to lose track of its target. And then he jerked to a stop, turned to face us, and bowed.
“Now, my friends, something new.” The King took a deep breath, like the desperate gulp of a drowning man. Then, with a flourish, he reached inside his jacket and yanked back its breast to reveal a lone bird perched upon his wrist. White, no bigger than a child’s ball, the bird did not startle at the sight of the audience, instead unfurling its wings and raising its head in a chirp, exulting in our attention.
An assistant scampered from the shadows to place a table at the centre of the stage. The King delicately lowered the bird onto the table’s surface, then lifted his hands. They hung suspended for an instant, frozen just inches from the bird’s head, awaiting some mysterious, mystic signal. And then they flashed forward and seized the bird around the throat, forming a gigantic noose that twisted once and snapped the creature’s neck.
The theatre was silent. Both enraptured and confused, we stared, unsure if perhaps there had been some mistake. Keeping one hand upon the dove’s throat, the King reached again inside his jacket and removed a bright red scarf. As he draped the scarf over the corpse, his lips began to move, and we leaned faintly forward in an effort to hear whether any words escaped them.
The bird reacted immediately, jumping to its feet so suddenly that the scarf slipped off the table before the King could snatch it. Yet even from the distance of our seats it was clear that the bird the King had resurrected was not the creature he had killed. Its white plumage had turned a glossy black, as if it had been dipped in oil. It lurched across the tabletop. When it opened its mouth, we heard not a gentle chirp but the lurid squawk of a vulture hovering above prey.
Bile filled my throat. It felt as if one of nature’s fundamental laws had been violated. Not merely flaunted or stretched, but broken and betrayed. As the bird’s cadaverous eye swept across the crowd, an angry murmur followed in its wake. The King, sensing the change in his audience, gathered the bird back to his breast. The curtains began to descend before he finished his first bow.
We booed him. Lusty and loud, as if he was a pantomime villain. We jeered and we shouted and we unified into a mob against the King. There was something celebratory to our derision. We needed a reason to hate the King, an act terrible and majestic enough for him to turn from hero to heel. It would have been even more painful to see him succeed somewhere else while we still loved him.
“Good riddance,” Stuart said as we shuffled from the theatre. Outside, a poster decorated with the King’s likeness has already been ripped from the wall. It tore beneath our feet.
Four days after the King’s departure, in the middle of the night, the theater caught fire. My sister roused me from bed, and Stuart and I threw our jackets on over our pajamas and ran towards the orange glow blooming in the sky. Half the town was there, gathered together in a huddle. No one panicked or screamed. We hardly spoke. The flames had a noise of their own, furious and primal and avenging. The fire department, inexperienced and sleepy, could do little but protect neighboring buildings from the blaze.
In the morning, rumors of arson began to circulate around the town. But there was no investigation into the theater’s destruction, and more than a decade passed before another building was erected in its place.