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Fiction

Jenna looked up at the bored waitress, obviously pleased with herself. The waitress didn’t bat an eye when she repeated Jenna’s order. “One peach pie and a pot of coffee. Coming right up.” She shuffled away and Jenna smiled broadly at Carl, her wrinkled face falling into familiar lines. The edges of five brightly colored cardigans lined up in upside down triangles down her large, bare chest.

Carl sighed. Jenna had been over-the-top so long that it had gotten boring. He knew she would eat a small amount of the food, then take it home for later. Jenna had pulled this particular scene at least a dozen times. He tried to pick up the thread of the conversation they’d been having.

“So the theater is having financial trouble again?”

Jenna sighed and flipped her frizzy purple curls out of her pale brown eyes. “Oh yeah. And this time, I don’t think Barbara Knoll isn’t going to bail us out. She’s been practically bankrolling the Blackwood for years. She’s kind of pissed about that whole taxes thing.”

“The taxes? That sounds bad.” Carl drummed his short nails on the table. His tidy, gray sport coat and tie were out of place in the Den, the diner Jenna made him go to on her nights to pick where they ate. He preferred an upscale sushi place downtown. He glanced around the dingy walls and tables peppered with folks who matched their surroundings.

“Boy howdy. Turns out that alleged business manager Frank was shredding the financial documents. And I don’t know how bad it is. No one talks to me.” Jenna leaned back and stretched her thick arms out along the booth, oblivious to an elderly man behind her who was trying to enjoy a bowl of chicken noodle. “I keep offering to help, but everyone thinks all I know how to do is design the sets.”

Carl smiled and ran his hand through his short, sandy hair. He was one of the few who knew that Jenna had studied business before dropping out of Eastern Indiana. She kept that fact quiet; it didn’t go with her cultivated, flamboyant persona. 

“Do you think they’ll finally go under this time?”

“Man, I don’t know. They’ve pulled back from the brink so many times I think they’re indestructible. I just wish I’d get paid a little more often. It’s hard waiting until they have enough money to release my checks.” Jenna was always broke and lived in a tiny studio apartment in one of the shadier areas of town. “Such is the life of an artiste,” she said and sighed. When she wasn’t smiling, her face looked worn and sad.

Carl shrugged his broad shoulders, not sure what to say. He’d gone in a different direction and was now comfortably ensconced in a just-short-of-opulent life in upper management at Ford. His house in the suburbs was easily 20 times as big as Jenna’s apartment.

“You know, I started working at a theater when I was 20.” Jenna’s pie arrived and she began to eat in large spoonfuls from the middle out. 

“I remember,” Carl said. “Back when you were an intern at the Nest and I was in the chorus of Cabaret. We were such infants. Remember how you used to wear a porkpie hat?”

“And you were dating the nice old man who helped put up posters.”

“He was 40!”

“And you were still in college.” Jenna smirked. 

“He was a sexy guy! And as I’m sure you recall, he did a full frontal scene in one of those lobby productions.” Carl reached over and grabbed Jenna’s coffee. The cup was sweet from her pie-smeared lips.

“Of course I remember. Who could forget that stick he was swinging?”

“I remember.” Carl chuckled. “That was my favorite semester of college.” They laughed until Jenna started to cough and pieces of sodden pie flew out onto the table.

“Oh, sorry, babe,” Jenna said, still laughing and coughing. She began to eat the pie again.

When Carl dropped Jenna off at her apartment she immediately went inside and polished off most of the pie. Got to maintain my girlish figure, she thought, patting her large stomach. She’d be pawing in the medicine cabinet for Tums in an hour, but it was worth it. She flipped open her computer and read the news until she felt anxiety churn the pie in her gut.

Then she checked her email. There were a few messages from the costume designer and a particularly high maintenance actor with notes about the placement of a Twister mat on the set of Strangers in Bocas. Then she saw a message from James Carver, the executive director of the theater. “Board Meeting tonight. Be there,” it said. Jenna looked at the time. Shit. It was already 7:30 and the meeting was at 8. She ran out to her ancient CR-V and sped downtown.

The board meeting was at the City Club, the upscale women’s philanthropic society where Barbara Knoll, the board president, liked to have meetings. When Jenna arrived, the board members were already schmoozing in the stuffy room with its long table and walls lined with ornate art so brown it looked like they had been painted with gravy.

Barbara was dressed in an expensive baby blue suit and carried the silver curls atop her head like a crown. She was talking to Roger Meadows, an insufferably smug executive in his 40s who treated Jenna like a fifth grader, even though they were around the same age. All of the well heeled members completely ignored Jenna as she took a seat at the table. 

“Oh no, dear. There aren’t enough chairs. You’ll need to sit in the back.” Jenna blinked. There were clearly more chairs than the eight board members needed. She got up, caught her skirt on the chair and nearly fell as she lurched to a seat in the line of chairs against the wall. She could feel the withering look from Barbara and the smirk from Roger. To them, the theater staff was flighty and incompetent. Not totally inaccurate, but still. She worked hard and deserved their respect.

After a few minutes, the board took their expensive watches and shiny new iPhones to the table and Barbara started the meeting. Where were James and Cecile? She had expected the executive and artistic directors to be there on time, especially after James’s breathless message. 

They started with old business, including the $5 ticket debacle, which had inadvertently resulted in nights that brought in $200, less than it cost to pay even the non-equity actors. The board seemed to think that the theater staff should have no problem filling the seats six times a week. 

James and Cecile burst in, banging the door with a flourish. A late entrance as always. James smiled sheepishly and did a “don’t look at me” prance into the room. He was probably on the hook for whatever was being discussed tonight. 

Cecile, in a tight green velvet dress, looked like she was ready to take the stage in Breathing in the Rain, the production she’d headlined in her one and only off-off-off Broadway appearance. She still brought it up at every opportunity, despite the fact that it was fifteen years ago. She flounced over to the table, flung her large, mahogany leather bag onto a chair, and began to remove her thick coat. “Can you believe this weather?” she simpered. Her long blonde hair gleamed and set off the deep red lipstick on her thin smile.

Jenna waited for Barbara to relegate them to the back with her, but apparently that was only reserved for her. James looked back at her with a question on his face, but then sat down with Cecile. 

“Now on to our pressing business. The taxes. Neal has prepared a brief report about where we stand, and folks, it’s not looking good.” A stack of papers circulated around the table and there was a pause as everyone read them. No one bothered to hand one to Jenna. 

Roger said loudy, “I can’t believe this. Are you saying the taxes haven’t been paid in five years? How could this happen?”

“We let actors be in charge of the money,” Barbara said.

Cecile protested, “Oh my, that is surely not fair and--”

“You’ll be lucky not to find a padlock on the door in the morning,” Barbara interrupted. Her face was full of contempt. “Did you know that the board has ultimate responsibility for the finances of the theater? We could go to jail for this. You’ve driven this theater into the ground with your incompetence. And you’re not getting any more of my money to bail you out.”

“The Blackwood is the premier home for excellent theater in Mason,” Cecile said with a pout. “We routinely win prestigious awards and--”

“And is routinely run into the ground by your incompetence,” Barbara said.

The argument devolved from there. The taxes were forgotten as the staff and board argued in increasingly bitter tones about personal grievances stretching back a decade. 

Jenna sat forgotten. No one cared about her opinion or even acknowledged her existence. No one glanced at her as she stood, gathered her things, and stormed out. 

Later, and much drunker on a bottle of cheap wine, Jenna lay on her dingy futon and sobbed in great ugly gasps. She cried for all the years she had dedicated to what she once felt was an almost noble profession. It seemed like an utter waste. She went to the refrigerator to retrieve the last of the pie and dug a partial bottle of vodka out of the freezer.

She’d loved being a theater person-- the kooky woman who always had stories about the costume artist who dropped his pants in the office to get a laugh and the actor who slept on the floor in the theater for weeks to “get in touch with his character.” She twirled one long ropey curl around her index finger and pressed her lips together. She’d been at the Blackwood so long it really had felt like home. Until now.

Jenna polished off the pie, plus some leftover lasagna and the bottle of vodka. Her face was mottled red from tears, but her eyes were dry. She picked up her phone and found the number for the Observer. She shouldn’t do it. She was risking everything that mattered in her life. But she found that she didn’t care. She punched in the extension for general news tips and hesitated. 

Then she took a deep breath. “I… I have some information about the Blackwood Theatre. She launched into a full account of the situation at the theater, including the taxes, the infighting, the dire financial situation, the callous board. She tried to disguise her voice so that the entertainment reporter wouldn’t recognize her, but she had to be honest with herself. She had taken an action that could end her career in theater.

Jenna got up and put on some Mavis Staples. The deep, velvety tones moved her to dance languidly around the small space, taking care not to step on discarded clothes and piles of mail. “I like the things about me,” Mavis sang. 

Jenna wasn’t sure she liked anything about herself. And who was she really, underneath all of the artifice? Who had she been before taking on that persona? Who would she be if she gave it up? Would there be enough left to make a whole person? She remembered her young self, a 20-year-old business major who excelled at math and studied hard. Until she decided to have some fun by minoring in theater. Whatever happened to the level-headed person with a future in finance? She had a mental image of herself in a suit. 

Eventually, the alcohol brought her a dullness that dragged her down to the futon, where she slept until her alarm went off the next day.

“WHO THE HELL TALKED TO THE PRESS?” James bellowed. His compact body was clenched and his face was red and sweating. He surveyed the group of about 30 staff and interns sitting in the small, shadowy theater. No one spoke into the tense silence. “I got a call from the Observer this morning asking a lot of questions about things that are not widely known outside of this room. Now, I want to know. Who did it?”

Jenna felt her right eyebrow raise, and willed it down. She had to keep it together. She raised her hand, “It could have been someone on the board, right? Someone who wanted to take us down. Those board members are pretty pissed off.” She trembled slightly.

James said witheringly, “Yes, of course Jenna. It could have been someone on the board. But why?”

Jenna answered, “Well, why would one of us do it? If the theater closes, we’re all unemployed. The board has a motive- they want to get out of this mess with the taxes.”

James stared at her. “You left the meeting awfully suddenly last night. Anything you want to share with the class? Did you leave a message with the Observer last night?”

“Of course not. I went home and got drunk, like any sane person would do after witnessing that meeting.” If there was one thing James understood besides complete loyalty to the theater, it was getting drunk.

“Got drunk and then called the tip line?” James stalked over to her. “Maybe we could check the outgoing calls on your phone so we can double check your story.”

Jenna clasped her phone tightly, “What the hell, James? I’m not showing you my phone. That’s ridiculous.”

“You know, I think you did it. I think you got mad at that meeting, went home, and called it in.” James was leaning over her, almost spitting on her as he spoke. 

Jenna stood, beyond angry. How dare he accuse her? He was right, but how dare he. She’d been loyal to the Blackwood through decades of potential scandals. She got right into James’s face. “Suck it, James.”

James was too angry to even register that she had spoken. He yelled, “You want to take this outside? Huh? I can take you, you know I can.” He bounced on his feet like a middle-aged pugilist and poked her in the shoulder.

Jenna paused. “You want to… you want to fight me? Like with fists? Good God, man.” She shook her head. “I do not have to take this.” WIthout another glance at James, she grabbed her bag and walked out.

“The Chartreuse Barn offered me a job as head set designer,” Jenna said a month later. They were back at the Den and she was halfway into a grilled cheese. Her clothing was unusually subdued- a long black skirt and blue cardigan over a pale green t-shirt. The purple in her curls had begun to grow out. 

“That’s fantastic!” Carl stopped tapping on his phone and looked at her. He hadn’t had time to change after the gym and wore sweaty workout gear. “What a dream come true.”

“Yeah. I don’t know.” Jenna took a bite of her sandwich. “I mean… Is it?”

“You’ve been talking about the Barn as long as I’ve known you.”

“I’m just not sure why I’m still doing this. If it’s what I really want.” Jenna was pulling pieces off the crust of her sandwich and popping them in her mouth.

Carl stared at her. He had never heard Jenna talk about anything besides the theater. It made him unreasonably nervous. 

“I registered for a class at Baker Community College. A business class.” Jenna looked at him expectantly with a shy smile. 

Carl put his phone down and laughed loudly. But Jenna wasn’t smiling. “Wait. Are you serious? Why would you do that?” 

“I’m telling you, I think I want to get out.” Jenna threw down the ragged remains of her sandwich and looked at him defiantly. She was starting to get angry.

“What do you want to do instead? Be an accountant?” Carl laughed again. “Go to an office? With early hours and forms to fill out and lots of rules?” He just couldn’t picture it.

“Yes! All of those things. And no late nights and weekends trying to do the job of ten. Getting paid on time, and regularly. No crazy theater divas.” Jenna felt even more determined as she faced Carl’s incredulity.

“Wow,” Carl said. “I am completely stunned.” He shook his head. He couldn’t understand how the woman who seemed to fervently believe that the “theater was in her blood” was having such a change of heart. He leaned forward and looked at her intently.

“Honestly, I’ve always been jealous of you,” she said.

“Not because of the money,” Jenna said, seeing his look. “Because of the stability, the predictability, the lack of drama. I think that’s what I’ve always wanted, and it’s one reason the theater has been slowly killing me all these years. I just didn’t realize it until I gave up.”

“But I thought you loved the drama. It’s kind of the whole deal with the theater.” Carl tried to take her hand, but she pulled away.

“I don’t mind watching it on the stage, I’m just sick of living it.” Jenna smiled widely, with a lightness that he hadn’t seen in years.

November 06, 2020 22:12

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1 comment

Steve Stigler
23:44 Nov 12, 2020

Hey, I was sent here by the Reedsy Critique Circle email, and I had fun reading your story! The scenes in the theater itself seemed "lived-in," like you've had some experience in that world - well done! I understood the character arc for Jenna, and it was an interesting choice to have your MC move away from the arts and toward the business world. I wonder if Carl is a strong enough supporting character to merit the use of 3rd person omniscient; you might consider 3rd person limited to bring us even closer to Jenna. Still, I liked the flow of...

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