Oscar's Final Bow

Submitted into Contest #123 in response to: Start your story looking down from a stage.... view prompt


Funny Sad Historical Fiction

The silent emptiness that now filled the room was deafening in comparison to the meager roars of the participatory and rowdy audience had offered only an hour or so before. Oscar, Clown No. 3 and Pirate No. 4 scanned the ornately dilapidated hall, taking in that emptiness and the ruin left by the participatory and rowdy audience mentioned above. “The patrons favored bananas this evening”, Oscar mumbled to himself. Half-dressed in the silky pantaloons of an oriental pirate and still donning the elaborate clown face of the penultimate and dramatic scene that epitomizes the decaying decadence of the modern theater he let loose an unscripted Jeremiad that had both the passion and the eloquence of delivery that deserved a much finer stage than from the one it had been delivered from. The curtain had fallen; the director had cued him. Oscar, Night Janitor No. 1 began to play his role with an expertise that was sorely lacking at the Grand Off-Main Theatre.

Grand Off-Main, an architectural wonder combining the façade of the Palau de la Musica and it’s interesting bulging of bricks, though, to be fair, I think the joint in Barcelona was done intentionally - this messy brickwork they paired with an interior of gaudy and sumptuous marble-esque columns, hastily designed art-deco motifs and ostentatious brass and gold fixtures everywhere that smacked of false bravado and poor taste. Garishness is the word that often came to mind by the more austere theatergoers in the last days. In plain English, it was a testimony to new money; or, at least what new money looked like in the previous century. 

Time had been unkind to Grand Off-Main. In its heyday it was the fashionable place to be, and everyone would promenade down to Grand Off-Main to see the some of the greats ply their trades, most for the last time. Who can forget when the stage was trod upon by that most famous, she who for reasons of libel, shall not be named, that titaness of the stage, when not forgetting not her lines, she forgot entirely which play she was performing in? As she was placed in a mechanical barber’s chair by an Americanized adaptation of Sweeney Todd, she burst into the bard’s Beatrice. As she was being toppled over backwards into a trap door the audience heard her yell out from the abyss, “He is no less than a stuffed man: but for the stuffing, well, we are all mortal”.

One critic wrote that she who shall not be named, God rest her soul, “combined Shakespeare with the modern melodrama so seamlessly one forgets the centuries that gulf us from the great man himself. In her commingling of the two scripts, she captured the essence of something so transcendent, something so universal that one can’t help but…” Jack Murcell, the butcher and a patron on the night of the incident could but help and concluded the fluffy article rather laconically, “know the broad forgot which show she was in”. Jack had died only a week before young Oscar, Fruit Concessionaire No. 2 began to work at Grand Off-Main Theater. 

Jack, the petit bourgeois shop owner was a member of the last generation to see the Grand Off-Main rise to heights so lofty to attract grande dames of the stage, even ones on the backend of their career looking for the perfect place to kill it. Oscar, as he advanced up the ranks and came to his own backend, had witnessed the decline. Thankfully, he was still witnessing anything at all, the decay having been granted an extra, few decades to fester by the generous endowment of the Grand Off-Main’s two most famous benefactors, younger contemporaries of the long-gone Jack Murcell, Butcher No. 1.

Mrs. Featherswallow, Patron No. 1, and Ms. Zouch, Patron No. 1a, were just becoming the icons of the theater when Oscar was a young boy hawking the fruit that had later been banned from the premises as the crowds took to throwing the food rather than eating it. However, as times got worse, the sign that expressly forbade the possession of produce within the confines of the theater was often the spot where a basket of rotten fruit was stored for patrons to purchase. “Necessity is the mother of all invention,” Mr. Thomas, the unfortunate last owner of the theater used to say about the basket of fruit. Yet, though both patronesses had died some fifty-seven years ago, Mrs. Featherswallow outliving Ms. Zouch by a single day, their endowments had allowed the theater to limp on for nearly six decades, four of which were all squarely in the red. 

As her dying wish, Mrs. Featherswallow had ordered her servants to roll her deathbed into the single box seat that hung over stage right, whereupon she died during a performance of Much Ado About Nothing. Sweeney Todd did not make an appearance that night. Death came to claim Mrs. Featherswallow at some point early in the second act. In seeing just the first act of the play, I’ll leave it to the readers to decide if she truly has the one extra visit over her great rival, who saw every show Mrs. Featherswallow did, save for the single, aforementioned act. You can easily guess what the ghost of Mrs. Featherswallow or the specter of Ms. Zouch would say about it. 

The enmity between the two women was as natural as it was sadly predictable. Both were of the petit bourgeois class, not a dime of old money between them. Yet, Mrs. Featherswallow, the wife of the late Henry Featherswallow was of a third generation stock of new money, whereas Ms. Zouch, the daughter of the industrialist Conrad Zouch, a poor immigrant from Bavaria, the very embodiment of the American Myth, was only of second generation stock of new money and had no designs on a false aristocracy. Proof of this three-generation hypothesis between money and the sense of entitlement it brings sadly cannot be verified. For, though the short, squat and balloon shaped women were en vogue at the time when she would have been prime for a coupling there were no suitors for Ms. Zouch. What prevented her coupling was her fiery temper. All cowered before her, save for the angular, tall and birdlike Mrs. Featherswallow, who embodied nominative determinism long before the term was concocted in some Freudian sophistry. That said, her selection of husband, and thus surname, gives credence to the school of thought that believes incidents of nominative determinism arise out of an implicit egotism in mankind. 

Mrs. Featherswallow and Ms. Zouch hated one another because they were so alike. Both were trailblazing women, remarkably independent in an era of entrenched chauvinism. Both were full of life, energy and vice. Both proclaimed that they hated all vice, except for the theater. That mutual love for the theater, especially the Grand Off-Main, was the only thing that prompted the two women to deign to give a semblance of approval to each other. Mrs. Featherswallow, with her futile aristocratic ambitions adopted a more naturally patrician air, sitting in her box seats above the riffraff, including the portly Ms. Zouch. She, like the blue bloods and their patrician forebears she so desperately wished to join by emulation, preferred to make use of the plebs below to participate by proxy rather than sully her own hands with the proffered produce. For some reason she had become peculiarly attached to pirates and strictly forbade any flinging of fruit in their direction. For all others she had a signal that would send the crowds beneath her into an orgiastic frenzy that would see whole cartons of refuse hurled upon the poor actors of the play being performed that evening. 

Conversely, Ms. Zouch, far wealthier and more influential than her rival, loved to be among the people. Her seat, across the theater on stage left was in the middle of the section that now bears her name. From that vantage point she was known to have remarkable aim and could pick off any pirate she saw fit. Her devotees would follow suit, pummeling pirates, and all others deemed worthy of such reproofs, as a rule leaving clowns unmolested. The partisanship got so bad that scenes with pirates and clowns had to be written into every play to mollify the old women and their rival mobs. The tradition of these two characters being ad-hoc attached to every production survived both women to sometimes tragic, often unintentionally ironic and universally hysterical results.

As he always did, Oscar, Janitor No. 1, exited stage right and worked his way up the section beneath Mrs. Featherswallow’s unoccupied box seats and through the section that was named in honor of her and her posthumous donation. Also unintentionally ironic, each of these rows of seats had various birds perched on their backs at the ends of the rows, giving the section a more polished feel than the other two in the theater. These birds predated Mrs. Featherswallow by about twenty years having been salvaged from the fires that ravaged the east end of town. The bird motif of this section of seating was fitting in the Canary’s Cage Cabaret but looked a little out of place when placed in the Grand Off-Main in her prime. Now, one merely assumes that the other two sections of seats originally had the birds as well; assuming time had seen the other birds fall off over the years, such is the state of the theater’s decline. 

After finishing up sweeping her section, Oscar, Janitor No. 1 recalled a sarcastic butler role he had played a decade prior and addressed the empty box of Mrs. Featherswallow, “Fifty-four? You must have been exceptionally pleased with tonight’s performance.” He smiled and bashfully looked at the floor, rubbing his toe into the dilapidated and faded red carpet that ran between the Featherswallow section and the middle, unnamed maze of half-broken seating. “There was a pretty good pirate in this one,” he quipped to himself as much as to the absent Mrs. Featherswallow, all the while continuing to demurely dig his toe into the badly stained runner.

Moving on to the center, where the worst damage by the caved-in roof had been sustained some two years prior, he found a whole bag of half-rotten bananas, each partially eaten by a drunkard who was still asleep on the ground between two rows dead center of the theater. Startled, but unphased by the common presence of some vagabond or another, Oscar prayed for the man’s soul and finished up the section before moving over into the territory of Ms. Zouch. 

As he had on the other side, he acknowledged the seat of a dead woman, this time face to face rather than looking up as one must do to the aristocrats among us. In the fading gas light, one could still see where the prodigious Ms. Zouch’s seat had begun to bow in the hopes of giving her frame more space to relax, lean back and hurl a tomato with terrifying speed. “Thank God it was a busted truck of bananas and not tomatoes that Mr. Thomas came across today”, muttered Oscar, Janitor No. 1, under his breath so as to not offend the deceased. 

There were far fewer bananas on the Zouch side of theater. Not much can be made of this because there could be a variety of reasons for a shier gathering of banana skins. For one, the bananas simply could have run out before most of the patrons arrived. That was a common occurrence these days. Oscar lamented a little when he considered this possibility. For another, the patrons on the Zouch side, always a bit poorer than those who sat on the Featherswallow side, may not have had the necessary capital to afford even rotten bananas, what with the inflation and all. Or still, they simply may have contributed more to the one hundred and thirty odd bananas he had cleaned up on the stage. Oscar, Philosopher of Natural Sciences No. 1, pondered on these and other possibilities for as long as he could before declaring it to be an unsolvable mystery. 

With a satisfaction and pride that is difficult to articulate, Oscar swept all the banana refuse into a pile and bagged it up. He finished his duties by mopping up and turning out the lights, taking his final bow in the empty darkness. From there he descended into the bowels of the theater, where the owner let Oscar sleep on nights where there were more than three performances or whenever he was drunk and passed out in the middle section of seating, thus incapable to shooing the old janitor out into the cold.

Sadly, Oscar would only reprise his roles as Clown No. 3 and Pirate No. 4 a total of four more times. He would only reprise his role as Janitor No. 1 thrice. During the final performance of that modern obscenity that included dancing oriental pirates and bull-fighting clowns, celebrating the decadence and downfall of society in an blistering commentary on sentimentality, a severely less articulate Jeremiad than the one so eloquently given by Oscar, Janitor No. 1, prior to satisfactorily cleaning up the bananas, a fire broke out on stage, swallowing up the whole old, rickety theater and killing eleven theatergoers, including the sleeping drunk who had not moved since Oscar saw him sleeping next to the pile of partially masticated bananas. Perhaps he was dead before the fire. It is now impossible to know. It was the worst loss of life in a theater for the town since the cabaret burned some seventy years prior. Worst of all, bemoaned a local newspaper the day after the blaze, “the resplendent, avian seats of the old Canary were not saved this time”. 

Nearly the whole cast of that production perished in the flames as the building collapsed inwards on itself. Only two of the cast were spared from their fate. One, Marshall Betancourt, the local high school math teacher and leading character of that night’s performance, had snuck out in during one of the few scenes he was not a part of to have a cigarette. He was found looking for his lost lighter after the flames had engulfed the theater and threatened to spread into the whole block. 

The other was Oscar, who witnesses swore was carried out, unconscious from the flames, by two old women, one very tall and thin, the other, short and squat. Quite a spectacle did these three make! They, according to those same witnesses, sat the disoriented, but living old man down at a safe distance from the burning building and returned to the flames, arguing the whole way, presumably about who deserves the most credit for saving the poor janitor’s life. The theater and the ramshackle homes that once surrounded it have all been torn down and a soulless strip mall has been erected in their place. Schoolchildren, much like those witnesses who saw Oscar saved from the fire, tell tales of two old women, one who is tall and birdlike, one who is short and round like a bowling ball, haunting the strip mall late at night, scowling at the suburban sprawl. I doubt the veracity of these stories though, standing as I do by my chosen adjective describing the strip mall.  

December 09, 2021 07:20

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Patrick Samuel
15:10 Dec 18, 2021

Delightfully Dickensian and Suitably Spooky in turns. I giggled at the need for clowns and pirates to maintain some kind of order only to end up creating more chaos. If the world is a stage, this is the moral of its pantomime. I applaud you with both hands. Or will, once I'm done typing. (Talking of typing - or should that be "typing of typing"? "Typing of typos"? Anyway. I believe the line on the second paragraph should read "its interesting bulging of bricks" instead of "it’s interesting bulging of bricks". At least that's what a little b...


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Tricia Shulist
02:55 Dec 13, 2021

I enjoyed that. Thanks


19:09 Dec 13, 2021

Thanks so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it.


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