After the Final Curtain
“The best thing to hold on to in life is each other.” - Audrey Hepburn
There’s an interesting thing about magnets. (Aside from how the heck they work in the first place.) Held one way, they repel. Flip one, and they cling together. That’s odd.
Unless you happen to be destined to grow to be 6’8” tall and run and jump like a gazelle, the odds are you won’t like your job, as in it’s a fun thing to do. It might be tolerable, pay the bills, give you a sense of pride in your work, and expand your circle of friends, but in all likelihood, you’d rather be out golfing, fishing, riding a bike, going to the movies, or playing with your kids. Though his act came well after the final curtain and reeked of the mundane, Charlie liked his job.
He didn’t like school, but he was a good student. He wasn’t crazy about sports, but he was one of the best athletes to ever walk the hallways of his Minneapolis high school. He wasn’t girl-crazy, but all the girls loved him. He could have accomplished much, but he was content with little. Charlie was the poster boy for Aesop’s admonition, “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.”
Can the top ever not be high enough? Molly was driven to reach the summit ever since she took the stage in her 5th Grade District-Wide Song and Dance competition. Can a nine-year-old sufficiently self-motivate to pursue fame and fortune with a vengeance, or does it require ambitious, persistent pushing from a parent? Molly’s efforts were supersized as she had both.
She had a good start. Molly had a unique raspy voice, conjuring up the image of an angry angel, and the looks of a beauty queen. The magical guitar play came with a work ethic known only to a few.
During her college years, Molly was the lead singer for a band that played at local clubs and bars. She developed a following and was soon invited to join a group that toured the Midwest, playing at a venue for one to four weeks before moving on. Molly kissed college goodbye and put all her eggs in the career-in-music basket.
Precious few are sufficiently blessed to enjoy the inner peace that comes with being content with what you have and what you do. Who’s to say which of all possible human endeavors is “better” than another?” Charlie never thought much of the idea of his self-worth being based on the opinion of others.
He always considered it a side benefit of the job. For six years Charlie had seen concerts, plays, and other performances free of charge. He had “Bob Uecker” back-row seats, but he enjoyed the shows just as much as the audience members who were practically in the performers’ laps. After the last bows were taken, the final applause heard, and the theater emptied, he sprung into action. Charlie, in his frayed red cap, blue jeans, and grey work shirt bearing his name, pulled a plastic garbage can down the aisle collecting the large objects first- cups, programs, wrappers, whatever didn’t take well to sweeping. He would crisscross through the rows as he moved toward the front of the theater, and retrieve additional garbage cans as needed. Then he would grab his weapon of choice, the hallmark of his trade, the broom. All the confetti, streamers, and whatever was left got swept to the front where it would all be placed in one of Chalrlie’s heavy-duty, dark grey plastic carts on wheels.
The arts never had a bigger fan than Charlie. He enjoyed every performance, marveled at the talent, and never found fault with any of it. When the work was done, Charlie would walk to the front of the quiet, empty theater, take a seat in the front row, stretch his legs out, and soak in the peace and quiet as he reflected on the evening’s performance. He was so good at it that he would often tell his friend he saw the show twice.
Occasionally, if especially affected by a performance, Charlie would hop on stage and mimic his favorite moments. He fell to the floor as Brutus delivered the cruelest blow, struggled to hit the high notes as he proclaimed to the world that he will “Always Love You”, and stumbled across the stage after an evening of clog dancing. On stage with no fear of embarrassing himself, Charlie could play all the roles to the hilt. It was singing in the shower on steroids.
Molly was wowing the crowds. To many, she was the reincarnation of Janis Joplin. With her powerful voice overflowing with emotion in every note, Molly could belt it out. And the audience loved it when she would send her guitar into overdrive as the rest of the band stopped playing and watched in awe along with everyone else in the building.
Everything she did was filled with a passion the crowd could feel. The audience loved her, and she loved them. It was a natural high that few will ever experience. Performing on stage ranked right up there as important to her as the air she breathed.
About the time Molly noticed that the “downtime” with a lower-tier traveling band wasn’t all that exciting and glamorous, word of her talent had spread to higher levels of the music industry. She and her guitar were invited to be an opening act for a nationally recognized band. The venues would be pricier, the travel more comfortable, and the lodging first class. Next stop- Minneapolis.
Charlie never missed the main attraction; warmup acts were hit or miss. The first inkling he had that something was up was the thunderous applause. He hurried to the theater, poked his head in the door, and just caught a glimpse of Molly leaving the stage. He would be certain to catch her act the next night.
“Here she is, folks, the girl with the voice that can rock heaven and earth, Molly Barnes!”
The crowd- applause. Charlie- spellbound. Without hearing a word, before her fingers touched a string of her guitar, Charlie was captivated by the image on stage. It wasn’t just her appearance- a petite, pretty girl with a guitar strung over her back, shaggy blond hair, a multi-colored blouse, and a tan full-length skirt. It was the way she took the stage, slow, calm, determined, with a hint of a smile. It was a confidence Charlie had never seen in any other performer; she owned the place just by showing up.
A few slow, soft tones from her guitar, followed by a voice as sweet and smooth as honey, and Charlie about dropped his broom. The words floated through the air with heartfelt emotion, over the heads of the audience, and gently made their way to Charlie as he stood motionless at the back of the theater. The rhythm picked up along with the volume, and soon, just like the guy said, she was “rockin’ heaven and earth” along with the entire audience…well, all except Charlie, who just stood there like a statue. He couldn’t believe something as beautiful and talented as the girl with the guitar could exist amongst mere mortals. He was unable to move and was fortunate that God created us in such a way that he didn’t have to remember to breathe.
Molly soaked in the applause. She scanned the theater and saw people of all ages standing and wildly applauding. Usually, it is the quick, sudden motion of an object that catches our attention, but sometimes it might be the only thing that is not moving. Molly couldn’t help but notice the guy in the frayed red cap leaning against the wall under an Exit sign. He wasn’t clapping. Thousands of people were cheering wildly, but the lone holdout bothered Molly. She wanted everyone to love her performance.
Charlie did his job on autopilot that night. His eyes were on the trash in front of him as he dragged his garbage can through the theater, but his mind was anchored to the vision of the pretty girl with the guitar. Love at first sight, the true love of the Romeo and Juliet variety, is exceedingly rare. However unlikely the odds, and however impossible a positive outcome, Charlie was lovestruck.
He didn’t have to replay the tunes in his mind. Her powerful voice still reverberated through his body, shaking his soul. The picture had been permanently hung before his eyes, and he knew that, however long he might live, he would never encounter anything more wonderful than the pretty girl with the guitar.
Athletes understand it. It is a near-spiritual feeling as a player walks the field alone after a hard-fought competition. The stands are empty, but the lights still shining brightly. The quiet contrast underscores the exhilaration of the contest.
Molly walked out onto the stage, still able to soak in the atmosphere of the crowd, tilted her head back, and enjoyed the moment. She took one last look around the theater, and as she turned to leave, her eye caught the young man in the frayed red cap sitting in the front row, legs outstretched, heads tilted back, eyes closed, with a silly grin. Unbeknownst to Molly, he was enjoying her encore performance.
The frayed red cap, his work shirt, and more significantly, the broom in the adjoining seat, suggested to Molly that this was the theater janitor, but he bore no resemblance to her concept of a building custodian.
Molly didn’t want to startle the guy if he were sleeping, but she worried he might be ill, or, God forbid, dead.
Charlie’s eyes slowly opened. Maybe he did die for the image before him was truly angelic.
“Are you ok?”
Tongue-tied, dumbfounded, discombobulated. He knew it was his turn to say something, but he couldn’t think of any words. Molly moved a little closer to the front of the stage.
“Are you ok?”
Molly took quick note of the empty theater.
“Yes, you. Are you ok?”
“Uh…ok? Yes, I’m ok. I just…come here…and…sit.”
That was the best poor Charlie could come with. He lowered his head in the manner of a dutiful servant in the presence of Cleopatra.
“You were the gentleman standing at the back of the theater.”
Oh my, God. She noticed him during her performance! He hoped he didn’t look too pathetic.
“Can I ask you something?”
He couldn’t believe she was speaking to him. What could she possibly have to ask him?
“I’m sorry, but I noticed you were the only one in the theater not clapping. Didn’t you like my performance?”
“Yes…I mean no…I mean, yes I liked it.”
“Oh, I just wondered because you just kind of stood there, I mean, you weren’t clapping, no anything. You almost looked bored.”
Why weren’t you clapping, Charlie? Think. Were you holding your broom when she finished? Can’t remember. She already knows you’re not deaf. Profess you are madly in love with her? Probably a little too soon in the relationship.
“Uh…I hurt my hand…so, I couldn’t clap.”
Oh, my God Charlie!
“Oh, I’m sorry. How did you do that?”
“Uh…brooming…I mean, sweeping…with the broom.”
“I…see. Well, I’m glad you’re ok, Charlie.”
She knew his name! His heart fluttered. Charlie was in a near state of shock.
“You know my name…how did you… know my name?”
“It’s on your shirt.”
And she was gone.
Charlie sat in that chair for another hour, beating himself up for his stupid remarks. He wasn’t delusional. He didn’t picture the two of them together under any circumstances. He just wished he had made a better showing. He didn’t want the girl of his dreams to remember him as the goofy, lowly janitor, sleeping on the job, and barely capable of speech.
“Molly, you want a drink, beer, wine, whatever. Smoke a joint? We’ve got stronger, whatever you want. We told the limo guy another half hour.”
“No, I’m good. I’m just going to step outside and catch some fresh air.”
Molly walked along the sidewalk, studying the Minneapolis skyline, and wondered if her mom would see the full moon tonight. She’d soon find out as she called her mom every night. You see, you can take Molly out of her hometown, but you can’t take the hometown out of Molly.
She saw a side door of the theater swing open and a figure emerge. She immediately recognized the red cap and smiled as she thought of Charlie’s inept responses. As he passed under the street light, walking slowly, head tilted down, he painted a lonely picture. Molly wondered about him, who he was, where he lived, and what his life was like. And then he disappeared into the darkness.
Molly was cruising down the fast lane, preparing for life in the land of the rich and famous, reveling in the affection of the masses, but she only felt loneliness around this time of night. Water, water everywhere…people, people everywhere, and not a friend in sight.
Despite the embarrassment of their introduction the previous night, Charlie could not miss Molly’s performance. He stationed himself a bit further from the glare of the Exit sign hoping to avoid detection and enjoyed the sight and sounds more than anyone in the theater. Sans broom, he clapped like a freaking madman at every juncture.
Molly couldn’t understand it. The moment she took the stage, she checked to see if the sleeping man was in position. Molly smiled when she spotted him leaning against the back wall, and throughout the evening would laugh to herself whenever she saw Charlie cheering like the Energizer Bunny.
And so it went for the next five nights. Molly wowed the crowd, and Charlie cheered. He became more infatuated with every performance, and she became more intrigued.
“Molly, Jenny has a few ideas for you to juice up your wardrobe. She knows you want to do the Janis Joplin thing, but she thinks your skirt is maybe a little too much on the frumpy side.”
“My mother made that skirt.”
Molly had never been “managed”, and she wasn’t taking it well. The business side of the entertainment industry was not appealing; the travel was wearing her down; she was surrounded by too many phonies; the audiences “loved” her, but who liked her, who liked Molly? They didn’t even know her. What was this all about, the cheering crowds or the performance? Fame and fortune or the feeling she got just by belting out songs and setting her guitar ablaze?
“Jenny says we have to leave by midnight to catch the red-eye for L.A.”
L.A., the pinnacle of success in the entertainment industry. Get noticed there, and the sky is the limit. Molly knew there would be people there, important people, who planned on catching her act. Her big chance was beckoning.
Charlie was down from the moment he got up. He knew tonight would be the last time he would see her. His job would never be the same, and the love of his life would forever be a shimmering image tucked away in the back pocket of his memory.
Molly was a little off her game, frequently interrupting herself with surreptitious glances to the back of the theater. Charlie’s clapping was half-hearted; it was the best he could do.
He unwittingly went through the motions, picking up, sweeping, hauling, and dumping. He took his front-row seat and dreamed of what was and what couldn’t be. He hopped up onto the stage, and for the grand finale, he would perform a slice of Molly’s act.
Charlie swung his arms back and forth as he crooned off key, “Windshield wipers slappin’ time”, and with slight modification, “Holding Molly’s hand in mine.” The sound of footsteps cut the performance short, and Charlie looked to the side to see Molly standing there. He was shocked, embarrassed, and taken aback…literally. He reflexively took a step backward, tripped on a cable, and flopped off the stage.
“Oh, my God!”
Molly raced to the edge of the stage, hopped down, and checked on Charlie as he lay flat on his back. His view of the ceiling was generously interrupted by the face an angel.
“Are you Ok?!”
Sometimes God steps in at moments like this; Charlie retained the gift of discernable speech.
“I’m ok. I’m sorry I startled you. I must have looked pretty silly up there.”
“No, you looked fine. Your act might need a little work, and are you sure it’s Molly and not Bobby Mcgee?”
Oh, my God. She knows. Charlie’s embarrassment soared to new heights.
“You caught that..?”
“It’s ok. I’m flattered.”
Let’s get back to that love-at-first-sight thing. Who knows how these things happen? Was it his dark brown eyes, his soft, humble tone? It sure wasn’t the cap.
“Where do you go when you leave here?”
Charlie didn’t understand the question, but he knew the answer.
“To an all-night coffee shop just down the street.”
A man poked his head out from behind the curtain.
“Molly! Let’s go!”
Molly raised her head, looked around the empty theater, and then back at Charlie, now bearing the look of a man dreading the next moments of his life. The epiphany. Molly turned her head slightly.
“You guys go ahead without me.”
If you had been out and about in the theater district in Minneapolis late that September evening, you might have caught a glimpse of a young couple, walking hand-in-hand, as they passed beneath a street lamp. No words could define the moment, so both the guy in the frayed red cap and the pretty girl with the guitar swung over her back remained silent. The simple touch of each other’s hand was all they needed.