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The Grid 

Short Story

The Talent was directly beneath him and his bucket of rose petals, her white wig a bull's-eye surrounded by a green and poofy gown. Skyler pictured spittle glistening in the stage light during freefall, visible to all save those in the very cheap seats, making a sudden and silent impact against that wig. This was a delicious thought, no less so for knowing that he would be strung up by his eyelids if he ever acted it out.

He watched the opera unfold from his high perch, his own private balcony to which no ticket could admit another audience member, and waited for his cue.

"Skyler," said the tech director, a stoic mass of muscle. This had been two hours earlier, at ground level.

"Sir," Sky answered while emptying his pockets. To ascend the grid with full pockets was absolutely forbidden; car keys could be extraordinarily painful when dropped from a hundred-foot height.

"Where's your spotter?"

"Chuck's already up there," Skyler lied. He had no idea where Chuck was. Students were not permitted on the grid alone, but Sky could handle himself and he didn't want to cause the TD any needless concern. Besides, Chuck's life would be a small and sorry thing if it were discovered that he had flaked on an actual performance.

"Good. Keep an eye on him." TD had little time for the likes of Chuck, who only did backstage work to flavor his transcript with a dash of humanities. Not that Skyler's position required years of experience (especially not for this show), but at least TD knew that he was here for better reasons.

"Will do," said Sky. TD nodded, patted him on the shoulder and disappeared into the dark. His pockets empty, Skyler began the long climb up a stairway so steep that ladder was almost a better word for it. This took much longer than he'd expected it to. It always did.

The grid, a long expanse of steel beams and pulleys and cables, stretched out from the top of the long, steep stair. Its mechanisms held the pipes to which backdrops were tethered and electrics bolted. A single worklight illuminated the space, gelled blue with scrap Rosco #385 to keep it dim. Skyler liked R 385. The catalogue described it as "a royal and very saturated blue, with a pronounced red content that will shift toward purple when dimmed. Low transmission, but will offer a striking contrast when used as a background with lighter accents." Sky savored such descriptions of color as though they were criticisms of fine wine.

The two buckets remained where he had carefully placed them the night before, along with his headset. This he put on once he'd settled into place, clipping the battery pack to his belt and thumbing the two-way switch.

There were voices. Jazz was telling one of her ASMs -- Assistant Stage Manager, one whose name Skyler couldn't remember just then -- about the first dress rehearsal, during which the Talent's bodice had become unbound in the climax of her aria. This had been shortly after she had insisted on being referred to as The Talent, rather than "actor" or "singer" or "performer." Such terms were insufficiently all encompassing.

Sky politely waited for the story's end before speaking up.

"Ladies."

"Welcome, Farmboy," said Jazz.

"Hey," said Tess.

"Hey," he answered. Tess was Jasmine's girlfriend, and had only reluctantly accepted her stage-left duties as a favor to her lady. Or maybe as a favor to Sky. Probably not.

"Hi," said the ASM. What was her name? Started with a "B," or maybe a "D."

"Don't let me stop you from sharing any more bodice stories, now," said Skyler, settling into place on his high perch.

"Haven't you any of your own?"

"A gentleman never tells."

"Ha, then why did--"

"Ten minutes to places," Jazz interrupted. "Somebody swing by the green room and let the Talent know."

"On my way," said ASM, signing off.

"What were you saying?" Tess asked.

"Oh, nothing."

Tess knew his bodice stories. Tess had been in most of his bodice stories.

Two hours later, Skyler readied his bucket. A forest backdrop hung behind the Talent, who was singing her aria downstage-center. Behind that a banquet hall was being hastily assembled.

"Standby petals," called Jasmine over her headset.

"Standing by," said Skyler, who already had been.

This was the bit when the bodice lace had given way. Everyone else was likely thinking the same, but no one commented on it. Not during a standby.

Something clattered in the dark, and swore, and Skyler dropped the bucket in surprise. It fell neatly through the grid, passing in between two beams, playing out the length of wire by which it was safety-cabled until it bounced, and stopped, and began to sway listlessly above the stage lights like a flaccid yo-yo. Skyler remembered to breathe.

"Petals go."

He dove for the wire, yanking it with one hand and reaching for the bucket handle with the other. It jerked upwards. The drumbeat of marching blood cells thundered in his ears.

"PETALS. GO."

Skyler caught the handle. Beneath him the set-change had finished. Tables were being laden with plastic fruit and a roast pig sculpted in foam. The servants had already begun their little servant song. Sky flipped the bucket over, and an expanding cloud of rose petals caught the light as it fluttered over a grand and royal entrance.

Breathe, he reminded himself.

"Flowers gone."

"Asleep up there?" Jazz asked.

"Just in a state of Zen," he muttered.

"Try not to fall, Farmboy. Standby light cue 42."

Sky clicked his headset to one-way.

"Who goes there?" he whispered. "Chuck?" It was either Chuck or Ophelia. Skyler wondered which one would be worse.

Chuck became visible, barely; a pale face tinted royal blue and hovering over his dark clothing. He stumbled again, and laughed, loudly. Loud enough to escape the narrow acoustics of the grid. Loud enough to shatter for performers and audience alike the illusory sense of an unbroken dream onstage, a dream that was real in its own dark and separate space where such things can be real.

"Sit down and shut up," Skyler whispered, over-enunciating each syllable like in an actor's exercise.

"Doesn't matter, Sky," Chuck an-swered, sitting alongside and dangling his legs through the grid. "Nobody can hear anything over a goddamn opera."

Skyler winced, because Chuck's voice remained just loud enough to be painful to him, and because Chuck was not someone entitled to address him by nickname, and because the fact that there was a very loud opera beneath them was not something that could be disputed. Volume still mattered, though. What do you do with someone who strides into a mosque without noticing that no one else is wearing shoes?

Ignore him, maybe. Chuck tried to explain his lateness, but Sky waved him aside and tapped his headset like Secret Service receiving instructions. It worked. Chuck trailed off, already bored, watching the banquet while swinging his legs back and forth in the empty air.

Skyler then focused on the wired conversation, because he happened to be the topic of it.

ASM: Jazz, why do you call him Farmboy?

Sky: Because she loves me.

Jazz laughed. Sky listened in vain for any sound of mirth from Tessa, annoyed with himself for doing so.

Jazz: Because during the opera last year we had a guest director who insisted on having live animals -- standby light cue 43, 44, 45 and sound cue 17.

Light board Op: Standing by.

Sound board Op: Standing by.

Jazz: Light cue 43, go.

LBO: Going.

Jazz: Sound cue 17, go.

SBO: Check.

Jazz: -- live animals onstage during a marketplace scene. We had to turn the green room into stables, and it was Skyler's job to muck them out.

Sky: Yep.

ASM: How did you get that job?

Sky: I was a freshman.

Jazz: Warning sound cue 18. Anyway, the ornery old thing ate TD's favorite coffee mug and choked to death during Final Dress.

ASM: Wow.

Sky: No fault of mine.

Tess: Happened on your watch, though.

Sky: It was the ghost. Nothing I could do.

ASM: The what?

Jazz: Pay no attention. Skyler is one of those don't-whistle-in-the- theater types.

ASM: I thought there was always a ghost?

Sky: See?

Jazz: Except that nobody's died in this place. No philanthropist ever croaked in the aisle and started haunting the building afterwards. No techie ever fell from the grid.

Sky: Yet.

Jazz: So whose ghost would it be? Whoops -- standby sound cue 18.

Headset conversation ended. Skyler stretched his cramping legs, checked on his second bucket, and waited. Then Ophelia took a few tentative steps into the work-light glow, and raised a finger to her lips.

She was behind Chuck, who didn't notice. Sky repeated the gesture and she smiled, drifting off again. Chuck scowled. "I didn't say a thing," he muttered, thinking the shush had been meant for him.

There might be mischief. Skyler checked the bucket again and made sure the safety cable was securely latched. Beneath him and downstage of the banquet, two men were singing while facing off with swords. One of them at least was able to look dangerous, though the other held his blade as though it were more likely to harm him than anyone else. This was probably true.

"Warning, rose petals."

"Thank you."

Skyler picked up his bucket and waited for standby. Chuck grunted and shifted where he sat, and there was the clink and jingle of small, metallic things. Keys. Jagged pieces of metal on a key chain.

Sky clicked his headset to one-way.

"You didn't empty your pockets," he said.

"Huh?"

"You -- did not -- empty -- your pockets."

"Oh, right. Must've forgot."

"You forgot? TD's little lecture about not killing the performers failed to make an impression?"

"Look, I'm not likely to do any cartwheels up here. They'll stay put."

"That isn't --"

Skyler paused. Jasmine hadn't yet called standby. She should have done. He checked his intercom, and found that he hadn't switched it to one-way. He'd switched it off. He'd missed the standby. He might have missed the cue entirely. The fanfare was trumpeting, and the froofy dresses of royalty were headed for the gate, and the peasants were throwing rice, and there weren't any rose petals.

Bucket. Flip. Rose petals descended.

"Huh. Pretty," said Chuck.

"Yeah, pretty." Sky clicked on his mike.

"Skyler, what are you --"

"Technical difficulties," Skyler cut in hastily. "Please stand by." Click. Off.

She'd called him Skyler. Not Farmboy, not even Sky. There was nothing flirtatious in her tone, or even affectionately condescending. The truce between Skyler and Jasmine had been built on flirtation, however much this annoyed Tess. Made it much easier to work with a former rival.

"Have you ever thought about spitting on somebody from up here?" Chuck asked.

"No. Now sit still and do absolutely nothing until it's time to leave, yes?"

"I told you, the keys are going nowhere."

"I don't care."

Chuck laughed. Skyler glared. Anger would have been preferable to amusement. He turned his headset on again, keeping the volume low, wanting very badly to be a place of calm in the center of the universe rather than someone so easily rattled by clink of another's key chain, or by Tessa's quick laugh.

They had drifted apart and together again once or twice, after high school and before the sudden existence of Jasmine. Not for Skyler had she been so smitten, not even in earlier times when they had first fumbled against each other, trying not to laugh, pretending to be serious and knowledgeable and wise, calling each other's bluff.

Her switch-hitting was just an accident of biology, he told himself. Brain chemistry rewiring reproductive urges into something else, something independent, with its own separate rules and rituals in which he had no part and no frame of reference.

Or maybe it wasn't anything so grand. Just a crush on somebody who wasn't him. "It doesn't have anything to do with you," she'd said, which was of course the problem.

Think about something else. This was difficult, because no cues yet remained to prepare for. Nothing remained to focus on save Chuck, who had managed to bungle both cues of the evening, who had called into question the fundamental truth that Skyler was reliable. That he was someone who could be counted on. This might mean that in the world there were other things that could be counted on. He might be one of many things.

He remembered the donkey, still chewing, still trying to swallow, looking at him with a long, sad look as though it had always expected to be betrayed and wasn't surprised when it finally happened. Little pieces of that look had been on many a face for the next few days; TD, mourning the loss of his mug; the director, grieving over a compromise in his sacred vision; the farmer, who just missed his donkey and deeply regretted letting the old thing into show business. Jazz had just laughed.

He'd introduced the two of them during a Hamlet strike a semester later. Tess, meet Jazz. Fellow techie.

Hi.

Hi.

The two had gone on to Benny's while Skyler finished up. The set had already been cleared away, and only coiling cable remained for the electricians. One actor had yet to join her fellows at their favorite bar across the street (and across town from Benny's, where tech crews gathered). She'd sat center stage, cross-legged, facing the empty house.

"Looking for something to do?" Skyler had asked, his arms full of cable.

"No," the actor had replied, her eyes closed (Skyler never used the word actress. It was on the heels of poetess, falling out of fashion). "I'm still saying goodbye."

"To who?"

"To the character. They can haunt you, otherwise."

"Oh," Sky had said, his face as blank as when he'd stumbled across actors warming up before the show, babbling vowels at each other. To each their own.

She had played Ophelia, that actor seated on the stage, and played her well.

Skyler went on to stack his cable, and to click on the ghost light (a standing lamp without a lampshade), and to switch off all other lights once the rest of the crew had gone. He'd heard the creak of the theater settling itself against the ground. He'd checked to make sure that his wrench and his Leatherman and his flashlight were all buckled to him, and then made for the door.

His flashlight was gelled with R385. Out of range of the onstage lamp, he needed it to find the latch of the loading dock door. In the small circle of light it made, there was suddenly a girl's pale face. He threw himself backwards, falling over, pointing the beam like a weapon as he fell. The light caught more of her, cutting across her torso. He saw her arm as she offered him a flower.

He ran. He had stopped to lock the door behind him, because that was his job, but after that he ran as fast as legs and breath could carry him.

Inside Benny's, Jazz was cheerfully describing to Tessa the screaming fit that their Gertrude had thrown in rehearsal a week earlier. Skyler walked in, slowly, and sat down beside them. Tess took his hand beneath the table, listening to the story and laughing in all the right places, feeling vaguely guilty and not yet knowing why.

Skyler had since gelled his every work light with R385. Ophelia remained unseen beneath all other colors.

The headset was calling for him. Sky turned the volume up.

Jazz: Hey, Farmboy?

Sky: Right here, boss.

Jazz: How's it going up there?

Sky: Later.

Jazz: Okay. Anything I should be worried about?

Sky: Nah.

Jazz: Okay. Hey, tonight's poker night. Don't forget.

Sky: If you beer me, I will come.

Jazz: Done.

Sky: Real beer, yes?

Tess: Snob.

Sky: Hardly.

Chuck perked up. "What's real beer, then?" he asked. He was actually keeping his voice down.

"Anything that doesn't taste like fruit juice," Skyler said.

"A Swiss girl once talked me into squirting raspberry syrup into a beer. It wasn't bad."

"Really?"

"Yeah. Turned it purple, though."

Beer. Sky leaned closer, and smelled beer. On his breath. On Chuck's breath there was beer.

"You were drinking," Skyler said, very quietly.

"Little bit."

"How many? How many did you have before climbing up here?"

"I'm not drunk."

"More than one, then." Skyler stood, towering over him, seething. Perhaps only a chosen few can understand that no matter how awful the show, or aristocratic the performers, or absolutely hands-down, monkeys shrieking, the-asylum-is-on-fire nuts a designer's vision happens to be, you show up on time, sweep the stage and risk your life to see that a bucket of flower parts is upturned at precisely the instant called for. But it should be clear to even the most base of groundlings that one should not ascend the grid after drinking. Or with car keys. Drunk and with keys in his pocket.

"Get off the grid," he said.

Chuck stood up. He was at least a foot taller than Skyler. His face could hardly be seen above the pool of blue work light.

"Look, you anal little -- "

But then Skyler stopped paying the slightest attention to him, because Ophelia was standing behind Chuck with a withered bouquet in her hand. She looked at Sky, and then thrust the bouquet through Chuck's torso from behind. Pale and insubstantial flowers protruded from his abdomen. Chuck shivered, once, and then started to retch.

Skyler dove for one of the buckets. He stumbled, twisting his ankle against a steel beam, catching himself with his left hand and snatching up the bucket with his right. He glanced down, briefly, to see the conclusion of the 27-minute death scene settle into place directly beneath them, and he knew that this would be very, very bad.

Chuck gagged once, then again. Ophelia had vanished. Skyler tossed the bucket up and over, forgetting about the safety cable that tied it in place, and Chuck caught it just as the line stretched taut. He emptied his gut into the formerly rose-filled plastic container, and took a deep breath, and did it again. Then he smiled and passed out.

Chuck landed with a thud across the beams, managing not to plummet to his death. The bucket tipped from out of his hands, spilling out into the empty space between.

Skyler, a few feet away and much too far to do anything about it, watched the vomit fall, and laughed. He laughed loudly, giving the Talent below a single instant's warning, able to offer nothing more. Beside him Ophelia sat, looking down, and hummed a little tune to herself.

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William Alexander

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