The Show Must Go On
The house seemed like an empty stage, on which the lost actors searched fruitlessly for props that weren't there. He thought, the scene should be set for three people, a man, woman and child; ironically, this was a solo performance.
He trailed around the living room, picking up objects and putting them down again, trying to disturb the dust that was already claiming the house and its emptiness. Outside, the air was hollow with silence.
I used to be a father and husband, the man in the dying house thought to himself. But roles can change all too quickly.
He lay down on the musty pine floorboards where the sofa once stood. It felt perverted, to lie down in the absence of another object, one that he would normally be sitting on. It was like trespassing. A bare rectangle of wood beneath him, like a trapdoor in the stage, waiting to drop him into the darkness.
If only I knew what my new mask is…
Michael awoke breathing dust and sunbeams across the wood floor like a drug. He was lying on his side, one arm flung diagonally over neck and chest and the other tucked around him. Stiff pains throbbed in his shoulder as he extricated himself, twisting sleepily in the morning light.
Today's unworthy thought was, did she take the toaster? This echoed in his head with alarm. The second thought was clearer, and sent shock waves rolling through his body. The bitch left me, damn her to hell!
Immediately, he was remorseful. But what good could it do now? They had already walked through the remorse together, as well as the regret and the anger. The sorrow was for him to take alone.
It turned out the toaster was still there, tucked into a lower cupboard beneath the spice rack. The spices, of course, had vanished overnight. What would the little elves take next? he thought, lugging the appliance onto the counter and fumbling with the cord. He should never have let her keep the house keys. Just in case I leave something important behind, she'd said. You won't be able to mail it to me. I'll be long gone with Sam, and you will never know where I went.
His hand shook, and he realized he'd been gouging holes in the wall with the cord plug. He re-aimed. In went two slices of white bread. He pushed down the lever and rubbed at his forehead, wearily.
The lid of the strawberry jam gave a thick pop as he twisted it off. Strange how sticky people were. You let them touch you and you can't shake them off; but when they finally tear away, they take pieces of you with them and leave bits of themselves behind. You become someone else. What did Sarah leave with me? He wondered. Why leave the toaster?
Why leave me?
He was sitting on the kitchen floor when the phone jangled loudly. Groping from the linoleum, Michael caught it on the third
"Mike, hey, how ya doing," said the snappish voice on the other end. "Coming to the staff party tomorrow?"
"Hell yeah. Hors d'ouevres and Stacy Kalimshan. Can't miss it."
"Oh… well…" Michael was suddenly unsure. This was part of a script he had discarded long ago; the rituals of staff parties and beautiful co-workers had ceased to exist for him.
"Cah-mon, Mike, you can't stay holed up in there forever. Plus we need someone to keep Jerry off our backs. He's been on us about this project for weeks- you know the one I'm talking about, right?- and you're the only guy who can stand him."
The voice was definitely cajoling now. "Mi-i-i-i-ike! Jerry's gonna be all over us if you don't come! Tell you what, I'll let you have first pick of the office girls when we get there, deal? Or are you still a little messed up from that fight with Sarah?"
"She left me, Dave. The papers are on the coffee table."
A long pause.
"Ooh. The coffee table, eh? ...Listen, I've got someone on the other line. Call you back later, Mike."
The dial tone hummed in his ear. Michael slammed the receiver into its cradle. And again. And again.
In the kitchen, his toast was burning.
The calendar hung crookedly from its tack on the bulletin board, a basket of puppies crowding around the big red "Aug. 26". Michael scratched an X into the appropriate box with a dried-up ballpoint. He felt like a prisoner numbering his days. But to what end?
He knew he was just marking time. Crossing off the days of the week, each one a reminder of how empty his schedule had become without the two most important people in his life. 'Baseball practice' was gone. 'Romantic dinner', gone. 'Parent-teacher meeting' and 'school concert' were languishing on another calendar in a different house. Everything else was too insignificant to bother jotting down. Grocery shopping? When he ran out of frozen hot dogs and KD. Do laundry? Not likely. Pay bills? Ha!
He didn't care anymore. He threw on a jacket and went outside.
Wandering downtown, Michael realized how much the world had changed since the divorce. The homeless seemed to litter the streets, whereas before they were merely furniture, a part of the backdrop. Every shoddy building face became a nest of abuse and alcoholic fury. The smell of car exhaust, previously unnoticed, tainted the air around his nostrils.
His chest was aching. He stopped into a Tim Hortons for a caffeine fix, sitting alone in a booth near the window, and staring out at the city which now seemed like a scene from the Garden of Eden after the exile. Only in this version, Eve had taken off by herself.
Michael caught himself wondering if she was okay; a single mom with a six-year old daughter, trying to forge out a living in the heart of the urban wilderness- Stop right there, he told himself. It's none of your concern anymore. You might as well worry about a pigeon.
His coffee had grown cold. Had he stayed so long? He left the cup on the table and made his way back outside.
Feeling closed in by the towers of concrete facing him on all sides, Michael hopped on a bus. Once deprived of the physical act of walking, however, his mind began to drift towards the darker areas of his memory, stopping once and awhile to numbly examine a snapshot in painful detail.
Later they would realize they had committed the same crimes against each other, eye for an eye. But, of course, there could only be one Sam. Sarah had won that particular battle, but whether it had made her happy was still in question.
Michael wondered if Samantha was happy.
The dull chime of the bell rose him mechanically from his seat. He got out and began walking the rest of the way home, trying to escape the memories.
One hour later, Michael aimlessly drifted around a corner and stopped short at the edge of a small playground. It was empty; the metal skeleton of the jungle gym looked flayed and rusty, and someone had graffitied the swing set. A worn school building sat desolately in the background.
A wire fence enclosed the school grounds. Michael hooked his fingers into it and stared into the small patch of wasteland. The sight filled him with an unrelenting sense of loss. It was the set of so many turning points in people's lives, he reflected; the scene where Billy falls off the slide and breaks his arm. The scene of innocence lost, as the children grow up and use the sandpit as their personal ashtray. The scene where the little girl takes a stranger by the hand and walks away, never to return.
But he did not belong in any of those scenes either. He was just about to pull away when the bell rang; a harsh, demanding rattle that turned him back, though the sound was not for him.
He watched the children stream out of the double doors. Recess time. Samantha's favourite subject, they used to joke…
Michael practically flung himself through the fence. His fingers tightened around the metal. Could it be? Samantha, wearing a red skirt, dark hair combed and pigtailed. Samantha, playing on the monkey bars. Dropping, only to be tagged by another classmate. Running, shrieking, laughing…
It was her. He'd found her at last.
A man in a suit murmured intellectually as Larry King nodded, while news from around the world cycled leisurely by at the bottom of the screen. Newspaper scandal. Farmers on strike. Bad health care. Man finds missing daughter, whom he hasn't seen in a month. Tracks her home. Gets her address. Needs to see her again. What about the mother?
The words throbbed repeatedly in his mind, in strobe-light flashes. His hands were trembling in his lap. He felt like throwing up, or crying; or both. He'd been given a gift of such magnitude that he almost wanted to throw it away, before it evaporated in his hands. Sam, his Sam, he'd found her…
The address to her home, which he certainly had acquired, sat like a vial of poison in his mind. He knew he was intending to use this information, and probably under Sarah's watchful eye. Knowing this clashed brutally with the joy of having found his daughter again, but it was no question of which was of more importance or intensity.
A phrase surfaced in his mind, a relic from his days in high school English class: "Deus ex machina". God from the machine. The deities of Greek theatre that descended to the stage at the last crucial moment, ready to reward the heroes and punish the villains. Which was he? There was no doubt what the judge would think him if he was caught.
I don't want to take anybody, he thought feverishly. I just want to see her again, that's all.
You already have, said a small, hidden voice deep inside him. You had your fill. What more do you want? Do you dare tempt the gods?
And Michael raised his head in the soft glow of the television screen, and whispered yes.
His thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. Somehow he knew it would be for the last time. He let it continue ringing three more times before picking up.
"This is Michael Sain."
"Mike." The voice was no longer brash and eager, but seemed deflated. "You haven't been in for at least a month. I think we're going to have to let you go."
It made him sound like a pet that was going to get the injection. "Things change," Michael murmured into the phone. "People change. I can't work anymore. It's like an old skin, Dave. I can't go back-"
"Woah, now." Dave's voice was faintly alarmed. "You're not making any sense. This is your job, Mike. What are you giving it up for? You never told us you had somewhere else to go."
"Life is but a stage," Michael intoned. He giggled. "And we are merely actors upon it. But Shakespeare probably didn't realize this is an absurdist play, where everyone ad-libs their lines. S'long, Dave, I'm going to try and take my shoe off. Bye."
Michael slowly pulled the phone cord out of the wall. It popped out and died on the counter. He dropped the receiver in the garbage can, threw on his jacket and went outside, leaving his door wide open.
Friday was his last chance for the week. Time had congealed itself around this deadline, and it was the first time in a while that he actually knew what day it was. Before this revelation he had lived in a foggy, timeless vacuum, through which vague outlines of things swam in and out of focus. Now, all of a sudden, the searchlights had hit upon something; a little girl with pigtailed hair and a red dress, a beacon in the grey.
He had decided to meet her on the school playground, wanting to be as far away from the mother's house as possible. He remembered the vision of the stalker spiriting young children away into thin air, leaving nothing but an empty swing seat dangling in the cold breeze. He quickly ejected the image from his mind.
He shifted his weight in the sharp autumn breeze. Leaves swatted at his ankles. Where was she? Maybe her red dress had blended in with the colours of fall.
All the other children had gone. She wasn't here. The playground was a metal skeleton once again, stripped of the youthful bodies that gave it its worth. Michael turned away and kicked savagely at the wire fence, the cheerfully elusive leaves. She was gone.
The cold began to worm its way into his chest. Maybe she was sick. Sarah had always been a sickly child; vivacious in spirit, but always susceptible to germs. He began plodding west.
The house was still there, the blue Corvette sitting idly in the driveway. Someone was in the driver's seat. As he watched, the Corvette trundled amiably down the street, paying him no attention. The mother was on an errand. He waited until it had turned a corner; then he drifted across to the house, a whirlwind of leaves his disguise. Invisible, he drew towards the eastern window, where he instinctively knew would be his daughter's room.
He heard laughter. Sam was watching television somewhere in the house. He could feel her presence, her actions, through the wall. He crept closer.
Footsteps. Sam was running through the hall, coming towards him. He put his back to the wall and craned his neck around so he could peer into her room. She rounded the corner and shot his vision through with sunlight; damn, she was gorgeous. His hands ached to hold her, to feel her hair. His throat burned.
She was stopping to grab some stuffed animals. Corey, Napala, Meegee, Soby. He remembered them all. Napala was the panther, Soby was a rhino on a skateboard. Corey and Meegee were both bears. He watched as she climbed up on a stool to tug them of the top shelf, watched as her grasping fingers fell short; she left the room and came back rolling a swivel chair before her. She got unsteadily on top of it, the wheels sliding about on the smooth floorboards. She still couldn't reach. She got up on tip-toes in stocking feet, stretching her frail arms to the limit. The chair slipped beneath her. She fell in a tumble of colourful stuffed creatures, pigtailed head striking the corner of her dresser.
Michael slammed a palm against the window, his cry muffled by glass and the thump of body against floor.
He was sitting in the hospital waiting room when the mother came through the doors.
She stopped short, her brown hair floating wispily in the fluorescent lights, chest rising and falling beneath a brown overcoat. A red scarf was around her throat. She stood in the middle of the room and stared at him.
"Hello," he said.
Sarah brushed distractedly at her hair. Her lips were wide with panic and incredulity. She hissed at him. "What are you doing here? Where's Sam?"
"She's okay. She just needs some stitches." He turned away so the pain in their eyes wouldn't meet. Elsewhere, someone sobbed, preoccupied with their own drama. It didn't matter. This was backstage, where people from different worlds collided; where even a dragon and a knight could sit down and have a talk together. Sarah slumped into the seat next to him.
"Thanks for the note," she said after a while. She paused. Michael slipped into the silence easily, as if it were a skin he was used to.
"…Aren't you going to say anything?"
"You didn't know she fell." It was a leaden accusation, falling at their feet like a puzzle piece that didn't belong.
"I was getting some eggs. Sam loves scrambled eggs."
"It was only going to take fifteen minutes. Nothing ever happens in fifteen minutes. Except, this time, for some reason, I guess it did." She glanced sideways at him.
"I didn't want you to come with us."
Michael recalled the horrible event dimly. Sam's window had slid up disturbingly easy (minus one point for motherhood), and he had had little trouble sneaking Sam away from the house, using the phone to call a cab to take them to the hospital. He had hurriedly scribbled a note on an envelope lying on the kitchen counter, tacking it to the front door. He left another on the fridge, and had just enough time to post a third to Sam's bedroom door. He had left scant explanation; just the location of the hospital and his name, and a hurriedly scribbled "Sam fell, hit head on dresser".
All things considering, she was taking it quite well.
The double doors swung open, disgorging a bearded man in a white coat. He towered above Sarah and Michael, like a god prepared to rain fire upon the sinners. Instead he merely said "She'll be alright. This will only take a few more minutes. You'll have to fill out some paperwork afterwards, as well. Unless you want to do that now?"
They both shook their heads. The man in white silently exited the room.
"Aren't you going to ask me how I got involved?" Michael said, staring straight ahead.
"Why should I? It was obvious. You are exactly the kind of man who would eschew weekend visits in order to find her on your own terms."
"Sounds like you expected me to do this."
"No." She sighed, stretching her legs over the tiles. She had great legs. "I'm just not surprised. Shocked that anyone would actually do such a thing, but I'm not surprised. And, I guess, I should be glad you were there. For once." She half turned towards him with a tiny, empty smile on her face. "We've been awful, haven't we?"
He snorted. "That's an understatement. By the way, I just quit my job."
"Doesn't seem like such a terrible thing."
"I tracked down my daughter and stole her away."
She bristled slightly at his deliberate use of 'my', but all the fight was out of her. "Yeah, that was pretty stupid," she sighed.
"What are you going to do about it? You could easily make it so that I never see her again." His chest tightened as he said it. But he had to voice the possibility out loud.
Sarah cocked her head at the question, then faced him. Her eyes were dark and dry. "Would I do something like that?"
"No." He took her gloved hand. "I know you too well for that."
"Me too. That's why…" She trailed off.
They sat there in the sterile whiteness, exhausted adults slumped in plastic benches, waiting for the next person to walk through the doors. Michael closed his eyes against the harsh lighting above. His hands clasping Sarah's seemed the only real things in the world at the moment. If he let go, it would all disappear back into the darkness.
It was safe backstage. He could drop the roles he'd accumulated, shed his mask and cape, and wait for the next scene to play itself out. As soon as they left the hospital, the fog machine would click on, the players would pick up their props and resume the battle. But not now. For now, he would drop the curtains on the world, knowing that in time he would be ready to return to the stage. He just needed some time. The show must go on.