The last dress rehearsal did not go well. In fact, it went very, very poorly.
“You know what they say,” Mitch told me.
“You know I don’t,” I answered.
Why would I? Years of restaurant experience had led me down a dead-end path and straight into the wings of the Old River Theatre. Desperate times, Mitch had said. And anyway, I’d only be the assistant to the Stage Manager. He thought it was funny that I was going backwards.
“You’re supposed to wait tables while you try to make it,” he’d said. “You’re working the other way around.”
Now, as we closed up the final dress for the season opener, he clapped me on the back and said, “I forget sometimes. Feels like you’ve been here forever.”
“Is that a compliment, boss?”
“Frank’s been here forever, too, man.” And he pointed up towards the catwalk.
Frank managed lights, sound, and all other things technical and sundry. And he drank himself into a stupor every night. He was probably at it now, somewhere up there, taking swigs from his hip flask and tapping his foot to music only he could hear.
I rolled my eyes. “He’s a liability, Mitch,” I said. “Anyway, tell me, what do they say?”
“Bad dress, good opening. Should be a great show.”
I didn’t feel so confident.
“Don’t worry, kid,” he said. “We’re all professionals here.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Even Frank,” he added. “Let’s finish out and go grab a beer.”
This year, Old River decided to open its fiftieth season with The Sound of Music. The playbill proudly proclaimed it “America’s favorite musical!” Could have fooled me. Ticket sales moved fast enough, but the cast and crew came in every day looking like they’d rather be anywhere else.
“Twenty fucking minutes of ‘Do, re, mi,’” the director said, one evening, after a particularly grueling dance rehearsal. “What do you even do with that?”
The production so far honestly seemed sort of cursed. We’d been hit with a volley of issues starting on day one. Bolts of fabric that never arrived to the costume shop, a music director who lost hearing in one ear halfway through, three von Trapp kids coming down with the flu on the same night. Just one thing after another, culminating in a last dress rehearsal from hell.
“Is all of this normal?” I asked Mitch as we started on our second beer at the dive bar down the street.
“I’ve seen a lot,” Mitch told me, “but this one does feel sort of different.”
Mitch sat for a moment, and then took a deep gulp of the rest of his lager. “Every show has a few issues,” he said. “I had a lead actress a few years back who used to get laryngitis during every tech week. But this cast, I don’t know. Normally, it starts to feel like a family, you know?”
I nodded. I did not know, but I thought it might be nice to see, one day. Lots of restaurant owners say that about their staff. It’s never true.
“This one just feels off. Maybe it’s just me. I’ve never liked this show.”
I hummed an agreement.
“Next up is Midsummer, and I’m looking forward to that one. Shakespeare’s wild.”
“I think I read that one in school,” I said.
“Trust me, it’s better on stage. Fucking funny.”
I did trust Mitch. I didn’t know what to think, at first, walking into this new world. Actors are a weird bunch, but I’d enjoyed this job so far a lot more than my last three. And the hours suited me fine. Servers get used to late nights and slow mornings.
“Isn’t one of his plays cursed?”
“Shakespeare’s? Oh, yeah,” Mitch said, and laughed. “The Scottish play. Don’t let anyone hear you say the name, ever.”
Mitch bobbed his head. “I think it’s silly,” he said, “but lots of people believe it. I should give you a rundown of all that shit.”
“All what shit?”
“The legends. The bad luck and shit.”
“I don’t believe in that stuff either,” I said. “But I also don’t want a reason to get fired.”
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” Mitch said. “After things calm down. For now, we ought to get going. It’s late.”
I looked at my watch. Just after 2:00, and with an early call tomorrow. I left some cash on the table and stood up.
“I think I left my coat in the green room,” I said. “Sorry about that.”
“No problem,” Mitch said. “I need to run back and grab my notebook anyway.”
We walked back at a pretty slow pace. The weather had just started to turn. The days still felt summery, but in the evenings, the temperature and the humidity dropped. It was a relief, after the summer heat, to finally feel a bit of fall.
“I bet September’s chilly this year,” I said.
We reached the stage door, and Mitch fumbled with the key.
“It always sticks,” he said, and shook his head. “It’s like the ghost doesn’t want us in there late at night.”
He pushed the door open and flipped the lights to the green room.
“The Old River’s haunted?”
“Every theatre has a ghost,” Mitch explained, a little like he was talking to a child. “That’s why we always leave a stage light on.”
We made our way into the left wing, where Mitch’s station was set up by a small podium.
“Geez, kid, I know you’ve seen me do it.”
I thought back and realized I had. I just hadn’t really thought about it before now.
“Or, at least, that’s what they say,” Mitch added. “Really, it’s for safety, but people love their ghost stories.”
“It’s not on right now,” I said. And sure enough, the stage was dark. The house was pitch black.
Mitch turned to check, and I think he actually gasped. We walked to center stage and I looked up.
“Maybe Frank turned it off,” I offered.
“Frank!” Mitch walked to the right wing, and called again. “Frank?”
“Or maybe he went home,” I said, quietly.
“Nah, he’s here somewhere. Go up and check the catwalk.”
“He’s not on the catwalk, boss,” I said. “He’s out in the auditorium. Er, house.” Now that my eyes had adjusted, I could clearly see someone out there, seated towards the middle, looking straight ahead. I pointed, “You can see him, right?”
Mitch shook his head. “Not Frank,” he said.
“What do you mean, not Frank?”
He didn’t answer.
“Who is it, then?”
Just then, the stage light flickered on. I looked out into the house again.
“He’s gone,” I said.
“Let’s go,” Mitch said. He turned on his heel and practically ran back to his station. He grabbed his notebook and stuffed it into his bag. “Come on,” he said.
We hurried toward the door. At the stairs to the catwalk, Frank met us, smelling like he’d swallowed a whole distillery’s worth of whiskey.
“You’re here late,” he wheezed. Poor Frank.
Mitch just nodded.
“Have you been up there this whole time?” I couldn’t help asking.
“Yeah,” Frank answered. “Just came down when I heard you on stage. Ghost light was out. Got it fixed.”
Mitch didn’t say a word, and the three of us walked out together as if nothing strange had happened at all.
Just as Mitch predicted, opening night went off without a hitch. The cast hit every beat, nailed every song, and the orchestra played like they’d practiced together for years. For all I knew, some of them probably had. Even the kids were perfect. It was exhilarating, being part of this kind of magic.
Mitch took us out for a drink after the show. “I’m buying,” he said. “You did a good job tonight.”
“Thanks,” I told him.
“So, are you hooked?”
I thought about it. I’d never been part of anything quite like this before. And so I answered, “I think I am.”
“Okay, then,” Mitch said. “Then there are definitely a few things you need to know, if you’re sticking around.”
“Okay,” I said.
“The first thing is, you never look directly at Mr. Holly.”
“That’s who you saw last night,” he said. “You know I said every theatre has a ghost? Well, he belongs to the Old River.”
“You’re kidding,” I said. I put my beer down.
“I’d never seen him before last night,” Mitch told me. His flat tone indicated to me that he was, in fact, completely serious. “And I’d like to never see him again.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I thought about it again, and nodded once. “Okay. Well, tell me the rest,” I said.
And Mitch smiled. “You’re one of the good ones, kid.”
Thank you for reading! This is the eighth of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2022 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Folklore
Here are the first six, if you’d like to read them:
I hope you join me in the challenge! I think it’s going to be a very good year for stories. But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here.
The next story will be posted at the end of September.