Short story from Wayne Burke

Theater

MURPHY put on his gray checkered suit, a high school graduation present from his grandmother, over a pink shirt. He left the top two shirt buttons undone. The unbuttoned style of cool guys and snappy dressers, he thought; and he knew that he should be snappily dressed to attend the theater. He had a hard time with that word: “theater.” Was it “thee-a-trr,” or “thee-ate-er?” He slipped his feet into his platform heeled shoes and his height shot up three inches. In the mirror above the bedroom bureau he looked, he told himself, worldly, even sophisticated-like—like a guy who hung around theaters, maybe—who maybe even wrote a few plays himself.

     His heels knocked on the hallway tile floor. The living room, at the end of the hall, was the largest of the clean three room apartment. His brother Al, asleep on the living room couch, snored.

     He was in luck, Murphy told himself.

     His grandmother sat in a rocking chair before the color television; she turned her head as he approached. “Well!” she exclaimed,”what are you all dolled-up for?” Her ivory dentures showed in a smile. Little squares of light, from the television, reflected off the lenses of her glasses.

     “I am not ‘dolled-up’,” Murphy insisted, disliking, for whatever reason, the term.

     “Where are you off to?” the snow-white haired old lady asked.

     “I am going out.”

     “Out where?”

     “Just OUT.”

     He did not want his grandmother, or anyone else, to know that he was going to the theater, because…If she told someone and that someone told someone and his, Murphy’s, friends, found out he went to the theater? Would they think he was…weird, maybe? (Or maybe they would think no such thing. Maybe have no thoughts on the matter. In any case—and just in case—he did not want his theater-going publicly known.) He glanced at the TV. An actor whose face he recognized—being interviewed by Merv Griffin. The actor’s incandescent white-toothed smile plastered on his face.

     “Where are the car keys?” Murphy asked, bending over the white hair and speaking low.

     His brother stirred, turned onto his side and began to saw another log.

     “What?” the old lady fiddled with her hearing aid. The aid squeaked. Squawked. She peered up at him. “What?” she said, evenly.

     “Where are the car keys?” Murphy said, enunciating clearly.

     The old lady shook her head, wrinkles around her mouth compressed. “The Crosby’s?” she asked. “They are not on until eight.”

     Murphy frowned. “The keys!” he said, making a turning motion with his hand. “Car keys!”

     The old lady’s smile faded. “For what?” she asked.

     “To drive the car,” Murphy said, “what do you think ‘for what’?”

     “How long do you need it for?” the old lady asked querulously. “Your brother needs the car to go to work later on, you know.”

     Murphy side-glanced Al, sleeping. “Yea, I know. Not long.”

     The old lady dug a wad of Kleenex, a chain of rosary beads, and the car keys from an apron pocket. “I hope I do not get in Dutch for this,” she said, handing over the keys.

     Murphy pulled the car to the curb in front of the Beckwith residence on Friend Street. The house a small peak-roofed two story affair, like all the other houses lining the street.

     He hit the car horn with the heel of his hand. He would not go to the door, he decided; too risky. Might meet Mr. and Mrs. Beckwith and get the third degree. He saw a shade move in a window. Good, he thought; the message of his coming would get to her, or maybe it was her at the window…He looked down at his suit, wondering if he had worn the right clothes. Was he overdressed? He wondered what would the people at the theater think of him? Maybe they would recognize him as some kind of writer and a good guy to know—an up and coming…whatever: prospect, like a good minor league ballplayer headed to the majors. He looked into the side mirror: most of his pimples had dried, he noted happily: the recent sunshine had done his face good.

     “Who is that in the green car outside?” Mrs. Beckwith, standing at the living room window, asked. She scrutinized her daughter.

     “Billy Murphy,” Lucy Beckwith said. She glanced into the oval mirror hung on the wall. Spread the bangs of her short bobbed hairdo.

     “Oh? The Murphy who went to school with your brother?” Mrs. Beckwith squinted through the curtain.

     Lucy rearranged her bangs. “Yes, mother—I told you he was taking me out.”

     “You did?” Mrs. Beckwith frowned. “Doesn’t he know enough to come to the door?”

     Lucy wet two fingers and smoothed her bangs onto her forehead. “No,” she said, “he does not know anything.”

     Should he beep again, Murphy wondered. Would it be considered rude if he did? Would it be some sort of unforgivable social faux pas? And was ‘faux pas’ one word or two; and how was it spelled? “Shit,” he muttered, maybe he should forget the whole thing. Drive off, he told himself. It was her asked him to go. HER idea not his. And now to make him wait…Or was she waiting for him to come to the door? He looked to the house. She would be waiting a long time, he told himself. A goddamn long–

     The front door of the house swung open. Murphy watched Lucy step from the door. She wore a knee-length sleeveless dress that looked, to Murphy, like a smock that patients in hospitals wear. A lace thing, like a doily, around the neckline. The doily made her head look like it was on a platter.

     “Hi,” she said, falling onto the front seat.

     “Hi.”

     Murphy put the car in gear and drove, steering one-handed, other arm hung out the window and against the car door. Warm air of the twilit summer night tickled his face. “So, what is this play about?” he asked.

     “It is called ‘The Locker Room’. About a sports team in England that plays one of those games they play. One of those games with a ball.”

     “Rugby? Soccer?”

     “Rugby, I think,” she said tonelessly. She looked out the window at a section of marshy swampland, cattails sticking up out the water. Who gives a shit, she thought, what kind of game?

     A sports play, Murphy thought happily—maybe something like the play he had watched on television: ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight.’ Maybe this locker room play would give him an idea, he thought, for a play he would write, and then, who knows, get the theater to do it…Maybe he would meet someone at the theater, he thought, who had some pull, somebody who could give him the scoop on the theater scene. He wondered what name he should put on the play (after he wrote it)? Billy W. Murphy? William W. Murphy? W. W. Murphy?

     “You ever see ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight?” he asked.

     “No,” she said disinterestedly. “What is that?”

     “It is a sports play. I saw it on TV. Anthony Quinn played the role of this boxer, a guy named ‘Mountain’ who wins all his fights and starts to think he is a great fighter but really all the fights are fixed…It was based on a true story—the life of Primo Carnera, a heavyweight who fought in, um, the nineteen twenties…” He side-glanced Lucy. A red pimple on her shoulder the side of a dime. Why didn’t she wear a dress with sleeves, he thought—or put a band-aid on the splotch? He reached for the radio dial: the rich voice of Frank Sinatra came in loud and clear: “Strangers in the night, exchanging glances…”

     A flock of well-dressed and gaily chattering, so it seemed to Murphy, people, stood on the white marble steps below four fat Doric style columns fronting the theater. The people bathed in the soft blue and purple pastel twilight. The theater building between two of the many ivy and vine covered prettified college buildings lining the broad street.

     Murphy stood alone, nervously unbuttoning and re-buttoning his suit coat. In no way, he had quickly realized, was he overdressed. A group of women on steps above him talked loudly and without apparent self-consciousness, one or the other intermittently screeching with laughter. Fancy looking dames, some ancient, who wore enough jewelry to sink a canoe…No one gave, or had given him, so much as a glance, he noted; like he was invisible or something. He watched a raven-haired girl walk past on the arm of a tall slim guy with a pony-tail. He stared at the set of melons clearly outlined beneath the girl’s silkily sheer dress. His breath caught in his throat. It was almost like she had nothing on! He cautioned himself not to stare. It was bad manners, plus, if anyone saw him staring then that anyone might not speak to him, thinking he, Murphy, was some kind of dope or even crude bastard not worth talking to…Still, the girl was really something! The guy she was with looked like a perfumed mope who probably had his hair cut at a beauty parlor.

     Murphy checked the time by his watch, like a man in a hurry and with important things to do. He imagined someone coming up to him and asking how he was doing and he telling that someone—and he hoped it was her with the melons—that he was a writer and was thinking of doing a play, maybe have it shown at the theater if they, the theater people (whomever they were) liked it. Work in a reference to ‘Requiem for a Heavyweight’ so he would not seem like a bullshitter throwing the crap around but like someone who knew his stuff. He turned and smiled at a couple. The woman had sculpted hair and dark sunglasses, like, maybe, Murphy thought, she was some actress who did not want to be recognized and have people bug her for an autograph. The man had a hairdo also (maybe he went to the same beauty parlor as the mopey guy) and was dressed completely in black, head to toe, with leather shoes that Murphy bet cost a hell of lot more than a few bucks. The guy’s lips tightened in approximation of a smile. The woman did not move a muscle. Maybe she really was Gina Lolla-fucking-bridgida, Murphy thought. A guy behind the couple—thin straight-arrow guy with Marine Corp boot camp hair-cut, winked at Murphy. Murphy stared, caught off guard. The guy’s lips spread in an unhealthy-looking smile. The guy did not look like any Marine Murphy had ever met. He quickly turned his gaze. Jesus! He studied the outline of a weeping willow tree on the theater lawn. He wondered if the fruit would try something. He pictured himself slamming a haymaker into the guy’s fruit-face. He turned to his right to face a guy with a tanned face the color of a raisin; around the guy’s neck a handkerchief, tied, and on his face glasses with thick black rims. Hair slicked-back over his skull, like he, the guy, had just come out of the shower. “Hey!” Murphy said exuberantly, “how you doin’?” The guy responded—after about three minutes—with a yawn. He ignored the hand Murphy had offered. Murphy waited for the guy to ask how he, Murphy, was doing, but the guy turned and slipped into the crowd. Murphy saw Lucy returning with the tickets. Compared to the raven-haired girl, and a few others Murphy had scooped-out, Lucy looked like a dog. He felt a little sorry for her, but she seemed oblivious to any difference between she and the others. He wondered how she had come to the decision to wear a goddamn hospital smock. The pimple on her shoulder looked big as a tomato.

     “You want to go in?”

     “Okay.”

     The theater seats were soft and comfortable, plush, like the place, ritzy; like the inside of a high-priced casket, Murphy told himself. Most of those around him seemed, to him, to be engaged in animated conversation. He wished that he too could have an animated conversation. He turned to a woman in the row behind but she looked right through him, as if he were glass. Half a dozen rows back say the guy with the raisin-face. Murphy waved but the guy did not respond. A stiff, Murphy thought, who probably drank formaldehyde before coming to the theater…Maybe he should have drunk some too, he thought. His theater experience was turning out a lot different than he had thought it would.

     The place filled quickly. Looking around, Murphy realized that there were a lot of women—a ton of them, compared to the number of men. He wondered why. The overhead lights suddenly blinked on and off and the crowd hushed. The lights went off as the curtain rose.

     A bare locker room, Spartan. Tall gray metal lockers and a bench parallel the lockers. Roar of crowd noise off-stage. Raucous noise of a vast crowd. From stage right the rugby players entered: disheveled, dirty, wounded, in states of exhaustion. About a dozen players. They threw themselves down on the bench and onto the floor. Behind the players, a stout older man, wearing a sweat suit, pork pie cap, and whistle hung around his neck.

     A realistic type play, Murphy thought happily. He hoped there would be at least one girl in it. Maybe one of the players has a girlfriend who will appear, he thought (but what would a girl be doing in a locker room?). He listened to the coach, the older man, speak with a thick English accent.

     Coach: (stage front)   You’ve got to remember me laddies

                                             When times is tough

                                             You got to be rough

                                             When you are getting beat under

                                              Don’t go asunder! Rise!

                                              Get wise!

                                              Give ‘em the elbow and hip me lads!

                                              Kick! Get slick, trip the

                                              Bloody barstards…

                                              Knee ‘em in the jewels

                                              Frig the friggin’ rules

                                              There is nothing wrong with cheating lads

                                              So long’s you don’t get caught!

                                               Be sly, be wily; be fearless!

                                               Remember Nelson on the quarter deck

                                               Or the 400 in the valley–

                                               Take off the diapers, boys!

                                               Remember the Army at Wipers!

                                               Gordon at Khartoum!

                                                Kitchener on the Nile!

                                                The RAF above the channel

                                                 And bloody limees in Rangoon!

(coach punching his fist into an open hand)

                                                   Think of D-Day lads

                                                    And the Royal Marines

                                                    Coming ashore on the bloody beach

                                                     Dodging bullets, throwing bloody

                                                     Bombs, blowing bloody Jerries

                                                     To ‘ell and gone!

                                                      Scalin’ the cliffs–

                                                      The tanks moving forward

                                                      Bloody fighters overhead…

(tall well-built blonde player, bare torso, leaps to his feet; sings:)

                                                       Gordon at Khartoum!

                                                         Kitchener on the Nile!

                                                         The RAF, above the channel

(chorus of other players)

                                                          Bloody limees in Rangoon!

(2nd player, dark-haired, naked but for shorts)

                                                           Never mind Calcutta

                                                           And frig’ the Cameroons

                                                           We’re the boys who won’t be beaten

(chorus)

                                                            Bloody limees in Rangoon!

(3rd player, fair-skinned, light hair)

                                                            Bugger all of Blighty

                                                             From Peterlee to Portsmouth

                                                             And Southend-on-the-Sea

                                                              We’re the lads that can’t be beaten

                                                              Saxons proud and free!

                                                               Bugger Slim in Burma

                                                               And Wolfe out in Quebec

                                                               Bugger old Lord Nelson

                                                               On the bloody quarterdeck!

                                                               Bugger London and Pretoria

                                                               And all the chaps between

                                                               Bugger the Raj in New Delhi

                                                               And the guns at El Alamein!

     Murphy blinked and bolted upright. Two of the players wearing only jockstraps, their bare asses, turned to the audience, shining like full-moons. They were quickly joined by the others, all in jockstraps.

(players fling arms over each other’s shoulders and begin a high-kicking chorus line)

                                                                     We’re the boys who can’t be beaten

                                                                      The bloody limees in Rangoon

                                                                       The RAF above the channel

                                                                      And Gordon in Khartoum!

(players marching in place now: 2nd player out front)

     Murphy stared, unbelievingly. The 2nd player out in front had taken his jock off. His dick flip-flopped against his thighs as he walked. Murphy side-glanced Lucy; she was sunk in her seat, her coal-black eyes glowing. Numbers 1 and 3 players joined the blonde guy, all prancing around with their dicks hanging-out. Murphy looked about the theater. What were all the women looking at, he wondered: the play or the dicks? He sunk down in his seat. Deep but not deep enough…

                                                      Monty’s in the desert–

                                                      Winnie never quits!

                                                      We’re the boys who can’t be beaten–

                                                      Douglas Haig is a piece of shit!

                                                       Gordon at Khartoum

                                                       Kitchener on the Nile

                                                       The RAF above the channel

                                                        And (some audience members joined in)

                                                         Bloody limees in Rangoon!

(Coach, loud-calling)

                                                            Over the top me boys!

                                                             Tally ho and to the hunt!

                                                             We’re off to Flanders Field

                                                             And to the bloody front!

                                                              Never mind the Maxim

                                                             Put mustard gas on ham

                                                              And use the bloody bayonet

                                                              On every bloody man!

(players doing a shuffling side-wards strut—dicks flopping)

                                                               Rhodes killed off the Matebele

                                                                Jamison attacked the Boers

                                                                Together they stold the gold and diamonds

                                                                 To support the Brittish whores!

                                                                 Cook is in Guiana

                                                                 Gandi’s in the clink

                                                                  The Union Jack is rising

                                                                   Swim lads or we’ll bloody well sink!

(chorus of marchers:)

                                                                   Bloody well sink!

                                                                    Bloody well sink!

 (coach, continues)

                                                                    Remember Dunkirk me lads

                                                                    Remember Singapore

                                                                    Hong Kong and Malaya!

                                                                    The REPULSE and PRINCE OF WALES

                                                                     Did not sail for nothing my boys

                                                                     Nor did old Blighty

                                                                     Catch the blitz

                                                                     For the fun of it!

                                                                     The V-2 could not put us under

                                                                      You know the reason why?

                                                                      Remember the bridge over the River Kwai?

                                                                      Remember Bomber Harris?

                                                                      The goose-steppers did not scare us…

     The voices of the actors became a distant babble in Murphy’s ears. He told himself to get up and go, leave, walk-out! He glanced back, up the aisle. A long walk to the EXIT sign. Everyone would stare at him were he to walk; maybe even the actors would see him leave, and their feelings would be hurt…He did not have the guts. He squirmed in the suddenly uncomfortable seat as the play went on. He thought of all the woman in the joint: come to see the strip-show, only they, the women, would probably call it “art” (and call a strip-show “smut”).

     At the end of the act he stood and walked out to the lobby. He sat in a plush chair and   chit-chatted with the ticket-taker, a middle-aged man who regarded Murphy with slight amusement. Murphy did not tell the guy that he, Murphy, was a writer or that he was interested in producing a play.

     “Nah, I am kind of tired,” Murphy said, rubbing a hand over his face. “Long day, and I have to get up early tomorrow.” He glanced to a roadside FRIENDLY’S restaurant, the place luminous, like a full moon in a haze. He punched the accelerator and the Chevy shot past three cars on a staightaway.

     “Oh, come on!” Lucy whined. “I do not want to go home now.”

      “I can’t do it,” he said, coldly.

      “We could stop for just a half-hour,” she suggested.

      “Nah…” Who gives a fuck what you want, Murphy thought, expertly wheeling the car around the corner and onto Friend Street. Golden windows of the houses like nightlights guiding Murphy through the dark.

       “You’re no fun,” Lucy said sullenly, pouting.

       “Well, like I said…”

      Murphy brought the car to an abrupt halt in front of the Beckwith residence. “See you later,” he said icily.

     Lucy stepped from the car and slammed the door shut as if trying to break it, the car or door. She stood and watched the son-of-a-bitch drive away. She hoped he got into an accident on his way home. She turned and trudged toward the house. Scenes from the play ran through her mind: the lithe white bodies of the actors that she had studied in detail while they were on the stage. The bodies moved step for step down the walkway with her. She felt heat between her legs: reaching beneath her dress, she touched the dampness of her underwear. Images of the blonde-haired player, the black-haired, the red-haired…The heat spread from her crotch to her thighs and into her belly. She ran her hands over her small pert breasts: her nipples tingled as if electrified.

     She stopped suddenly before the porch steps, peering into the darkness. A man lay on his stomach; body sprawled over the porch floor before the front door.

     Grimacing, Lucy prodded the inert body with the toe of her loafer. “Dad!” she said, savagely. “Wake up!” She kicked him in the ribs.

     The man groaned, waking. “Wha’” he muttered. “Wha’?” Raising himself onto his elbows, he peered about. Lucy looked to the road: What if, she thought, someone suddenly, at this moment, came to visit? What if one of her friends or a relative decided at this moment to stop by? She watched disgustedly as her father struggled to his knees, then, with hands flat on the floor, straighten his legs. Was one of the neighbors, right now, looking out their window, she wondered. She looked up at the dark windows of the Larson’s house next door. Mr. Beckwith tipped, wedging his head and shoulders against the door, his rear end raised in the air. He clawed his way up the face of the door to a standing position. A thin knotted-up little man, he swayed, doing a wobbly two-step, and fell against Lucy as she tried to squeeze past him. The flagrant smell of booze wafted into her face as her father’s stringently muscled body pressed up against her. He moaned and flung his arms around her shoulders. Lucy hugged him to her. Finding his mouth, she thrust her tongue deep down the old man’s throat.

     The front door swung open as the overhead light illuminated the porch. “What in the world is going on here?”  Mrs. Beckwith demanded, standing in the doorway.

Wayne F. Burke is a poet, fiction writer, and critic. He has published 6 full-length collections of poetry, two works of literary criticism, and has a book of short stories due out 10-20. His most recent poetry collection is DIFLUCAN (BareBack Press, 2019). He lives in Vermont.

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