The next day I talked to Miss Garber, went through the audition, and got the part. Eddie, by the way, wasn’t upset at all. In fact, I could tell he was actually relieved about the whole thing. When Miss Garber asked him if he’d be willing to let me play the role of Tom Thornton, his face sort of relaxed right there and one of his eyes popped back open. “Y-y-yes, a-a-absolutely,” he said, stuttering. “I—I—I un-un-understand.” It took him practically ten seconds to get the words out.
For his generosity, however, Miss Garber gave him the role of the bum, and we knew he’d do fairly well in that role. The bum, you see, was completely mute, but the angel always knew what he was thinking. At one point in the play she has to tell the mute bum that God will always watch out for him because God especially cares for the poor and downtrodden. That was one of the tip-offs to the audience that she’d been sent from heaven. Like I said earlier, Hegbert wanted it to be real clear who offered redemption and salvation, and it certainly wasn’t going to be a few rickety ghosts who just popped up out of nowhere.
Rehearsals started the next week, and we rehearsed in the classroom, because the Playhouse wouldn’t open their doors for us until we’d got all the “little bugs” out of our performance. By little bugs, I mean our tendency to accidentally knock over the props. The props had been made about fifteen years ago, when the play was in its first year, by Toby Bush, a sort of roving handyman who had done a few projects for the Playhouse in the past. He was a roving handyman because he drank beer all day long while he worked, and by about two o’clock or so he’d really be flying. I guess he couldn’t see straight, because he’d accidentally whack his fingers with the hammer at least once a day. Whenever that happened, he’d throw down the hammer and jump up and down, holding his fingers, cursing everyone from his mother to the devil. When he finally calmed down, he’d have another beer to soothe the pain before going back to work. His knuckles were the size of walnuts, permanently swollen from years of whacking, and no one was willing to hire him on a permanent basis. The only reason Hegbert had hired him at all was because he was far and away the lowest bidder in town.
But Hegbert wouldn’t allow drinking or cursing, and Toby really didn’t know how to work within such a strict environment. As a result, the work was kind of sloppy, though it wasn’t obvious right off the bat. After a few years the props began to fall apart, and Hegbert took it upon himself to keep the things together. But while Hegbert was good at thumping the Bible, he wasn’t too good at thumping nails, and the props had bent, rusty nails sticking out all over, poking through the plywood in so many places that we had to be careful to walk exactly where we were supposed to. If we bumped them the wrong way, we’d either cut ourselves or the props would topple over, making little nail holes all over the stage floor. After a couple of years the Playhouse stage had to be resurfaced, and though they couldn’t exactly close their doors to Hegbert, they made a deal with him to be more careful in the future. That meant we had to practice in the classroom until we’d worked out the “little bugs.”
Fortunately Hegbert wasn’t involved with the actual production of the play, because of all his ministering duties. That role fell to Miss Garber, and the first thing she told us to do was to memorize our lines as quickly as possible. We didn’t have as much time as was usually allotted for rehearsals because Thanksgiving came on the last possible day in November, and Hegbert didn’t want the play to be performed too close to Christmas, so as not to interfere with “its true meaning.” That left us only three weeks to get the play just right, which was about a week shorter than usual.
The rehearsals began at three o’clock, and Jamie knew all her lines the first day there, which wasn’t really surprising. What was surprising was that she knew all my lines, too, as well as everyone else’s. We’d be going over a scene, she’d be doing it without the script, and I’d be looking down at a stack of pages, trying to figure out what my next line should be, and whenever I looked up she had this real shiny look about her, as if waiting for a burning bush or something. The only lines I knew were the mute bum’s, at least on that first day, and all of a sudden I was actually envious of Eddie, at least in that regard. This was going to be a lot of work, not exactly what I’d expected when I’d signed up for the class.
My noble feelings about doing the play had worn off by the second day of rehearsals. Even though I knew I was doing the “right thing,” my friends didn’t understand it at all, and they’d been riding me since they’d found out. “You’re doing what?” Eric asked when he learned about it. “You’re doing the play with Jamie Sullivan? Are you insane or just plain stupid?” I sort of mumbled that I had a good reason, but he wouldn’t let it drop, and he told everyone around us that I had a crush on her. I denied it, of course, which just made them assume it was true, and they’d laugh all the louder and tell the next person they saw. The stories kept getting wilder, too—by lunchtime I’d heard from Sally that I was thinking of getting engaged. I actually think Sally was jealous about it. She’d had a crush on me for years, and the feeling might have been mutual except for the fact that she had a glass eye, and that was something I just couldn’t ignore. Her bad eye reminded me of something you’d see stuffed into the head of a mounted owl in a tacky antique shop, and to be honest, it sort of gave me the willies.
I guess that was when I started to resent Jamie again. I know it wasn’t her fault, but I was the one who was taking the arrows for Hegbert, who hadn’t exactly gone out of his way the night of homecoming to make me feel welcome. I began to stumble through my lines in class for the next few days, not really even attempting to learn them, and occasionally I’d crack a joke or two, which everyone laughed at, except for Jamie and Miss Garber. After rehearsal was over I’d head home to put the play out of my mind, and I wouldn’t even bother to pick up the script. Instead I’d joke with my friends about the weird things Jamie did and tell fibs about how it was Miss Garber who had forced me into the whole thing.
Jamie, though, wasn’t going to let me off that easy. No, she got me right where it hurts, right smack in the old ego.
I was out with Eric on Saturday night following Beaufort’s third consecutive state championship in football, about a week after rehearsals had started. We were hanging out at the waterfront outside of Cecil’s Diner, eating hushpuppies and watching people cruising in their cars, when I saw Jamie walking down the street. She was still a hundred yards away, turning her head from side to side, wearing that old brown sweater again and carrying her Bible in one hand. It must have been nine o’clock or so, which was late for her to be out, and it was even stranger to see her in this part of town. I turned my back to her and pulled the collar up on my jacket, but even Margaret—who had banana pudding where her brain should have been—was smart enough to figure out who she was looking for.
“Landon, your girlfriend is here.”
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said. “I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Your fiancée, then.”
I guess she’d talked to Sally, too.
“I’m not engaged,” I said. “Now knock it off.”
I glanced over my shoulder to see if she’d spotted me, and I guess she had. She was walking toward us. I pretended not to notice.
“Here she comes,” Margaret said, and giggled.
“I know,” I said.
Twenty seconds later she said it again.
“She’s still coming.” I told you she was quick.
“I know,” I said through gritted teeth. If it wasn’t for her legs, she could almost drive you as crazy as Jamie.
I glanced around again, and this time Jamie knew I’d seen her and she smiled and waved at me. I turned away, and a moment later she was standing right beside me.
“Hello, Landon,” she said to me, oblivious of my scorn. “Hello, Eric, Margaret . . .” She went around the group. Everyone sort of mumbled “hello” and tried not to stare at the Bible.
Eric was holding a beer, and he moved it behind his back so she wouldn’t see it. Jamie could even make Eric feel guilty if she was close enough to him. They’d been neighbors at one time, and Eric had been on the receiving end of her talks before. Behind her back he called her “the Salvation Lady,” in obvious reference to the Salvation Army. “She would have been a brigadier general,” he liked to say. But when she was standing right in front of him, it was another story. In his mind she had an in with God, and he didn’t want to be in her bad graces.
“How are you doing, Eric? I haven’t seen you around much recently.” She said this as if she still talked to him all the time.
He shifted from one foot to the other and looked at his shoes, playing that guilty look for all it was worth.
“Well, I haven’t been to church lately,” he said.
Jamie smiled that glittery smile. “Well, that’s okay, I suppose, as long as it doesn’t become a habit or anything.”
Now I’ve heard of confession—that thing when Catholics sit behind a screen and tell the priest about all their sins—and that’s the way Eric was when he was next to Jamie. For a second I thought he was going to call her “ma’am.”
“You want a beer?” Margaret asked. I think she was trying to be funny, but no one laughed.
Jamie put her hand to her hair, tugging gently at her bun. “Oh . . . no, not really . . . thank you, though.”
She looked directly at me with a really sweet glow, and right away I knew I was in trouble. I thought she was going to ask me off to the side or something, which to be honest I thought would turn out better, but I guess that wasn’t in her plans.
“Well, you did really well this week at rehearsals,” she said to me. “I know you’ve got a lot of lines to learn, but I’m sure you’re going to get them all real soon. And I just wanted to thank you for volunteering like you did. You’re a real gentleman.”
“Thanks,” I said, a little knot forming in my stomach. I tried to be cool, but all my friends were looking right at me, suddenly wondering if I’d been telling them the truth about Miss Garber forcing it on me and everything. I hoped they missed it.
“Your friends should be proud of you,” Jamie added, putting that thought to rest.
“Oh, we are,” Eric said, pouncing. “Very proud. He’s a good guy, that Landon, what with his volunteering and all.”
Jamie smiled at him, then turned back to me again, her old cheerful self. “I also wanted to tell you that if you need any help, you can come by anytime. We can sit on the porch like we did before and go over your lines if you need to.”
I saw Eric mouth the words “like we did before” to Margaret. This really wasn’t going well at all. By now the pit in my stomach was as big as Paul Bunyan’s bowling ball.
“That’s okay,” I mumbled, wondering how I could squirm my way out of this. “I can learn them at home.”
“Well, sometimes it helps if someone’s there to read with you, Landon,” Eric offered.
I told you he’d stick it to me, even though he was my friend.
“No, really,” I said to him, “I’ll learn the lines on my own.”
“Maybe,” Eric said, smiling, “you two should practice in front of the orphans, once you’ve got it down a little better. Sort of a dress rehearsal, you know? I’m sure they’d love to see it.”
You could practically see Jamie’s mind start clicking at the mention of the word orphans. Everyone knew what her hot button was. “Do you think so?” she asked.
Eric nodded seriously. “I’m sure of it. Landon was the one who thought of it first, but I know that if I was an orphan, I’d love something like that, even if it wasn’t exactly the real thing.”
“Me too,” Margaret chimed in.
As they spoke, the only thing I could think about was that scene from Julius Caesar where Brutus stabs him in the back. Et tu, Eric?
“It was Landon’s idea?” she asked, furrowing her brow. She looked at me, and I could tell she was still mulling it over.
But Eric wasn’t about to let me off the hook that easy. Now that he had me flopping on the deck, the only thing left to do was gut me. “You’d like to do that, wouldn’t you, Landon?” he said. “Helping the orphans, I mean.”
It wasn’t exactly something you could answer no to, was it?
“I reckon so,” I said under my breath, staring at my best friend. Eric, despite the remedial classes he was in, would have been one hell of a chess player.
“Good, then, it’s all settled. That’s if it’s okay with you, Jamie.” His smile was so sweet, it could have flavored half the RC cola in the county.
“Well . . . yes, I suppose I’ll have to talk to Miss Garber and the director of the orphanage, but if they say it’s okay, I think it would be a fine idea.”
And the thing was, you could tell she was really happy about it.
The next day I spent fourteen hours memorizing my lines, cursing my friends, and wondering how my life had spun so out of control. My senior year certainly wasn’t turning out the way I thought it would when it began, but if I had to perform for a bunch of orphans, I certainly didn’t want to look like an idiot.