Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Hatlen James & The Clapping Man - A Short Story



My second Chautauqua story in this spontaneous series is not, in fact, 'Chautauqua proper'. (Gasp!) Instead I've used the Red Brick School as a setting for another purpose it serves here in town - as home to the drama troupes that bestow all us lucky locals with live theatre.
Now, two disclaimers need to precede this tale. First, all business names used herein, and the former name of the town itself, are bona-fide Edson, Alberta history. What may not be historical is the chronology I've used in this story. I don't know, for example, if Maurice & Schwartz Grocers existed when The Red Brick School did. Ditto the Idyl Theatre. For these I've employed my unapologetic creative license.  For fun, though, I've included a couple photos to ground non-locals (and maybe even some real locals) as to where all the action is taking place. Second, this story makes reference to a play that really was executed by one of the local theatre troupes in town; a couple years ago, Oliver Twist enjoyed a marvelous run, and I remember watching it and wondering...if a little spirit from the Red Brick's school days really did haunt the place, what would he think when he saw that all the children on stage were dressed just like him....?  Beyond the real production of Dickens' tale, however, all 'cast and crew' within my tale are strictly inhabitants of the landscape of my imagination - and if you believe otherwise as you read it, then that is most certainly your imagination, working overdrive.
So with all that being said, please now allow me to introduce you to Hatlen James & The Clapping Man..... 
    
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Hatlen James & The Clapping Man

I

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The smell of dirt woke Hatlen James and he sniffed. This was not dirt like in Mama’s garden where the soil was crumbly and hot from the sunshine. This dirt—he sniffed—it smelled like the forest where he and Papa (and Michael John, when he wasn’t being contrary) sometimes gathered mushrooms. This smell was one Papa liked. One he always told Hatlen was LOAMY.

    Hatlen sniffed the loamy. Where had it come from? He was in bed beside Mama (wasn’t he?) and here nothing smelled LOAMY. Here smelled like sweat and coughs and sour chamber pot. Here smelled like the sick that got stronger and stronger after Span Itch In Flew Enza came to their house and Mama couldn’t get up out of bed anymore. Then Hatlen James could not get up either. But now….

    He sat. Opened his eyes. A frown folded his forehead. Their bed wasn’t here. And where was Mama? Since they’d been sick they were always side by side, faces so hot it felt like an egg from the chicken coop would sizzle on their cheeks if it was cracked there. Hatlen looked around, sniffing (LOAMY!), then looked down. “Oh!” He shrank up (how could he shrink up?). A little boy in smart clothes and wearing a handsome flat cap lay beneath him, in the loamy. “Hello,” Hatlen said, carefully.

    The little boy did not move. He had a sleeping face with closed eyes.

    “Hello?” Hatlen tried again, louder.

    The boy did not wake up and Hatlen James peered at him, shrinking up again when he saw— “Oh!”—black spores of moss, creeping across the boy’s forehead. Hatlen’s nose crinkled. That shouldn’t be there. He reached to brush the moss away.

    His hand passed right through the little boy. Hatlen blinked. “Why—,” he began but then the boy turned to bones and his smart clothes were all rotten, edges frayed and everywhere ate up with holes. Hatlen cried out and leapt up from the bones and the LOAMY. Was this some sort of mean trick Michael John was playing? Was his brother going to jump out from somewhere and yell ’FRAIDY CAT then laugh because Hatlen was crying? Hatlen scrambled away from the hole with the boy who’d turned into bones and ran, broom grass whipping through his britches, and tree roots bucking up out of the ground to startle his feet. He tripped once atop a place where the earth went to sponge, a rectangle-shaped dip that stole the speed from his shoes. He stopped at the edge of that rectangle, turned and looked back at the place where he’d come from.

    A small cross squatted back there, poking up through the long grass. Hatlen’s chest lurched. He knew what that was! A tombstone! This was a graveyard! “There’s haints here!” he cried and ran, legs sailing through the brambles and tall grass. He glanced back only once.

    The cross was still there and even though his breath was all ragged and tears tore at the back of his eyes, Hatlen wondered—why only one cross? He’d been here before (with Mama and Papa, holding both their hands) and there had been many. But now…just one marker stood and the grass all around it was much too long. Hatlen frowned. The preacher ought to look after the graveyard better than that. In fact if Mama saw this she’d cluck her tongue and say it was just DISRESPECTFUL.

    Mama. Where was she? Hatlen climbed a short embankment due south, the direction where home was. “Mama?” he called but the breeze, cottony with poplar fluff, must have grabbed his voice, because he could not hear himself call her. And probably she did not hear him, either.  He kept walking, and calling, and as the grass got shorter and was choked out by gravel, his feet met a strange road; rocks all stuck together as if Mama’s hot, heavy iron had melted them flat. Hatlen  puzzled down at that road. A bright yellow stripe ran down its centre, soldier straight and spooling out as far east—and as far west—as he could see. Hatlen peered at it so long that if Mama was there she’d tell him to stop GAWPING. But he couldn’t. What was that line? What was it made of? His gaze tracked east, tracked west, and there was not a wagon in sight and no horses either, so he ran to that yellow line, poked a toe on it. It did not move! Carefully, Hatlen placed a foot on it. Then the other. The line was bright and a little bit sparkly and, giggling, he began stepping, heel-toe, heel-toe, balancing on that straight, yellow line.

    A rumble reached his ears from behind but Hatlen ignored it, tongue poking out between his teeth and arms out like birdwings, balancing on the line.

    The rumble grew and the air changed, seemed to rush from behind. Hatlen pulled his gaze off the line, looked over his shoulder. A scream made a frozen croak in his mouth. A machine, big and roaring, was blasting toward him. “Mama! Help!” He clenched his eyes tightly shut, then—

    A whoosh and rumble made his bones shake, teeth jitter. He opened his eyes and his feet had skittered off the yellow line and the machine—east, now—was getting smaller and smaller. Hatlen stared. What was that thing? It roared right through him. Was it magic? He scratched his head, flat cap bobbing up and down with the movement. Maybe magic. Papa told him bedtime stories about magic sometimes, even when Mama made tsks and told him not to FILL HATLEN JAMES’ HEAD WITH FANCIFUL YARNS.

    Papa didn’t listen and Hatlen was glad. He liked FANCIFUL YARNS very much.

    But that machine was real magic and it sure didn’t feel fanciful, so Hatlen bolted off the road with the funny yellow line, scampered down its southern embankment. Due south, he knew, was Heatherwood where he lived, and it might not be as fun to trudge through the trees as it was to balance on that yellow line, but at least here his feet knew the broom grass and foxtails and bright purple fireweed. Knew the prickly rose bushes with pink flowers cuddled up against their mean thorns—yet still sending sweet smell into the air (that wasn’t LOAMY). Hatlen shuddered, kept walking, and mostly the grass and the brambles passed through him, (which was puzzling), but occasionally a spruce bough would poke his ear, or he’d feel long grass brush his pant legs. Hatlen knew where to go.

    Or he thought he knew where to go.

    Through the woods due south was Heatherwood, except…Hatlen stopped at a place where the tree line stopped and the grass became short. He could feel his face gawping like before. This wasn’t Heatherwood! He didn’t know what this was. He’d never seen buildings like this. Were they houses? They did not look like the log cabin where Mama and Papa and Michael John must be waiting for him, wondering where on earth he’d got off to. Gingerly, Hatlen crept past the buildings, eyes feeling as big as they were. Not one had a garden out front with tidy rows of potatoes and radishes and posies on the end ‘just because’. None had a stone chimney climbing up its side, smoke coming out the top that said it would be snuggly-warm on the inside. Hatlen felt tears jab his eyes and he ran from these houses that looked nothing like home. Due south. That’s where the rail station was and everything else familiar. He wouldn’t be lost anymore if he just stayed due south.    

    Hatlen ran until a new structure knocked the cry-baby feeling right out of his eyes. Four tall poles, poked into the earth just like chair legs. He got near them and saw they were fashioned out of the same dull silver stuff that the buckets Papa used to slop the hogs were made from. Hatlen followed the path they stretched into, high up in the sky. “Oh!” Atop the poles perched a great, galvanized tub, black letters hugging its belly. E-D-S-O-N. Hatlen sounded this out very quiet, tongue wrapping ’round the sound each letter made. “Edson,” he said, and thought that sounded like a name, but not Heatherwood. He did not know how to spell Heatherwood, but he knew it started with an H, just like Hatlen. “Where am I?” he whispered, and at last a fat tear jiggled out of his eye. Then another. And another, snots now joining his crying and making him FRET. He had no hankie for snots, and Mama must have made him wear his good clothes for something. He crouched, pulled some soft grass, wiped the snots best he could with what he folded into a velvety patch. Rising, and chomping his bottom lip to stop its wobbling, Hatlen blinked back his crying.

    Then he saw it.

    The corner of a building (that is MORTAR those are BRICKS) was visible in the near distance, just beyond a smatter of tall, leafed-out poplars. Hatlen’s knees went all wiggly just like the time he thought he’d lost the bay mare after forgetting to tie her—but then found her grazing ’round back. “School!” he cried, laughing and ready to run again even though his legs were tired from running so much already, and now also all springy from seeing something he knew.

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    It took him no time to get there, and when he reached the steep cement steps leading up into the red brick building, he barely noticed that he didn’t open the door and instead just passed through it. “School!” he said again, and more crying was coming out of his eyes, but this time it made him feel sort of happy. Except….Hatlen’s shoulders dropped. Was this school? It looked different. Like the classroom door waiting just up the stairs behind the big outside doors. It was way bigger. And the smell in here—Hatlen sniffed. There was no ink and no wood smoke.

    But no LOAMY either. That was a good thing.

    Hatlen stood soldier-still in the foyer and he looked all around. Then a gasp fell out of his face, so big he had to use both hands to catch it. There, over the new, bigger classroom door was a word he knew very well. One he could even make himself when he practiced with Mama, letters that Michael John said looked like a bunch of sticks shoved together but, when he was finished, still said

H A t L e N

just like this said, except these letters—

HATLEN

—were all tidy and the same size. And there was another word was lined up behind it, one Hatlen thought maybe he’d seen once on Main Street.

THEATRE

He cocked his head, tried sounding it out like he had with E-D-S-O-N. Nothing his tongue tried made any sense, still…‘HATLEN’.  That must mean he should be here.

    “Are you coming?” called a voice and Hatlen felt his mouth go very round. That voice came from behind the door that said ‘HATLEN’. Was someone calling him? He inch-wormed closer, hand shaking when he reached for the door handle. Swipe! Swipe! His fingers sailed through it. He stepped closer, reached again and “Oh!” he passed through the door and stood there, thinking. First the machine. Then the broom grass. Now a door. Hatlen chewed his bottom lip. Maybe those things weren’t magic. Maybe he was.

    Uh-oh. Had his magic made Mama disappear?

    His chest sank right down to his shoes but then “Are you coming?” repeated the voice and Hatlen searched for where it had come from. An embankment of seats were all cued up in rows. Before them was a stage. Hey! He had been to a place like this before. Idyl Theatre, on Main Street. Wait. He pictured the letters. THEATRE! Now he knew what this was! (he just couldn’t quite cipher why it was here, in his school)

    The person who had called spoke again and when Hatlen’s eyes located her his chest burst with so much happy that his feet lifted right up off the floor. “Mama!” he cried. She had a long wall of hair Papa called strawberry blonde and a dress scattered with bright, happy posies, hem sweeping the floor. “Mama!” he called again.

    She whirled.

    “Oh!” Hatlen stumbled back, an instant, empty feeling yawning in his tummy. This was not Mama.

   “Who’s there?” asked the lady with Mama’s strawberry hair. “Who said that?”

    “Who said what?” A man in trousers and a wool tunic Mama would say had SEEN BETTER DAYS bounded out from behind a black curtain.

    The strawberry lady turned to face him. “Someone just said Mama.”

    The man blinked.

    “Rayden, are the students here?” The lady, who Hatlen decided to call Strawberries, looked a little worried. A little scared. Hatlen saw this, but what she had said—students? Those were also called pupils. And he was a pupil. He waved—“I’m here!”— but Strawberries did not see him. Her face was too worried. Too scared. Hatlen sure knew that feeling. His arm fell back down to his side.

    The man beside Strawberries said “No kids yet. You sure it wasn’t your imagination? Or…” The toe of one of his shoes moved back-and-forth, back-and-forth on the floor. “Maybe it’s your nerves. You are pregnant, Edie.”

    Strawberries’ eyes went round like Mama’s had that time she found a rat in the flour bin. “H-how did you know?”

    The man’s smile was lopsided, but not unkind. “I’m not blind. And I am your best friend.”

    Strawberries face looked like it might cry and Hatlen wished again that he had his hankie. If he did he’d be a GENTLEMAN and let her use it. “It was a mistake,” Strawberries was telling the man softly. “But this baby—” She opened a hand over her belly and Hatlen saw that it was round beneath her baggy Mama-dress. “—this baby is no mistake.”

    The man in the tunic THAT HAD SEEN BETTER DAYS smiled. “No kid ever is,” he told her and the way he said it, Hatlen felt something in his chest. Something warm. Something that made him want to go give the man hugs.

    He didn’t. Instead he moved up to the top row, tucked himself snug in a corner right at the back. Below him Strawberries set chairs and tables around on the stage. The man placed large lanterns on the floor and aimed them up so they shone upon the things Strawberries arranged.

    Hatlen’s eyes became big. Now that was a trick. No lantern he’d ever seen could do that. He watched, knowing his face was what Mama would call AGOG, and then a great deal of noise pulled his eyes from the stage to the entrance.   

    Pupils! They spilled inside, not single file and quiet like he had learned how, but instead all higgledy-piggeldy, laughing and wearing bright colors as they poured down the stairs and up onto the stage. Hatlen felt like a grin stretch his face very big. “Hello!” he called, waving an arm. “Hello! Hello!”

    The pupils did not wave back. Instead they waved to the man.

    And the man waved too, also smiling real big. Then he did something that amazed Hatlen. He clapped his hands and when he did every single pupil stopped talking and froze right into place. “Ready?” the man said then, and music from a box at his feet suddenly filled the theatre with strange sounds that made Hatlen want to both listen and paste his hands on his ears.

    Then The Clapping Man started to jig.

    And so did all the pupils.

    Hatlen’s hands slipped down from his ears and “Hey!” he called, feet tapping to the strange music. “I can jig!” He slid out of the back row, hurried down the stairs. “My Papa plays the mouth organ! I know how to jig!” He fell into step beside The Clapping Man, and jigged.

    Above, on the stage, a little girl in—what? Trousers?—pointed and giggled. Hatlen giggled too. What sort of pupils were these? Girls in britches (what would Mama say?) and everyone laughing. This new room in his school did not smell like wood smoke and inkwells, but jigging and giggles were way more fun than lessons and arithmetic, Hatlen knew that FOR A FACT, and so he jigged and jigged, and when The Clapping Man said “Okay, everyone. Warm up’s over, time to work” Hatlen was glad; his legs had ran and gone swimmy and jigged today. He collapsed on the floor at the foot of the stage.

    The little girl who’d giggled peeked over the edge. Waved at him again.

    Hatlen waved back but his eyes were too heavy to keep looking, and his mouth was too weak to make a grin.

II

When Hatlen woke Strawberries was wearing a new dress and the whole theatre smelled like something he knew. COFFEE. Papa had COFFEE in the mornings when a brand new ball of sun was in the sky and there was fresh, crisp air in the yard. Hatlen closed his eyes, pretended he was not in HATLEN THEATRE but instead home with Papa. But then “Good morning!” The Clapping Man’s merry voice made him blink and when Hatlen looked, he was standing right there.

    “Good morning!” he replied and hopped up, straightened his hat.

    The Clapping Man reached right through him, a feeling that made Hatlen jitter, and took a cup of paper from Strawberries. It was full of COFFEE.

    Strawberries said “Good morning” too but The Clapping Man did not notice the way that she smiled. And later, when The Clapping Man smiled at Strawberries the same way, she did not notice either.

    But Hatlen noticed. And Hatlen smiled too.

    After that, every morning was the same. COFFEE and Strawberries in a new dress, and The Clapping Man always in his wool tunic THAT HAD SEEN BETTER DAYS. And every day the Clapping Man aimed the lanterns and arranged what he called THE SET, while Strawberries sat before a splendid machine that did mending much quicker than Mama could sew with her hands, and she worked on COSTUMES.

    She also sang songs.

    In a clear, gentle voice Strawberries sang lullabies to the baby in her tummy and when she did, Hatlen would curl up close to her feet, listen and try not to get sleepy.

    Then the pupils would come and no one was sleepy. Laughing and jigging, the children danced with The Clapping Man and Hatlen did too, always trying to tug on The Clapping Man’s tunic. Some days The Clapping Man would seem like he felt something, but most days he did not, but by then it would not matter; Hatlen’s legs would be wore out from jigging, and while the pupils began PROJECTING THEIR VOICES on stage he would collapse in a heap by where Strawberries was sewing, watch what they were doing.

    By cracky (Papa would say), they were acting out a FANCIFUL YARN!

    Hatlen watched and listened to the pupils tell a story, frustrated when often The Clapping Man would make them go back and START FROM THE TOP.But we’ve seen this part already!” he’d say, but no one ever heard him, and so sometimes he’d leave the spot where he was in a heap and he’d go exploring.

    Many things he discovered made him very PERPLEXED. Like the classrooms that were the same as they used to be—but had no desks or woodstoves anywhere. And the slates and inkwells. He found them, but they were tucked in a big glass case hanging outside the theatre.

    Also (and this was very curious indeed) there were no outhouses anywhere in the school yard. Hatlen checked one afternoon when the pupils were all on stage PROJECTING THIER VOICES. He slipped outside and ran over the grass, but…only a few poplar trees grew where the outhouses once were. Hatlen did not know what to think. Where were the pupils to go if they needed to wee? He returned to the school scratching his head, flat cap bopping up and down. In the theatre all the pupils were still PROJECTING THEIR VOICES, so he drifted down the stairs, peeked into all the rooms in the cellar.

     What strange chairs! White and shiny and with seats that were just big bowls of water, each also with a shiny silver toggle on the back. Hatlen peered at them, very CURIOUS, and his fingers could not help it—they reached for one toggle. Swipe! Swipe!

    WHOOSH!

    Hatlen leapt back as the water in the bowl jumped and gurgled and whirled like a top. He covered his ears. The bowl chairs were noisy! He inch-wormed back toward them only when the one he had touched became quiet, then peeked. The water was still spinning but slower, then it stopped and became flat and still. Hatlen watched the clear, still surface of the water a long time, then—swipe! swipe! WHOOSH!—the water whirled again, spitting and spinning in a jig. Hatlen laughed and spun around like the water. This was a good game! He swipe, swipe WHOOSHED! again and again, and somewhere in the school he heard Strawberries say “Ray? The toilet keeps flushing by itself” but he did not pay any attention. Swipe, swipe, WHOOSH! was fun and he did it again and again until the pupils all thundered down to the cellar, bringing a smell along with them. Hatlen’s belly yowled. Whatever it was smelled yum! He drifted over to where they sat (boys and girls mixed up together!) at a long table with chairs on both sides.

    In the middle were flat boxes, each with a round pie in the centre, colorful and lumpy and smelling like baking bread. “Peets-ah!” said the little girl who waved to him every day, and Hatlen inch-wormed near. An empty chair was between them and she patted it. “Sit,” she whispered.

    Hatlen sat, his hind end hitting the chair and not going right through and falling onto the floor.

    “This is for you.” The girl put a slice of the bread-pie on a plate, pushed it toward him.

    Hatlen’s tummy said GROWWWL! and “Meta!” said one of the pupils, face all frowny.

    Meta giggled and put a hand on the waist of her trousers as if her belly had growled. Then “Go on” she told him, just the side of her mouth working. “Try it. It’s peets-ah.”

    Hatlen’s fingers tripped up close to the peets-ah—swipe! swipe!—then picked it up, lifted it to his mouth. It smelled so yummy. Chomp!  “Oww!” he cried.

    Several pupils stared over at Meta. She did not pay them mind. “You have to blow it,” she whispered. “It’s hot.”

    It sure was. The roof of Hatlen’s mouth felt like a big blister.

    “Watch,” Meta said, and blew little puffs on her own peets-ah. Hatlen did too but no breath came out of his body, and before long his belly just could not wait anymore so chomp! Oh, yummy. And not so hot anymore. He chewed. Swallowed. This was the best bread he’d ever had! Hot and gooey and looked kind of yuck, but good. He chomped and chomped until “Oof!”

    The Clapping Man plopped down right on top of him.

    “How come you got two plates on the go there, Meta?” he asked.

    Meta shrugged.

    The Clapping Man did too. It was always okay with him when the pupils did things that were silly or things they could not explain. It made Hatlen want to hug him again so he did, arms reaching ’round him and wrapping him close, squeezing him tight.

    The Clapping Man shivered. “Chilly in here today,” he remarked.

    Meta wore a small smile.

    “Or maybe I just need to buy a new sweater.” He plucked the front of his wool tunic THAT HAD SEEN BETTER DAYS.

    No.” Hatlen kept his arms around The Clapping Man, placed his cheek against his back. “I like your SWEATER.”  

    Meta said “Or maybe just leave your sweater here at night before you go home.” She took another small bite of peets-ah. “That way you’ll always know it’s here on the days you feel cold.” She smiled at Hatlen.

    “Thank you,” he whispered.

    “Good advice,” The Clapping Man said.

    “You’re welcome.” Meta chewed the rest of her peets-ah and The Clapping Man laughed then got up, chattered with a few more of the pupils, then—

    “Okay, troupe!” he said. “Time to get back at it.”

    Hatlen followed them upstairs, stood close to The Clapping Man in front of the stage.  

    “Running lines,” The Clapping Man said.

    All the children groaned and Strawberries, perched in front of her sewing machine said, quietly, “They need a break, Ray.”

    A BREAK was a rest. Hatlen agreed. The pupils had PROJECTED THEIR VOICES a lot today. The whole time he had swipe, swipe WHOOSHED! with the water-bowl chairs, in fact.

    “But they just had pizza!” The Clapping Man said.

    Strawberries fixed him with a look Hatlen knew. Mama wore that look when she’d HAD ENOUGH.

    The Clapping Man sighed. “Okay, everyone. Try this.” He stooped, flicked on the box that played music.

    Jigging! Oh, hooray! Hatlen hopped up, joined The Clapping Man. And as all of them jigged, Hatlen tried like always to pull on the old, raggy sweater THAT HAD SEEN BETTER DAYS. Swipe! His hand passed right through the hole at its hem.

    Swipe! Another pass. He tried again.

    TUG!

    The Clapping Man froze then whirled, so fast that Hatlen James felt the air whoosh, lift his hat. He clamped it on with both hands, trembling as The Clapping Man looked right at him. “Hello!” he fixed on his happiest smile. “I am jigging with you! Do you see me? Did you feel me hug when there was peets-ah?”

    The Clapping Man peered and peered, but Hatlen James could not tell if he was looking at him, or through him. So he made his voice louder. “I like when you smile at the pupils,” he said. “And I like when you sneak smiles at Strawberries.” Hatlen stared at him, concentrating so much that he trembled. “You make me think of my Papa. I loved my Papa.”  He swallowed hard. “And I love you too, Clapping Man.”

    The Clapping Man kept staring like he could not stop, then reached out, moved his hand back and forth. It passed through Hatlen’s neck, stealing his voice and making his throat feel like it was full of warm, swarming honeybees. “A spirit,” Clapping Man whispered, but Hatlen did not know what that meant. Still, the way The Clapping Man smiled…something shone inside Hatlen’s tummy, something that made him feel like he always did on the nights before Christmas, when he knew he’d wake up to find lots of hard, shiny candies in the sock he’d hung up by the fire.

    “Rayden?” Strawberries placed a hand on his arm. “You okay?”

    Hatlen rushed to her. Would she see him? He pat, pat, PATTED! her tummy.

    “Oh!” She flinched and The Clapping Man grasped her elbow. “It’s okay,” she said, but looked PERPLEXED. “Sometimes the baby does the tango in my belly.”

    “But that wasn’t Baby jigging! It was me! Please look at me!” Big crybaby tears wobbled from Hatlen’s eyes so he whirled, fleeing just in case Strawberries and The Clapping Man really would see him, and in his back row in the corner he crouched, hid his crying.

    But through the crack between the seats he watched them. The Clapping Man’s face was fixed in A THOUGHTFUL MANNER and he looked, for the longest time, at the place where Hatlen had been.

III

Night came and as the pupils all trickled out the front door Hatlen did not come out of his spot to tell them goodbye like always. Instead he tucked himself up, small as could be, face wet and tired from all his crybaby tears. “Goodbye,” he whispered as he heard one set of feet after another clop out of the school. “Goodbye. Goodbye. Fat tears still stubbornly trickled off his cheeks. If they could all see him would they still leave him alone? In the dark that was scary and quiet in the theatre without all their happy noise? Hatlen choked on a gurgly sob—then heard another sob, down below.

    He sprang up.

    Strawberries. Most evenings The Clapping Man was last out the door, but tonight it was her, moving slowly as if something hurt, one hand spread wide on the side of her belly. Hatlen swiped his snots with a sleeve, peeked at her from over the seats in the back row.

    Her feet trudged slowly around her sewing machine as she tucked things away, and sometimes she’d stop, make a gasp and hold her tummy, wet tears on her face just like his. Hatlen hurried down to stand close, but did not know what to do. “Strawberries?” He tried to pull on her sleeve. “Is Baby doing THE TANGO IN YOUR TUMMY?”

    She gasped and dropped to her knees, her cry splitting the silence the same way the curtains split the stage when they flew apart. Hatlen hurried near, but “It’s nothing,” Strawberries panted, and he could tell she spoke to herself, not to him. “That thing on the ultrasound was just a shadow,” she muttered, rubbing her belly. “There’s nothing wrong with you.” She pushed herself to her feet. “Baby,” she whispered. “We’ll be fine, baby.”

    A grip seized Hatlen’s tummy. “We’ll be fine, Baby.” Mama had said that to him when they’d laid in bed staring at each other, bodies hurting and faces sizzling from Span Itch In Flew Enza.

     And they had not been fine at all.

IV

Morning arrived and Hatlen did not skip alongside The Clapping Man like he usually did. Instead he drifted near Strawberries, peering at her. Her face was the color of a winter sky and when she tried to sing lullabies her voice was so quiet he could not quite hear all the words. “That’s fine,” he said and stayed near her spot at the foot of the stage, her sewing machine whirring and stopping in a rhythm that soon made him drowsy. When the door at the top of the stairs opened, stabbing a spear of light on the floor, he jumped.  So did Strawberries. “Principal King,” she said.

    A lady came down the stairs but she looked more like a crow; hair black like wings and eyes the same BEADY, hard and mean. FORBIDDING. That was a word Mama used and Hatlen did not know what it meant, but he sure knew how it made him feel: like a door had slammed shut, leaving him out in the cold.  “What are you doing here?” said The Crow.

    He scampered up from where he’d curled close to Strawberries’ feet. “I have nowhere else to go,” he said. “And the THEATRE says HATLEN.”

    But The Crow was not looking at him. Her BEADY eyes were fixed on Strawberries. “I heard you puking in the toilet downstairs. If you’re sick, why aren’t you at home?”

    “I’m not sick,” said Strawberries and her voice was RIGHT AS RAIN but Hatlen could see her hands shaking.

     The Crow looked her up and down. “That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it?”

    Hatlen eyeballed The Crow. She didn’t like Strawberries because Strawberries’ belly was round with Baby. AN OLD STIFF NECK. That’s what Papa would have called her, and as she marched away, all upside-down mouth and mean, BEADY eyes, Hatlen stuck his tongue out at her.

    Stupid Crow.

    Beside him Strawberries wrapped her arms around her belly like she held a big ball. “I’m not ashamed of you,” she whispered, and then she said something else that made Hatlen’s throat get very tight.

    “And even if I was, the doctor says you won’t be here long enough to be a problem to anyone.”

    Tears almost squeezed out of Hatlen’s eyes and it helped to feel more mad than sad. Whirling, he rushed up the stairs to where The Crow marched.

    And he could not stop himself.

    Hurrying between her and the door, his hands flailed, smacking the top of her head, swipes that went right through her short, pointy hair that looked like nails all pounded in the wrong way. Then—SMACK!

    The Crow yelped and shot backward. “Who did that?”

    Hatlen James did a little jig. “That,” he said, “was me.”

    “You!” she said then.

    Hatlen froze. She could see him?

    “Ray? Rayden!” The Crow’s face was so white Hatlen could see all her veins, blue rivers under her skin. “Get in here!”

    The Clapping Man hurried, Hatlen could hear his feet pelting up the stairs.

    “Take this…this delinquent and do something with him!” said The Crow.

    The Clapping Man cocked his head. “Delinquent?”

    “This kid!” The Crow said, but then she blinked too. “A kid,” she repeated, but softer. Uncertain. ’FRAIDY CAT, Hatlen thought and “Where did he go?” she asked.

    “All my students are backstage,” said The Clapping Man and his face was NO NONSENSE, not the way it usually was at all.

    His face seemed to make The Crow even more FRAIDY CAT, and Hatlen sniggered as she quickly bustled out the school doors.

    The Clapping Man watched till the door behind her squealed shut, then “Well done,” he whispered. Hatlen was confused. Strawberries and the pupils could not hear him if he talked that quietly. “You need to remember to PROJECT YOUR VOICE,” he told him, feeling wise, and as they walked back into the theatre, he tried holding his hand.

    Swipe! Swipe! He could smack the mean Crow but every time he tried to grab The Clapping Man’s fingers he just swiped right through him. His bottom lip jutted out.

    The Clapping Man, shivering, moved down the stairs to where Strawberries was. Hatlen did too, curling up on the floor between them as the Clapping Man tossed a sweater (a new one, one that had SEEN BETTER DAYS) over his head.  “Edie,” Clapping Man said then, eyeballing her. “How sick are you?”

    She kept sewing, not looking at The Clapping Man’s eyes. “I’m not,” she replied.

    “Uh-huh. What about Peanut?”

    Peanut. Clapping Man meant Baby. Hatlen listened very close.

    Strawberries said “I….I don’t know, Ray. I’ve never done this before, remember?” She gave a smile, very bright, and it reminded Hatlen of how Michael John used to smile when Mama said “Did you wash your hands at the water pump, Mister?” Not exactly tell a fib, yet still a fib.

    Clapping Man said “Do you need some time off?”

    “No!” Strawberries eyes became very big, very worried. “If there’s anything I need it’s to stay here with the kids. With the theatre. Ray, sometimes I feel like this old place…well, like it loves us or something. Don’t—don’t you?”

    “The theatre?” The Clapping Man looked all around, a sudden, small smile playing with his face.

    Hatlen watched him with a feeling inside, like holding his breath.

    “Yes,” The Clapping Man answered at last. “I kind of do. But you.” He turned to her, face NO NONSENSE again. “You can stay, but just say the word if you need your feet up. Or hot tea. Or for the kids and I to feed you some grapes.”

    Strawberries giggled, the sound of church bells. Hatlen smiled.

    “And you, Ray,” she said. “If there’s anything else I need it’s absolutely you.”

    The Clapping Man blushed, very red. Strawberries did too.

    And, between them, Hatlen did a little jig.

V

Once the pupils were gone and Strawberries went home (The Clapping Man said he would CALL HER LATER and Hatlen wasn’t sure how yelling for her would be a good thing, yet somehow knew that it was), he followed Clapping Man down the stairs to the cellar, where all the things for the FANCIFUL YARN were stored.

    Clapping Man began to pick up tunics and breeches scattered all over the floor, muttering out noisy sighs as he folded them. “I’m a man too,” he mumbled, tidying breeches and trousers, movements making Hatlen think about Papa, clanking tools into their spots after sometimes quarreling with Mama.

    “I know I’m not the best looking.” The Clapping Man’s face was glum. “But still.”

    Hatlen tilted his head. That wasn’t quite true. The Clapping Man would be quite dapper if he combed his hair sometimes, and didn’t always look like he’d just climbed out of that rag-tag mound of breeches and tunics he folded. Hatlen perched on a crate that said SMALL PROPS, VINTAGE and kept listening.

    “A single mom,” Clapping Man said, and sounded EXASPERATED. “I know shit happens.”

    Hatlen gasped. If Mama was here she’d nab Clapping Man by the arm, march him to the soap flakes by the washboard and make him take a lick for saying a BAD WORD. Michael John had had to do it more than once.

    “Still pretty irresponsible,” The Clapping Man said. “But…I like kids. I could be a good Dad.”

    He would, thought Hatlen. A Dad was the same thing as a Papa, and good Papas made children dance when they played the mouth organ or a box full of music, and good Papas mostly laughed when children were being silly or did not know what to say. Hatlen hopped off the crate and above them the bare bulbs in the ceiling flickered, light fading then yawning brightly, filling the room. The Clapping Man spared them a glance then finished tidying the clothing. “I just need a chance,” he whispered.

    Hatlen sure knew how that felt. Every time he tried to squeeze The Clapping Man’s hand and instead swiped right through him. I JUST NEED A CHANCE, he thought, and as The Clapping Man shut the lights off, ready to go home, he could not help it, he sniffled real big.

    The Clapping Man went very still. “What was that?” He inch-wormed back around.

    “Me!” Hatlen shouted, so loud his ears hurt. “Me, it was me! It was m— “—ee!”

    Hatlen was so shocked that he’d made a sound, he was sure his eyes looked the same as The Clapping Man’s—big as the peets-ahs that had been on the tables. “‘Me’?” Clapping Man echoed and his voice sounded the way Papa’s used to when he looked at a sunrise. “Did someone just say ‘me’?”

    Yes! Me!” Hatlen hopped up and down, waved his arms. Danced his little jig.

    The Clapping Man stood by the door so long that Hatlen’s legs became too tired to dance. “I have to go,” The Clapping Man announced, PROJECTING HIS VOICE. “But I’ll come back.”

   “No! Stay right now! You can talk to me some more! I will listen. I will jig with you if you turn the music box on!” Hatlen hurried to get in front of the door, but The Clapping Man reached through him, pressed the handle open with a chunk!, then the school was empty and dark as ink.

    Hatlen fled the cellar (BASEMENT, he corrected. Strawberries and The Clapping Man call it the BASEMENT), hating how big and creaky it was. Rushing up the stairs, he was vexed by the sound of his shoes, tap-tap-taping up the treads. Why couldn’t anyone else ever hear them? He grumbled as he reached the doors to HATLEN THEATRE, closed like always. He rushed to go through them.

    But he did not go through them.

    As Hatlen passed into the door his forehead went whap! and struck it. His nose did too. It hurt, and he tried reaching to rub them, but…. “Stuck!” he cried. He had not stayed outside the door. He had not gone through the door. Instead he was in the door, and as he pushed and pushed, he could not move, arms and legs splayed like a starfish he’d seen in one of Michael John’s picture-books. Stuck. And flat like a flapjack. A big-person word scurried into his head and it was: FOREVER. Hatlen James started to cry.

VI

Morning sun coursed through Edie’s window as she filled up her lunch bag. Oranges: Baby. Hard-boiled eggs: Baby. Milk carton: Baby. Two chocolate bars, a pepperoni stick, and three coconut muffins. Edie, Edie, and Edie. She grimaced, half appalled and half enthralled that just looking at the food made her mouth water. “I’ve never ate like this in my life.” She rubbed a hand over the dome of her belly. “I’m going to come out the other side of this fat.”

    Her belly growled. She patted it. Felt nothing. Waited. Still nothing. Her shoulders fell, but then….kick!

    Feeble, a little listless, but still a kick. She exhaled, hand traveling in circles on her belly, wishing. Worrying. Today would be her last ultrasound. “But I don’t want to,” she whispered, the apprehension in her stomach much stronger than that lame little kick. “We’ll go to the theatre instead,” she murmured, and kissed her palm, placed it back on her belly. “Everything’s better at the theatre.”

    And Rayden would be at the theatre.

    Edie felt a blush, deep on her cheeks. She shooed it away. “Most men won’t ever sign up for two of us,” she said briskly, and snitched her lunch kit off the counter. “And that’s right as rain,” she added, then wondered why such an antiquated idiom had struck her. Shaking it off, she hurried out to her car. The kids would already be trickling into the theatre and Ray would have been there for hours. She turned up the radio as she drove. Sang to Baby all the way across town.

    Baby did not kick.

    She parked and climbed out of the car wishing. Worrying. And as she hurried up the stairs to the Red Brick she went still. Had Baby just rolled over? Or was it only her belly, bouncing with the sprint? Wishing, worrying, she burst through the theatre door, palms smacking it open with a—

 

Whap! Hatlen fell onto the floor like the door coughed him out, and when Strawberries stepped on his shoulder he yowled.

    She shivered. “Morning, Ray!” she called, and paused beside a box hanging on the wall. Hatlen, rubbing his shoulder (she was heavy!), peered to see what she was doing.

    Her fingers moved a little toggle on the box and from the cellar a rumble roared through the floor. Hatlen squeaked and scooted backward on his hind-end, found his spot in the last row. But scary cellar noise or not, he was so happy to be out of that door he felt like dancing his jig.

    “The kids are here,” called The Clapping Man.

    Hooray! thought Hatlen.

    “And they’re dressed,” The Clapping Man added.

    Hatlen blinked. Of course they were dressed. Silly Clapping Man.

    “Ready to be wowed?” he asked Strawberries, then—“Come on out, cast!” he called and Hatlen, like Strawberries, GAWPED at the stage.

    “Oh, my!” Strawberries cried while Hatlen stared. The pupils….the girls were not wearing britches. Instead they wore skirts. And the boys—they wore suspenders. Shirts with long sleeves. Smart flat-caps like…he reached up, touched the brim of his hat.

    ‘Welcome to Oliver Twist!” boomed The Clapping Man.

    Twist? A twist was a candy stick from Maurice & Schwartz on Main Street. Peppermints and rum & butters. Hatlen crept down the stairs, staring at the children who suddenly looked just like him, and as he approached the stage he could feel his face, shining like the hot lanterns sizzling down from above. Oh, but this was a good trick! He began clapping, and jigging, and up on stage Meta flapped her hand, folding it in a way that told him to come up on the stage too.

    Hatlen blinked. Pointed at himself.

    Meta’s head bobbed up and down very fast.

    He bolted up to stand near her.

    “Hello!” she whispered. “Isn’t this exciting?”

   A boy in suspenders gave her the stink-eye. “Shut up, Meta. Quit talking to yourself.”

    Hatlen stuck his tongue out at him—stop acting like Michael John!—then peeked at Meta and nodded.

    “Just stay close to me,” she whispered.

    Hatlen stayed close. And when Meta danced, he danced. And when Meta said words (PROJECTING HER VOICE), he beamed and said words too, pretending that Strawberries and The Clapping Man down in the first row clapped for him as well as all the other children. He STAYED CLOSE to Meta all day, and by the time she and all the pupils started to clomp off the stage, Hatlen yawned just like they did, but he did not rush to his spot in the back row. Instead he sat near Strawberries and The Clapping Man, on the floor just like always, and the way they talked, their voices stopping and starting, sometimes pealing with bell-laughter, it made him remember all the times he’d snuggle beneath his quilt listening to Mama and Papa, body getting warmer and warmer, heavier and heavier, and feathers vaguely poking him through the places on his quilt where the fabric was thin from Mama beating it clean.

    Then—“You’re still not feeling well,” said Clapping Man to Strawberries and Hatlen’s ears perked. “Are you worried?”

    Strawberries was so quiet that around them the building was loud with all its usual soft noises. Then “I skipped my second ultrasound today,” she said.

    Why?” The Clapping Man’s voice was thin with shock.

    Strawberries shook her head. “I...don’t know. I did end up rebooking it.”

   Hatlen did not know what any of this meant, but he could hear that Strawberries did not sound happy about the ULTRASOUND. He crept close to her. She was perched on the edge of the stage in a way that made her crossed ankles form a U. Hatlen climbed into the U, backside seated on her crossed ankles, rocking as she swung her legs.

    The Clapping Man said “And are you going for this second ultrasound all alone? What about asshat?”

    Hatlen sniggered. Asshat? Sometimes The Clapping Man was so silly. Donkeys didn’t wear hats. But it conjured a picture that made him giggle, especially when he imagined The Crow riding a donkey with a straw boater like Mr. Schwartz from the Grocery on Main Street.

    “Ray.” Strawberries sounded tired. “You know he’s got nothing to do with me anymore. And that I don’t want him to.”

    More quiet. More rocking.

    “Want me to come?” The Clapping Man asked.

    “Yes,” she answered.

    Hatlen’s heart made a little zing!

    “But you can’t and I won’t let you. It’s in the middle of a matinee performance and the kids need you here.”

    Clapping Man shrugged. “I could always ask The Crow to supervise for an hour or so.”

    “The Crow?” Strawberries voice held a frown.

    “Suits her better than Principal King, don’t you think?” The Clapping Man and Strawberries laughed, all church bells, but Hatlen barely listened. Instead he thought this over. How had The Clapping Man known his thinks? He climbed out of the U of Strawberries’ ankles, looked up into The Clapping Man’s face. Papa knew his thinks sometimes too. I want my Papa, he thought, and this time climbed up onto The Clapping Man’s lap, put his head on his chest.

    The Clapping Man became very still and very quiet. Then—“Edie?” he said. “Remember the other day when you asked me if it feels like the theatre loves us?”

    Hatlen peeked, saw her nod.

    “Ever think that maybe it’s not the theatre who loves us, but someone in the theatre?”

    She tilted her head. “Well,” she said slowly. “I have heard voices, remember?”

    Voice,” said Hatlen. “Just me.”

    “Me too,” said The Clapping Man but Strawberries kept talking like she had not heard him.

    “But I’m not sure that I trust everything I think anymore.” She laughed but her cheeks were all pink. “Lately my head’s conjured the craziest things.”

    The way her quiet voice sounded, it was like she wanted him to think that what she said was JOKES. But Hatlen knew scared when he heard it, he had learned it from listening to Mama when Span Itch In Flew Enza first came to their house, before they got very sick and their faces were hot enough to cook eggs. Before they’d lain in the bed looking at each other, Mama’s fingers gently sweeping the hair from his brow and her eyes full of the same scared he could hear in Strawberries now. He climbed off The Clapping Man’s lap. The Clapping Man should really reach over and hug Strawberries the way he wished someone would have hugged Mama back when she’d been scared like this too.

    But The Clapping Man did not hug. Instead he sat there looking like he didn’t know what to do. Hatlen looked from one to the other. Strawberries’ face had wet stripes, shiny under the bright lanterns, and as she sniffled, Hatlen decided that maybe he should hug her—even if his arms just wound up cutting through her and making her shiver like always.

    But she did not shiver. Instead she jolted and Hatlen did too for—inside! He tried moving forward. Tried moving back. But just like in the door, he was trapped by Strawberries’ tough bones, all shaped like a birdcage from Michael John’s picture book. He covered his ears. It was noisy in this cagebright and pink and busy, with an important-looking fist-shaped jitter that made a big, echoing sound. Wa-TONK! Wa-TONK! Wa-TONK! Hatlen stared at it, clasping his hands together, feet unsteady just as if he stood on a ball full of water. He looked down.

    Oh! He was on a ball of water! And look! A teensy hand floated below him, barely the size of a silver dollar Papa had once shown him, shiny and new. “Baby!” Hatlen cried and felt the fist-shaped thing above him echo with an even bigger Wa-TONK! He cringed from the noise but peered down. “Hello, Baby! Hello!” He waved, but Baby just floated, eyes screwed tightly shut and little body curled up. Hatlen beamed nonetheless, examining Baby, but then…What’s that? In the water-ball, beside Baby’s arm, there was a tiny, fist-shaped wa-TONK! quivering. Hatlen looked at it, puzzling, then—“Oh, no!” He knew what the wa-TONK! was. A heart. Up above him, the big wa-TONK! was Strawberries’ heart, but this…. “Baby’s heart,” he whispered. But shouldn’t it be inside Baby? Hatlen’s legs started shaking and he thought about what The Clapping Man had said—“Are you worried?”—and how Strawberries had not really answered. Yet Hatlen knew she was worried.

    Now he knew why.

    He curled up, away from the ball of water that held Baby and its quivering, sick little wa-TONK! How was he going to get out of Strawberries’ birdcage bones? He needed to get out, to get away from Baby and from Strawberries, to stop feeling her scared and her sad.

    He had lots of scared and sad of his own.

    He squirmed, ears bursting from the loud echoes of Strawberries’ booming wa-TONK!. Get out. Get away. Go to his spot in the top row at the back and hide his eyes. But how? How had he got out of the door when he’d been a starfish in there?

    Strawberries had smacked it.

   A sudden, shuddery feeling shook where his own wa-TONK! was, and Hatlen spread his arms as far as Strawberries’ birdcage bones would allow, then he brought his hands together, clapped hard.

    “Oh!” Strawberries exclaimed, and Hatlen plopped out onto the floor.

    “You okay?” said The Clapping Man.

    No, thought Hatlen miserably, but “Indigestion” she said, rubbing her chest. “But that didn’t stop me from ordering pizza.”

    Peets-ah? Hatlen’s tongue found the roof of his mouth, covered it protectively.

    “I’m having it delivered to my place—want to come over? Otherwise I’ll inhale it all by myself.”

    Hatlen looked at Clapping Man, hoping very hard he’d say yes. ’Cause tonight he would not feel lonesome when they left. Tonight he wanted them to all go away so he would not have to feel Strawberries’ scared or think about Baby’s awful little wa-TONK! in the wrong place and all wrinkled up like a walnut. He hurried up to his spot so quick that he felt his hat fly off in the aisle. He did not bother to go back. For the first time since he’d come to the theatre, Hatlen James just wanted Strawberries and The Clapping Man to go home.

    “Ray?” From between the two seats before him, Hatlen watched Strawberries snap her fingers in front of The Clapping Man’s face. “Hello?” she said. “Pizza? My place?”

    “Yeah.” Clapping Man’s eyes were glued to the right aisle. “You go ahead. I-uh-I’ll catch up.”

    Strawberries shook her head. “What on earth can you possibly have left to do?”

   The Clapping Man did not answer. Instead he hopped off the stage. Hatlen watched him move up the right aisle and then stoop, pick something up off the floor.

    My cap! Hatlen’s hands flew up, clutched the top of his head.

    “Have you seen this item on the costume inventory?” The Clapping Man held Hatlen’s cap up for Strawberries.

    She shrugged. “One of the kids may have brought it.”

    The Clapping Man did not reply and something about the way he looked made Hatlen feel like holding his breath. “I’ll add it,” he said. “You go on. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

    Strawberries climbed the stairs heavily like her body was tired, and Hatlen watched her. Goodbye Baby. Tears poked the backs of his eyes and he watched her until the door swallowed the theatre shut again, sealed her out. Then—

    “I know you’re here,” said The Clapping Man.

    Hatlen whipped around. Stared.

    The Clapping Man was PROJECTING HIS VOICE. “I know you’re here and I know you’re lonely.”

    A gasp—and more tears—made Hatlen hide his face.

    “I hear you crying sometimes.”

    Like now? Hatlen peeked between his fingers, watched The Clapping Man.

    “So I brought you this,” The Clapping Man held up an object that made Hatlen’s eyebrows bounce. A teddy bear. And Hatlen recognized its color—gray with white flecks.

    “I had a grandma over at Parkland Lodge make this for you,” The Clapping Man said. “Because you like to pull on my sweater.”

    Yes.” Hatlen’s head bobbed. “I do.” He looked at the bear. It had glossy black button-eyes and a short, stitched on smile.

    “I’m going to leave it here for you.” The Clapping Man crouched, set the bear on the stage. “Then maybe you won’t be so lonely when I go home.”  He placed Hatlen’s flat-cap beside it.

    Hatlen’s head bobbed up and down very fast.

    “But…” The Clapping Man rose. “I’d take you with me if I could.”

    He would? Hatlen felt his mouth drop open.

    “Then you wouldn’t have to live here all alone. No little kid should ever have to be left all alone.”

   More cry-baby tears leaked out of his eyes so he ducked down, hid his face until he heard The Clapping Man’s feet clop-clop-clop off the stage.

    But then he peeked between the two seats, looked at the sweater-bear. And when he was absolutely sure that The Clapping Man had gone home, he rushed down. Swipe! Swipe! His hands cut right through it, then—Oh, hooray!  He picked the bear up, cuddled it tight to his chest. “Hello!” he laughed, then hurried back to his spot, keeping the sweater-bear close, staring into its happy button eyes all through the dark night. 

VII

In the morning two things surprised Hatlen very much. First, the theatre filled up with more people than he’d ever seen there before. So many that he was chased from his spot in the corner of the last row and had to rush down to the front, right up close to the stage.

    The second thing was that The Clapping Man did not give any directions to the pupils. Strawberries didn’t either. Instead they sat silently in the front row with all the other people in the seats, and on stage the pupils did THE FANCIFUL YARN all by themselves.

    And THE FANCIFUL YARN was splendid!

    Everyone clapped. Lots of folks laughed. And when the pupils all came onstage to bow down, Hatlen jumped up there too, STAYED CLOSE beside Meta, and bent low like everyone else, sweeping his flat cap off all fancy like the other boys on the stage when they bent at the waist. They told the FANCIFUL YARN three times that day, the next day too, and the day after that as well, and what Hatlen learned was that these were PERFORMANCES and that the people in the seats were the AUDIENCE.

    He liked PERFORMING for the AUDIENCE very much and every day he stayed close beside Meta, until one day she sat beside him BACKSTAGE and looked at him with a sad face. “I will miss you,” she said.

    She still could not hear him when he made his voice work so Hatlen fixed his face in a frown.

    “Tonight is our last show.”

    He made more of a frown.

    Meta said “When we’re finished we won’t come back to do a new show for a year.”

    A YEAR? Hatlen knew what a YEAR was. A YEAR was fall when God painted the leaves different colors. Then cold winter came and the dark was much longer than the days. A YEAR meant waiting until ferns and sage finally poked through the snow in the woods, and until calves were born to mama cows and sometimes pink piglets were also in the straw out in the barn. And those piglets and calves…they stayed small a long time. For a YEAR. For FORVER. His mouth hung open and as he stared at Meta, he saw she had crybaby tears on her cheeks.

    Except they weren’t crybaby tears. They were sad tears. His were too. I will “…miss you,” he said aloud but she did not look happy that this time he really spoke. Instead she looked even more sad.

VIII

That night the FANCIFUL YARN went by much faster than Hatlen wanted it to, and before he knew it, it was time to TAKE A BOW.

    Tonight he did not join all the pupils on the stage. Tonight he sat on the floor between the feet of Strawberries and The Clapping Man and thought about A YEAR.

   A year of the theatre empty and all the noises it made when he was there all alone.

    A year with no one jigging or to sit between while they talked, voices like music and laughter like church bells.

    A year with no sweater to tug on, no one laughing with pupils, and no one singing lullabies to make him feel sleepy.

    A YEAR.

    When the pupils finished with their bows, The Clapping Man hopped up onto the stage, and as he started to say THANK YOU to the AUDIENCE, Hatlen knew it was his way of saying ‘Goodbye’. He rushed onto the stage, wrapped his arms around The Clapping Man’s leg. “No!” he cried. “Please don’t go! Please don’t leave me behind for a YEAR!”

    “Hey!” said The Clapping Man, but “Help!” came a cry from the first row.

    “Edie!” The Clapping Man shook free, bolted back down the stairs.

    Strawberries had fallen, and suddenly A YEAR flew right out of Hatlen’s head.

    Strawberries lay there, eyes much too big for her face, and hands clutching her tummy with Baby. “Help me,” she cried and beneath her dress a puddle hurried over the floor, dark and wet. “No!” she cried. “My baby’s too small!”

    Hatlen’s feet worked but they did not know where to go, what to do.

    “Help me,” she whispered and Hatlen also heard The Clapping Man yell “A doctor! An ambulance! Nine-one-one!”

    But Strawberries just said “Help me” and as her large eyes landed on his face they blinked. Looked. “I just want my baby.” Her face was wet with crying. “Help me have my baby.”

    He nodded, head bopping, but—how? How could he help?  How could he fix Baby’s sick little shrunken-walnut wa-TONK? His feet kept shuffling and not knowing which way to go. His hand rose and covered the place where his wa-TONK was, not the same as it used to be, but still in the right place.

    “I want my baby,” Strawberries sobbed and suddenly Hatlen thought of A YEAR. He thought of FOREVER. And he did not know why those scary words came into his head as below him Strawberries’ back arched up in a bow, her belly thrust high in the air. Hatlen squeezed his eyes shut but he could still somehow see Baby sick little wa-TONK. He could still think of his own wa-TONK, beating too fast inside but still right where it should be.

    And still the scary words A YEAR. The scarier FORVER.

    He opened his eyes, stared at Strawberries’ belly. “Help me,” she said. “I want my baby.” Those were the last words Hatlen heard before he rushed.

    And the first thing he heard after was….

    Wa-TONK!

    

    A YEAR

Rayden lifted the baby from the car seat, plopped his little feet onto the cobblestones leading up to the Red Brick School. On the other side of the car, Edie slammed the door shut with a hip, arms full of new costumes to fashion. She joined Rayden on the walk, watched their son toddle over the stones to the stairs at the entrance. “It’s like he knows where to go,” Ray said.

    “He should.” She smiled. “We spend half our lives here.”

    And so far Baby had spent almost all his life here—first in a car seat while Edie kept Rayden company as he’d torn down the set for Oliver Twist. Then just a few weeks ago, Baby had played at the foot of the stage when Edie and Ray had come back to plan out what would be their new fall production. Toddling away up the stairs at one point, Baby had also given Edie a mild heart attack until they discovered him, wedged, yet happily cooing, up in a corner of the back row, a discovered teddy bear clutched beneath one tiny arm. Edie had tried to take it away—“It’s dirty!—but Baby had howled with heartbreak and Ray, wearing the most curious look, had convinced her to compromise. In the end she’d just tossed the bear into the wash, then let Baby have it.

    They’d been inseparable—Baby and bear—ever since.

    And now, as happy noise bubbled out from inside the school, Ray scooped Baby and bear up, opened the door.

    An immediate spill of students burst forward and Edie smiled at Ray, wry. “You know they’re more excited to see him than us, right?”

    Ray grinned as their son patiently endured the crowd of kids ogling him, his chubby little face frequently rewarding them by bursting into big, spontaneous smiles.

    Cutting through crowd was Meta, her newfound authority amongst the kids owing to the knack she’d displayed with Baby—so far the only one he would comfortably let watch him alone and certainly the only one able to convince him to eat the pizza she’d cut into small chunks at lunch break. Flanking Meta was a new student who’d just joined the troupe this year, and Ray and Edie swapped a glance seeing her there, both pleased that gentle Meta had at last found a friend.

    “What’s his name?” The new girl asked, two fingers tenderly sandwiching baby’s pinkie between them.

    “Hatlen,” answered Meta.

    The new student blinked, glancing from Hatlen to the sign over the theatre door. Edie’s face became sheepish. “It just seemed right,” she said. “He was born here.”

    “During a show!” Meta added. “What a finale!”

    Rayden laughed then scooped Hatlen up, out of everyone’s reach. “Even rock stars need reprieve,” he said and the students laughed, some saying “Aww!” as little Hatlen buried his small face in their beloved director’s neck.

    Rayden moved out of their earshot, cuddled his little son. “Baby boy,” he whispered in Hatlen’s small, perfect ear. “You were my baby before you were even my baby.” He kissed the fine feathers of hair on Hatlen’s small head. “And I love you.” He snuggled him, rocked him, then turned his stout little body so Hatlen faced him. “Now say it. Da-da. C’mon. Da-Da-Da-Da—”

    Hatlen’s face burst into one of his big, spontaneous smiles. “Papa!” he said and, silently, “Hello!”  

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