Random Story: FiveSixSevenEight

A day late, but done. Here’s this week’s random story based on Monday’s roll of the story dice.

FiveSixSevenEight

Hank Paulsen shuffled back and forth along the rows, pushing his little whisk broom ahead of him. He turned his nose up, disgusted by the detritus left behind by the audience for tonight’s performance.

“They can afford five-hundred-dollar tickets,” he thought, “but they still toss their plastic beer cups on the floor like it’s the bleachers at Shea.”

Citi. His inner critic quickly corrected him. It was still so difficult to adjust to the new. Even here. He’d been ushering at the CashChum/Ameribank Theater for five years, now. But in his heart it was still the deLongchamp.

Hank sighed as he swept popcorn and plastic cocktail cups into his dust can, trudging up the aisle to deposit tonight’s waste into the larger cans in the lobby. Then, duties discharged, he walked back into the theater toward his seat – Row V, Seat 102 on the right side of the aisle. V102 was about as central a seat as one could get, and while the rest of the crew finished their closing duties and the stage manager made her final rounds before locking up, Hank liked to sit and look around and see if he could glimpse hints of the grand old dame that hid beneath the soulless, corporate remodel.

The deLongchamp. For actors and dancers and musicians and audiences alike that name had meant everything. Victor deLongchamp was Broadway – or had been. Once upon a time, that name meant hit. When you sat in the audience of his namesake theater, you knew you were watching a future classic. And when you walked upon that stage, you knew you had finally made it.

Hank Paulsen had almost made it. Almost. In 1965, he was already a veteran hoofer and chorus vet, making his bones in endless bus-and-truck tours of old warhorses. He’d been to a thousand nightly clambakes in Carousel, and donned a Navy uniform for South Pacific so many times that he could’ve made admiral. He’d performed in huge theaters all over the country. But he’d never set foot on a Broadway stage.

1965 was supposed to be Hank’s year. He’d nearly fainted when the call came in from Victor deLongchamp’s assistant. Someone with some pull somewhere had taken not of his talent and his work ethic, and would he mind coming in to audition for Mr. deLongchamp and Blaine Savich (Blaine Savich!) who’d be directing a new musical deLongchamp was putting up about the San Francisco gold rush. Hank couldn’t say yes fast enough. He packed his trunk, said goodbye to his castmates (who were two minutes away from hitting the stage for “There’s Nothing Like a Dame”), and hopped the first train to NYC.

And so, on a rainy April night, Hank Paulsen sat in an empty rehearsal hall somewhere off 42nd Street, doggedly working his way through some classic Savich dance combos while waiting for deLongchamp and Savich to come over from the evening performance of their new hit musical, I, the Jury. They’d never make it over. Savich had been sleeping with one of the chorus girls, whose boyfriend met him by the stage door just before the Entr’acte and shot him point blank in the face. Savich died, and deLongchamp spent the rest of the night bouncing back and forth between police questions and an understandable distraught cast. At two in the morning, a lowly production assistant ducked his head into the rehearsal hall to give Hank the bad news.

Nobody’s luck got any better after that night. Instead of dancing on the deLongchamp stage, Hank stood across the street from the theater the next evening and watched as they dimmed the marquee. I, the Jury closed for good two nights later. DeLongchamp’s namesake theater, doused now in blood and scandal, couldn’t book an Elk’s convention let alone a hit musical. And deLongchamp himself retreated slowly from show biz and became New York’s most famous recluse. Hank decided to stay in town and keep trying his luck. He waited on every table in Times Square, but he never got his break, never got to dance onstage at the deLongchamp.

Ushering inside its shell was the closest he’d ever got. Hank stared longingly up into the rafters. If he squinted hard enough, he thought he could almost make out the gold leaf from its old Art Deco bones.

“Time to lock up, Hank.” Melanie, the stage manager, called out into the nearly dark auditorium. She had her coat on, and had just set the ghost light center stage. “You can follow me out,” she said. Hank stood up and moved toward the front of the house, eager now to leave. He was glad Mel indulged an old man’s wool gathering, and didn’t want to abuse her good graces. And he didn’t want to be around after the ghost light went on. He had too many ghosts of his own, and didn’t want to find out which ones were still hanging around the old hall.

Hank tromped up the side steps toward the stage right wing, taking care not to set one toe on stage. That would be cheating. He went to follow Mel out the side door as he did every show. Normally, they’d chat a bit on the way out, but Hank found he wasn’t in a talkative mood this particular night. His own ghosts weighed heavily on him, and as Mel hit the last switch, leaving only the glow of the ghost light from the stage, he felt a chill.

As Mel opened the stage door out onto the alley, Hank heard a voice, clear and commanding, call out from the stage.

“Five, six, seven, eight!”

Hank turned toward the voice, but found only the ghost light glowing against the theater’s darkness.

“You OK?”

“Hm? Yes,” he said, following Mel out. “Just losing my mind a bit. Don’t worry about me.”

At home and in bed, Hank lay awake for hours. He couldn’t get the old familiar cadence out of his head.

5

6

7

8

He wondered if he could remember Savich’s old combos, the ones he’d drilled that horrible night. He closed his eyes and shuffled his feet beneath the blankets, trying to visualize the steps, but they would not come.

“Maybe one of the old routines,” he thought. But the more he tried to visualize, the more it felt like he was dancing through molasses, and the lyrics to old chorus numbers disappeared into the fog of his mind.

Tired and frustrated, he finally fell asleep. Hank dreamed he stood on a stage that night. Not the deLongchamp, but also it was. It was every stage he’d danced on or wished for. 

“Name, please,” a voice called out from the dark depths of the rows beyond.

“Hank. Hank Paulsen.”

“No.” Hank strained to see who had spoken. “He’s not ready.”

Hank felt an uneasiness in his gut. He couldn’t see Mrs. Dannemeier, but he recognized the voice of his old dance teacher and its sharp insistence that he wasn’t good enough, wasn’t trying hard enough.

“I wish he’d try something more practical.” Apparently his mother sat on the panel, too. “He could be a plumber. The world needs plumbers.”

“Girls dance. Are you a girl?” And his old bully, Mike Thompson, jeering and then starting to laugh.

And then the house was filled with mocking laughter and a chorus of reproach. Hank woke up, gasping and sweating. All the rest of the day, he couldn’t get the voices out of his head. That night, cleaning up at the deLongchamp (who had time to say CashChum/Ameribank?) his idle thoughts turned from the search for the theater’s old bones to a different sort of daydream.

“Would it be cheating,” he thought, “to step out on that stage just once? Maybe just a toe?”

He’d been good enough. He knew it. He decided to put the doubters in his head on notice.

As soon as the lights started going dark in the house, Hank ducked down into the row, willing himself smaller. His body complained mightily as he wedged himself between auditorium seats, but he grit his teeth against the groan that wanted to escape his lungs.

“Time to lock up, Hank!” He felt a brief moment of guilt about betraying Melanie’s kindness, but it was soon overcome by the pull of the stage. He could just make out the glow of the ghost light, right before he heard the steel door to the alley creak open and shut.

Hank let out a sigh and then that pent up groan as he unfolded his body and felt his hips and knees scream about their awkward positions. He breathed through the pain and turned his eyes toward the stage. The glow from the ghost light was scant, but he still needed to shield his eyes as they adjusted. He could feel his heart beating a 4/4 rhythm.

“Is that a piano?” he thought, as a faint vamp started to play out in time to his pulse. He made his way to the stage, and crossed to its center, grasping on to the ghost light’s lamppost. The piano grew louder, vamping for time.

“I admire your determination.”

Hank jumped at the voice from the wings, readying himself to run, certain a lingering stagehand had just caught him.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when he saw Blaine Savich walk out onto the stage.

“You’re…”

“Dead?” said Savich. “Sure. But why are you still here?”

“I just wanted… I wanted to…”

“You wanted to say you had your moment.”

Hank nodded.

“So what are we waiting for?” asked Savich. He nodded out toward the pit and the orchestra joined in on the vamp. “Do you remember the combo?”

“I’m not sure,” said Hank. “My memory’s been a little fuzzy, lately.”

“You’ve got this.”

Hank nodded and shrugged out of his coat.

“OK,” said Savich, “this is the thirty-two bar combo. From the top. Five, six, seven, eight!”

And even though his brain was in a fog, Hank’s body still remembered every step.

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