from the novel "PERSEPHONE'S TORCH"

"Casting Shadows"

I disliked Moscow because it seemed to me that he was without despair, that he lacked any understanding of it, and so was inhuman. Under pink or blue light his face would change, his body shifting and melding, building, so that one moment he could be formidable and black, and in the next become as fragile as dead leaves. On the boards he was cold as a man out of dreams commanding the forces of nature, fading again each time he ducked behind the curtain into a small man with large insincere brown eyes. I see him now in the shadows just offstage, yellow sweat beading above his brows, his black hair plastered down, ragged, his nose turned away from the light. He is re-drawing a line under his eyes; he might be picking a lock or juggling explosives for the concentration he shows as he raises the pencil to his face.

But there were parts that he could not play, a touch, a feeling that escaped him and had eluded him for so long that he knew better now than to chase it. His men were hollow — Jones used to say that in moments of great sadness or great humor you could slice open his chest and find nothing inside; only hollow metal, without mess, scraped clean.

And I suppose that she would know, because she was there through it all, she knew more of it than Lon must have, though Lon was the one who told me, early one afternoon. We were playing chess alone in the lightbooth far at the back of the theater. Waiting for him to move, I was looking down through the glass at the others as they worked on an adaptation of Whispers. Moscow had taken the Vitae character (against my wishes — I thought that the part should go to Templeton) and as I watched, unseen, he composed the professor into something entirely different from what I had imagined: an actual magician, a powerful lady’s man, compelling in his cloak and his dark brow, passionless and so invulnerable, bringing Sylvie (in a new part that Jones had insisted on, to take the place of the boy) and all of the others, mawkish countryfolk, under his power. Watching, I must have said something; I was unhappy and so I expect it was something bad. That was when Lon told me the tale. He did not tell it to pacify me, or to bring me around to their way of thinking; it wasn’t that kind of story. I don’t know why he told it. It wasn’t any of my business.

“This was in Chicago,” he said, moving his piece, removing one of mine from the board. “Moscow had just joined us a few weeks before. Booted from another company because he’d got carried away during a swordfight and wounded someone. He’d broken the knob off the tip, see? Did it on purpose. Wanted to give someone a good scare. Wanted to make The Nose work for his applause.”

“The nose?” I said.

“Cyrano. Moscow didn’t have the lead. S’pose that was the problem. But listen to this...”

In five years Lon had not changed. Then, as when I knew him, he would stay late after every performance, alone in the quieting theater, packing things neatly away. Half in supernatural darkness, he would roll the canvases, coil the cables, push a mop over the dusty stage and then make one last walk through the auditorium. Listening to the echo, he said, which was different in every hall, hollow or full throated or faint like a sound from the far end of a canyon, his own footsteps bounding from the walls and windows all around.

So that at first I thought this was going to be a ghost story, of some prima donna haunting the halls, taking the boards once again after everyone had gone, perhaps holding her own head under her arm as she delivered a speech from Shakespeare. Wondering what it all had to do with Moscow, with anything, I listened as Lon described the sigh. He had already pulled on his jacket, had already picked the key from his ring when the sound came from somewhere off behind, so soft that it would not have been heard during the day, not even a sigh really, but perhaps a whispered curse. Turning back, he saw a faint sliver of light leaking from one of the rooms behind the stage. There, alone at his favorite mirror, the last of a dark, angled row, Moscow sat hunched over an open tray, putting his face on in the glare of white bulbs lining the glass.

Lon said, “Are you still here?”

At first Moscow didn’t answer, did not even pause as he brushed a thick, cloudy syrup onto his chin; he only raised his black-lined eyes for a moment before returning them to the mirror. His face was darker, brown; his eyebrows had been shaved off. He was wearing quilted padding across his chest, over his shoulders. Lon thought that he was scowling. But he only said, “Trying this on for the new piece.”

“You’re a dedicated man,” Lon said. “Lock the door behind you when you go.” Moscow said that he would, and Lon turned away, buttoned his jacket up close around his neck. He had felt the evening air gusting into the theater when the others had gone; Chicago would see some frost before morning, he guessed. There was already a thin layer of crystal forming in the corners of the window glass. 

Lon went out into it, but did not go back to the hotel. He did not know Moscow then; he said that if he had it would not have made any difference. He would still have been there, shivering in the shadowed spaces on the far side of the stair, when Moscow came out.

Lon said that it was the first time he had ever seen Moscow perform. The man who left the building was several sizes larger than Moscow, bearded, and walked with a commanding, businesslike gait that carried him rapidly to the end of the block. Lon came out and stood under the light, watching the man go. He was wearing a long coat that belonged to the company; the wind caught at its hem, lifted it fluttering behind him as he went.

Lon said that the only reason he followed as far as he did was because it was on his way. The bearded man, Moscow in whatever guise, wearing whatever name he had chosen for himself that night, walked the three blocks across town to the larger, cleaner, brightly lit theater where Cyrano was still playing. He stood under the yellow lights there for several minutes, looking at the marquee or pretending to, alone in the street, his breath pushing as if driven from an engine through his nostrils, clouding up above his head. If he was looking for his own name he would have had no luck, Lon said. They had already pasted another card over it, another name as false as Moscow’s neatly lettered in blue ink.

Then Lon went on the rest of the way to the hotel, three more blocks down into a darker, sooty neighborhood where the rates were not so high. I can imagine him there climbing three or five floors to a room that looked out the back of the stone building into a disused alley. He told me that what Moscow had done was no longer any concern to him, but I can’t believe that he didn’t pause by the window in his undershirt and slacks, and look out, and wonder.

Lon was always the last to go, always the first to arrive. The next morning, through a frozen blue sunlight that had to fight like blazes to get into his room, Lon rose an hour early, ate a quick breakfast and went straight to the theater. Even so, he only beat Jones by about five minutes.

She came into the back of the building at something close to a run, calling his name, passing around behind the scrim to find him at last as he flicked on the last of the auditorium lights. He had only just turned to her when she took his arm and led, dragged, him off of the stage and out through the back again. Her hair was uncombed, her clothes rumpled as if she had never taken them off; a large half-empty duffel bag was slung over her shoulder.

“Come on,” she said; “Hurry!” and on their way out they passed Moscow coming in.

“And this is the important part,” Lon said to me. “More important than anything, even than what he did. It wasn’t the way he looked, the beard ripped off, the false eyebrows half gone, the scratches on his face, one sleeve of the coat ripped at the seam and coming off; it was the look he wore. I’d watched him come off the stage after a performance, and whenever he’d done well he always had on the same expression that you could see even in the dark behind the curtain. Stiff faced, like a celluloid mask with sweat on it and his eyes showing through from underneath, shining. Not like triumph, nothing that big. Just calm, and absolute satisfaction at getting the job done so well. This was the same look, just quiet, not saying a word, as he came up the stairs.”

But Jones did not allow him any time to think. They went down to the street and when Lon had climbed into the waiting truck Jones pushed him across and slid in behind the wheel herself.

“What’s happened,” Lon said, holding his hands at his stomach as they came screaming over the curb, the wooden back of the truck thunking thunking as it spun out behind them. “What is it?”

Jones only pounded on the wheel. “Oh, come on, come on.” Then she said, breathing again, “It’s his wife.”

Lon looked out onto the road, remembering Jones and Moscow alone together behind the scrim. He said, “I didn’t know he had a wife.”

“She stayed on with Cyrano,” Jones said. “I told him, Don’t be a hypocrite. But he’d made up his mind, this was going to be his greatest role.”

She didn’t say anything more, driving on with the needle heading on up there past forty, even in the city, until at last they stopped at an old brick house that had been chopped up into apartments. There was a wooden vestibule and steps leading on up to the second floor; the door that they found there was open, and just inside, lying where it had been dropped in the middle of the floor with its cord all stretched out behind like intestines, was the lower half of a bisque lamp that had once held the figure of a long, tall lady in an orange dress. Its jagged edges where it had been smashed were flecked with blood.

The rooms probably did not smell of cake make-up and spirit gum, but I imagined them to be reeking of it, because Moscow must himself have reeked of the stuff when he had been there, at whatever hour, wielding the lamp. From beyond one blue-papered archway they could hear the woman’s ragged sobbing, and when they went through they found her half-sitting in the corner, leaning on the edge of a rumpled, unmade bed. There were two cuts, and many more bruises on her face and arms; as she cried a thin ropy line of crimson spit dangled between her lips.

When Lon told me this, I could not help but look back through the glass at Moscow on the stage below. He was sitting off stage left, drinking a cup of coffee as Jones gave Mrs. Templeton some notes. He had not changed in any way, a small intense man; he did not know what was being said, thought, about him. He would not have cared.

“Your move,” Lon said. As I touched the playing piece I could see Lon hefting the wounded woman up onto the bed, covering her over with a yellow blanket he found there, while Jones unpacked the antiseptic and the gauze, the cotton and the rolled wad of bills from out of her duffel bag.

Under their hands the woman stopped moaning, though her eyes were too swollen for her to see clearly who was tending her. “I told him,” she kept saying, not wincing as the longest cut there at her hairline was washed clean and then bandaged. “I kept telling him that I knew him. I knew it was him all along. I said why else would I bring you back here.” Then she shuddered, and wiped at the bottom of her eyes with her fingers. “That only made it worse — I suppose it was the wrong thing to say.”

Around noon, when the woman seemed to have calmed some, Jones motioned Lon to go down and start the truck. She packed up the gauze and antiseptic, but left the money rolled where she had set it, there on the table next to a yellow vase with cloth flowers that had somehow gone unspilled. Back at the theater, Moscow and the Templetons and some others that I never knew were waiting in full make-up for the day’s matinee, a modern dress version of Measure for Measure. It was their last night in town; it would have been their last night even if the schedule had said otherwise. They played one performance that afternoon, two more in the evening, and together they loaded the trucks, tied them down. Jones and the Templetons went on their way. Lon stayed late once again, with Moscow and the others who couldn’t fit in the first truck, to give the keys of the theater back to the owners.

That was the first time Lon had a flat tire. His truck was three hours behind the other in arriving at the next town; the troupers that I never knew were subdued, haggard, as they climbed out and each went to check into their rooms. Lon had a small bruise on his forehead, he said he bumped himself. Moscow had to be carried in. Someone had thrown a coat over his face.

I didn’t know any of this when I joined the company; even so, I had seen the passion in which he worked at changing himself: bending his body in strange harnesses, hunkering over a cracked glass, attacking putty with his thin fingers, molding it over his face, painting himself again and again until he found just the right colors. Then he would emerge wearing clothes choked with dust, and walk silently in a tight circle while Jones inspected him, until, in a different voice every time that still carried the same inflection, the same contempt, he would ask: Well?

Copyright © 2015 Doug Thornsjo and Duck Soup Productions
Originally published in Kinesis Magazine.