The creative life of story making can have the most amazing moments of surprise. From time to time, the piece I am working on unexpectedly yields up a gem of a poem or a stand alone short story. Unplanned, this new work comes about because I was listening and trusting the work. Recently it happened to me again. The following thirty-two-hundred-word story came out of the novel I have been working on since March.
Patsy was thirty-five when she fell in love with a woman. When it happened, it was the first right thing she felt she had done in her life.
Pregnant, she married her high school sweetheart, Jack Pendledon, as soon as she turned 18. She lost the baby a month after the wedding. After several years of marriage, the couple settled into a comfortable existence. They took a yearly romantic cruise, but the passion never returned.
When she was thirty, Jack died of a massive heart attack. His insurance took care of his funeral and paid off the mortgage. She sold the house and decided she was going to college. She was going to be a teacher.
In her sophomore year, she signed up for a Beginning Drama class out of curiosity. She walked into the class. There were no desks, only chairs in a circle. The professor didn’t stand behind a lectern as in other classes. She wasn’t even sure who the instructor of the class of fifteen was.
Unlike students in other classes, these students were dressed not casually, but wild-like. One woman was in goth, wearing dark fingernails and black makeup. She wore a transparent black dress that revealed a black bra and panties. One of the eight guys had pink hair and earrings. Some were tattooed up the wazoo. One woman wore a mohawk. Another was dressed as if she were Mary Poppins’ evil twin sister. Patsy felt like she was crashing a Halloween costume party. She went to leave.
“Looks like we are losing our fifteenth passenger aboard our Titanic.”
Patsy turned and said, “What?”
A small man with a goatee and bowtie said, “Looks like you want off our sinking ship.”
The others laughed.
Out of stubbornness, Patsy took the only chair left. It was between pink hair and goth makeup. She wasn’t sure what she had gotten herself into but she was not going to run away. She came from stronger stock than that. But for a churchgoing, cookie baking, suburban housewife, this was a scary place.
She looked around her. The classroom had open windows. A fall breeze squeezed through. She dropped her books next to her chair, settled back, her purse clutched onto her lap, and listened to the bowtie and goatee.
“Now that we’ve gotten that settled, perhaps we can get on with the agenda. My name is Drew. Not Mr. Such-and-such. Just Drew. Most of you are freshmen. We do have a sophomore in here.” He pointed at Patsy. “She’s the one who can’t seem to make up her mind as to what she wants to be when she grows up. The rest of you pretty well know that something in drama is in your future. Either theater, tv, movies or you just want to be the clown in the circus.”
Drew paused and waited for his words to sink in. There were a few coughs. Patsy realized that she wasn’t the only one who was nervous.
“So, students, close your eyes. Take a few deep breaths. Visualize yourself in ten years. Where you are, who you are with, what you are doing.”
Patsy was seeing herself in front of a classroom of high school students. She couldn’t figure out what she was teaching but she was teaching.
Drew let the vision sink in. He let the students enjoy their little adventure. Then, “Now imagine a stick of dynamite blowing up that scene. Ka Pow!”
Several opened their eyes. They were thinking, “Why the hell did you do that?”
Drew clapped his hands. “Wake up people.” He was standing in the middle of the circle. “Get the hell out of my space. Don’t come back until you are ready to have your dreams fall apart.”
The students got up and walked despondently out into the hallway. One held back. It was Patsy.
Drew looked hard at this woman in her early thirties. “What are you doing? Get out of here.”
“No,” she said.
“No,” she said in a sinking timid voice. She felt like crying but she had done that way too much in her life. She did not leave. She shrank in her chair.
Drew walked out of the room, frustrated and wondering who this freak was.
Patsy stared out the open window. The oak trees canopied the campus park-like. The autumn leaves were still green but would be coloring soon. The breeze felt good against her face. She swiped the tears from her eyes. She didn’t care what was going to happen. She was not going anywhere. She belonged where she was. She didn’t imagine or daydream herself anywhere else. She just sat.
Thirty minutes later, Drew Baker slipped back into his classroom. He watched Patsy with a curiosity he usually didn’t have for any of his students. For the ten years since he had left Broadway and come to this classroom, he had never come across a student like this one. Tears began to flow from his eyes. He had finally found a real, live student who would empty themselves of all their previous lives to become a totally new person.
“Patsy,” he whispered from across the room.
Patsy’s eyes turned toward her teacher. “Yes?” she said.
“Thank you,” he said. These were the only words he could get out. Then he followed those words with the most welcoming of words. “I’ll see you in the small theater Wednesday morning at 10. You think you can be there?”
She nodded yes.
Drew Baker left the room. Patsy gathered up her things and walked outside into the hallway. It was empty.
Nine other students joined Patsy in the small theater Wednesday morning. Five had dropped out.
The ten students took seats on the chairs in the circle down front. From the rear of the theater Drew Baker yelled at his students, “Did anyone tell you that you could sit?”
The students stood up as the teacher ran down the aisle, yelling, “Did anyone tell you to sit? Huh, huh, huh.” He went past the group and climbed up onto the stage and looked down on them. “Has anyone here earned the right to sit?”
A tall eighteen-year-old male student said to the others, “I’m out of here. This guy is nuts.” He started walking toward the exit.
Drew said, “That’s right. Get out of my class. Go back to your momma and bitch.” The exit door slammed close. “The rest of you. Up here.”
The students held back.
“C’mon. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry.”
The nine climbed the stairs at the side to the stage and stood before him.
Drew went up to each of his students and sized the student up for several minutes. He said, “You’ll do.” And moved on to the next student. When he was done, he went back to the front of the group and faced them.
The teacher continued, “I want you to spend the next hour exploring inside this theater. Don’t partner up. Understand?”
The students timidly said, “Yes.”
“You cannot leave the theater. Under any circumstance. You understand?”
They nodded their agreement.
The teacher left the group. One went toward the back of the auditorium. Another started walking up and down the stage. Still another headed to the actor’s dressing room. Each did their own thing. Patsy went backstage and found that there was a basement. In the basement, she found a costume room and another room with props and scenery.
About forty-five minutes later, the fire alarm went off. The students gathered on the stage, trying to figure out where the fire was coming from. Paul, a student with tattoos, jumped down from the stage and headed toward the exit.
Fae, the goth woman, called after him, “Where you going? You can’t leave.”
“I am not going to stay here and get roasted.” Paul slammed the exit door behind him.
The others looked at each other and wondered what to do. The fire alarm stopped. From backstage, Drew Baker walked out on stage.
“Where’s Buttface?” he asked.
“He left. The fire alarm,” Trey, the pink hair and earrings, said.
“I see,” the teacher said. “He just decided he didn’t want to take my class. Right?”
“But—“ Fae said.
Paul opened the front door and ran down the aisle and up on the stage. Out of breath, he was smiling.
Drew Baker couldn’t believe the arrogance. But he kept himself in check and smiled. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?”
Paul answered, “Rejoining the class.”
The other students moved away from Paul like he had leprosy.
Drew Baker walked up to the student. The teacher must have been two inches shorter than Paul. The student shrank with Baker staring at him eyeball to eyeball. “Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” the teacher repeated his question.
“Rejoining the class.”
“Mr. Paul Gruber, what do you think you are doing?” Baker repeated his question.
Suddenly Paul got it. He had disobeyed the instructions not to leave under any circumstance. Now he had to face the consequences. Paul turned around and left the stage and down the aisle toward the exit. Patsy had never seen anyone so dejected in his life.
Drew Baker turned to the other students. “Tomorrow night at 7 p.m. Here. Now go.”
The eight students still in the class walked slowly out of the theater, not sure what had happened, but glad they had survived. There was nothing they would let stop them from attending the next drama class. On their way to their other classes or events, each imagined themselves as a part of something special. Drew Baker could have told any of the group to jump off a cliff and they would have done it.
That evening Patsy was studying in her dorm room alone. There was a knock on the door. She opened it. There stood Drew Baker. “Drew?” she said, surprised to see him.
“May I come in?”
“Of course.” Patsy opened the door further. She invited him to sit at her desk.
He took the chair and turned it around and straddled its back. “Sit,” he said, pointing to the bed.
Patsy did what she was told. She looked confused.
“Do you have something you want to ask me?” he asked Patsy.
“Yes, sir,” she answered.
“Don’t call me Sir. My name is Drew.”
“What’s going on?”
“Good. I like that. You don’t mess around. You get right to the point. Don’t like to waste time, do you?”
“You don’t like my methods, do you?”
“No, Drew. I don’t.”
“Good. That’s good. You are willing to face your fears. What do you think I am doing?”
“I really don’t know. I just want to know. Am I wasting my time?”
“Do you think you are wasting your time?”
Patsy thought for a couple of minutes. The past two classes of Beginning Drama had thrown her off-balance. But off-balance was okay. Then her teacher showed up at her dorm room wondering what she thought. Finally, she answered, “No, I don’t.”
“Good. Very good. Now I have a favor to ask of you.”
Uh-oh, here it comes. Patsy had been through this with professors before. Two had wanted to sleep with her. She had refused. For some reason, she didn’t feel that from this teacher. “Yes, you can ask.”
“I want you to show up to my class at 7:15 pm tomorrow night. Not 7:00. Can you do that?”
Patsy hesitantly nodded yes.
“There will be no consequences. I will just go on with my lesson. Totally ignoring your lateness.”
Drew Baker left.
Patsy didn’t know what to make of his visit.
At 7:15 pm the next night, Patsy walked into the theater. Drew Baker and the students were down front in the circle of chairs. She hesitantly walked down the aisle, feeling the other students’ eyes on her. There wasn’t an empty chair for her. Drew Baker turned to Trey and said, “Will you get another chair and let Miss Pendledon have yours please?”
Trey reluctantly got up and went backstage for a chair. Drew Baker beckoned Patsy to take his place. Trey returned with a chair and joined the circle.
“Thank you, Trey,” Drew Baker said and smiled. “Now I want each of you to give me your impressions of the theater yesterday.”
Drew Baker focused upon each student and listened. No student brought up the fire alarm. After the students had finished, he asked them, “How many of you students think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon?”
The students were stunned at the question. Patsy most of all. They were thinking it but they were too scared to say it out loud.
“Let me see your hand if you think I’ve been sleeping with Miss Pendledon.”
Slowly all the students, but Patsy, raised their hands.
“What makes you think that?” Drew asked.
Fae said, “You didn’t kick her out when she wasn’t on time.”
“Is that your only evidence?”
Trey said, “I saw Patsy leave after you went back into the classroom the other day.”
“Couldn’t I have requested an academic meeting with Miss Pendledon?”
“Yes, Drew,” Fae said.
Drew then spoke, “Ladies and gentlemen, I assure you that I am not sleeping with Miss Pendledon.” Then he dismissed the class.
The students slowly left the theater, shaking their heads, wondering what the hell was going on.
The next morning Patsy was five minutes early. The rest of the class was already in the theater, none taking any chances on getting kicked out of class. They weren’t sitting. Mostly they were standing and waiting and not saying a thing. It looked like no one had slept the previous night. Patsy nodded good morning. The others nodded good morning back.
Drew Baker came out from back stage. “Good morning. Please have a seat.”
The students made a semi-circle to face their teacher on stage.
“Welcome to the world of the theater. I suppose all of you have been wondering what the hell is going on. Who is this crazy guy?”
They nodded their heads. There were two or three yeses from the group. Mostly they waited and listened. Drew Baker had their attention.
“Here’s the deal. I have spent the last few sessions weeding out those who think the theater is a game. That it’s a job. That they can damn well show up if they want. If you are not willing to show up and do a show with a 103 degree temperature, you don’t belong here.”
Drew Baker unknotted his bowtie and pulled it off. “Damn thing. I hate these damn things.” Then he jumped off the stage and pulled up a chair. “Circle please.”
They all joined him in the circle of chairs. He scanned each of their faces. Then he said, “I didn’t choose you. You didn’t choose me. You are here because the theater chose you. Some of you may do very well. Have fame and fortune. I can’t tell you which. All I can tell you is that your life will never be the same. This is your world now. Love it and it will love you back. Not with rewards you can see or touch or feel or taste or smell.”
Drew Baker touched his heart. “But here. It isn’t the most talented that succeeds. It doesn’t matter a bit whether you have talent or not. You now belong to a family that goes all the way back to the Greeks and well before that. Since man first lived in caves, there have been theater people. So welcome. You are a special breed. Never forget that. The others that dropped out or that I kicked out don’t belong.
“Now let’s begin. I want each of you to take a turn and go to the stage and face the audience and just look. Pretend the seats are full. Just look for five minutes. Then come back down to your seat. The next person will take your place.”
When the students completed the exercise, Drew Baker said, “Our next class is Monday here at 7 p.m. Prepare to work all night long. One final thing. Please do not share the process you went through the past few days. If I find out that you did, you will be out. And don’t think I won’t find out about it, I will. I always do. Now go.”
On the way out, Trey and Fae pulled Patsy aside. “Patsy?” Trey said. “Fae and I were wondering if you want to share a house with us.”
Patsy nodded yes.
One of the other students, a student dressed like James Dean, moseyed up to the three of them. “Can you take a fourth?”
The three new roommates looked at the student. He looked young, real young.
“I’m 18. Okay? Okay. You can call me J D. That’s who I am.”
The three breathed easy. Fae said, “Yes. We can have four. Let’s go find a house.”
J D piped in. “I have a house.”
“Let’s go look at it,” Trey shouted. The four went through the front door and out into the afternoon air. They locked arms and began to dance through the parking lot, singing.
Drew Baker watched from his second story office above the theater and smiled. “Yep, this is going to be a good group. Maybe the best he had ever had.”
The students were an hour early for class Monday night. They were anxious to get started on their new life.
“Have all of you seen Romeo and Juliet?” Drew said from the stage.
They nodded yes.
“Okay. Everybody scatter out in the audience and take a seat. Settle in and imagine you are watching Romeo and Juliet on stage. Do not sit next to another student.”
Five minutes later, Drew called them back to their chairs. “Describe to me what you saw.”
He went around the circle, each student detailing what they had seen.
Then Drew said, “Theater is an art of illusion. Nothing that happens on stage is really happening. It is a re-creation. Creating this illusion is a work of imagination. You have just used your imagination to re-create Romeo and Juliet. I have four films about magicians on reserve in the library for you to see before the next class. See if you can figure out how they do their illusions. Now, let’s get to work.”
All semester of the Beginning Drama class was refreshing to Patsy. She had never experienced anything like it. By the end of the semester she knew what she would do for the rest of her life.
Thirty-five years later, lying in the hospital bed dying from cancer, she vividly re imagined each class and how alive she felt. Sewing Fae’s costume was the last thing she remembered as she fell asleep. She did not wake up. Fae leaned over and kissed her lover goodbye, then she left the hospital room, crying.