Gunther did not remember much about his death. In fact, the moment had passed somewhat uneventfully and, had it not been for the audience’s few gasps of surprise and an ill-timed giggle, he might have thought he’d dreamt it up altogether.
Emily had been sat in the second row, slightly left of centre stage – not that he’d been able to see his wife during much of the performance itself. The stage lamps had masked the audience from the players with a brilliantly intense void of white light. He had felt the glow draw conspicuous beads of sweat to his forehead almost the instant he had taken his first steps on stage, like the rapid onset of fever. It had felt like being in the presence of a dying star.
This year’s November production had not exactly been poised for success. Deakins, the faculty’s resident dramatist, had been disappointed by the apathetic uptake during the summer auditions and, to make matters worse, backstage had suffered from a burst pipe over the summer, meaning several of the staging props sat in storage, waiting to be dusted off for their yearly showcase, had succumbed to mould or disintegrated entirely. Then, finally, a week or so before opening night, a particularly nasty case of mononucleosis had wiped out several of the senior cast, rendering them unable to perform, as well as one or two of the 9th Grade understudies. They had been forced to ask the teaching staff to take on some of the minor roles and Gunther had drawn a short straw.
‘We’re all in this together.’ Principal Callaghan had declared, one morning in the teachers’ lounge, after announcing the news of the now woefully depleted cast list. He sighed, propping his foot on the coffee table. ‘We’ve come too far and the show must go on.’
Frank had leaned over to Gunther, the stench of stale coffee emanating from an unshaven face.
‘Callaghan,’ he had huffed. ‘He thinks we’re in fucking ‘nam. And have you seen those god damned loafers?’
Frank had downed the cold dregs of his drink and playfully nudged his fellow renegade, as he saw him, in the ribs. Callaghan, who had finished up this latest rousing call to arms, grinned a warning in their direction.
Gunther had never liked Frank. Never liked the way he parked his car across both bays near the dogwood trees in the faculty lot. Never liked that he’d slide his tongue over his lips and wink at him across the hallway, when the senior girls returned from their summer vacation, brown and slender-armed. It made him feel accessory to something he wasn’t. But Frank was right about this.
Callaghan was young, the school’s newest addition. He had been brought in – head hunted, apparently – to replace the last principal: a meek and well-liked, if not ineffective, aged dinosaur of a man who had steered the school into a state of comfortable indifference. Gunther remembered Callaghan’s first faculty briefing. How he’d slid into the room: oily and instantly familiar. Slick. He’d used phrases like ‘faculty face lift’, and ‘collaborative’ and ‘acumen’, slipping in between huddled departments; a master of ceremonies. At one point, he’d literally stood on the table in the break area. And now here he was, rallying the blinkard troops once more. Frank was right. Callaghan’s portentous sense of self-sacrifice was practically carnal. After he had finished, Gunther watched as he brushed his suit off and smiled around the room.
‘Have a great day, everyone.’
Before he’d been able to sidle back to the chemistry labs, Gunther felt Callaghan grip him by the shoulder and, a few cool exhortations later, he was down to play his own death out, in front of the entire parent body, the following week.
‘It’ll be fun. Bring the wife – she’ll enjoy it!’
That night, over dinner, Emily had listened as Gunther relayed the imposition. His wife was not in the habit of interrupting him during these nightly debriefs, but continued to eat supper patiently, whilst he told her about his day. Occasionally, she would roll her eyes sympathetically as he described whatever bullshit had been handed to him that morning, but the events of the briefing prompted an unusual interruption.
‘If he’s asked you to, you’ll probably have to do it.’ She said, without looking up.
‘Oh, Callaghan.’ Gunther chuckled. Hearing the boss’ first name seemed suddenly absurd to his ears. ‘Yes.’
‘What’s funny?’ She asked.
‘Oh nothing.’ He smiled to himself, forking mashed potatoes across his plate. ‘Anyway, we have emergency rehearsals this Thursday, would you believe. Deakins is practically begging.’
‘Well, I have book club Thursday, anyhow.’
‘What are you girls reading this week?’
‘Farewell To Arms. Hemingway.’
Gunther felt some slight indignation at the addition – the assumption he wouldn’t know. He frowned.
‘Yeah, I know. I thought you read that last month?’
‘Do you want more carrots?’ She asked.
Opening night drew in a more substantial crowd than was perhaps anticipated. The annual play had become something of a social obligation amongst parents in the town, drawing a reluctant but considerable gathering from the pockets of society. But, as general consensus would have it, the newfound patronage was the result of a communal desire to watch the faculty fill-ins do their awkward bit, and perhaps the morbid hope of seeing an adult man, amidst a sea of adolescents, screw up. Even Frank had made an appearance.
‘Hey, break a leg, would you.’ He smirked, bouncing on the spot and throwing light left hooks at his colleague. ‘Do you have any kissing scenes, then?’
Gunther shuddered and went to stand in the wings. His costume was itchy and he could feel a rash forming beneath the collar. He looked out at the audience, and saw Emily sitting near the front. He raised a hand and waved, drawing the attention of Callaghan who, sitting in the next seat, wrongly supposed the gesture was for him. Gunther watched as Callaghan turned towards Emily, and pointed in his general direction. He saw him throw his head back exultantly, as she looked up and hurried a dutiful, if not somewhat awkward, smile in his general direction, before turning back to fiddling with her coat pocket.
Midway through the performance, Gunther prepared for his loath debut. He would not be on stage long. He had one line, before he was due to be shot with a plastic revolver, by a pimple-faced freshman he had once caught smoking dope behind the cafeteria. The bulk of the work would be lying still on the stage floor, which smelled conspicuously of foot odour, until the scene close, at which point he could scuttle backstage. It was at this exact moment, having been slain and lying, as he was, that the stage was plunged temporarily into complete darkness. It was perhaps five or six seconds before the lamps thudded back into action, but the temporary blackout had revealed, for all those on stage, the auditorium for the briefest of moments. It was then that Gunther saw.
The backlit audience was suddenly illuminated. Dozens of faces: all gawping, all taken by surprise, all seeking the source of the problem. All but one.
Emily was smiling. No, not smiling – grinning – her eyes fixed on stage. Callaghan had his arm around the back of her chair, his legs crossed, as he leaned back against his own. Gunther watched his smirking face and, for a split second, a rogue image cut through his line of vision: of Callaghan’s tongue in his wife’s ear.
The power returned, bringing the blanket of blazing light and concealing the audience from view once again. Gunther winced as his eyes readjusted. From beyond the glowing obscurity, he heard a few giggles of surprise before the play resumed as if nothing had happened.
Perhaps nothing had happened.
‘Must have been the fucking pipes again,’ Deakins hissed, barely concealing the cigarette stub pinched between his thumb and forefinger, amidst his frenetic palpitations. Gunther had made his way backstage. ‘That damn leak. I told them the wiring’s gone to hell.’
At the final curtain, the muddle of spectators made their way to the modest foyer, anxious to congratulate their sons and daughters, still half made up and costumed. In amongst them, Gunther’s pockmarked assailant whooped, and waved his prop weapon above the heads of the crowd.
From across the room, he saw his wife waiting for him, her green coat peeking out from the tangle of bodies.
‘That was great.’ She said, taking his arm.
In the car, Emily made conversation, as he drove.
‘I’m away next weekend.’
‘Away?’ He breathed.
‘With my sister. I’m sure I said.’
‘Yes. Yes, I think you did.’
‘Sure.’ She pulled the sun visor down and fixed her lipstick in the mirror, with her pinky finger. He snuck a glance at her and then down at her legs. She wasn’t wearing pantyhose. Had she been?
‘Since you’re done with the play, and all, I thought next weekend was best. And you’re always saying I should get out more.’
‘I am, aren’t I.’
Gunther was aware of what he was saying, and his muscle memory pulled him through the sedentary routines of driving them both, but he had the feeling that his body was transparent. A hollow, excavated weightlessness. It was as if, any moment now, he expected his hands to pass through the wheel: for gravity to abandon him, and for his body to slip out of the framework of the car, like a wisp of smoke. He imagined watching it pull off, driver-less, carrying her away into the night.
As they turned into the driveway, he took the keys from the ignition and climbed out, pausing, wedged between the frame and the open door. He watched the green coat make its soundless way to the entrance, triggering the porch light and casting a weak yellow glow. She turned back to face him and peered into the darkness. He could see the curve of her leg in the shadow it cast against the garage door. He imagined reaching out to touch it, and knew that he could not.