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The Messenger

by Joel Young

Chapter 15

Strike Three

Tell Him I Said Good Bye

The second act of Leland College's production of The Messenger started almost 10 minutes late. The guy playing the Messenger looked pale, and his introduction of Mary and Zeb was strange, to say the least. It sounded to me as if he disliked both of them. When his speech ended, the Messenger left the stage - which was not supposed to happen. The script called for the Messenger to watch the scene with an affectionate smile for the two teenagers.

The actors playing Mary and Zeb did a good job. Their performances weren't quite as charming as Heather's and Kevin's, but the Leland audience liked it. The scene was a welcome change from the sluggish and confusing first act. When the Messenger came back on stage, however, things went right back to being uncomfortable. It was a relief when the second act ended.

As soon as the curtain closed, I saw Jennifer come down the side steps of the stage into the auditorium. She went over to Ben and Terry, and they both followed her backstage.

Kevin and I went to the lobby to stretch our legs. Despite the situation with Ben and the disappointing show, I was starting to feel better. I was angry with Ben more than I was hurt. For me, that was progress. Kevin got a couple of cookies off a refreshments table, and he asked me if I wanted some. I thanked him but passed on the food. I knew that eating anything would make me feel sick.

Kevin and I were talking about the problems we saw with the show when Kevin stopped mid-sentence. Then he said, "I think I'd better warn you. Ben is coming over to us."

Before I could even turn around, I heard Ben's voice. "Joel, we need to talk," he said in a firm tone of voice.

I turned and faced him. "After the show would be better," I said. I was still working out how far I wanted to go in telling him off.

"Joel," Ben said. "Don and I need to talk with you backstage - now. It's important."

I felt like I was about to be manipulated again. "Who the Hell is Don?" I asked. "And, why the fuck do you think I'd agree to go backstage with you?"

"Stop it!" Ben said to me. "Don is the Director, and you'll come backstage with me if I tell you to!" Ben turned toward Kevin. 'You'll have to excuse us, Kevin. I need to take Joel backstage."

"You're not taking me anywhere!" I told Ben. "And, I'm not going anywhere without Kevin."

Ben looked pissed, but I could tell he was trying to control his temper. "Kevin," Ben said. "You are welcome to come backstage with Joel and me. Now, gentlemen, let's go."

"Not before I know what's going on," I said.

"Okay," Ben said impatiently. "There's a problem backstage, and I promised Don that you would help out."

Now, I was really pissed! "Jesus Christ!" I said. "Where do you get off telling anybody what I will or will not do?"

"Look, Joel. You can indulge in your adolescent defiance later," Ben said. "But, right now, you're coming with me!" He turned and headed back toward the auditorium.

For some inexplicable reason, I started to follow Ben. Kevin followed me. Halfway down the aisle to the stage, I turned around toward Kevin. "Stop me if I try to deliver a Tornado Kick to his face!" I said.

As we neared the stage, Kevin took ahold of the back of my arm. We slowed down. In a hushed voice, he said, "You do know what they want, don't you, Joel?"

"I have no idea," I said.

"They're going to ask you to take over the part of the Messenger – for the guy who's sick," Kevin said.

I was dumbfounded. "No way!" I said. "Not even Ben would have the gall to ask me to do that."

"Okay," Kevin said. "Let's go see."

When we got backstage, I saw three adults standing together. I recognized Jennifer, and I saw Ben's boyfriend, Terry. I assumed the older man with them was Don, the Director.

Ben introduced Kevin and me to Terry and Don. Then, Jennifer gave us each a hug.

Ben nodded to Jennifer, and I knew that she had been chosen to talk to me. Considering that I didn't know Terry or Don, and I was really pissed at Ben, it was smart to have Jennifer tell me what they wanted.

"It's good to see you guys," Jennifer began. "I was so pleased to hear that you were in the audience tonight. I was just telling Don what a great job you both did last week. I hope you're not too disappointed with Leland's show. I'm sure you've noticed that Robby is having a hard time with his role as the Messenger. We just found out he's really sick. The school nurse is with him now. She thinks his appendix is about to burst. There's an ambulance on the way."

Jennifer looked over at Ben, and he motioned for her to continue.

"Joel, we don't have any understudies. Leland doesn't have all the resources that Joliet has. So, we really don't have any choice but to end the show before the third act, unless - maybe - you could help us out? It's our final performance, and there's only one more act. A little help from you would make all the difference."

Jennifer looked at me with a pleading smile. "Can you give it a try – cutie pie?"

I have always hated terms of endearment - especially when used by someone who is asking me for a favor. It just sounds so manipulative and insincere. It took everything I had not to say, "Not a prayer, honey bear!"

But, saying something like that to Jennifer would have been rude. And, I liked Jennifer.

"Let's give Joel a moment to think," Ben said. He turned to me. "You have two minutes to decide to do the right thing." Ben and the others walked to the other side of the backstage area, leaving Kevin and me to talk.

The girl playing Mary came up to me. "Please!" she begged. "My parents are here – from Iowa!!!" She walked away looking quite distressed.

"I really, really don't want to do this," I said to Kevin. "But, what do you think?"

"I think you'll never regret helping them out. But, you probably will regret it if you don't." Kevin answered.

I instantly knew that Kevin had just given me some very sound and mature advice.

"Okay, I'll do it," I said loudly enough for everyone backstage to hear me. "But, I have some conditions."

Ben, Terry, Jennifer and Don walked back to where I was standing. "We're listening," Ben said.

"First, Kevin will make all decisions about whatever costume you try to stick me into. If Kevin can't make it fit, I'm not putting it on. Second, Jennifer will do my makeup – no changes from what she did at Joliet." I turned and spoke directly to Ben. "And third, I want your promise to stick around and talk to me – alone – after the show."

The group looked around at each other, and then Jennifer, Don, and Ben nodded in agreement. Immediately, I was whisked away to be transformed into the Messenger again.

Robby had not taken off his costume before he left the theater, so Don showed Kevin and me the costume room. We found a long sleeve white shirt and a tan suede vest that seemed to fit me well enough. Kevin looked at all the pants that were available, but he found nothing suitable. Kevin decided that the black jeans I had worn to the show would have to suffice.

When I was in the makeup chair, Don went over the third act with me, scene by scene. There were a few differences between Joliet's blocking and Leland's, but there didn't seem to be anything I couldn't handle. Fortunately, Leland had made no changes to the third act script.

As soon as I was ready, Don called for the actors to take their places. Since Don was backstage calling the shots, I guessed they had no stage manager. I sat down on a small bench stage left. It felt backward from my bar stool stage right at Joliet.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Don said into the backstage microphone. "We thank you for your patience while we dealt with a small problem backstage. The third and final act of The Messenger will begin now. The part of the Messenger will be performed by Joel Young."

I was sitting stage left on the bench when the curtain opened. I waited for the spotlight, but there wasn't one. So, I just stood up and began. I was just a little concerned that I might not remember all the lines, but everything came back to me with no problem.

Things went well for the first few scenes - a little awkward maybe, but not bad. Just before the church scene began, the lights dimmed as the actors went to their places. I could see Mary being helped into her casket. When the lights came back up, Zeb and Mrs. Johnson entered the church. Mrs. Johnson was carrying an infant. It was a real baby, not a doll. "Nice touch," I thought to myself.

The Leland audience seemed shocked by what had happened to Mary. Zeb approached the casket with a stoic look. He showed no grief; there were no tears, and he didn't cry out like Kevin had done at Joliet.

"No wonder this show is flat!" I thought to myself. "They're not showing the real emotions of life. They're just going through the motions!" I decided that I had to find a way to get the audience to understand the story from a more meaningful perspective. I had to bring some emotion into the performance.

Soon, it was time for me to deliver the telegram to the Brown family. Don and I hadn't talked about where I would find my newsboy's hat and bicycle. I looked around but didn't see anything. The girl playing Mary's younger sister was in the wings, and she saw my confusion. She pointed to the bench. The telegram was placed on the seat. I saw a hat hanging from a hook on the upstage side of the bench. I picked up the telegram, put on the hat and looked for the bike. There was no bike, so I decided just to walk across the stage. Then, I realized that since I was already stage left, the Brown family's home was just a few steps away. Riding a bicycle for only a few feet would have looked stupid.

I knocked, and Mr. Brown answered the door. He took the telegram from me and pretended to read it. Although the telegram was informing him that his son had died in the war, the actor showed almost no emotion. He didn't look up, nor did he show any reaction at all. Maybe, he thought he was just supposed to stand there and look stunned. Whatever it was he was trying to do, I knew it wasn't working. I think I startled the Hell out of him when I put an arm around him to show some concern and support.

The next scene was Zeb going to the graveyard to stand next to Mary. At Joliet, Ben had the theater darkened, and he had a spotlight on Zeb as he walked from the back of the auditorium to the stage in a slow, military style. That had created an emotional and memorable moment for the Joliet audience. At Leland, a stoic Zeb walked out from the wings and went to the graveyard. He stood by Mary and stopped moving. To me, the scene was a missed opportunity to draw the audience into the story.

When it was time for my final speech, I felt like I had to do something! Ben had taught me that good theater always ends with something memorable – hopefully, something moving. If the ending is happy, the actors should share the joy with the audience and leave them feeling good. If the ending is sad, it is best to tie up the story by putting things into perspective, reflecting whatever message the author is trying to convey. James Haley had written a beautiful closing speech to put The Messenger's ending into perspective. It was now my job to reflect that perspective in a way that would be memorable and moving.

So, I walked toward the audience, and I sat down with my legs hanging off the stage. I didn't give a speech. I just talked to the audience. I didn't change one word from the script; it was perfect the way it was written. I just had to engage the audience and make sure they heard the message.

When I got to the part that really mattered, I stopped. I looked members of the audience in the eye. I tried to use body language and facial expressions to invite them to listen to the explanation of what they had just seen. When I could tell that I had their attention, I spoke.

"You see," I said. "Life is filled with blessings and challenges. And, it really doesn't matter how many blessings you collect or how many challenges you face. What is important is how you accept both. Blessings are meant to bring joy to life. But, never hoard blessings for yourself. Share your blessings with others. Challenges are meant to build the strength of your soul. In life, no matter where or when you live, you need to accept whatever challenges come your way. You need to meet them and try to overcome those challenges with grace - not bitterness; with optimism – not negativity or pessimism. Accept the love and support of those around you; let them help strengthen your soul. And remember, another blessing is always on its way."

I stood and finished the last few lines of the play. Then, I walked toward the exit upstage right. I stopped as I came to the graveyard, and I looked at Mary and Zeb. I turned back toward the audience. Tapping into my barely contained feelings of rejection and humiliation by Ben, I managed to pull up a single tear, and I felt it run down my face. Then, I turned toward Zeb, and I saluted before leaving the stage.

I felt depleted. All of the emotions and stress that I had experienced since arriving at Leland just a few hours ago had exhausted me. I asked for a drink of water. "Sorry, Joel," Don said. "You've got to go out for the curtain call now."

Leland had the entire cast walk out at one time. Actors didn't come out one or two at a time. I stayed at the end of the line, trying to be as invisible as I could. I wanted this to end. I just wanted to get off stage, speak to Ben, change my clothes and leave as quickly as I could.

When the curtain call ended, Don was waiting for me backstage with a bottle of cold water. Saying nothing, I finished it in less than a minute.

"Can I ask you something, Joel," Don said. "Where did all that emotion come from?"

"My friends and family all tell me I'm too sensitive – too emotional," I said to Don. "And, just below the surface, I'm always a bubbling cauldron of mixed feelings. Tonight, all I did was share a tiny bit of what's inside of me."

Don didn't even respond. He thanked me and quickly left. "There's another reason this show was flat," I thought to myself. "The Director doesn't like dealing with emotions."

Jennifer came over and gave me a hug. "Looks like you saved another show, cutie pie," she said.

"Thanks, Jennifer. You are a very special person, and I've enjoyed working with you," I said. Then, I looked around the backstage area. "Do you know where Ben is? All I really want right now is to talk with Ben and get out of here. I'm exhausted."

"Ben is lucky tonight," I thought to myself. "I'm too tired to tell him to go to Hell. All I want now is to hear a little appreciation for what I have done for him. Then, we can say goodbye, and I'll try to tell him there are no hard feelings." I had learned something from Kevin about carefully considering what I would and would not regret as I make decisions.

"Joel," Jennifer said. "I'm so sorry. Ben and Terry got into an argument backstage. I don't know what they were bickering about, but they just left."

I felt another punch to my gut.

"Which way did they go?" I asked.

Jennifer pointed to the backstage exit, and I quickly headed in that direction. Ben had promised to talk to me after the show, and I wasn't about to let him off the hook.

The backstage exit led to the same parking lot where Kevin and I had parked. I saw Terry rushing toward Ben's car. For some reason, instead of chasing after them, I stopped and watched.

Ben tried to stop Terry, but Terry just pulled away. They got into the car and drove off.

I could almost feel the image of Ben walking away from me, chasing after another guy, being etched forever in my mind.

I couldn't believe it. In less than one week, Ben had screwed me over three times. He had broken our date that we had talked about for weeks. And, he had lied to me about the reason – strike one. Then, Ben took his boyfriend, whom I didn't even know existed, on the date that we had planned together. He even had the nerve to wear the sweater I had given him – strike two. And now, he had broken his promise to talk to me after the show when I had just done him a huge favor - strike three.

I slowly returned to the backstage area. I saw Jennifer talking with Kevin. I approached them and said, "Jennifer, will you give Ben a message for me? Tell him to go … no, just tell him I said goodbye."

Kevin and I went to the dressing room, and I changed into my own shirt. "Will you please get me out of here?" I asked Kevin.

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