No Exit

Mr. Barnevald left Mr. Evans for a Miss Kruger, a delicious rose of a woman, as Mr. Barnevald described her.

“I want children and also to keep up appearances,” Mr. Barnevald said. “It will be nice to have the approval of one hundred percent of society. There is no reason to challenge the way people have always seen me as a man. We must do what we can to fit in. Otherwise it’s a headache. We will keep this our little secret. We won’t forget it happened, but we won’t get stuck in it either. Please, don’t come running after me. I will be very busy keeping Miss Kruger happy.”

Mr. Evans was devastated. He had hoped Mr. Barnevald had found the world in him as he had found the world in Mr. Barnevald. “I hope you and Miss Kruger will be very happy,” he said.

“No doubt we will be. She likes to do many things. Besides that, she is beautiful and sensual. A man, if he is a real man, would be a fool not to snatch her up.

Fortunately for Miss Kruger, I am a real man and have proved and will continue to prove it to her. She is just beginning to find out how important my being a man is to her. We are lock and key. I am unlocking many things in her and she is letting me.”

Mr. Evans was so hurt, he could only be polite. “I am so glad to hear it,” he said. “I will be glad to assist in any way possible.”

“That will not be necessary. We are a closed system. No doubt there will be a dozen children to follow. Perhaps then you could baby sit.”

“I will do what I can.”

“Another thing you can do is try to have a life and be somebody rather than wander around like a lost pet in search of its master.”

“That is good advice.”

“See if you can penetrate to the core of your being and find something there.”

Mr. Evans pinched his brow on the thought. “The core of my being,” he said vaguely. He had heard that the earth had a molten core. His own guts were liquid, but not molten. He didn’t see the connection. Then his mind wandered on.

“As we end our beautiful relationship,” Mr. Barnevald said, “this is a good time to find something substantial in yourself for a change. Miss Kruger knows about you. She finds it all very intriguing. It makes me all the more Greek in her eyes, a plus. She herself has visited the isle Lesbos a time or two, and I must say that intrigues me likewise. We both know enough to make a deliberate choice. Wouldn’t you like to know enough to make a deliberate choice?”

Mr. Evans continued to grasp only vaguely what Mr. Barnevald meant. All he really knew was that a terrible lonely wind was blowing through the empty regions inside him.

Mr. Evans barely moved from his position in front of the door that had been closed on him. He was like a mourner sleeping on the grave of his beloved. Death could not have delivered a more final closure on Mr. Barnevald’s affection for him nor guaranteed a more constant heart in Mr. Evans. He loved with a fierceness typically reserved for the dead. He loved with a love the saints kept especially for the lost, who needed it the most. The lost cause and the incurable wound were sweetest. He would not even mind being killed by Mr. Barnevald, he thought. That would be like the “take my life” exchanges in the wedding ceremony but mean more because it was far more final. The spoken wedding vows so often meant nothing and were broken.

“Of course, I would rather be kept alive by Mr. Barnevald,” Mr. Evans said to himself. “But if he is not going to put himself to that trouble, to be murdered by him would be second best. Perhaps, though, Mr. Barnevald would not like blood on his hands. I wouldn’t want him to get in trouble.”

Mr. Barnevald and Miss Kruger were married in private ceremony and took an extensive honeymoon in the sunnier countries of Europe. “I hope they will eat many delicious meals and bump up against local customs,” Mr. Evans said when he heard from mutual friends about the wedding and honeymoon plans. “No doubt many of the local customs will strike them as barbaric. There is nothing like travel in Europe and also a marriage to turn one into a different beast entirely.”

He himself would like to turn into something different but was wholly without resources. It took all the strength he could muster in a day’s time merely to remain the same. The heroic effort it would take to be even slightly different from himself was beyond him.

When he heard that the Barnevalds had returned from the sunny part of Europe, Mr. Evans dropped by their house to welcome them home.

The Barnevalds were drinking wine on the couch when he arrived. It was four in the afternoon. However, they did not mind drinking at all hours. They despised the conventions around cocktail hour. Such rules struck them as unnecessarily burdensome and Calvinistic, as did most rules and regulations covering vices.

Mr. Barnevald greeted Mr. Evans with a handshake. Mrs. Barnevald rubbed her arms vigorously and complained of the cold.

“I would offer you some wine,” Mr. Barnevald said, “but as I recall, you aren’t a drinker.”

“That is quite true,” Mr. Evans said. His heart was pounding. He forced himself not to stare at Mr. Barnevald who was, Mr. Evans felt, the sole reason God had given him eyes.

Mr. Evans sat though he hadn’t been invited to. “I have come to hear about all the little barbarities of Europe. Please, talk about the strange customs for a little while.”

“Help me out by explaining exactly what you mean,” Mrs. Barnevald said. “My God! Most of the barbarities occur in restaurants, on the streets, in profane groves, or on public transportation, but after two days you learn not to react, and then everything seems fine.”

“Is that a two days’ adjustment per country?” Mr. Evans said, “or two days for all of Europe?”

“Per country,” Mr. Barnevald put in. “We saw several instances of people leading goats up hillsides.”

“Probably to ritual sacrifices,” Mr. Evans said.

“We didn’t inquire.”

“Of course not. You can’t take on all of barbaric rural Europe, not while you’re on your honeymoon. You have to spend your time making memories to last a lifetime.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Barnevald agreed. “And then there are all the cakes and goodies that leave you feeling plastered. We were chased only once by hoodlums, and that was only for four or five hundred yards. They give up very easily. They are a lazy out-of-shape lot and quickly get winded and stop to fan themselves. My God in heaven!

I’ve been chased farther by a group of seventy-two-year-old women.”

“Were these old women known to you?” Mr. Evans asked.

“I didn’t know them, but they must have known me. They kept shouting, ‘White trash honkie bitch!’ It was good training for going to Europe. You learn to think on your feet when strangers shout at you.”

Mr. Evans wondered about Mr. Barnevald’s early description of his now-wife as a delicious rose of a woman. Would this still be his description of her? Or was the worm changing things?

She had beautiful arms and a very pretty face. Her legs were useful, but not much else could be said for them. They reached the ground and obeyed her. But the same thing could be said of a dog.

“My wife was a gymnast,” Mr. Barnevald said. He put his arm around her and beamed with pride. “She did flips, twirls, little hops, skips, and lunges, that sort of thing. You get the picture.”

“I am glad to hear it.”

“I’m still a gymnast,” Mrs. Barnevald insisted. “A damned good one. The only thing I find is that I run into barriers a little more often than I used to. I did the balance beam and was the only one of my peers who could eat her big toe with a straight leg. The coach shouted at us from day one, ‘Straighten your legs; eat your big toes! Straighten your legs; eat your big toes!’ I was the only one who could do it.”

“You must have been proud.”

“You can’t let that sort of thing go to your head. Besides, what makes you cocky at sixteen is another thing when you’re twenty-seven. I don’t want to brag all the time.”

Mr. Barnevald caressed Mrs. Barnevald’s cheek. “Now she brags about me. She crowed about me all over sun-drenched Europe.”

“It is something else to have a virile and tireless lover, who sees that I am satisfied every time. How sorry I feel for women who get mice or toads for lovers. I wouldn’t trade places with them for anything. If your husband can’t satisfy you for an hour and forty-five minutes like a real man, he should be shot. That’s just one very satisfied woman’s opinion.”

“I am sure most wives would shoot their husbands if they didn’t keep going,” Mr. Evans said.

“Most murders occur because love didn’t keep going,” Mrs. Barnevald said with confidence.

She asked Mr. Barnevald to fetch her sweater.

Mr. Barnevald returned and draped Mrs. Barnevald’s sweater over her shoulders. As he did so, he licked Mrs. Barnevald’s forehead. Mr. Evans thought he would stop after one lick, but he kept going until he had completed seven.

Mr. Evans said, “I have been stabbed through the heart, only you don’t see it, and it probably doesn’t mean anything to you.”

“I am much less chilly with my sweater on,” Mrs. Barnevald said. “I took no sweaters with me to the sunny south of Europe. I didn’t miss them. I sweltered and on many days was nude. But I have been chilly ever since we got home and am always interested in putting on more and more clothes. By the time you leave today, Mr. Evans, I guarantee you I will have on a snowsuit and a ski mask.”

Mr. Barnevald laced his fingers around the stem of his wine glass and twiddled his thumbs. He appeared disgruntled. Mr. Evans ascribed this sudden change of Mr. Barnevald’s mood to the fact he would not be able to lick his wife’s face if she put on a ski mask.

“I hope the sweater will be enough,” Mr. Barnevald said.

“We will see. Right now my goose bumps are as big as raisins.”

Mr. Barnevald rolled his eyes, stuck out his under lip and blew air up his face. He riffled through his brain for an idea to counteract the dampening effect of Mr. Evans’s presence. Mr. Evans knew the polite thing at this point would be to say his good-byes and leave the Barnevalds to do some of the things they got up to when they were alone. But now that he had seen the friend he’d carried with him in his heart for so long, he was too weak to move. Mr. Barnevald was himself, Mr. Evans’s love, but he was also the knife, the intractable pain driven deep into Mr. Evans’s heart. To see the agony in his heart sitting apart from him, a separate being across the room, was an amazing thing to Mr. Evans. If he left the house without some resolution to his miserable yearning, it would never leave him. He would be one of the lost, the doomed, the living embodiment of the Mark of Cain, wandering the earth the rest of his days, inconsolable, ever searching for the home he had been exiled from when he was a young man. “Help me bear it,” he said. His voice was dry, old, barely audible.

The Barnevalds looked at one another. Mrs. Barnevald poured them each more wine. They toasted and giggled, perhaps remembering the first time they had looked deep into one another’s eyes over a glass and realized that love could grow from all this fun if they weren’t careful.

Mr. Evans stood. “I am a man with a knife in his heart who knows that love is a barbarity too. It is the thing that drags you into the clearing in the sacred grove, lays you out on the bloody stone, and plunges the sacrificial dagger into your heart. It bears all things. Even in its death it goes on living.”

He fell to his knees. Though neither of them rushed to his aid, he held up his hand to deprecate assistance and said, “No, don’t bother. It’s just a bit of declining health.” He then walked across the floor on his knees to Mr. Barnevald, hands folded together and uplifted, imploring, “Kill me! Please, kill me. There’s an invisible knife in my heart! I beg you to replace it with a real one.”

Mrs. Barnevald said, “How much nicer it would be to stroll around with an imaginary one. I often imagine I am walking around a public place with no clothes on. In my mind I am nude, and it is so much fun being nude when everyone else is burdened with clothes. Plus, I get the satisfaction of complete mental nudity without any of the repercussions I might have if I encountered some real prudes who sicced the police on me.”

Mr. and Mrs. Barnevald spent several minutes feeding each other wine and being fussy about who was getting more than the other. Mr. Barnevald wiped a dribble of wine off his wife’s cheek with his index finger. Then he was back to licking. He kept licking long after it was necessary to remove the spot of wine.

Mrs. Barnevald turned her head so that she could address Mr. Evans while Mr. Barnevald licked her. “Mr. Evans, it is nice you have this knife in your heart and come here to tell us all about it. It proves that my husband is worth grieving to death over, and I find that very interesting and exciting.”

Mr. Barnevald stood and clapped his hands to signify a finish. “Well, I think that just about covers it. We’ve told you about our European adventures, and you’ve told us about the knife in your heart. We really don’t need to see any more of each other, I think, since we have pretty much exhausted our topics of conversation. But thank you very much for stopping by to wish us well. We have had a very good time having this final conversation with you.”

Mr. Barnevald helped Mr. Evans, who seemed to be in a stupor, to his feet and led him to the door. Seeing the tears, Mr. Barnevald slapped Mr. Evans manfully on the back and said, “Come, come. No need for that. I am a man, as you know.”

As they were shaking hands, Mrs. Barnevald came up behind her husband, crossed her hands on his shoulders, leaned in, and nibbled on his earlobe. Mr. Barnevald broke off the handshake and turned with a playful growl to kiss her furiously.

In a small voice, Mr. Evans said, “Good-bye,” to Mrs. Barnevald. She gave no indication she heard him. After waiting a moment to see if she would at least look up and acknowledge him, he turned away and moved off the porch.

Several months later, Mr. Evans got a part in a play. His character was to come in at the end and strangle a bed-ridden woman who had been talking on the phone for an hour and forty-five minutes. She was the only other character in the play. He would ring the curtain down as she gurgled and trashed. Then there would be applause.

Mr. Evans was nervous about the part. He had never been on stage before and had never plumbed his dramatic talent, but he needed some distraction from his constant thoughts of Mr. Barnevald. “It will do me well to get some applause,” he reasoned. “I have never felt so unimportant and unnecessary in my life. But now I will be important night after night because this play will not end unless I strangle the talking lady. The audience will be grateful it can finally go home, and most of the applause will be for me. It will be nice to get most of something for a change. It is hard to pretend. That is why actors are paid so much, though in fact I am doing this all for free. Maybe if I can pretend for a while that I am a menacing strangler, I can forget about pretending I don’t carry this knife around in my heart. That will be nice.”

Vivace!, the director, told Mr. Evans, “when you strangle, pretend that you are rubbing a stinky salve into your lover’s neck. That is how you strangle a lady who has been on the phone for an hour and forty-five minutes. You grit the teeth. You make the face that registers how something unpleasant is entering the nostrils. You tense and relax, tense and relax the eyes. You perform little twisting motions with the hands for your lover’s relief and pleasure. Only it is not that at all. Nothing is what it is. Remember that, and you will do well, Mr. Evans.”

“I would like very much to do well,” Mr. Evans said. “As the Last-Minute Strangler, what is my motivation for coming in at the last minute to strangle the lady?”

Vivace! carried a pencil behind each ear. He switched the pencils and said, “You are being paid by the lady’s absent husband because she is very rich to kill her, number one. Number two, the audience wishes her dead after listening to her, her, and only her for an hour and forty-five minutes. You are a gift from God.”

“An angel of mercy?”

“That is so.”

“Could I not also be a man with an invisible knife in his heart who is in constant pain and lashes out by strangling people?”

“No. You are being paid for it. You come in, you strangle the lady, you go home to your wife and children, you eat your supper. That is it. You are not a tortured soul. None of that. You are doing your job.”

Mr. Evans decided in his own mind that his character was not the hired killer the husband had paid to murder the talking lady but a different strangler, a deranged freelance strangler who gets there before the hired killer does, does the job for the pleasure of it, and leaves without ever knowing there is money in it, without knowing strangling has a career arc. “That is how I will play my part, no matter what Vivace! says.”

And then he wondered what Mr. Barnevald’s take on his unique interpretation would be. Always he was haunted by the question of Mr. Barnevald’s perspective, not just on his artistic interpretation of the Last-Minute Strangler, but on all things. He wanted nothing less than Mr. Barnevald’s wholehearted approval and admiration.
Mr. Evans had thought he would find strangulation a fairly congenial activity, but he second-guessed himself every step of the way. “Would Mr. Barnevlad rather I do it this way, or would he prefer it that way? Would he prefer I twist the neck like wringing out a wet wash cloth or that I pump it like I was giving it CPR?”

One night, Mr. Evans broke away from the dying actress in rehearsal and asked Vivace! if he could bring in a convicted strangler as consultant on his part. “I’m clutching. I’m tightening up and holding back. I’m not letting the real strangler out. There is depth upon depth of strangulation I’m not reaching.”

Vivace! hit himself in the head and said, “Please return to the neck, and let’s keep going. We are fifteen seconds from curtain and applause, Mr. Evans. You will not make or break the play at this point. Carlotta Pinscher (the name of the actress playing the bedridden lady) has already made the play. Our audience just wants it over with. You provide our ‘over with.’ Rescue us, Mr. Evans. That is all you have to do. Put us, along with her, out of our misery.”

Mr. Evans thought Mr. Barnevald would think there was more to it than that, but he dutifully strangled the writhing Carlotta in what felt to him, as an actor, a rather glib and mundane fashion so they could get to the end of the rehearsal and go home. Vivace! was turning his subtly-nuanced performance into a rush job. True, it was a rush job, but it should feel like a saga. “You’re dragging your feet, Mr. Evans!” Vivace! shouted at him at run-through after run-through. “Just walk swiftly to the woman’s bedside and do her in, for God’s sake. You don’t want to give her time to call somebody else.”

In not thinking of Mr. Barnevald, Mr. Evans was always aware he was commanding himself not to think of Mr. Barnevald. He spent so much time issuing himself commands not to think of Mr. Barnevald that he thought of nothing else but Mr. Barnevald. Mr. Barnevald’s permanent absence meant nothing was much of a pleasure to Mr. Evans, and Mr. Evans’s standard thought in any circumstance that might have yielded some joy was, “This would be fun if only Mr. Barnevald were here.”

Ultimately he bored Mr. Barnevald, he knew, but now that he was playing a strangler on stage opposite a local star, perhaps Mr. Barnevald would see that he had new dimensions and re-evaluate his opinion of him as a numbing bore. During one of his frequent sleepless nights spent thinking of Mr. Barnevald, Mr. Evans got up and wrote him a letter. He had written him many letters since the day Mr. Barnelvad told him they should never meet again. He wrote the letters, folded them neatly in envelopes, dated them, and filed them in boxes in his closet, never to be sent. This particular letter, however, he did send.
It was a week before the play opened. The letter went:

Dear, Mr. and Mrs. Barnevald. I realize the consensus on your side was that I would not bother you in the future, and I don’t mean to offend you with presumption. But I feel I must inform you that I am more interesting than I used to be. “How did this happen?” you ask yourselves, “that in a few short months Mr. Evans has become much more interesting than he was, even to the point that we want to see him again?” It is simple: I strangle a lady nightly who turns her phone into a weapon. She does not beat me with it. No. I throw the phone from the bed where she has been pestering people with it for hours and then strangle the life out of her. It is a play. I had you going, didn’t I? Please, come see your old friend light up the stage! The play is “Sorry, Wrong Number.” Perhaps you have seen some version of it. But I give my part a slant it has never had before. I give it every possible shading, asking myself at every turn, “How would Mr. Barnevald have me play this? What would he say about this little touch?” Come see the results! Please, find enclosed two (2) front-row tickets for opening night. You are also invited as my guests to the opening night party. With deepest respect, your friend of long-standing, Mr. Evans.

When the Barnevalds received the note and tickets, Mrs. Barnevald said to Mr. Barnevald, “Mr. Evans has worked very hard to be socially acceptable, even to the point of doing something he probably has no aptitude for. That is quite touching. Though he is odd, very odd, he is not heinous. We should honor people who are odd but not heinous. Let’s go see what Mr. Evans can do. The best part is that it won’t cost us a cent. In the end we won’t feel cheated out of our hard-earned money like people usually do when they go to the theater.”

Mr. Barnevald believed in accepting all giveaways. Furthermore, he was naturally equipped with a never-dull mental pair of scissors for cutting the strings attached.

“Though Mr. Evans has no idea when a thing has died and will probably wind up being one of those who sleeps with the corpse of someone or something, you are right,” he said. “We should go cheer him on in his new life in a make-believe world.”

“I just hope you don’t become intrigued by him now that he has this exciting new side to him and doesn’t mind making a fool of himself in front of a lot of people. I know how turned on you get by people who carry on swimming even though they are drowning in incompetence.”

“I can’t help it if the boats that take on water are more interesting to me than the ones that make it to shore. I’ve always enjoyed a good disaster, I admit it.”

Mr. Barnevald went to Mrs. Barnevald and made reassuring advances with hands, tongue, and, their newest sensual discovery, elbows. When he had warmed her, he said further reassuring words to smother her jealousy: “Besides, my darling, didn’t I promise the priest to give my seed to you and you alone, and is that promise not now written down in heaven?”

Reassured that she would ever be the sole recipient of Mr. Barnevald’s seed, Mrs. Barnevald settled into her front row seat next to him on opening night and said, “I can face anything, even your crazy lover from your Greek days, as long as I know I am the sole recipient of your seed. Let us cheer Mr. Evans wildly when he appears. I suppose we could be wrong, and he might not be totally incompetent and ruin the play. But even if he does, we will make it worth his while by applauding like drunks.”

“You have so many more shapes and curves to you than any man, my darling. What variety and squishiness! Why did I even bother with a Greek phase? What a waste of time.”

“Human needs are a mystery,” Mrs. Barnevald said, flipping through her program in search of coupons. “On my few trips to the isle of Lesbos, I got mortally tired of the meandering peaks and valleys. I finally would have given my soul for something straight-forward and the point.”

Peeking through the curtains, Mr. Evans had seen the Barnevalds enter at the back of the theater. He’d watched Mr. Barnevald walk forward with his wide swagger followed by Mrs. Barnevald flipping her long blond hair this way and that as if performing a ritual with a sacred broom to drive out a contagion.

Mr. Evans went out to speak to the Barnevalds. He had not yet put on his stage make-up and so looked like any other man without make-up. Nor had he put on his suit of the era, the 40s, and so did not draw undue attention to himself. He shook hands with Mr. Barnevald. This was a manly and wholly acceptable gesture that would win approval in all quarters. Then he lifted Mrs. Barnevald’s hand and pretended to kiss it. This was a gesture in the European fashion, gleaned from what he’d seen in movies and TV shows. As the Barnevalds had seen Europe in the flesh, barbarities and all, he knew they would approve. This was a most genteel gesture and proved that at least some Europeans were trying to move away from their barbaric roots.

“How nice of you to come,” he said.

“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Mr. Barnevald answered. “And to that end, thank you very much for the free tickets.” He stifled a yawn and studied his watch.

“But don’t they think eight o’clock is awfully late to start a play on a Thursday evening? Some of us have been at it since the crack of dawn. I hope I don’t fall asleep and miss your big scene. But if you don’t get started soon, that is a possibility.”

Mr. Evans said to Mrs. Barnevald, “Please poke Mr. Barnevald when I come on.”

Mrs. Barnevald agreed to do this and then said, “But what if I have fallen asleep by then?”

She negotiated with the woman seated next to her to poke her when Mr. Evans came on. “Just in case.”

“But what if I have drifted off?” the woman said. She was then obliged to negotiate with her date to poke her when Mr. Evans appeared so she could pass it on to Mrs. Barnevald. Finally, to prepare for the multitude of possible failures, Mr. Evans addressed the entire front row, “May I have your attention, please? I am a cast member. Please, poke the person next to you when you see me come on stage. In that way everything will be fine.”

By then it was time for him to go back and get ready.

“Break a leg,” Mrs. Barnevald said.

“Break both legs while you are at it,” Mr. Barnevald said, and Mr. Evans believed there was nothing malicious behind this.

Carlotta Pinscher came off act one to wild applause but complained about the handsome couple in the front row that spent most of their time licking each other.

“Those are my good friends the Barnevalds,” Mr. Evans said. “I would guess he did most of the licking.”

“She did her share.”

“You will have to excuse them. They are a sensual couple and have been to Europe where many people do that sort of thing in the theater.”

“Never mind. I will just concentrate harder during the second act.”

“Try to remember the audience is not there,” Vivace! said. “Or pretend they are birds eating out of the palm of your hand. That is what I think about the women every time I enter a room. It works.”

“Do you mean they behave like birds and crap all over the floor?” Carlotta Pinscher said.

“You have twisted my meaning.”

Carlotta touched Mr. Evans. “Please, locate your friends and ask them not to lick during the second act. Tell them they are invading the leading lady’s cone of isolation.”

Mr. Evans went out to look for the Barnevalds but had no intention of telling them to stop licking. He spotted them at the bar reinforcing themselves with cocktails. Seeing them locked in each other’s eyes and nearly nose to nose in conversation, Mr. Evans remembered what Mr. Barnevald had once said to him about their being a closed system. They inhabited a cone of isolation completely impermeable to was happening or being said around them. If he had gone up to them and said, “I want to die,” they wouldn’t have heard him.

He tapped Mr. Barnevald on the shoulder, said, “Excuse me,” to Mrs. Barnevald, and said to Mr. Barnevald, “I want you to care. Please, care for me like you did for that nice two-month period I believed would go on forever.”

Mr. Barnevald squinted and unsquinted his eyes as though Mr. Evans was familiar to him but unplaceable, as though Mr. Evans, possibly, had mistaken him for someone else. Mr. Barnevald smiled tiredly, regarding Mr. Evans’s chin closely. “Charming little play, isn’t it?” Mr. Barnevald said. “Reminds me of that other one. ‘No Exit.’”

Mrs. Barnevald touched her nose and pointed at her husband. “That’s the one. All through act one we were trying to decide which one.”

“It just came to me.”

Mrs. Barnevald gave Mr. Evans a belated smile. “Did you say something?”

Mr. Evans pulled at his cuffs. “I have not seen ‘No Exit,’ but I understand it takes place in hell.”

“Most plays do,” she said. “This one for instance. Isn’t she circling the fourth level of hell? I know we are.”

Mr. Barnevald slapped Mr. Evans in a manner typifying jolly confident manliness. “Say, you haven’t been on yet, have you?”

“No. I come on at the very end, when something happens. Now I must go put on my eye shadow. Excuse me.”

Mrs. Barnevald lifted her glass to him. “We will be sure to be watching, Mr. Evans.”

Mr. Evans went to the men’s room and applied his make-up. He had to give way to several men as they needed to wash up at the sink. He said to the various men, “I apologize for hogging the sink, but it is right under the only mirror. I must put on my make-up so the lights don’t bounce off my face and blind you when you look at me. You will thank me later.”

Only one of the three men to whom Mr. Evans explained himself seemed to be grateful he was applying make-up.

“That means only one in three men understands the theater,” Mr. Evans reasoned as he put on his 40s suit behind the set.

Then there was a long wait for his cue, which was Carlotta’s speech into the phone: “Don’t you understand? There is someone in the house. He is coming up the stairs now! I see his shadow on the walls. His shadow is knotting a fine silk scarf between his hands as he ascends. Oh, God! Please, stop him!”

Mr. Evans’s heart was not in it. If he could have done so without disappointing anyone, he would have walked out of the theater and gone home. But so many persons were depending on him to reward their patience by strangling the phone call lady. He could not let them down. He was a disappointment to himself, but he could not disappoint others.

Yes, the Barnevalds were a closed system. There was no real entrance for him into their lives, and no real exit for Mr. Barnevald from his heart. Mr. Evans was strung between entering and exiting, with no way forward and no way back. He had been warned long ago by Mr. Barnevald and had chosen to ignore his warning. “We are a closed system.” Why was that not plain to him, Mr. Evans wondered, until tonight?

The knife had entered his heart. There was no exit point, no exit strategy beyond his desire that Mr. Evans replace the invisible knife with a real one. Mrs. Barnevald obviously considered Mr. Evans no threat, despite the fact Mr. Evans was still in love with her husband. Mr. Evans wished he were a threat. But who would regard him as one?

Except within the small sordid talky universe of this play? Carlotta Pinscher had reason to regard him as a threat and was tuning up to it. Act two was progressing rapidly. Madge, the phone call lady, had finally caught on that her number was up. Her husband had arranged her demise.

Mr. Evans assumed his position at what served as the top of the stairwell, the wall of which his creepy shadow was supposed to crawl up. He trembled from toe to lips. Even his earlobes quivered. He was about to step onstage in a debut, all eyes on him, that was supposed to have renewed Mr. Barnevald’s interest in him. “Was I crazy? A closed system. I am forbidden. It’s not possible. How many ways have I known that and not take my exit that wasn’t there?”

Mr. Evans turned. For one moment he considered running. Then he heard Carlotta Pinscher shout a second time, “Oh, God! Please stop him!” angry this time, for having to double the cue. He had no choice but to go on, go forward. There was no way out now. He had closed off his exit.

Everything had to go on, even his attempt to find a way into a closed system. “Here I come!” he said aloud, a line he’d thrown in. He followed this with a second ad-libbed line as he stepped into the lights: “I bet you thought I wasn’t coming.”

And then he proceeded to strangle Carlotta Pinscher, a bad thing to do, a grand gesture not improvised but elaborated.



Photography Credit: Jason Rice



David Vardeman’s fiction has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, SAND, Writing Tomorrow, Printer’s Devil Review, Dukool, Menacing Hedge, Eclectica, Whiskey Island, among other print and online publications.