Fiction 2015 / Issues / Spring 2015 / Volume 45

The Lighthouse Ensemble — Nick Bertelson

– For Andrew

       I first met Mr. Roland on a crummy night. The wind blew the neighbor’s leaves into my yard and rainwater rushed down the gutter, reflecting the streetlights. I was smoking a cigarette beneath my umbrella when I saw what had to be the only other person out on a night like that. The figure sauntered gaily down the street, so close to the gutter that his feet had to be soaked. Then I saw he had his shoes in his hand and that he was barefoot, no socks even. As he approached, I made out the face of the man the school had hired a while back to replace the old curmudgeon who taught me English back when I was in high school. I walked to the edge of my yard:

“Some night to be out and about,” I said.

Mr. Roland stopped and looked at me, smiling, “Everyone has to be somewhere.”

“No truer words,” I said. “I’m Jake Manning.” I held out my hand.

“Leo Roland,” he said. His hand was surprisingly warm and feminine.

“You moved into Sonny Myler’s old house,” I said.

“Did I now? Well, he kept the place impeccable. I’ll give him that.”

“Sure did,” I said. “Quite the guy. He was a tiler, you know. Laid tile for a living. Used to come into the store all the time.”

“Oh, you own the hardware store? You’re about the last place open on main street, aside from that beauty parlor I see people in once and a while.”

“That place is a joke,” I said. “She’s the only one cutting hair in town now, and I guess that gives her a license to open and close whenever she wants. It’s no way to run a business.”

“You seem to be doing well,” Mr. Roland said, staring at my house.

“Not bad,” I lied. “You want a cigarette?”

But before he responded, a heavy gust shook raindrops from the trees. Then the streetlights above us brightened before every light on the block went dead. The houses turned dark. The street blackened. About the only light left came from the tip of my cigarette. I looked around, dazed.

Then I heard my wife, Virginia, calling my name from within our home: “Jaaake?”

Mr. Roland and I said nothing more to one another.

* * *

       Collin Richtor often dished the dirt on Mr. Roland. He delivered mail to Hardscratch High School each day, where Mr. Roland taught literature and drama, and since my hardware store was on Collin’s route, he’d stop in once a week with a new tidbit about the English teacher, whom he watched closely. Collin’s kids took Mr. Roland’s classes up at the high school. It worried Collin that his daughter was in the play Mr. Roland was putting on that Fall: a rendition of “Our Town.”

“I saw him smoking on the loading dock today,” said Collin. He tossed my mail on the counter. “He cocked his hand back like a woman. Pretty near burned the back of his wrist with that cherry.”

“What do you care?” I said.

“I don’t. But still, you gotta keep an eye on his type. You should see some of the stuff he gets in the mail. Weird magazines. I mean, sure, there’s some teaching magazines and playwright stuff and all that jazz. But the New Yorker? No one who lives in Hardscratch needs to know what’s going on in New York. And just between you and me, some much weirder stuff ends up in that mailbox.”

“Should you be telling me this?” I asked.

“Probably not, but still. My son told me a story about that pervert fondling a dog in the park one night,” he said. I watched Collin drain his coffee, then drop the styrofoam cup into the trash. “A boy dog,” he said, eyeing me.

I learned long ago to take what I heard in Hardscratch with a grain of salt, especially a rumor from Collin Richtor’s son who, three years prior, was caught in the Mattingly’s hedges staring through their daughter’s window with a pair of her panties on his head like a face-mask.

Nonetheless, I took my mail from Collin and said goodbye as he made his way out the door, onto his next stop.

* * *

       It was necessary, at least in my mind, to keep the specialty items at my store— things people couldn’t get at the Home Depot in Clinton or the Napa in Adair. The massive retailers carried cheap materials, which was why I couldn’t blame my costumers for switching to bulk suppliers, especially during a recession, but there were simply some things those places never ordered: things like the tempered blades for Guy Thomas’s antique wood planes, or the drywall tape Ed Gurney liked so well, or the welding rods that fit into Paul Terry’s ancient Hobart welder. The little things—they kept me behind that counter, though they didn’t keep my store afloat, but if I wasn’t there, what would those guys do? Where would they go?

The world, all of a sudden, can seem incredibly big and efficient, moving ruthlessly fast. Debt collectors in dark clothes show up at your hardware store, put a few pieces of paper in front of you, circle a date, and shake your hand, smiling all the while. It was true: my store was in the red. I was the only person who knew, though. My wife had had some health problems a while back, and was forced to have a hysterectomy. Even with insurance covering most the costs, this wasn’t a cheap ordeal, and prior to the operation I was already behind on too many payments. I had to let my last employee go after Christmas and I never replaced him. With Virginia laid up, and then depressed for over a year after her surgery, I never really found a good time to tell her about my finances. I had owned the store before we married. We got hitched late in life, after all—both of us in our forties. She’d had a previous husband and a couple of kids, whom I met only a handful of times. I was thankful that they wouldn’t inherit my problems. Nevertheless, the $130,000 I owed in loans was not something that had been brought to Virginia’s attention. I’d tell her when the time was right.

A pot of coffee burbled on the counter behind me as I flipped the sign on the door to “Open.” Some small boxes that Collin had brought in now littered the counter. They were things I’d had overnighted for a few people. I planned on opening them slowly, maybe one an hour, to give myself something to do. It’s stupid and pathetic, the things old men do to bide their time. Some embroider. Some whittle. I open other peoples’ mail.

The next thing I knew, though, I was making another pot of coffee, and not a single package had been opened. This pleased me—how time eased by despite nothing happening. Perhaps I’d fallen asleep.

Then the bell on the door finally jangled and in walked Mr. Roland. He, of course, didn’t teach on Saturdays. It was the first time I got a good look at him in the light. Hewas a tall, benign man, his face pocked and acne-scarred. For some time, he didn’t say anything, just scanned the aisles for whatever he needed. I don’t think he saw me tucked behind the counter. I assumed he wanted supplies for his upcoming show. There were playbills all over town advertising the opening night and I knew it wasn’t far off. But I got to thinking about what Virginia said, about how there weren’t many backdrops or props in “Our Town.”

I found Mr. Roland in the paint section, scanning the samples and the hooks where the brushes hung.

“Mr. Roland!” I said. “Working on the set today?”

“Oh no,” he said. “It’s all done. Very minimalist play. I suppose that’s why so many high schools approve it. I put it on once with my old theater company back in New York. Didn’t use a single prop, just a chair or two.”

For some reason, maybe to seem cultured, I asked him which company he’d been with, as though I knew anything about that sort of stuff. “The Lighthouse Ensemble,” he said. “I doubt you’ve heard of them.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head and smiling.

His demeanor changed: “Well, that’s all up with now. You know how it goes. It was a matter of budget. The almighty dollar trumps everything.”

I kept smiling.

He went on: “But you’re coming to ‘Our Town’ I hope. It opens Wednesday.”

Honestly, I’d never thought of going. I couldn’t have told him the last play I saw, probably the play my classmates put on when I’d been in high school. But I said I wouldn’t miss it.

“Good good,” he nodded. “But now Jake, today I’m looking for some plastic, a roll or two is all.”

“Over here,” I said. “I keep it between the paints and the lacquer aisles here. How much you need? I got the big rolls over there. Then there’s ten by eight. Eight by six. Or tarps: ten by nine here, but really its nine by eight. They take a foot off for the fold. Got more in back if….”

He interrupted me: “Well, I don’t need a tarp. Nothing specific on the measurements, I guess. Just plastic. Something to cover the walls.” He never met my eyes when he spoke.

“Doing some remodel work in Sonny’s old place?” I asked.

“You’ve been here a long time, haven’t you?” Mr. Roland asked. “In Hardscratch, I mean.”

“Born and bred,” I said.

“Do you always know exactly what people are up to?” he asked, not in a blighted way, but not in a pleasant one either.

“Well I don’t pride myself on it,” I said.

“You should, Jake,” he said, patting my shoulder. “You most certainly should.”

* * *

       Three or four days passed and I grew busy. Pete Youthsler did electrical work for people in town and though he didn’t like paying my prices for things like outlets and conduit, he showed up in those few days. He seemed busy, flustered even, for being a professional. He probably didn’t want to make the long back-and-forth to Adair, burning away his profit in gasoline. By the time Wednesday came, I forgot all about the play. When I got home from work, Virginia and her friend, Julie, were sitting at the kitchen table drinking wine. They had on nice clothes and petticoats.

“We’re going to watch the kids’ play,” Virginia said as I walked in. “Should be back around eight, eight-thirty.”

“Wait!” I said, throwing my cap on the counter, suddenly invigorated. “I’ll change my shirt and go with you.”

“Really?” Virginia said. She sounded surprised. She smiled proudly at Julie, whose husband probably grunted when she told him where she was going.

I didn’t do it to please Virginia, though. I pictured Mr. Roland standing in the store, sadly staring at rolls of plastic, probably thinking that I, like all the other adults he talked to, was simply being nice when I’d attend his production.

I walked back to the kitchen, putting on a tie.

“You girls ready?” I asked.

“Cool your jets, hun,” my wife said. “It doesn’t start for another twenty minutes.”

So I sat down with a glass of ice water as the women sipped their wine. Though I’d never admit it, I had a hard time hiding my excitement. I wanted to go for Mr. Roland, not for the play itself. Theater, needless to say, didn’t excite me. Even if I fell asleep during the show I wanted Mr. Roland to see me leaving at the end of the night, just to prove to him I was there.

At Hardscratch High, we shuffled into the school’s theater, sat down, and leafed through the programs. Inside each one was an insert that said on opening night Mr. Roland would be playing the part of the stage manager because the kid who’d been casted fell ill.

The lights went down and Mr. Roland walked onstage. Facing the audience, he said that “Our Town” was written by Thorton Wilder. He went on to list the names of the people starring in the play. The only name I recognized was Tessa Richtor, Collin Richtor’s daughter. She was playing the part of Emily Webb.

And just like that, I was in the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, population 2640. Hardscratch wasn’t much bigger than that, even in wintertime when the college filled with students. But Mr. Roland made the town seem eerily similar to the one I’d lived in my whole life. He introduced the characters and the scenes, and it seemed to me he existed as more of a God-like figure than a stage manager. The characters squabbled in their dramas while Mr. Roland walked languidly about in between scenes, explaining the ins and outs of daily life in Grover’s Corners. I didn’t like the way he kept interrupting just as the scenes were getting interesting. Each time it seemed like the characters were going to reveal something Mr. Roland would amble onstage:

“Okay, okay, that’ll do for now,” he said to the characters, who acted as though they could suddenly hear him. They got up and walked offstage. Then in walked a new group of people from Grover’s Corners that Mr. Roland would introduce and inevitably interrupt.

At first, it seemed like a normal place, Grover’s Corners, but then I started seeing the way everyone talked about everyone else. The characters in the play noticed something amiss with life in general, how it can seem both fulfilling and unfulfilling, and yet no one is happy with either scenario. They all had their definitions of normal and not a single one of them fit into it. It was a good play. Mr. Roland had hammered it into those kids what needed to be done to put it on correctly. It was probably their first experience in theater and I knew from watching that Mr. Roland was the right man to expose them to it.

After the actors bowed and we left our seats, I waited outside the theater door, thinking (for some reason) that the cast would have some sort of meet-and-greet, but none of them showed, and after standing around for a while, Virginia tugged on my arm and said we needed to get going.

On the drive home, my wife said, “Jake, I’m proud of you.”

Confused, I looked at her. I of all people had done nothing that night to be proud of.

“You didn’t smoke a single cigarette,” she said. “You should see him at the movies, Julie. Goes out two or three times during the show; then he wonders why he can’t follow the plot.”

Back home, I smoked a cigarette in the driveway while Virginia went inside to polish off the wine with Julie. I’d had an idea while watching the play, and as soon as Julie left and Virginia was in the tub, I got on the computer and Googled “Leo Roland, The Lighthouse Ensemble, New York”.

There were a number of articles, mostly blogs, discussing the theater company, reviewing their productions and whatnot, but I never spotted Mr. Roland’s name. It wasn’t until I clicked on ‘Images’ that I found something interesting. In most the pictures, there stood eight or nine men and women in three rows. They showcased the entire company, but there was no Leo Roland among them, only a Lenora Roland. And when I finally found a photo that let me zoom in, I recognized the woman’s face immediately. It was not a relative, not a sister, mother, or an aunt, but the pocked-face Mr. Roland himself, under a short-cropped yet feminine head of hair, muddled and wavy with the tips highlighted blonde. I recognized the woman in other photos too: one as a busty maid, another as a chiseled serviceman festooned in medals, one more as a strange, leather-clad behemoth with blood streaming down its chin. The whole thing filled me with excitement and alarm at having been the one to discover yet another jarring and juicy secret about someone in Hardscratch.

I heard the shower-rings squawk over the railing in the bathroom. My wife was only a room away. I heard her rise from the bathwater, but before the door even opened to our bedroom, I was in bed, acting asleep.

* * *

        The next day was a Thursday. Collin hadn’t come in all week. I figured he’d be in that day to jawbone me into admitting Mr. Roland was a lousy director. But he didn’t come till Friday, and after some small talk, I asked him about the play.

“Oh! Shoot. I saw it Wednesday night and thought the town was awful familiar,” he said, smiling. “It was good and all. Tessa was great. I was really into it until she died. It wasn’t that she died, though. I mean, she died in the last play she was in too. That didn’t bother me. It was just all that stuff at the end about being able to go back and live any and every day over again if you wanted to. It’s either that, or spending the rest of eternity on a hill with a bunch of dead people. Those aren’t really my ideas of Heaven, I guess. Not anyone’s, I’d hope. But, no, she was great. Can’t say I was all that enthused about Mr. Roland reading all those lines. He kind of hogged the show.”

“The boy he cast got sick,” I said.

“But still, it’s supposed to be about the kids. He should have had a what-you-call-it.”

“Understudy?”

“Yeah. It’s supposed to be about the kids,” Collin said again. He took a sip of coffee.

“They’re sort of shut up in a little box, aren’t they?” I said, hearing the line from the play ring through my head.

“Who’s that?” Collin asked.

“No one,” I said. “Nobody.”

He stared at me for some time. I recalled the pictures of Mr. Roland, the ones I found on the computer the night before. Collin seemed to see it in my eyes: something on my mind. He waited.

I said, “Well, I better get to cleaning that bathroom.”

And after he left, I walked in back. Not five minutes into cleaning, I heard the bell on the door again. I walked out front, through the aisles, but stopped and peeked out from behind a display case full of taps and dies. Standing at the counter were the same men from the debt-collecting agency. They carried thin briefcases this time. One of them dinged the bell next to the register and looked around. I ducked behind the display case, and skulked back the way I came. Instead of leaving the store, though, I retreated to the bathroom in a moment of panic. Leaving the store felt irresponsible. I gingerly slid the latch on the bathroom door and turned off the light. I wasn’t irresponsible, just a coward.

Footsteps eventually echoed through the back room.

“Hello? Mr. Manning?” one of the men said. “I’m looking for Mr. Manning.” He spoke as though he didn’t know I was the only employee, even though he knew my store inside and out, knew what everything in it was worth, knew the cost-benefit ratio of liquidating my inventory and selling the building to the bank, versus keeping it open as it was.

“Mr. Manning?” the man said, tapping on the bathroom door. “Are you there?”

I heard the air wheezing through my smoke-ruined nostrils and held my breath.

“Mr. Manning?” the man said. “Can we have a word with you?”

The other man said something in a low voice. They talked back and forth for some time, saying things I couldn’t hear. It grew silent. Moments passed as I held my hand over my mouth. Then one of them slammed his fist three times against the door, startling me. My shoe squeaked on the floor’s tile.

“Mr. Manning!”

Still, I said nothing. I sat in dark silence for the longest time. Who knows how long it was before I reemerged. When I finally did, the men were gone, and it was getting dark outside. Perhaps I’d fallen asleep.

* * *

       I cleaned the store that night. I don’t know why. Saturdays, I didn’t open until noon, so I had plenty of time in the morning. I left on the lights, but I flipped the sign to “Close.” I must have forgotten to lock the door because I heard the bell ding around eight-thirty and I assumed it was Virginia. She had probably been calling my cellphone, which I left in my car. The store phone had been shut off recently, after three months of not paying my bill.

When I made my way up front, the sight of Mr. Roland frightened me. He seemed taller than before, almost Frankenstein-like. And I knew from the way he staggered just standing there that he was drunk. His eyes were lifeless, fixed on something only he could see.

“Mr. Roland,” I said. “We’re, uh… I’m not open now, but…”

“What’d you think?” he interrupted.

“Excuse me?” I rested my broom against a pyramid of paint cans. “Oh, you mean the play?” I said. “It was great. Really. I…”

“You didn’t go,” he said indignantly.

“Sure I did. The night you had to stand in for that one kid. And the Richter girl!” I said. “She played what’s her name.”

“Tessa.”

“Right,” I said.

“She’s a sweetheart,” Mr. Roland said. He sat on the counter and smiled sadly, nostalgically, at the floor.

“How’s the remodel job coming?” I asked.

“Huh? Oh. The remodeling… It’s slow.”

“What are you doing to the place anyway?”

But he didn’t answer me. Instead, he wobbled over to the counter and hiked himself up on it, where he sat like a child who’d been placed there by his father. Without being able to help myself, I stared at his crotch, wondering if I might see something that might further prove what I’d seen only nights prior. But his pleated pants revealed nothing, nor did his sharp jawline or foggy eyes. His socks, however, were elaborate and goofy—purple and brown stripes with yellow splashes here and there. I’d never seen anything like them. Other than that, he appeared to be nothing more than a man, the eccentric Mr. Roland.

“What are you doing out and about?” I asked. Oddly, I didn’t feel the slightest bit uncomfortable with him there. I even went back to sweeping.

“Nothing really,” he said. “Went for a walk and saw the light on.”

“You walked down?” I asked.

He sighed but didn’t say anything and we both went about in that way for some time: me sweeping and him sort of sulking for no evident reason. I thought of asking him if something was wrong, but he seemed a little more content in the quiet, just sitting on the counter staring at his wingtip shoes.

“Well,” I said. “I’m all but finished up here. You wanna ride? It’s just up the hill from my place.”

“No no!” he said, waving me off and jumping down from the counter. “I’ll be…”

He tripped over his feet and took out a whole display of cheap household tools, and before he could fully regain his composure and recoup from his embarrassment, I had him seat-belted into the front seat of my car. He apologized the whole way to his house, even though it seemed as if he’d forgotten when it was he’d done. He knew he was sorry, was all.

“Nothing’s broken,” I said. “I’ll clean it up in the morning. No big deal, Mr. Roland.”

“Call me Leo.”

We were only a block away when he slumped forward and put his head in his hands.

“You sure everything is all right?” I asked.

He remained silent, and I thought for a moment that he’d begun to cry. I knew there was little I could do to ease the awkwardness. I heard nothing from him, no sobbing or sniveling. In his driveway, I told him he was home. And that’s when he kissed me. I’d leaned in a little and put my hand on his shoulder to make sure he was all right, and whether this sent him a signal or something else sparked his sudden choice, he nevertheless put his hand to my cheek and kissed me, closed lipped, for a long time.

His touch froze me. I didn’t kiss him back but I wasn’t necessarily shocked either. My response was, much like Mr. Roland himself, ambiguous, incapable of understanding. I may have let him kiss me as a favor, as if it might relieve what was pent up in him, or maybe I was curious myself. Regardless, I didn’t pull away.

Nothing happened after that: an awkward silence, a hushed apology, the car door opening, the dome light coming on, bright in the dark. I watched Mr. Roland walk to his door and hurry inside. Then I sat in the driveway smoking for a while. I almost went in.

But then I flicked my cigarette out the window and backed out onto the street, realizing that I somehow knew even less about Mr. Roland now. Some people are like that, becoming more mysterious as they reveal themselves.

* * *

       “Our Town” showed for a little over a week. Virginia and I talked about going again. She’d enjoyed it as much as I had and said she wanted to see it with the boy they’d casted to be the stage manager instead of Mr. Roland. There was a Sunday matinee and I didn’t usually open the store then. But after church that Sunday, I went to work. I told my wife I had too much to do at the store, that we’d go later in the week to a regular showing. I doubted the debt collectors worked that day, but I doubted they recognized the Sabbath either. I wrote some checks, made out three bills, and greased the box-crusher in back. Since the last time they showed up, I spent a lot of time near the back door.

I awoke one morning before the sun came up and realized that the last show had occurred a week prior. So we never went again. As I was backing out onto the street that morning, an ambulance blared its siren, warning me of its approach. I threw the car in drive and pulled ahead, squealing my tires. The ambulance roared by: a massive box of light and sound. Then the morning was quiet and dark again. Many people in town chased ambulances. I wasn’t one of them.

Business was normal again. By that I mean there was none. The only person to come in before lunchtime was Collin. He’s the one who told me the news of the night, having heard it from the dozens of people he talked to on his route. “I guess he lined the walls of the shower with plastic and ventilated his head,”

Collin said. “Old Sonny Myler’s walk-in shower; remember how proud Sonny was of that thing? Had to show everyone how he lined up the grout lines on the wall with the lines on the floor.” Collin looked at the floor in my shop and smiled. “Mr. Roland must have had an eye for good tile-work too. At least that’s what they tell me. Didn’t leave a note but he took all that time with the plastic. You believe that?”

I could recall a half-dozen or so suicides in Hardscratch. All of them had a note attached. They were a big deal, those notes. Everyone had to know what they said, what the reasoning was. Even if it was hearsay, it provided closure. The fireman who shot himself in the Dairy Sweet parking lot, for example, left a note that said his first wife got everything. So then people inferred that he never overcame his divorce and everything was fine, at least for those still living. Or there was Mr. Bettleson, whose note hardly mentioned his wife, because, unbeknownst to her, she now faced the brunt of their bankruptcy since he ran their real estate business into the ground.

“Plastic,” I said to Collin, as more of a statement than a question.

“Yeah, spends all that time with the friggin plastic and didn’t even leave a note. He was an English teacher for crying out loud.”

What was the point in telling Collin what I’d discovered then about Mr. Roland?

He would get his answer soon enough. Everyone would, once Bob Lewis, the loudmouthed mortician, undressed Mr. Roland to ready the body and found something amiss. Or maybe not, maybe Mr. Roland was a mister after all. Maybe he switched from place to place: a man in Delaware, a woman in New York, a man again in Iowa, back and forth, back and forth, unconcerned and unrestrained by the body God had given him.

The news made the rest of the day clouded. Every conversation started with “Have you heard…” and ended in a long, heavy silence of ponderation. Then I’d force myself to do my job, be the congenial store owner everybody expected me to be. It seemed as though people came and went, but it didn’t feel like I was helping any of them. I felt automated. I did what I had to, but nothing registered. I showed them this or that, I rang them up, but what I was doing never settled in me. All I could think about was Mr. Roland methodically taping that plastic to the walls of his shower, like a painter readying a canvas before he splatters it with paint. It got so bad that I went into the bathroom around noon to see if my contacts were in the wrong eyes. I switched them, but it only got worse. So I wore my glasses.

Near closing time, the debt collectors showed up. I saw them coming up the sidewalk, so I darted through the building, went out the back, into the alley, and drove home. I left the building unlocked with those men in it. As far as anyone was concerned, it all belonged to them anyway.

But fleeing was useless. When I walked in, Virginia was sitting at the kitchen table. She’d been crying.

“Oh, hun,” I said. “You must have heard about Mr. Roland.”

“What? What! I don’t give a shit about Mr. Roland,” she said, smacking the kitchen table. She threw an envelope across the table at me. It had the name of the investment firm that was steadily increasing my interest rate. “They came by the house today and gave that to me. You want to explain it now or later?”

“Virginia…”

“Why don’t you start with where you’ve been. They said you weren’t at the store the other day. Where were you?”

“I must have stepped out the back for a smoke or something.”

“You don’t leave a note on the door? You didn’t hear them come in?”

“Did you read this?” I asked, holding up the envelope.

“Of course I read it, Jake.” She started welling up. “Can’t you just tell me where you were? Were you with him?”

“Who?”

“Roland.”

“What?”

“Jake! He was a sick man. What were you doing with him? You searched for pictures of him on the internet. I know. I found it on the history.”

Her face epitomized terror. I sat down and she started bawling. I didn’t know what to say. A familiar, anesthetic feeling passed over me. I didn’t know if it was a byproduct of my getting older or if something more sinister was rewiring my inner workings. I looked around the kitchen. It was a plain kitchen; everything seemed painfully mundane to me, everything except the fluorescent lights my wife had exchanged for the old-fashioned incandescent ones that I still sold at the store. I stared at one there in the kitchen. They looked futuristic and made some rooms (the kitchen for example) feel sterile.

“Really,” I said. “Mr. Roland’s story is no different from any other suicide. Dad always said if a guy can’t live in a town like Hardscratch, he can’t live anywhere on earth.”

This made Virginia cry even harder. Mentioning Mr. Roland was a mistake, I suppose. Maybe it verified her assumptions.

I reached for my cigarettes.

“Yeah, smoke another cigarette,” my wife said venomously. “That’ll fix everything.”

I held my cigarettes in one hand, my lighter in the other, not saying a word. My wife said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I sat transfixed by a figment coming down the hall. There, in my house, as plain as day, came Mr. Roland sauntering into the kitchen—the top of his head a gaping hole.

“Why are you smiling?” my wife asked. “What’s funny?”

I watched Mr. Roland look off into nowhere and address an invisible crowd. “Okay, okay. Thanks, you two. But that’ll do for now. Sorry to interrupt. There are just a few other things to tend to. Thank you, Virginia. Thank you, Jake. That’ll do for now.”

Men in dark clothes stormed through the door, stagehands striking the set, removing my earthly belongings, collapsing the walls of my home, stealing off with what little I had left. Then the lights dimmed.

THE END

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