This is the first story from my collection "Scarce Resources". You can find out more about my work at my web site www.brendandetzner.com and grab a copy of the book here.
The Black Plague
by Brendan Detzner
I go straight to the theater from the shed, still smelling like grass clippings. I think about driving home to take a shower and coming straight back, but I don’t want to wait. She says she likes the way I smell. I believe everything that she tells me, every word that comes out of her mouth. All day I’ve been walking behind the lawnmower, thinking about when I’ll have everything done and I’ll be able to see her again. I trust her so completely that I stand at a distance from myself like a ghost and wonder how this is happening.
I walk around the far end of the building, the side opposite the main entrance where the patrons aren’t allowed to go. There’s a bank of windows on the wall facing the sidewalk that leads to the maintenance entrance. I can see the costume shop, a half a dozen thick wooden tables with white sewing machines attached to them and giant rolls of fabric mounted on the walls. The light from the hallway lamps makes everything look yellow. Only Karen and Liz are in the shop. I am amazed that I remember their names. They are working on opposite sides of the same dress, leaning in close and whispering to each other. They glance at me and giggle; Karen waves at me as I unlock the door and come inside. Liz laughs and covers her eyes.
There I am again, standing outside of myself. I can still hear them laughing as I walk down the hall.
Harriet works in the costuming department, but she has a special job, her own room to work in. I open the door with her name on it and step inside. I am surrounded by eyes and mouths, open in surprise or twisted into a grimace. I close the door behind me. I don’t see her. There is a lamp sitting on the floor, a bare light bulb.
I do, and there she is. She’s perched on top of a long narrow worktable, wearing a cat mask decorated with blue feathers, and her own skin. Her long hair has vanished, tucked away somewhere. I see her neck, her shoulders.
I get closer. I touch the side of her body with my hand, trace her rib with my thumb and dig into her back with my fingers.
We make love. She smells really nice. She tells me what it is later, it’s not perfume, it’s some herbal thing. My attention wanders while she’s explaining the details. She pinches me; I pinch her back. There’s not enough room to wrestle, there’s not even room for both of us, she’s lying on top of me. We kind of squirm.
She hops down from the bench and puts her clothes on, takes off the mask and shakes her hair out. I watch her and it hurts.
She talks about what she’s been working on, her latest project. There’s a whole row devoted to it. They all have long pointed noses; I make a dirty joke but the time has passed and she doesn’t laugh. I say something about Mardi Gras and that’s better, she tells me I’ve got it right. These didn’t used to be part of a costume. People wore them in the middle ages when people first started getting sick. The idea was that it would keep the bad air out. That’s why they thought everybody was dying, bad air. All the faeries are going to wear them, it’s supposed to represent something. The director talked to everybody about it before rehearsals started. I wasn’t there for that. I just cut the grass.
The sun shines through the window. I have to go, I’m not even supposed to be here now, it’s Saturday. I have weekends off, but opening night is coming soon and the crew isn’t leaving the building until everything’s ready for dress rehearsal. I kiss her goodbye and I head out.
I told myself when I got the job that it’d be a good way to clear my head for the summer and read a lot of books, but the stack next to my mattress in the room I rented has hardly been touched. I pass out without closing the shades and wake up in my clothes a few hours later with the sun shining in my face. I take a shower and go for a walk along the lake. It’s a clear day, all the boats are out on the water. An elderly woman in a pink windbreaker stops me as I walk past the dock and asks for my help getting her sails tied down. I tell her that I don’t know anything about boats but she doesn’t believe me; I have to brush past her with my shoulders.
I buy a sandwich and devour it. I see a Midsummer flier on the bulletin board next to the door as I walk out. It’s a big event; this is a family town in the summer. They do screenings of old movies in the park, concerts and picnics around the bandstand.
My phone buzzes. It’s her. I sit on a rock and say that I was just thinking about her, I’m hoping that she’ll like that but it doesn’t even make a dent; she’s really upset and won’t tell me why, she says she just wants to hear my voice. I tell her I’m going to go see her. She tells me I can’t. I hang up on her and jog back the same way I just walked.
The theater building used to be the main house of a very rich man’s estate. The paths leading to it weave back and forth through flower gardens and sculptures. I can hear the director yelling; he stops and everything is quiet. The speakers hanging above the stage kick my ears as they’re turned on. I hear amplified voices, calm and in character in spite of whatever it was that just happened.
I hesitate before I turn the corner. I’m not supposed to be here. The rehearsals have been closed since they began and the director is an asshole.
I turn away and walk back towards the building. A door is propped open and I go through it. When I come back out I’m wearing a black robe and a mask with a long nose. I approach the stage again, turning the corner. There are people wandering around quietly, waiting for their turn to come up, some of them entirely in costume and others only partially. Harriet is set up next to an oak tree to the right of the stage. She’s spinning around like she’s broken; for every mask she hands out she picks up two and has to remember where they came from.
I wait until they leave, then I come up behind her and put my hand on her shoulder. She turns around like she’s going to hit me; I whisper her name and she almost collapses onto the grass.
She pulls me towards a clearing where nobody can see us. I take my mask off and kiss her on the cheek. She tells me she’s glad I’m here and starts crying.
It wasn’t anything all that bad, the director yelled at some guy and he yelled at Harriet and said the mistake was her fault somehow. Stuff like that gets to her really easily. It’s kind of a big deal for her to be living out here by herself, even just for a couple of months. It’s a big deal for her to be with me, too, and for me to be with her. Girls don’t like me, usually.
She feels better now. I tell her that I’m going to try and be around as often as I can. She goes back to work. I put my mask back on and stand under her tree for the rest of the afternoon.
For the next few days I try to be there as much as I can. Nobody ever asks what I’m doing, I keep my face hidden and they all have other things to worry about.
Opening night comes quickly. Harriet’s job is simple, she just has to keep all the costumes straight, but she’s nervous. She wants me to be there. I keep the mask and the robe with me when I leave that night, and come back early in the morning, before any of the crew have arrived. I wait in the clearing for night to come, and finally approach the stage when I hear crowd noise. Everybody else is in full costume, nobody notices me except Harriet. She squeezes my hand and smiles.
The play begins. The field in front of the stage has been filled with folding chairs and lined with white Christmas lights. Harriet doesn’t make any mistakes. I watch the show. The rude mechanicals take the stage.
“Have you sent to Bottom’s house? Is he come home yet?”
“He cannot be heard of. Out of doubt he is transported.”
“If he come not, then the play…”
Flute starts coughing, followed very shortly by almost every one else in the garden. He collapses. A few rows of folding chairs tip over like dominos and soon the audience is all dead.
The first time Harriet coughs, I don’t think it’s a big deal. The second time, it sounds ugly, like something inside of her is getting torn up. She turns around and looks up at me, and without really thinking about what I’m doing I pick up a mask with a long nose and press it against her face. She breathes deeply and coughs again, but it’s not as bad.
The only people left standing are all wearing plague masks. One of them walks out in front of the stage. She takes her mask off and I can see that she’s crying. She coughs once, coughs again, falls over, coughs a few more times and stops moving. The spotlights are all pointing in different directions.
We file silently into the main building. Harriet is too weak to walk, so I carry her. People start yelling at each other as soon as the doors close. I’m mostly worried about Harriet and don’t say too much, but I mention that it might be a good idea to head into the basement and close all the doors. Somebody else says the same thing, only louder. Soon we’re all heading down the stairs.
We cram ourselves into the boiler room and wait silently. Somebody finally takes their mask off. They’re fine. Everybody else does the same thing and we all start arguing again. The same guy from before gets control of the room somehow, he’s yelling at first but brings it down once people start paying attention. He says that we’ve got to get organized, that we need to see what’s going on outside. Somehow it becomes my job to go downtown. They tell me that Harriet will be fine, that they’ll take care of her.
I put my mask back on, stop by the shed to pick up a flashlight, and walk towards the lake. The streets are empty. Boats bob up and down in the water like corks. Some of the stores have bodies slumped behind the cash register or lying on the floor. I yell a few times but nobody answers me.
The electricity still works. I see a television set playing through the window of a bar. I stop by the shed again before I go back inside and turn on the radio. There’s music or commercials playing on all the FM stations, but when I turn to the talk shows I get nothing but silence.
I go back inside. Harriet’s asleep, so are a few other people. No one who went out comes back with any news of human life outside of this room, but people are sure that help is coming. Not just other people, I feel that way too. There has to be somebody out there. Any minute, we expect the helicopters to land and guys in gas masks to start pouring out.
For two days, nothing like that happens. We head into town in shifts and bring back shopping carts full of canned food and camping supplies. Everyone works together, nobody argues. Nobody wants to be left without something to keep their hands busy.
Halfway through the first day, the electricity dies. People worry about the air conditioning, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference when it stops working. Some of us think the reason we’re still alive is because the basement is underground, that maybe whatever it is in the air rises up. Nobody knows for sure. We try not to open and close the door to the basement any more then we have to.
Harriet isn’t able to do a whole lot. She’s really sick, just standing up makes her dizzy. I spend as much time with her as I can, and we go to sleep every night huddled together like animals. The others avoid her.
It’s strange. Nobody wants to admit how scared they are. Nobody talks about their families. The world might have ended and there are people actually smiling. Trying to cheer each other up.
And I’m doing it too, that’s the fucked up thing. I’m part of the team.
The days go by. If nobody comes by the end of the month we’ve all decided to head for Milwaukee and see how things look.
One day, when I get back from town, I go down into the basement and Harriet isn’t there. I ask everybody where she is. The guy who said we needed to get organized says he’s got something he needs to show me. We put our masks on and go upstairs.
She’s in her workshop. They’ve given her a mattress, a blanket, and some food. I see her through the window, sleeping in the fetal position with her mask on. The leader puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me that he understands this can’t be easy for me. He doesn’t say what he’s worried about, not specifically. Just that she’s sick and we’re not.
The world flips right side up again. I try not to let it show on my face. He asks me if I understand, if I’m okay with this. I tell him that I understand. He goes back downstairs. I go outside and get a burlap sack from the shed. I fold it up and shove it into my back pocket.
They’ve taken one of the racks from Harriet’s studio and moved it to the basement. Everybody hangs their masks there. I wait until everybody is asleep and put the masks into the sack, quietly, one at a time.
I leave the basement again, and throw the bag into a flower garden on my way to the shed. I come back with a gas can and empty it into the garden.
I light a match.
I go to Harriet’s room and wake her up. She’s happy to see me. I tell her we’re leaving and help her to her feet. She sees the fire as we step through the doorway and looks up at me, concerned. Afraid that something’s gone wrong.