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Better a Fallen Rocket

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"Fiat lux!"

Geoffrey bellows it to the rafters, making the theater ring with his voice as he hasn't since his last "This is I, Hamlet the Dane!" He's standing in the wings, but for a moment it's possible to pretend that he still takes up space.

"Fuck, that's satisfying," he says. "I've always wanted to do that."

An appropriately awed silence follows. Then the board op says very slowly, as one would to a crazy person—which he isn't, any more—"I don't know what that means."

"The irony is... well, positively theatrical," says Geoffrey. "And operates on multiple levels, as good theater does. You are the light board operator on The Invention of Love, a play about classical translation, and yet you can't recognize 'Let there be light.'"

"There is light," the board op says, even more slowly. "We're in LX 1—"

"WELL FIAT FOLLOWSPOT THEN!" thunders Geoffrey. "You people are ruining the poetry of this."

"We... haven't got that functional yet," explains the board op. "We're working on that."

"The poetry?" asks Geoffrey archly.

The board op coughs. "The followspot."

"So what you're saying," says Geoffrey, "is that currently I have no reason to be paying you."

"Currently you're not paying anyone," the board op points out.

Geoffrey throws up his hands and begins to stalk downstage toward his crew, preparing to break the fourth wall and perhaps the board op's face. Say what he will about New Burbage—and he could say you a pages-long vituperation—he never had to deal with amateur techs there.

"Uh, Geoffrey?"

It's his AEH, his lead, who is the only person in this production whom Geoffrey likes at the moment. AEH is still standing at his curtain-up mark (although they don't have a curtain yet, of course), and these are the first words he's uttered all rehearsal. He doesn't talk much in general, except to say his lines feelingly and without scenery munching—although, since they don't have scenery either, Geoffrey can only give him so much credit for his restraint.

"Yes?" says Geoffrey reluctantly, pausing downstage right.

"I think... I think I can do without the followspot here… at this particular point in the play?" As Geoffrey glares at him, AEH does what he often does when threatened with a conversation beyond his comfort level: he turns to the text. Opening up his body to the house, he pronounces the first lines of the play in his voice like dry leaves: "I'm dead, then. Good. And this is the Stygian gloom one has heard so much about."

Geoffrey chuckles wryly. "Ah. Yes. Good man." And then, when no one moves for a moment, he rounds on the cast and demands, "Well? You heard him. Let's run this bastard. Charon! 'Belay the painter there, sir!'"

He remains where he is, trying to melt into the background as they begin. It's not easy, though, being as he is downstage, and being as he is an upstager by nature. He'd thought that after Hamlet he'd never want this—never want anything—again, but being physically back here, his feet on the boards, is like an electrical charge. It's only when he thinks about playing to an audience, following direction, kissing another woman—only then does he feel the sweat start under his shirt, and his throat close up like the hole at the top of the grave, as he crawled away like a dog going to die beneath a house.

A few minutes in, Cheryl comes up the aisle toward them, trying to catch his eye. He waves her right, so as not to distract the actors, and meets her at the side staircase, where he takes a knee, feeling embarrassingly like an American high-school football coach.

"It's about ticket sales," she says.

"Wait," says Geoffrey, swiveling to watch the actors. "This is a trouble spot."

"—With Jebb it was Sophocles," says AEH. "There are places in Jebb's Sophocles where the responsibility for reading the metre seems to have been handed over to the Gas, Light and Coke Company."

"Could you—" begins Charon.

"All right," calls Geoffrey, "AEH, your delivery's too deadpan again. No one is ever going to catch that joke. Liven it up, please. I know you're dead but honestly. And Charon, your timing's off. I want you to help him out. I want you to pause and give him a moment of straight-man silence after that. You get plenty of your own laughs later on with the punning, that's a gimme, so cut him a break here." He turns back to Cheryl. "I hate that fucking joke. It's got a hernia it's straining so hard." Cheryl's staring at him. "What?"

"'I know you're dead but honestly'? God, Geoffrey, sometimes you sound just like Oliver."

Geoffrey wobbles a little on his knee. "I do not." His face burns, and he closes his eyes for a moment. "Shit, AEH is right, we don't need any more light up here. It's already too bright." He feels Cheryl's hand on his elbow, but he says, "No, no, go on, talk to me about the thing. What about ticket sales?"

"Well, pretty much there aren't any," Cheryl says. He opens his eyes and looks at her. She looks back defiantly.

"Maybe it'd help if we had a curtain," Geoffrey muses. "At least to cower behind."

"It's not funny," she says. "I don't know about you, but some of us have student loans still outstanding, and rent, and groceries—" She runs a hand through her hair. "I don't know what to do, Geoff, seriously. I'm out of my depth. I'm a stage manager, not an administrator. I mean, we're really in the hole here. Don't forget I paid for the performance rights out of pocket. We're—"

"Um, line?" calls AEH tentatively.

"How the hell is he still forgetting lines?" hisses Geoffrey in an undertone.

Cheryl sighs and ignores him. "Where are you?"

"Jerome's article goaded Douglas's father into leaving a card at the Albermarle Club, 'to Oscar Wilde, posing as a Sodomite.' From which all that followed, followed...."

"Which goes to show," says Cheryl, "I know what I'm doing...."

"Which goes to show, I know what I'm doing even when I don't know I'm doing it—"

Something boils over in Geoffrey. "No, no, no!" he shouts. "You make it sound so reasonable. Christ, do I have to do everyone's job here? Shall I go back and rewire the followspot? How about the box office, do they need my charms?" He sighs and stands and says to the all-but-empty house, occupied only by actors incapable of suspending their disbelief, "'Which goes to show, I know what I'm doing even when I don't know I'm doing it, in the busy hours between the tucking up and the wakey-wakey thermometer faintly antiseptic under the tongue from its dainty gauze-stoppered vase on the bedside cabinet.'" He whirls toward AEH. "He doesn't know what he's on about; he's in the—"

AEH is gone. So is Charon.

To the empty space where they stood, Geoffrey says, "And wait a minute, how the hell did we get here? This is already the end of Act Two. I know I told you to pick up the pace, but—"

"The time is out of joint," says Cheryl somberly from behind him. He turns back to her, grateful that she, at least, has not abandoned him.

"Cheryl," he says. "Something is—" He stops, eyes narrowing. "You said you paid for the rights out of pocket. But it's... what's the date?" She hesitates, and he ploughs ahead, incapable of waiting, leaving her behind. "No, I know, my Hamlet was the 1997 season. It's sometime toward the end of '97. The Invention of Love is still in its premiere production in London. How could you— you couldn't possibly have gotten the rights, not on our budget, not out of pocket."

"Geoffrey," she says softly. "You're the director. The actors are waiting for direction."

"The actors are gone!" he cries. "Everyone's gone. Except you. Oh, fuck." He starts to crumble, and then he feels her hand on his elbow again, supporting him. "Direction. I was saying... I was saying"—he slows, as it grows on him like a mounting avalanche—"that AEH is in the hospital. At the end of his life, raving. It's not really happening."

She looks at him wide-eyed, and he suddenly realizes she's frightened. He's not supposed to know this.

"It's not really happening," he says to her. "And there is a kind of confession in your looks, which your modesty has not craft enough to color." Gently, he removes her hand from his elbow. "I'm AEH. Aren't I? Strutting through a delusive play while in real life I lie wetting the bed in a curtained-off room somewhere, making nurses cry. I'm not out yet, am I?"

"Not even close," she says.

She seems to have regained her composure, as though she knows she's still in control of how this plays out. If he's AEH, does that make her Charon? The ferryman to the underworld? The gravedigger, the absolute knave who can never be outmaneuvered, who's been tunneling your tomb since day one, since out you came bloodied and squalling? No, no, that's the wrong play. But then this is the wrong play, too.

Cheryl, smiling, says, "You're just getting in."

And finally, as they stand on the stage looking out over the empty house, the followspot blazes into being, piercing them both. It's the top of the show, and he's peering down the long vertiginous slope of it, on the spot, and he opens his eyes to find that the glare is a penlight in the hand of an admitting doctor, checking him for concussion.

"Oh, fuck," says Geoffrey again, and falls away.

***

The first time Cheryl met Geoffrey Tennant was on the back stairs behind the theater after their first rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet. She was sitting on the second step from the top, elbows on knees, cupping a cigarette in her hands against the wind that gusted down the alleyway. Her hair was awry, she'd spilled coffee on her white shirt hours ago, and naturally Geoffrey Tennant swept out of the theater in his very tight Romeo trousers and looked straight at her for the first time.

"Ah," he said, "the outdoor ghost light."

"Excuse me?" She started to stand up, straightening her rumpled shirt, feeling very much like a schoolgirl. She had the impulse to shake his hand. This was Geoffrey Tennant.

"I usually go out the front at night," he said. "I always see you as I pass by the mouth of the alley. Well, I see the tip of your cigarette. I'd been wondering who it was— the outdoor ghost light, burning all night long."

To her horror, she blushed. He'd just said "burning all night long" to her; what did he expect?

"I'm trying to quit," she said.

"But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends, it gives a lovely light," he said, and a smile diffused across his face like a beam breaking through a prism.

She blushed harder, and silently cursed herself, and thanked God for the dark.

"I'm Cheryl," she said.

"I know. They introduced you at the beginning, I remember. I'm Geoffrey—"

"Geoffrey Tennant," she finished for him. "I know, I saw your Edmund—"

He held up a hand. "Yes, right, but see. I really. Do not. Like talking about that play." Off her startled look, he said, "Oh, I appreciate that it got me here"—and the sweep of his arm encompassed the empty alley and the yawning stage behind them and the black river somewhere beyond the buildings before them—"I mean, it and Oliver—but honestly, Long Day's Journey, what a fucking apocalypse of a play. It's worse than Lear. At least in Lear there's still a Fool. In Long Day's Journey all you get is—" She could see his shoulders go back a little, his spine straighten, his chest expand with air. He stood on the step above her and declaimed into the dark, "'It was like walking on the bottom of the sea. As if I had drowned long ago. As if I was a ghost belonging to the fog, and the fog was the ghost of the sea. It felt damned peaceful to be nothing more than a ghost within a ghost.'"

She looked up at him. He was silhouetted by the glow from the theater behind, limned in light, and she couldn't see his face. Only the shape of him, the shadow. She knew so little about him. And then he relaxed, dropped his head, and smiled at her, and she knew something secret that she hadn't before.

"I'm Geoffrey," he said. "Just Geoffrey. You're the ASM and I'm the actor, and we're going to get to know each other very well. And I'm looking forward to it. We ghost-people, we have to stick together."

She couldn't think of any answer to that, so she said, willfully dense, "I've never believed in ghost lights. I mean, they seem like a waste of energy. You'd think ghosts would be used to obscurity." That wasn't it, not really, but you didn't tell someone you'd just met that when you started working in the theater, you believed only too much in ghosts. That you carried one around with you and shuddered at the thought of that bare bulb like a flame attracting more supernatural moths.

Geoffrey laughed, a brief explosion. "That's just a cover. No one really loses a minute's sleep over perturbéd spirits. As with most practices in the theater, in reality it's all about the actor's ego: so he doesn't fall off the edge of the world like an ancient mariner."

"Off the stage?" she asked, and then, catching Geoffrey's wry look, she chuckled in understanding. "Oh, right. Like you said. Off the edge of the world."

"There was a reason they called it the Globe." He was taking a step toward her, clapping her on the shoulder. "I knew I liked you." He stood there a moment more, his outline wavering. "Would you like to go out and get extremely drunk with me at Yong's?"

She paused, considered, fought against the hammering of her heart. There would be greasy Chinese food and terrible booze, and she would get red in the face and talk about her nicotine habit and her heartbreaker ex and her dead mother. Maybe, if she was lucky, later they would fuck in her too-large apartment and lie in bed afterward listening to the mice scramble in the walls—Geoffrey too uncomfortable to talk but too nice to leave. More likely, it would never get that far. At dinner he would just clap her on the shoulder like that a lot. Companionably.

"Thanks, but I've gotta be here early tomorrow. Maybe another time?" And she swore to herself, Never.

Geoffrey shrugged and sat down beside her abruptly, bonelessly. "That's all right. I really don't need it anyway. I was drinking in my dressing room just now."

She studied him—for the first time up close, instead of from across the theater, close enough to notice that his hair curled even at the hairline—but still couldn't see it. He seemed exactly the same drunk as sober.

"You have a bruise," she said, feeling herself staring hotly at it, "under your eye, your left eye—"

"You should see the other guy," he said, a rote reflex without conviction. "Coincidentally, it's actually from falling off the stage." He put his face in his hands, and his voice came to her muffled, dreamy. "My first day here, Oliver was giving me a tour. We were up on the main stage. Ellen came in through the door at the back, walked down the aisle very slowly, and stopped right below us. She asked Oliver, 'So this is my Romeo?' She didn't say anything to me. She seemed... very unimpressed. So I started our part of Act One Scene Five—'If I profane with my unworthiest hand'—holding it out, you know, my unworthiest hand, to shake hers, and naturally I stepped forward to meet her. And fell right off the stage."

"What did she do?" asked Cheryl, because she could tell he wanted her to ask.

"She looked down at me on the floor and said, 'Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much.'" His face still hidden, he said, "I don't usually do that. Fall off the edge of the world. I didn't know it was so easy."

"It is," said Cheryl. She knew then, in a prescient flash, how the rest of this season would be. Geoffrey kissing lithe Ellen Fanshaw in every rehearsal until, inevitably, they started kissing after rehearsals; and in the meantime, Geoffrey watching Ellen, and she and Oliver watching Geoffrey. Maybe she should just fuck Oliver. At least they'd have a common interest for pillow talk.

"And that," said Geoffrey, lifting his head and rising to his feet all in one smooth motion, "is what we need ghost lights for." He gestured at her mouth—absurdly, she thought, Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer, until she realized that he was indicating her dying cigarette. "Keep the home fires burning, Cheryl. I will see you tomorrow, when I am hungover."

After he left, she sat there for a very, very long time, watching the sun come up, smoking her cigarette down to the filter.

Now, ten years on, she sits through another unending night until the dawn creeps through her windshield. When the time comes, she makes her way inside and washes her face in the public bathroom, and goes to do what ten years ago she would have dreamed of doing: sitting at Geoffrey Tennant's bedside. Only she's not smoking, much as she wants to. You can't in hospitals.

Last night, Geoffrey was committed. That was after he was arrested, which was after he tried to assassinate a swan, which was after he stole a car and committed aggravated assault and broke his contract with the festival, but really everything was a foregone conclusion. She'd known it was all over when she found Ellen crying in the greenroom at intermission. She couldn't find Geoffrey at all. Ellen was making a scene backstage, and then the curtain came back up on Act Five—God, she knew they should have put the intermission earlier in the damn play, the way normal companies did—and Maria was hissing "LX 121" and Geoffrey couldn't make a scene onstage. He took his last few steps and walked over the lip of the grave, off the face of the earth.

"Oh, Geoff," Cheryl says. "I'm so sorry." She puts out a tentative hand and strokes the hair at his temples, those nascent curls. He'd been growing it out for Hamlet. He doesn't stir, though his eyelids flicker. She hopes the dream is better than this. "I didn't do so well as your ghost light after all."

***

The most awkward thing about all this, Geoffrey thinks, sitting in the sudden dark after the followspot blows again, isn't the part where he knows he's dreaming and has to play along with it anyway for lack of better options. After all, he is—he was—an actor. He upholds mutually acknowledged delusions for his living. Without Hamlet's honest ghost, Macbeth's dagger of the mind, he wouldn't eat.

No, he doesn't mind metatheater. What's most uncomfortable is knowing that his mind is dreaming but his body really needs to take a piss.

"The desire to urinate," he says, pitting himself against the immense silence of the stage. Once his voice was one of his best assets. He could wield it like a rapier. He remembers his first Act Three Scene One: throwing up backstage until mere seconds before his cue, and then numbly taking the stage, not knowing if when he opened his mouth he'd start spewing again—or say, as he did, "To be, or not to be…." He made the whole globe echo with it. He'd seen productions of Hamlet before where the audience gasped with recognition, even laughed at those words. Not here. There wasn't a sound from the house. And for a long while, blinded by the sudden light as he stepped out from the obscurity of the wings, unable to see their faces, he had no sign at all that he wasn't completely alone, speaking to emptiness.

The soliloquy, he knows, is the loneliest moment in life. Exeunt all but Hamlet is the stage direction that precedes three of the soliloquies; but it's more than that, it's more than even loneliness, it's the terrifying awareness of a world in which you are the most important figure, in which every other character is no more than your flimsy foil, in which you are both creator and resident. Soliloquy, from the Latin soliloquium, "a talking to oneself." Soliloquy: stage-sanctioned schizophrenia.

"'The desire to urinate,'" he repeats AEH's line, desperate for a script, "'combined with a sense that it would not be a good idea, usually means we are asleep.'"

"'Or in a boat,'" says Cheryl's voice, Charon's words, in his right ear. "'That happened to me once.'"

Geoffrey turns toward her, only to discover that he's no longer onstage. They're sitting in the front row of seats, facing the now-empty proscenium. He trembles with dizziness, disoriented not only by the sudden shifts of this dream, but also by the realization that this is where he will be for the rest of his life. Watching from the dim house. Not up there.

"Cheryl—" he starts to say, his voice fluttering like a flag in a storm, lashed by sudden tears. She shakes her head once, sharply, definitively: suck it up, the show must go on. He gulps it back. "'Were you asleep?'"

"'No,'" she says, her eyes boring into his, "'I was in a play.'"

"'That needs thinking about,'" says Geoffrey. There is a long silence, without Cheryl's continuing the scene. Finally, Geoffrey says, "You know, I'm closer to the right age for Housman, not AEH. I'm egregiously miscast here. Whose decision was that?"

"You are the director," Cheryl points out.

"I'm not sure that's true." He studies her face, which is distorted by a derisive look he's never seen there before. There's something uncomfortably omniscient about it. "So you are my Charon, then. Ferrying me across the river into the undiscovered country. Into complete insanity."

She leers. "I haven't looked in your mouth for coins yet, have I?" And that's another new thing about her: her total lack of sexual embarrassment with him. Cheryl seems to know a lot—philosophically and biblically. "Which is a lucky thing for you, because I have to tell you, Geoffrey, you're going to be broke after this little escapade."

"After ruining my acting career, you mean?" Geoffrey asks, trying to keep himself grounded. "And taking some time off to lie around in a coma talking to myself?"

She arches an eyebrow. "After this production. No followspot, no scenery, no ticket sales—oh, by the way, no Katharine Housman any more, either. Darren quit; he decided that onstage transvestism is only fun when you're making other people do it."

"Darren Nichols?" asks Geoffrey. "What the—"

"Don't ask questions," says Cheryl. "That way lies… well, Act Three Scene One, for one. Just go with it. This way is better."

"That needs thinking about," says Geoffrey, worried by the discovery that AEH's words are becoming more natural than his own.

"No, that's exactly it; it doesn't. We must not think too much, Geoffrey. People go mad if they think too much."

"That's Euripides," Geoffrey returns. "This is just—it's a patchwork, it's some kind of subconscious collage. It's not happening. It's all in my head."

He doesn't know why he expects to wake up just because he said it out loud. That kind of thing only happens in fiction. Then again, this is fiction. Or maybe not.

"What happened to the play?" he asks, tearing his gaze away from her, glancing pointedly at the stage. "Where'd the others go? I'm tired of talking to myself."

"Intermission," says Cheryl. "They'll be on again soon." She smiles, settles back in her seat. "Be ready, Geoffrey. From now on, this is as real as it gets."

***

"It's not real," Cheryl says. "Geoffrey, please listen to me, it's not real."

"For fuck's sake make up your mind!" he howls, sitting bolt upright in bed. Then he stares straight at her, for the first time, and goes absolutely white. "Oh, God," he says, falling back against the pillow. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. It's just, I was dreaming, and—very Wizard of Oz—you were there, too."

She didn't expect that, and as childish as it is, she's flattered by it. To be cast by Geoffrey Tennant—even in a fantasy—is no small thing.

"I'm still here," she says. She takes his hand. "Are you all right?"

"My head is killing me," says Geoffrey, "and so is my stomach, and I think something alive is growing on my tongue—was I drinking?"

She doesn't crack a smile. "That's the drugs. They're pretty potent. The nurse said you'd probably have some side effects. What I meant was, do you know where you are?"

He scans the room, but only for a moment, his eyes hungrily returning to her face. She knows he's only clinging to the one familiar sight in this place, she knows that nothing is worth this kind of indignity—but it makes her heart throb with gratitude anyway.

"In the hospital, presumably," he says. "You can stop squeezing so hard; that's the hand that the swan bit." She jumps a little and releases him. He smiles unsteadily. "It's all right. I'm awake. I'm talking to you."

She stares at him for a moment. Then she says, gently, trying to keep her voice from trembling, "You've been awake and talking to me, off and on, for a long time."

He freezes. After a while, he says, very slowly, "That's not right. I've been, I've been dreaming."

"No. Your eyes have been open. You've been talking to… people…."

"The drugs!" he says, a little wild-eyed. "You said side effects."

"Geoffrey, they put you on the drugs because of this." She can feel him shaking, the air between them vibrating.

"Oh, this should not be happening," he whispers. "It's this place, you've got to get me—" He squeezes his eyes shut suddenly, clutches at his stomach. "Oh, shit, I am not going to be sick."

She gets up, crosses the room, and turns off the overhead lights. Comes back and takes his hand again. She is efficient. She can manage so many things: backstage techs, actors' cues, set strike, Maria's moods. She can manage this.

They sit in the dimness for a long time, until she feels his skin grow cooler, almost clammy. She starts to get up, thinking that he's finally asleep.

Eyes still closed, Geoffrey asks in a low voice, "Did you know that Goethe's dying words were 'More light! More light!'?" His mouth twists. "There's a playwright for you."

She sits down again. Lamely, she says, "You know that's probably apocryphal."

He smirks. "Oh, yes, the vaunted distinction between fact and fiction. I've heard tell." He opens one eye and peers at her. "Honestly, who cares? It's damn good theater. If we recorded people's actual last words, we'd never have gotten 'A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!' or 'The horror! the horror!' or 'The rest—'"

He chokes on it, the line that he never got to utter that third time. Cheryl feels cold thinking about it. He never completed the play, so maybe it's still going on, somewhere in the dark behind his eyes; he never finished off Gertrude and Claudius and Laertes and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Hamlet himself, so maybe all those voices that ought to be mute are still talking, an unceasing babble. Maybe the final curtain never comes for him. No rest, no silence.

"Anyway," says Geoffrey. "Thank God for fiction. Without it, all we'd have would be 'You're out of my will' or 'I say, is that a stampeding herd of—'" He laughs and then grimaces, his body clenching and releasing. He curls halfway into the fetal position. "Oh. The potent poison quite o'er-crows—" He groans deep in his throat; whether at the nausea or the play, she can't tell.

"It's just the drugs," Cheryl says. Of course it's not just the drugs, the drugs are the least of their worries, but she doesn't even know how to talk about the rest. "You just feel bad. You're not dying."

His smile is ghastly. Going away from her again.

"No," he says, "just offstage."

***

He wakes up lying in the dark again, a relief for which he gives much thanks. He tries to put out a hand, and discovers that he can't, because his arms are immobilized at his sides. He feels no fear, no claustrophobia; only, still, a deep and abiding sense of relief. Rolling over onto his back, he understands why: he's in the crawlspace under the main stage, looking up into the high winking skylight of the grave's mouth. It's an interesting perspective, the kind that fossilized dinosaurs must have beneath the earth, sensing those absurd mammals patter out their brief warm lives above. His blood will never run that hot again.

He closes his eyes, and the darkness is complete. The grave is like a cocoon.

"More like a straitjacket." Geoffrey opens his eyes in horror, and yes, it is: it's Oliver, sitting dangling his legs over the edge of the hole, which has somehow moved closer to Geoffrey, so that Oliver's swinging heels nearly clip Geoffrey's head. (His heels may kick at heaven, the bastard, but his soul is damn'd and black as hell, whereto it goes.) "You know," Oliver says helpfully: "the comfortably pinioned arms and all."

"What are you doing here?" Geoffrey asks. His rage is too enormous for words, and so his voice comes out level and quiet, impressing even himself.

"Posing as a sodomite." Oliver chuckles and says in his professorial voice—a rare tactic that he usually only tries on academic apprentices whom he wants to bed—"Actually, in the Marquess of Queensberry's note it was 'posing as a somdomite.' Sic, obviously."

Geoffrey stares up at him uncomprehendingly. On some level, it's refreshing to give that look for once, instead of receiving it. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Latin for thus, old boy. Thus in the original text. Weren't you the one just showing off your classical tongues?" He says it in the exact same tone that Cheryl said, I haven't looked in your mouth for coins yet, have I?

"Oliver."

"All right, all right. I'm here to play your Wilde." Oliver looks very pleased with himself.

"Oscar Wilde?"

"Well, if you'd prefer Constance…." Oliver peers down into Geoffrey's face, feigning hurt. Or maybe it's genuine; with Oliver, it's never possible to tell. "I thought you'd be pleased. I'm here to play your wise mentor figure."

"Hah! I don't know who you think is going to cast you in that role, but certainly not me."

"Have you got a casting couch?"

"Oliver," says Geoffrey, half-closing his eyes and glaring out through the slits, as through the bars of a cell. He can't imagine what he's done to merit this sentence, what he has deserved at the hands of fortune that she sends him to prison hither: the sky filled with Oliver's face, and Geoffrey with not even a hand free to smash it. "Don't take this the wrong way, but fuck you."

Oliver doesn't even blink. After a thoughtful pause, he says, "I suppose the wrong way to take it would be as an offer?"

"Oh, for the love of God!" Geoffrey wriggles, trying to work his way backward, away from Oliver and this last opening onto the world. "Why does everyone in this delusion want to have sex with me?"

"Art imitates life, darling." Oliver looks down at him, an indulgent smile on his lips. After a moment of watching him struggle, Oliver says, "Give it up. You can't go any farther. You've withdrawn as far as is humanly possible; congratulations. Listen, we need to talk. About the play."

"If you try to give me notes, so help me—"

Then Oliver's hand clamps over his shoulder, and with superhuman strength draws him up and out. Geoffrey fights, but he can't resist Oliver. He's never really been able to. Oliver says get to your mark and you get to your mark. Wherever it is.

In a moment he's sitting cross-legged on the stage beside Oliver. The hole has, impossibly, shrunk; it looks smaller than he remembers it, like a childhood home. He can't imagine how he fit into it.

"You have your whole life to spend hiding down there," says Oliver. "I wish you joy of it. But right now, you have a play to worry about—"

"Oh, the play," says Geoffrey dully. "The play is a fantasy. If I start worrying about the play, then I'll finally, completely have lost contact with reality."

"Isn't that what you want?" asks Oliver. "Listen, it's about the Kath—"

"I'm finished with it, Oliver. I'm finished with your endless droning notes, I'm finished with throwing up backstage, I'm finished with grandstanding divas and visiting Hollywood stars—"

"Finished with the text?" asks Oliver. "Finished with getting paid to say those words, and making people weep every night and then every night, afterward, going into her dressing room and—"

"I'll no more on't!" He's screaming without meaning to, his voice cracking, like an adolescent boy who can't even control his own body. "It hath made me mad!" He puts his face in his hands, and only when he feels the dampness does he realize he's crying. Dimly, he thinks, What a fool you are, Tennant.

"Just what I was going to say," says Oliver after a moment, a little awe in his voice, as on the day Geoffrey first auditioned for him. It really doesn't seem fair that he should be psychic on top of everything else. "If I were still your director, I'd tell you that's where you go wrong, on those rare occasions that you do. You hit the emotional crux of the scene prematurely. You spend it all too early. You don't know when to pull out." He snickers. "Not that I can speak from experience. Unfortunately, though, you're the director now, God help your beleaguered cast, and we need to talk about the Katharine Housman part."

"Of course," says Geoffrey, beginning to rock back and forth. Why bother to resist? He can't make sense of it, can't force this story into coherence. Hell, he couldn't even finish Hamlet, a play as tautly balanced as a scale, so that at the moment of climax all he had to do was shift his weight in the right direction and it would all slide into place, Hamlet descending and Fortinbras ascending, settling into its final perfect and desolating equilibrium. But no. He had shifted the wrong way. Poised on the edge of the grave, he had looked into the wings and seen—and stopped. Snagging on the moment, upsetting everything.

"Yes, well," says Oliver. "About that. In case you haven't noticed, there aren't any women in your company."

"There's Cheryl," Geoffrey points out.

"But she doesn't count, does she?" says Oliver, fixing him with a knowing eye. "She's not in the cast. Besides, she's just a friend." He cocks his head, as if something has just occurred to him. "Ah, perhaps that's some kind of psychological tell? The only woman in the world for you is gone, and so you erase all women from your cast? Really, Geoffrey, it's awfully unsubtle."

"Fuck right off, Oliver," says Geoffrey.

"Here's the thing," says Oliver. "No one else is going to take up Darren's little gender experiment. You need an actress for Katharine." Geoffrey stares at him. Then, as understanding dawns, he begins to object, but Oliver takes hold of his arm and shakes it and says, "Too late. You're already thinking of it. Look."

And look he does, because it's all he can do. He climbs to his feet and looks into the wings, where she stands looking back. He can barely see her face, but it's just as well, because he wouldn't be able to understand what he'd find there anyway. There's no justice in it. She fucked him over, she's the traitor here, and then she told him at intermission knowing that she wouldn't have to go on again tonight. Knowing that Ophelia would be safely dead and Geoffrey safely onstage, away from her, caught for another whole act in the prison of Denmark. She gets to hide in the shadows, and he has to stand in the followspot, perched above the grave he just clambered out of, a wordless Hamlet, while everyone watches.

"We're not supposed to be doing this play again," he hisses to Oliver, out of the side of his mouth. He can't take his eyes off her. "I thought the whole point of doing Invention was so I wouldn't have to think about this play."

"It's all the same," says Oliver. "You'll never get out of it. There is no finish line. The most important stage direction in Invention is 'Jackson is seen as a runner running towards us from the dark, getting no closer.' Look at her, Geoffrey. As Housman looks at Moses Jackson. For once, be here with the rest of us, denied the one thing you want."

"'At night I hold you fast in my dreams,'" Geoffrey says to her, across the impossible vastness of the empty stage, "'I run after you across the Field of Mars,'" she makes no reply, she might as well be a ghost, or he might, "'I follow you into the tumbling waters,'" his voice is breaking again, "'and you show no pity.' Oh, Christ, Ellen."

Now he can say what he wants to her, because she's not really there, because it's not really a play and there is no audience besides Oliver, who isn't real anyway. Now he can say this because he has perspective, if only the perspective of the vanishing point, of endless receding, of asymptotic distance, of Orpheus turning to look back one last time at Eurydice before she disappears. But then, in the moment, there was only The Play. Big as the earth you can't see the curve of. Then she was Ophelia and already dead to him, and he thought, irrelevantly, Let her not walk i' the sun. And, as he stared into the light fixed on him intent as a gaze, it came as a revelation to him: I am too much i' the sun.

"Geoffrey," Oliver is hissing insistently in his ear, "the play, don't forget about the play—"

But of course he won't. He never forgot his lines, not really, and he'll never forget the play, except in the way that it's sometimes possible to forget that you're alive. Possible to forget that there are no guarantees—that you will be breathing in another minute, that you will remember your lines in the next scene, that you will still be loved in the fifth act—because these things have an end, because the world does have an edge—

"Into my grave," he says. And then, because Oliver doesn't recognize his cue, he answers himself, which is all any of this is anyway, an echo box, an interminable soliloquy with a cast of thousands: "Indeed, that is out o' the air"—

possible to forget, until you fall off of it.

***

"Oh, shit," says Geoffrey, and at once Cheryl's stirring, tense, ready for whatever disaster is next—and, she has to admit, infinitely less lonely.

He's been out for most of the day, this time, but things never got less lively. So Cheryl just stayed. A nurse poked her head through the door mid-afternoon and told her to get some lunch, take a walk. "You've been here since this morning, haven't you?" she'd said. "You know he's not going anywhere." Cheryl hadn't told her that she'd been here, for the value of "here" that translated to "sleeping in a car in the parking lot," for going on forty-eight hours. Defiant, resistant to pity, she said only, coolly, "It's still visiting hours, isn't it?"

So here she's been, for whatever good it's done. She's comforted herself with the idea that he knows she's here, even if she's just dozing in a chair trying not to listen to his raving, but she knows it's probably not true. The only people here for him are phantoms; and if she's there, if she's one of them, then God knows what he thinks she's saying to him.

"Geoffrey?" she says now, opening her eyes, sitting up straighter in her chair. His hand clutches her wrist, and for a moment she thinks he's asking her for comfort. Then her vision focuses, and he's looking at her from the bed, across the gap, and momentarily there is something utterly warm and human and Geoffrey in his face. He's not asking; he's offering. She must look like a wreck, with her day-old clothes and her stringy hair. In that moment his eyes ask how long she's been there, and she answers, Forever.

Then the concern in his face flickers out, and fear replaces it. He's back to being a cornered animal.

"Am I—"

"Yes," she says. "You're awake." She's only too aware of how unconvincing that is. She's no help. After all, she's in both places. Lies in one ear, truth in the other.

His throat moves in a swallow. His eyes sweep the room, performing what has become his customary check. He seems satisfied that he's back in the hospital again, that only the people who should be here are, but then he looks back at her and his face betrays him. He can't tell.

He clears his throat.

"So he isn't— Oliver isn't here."

"No," she says, gently. "I'm sorry. I'm sure he'll visit when—"

"Don't apologize for it!" cries Geoffrey. "Thank God."

"Oh." She searches for something bland and noncommittal to say, but finally has to ask, "So, why is he… there?"

"We're putting on a play," says Geoffrey grimly. "It's a nightmare. No money. Everyone's a hack but AEH. Oliver wants to be Wilde—" He stops, seeing her blank expression, and misinterprets it as confusion, rather than as the wall that she's erecting, the way she's steeling herself against the depths. "Sorry, it's The Invention of Love. The new Stoppard play, about A.E. Housman?"

"I know what it is," she says, when she can trust her voice. "Oliver had me read it, too."

Electrified by Hamlet, by the monument that he saw taking shape before him, Oliver had spent the last few weeks of rehearsal already thinking about the next season, and the next, and the next. Invention wouldn't be available for them to put on for a while yet, but Oliver wanted to do the Canadian premiere. He had his Housman. Geoffrey got the script first, of course, and seemed interested, which the rest of the company found endlessly amusing. Oliver was always trying to talk an apparently unsuspecting Geoffrey into doing homosocial plays with tortured male leads—another revival of Journey's End to top Stratford's, Tennessee Williams, The Lion in Winter—and yet it was the most overt of the bunch that finally appealed to Geoffrey.

Cheryl shakes her head, not wanting to think about it. She's never going to see Geoffrey in a play again.

"Actually," she says, "he gave it to me right after you. He was hoping to sell me on it so I could sell Maria. Maria doesn't like Stoppard, you know. She calls him 'glossy.'" She realizes that she's talking only to keep him from talking.

"You know," says Geoffrey, "I think I know why Oliver is enjoying putting on this play so much." He checks himself, glancing at her sideways. "Would enjoy it, subjunctive, if he were here," he amends. "Which of course he is not." He shoots a hunted glance into an empty corner of the room.

"Bending your eye on vacancy again, Geoffrey," says Cheryl, trying to keep her voice level and light.

"Ah," says Geoffrey, and fixes her with an abstracted gaze. "How is it with you, lady?" He smiles. "I've been thinking it's because there are so few women in this play. No erotic displacement, you see. No interference. Oliver... didn't like women in that way. In the way. You know?"

Gently, Cheryl says, "Everybody knew that, Geoffrey."

"Do you?" asks Geoffrey.

"I think I fall under the heading of 'everybody,'" she says. Though somehow it hurts to say so.

"No," he persists, "I mean, do you—like women?"

It's a testament to how impossible this entire situation is that she isn't thrown by the question. It seems natural. Or at least his asking her anything, anything at all, is more natural than his asking it of the empty air.

She shrugs. "In that way? Yeah. Sometimes." She doesn't say, You're the first man I've liked in that way in a very long time.

He doesn't blink. Nothing that happens here seems to surprise him; everything is expected. She knows he can't afford ingenuousness any more. He can't allow any gaps in his omniscience. Because it's in the spaces that you leave unsurveyed that you can be betrayed: the backstage room where he never thought to look, where one night in an empty intermission between the scenes of their lives, Oliver took off Ophelia's dress.

From now on, Geoffrey will live offstage, but he'll be the consummate actor everywhere, always analyzing motivations, always tracing subtext, always following a thousand different labyrinthine branchings of possibility at once. And it terrifies her. No one can do that, can live on so many levels at the same time, and remain a whole person.

"I did fool around with Maria once," she offers. She's never told anyone that. She's telling him on impulse, hoping to make him more interested in what's happening here than what's happening in there, where she can't follow, where he's more untouchable than ever.

Geoffrey considers this. "That's how you got hired at New Burbage?" he asks.

The violence of her feelings overflows; she hits him hard on the arm, and can't wholly feign playfulness. "Geoffrey."

"I'm a mean lunatic," he says. He catches her hand before she can withdraw it, and in a flash he's sincere, he's Geoffrey again. "Cheryl. You got your job for the same reason I got mine." His eyes focus on hers. "Because you're brilliant at what you do."

"I—" All sensation seems centered in the warmth of her hand in his. She doesn't feel the lump in her throat until she speaks around it. "For a second, I thought you were trying to tell me you slept with— whoever hired you."

"No," says Geoffrey, and his eyes go away again. "You know, it's funny, but I never actually did. Now I don't know why."

Trying to get him back, she asks, "Do you like women?" Do you honestly? she wants to know. Can you, in real life? Observed of all observers, can you look as well as be looked at?

"I liked her," said Geoffrey. "That was really all."

And there it is: for all that it's Oliver with whom she has to share billing in this insane play of his, for all that he looks for Oliver in the corners of the room, it's Ellen palpably standing between them. As she always has.

"That's what I thought," says Cheryl, but Geoffrey doesn't answer. She can tell he's done with her for now. He seems to shrink in the bed, consolidating, focusing all of his energy on some point she can't see. Preparing himself for the next battle. There's nothing for her to do; he's left her no role. "I'm going to go have a smoke, okay?" she says. "I'll be back in ten, I promise." She knows he doesn't care, probably doesn't hear her any more, but she for one will always keep her promises to him.

Outside in the parking lot, the daylight is fading, a tide rolling back toward the moon. Visiting hours will be over soon, but they're never really over for her. It takes her a few tries to get her cigarette to catch, buffeted by the wind that grows colder every day. Winter's coming to New Burbage. Soon the theater season will be over—but then that's never really over either.

"Do you know what happens to old actors?" she asks the silent rows of cars. The wind tears the words from her mouth. "Nothing. They're still acting." It's probably the wind, too, that makes her eyes well up.

"It's too late in the day to be that existential," someone says.

She looks up, and for a moment she's sure that Geoffrey's starting to rub off on her. Because Oliver's standing before her, and she can't think why he would truly be here, what he could possibly say.

He waits with his hands in his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the cold. She's never seen him look so awkward and unrehearsed before, and oddly, that's what changes her mind. It has to be the real Oliver. She doesn't have enough imagination to dream him up like this. The thing about people in plays is that they have to be consistent, identifiable; only people in real life can veer so wildly out of character.

"Hello," she says wearily. "He's inside, you know." She wants to lean on the knife, to say, Don't bother going in. He wouldn't notice. He thinks you're there all the time anyway. But she doesn't. For Geoffrey's sake, for whatever dignity remains to him, she doesn't.

Oliver's always seemed younger than his years. Often it was possible to believe that he was the same age as Geoffrey. He looks much, much older now.

"I know," he says. "That's why I'm out here."

She exhales forcibly. "You don't have much time if you're going to get in today."

He takes a step toward her, then seems to think better of it. "Has Ellen been by yet?" When Cheryl shakes her head, he says, with forced jollity, "Well, then! You know, he really shouldn't see me before they've had a chance to… well. Whatever they're going to do." He draws his coat more tightly around him and turns to go.

Even knowing him, she still can't quite believe he can just walk away from this—and of course once he leaves tonight, that will be it. He'll never try again. She and Oliver aren't close, not even the kind of close that employee and employer sometimes manage. Maria is her boss and Oliver has always been as distant, as practically irrelevant, as the Prime Minister. He screwed apprentices, he directed actors, he loved Geoffrey, and there wasn't enough left of him for anyone else. But her utter disbelief makes her as bold as a bosom friend.

"You're a coward, Oliver," she says. But without venom. Because who isn't?

He stops. He doesn't look at her for a moment, but she can see his shoulders tense. Then he turns back.

"Yes," he says, simply and shamelessly. He sighs. "Who has visited?"

"No one," she says. She stares at him fiercely, with a feeling of defending something. "Just me."

He looks into her face for a long time. Then he winces, and says, "Ah. Be careful, my dear."

"Oh, come on," she says impatiently. "He went after a swan, that's all. It was barely more than metaphorical. He's not dangerous."

"Not physically," Oliver says, as gentle as she's ever heard him. He's not close enough to touch her, but his glance is like a hand on her arm. "Believe me. I know."

***

Geoffrey has steeled himself against all shocks at this point; it just saves time. Which is why he doesn't even try to puzzle out how he jumped into the grave and ended up here, sitting again in the first row of seats with Oliver behind him, listening as onstage AEH grunts and sweats through the final few scenes of the play. Now he's carrying on his last conversation with Chamberlain. Chamberlain is an egregious over-actor, a little like Kenneth Branagh on speed, but Geoffrey doesn't care. He can't make himself care about much of anything, any more.

Oliver digs him in the back with a thumb. "Geoffrey. I know of late you've forgone all custom of exercises, et cetera et cetera, but at least feign some interest in your own production."

"'I often sit with my eyes closed and it doesn't necessarily mean I'm awake,'" says Geoffrey to the dead space between seats and stage, the limbo he's never been able to navigate. He's losing his resistance to chaos and incoherence, losing interest in keeping this play distinct from all the others. Why not let the levee break, the lines blur? If this is all he has left, then it might as well be all plays in one. Roll on, entropy. "This is miserable," he says.

Oliver frowns. "You certainly seemed enthusiastic enough about it when I gave you the script."

"I'm not talking about the play," says Geoffrey.

Oliver shushes him, assuming an attitude of absorption in the rehearsal. Up on stage, Chamberlain and AEH are arguing about the classical etymology of the word "homosexual." It's really a wonder, Geoffrey thinks, that they don't have floods of subscribers.

"By the way," says Geoffrey, "how did you get this script?"

"I told you." Oliver puts his feet on the back of Geoffrey's chair. Geoffrey is constantly amazed by the minute accuracy of his hallucination: the soles of Oliver's shoes smell faintly of alcohol, and if Geoffrey touched them he suspects they would be sticky—from the floor of the bar or from something else, he doesn't particularly want to know. He's impressed by himself, in an impersonal way. "I was sent an advance copy."

"By whom?"

Oliver looks at the ceiling, as if he's reading the answer there. "Let's just say that in the final analysis, the benefits of sleeping around England in the mid-sixties outweighed the costs of penicillin."

Geoffrey grimaces elaborately. Then it dawns on him: "Oliver. Are you saying you screwed Sir Tom Stoppard?"

"He wasn't a Sir then," says Oliver sniffily. "He's only just been knighted. He wasn't always such a rockstar; in fact, he dressed very badly in those days." Geoffrey begins to splutter. "Oh, for Christ's sake, no, that's not what I'm saying! Actually, I'm fairly certain he's straight. I always said he wasn't that Wildean, that Zurich play aside."

Geoffrey thinks on this a moment.

"Are you saying you screwed Dr. Miriam?"

"Actually," says Oliver, "I'm fairly certain she's a woman."

"And that usually stops you?" asks Geoffrey in a frost-rimmed voice.

Oliver takes his feet down. For a moment Geoffrey thinks he's scored a very palpable hit. But this Oliver is impenetrable; he's always just left the spot at which Geoffrey's thrusting. He's only standing now because the lights have just gone down on Chamberlain, someone in the sound box has started humming the Marseillaise (they don't have the budget for an actual recording), and AEH is saying, "Oscar Wilde was in France, on the coast near Dieppe. I'd sent him my book when he came out of prison."

"My cue!" trills Oliver gaily, and springs onto the stage. Everyone in this production seems to have more energy than Geoffrey. He supposes that's when you know that you've lost it, that you're no longer an actor. Oliver seems to know what he's thinking, because while he-as-Wilde recites Housman's poem, he fixes Geoffrey with a sardonic sidelong gaze:

". . . So quick, so clean an ending?
Oh, that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
T'was best to take it to the grave."

"Oh, fuck off, Oliver," mutters Geoffrey. It's all very well for Oliver, who's never loved anyone in his life.

Katharine Housman was supposed to be in the last scene, but Geoffrey had no one to put on. AEH played it alone, addressing himself to the empty space, pausing a beat before each new line as though still, desperately, expecting the scripted response. Geoffrey tries not to think about it. About Oliver undressing Ellen in her virginal white dress, the dress she drowned in nightly. About kissing her himself in the greenroom at intermission, minutes after Gertrude reported her death, his hands in her hair, his thigh between her legs; and Ellen beginning to cry. He doesn't have to work at forgetting the next part, because the rest of intermission is a blank, marred by memory again only when he stepped back onstage into the churchyard. He has no idea how he made it through the gravedigger scene. He remembers his Horatio, Ben Ross, getting a good look at him, the change of light revealing Geoffrey's face as he bent to set down the skull. He remembers Ben staring at him, delivering his "'Twere to consider too curiously, to consider so" before he mouthed, Okay, Geoff? Ben had been a natural Horatio.

And he remembers, always, Ellen standing in the wings watching. How he hated the distraction of it, the presumption, the silent accusation that he didn't know how to answer: what was it he couldn't give her? But he knows, somehow, that he'll spend the rest of his life waiting for her to utter the next line; noticing movement out of the corner of his eye and whirling to stare, straining, into the shadows—as madmen do—hoping to catch her still there.

He looks up at the stage. Oliver and AEH are still going at it, Oliver reveling in his page-long speeches. Geoffrey's overwhelmed by rage, a rage that he knows isn't really all about Oliver. So, to be fair, he takes it out on AEH instead.

"AEH!" he barks. "This is just laziness. You're letting Wilde completely overshadow you. You're the protagonist of this play." AEH looks at him, his mouth hanging slightly ajar. "That's it." Geoffrey gets to his feet and hauls himself onto the stage. "Stand aside. I'll show you."

Oliver throws up his hands. "Geoffrey, he's supposed to be overshadowed by me! That's the point of the scene. Arguably the point of the play."

"This is my play," says Geoffrey, turning on him, every muscle suddenly rigid, "and here, at least, I still get to decide who overshadows whom."

Oliver smiles slightly. "How convenient for you," he murmurs, but deigns to continue the scene. "'We would never love anybody if we could see past our invention. Bosie is my creation, my poem. In the mirror of invention, love discovered itself. Then we saw what we had made – the piece of ice in the fist you cannot hold or let go.'" His eyes overflow with tears. Geoffrey's first response is grudging respect. You'd never know it, but Oliver is a good onstage crier; Geoffrey always thought he should've had a Hamlet cameo as the First Player. His second response, as it sinks in, is an upwelling of the anger he's been trying to dam.

Before Oliver can get his next line out, Geoffrey roars, "You bastard, you jest at scars that never felt a wound!"

Oliver stops, looking almost bored. "What is it now?"

"How can you stand there and weep?"

Oliver produces a script seemingly out of nowhere. Flipping toward the back, he clears his throat and dryly reads, " . . . the piece of ice in the fist you cannot hold or let go. (He weeps.)" He arches an eyebrow. "Do you think you can do it better? Be my guest. At this rate, by the end of the rehearsal process this will be a one-man show."

"You know what I'm talking about! In the middle of my play—a play, let us recall, that I'm mounting with no budget for no one because it's all a fraud, because actually my body is lying in a psych ward where you sent me when you slept with the only woman I ever loved—where do you get the gall to stand there in front of me and weep crocodile tears at this speech? You don't have a heart, Oliver. You don't have the right."

"Excuse me," says AEH behind them.

"What?" yells Geoffrey, rounding on him again.

AEH recoils. "I was just going to say I don't think you'll be needing me any more. So I think I'll go. That's all. Exit stage—" and all at once the floor splits as if down a fault line, and he falls through. He's gone in an instant.

Geoffrey stands staring dully at the hole AEH left. Of course. Nothing surprises him, least of all this. The grave again, an endless loop.

"If you say to me, 'Woo't weep?' before you jump, I swear I'll kill you," says Oliver. "And if you die in a dream, you die in real life, too."

"Who cares?" says Geoffrey. And jumps.

And hits the ground just three feet down. It's a lucky thing he lost all his dignity long ago. He lies there with the breath knocked out of him, unwilling to look up, to see Oliver's face framed again by the overhead lights. But he can still hear when Oliver says, "I wish you'd stop with the dramatic gestures, Geoffrey. I mean, for God's sake, there isn't even a grave in this play. Not to mention you're completely out of the audience's line of sight down there."

"You're not my director any more," says Geoffrey into the floor. "I'm the director. I'm the lead. I'm the audience. I'm everyone, and I'm alone down here talking to myself. It already is a one-man show. So no one gets hurt if I quit."

"Quit? You can't quit! I taught you better than that!" screeches Oliver, losing his composure for the first time. "Shut up and find your fucking light!"

"I can't!" Geoffrey screams back, feeling himself coming undone, like the slow swing of a door. "There isn't any light! Can't you see that?"

***

Cheryl hates hospitals. Her mother died in one, years ago, and now she feels as though she might too.

She can't remember the last time she showered, and she's beginning to smell herself, greasy and heavy, like musk. She's slid her chair farther away from the bed, as though the fact that his only visitor stinks is going to be foremost among Geoffrey's worries at this point, and she watches him in silence. He talks enough for both of them.

She sits trying to follow his progress through a play that bears less and less relation to any real source text. And yet she dreads the end of visiting hours, when she staggers to her feet, pricked by pins and needles. As she slips out the door she always feels like a traitor, a soldier leaving a man behind; she always thinks of Invention's story of Theseus and Pirithous. Of Oliver after rehearsal one night—the night Geoffrey said yes, he'd be willing to do the play when they could get the rights—falling-down sloshed, drenched with a spilled drink, taking Geoffrey's face in both hands and stopping him there. Geoffrey was trying to make a discreet exit for Ellen's dressing room and Oliver was trying, just for a moment, to keep hold of him.

"Do you know who's playing Housman in London right now?" Oliver asked. "Paul Rhys. He just played Edmund in Laurence Boswell's Long Day's Journey at the Young Vic, too. And I hear Boswell wants to do his Hamlet when this is through." Geoffrey made as if to slip out of his grasp. "No, listen, I do this for your own good: I'm telling you who your competition is. And I'm telling you, Paul Rhys may be very very good, but you are beautiful." He drew Geoffrey closer. "You're flushed, Geoff."

Cheryl, watching from a nearby table, could see Geoffrey go pinker with embarrassment.

"The wine," he said.

"Ellen," said Oliver knowingly. "The thought of Ellen awaiting. The thought of that dress up over her head. I never understood the appeal. The nothing between maids' legs."

"Oliver," hissed Geoffrey, his throat working, his eyes a little dilated, "shut up."

"No, it's all right," said Oliver mildly. "It makes for great theater. You have my blessing. As the play says: 'Now is the time, when you are young, to deck your hair with myrtle, drink the best of the wine, pluck the fruit.'"

He let Geoffrey go, and Geoffrey dashed for the door, all but falling over his own feet. It was late, the bar almost deserted, just Brian and a few old alcoholics left snoring over a table in the corner. Normally Cheryl would have been there with Maria, but earlier that night Maria had started trying to claim that what happened between them at the props party last weekend only happened because she was drunk. Cheryl had thrown a gin and tonic at her and said, "So get drunk again, you asshole." That had been the end of girls' night out.

So now it was just Cheryl and Oliver, stood up and still standing. Oliver looked at her, seeing her for the first time, and said, "It's a beautiful speech, you know."

"Yes," she said. "I know. 'Seasons and moons renew themselves but neither noble name nor eloquence, no, nor righteous deeds will restore us.'" She hesitated, self-conscious. She didn't have the knack for this. She knew: she'd just spent the night watching Geoffrey and Ellen rehearse the Hamlet-Ophelia confrontation.

Oliver, though, had no such qualms. To her and the softly breathing room, he finished it: "'Night holds Hippolytus the pure of stain, Diana steads him nothing, he must stay; and Theseus leaves Pirithous in the chain the love of comrades cannot take away.'"

Now, sitting by the bed, she thinks about that. They both should have known better than to hope to be part of Geoffrey's drama. She thinks about the myth of Theseus and Pirithous. Bosom companions who jointly wooed gods' daughters, they found themselves bound by serpents in Hades, and when Hercules came he could rescue only one. Theseus went free, unable to save his friend. Oliver liked it for obvious reasons, for its coy codes of affection, its classical subtext, the way it stuttered to speak love's name. Cheryl hates it. The love of comrades. It makes her think of Geoffrey thumping her on the shoulder the night she met him.

She hasn't paid much attention to Geoffrey's monologue for a while, but suddenly he all but shrieks, in a voice not his own, "Shut up and find your fucking light!" The shift back to his own voice is just as sudden: "I can't! There isn't any light! Can't you see that?"

"Geoffrey," she says hoarsely, as if she's been screaming all afternoon with him. "It's not—"

And then, in a third voice, he says, quiet, deflated, "I can't see anything."

She holds his hand. She strains against it, the chain the love of comrades cannot take away. She sits in the small white room and cries.

***

Geoffrey's worked with plenty of directors who sent ingénues shrieking into the wings, and even one or two who eventually scared off their leading man. But he's fairly certain that he's the only director, ever, to have actually caused the earth to open up and engulf his narrator. AEH's trip to Hades was supposed to be a nice, leisurely, play-length ferry ride, not a tectonic event.

Which is why Geoffrey's lying in the crawlspace beneath the stage, listening to Cheryl try to run a rehearsal sans director and lead. They're working on one of the earlier scenes with the young Housman: "To be a scholar, the first thing you have to learn is that scholarship has nothing to do with taste." He delivers it well, he sounds funny and charming and neurotic, and his voice is vaguely familiar. But Geoffrey doesn't bother to look up. He really doesn't give a flying fuck any more.

He knows that in reality, this crawlspace goes places. It's a dead end here, but at New Burbage it's only transitional. From here you should be able to get backstage, into the halls, even outside. Like a communications trench between the rear and the front line, where, once more unto the breach, you're expected to fling yourself over the top and hope the audience's faith will catch you.

Looking around now, he can almost believe he's crouched in a dugout somewhere, forgotten by an ancient war. His skin begins to crawl, the first real sensation he's felt in a long time. He remembers Oliver, near the beginning of Hamlet rehearsals, suggesting that next season they do Journey's End, the original trench play that created all the clichés. "Stratford just did it," Geoffrey had complained. "It's been a decade," Oliver had retorted, but in the end Geoffrey'd had his way. There were a lot of reasons he'd objected, including the fact that the apprentice meant to play Raleigh to Geoffrey's Stanhope was good on his own merits, but that his star was rising mostly in conjunction with Oliver's dick.

But above all, it just didn't seem like the right time. Geoffrey wasn't keen to try to reproduce two big Olivier roles in a row, and it had struck him as too strange a parallel that Stratford had also produced Journey's End the season after one of their Hamlets (Brent Carver, who only three years before that had starred in the film version of The Wars, so that when Geoffrey thinks of it the world seems to loop back on itself again, the claustrophobic circuit closing, the noose tightening). Now, flat on his stomach, trembling from the aftershocks, waiting for the next catastrophe he can't stave off, the pairing of the two plays makes only too much sense. At the end of Hamlet, through the carnage in death's eternal cell, like a soldier you are borne from the stage by an invading army of strangers: the Norwegians, the nurses. It's the war to end all wars. You're lucky if you get out with only shellshock.

He recognizes Housman's voice now. It's the apprentice, of course, the kid who was going to play Raleigh. Housman would have been Geoffrey's part if they'd ever gotten a chance to stage this play, but Oliver can be brutally efficient; he's already got a replacement. Fuck one leading man over, you can always fuck the next.

Geoffrey lies listening, trying to remember the kid's name. He really would have made a good Raleigh. That high, sweet, uncorrupted voice. The beautiful body that Geoffrey vaguely remembers, poised on the cusp, still pure: his skin still untouched by his self-involved director, his spine still unsnapped by the play's terminal shell. If Geoffrey were his Stanhope, he would resent the boy's ignorance even as he preserved it. He would try to warn him. But he doesn't try. He's retired. He's tired.

"Oh, Housman," says Pollard, "what will become of you?"

Just wait for it, thinks Geoffrey. The world's about to happen to him. Or it already has. It's always happening to someone, somewhere. Someone's getting his big break, someone's breaking up, someone's breaking down. It's going on without him.

"You're my only friend who might understand," says Raleigh-now-Housman.

In spite of himself, Geoffrey starts listening to the play again. Housman's launching into the scholarship speech, the point in the text at which Geoffrey, sitting in the bar late one night, had looked up from the script and said to Oliver across the table, "All right. I'll do it." Oliver had spilled his drink all over both of them and tried to mop it out of Geoffrey's lap, smiling and smiling. Villain that he was.

"Scholarship doesn't need to wriggle out of it with a joke," Housman is saying. Geoffrey has met this kid and knows that he can barely even pronounce French, but from the way his perfect voice just slightly wavers with passion, you'd think he was the foremost international expert in Latin, Greek, and ancient Macedonian. "It's where we're nearest to our humanness. Useless knowledge for its own sake. Useful knowledge is good, too," and Geoffrey feels it coursing through his body like a current, like thousands of synapses firing all over his skin, this speech barreling boldly forward, piling on clauses, making you feel even the abstractions: "but it's for the faint-hearted, an elaboration of the real thing, which is only to shine some light, it doesn't matter where on what, it's the light itself, against the darkness, it's what's left of God's purpose when you take away God."

Geoffrey stands up, his head clearing the hole. Housman breaks off, but doesn't move. His speech is only half done, and Geoffrey can feel it around them, its rhythm ready for the next beat, waiting to be finished.

"The king rises," says Oliver sardonically. "What, frighted with false fire? How fares my lord?"

Geoffrey ignores him. He's looking at Housman. He is familiar. He's Raleigh, but it's more than that. He's a kid Oliver picked out of the crowd, for whatever abstruse and fucked-up reasons Oliver does anything for anyone, but he does have it. He wants this more than anything he's ever wanted in his life. He'll do everything for it. He has no idea what he's in for. Geoffrey resents him, and wants to protect him, and—something else.

"What are you doing here, may one ask?" Geoffrey says.

Housman stares at him. "Classics, sir. I'm studying for Greats."

"Are you?" asks Geoffrey, husky with emotion. He doesn't have the perfect voice he once had. "I did Greats, too."

It's Invention's first exchange between AEH and Housman: the older and younger selves of a single man. Geoffrey looks at this kid, and more than anything, he misses him.

He turns to look at Oliver, who's regarding them with an inscrutable expression, part pain and part pride. How fares my lord? Oliver asked. He's waiting for an answer, and the question hangs between them, in the air thick with unfinished scripts. The play is still there for Geoffrey. Probably it always will be. The play is still there, and the world is still there, and if it's going to happen with or without him, it might as well happen with him.

"Give o'er the play," he demands: of the arch of the proscenium, of the arc of his life. He's clambering out of the hole. He walks upstage past Housman and stands at the very edge overlooking the audience, and plants his feet. "Give me some light."

***

Cheryl stumbles down the hallway in the early, gray morning, unable to doze any longer. It's like staying in a hotel, where she can't stay in bed because the dresser shouldn't be so far, the window so close. An unfamiliar person changes the shape of her sleep in the same way. And it's a little like Christmas morning as a child, too: she doesn't know what might be waiting in the next room.

She pauses at the end of the corridor, her hand against the wall. To the left, the living-room couch is in disarray, blankets trailing over it, empty. Her heart clutches, closes like a fist, until she looks right, into the kitchen, and there Geoffrey is, sitting at her table drinking coffee.

His body in the chair is heavy. Tired, she would say, but she's spent days watching him lying in a hospital bed exhausted by the long swim back to sanity, and he looks different now. Solid, serene. Quietly gathering himself for something, like a perched bird. The day after her last girlfriend left her in an apartment too big for one person, she woke early like this, wandered into the kitchen, and found that a songbird, having fluttered through the open window, was sitting on the table. She took a seat across from it and for an hour said things to it that she'd never had the courage to say to Wanda. It listened with interest, head cocked, until some urge—some universal migratory instinct, the need to find the next best thing—sent it gliding back through the window. Come and gone. Comfortably and quite casually passing through. When she went to work that day, it was their first rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet, and Oliver introduced Geoffrey Tennant.

– but why, Ligurinus, asked Housman in Invention, alas why this unaccustomed tear trickling down my cheek? – why does my glib tongue stumble to silence as I speak? At night I hold you fast in my dreams, I run after you across the Field of Mars, I follow you into the tumbling waters, and you show no pity.

The hospital released Geoffrey yesterday. Stabilized, they said, though they had no explanation for it. Maybe a felicitous combination of drugs. Cheryl wasn't there when it happened, when he woke up the last time and didn't go back. So probably she'll never know. He's his own responsibility now, court-mandated therapy aside ("We'll just see," Geoffrey had said darkly, "about that"), but Cheryl sometimes catches herself thinking of him as being in her custody. She brought him here, home, last night. He must have his own place to stay, but he seemed happy to be led—happy to not be directing, finally—and so she made him a bed on the couch and left him to it, realizing that if he did have his own place, she knew nothing about it. She'd never seen it. Before all of this, she'd never seen him outside of the theater and the bar.

Standing in the doorway, waiting for what she can't say, she thinks about all of the things she still doesn't know about him. How he takes his coffee. If he sleeps in his clothes or if he only looks that way. Where he came from, besides a local production of Long Day's Journey into Night, years ago, that he was far too good for. Where he's going, when he finally breaks the spell and stands up. If he'll want company.

She must make some slight noise, because Geoffrey looks up. They stare at each other for a moment, self-conscious, like people who have seen each other undressed in the half-light. Then Geoffrey says, "I made coffee. On the counter. If you want some."

The sun glances off him as he turns to her, framing him in a shower of dust motes. He's sitting in her kitchen offering, and right now that's all she knows, and that's all she needs.

"Yes," she says.

"I've been thinking," he says as she crosses the room to the pot. "I know Euripides's Medea advises against that, but—" He seems to be waiting for something, for an answer from someone not there; then he sighs, as if relieved. "I've been thinking about theater. Not the stage—I don't think I can survive another fall from that height." He chuckles, the first time she's heard him really laugh in a long time. "But about directing."

She stands with her back to him, facing the counter, the coffeepot in midair.

"What would you direct?"

There's a smile in his voice. "No, not that. The rights won't be available for a long time, anyway."

She pours the coffee.

"To do anything, though, I'll need a company," he says. He hesitates. "I'll need company."

There's a rumor that on the opening night of Hamlet he asked Ellen to marry him. (Cheryl knows that Oliver started it, which doesn't make it any less suspect.) That was two nights before It happened, so everyone knows how that turned out. The last time he asked Cheryl for anything was years ago. Would you like to go out and get extremely drunk with me at Yong's? This request, she knows, is just as dangerous.

She can hear him start to fidget. He says, "I mean, I couldn't offer you the same salary—actually, to start off I couldn't offer you any salary—"

She turns, foolishly, to face him.

"Geoffrey," she says. "I said yes."

***

Cheryl left the car running as though she expected it to take no time at all, but Geoffrey isn't surprised that it's been fifteen minutes and she's still not back. The biggest shifts aren't supposed to be easy. They're not like costume changes. Sometimes you leap and nothing catches you, and you have to lie in the dark crawlspace for a while, getting back your wind.

When she finally comes out, carrying her things in a cardboard box, she's flushed with righteous indignation, but also with triumph—and, when she catches his eye through the windshield, with pleasure. She doesn't even wait to get into the car to tell him. She stands there in the parking lot and, through his half-open window, she tells him breathlessly, "I did it! I fucking quit!"

"Congratulations," he says, smiling. She'll be terrified about it later, in a week or so, when they don't have a curtain or a company, when student loans and grocery bills become more immediate than Shakespeare or Genet. Let her be drunk on it now.

"God," she says. "We're really going to do this."

Her face is pink and shining, her eyes bright. For the first time, he thinks that she—that any woman besides Ellen—is beautiful. Her hair whips across her mouth, and a strand sticks there. He reaches out and swipes it back, and his hand slides around to cup the base of her skull, and he's pulling her forward, the two of them bumping chins awkwardly on the glass, her box of souvenirs smashed between the car and her chest, and he's kissing her through the window.

She stops it first. He can see her set a palm against the pane and push backward off of it, away from him. A trace of a smile still on her face, wistfully aging like wine, she asks, "Are you ever going to do that again?"

He looks at her, and for once he doesn't have anything to say.

"That's what I thought," said Cheryl. "So please don't do it a first time." She walks around the car, gets into the driver's seat, and pulls out.

Ten minutes into the drive, she says, without turning her head, her face softening in profile, "I'm sorry."

"That's my line," he says.

The corner of her mouth quirks upward. "It was taking too long. I was feeding you your cue." Then she does flick her gaze sideways, briefly making eye contact. "Geoffrey?"

"Hmm?" He's watching the town flash by, this town where he spent the best years of his life. They have to do it, they have to leave; all the emotional reasons aside, it makes no business sense to open an independent theater in New Burbage. There's no competing with Ellen and Oliver, and he has no desire to. But still, with the signposts slipping away, he feels numb, like he just took a shot of Novocain to his whole body.

"Please don't ever go back there," she says, half-laughing. "Because they won't ever let me back in, that's for sure. I kind of… said some ill-advised things to Maria."

He raises his eyebrows, but doesn't ask. "Whereas I, on the other hand, only irrevocably ruined their flagship production for the season, with Basil Cruikshank sitting in the audience. And then tried to pull a Porphyria's lover on their mascot."

She laughs without reservation now. "Thank God you're thorough, Geoffrey."

A few towns over, they finally pull into the parking lot that Geoffrey indicates. He springs out of the car almost before it's parked, but Cheryl turns off the motor deliberately and sits in the driver's seat until he comes around and opens her door.

"What?" he asks. Following her gaze, he looks at the rundown building in front of them. "Well, yes. It's not the Swan."

"No, I know," she says. "It's… just give me a minute. There's nothing wrong with it. It's beautiful."

His face lights up in a gratified smile, but he says, "Word of warning: it is going to be an adjustment. Trust me, I've been here before." She looks up at him, a line of worry creasing her forehead, but doesn't ask. "I mean when I met with the landlord," he says reassuringly. "Come on. I'll show you the inside."

"It looks better on the inside?" she asks, finally unfolding herself from the driver's seat and following him across the lot.

"No," he says. "But it's where everything's going to happen."

He has keys from the landlord, an excessively polite man who made it very clear that he wants nothing to do with their operations. Probably a policy wisely applied to all houses of sin. They hop onto a raised concrete platform that must once have been a loading dock, and Geoffrey opens the side door.

They peer inside, met with the scent of mouse droppings and mildew. It's a bare space, a blank page. They'll have a build a platform just to have a stage.

With great dignity, Geoffrey says, "We will call it… Theatre Sans Argent."

Cheryl laughs, a too-loud sound that stirs the cloistered space waiting for them.

"I know," he says. "Even when I hallucinated it, it was a disaster zone." He sighs, runs a hand through his hair. "It'll take a long time. I don't know when you'll get your first paycheck—"

"Let's not start that again," she says. "Listen. When I was eighteen my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I put off going to university and got a job at Extra Foods. When she died, I quit my job, went to the local theater, and started volunteering. I didn't get paid for months. I don't even remember how I lived. I don't remember living—that was what I did it for. I'm sorry for the sob story, I don't tell people about that, Geoffrey, I don't know why I always tell you things, but I'm saying I don't care about the money. Theater, it— it should—"

He reaches out and takes her hand. She feels warm and very human. He won't ever kiss her again, but she's another reminder, a good one, of how this is real and it's worth staying for.

"'I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage,'" he says.

"Peter Brook," she says, almost sadly.

"Peter Brook. Or, 'The theater is an empty box, and it is our task to fill it with fury, and ecstasy, and with revolution'—Oliver Welles." He pulls a wry face, but sobers almost immediately. "Theater by itself doesn't fill the hole, but at least it gives you a shovel. It's what's left of God's purpose when you take away God."

There are still things left for him to do. Small things maybe, low-budget things, unwitnessed things. But he's willing to try, to take up the shovel, to close the yawning grave in his head so he can't jump down again.

He squeezes Cheryl's hand in his. With the other, he gropes along the cold wall until he feels a switch, and floods the space with light.