I finished “Voss,” The Great Australian Novel, a while ago, to give an idea of how long I’ve been up here. I found some Turkish Delight and Candied Orange Slices and Candied Ginger, and some cans of Ginger Ale, to keep me going. I am covered in the Sweat of Ginger Ale, but I don’t mind as much as I did because now a door that had been locked has been opened, surely according to someone’s will (maybe that of an usher of the Dalton Event?). They saw fit to let me go, and so here I go. The Great Australian Novel is back on the shelf where I found it, but it’s propped on its side because the wall of other Patrick White novels was too dense to wedge it all the way back in, at least with my hands as sweaty as they were, and are.

I pass down a short hallway decked out with a heavy hushed quality and am received by an usher who hands me a program and puts a shushing finger to her lips. I can tell that I am late to the performance, perhaps laughably so. I take a seat towards the back. It’s too dark to read the program, but the play sooner or later reveals itself to be Medea, an oldie. It’s almost the end now, the mad desperate murder almost upon us. There’s a kind of tired sense of conventional anticipation in the audience, like we’ve all seen this before. We know that she’s going to kill her children, and we know also that the effect will be, for us, demeaned because we are a veteran theater audience and have seen all these tragedies too many times over the years, as if there weren’t enough of them to constantly see new ones. She’s in her keening last monologue now, beyond reason, about to take up the knife. I space in and out, shivering in my sweat in the cool theater, thinking about John Wilkes Booth in the row behind me, and other tangential figures, some real and some unreal. Now she’s done it: she’s killed her children, as the ancient and vaunted script requires her to do time after time, probably at least once per night somewhere on earth.

 

The final scene, and now the curtain call. The cast, some of them blood-spattered, most of them teary-eyed, comes onstage, and takes a bow above the slaughtered children, as if saluting them. The children do not move. The applause begins polite and sleepy but becomes something else as the cast keeps taking more bows, and raising their hands to the ceiling to thank the tech crew, all of the usual things, while the children lie motionless in a butchered heap on the floor, under the curtain, puddles like shadows spreading steadily away from them. Something is shifting in the theater, some unease, like a new presence has entered the room unheard under cover of clapping. The audience wants, I can tell,  very badly to see those children stir. It wants to see them get up and smile through their stage-blood-drenched faces, and scamper backstage to get dressed and come out into the lobby.

 

But that doesn’t happen, and isn’t going to.

 

The cast up there onstage can tell that something is wrong with the audience tonight, and now a fear rises up in them as well, as if perhaps they are trapped in this theater with a mass of disturbed, dangerous, visitors. What is wrong with these people? they wonder. I can hear their thoughts, or think I can. Especially the woman who played Medea, bloody knife still in her hand. Who is it that’s come to see me tonight? she wonders. And what do they think they’ve seen? They came to watch me kill my children, and I did it and they saw me do it, and so … what’s the problem? Panic is spreading through the audience at being trapped in this room with a woman holding a knife with which she has just murdered her children, after delivering a long and chilling monologue detailing exactly why she had to do it, why there was no alternative. I explained it all to them, she thinks. And none voiced any objection. They understood the tragic necessity, and were moved by it. None tried to intercede during the many shrieking minutes that the murder required, and yet look at them now … I can tell she’s afraid that they may rush up onto the stage and wrest the knife from her hands, trampling her into the same pile of scraps and leavings as her children.

 

Silence now reigns in the theater.

 

A frozen, mute congregation. If we leave quietly, the audience thinks, and turn our backs on what we’ve seen, as if we hadn’t seen it, would that be best? And Medea thinks, should I run backstage now, and slip out through a side door, burying the knife under the mattress in the break room, so I can find it again for tomorrow’s performance? What sort of an audience mutely watches something happen and is then terrified that it’s happened? I am in the presence of lost souls, she thinks.

 

I can smell the two bodies onstage, and the sweat of indecision from the audience. My throat feels dry and hard. I need to get out of here before this tension breaks in any of the many ways that it might. So I am the first to stand up out of the stunned seated mass, and I make my way as quietly as I can through the aisles, stepping over the little piles of wallets, cell phones, and coats that the now-traumatized guests have arranged at their feet.

 

No one hinders my exit. Outside the theater, I skulk through an alley, feeling myself watched by policemen in the shadows. Their eyes follow me but their bodies remain glued in place, and I can tell that their eyes are not registering anything about what they see, but moving only by some conditioned reflex, like spotlights. I come out to a post on a corner beside a park, a small church behind a fence nearby. The post is plastered with advertisements, many of them for the Medea we’ve just seen. “A Desperate Woman … One Way Out? Or … No Way Out?” reads the tagline, written in a bloody computerized font. There’s also one poster for the Dalton Event, with all of the tags from the bottom torn away. What most catches my eye is a series of papers that read:

 

“New Student, to arrive soon in Dodge City. I am not here to study, nor to work. I am looking to get SOMETHING FOR NOTHING. Interested parties reply to:  ” and he put his email address, which I don’t stop to read. I walk away from there, thinking about this character, soon to arrive apparently, in search of something for nothing in Dodge City. I have a feeling that I may perhaps run into him before long.

 

 

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