The setting is a park: a bench, some trees, birdsong in the distance. Adam, tall with a red beard, sits on the bench, watching the women go by. We can’t see these women but he can and, God, are they something. Our hero scrolls through a flip phone and wears a brand new t-shirt with Shepard Fairey’s portrait of Obama in red and blue. From somewhere unseen, a dog barks. Adam speaks to no one in particular.
“There’s only three days a week when you can have an affair. Fridays and Saturdays are out because that’s when you’re expected to do things with your partner. Tuesdays are when you get dragged to the movies since that’s when they’re cheap. And Sundays are a terrible time. Everyone’s out on Sundays. That only leaves Mondays, Wednesdays, or Thursdays. Pina and I chose Wednesdays. I suppose we could have stolen other times but you can’t see your mistress more than once a week. If you’re doing that, you might as well get a divorce.”
Pause. Someone approaches. Like Adam, he’s tall and red-bearded. He has the same t-shirt, though this one is faded and tattered around the collar. The newcomer has the latest iPhone and uses the flashlight to guide the way. Adam tries to go on.
“Anyway, we had Wednesdays and we had the motel, but we wanted something that was entirely ours. That’s why we bought a dog.”
“All right,” says the newcomer. “That’s enough.”
“She stayed at Pina’s place and Pina brought her on Wednesdays when we met.”
“This is my life,” says the other man. “Have you no shame?”
Adam is undone. He loses focus. As he forgets what to say, he’s pulled from the park and into the here and now. He’s no longer living in the age of Yes We Can. It’s time to Make America Great Again. Adam stops being Adam; he’s once again the actor named Martin Smith. Around him, the theatrical illusion melts. The park is fake trees and plastic foliage; the birdsong is on a loop. The stage is lit like a Wednesday afternoon but elsewhere the theatre is dark. Martin is flustered. He was taught that the show is supposed to go on – but how can the show go on when someone has walked right into the scene?
“Sorry,” he calls out. “But what’s this all about?”
In the tech booth, Elena has been working with the stage manager to fix a lighting cue. Now she glances up, having missed the intruder’s approach. There’s a microphone that lets her voice fill the theatre as if she’s God and she tries to mimic the celestial authority by deepening her voice.
“Adam!” she yells. “Get the hell off the stage!”
Both Martin and the intruder jerk. Martin, who has been playing a man called Adam, is used to responding to the name. But the intruder’s name is also Adam and he’s used to it too. Elena bursts from the tech booth and heads for the stage. When she cast him, Elena told Martin the play was based on real life; looking at this Adam, the ur-Adam, Elena guesses Martin finally knows why she asked him to grow his beard.
“Why are you even doing this?” says Adam.
“It’s a good play,” Martin replies. “You’re a really good part.”
“Adam!” Elena’s big and broad, a former water polo champ with wide shoulders and a strict face; she draws herself tight as if she’s about to seize the ball and win the game. “This is a closed rehearsal.”
“The stage door was open.”
Sighing, Elena calls into the theatre: everyone might as well take a break. From the shadows, crew members emerge and chatter as they slip away. Martin hovers, studying Adam with care. All artists borrow from life, but those who play Hamlet never get a chance to meet Amleth, the Scandinavian prince on whom he was based. Would Amleth have approved of Shakespeare’s interpretation? Elena doubts it. Amleth would have been just as upset as Adam is now.
“Martin,” says Elena, “go get me a coffee.”
For a few moments, the theatre is distant voices and slamming doors. After everyone’s gone, Elena sees pages on the park bench; Martin’s forgotten his script. Adam paces the imitation park, weaving through imitation trees. At last, he collapses on the very real bench. It’s two days before opening which means it’s one day before the dress and three hours before the tech run. She doesn’t have time for Adam. But it’s her own fault; she’s been avoiding him since burying Pina in the spring.
“You swore this script wouldn’t see the light of day,” he says.
“I never – ”
“- The light of day. Those were your words.”
Elena sits on the edge of the bench, keeping a wide space between them. No point in lies; they’re beyond that now. “I made a promise I didn’t intend to keep.”
“I suppose you’re playing her.”
“I’m not playing her. I’m playing a part. It’s a play.”
“A play called Adam.”
“It’s a popular name.”
Adam snatches the script even as he springs to his feet. “Pina and I chose Wednesday.” He brandishes the script as if it’s a sword.” Adam and Pina. She couldn’t even change our names.” He flings the script at her and Elena shrinks. The script misses her and smacks against the stage. An empty theatre is a cavern. They’re alone unless you count the ghosts. Every theatre has them – but how can they protect her? She recalls the myth about Macbeth. Quoting it is the only way to get the dead to rise.
“I thought we were friends.”
“It’s just a play. An unhappy marriage, an unfaithful husband.”
“Sounds like a million other stories. All this money to champion mediocrity.”
“I am championing her.”
“Donate to charity. Why drag me into it?”
“This isn’t about you. She’s the one who wrote the thing. She was in pain.”
“We were just a fling. Nothing but Wednesday afternoons.”
“And a dog.”
“Yes, yes, Wednesday afternoons and a dog. I don’t deserve this. This isn’t a play. It’s an assassination.”
Elena picks up the script and turns to the last page. “Is that what you think? Go on. Read how it ends.”
Adam considers her and, at last, he takes the script. He’s become thinner since leaving Pina and thinner still since the funeral. His beard is untrimmed. Elena’s been to the cemetery several times; someone has been leaving lilies on the grave. “It has a happy ending,” she says. “Art not imitating life.”
Adam rolls the script into a tube. “Rebecca wants to see this play. Apparently, she and Martin went to school together.”
“Great. I’ll get you a discount.”
His smirk falls away almost as soon as it appears. “She’ll know, don’t you see? God, you even gave him my beard.”
“Pina gave him your beard. I was just following the stage directions.” He’s pacing again and Elena tries a different tactic. “People never recognize themselves. Rebecca never knew Pina and she didn’t know that you knew her. You see your life but Rebecca will just see some play about an affair.”
It’s a good argument. For a moment, Elena thinks it’s going to work. But Adam removes an envelope from his jacket and tosses it at her feet. “You’re using my life without my permission. I am a private citizen and I have an expectation of privacy.”
“What is this?”
“We open in two days.”
“I could have sent someone but I wanted to do it it. I wanted to tell you to your face.”
Elena sees the coming chaos. Critics have been invited. They’ve sold tickets. She can’t afford refunds. She’s the chief cook and bottle washer, funding this project through an online campaign. Help me produce my sister’s last play... People will want their money back. Money already spent on fake trees.
“What are you going to tell Rebecca when she asks why you spent so much on lawyers?”
“My lawyers are on a retainer. It won’t even come up.”
“You think she won’t find out? I can promise you she will.”
Now it’s Adam’s turn to clench. He seems disheveled. His shoes are dirty, his cuffs torn. She’d heard his company had been having problems. A man on the eve of destruction. Always the most dangerous sort.
“You say this is about honoring her,” says Adam, “but this is just revenge because I chose her instead of you.”
“For the love of God.” Elena crumples the letter and throws it back at him. “Don’t be such a narcissist.”
“You’re the one issuing threats.”
“Is this about money? What will it take?”
Probably because it is partly about money – hadn’t she just been thinking about the refunds? – Elena leaps into the role of the injured party.
“Money? What do you think I am? You hurt her, Adam. You said you would leave Rebecca and she believed you and I had to listen to it, every day, on the phone, in the coffee shop, she came to live with me, do you know that, her and your damn dog, the dog that was meant to belong to both of you but which you forgot about as casually as you forgot about her. She loved you and she died for you and who found her? Was it you? No. It was your dog. He barked so much that the neighbors called. I had to come home and there she was. And now all I have is this play. This is her last echo and you want me to bury it just like I did with her? Do you honestly think I would do that?”
Adam has been trying to interject but now he goes white. Did he know the details of Pina’s death? Elena can’t remember what parts are secret. Going back over her speech, she wants to take it back. Pina didn’t die because of Adam or, at least, not just because of him. This is just something Elena likes to say because she knew Pina wasn’t well and that Pina was on medication and Pina was discussing morbid things and yet Elena still left her on her own. She had gone to auditions and opening nights and hot yoga classes and complained to anyone who would listen how exhausted she was by her ridiculous sister and her sister’s equally ridiculous dog. Elena wants it to be Adam’s fault – needs it to be. Adam thinks this play is revenge but what it really is, for Elena, is a shifting of blame.
“Cancel the show,” he begs.
“That isn’t an option.”
“The lawyers – ”
“Oh knock it off,” snaps Elena. “There are no lawyers. You think I don’t know a prop when I see one? No lawyer is going to take this case. It’s just a play.”
For a moment, she wonders if she’s wrong – for all she knows, some lawyer might really see a chance to make a buck – but Adam crumbles and claws at Martin’s script. With an aggravated cry, Adam tears it in half before throwing the sections across the auditorium. But the tearing has unbound them and they flutter and float, these last words of Pina, who has joined the theatre’s other ghosts.
“At least change the names,” he says.
“It’s not your story anymore. You gave up having any say in the plot when you walked away.”
The stage door opens. Martin is back and he’s brought cookies – chocolate chip, the kind Elena loves. He stops when he sees the destruction in the front row. Script pages are everywhere. He probably recognizes the color of the hi-lighted lines and the scribbled notes in the margins. Behind him are more voices. Everyone else has returned.
“Places!” calls Elena. “We’re starting from page one.”
Adam is still hovering. “Elena -”
“Get out of here,” she says. “We’re done.”
“If you’re at the same address, I’d like at least to pick up my dog.”
The nerve of this request galls her and Elena goes right up to him. In the Battle of Bunker Hill, soldiers were told not to fire until they saw the whites in the British eyes. She waits just as long before issuing her reply. “It’s my dog now. You’ve lost that too.”
The lights dim. The theatre becomes a park. Martin Smith sits on his bench and begins his monologue. He explains why he’s here: the park is where he and Pina met. He tells the audience their affair has ended but he’s come here hoping to see her because he knows that this is where Pina comes to walk their dog. Every time he comes, he says, he puts himself on a different bench because he never knows which path she might take. He listens for the barks and perks up whenever a dog bounces into view. He watches the girls, always searching for one in particular: a girl in a faded blue dress whose hemline stops just below the knees. It’s the dress she was wearing the first time he saw her. He married seven summers ago and for six summers it seemed like the women in their shorts and skirts were calling to him, as if they had dressed for his benefit alone. Pina’s calves were tanned and shapely, helped by a pair of yellow pumps that were hardly ideal for walking. Which is why she stopped at his bench. “Mind if I sit here?” she had asked before dropping down to massage her feet. They were battered but delicate, with toenails painted to match the trees.
“She was so wonderful,” says Martin Smith as Adam. “Very soft. That was her best feature. ‘Darling,’ I would say, ‘you’re just the softest thing I know.’ Pina liked to hear it. She made me say it all the time.”
Elena hovers in the wings, now in a faded blue dress and yellow pumps. Soon it will be her cue. A flashback will begin and she’ll make her entrance and become her sister and try to make her breathe once again. Elena knows that only some of the play really happened. The Adam who appears in Pina’a play is one part Adam and one part Pina herself, the part that made him in her image before she left. The problem for Elena is that she can’t separate fact from invention. Was her sister soft? Is this the part that’s true? There’s no time to think about it now. Here’s her cue. The encounter with the real Adam disappears along with everything else. Even Pina isn’t gone. The park becomes a park and the stage becomes summer and Elena strides onto stage and her sister is reborn.
“Mind if I sit here?” says Pina and she drops down. She needs to massage her feet.
Joel Fishbane’s novel The Thunder of Giants was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2015 while his short fiction and non-fiction has been published or honored in many outlets including The Writer, The Saturday Evening Post, Massachusetts Review, Witness, and the New England Review. His website is here.