Photo Credit: Nicola Fioravanti for Unsplash
I adore everything about history, except my own. Strangers from 1910 watch over me
from my walls. Letters and postcards from people long dead clutter my desk and dresser drawers. I surround myself with estate sale orphans, lace trim handkerchiefs, and empty glass bottles. I don’t have any photos of my own grandparents, even though they have all now passed away. They exist only in my mind.
Alas, memories, too, are vicious things, delicate and sharp. I’d rather have ghost stories than memories, but we can’t choose what haunts us. So, here, let me set out a candle, and offer you something that is a little of both.
I graduated high school wanting to be a novelist. I promised myself I would get a tattoo
of John Keat’s epitaph when I got my first book published. Perhaps Oscar Wilde’s epitaph for
my second. I would collect such immortal engravings as a sort of memento mori to keep myself humble when I was chatting away on all those late-night shows about my National Book Award. Writ in Water. Outcasts Always Mourn. Called Back. Her Dust is Very Pretty. The Violets in the Mountains... And on and on.
With those important details sorted, I enrolled at a local state college, declaring a major
in language arts.
The Home of the Bobcats resides at the end of a handful of gravel roads that should have led nowhere. Even though it is a college town, there is only one bar, and the homecoming parade lasts only a few blocks that make up the main street. Some of the buildings on campus have bricks in them dating to the 1860’s, but I wasn’t interested in that at the time. I started reading my way through the next several years of my life. American Lit 1 and 2, Brit Lit 1 and 2, World Lit before 1500, American Civil War Lit. Short Story, Modern Poetry, Modern Novel, Interpretive Reading. And on and on. I have to say, though, I enjoyed the feeling of these books in my hands and the weight of them in my backpack, even on bitter winter hikes between the fine arts building and the library.
Hold on, now, do you have a match? Ah, there. The ghost of this story emerges only by
candlelight. I summon him from my memory, but perhaps you, too, can recall a professor who wore a tweed suit jacket—a brown tweed suit jacket, the kind with the patches on the elbows. A professor whose advice only made sense when you had outgrown some youthful folly or two. A professor who was personable with students but whose personal history was beyond intrigue for most of his students.
He had always told his students to call him Mr. K so that’s what I shall name him here.
Before Mr. K came to teach the drama and performing arts classes in the English department at Bobcat central, he had portrayed Theodore Roosevelt at museums and theatres all over the country.
Now, perhaps the ghost professor from your memory swept into your life beloved and
charismatic and charming and inspirational. Mr. K was none of those to me, at least not at first. He challenged me often, and I didn’t appreciate it. In every performance class, he took issue with where I breathed and when I paused and where my glances settled or darted. After a semester of clenching my jaw and holding my breath, with a mounting list of publication rejections, I was on the brink of chucking my language arts degree out the window and changing my major to something simple like psychology. Fortunately, I procrastinated long enough to have Mr. K for a speech class in which we had to write what we performed, and his criticisms became more encouraging. Mr. K didn’t think I was a good performer, but he thought I had the potential to be a decent writer. He circled a few lines in one of my speeches and in the margins wrote, Beautiful, Amanda. It was enough to keep me writing for another year. But... let’s not linger here. I don’t want to let that bit of memory get too close to the open flame.
By the time I started my junior year, Mr. K had started chemo treatments. I noticed he
always looked cold and even on warm autumn days he had a high-necked sweater or scarf tucked in under his brown tweed suit jacket. Some days he would come to class leaning on a cane. His lectures slowed, and contained more pauses, he said, of course, for dramatic effect.
I caught the old spark in his eye and the quickened movement in his gestures when he
stopped me one afternoon on the stairs in front of the fine arts building to announce the next play the theatre department was producing would be The Glass Menagerie. You’ll be auditioning, I hope?
Mr. K adored The Glass Menagerie. He said it was one of the best pieces of American
literature, and one of the few plays in which not one word was wasted.
I despised The Glass Menagerie and thought the symbolism was stupid. But after reading it several times for different classes, I had decided if I ever got the chance to play Laura Wingfield, I would take it. As much as I loathed the fragile unicorn metaphor at the time, I knew Tennessee Williams’ sister Rose had lived her life as a disabled woman. I thought in playing Laura I could offer some sort of honor to her memory, beyond the fragile glass and candlelight.
That and, at the time, I thought perhaps standing on stage under the spotlights shouting the line “But mother I’m a... a cripple!” would somehow reclaim my body from the world I was fighting and failing to succeed in. The night I auditioned, I had to hide the hickeys from a fling that had meant more to me than it did to him. I couldn’t feel most of the bruises, being born with nerve damage and all. But I gazed over the purple and red smudges dappling my skin in the mirror and could imagine, so very vividly, how much they burned. I felt sexy for the first time in my life. But he cut it off, admitting he couldn’t handle it. How people stared at the way I walked, and what they must be thinking about him to be walking so close to me. I told him he hurt me, but there wasn’t much to save after that. Besides, I had learned a long time ago that crushes can reject you and even the most intimate of friends can dump you... but if you manage to get your name on a cast list the show must always go on. When I got the part of Laura, I held the yellow Samuel French playbook between my hands and thought “I'm safe for now.”
At our first read-through, Mr. K opened rehearsal as though it were one of his drama
lectures. He asked us to think of where our characters had been. Performers, especially stage actors, he said, were always too intent on their entrances. Barging across the stage in vigorous arrival, even when such an arrival is uncalled for. A more authentic performance can be brought to the surface when the player thinks more about where they are coming from than where they are going.
Mr. K gave us homework—to go through the script and at the beginning of each scene
write where our characters had just been, where they were coming from.
Mr. K chopped rehearsals up into impossibly small scenes. At first, I thought there was
some sort of high-art, Shakespearean reason for doing this, but realized later it was because Mr. K had very little energy by the end of most days. Which was why I was surprised when our gentleman caller couldn’t make it to rehearsal one night that Mr. K insisted we read the scene through anyway.
The show choir had something going that night in the auditorium, so we purloined the
candelabrum from the props wing and took it to a rehearsal room in the fine arts building. It was a sparse space with too bright fluorescent lights. The back wall was one big mirror, but we faced away from it. Since the scene took place with the characters sitting on the floor, we left the folding metal chairs in the corner.
Perhaps Mr. K was wearing his tweed suit jacket with the elbow patches. In the flickering candlelight, I believe the hoodie I wore was blue. A bright, boastful blue, one of the college’s spirit colors. But for the sake of this story, perhaps we can remember a softer hue, like rose petals.
We read through lines. On the third time around, he asked if we could put the book down and run without looking at the script. I’m sure I stumbled on more than a few of my lines, but Mr. K had memorized the whole play, so he guided me through.
At the time, I wasn’t thinking about what had brought us there. Looking back, gently, I
see that for me it was heartbreak and surgical scars. For Mr. K, it was his whole damn life.
When we got up from the floor, he was so frail I reached out to take his arm, but he
managed to rise before I could help.
He lived a few more weeks, but that evening was the last time I saw Mr. K.
The show almost didn’t go on. Our gentleman caller dropped out and the role was recast barely in time. The new performing arts professor stepped in to direct, but blocking was being finalized right up until the last moment, to the point we had never even practiced lighting the candelabrum until opening night. The actress who played my mother lost a dear family member and missed a dress rehearsal making funeral arrangements. Our shared makeup counter ended up littered with tissues from when she cried backstage between scenes. And me? I had a meltdown over shoes. Real leg braces won’t fit into 1930’s shoes, no matter how harshly I willed them to. I do not regret the cuss words I let fly over the matter, but I confess I should have never actually thrown antique shoes into a wall.
Somehow, we made it to opening night. Before the show, the new director gave all the
cast and crew a wallet-sized picture—Mr. K’s black and white actor headshot, when he was
younger. I put it on the lighted makeup mirror in the greenroom. When I took my place on stage, seated at the dinner table, I spotted members of Mr. K’s family seated in the second row.
It was a shame we had not been able to rehearse with lit candles, because the effect on
stage was painfully enchanting. Despite the ambiance, I could sense the stage manager anxiously watching from the wings during the gentleman caller scene in case one of the candlesticks fell from the candelabrum and rolled somewhere inconvenient enough to set the whole auditorium on fire.
Fortunately, we survived, and as the lights lowered, I frantically turned over in my mind how I was going to close the play, when Laura blows the candles out.
In the darkened right wing, I waited for my cue. I decided to draw out blowing out the
candles. I would pause until the fire was just beginning to burn my skin, then extinguish the final flame with a deep, long, sigh. I imagined a beat of silence and darkness, followed by applause.
My cue arrived.
I walked to the candelabrum set at center stage. I knelt and blew out the first two candles. I cupped my hand around the third flame, but the nerve damage in my hand made it difficult to feel the heat sink into my skin. It took a few moments longer before I felt the burn. When it arrived, I let out the breath I was holding.
A soft sob from the second row.
Ah, well. I see our own candle is beginning to burn low. But it’s not quite out yet.
It’s true, I don’t like to think about my past. I have burned diaries and photo albums and even a few fully finished manuscripts. But amongst my jumbled collection of other people’s timeworn memories, I still possess a paled-yellow script book of The Glass Menagerie.
Handwritten in the margins are a few words that won’t let me entirely forget where I have been.
Blow out your candles, Laura.
And so... goodbye!
Amanda VanderBroek is a writer starting over. She is currently researching death and disability history in the American heartland, with a focus on the decades between 1890-1920. She is the author of the poetry collection Romancing the Gatekeeper.