What happened to Fischer wasn't my fault. In 1944, the year it all started, a war between nations engulfed the world. That same year the students of New Canaan High School waged another kind of war. I, Tucker Landis, became its champion and its casualty. Back then my high school and my hometown held my entire universe. All my gods lived there. So did my demons....
Most of us had grown up in New Canaan or on neighboring farms and ranches. We had known each other all our lives, yet at school we segregated ourselves into exclusive cliques of our own making. Everyone held a defined rank and a prescribed place in the hierarchy. The rules were brutal. One misstep could ruin a reputation and doom the offender to the most dreaded of all punishments: ridicule. Ridicule had girls bawling in the restroom at school, and guys sobbing into their pillows at night...
Fischer recognized all of this, but unlike the rest of us, he understood something more: the hierarchy held no power over those who simply ignored it. With that profound insight, Fischer would wage his own private war.
The Between Season is his story!
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The Between Season
By Lon Rogers
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Lon Edmond Rogers
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Chapter OneWhat happened to Fischer wasn't my fault. In 1944, the year it all started, a war between nations engulfed the world. That same year, the students of New Canaan High School waged another kind of war. I, Tucker Landis, became its champion and its casualty. Back then, so many years ago, my high school and my hometown held my entire universe. All my gods lived there. So did my demons.
His name was Thomas Fischer, but no one called him Thomas or Tom or Tommy. Even his mother called him Fischer, simply Fischer, and that's what he called himself. I first caught sight of him as he walked into the school auditorium and Mrs. Mackey's drama class. A newcomer at school, he carried a green transfer slip in his hand. School was already into the third week of the fall semester, and all roles for the new play had been assigned. As several students rehearsed their lines onstage, others sat in the auditorium as a reluctant audience and watched their classmates slog through Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
Mrs. Mackey glanced at Fischer's green slip; then she called out to me in the projection booth. "Tucker, I'm sending you some help." My official title was lighting manager, so that made Fischer my assistant. I waved, and he waved back.
The cave, as I called the projectionbooth, was little more than a black box hanging from the ceiling above the balcony at the rear of the auditorium. But it had character. Spotlights, projectors, and electrical cords cluttered the tiny cubicle. I liked the no-nonsense sight of it. I liked the sounds of clicking switches, the smells of white-hot light bulbs. Best of all, as lighting manager I could be part of the action without worrying about stage fright and choking up in front of an audience. This tiny space belonged to me. It was my realm, my private domain. I carried a key and said who could enter and who couldn't. I especially liked that.
Fischer climbed the steel steps at the rear of the auditorium and stood in the doorway of the tiny booth. "Call me Fischer," he said, and he smiled with the world's whitest teeth.
"Tucker Landis," I replied. "My friends call me Tuck."
Fischer had moved to New Canaan from High Point, a small cattle town a hundred miles west on the Texas prairie, but from the looks of Fischer, he was no cowboy. He appeared too studious for that-with gold-rimmed glasses, a slight build, and hair the color of cornflakes. His face appeared ordinary, but the smile was a stunner, the sort that girls go gaga over-and even their middle-aged moms. Some guys faked such smiles, for obvious reasons, but Fischer's smile was genuine, spontaneous, like those that come an instant before a giggle or a laugh.
New Canaan was small, much smaller than our nearest big neighbor, Austin, but it was twice the size of High Point. Like Austin, New Canaan was split by the Colorado River. The large section of town, including the downtown area and the barrio, hugged one bank, whereas the smaller and seedy section-called River Town-was located across the river and just over the bridge. All of us high school kids-the Townies, the kids from the barrio, and the River Town Rats-attended the same school.
I waved Fischer inside the projection booth. "Listen, Fischer, proper lighting is easy once you learn how. But you have to stay on your toes. If the lighting flops, the play falls flat. It's as simple as that."
Then we got down to business. I showed him the switches and rheostats and how to focus the spotlights. I explained how to change the bulbs and fuses and when to use the various colored filters. I fired up the tricky charcoal projector; then I flipped it off and let him try it. I opened drawers and showed him the extra bulbs, fuses, and extension cords. "So, repeat that back to me."
In one minute flat, Fischer walked through all of it. He talked nonstop, pointing with both hands, calling out the names of various dials and rheostats, and stating their proper settings. I was impressed. "Welcome aboard. I'll get the janitor to make you a key."
During the remainder of the rehearsal, I let Fischer take charge of the broad beam light while I followed the actors onstage with the spotlight. We sat in the booth, managed the lighting, and listened to hammy high school actors mangle Wilder's script. Our Town seemed hokey to me, especially toward the end with all those dead people talking. But Fischer was fascinated by it. Often, his lips moved as the actors recited their lines.
At the end of class that day, Fischer approached Mrs. Mackey in the auditorium and asked her for a copy of the script. "I'd like to take it home, if you don't mind."
"So you like the play?"
"Yes, ma'am. It's a metaphor. Even the title."
As Mrs. Mackey handed him the script, her face beamed. "Welcome to my drama class, Fischer. Welcome indeed!"
She had never beamed that way to me, and likely not to anybody else. I glanced at Fischer. The guy was smiling, turning on the charm, but there was nothing phony about it. * * *
Thrown together in the projection booth day after day, Fischer and I became great friends-and coconspirators. For most rehearsals, until the final week before opening, our job as lighting managers was simple. The actual lighting-spotlights and such-was not required at all times, although Mrs. Mackey insisted that we run through it occasionally from start to finish and be ready whenever called upon. So, while others struggled through rehearsals, Fischer and I sipped sodas, chomped peanuts, and cracked jokes. We sneaked candy, nuts, sodas, and other forbidden treats into the booth. I even brought in a little white mouse that I borrowed from the science lab. The cage was small, but the little varmint had his own exercise wheel and all the food and water he could consume. I saw to that. I called him "Charlie."
* * *
One morning after rehearsal, as Fischer flipped off lights and stashed extension cords, he remained silent for a while. I sensed that he had something to tell me but didn't know how to say it.
"You're my only friend in New Canaan, Tuck," he said at last, "so I guess that makes you my best friend." He looked at me with a halfhearted smile. "By default, I mean. You're my best friend by default."
Guys were shy about saying that to other guys, even when it was true. Maybe girls said that, but not guys. It was too gushy, too risky.
"Actually, Fischer, I have two best friends," I said, "you and Nikki Menten. That's entirely possible, since you're a guy and she's a girl." My reply sounded unconvincing, even to me, but it was the best I could do on short notice. I had known Nikki all my life. We had been best friends since the first grade.
"Two best friends? If you say so, Tuck." He looked away from me, avoided eye contact, and pushed a peanut into Charlie's cage. After that, we kept silent and watched the little rodent nibble. It was an awkward moment, embarrassing for both of us. Neither of us knew what to say.
* * *
At rehearsal the next day, the class learned that Danny Foster, the school's finest actor, had come down with appendicitis and undergone surgery. That left the role of George Gibbs to his understudy, Roger Tilson. Understudies rarely performed onstage, and Roger knew that. The little slacker must have thought he had a free ride, for he never bothered to learn his lines. Even worse, he tried to fake them during rehearsals. He stammered and ad-libbed shamelessly, stood when he should sit, and sat when he should stand. Often, he recited lines of the other actors, sometimes from different scenes.
On Wednesday morning, two days before the Friday night curtain, Roger butchered his lines worse than ever. He confused names and places and ad-libbed his way through a death scene. Finally, Mrs. Mackey, who was seated in the front row, stood and held her hand high, stopping him in mid-sentence. "Roger, none of that is in the play."
"Huh?" Roger looked dazed and stared back at her.
"The lines you just quoted are not in the play. Maybe they're in some other play but not in Thornton Wilder's Our Town." She then spoke to all of us students. "Listen, class, we're not ready. I'm afraid I must postpone the performance." A groan went up in the auditorium. I flipped off the spotlight and looked over at Fischer. He shook his head from side to side.
Mrs. Mackey would not allow her students to perform a flawed production. She took pride in her dramatic skills, and for good reason. She had enjoyed a short acting career herself, mostly in small theaters in New England. That was before she met and married a rawboned soldier from Texas. Daniel Mackey, honorably discharged from the military after the First World War, dragged his new bride two thousand miles from Boston to the barren prairies of Texas. While he raised cattle and horses, she taught drama and speech to the sons and daughters of the Lone Star State. She also taught freshman English and served as faculty advisor to the school newspaper, The Wildcat. Of all the teachers at the high school, she was my favorite.
Without uttering a word, Fischer left me and the projection booth and approached Mrs. Mackey. By then, she had taken a seat and was fanning herself with a script. From the aisle he leaned toward her. They whispered back and forth; then she stood and called out to Roger, "I want to try a little experiment with Fischer."
As Fischer climbed onto the stage, I focused a spotlight on him, narrow beam, no filter. He removed his glasses, slipped them into his pocket, and picked up the scene where Roger had left off. Each line he recited flawlessly. His voice, his movements, his gestures, became those of Wilder's young George Gibbs. Although he held a script in his hand, he never once glanced at it.
At the finish of the scene, the actors onstage fell silent and simply stared in awe at Fischer. Then they turned to look at Mrs. Mackey. For a moment she remained speechless also; then she called out to him, "Where have you performed this role before?"
"That's not possible. No one can deliver lines like that without preparation and rehearsal. Who was your acting coach?"
"No one, ma'am. I've never been in a play."
"You've never studied acting?"
"Remarkable, truly remarkable. How much of the role do you know?"
"All of it."
"You know all of George Gibbs's lines?"
She flipped through the script and read a few lines to him from other scenes. Fischer picked up the cues instantly and rattled off Gibbs's words. She cued him for other roles as well-those of both men and women. He recited the lines perfectly. The genius had a photographic memory. He had memorized Our Town. No one spoke. All eyes remained focused on Fischer.
Then Mrs. Mackey turned to Roger. "Would you mind if Fischer-"
Roger threw up his arms and howled with relief like a man on a gallows handed a reprieve.
* * *
On Friday night Fischer conquered the audience. Although I had heard the lines a hundred times in rehearsal, he made them sound new, spontaneous. Words spilled over his lips like music, like sweet melodies. He kept the crowd laughing, then weeping, then laughing again. Everyone adored this white-toothed boy from High Point.
For the final curtain call, I switched the spotlight to broad beam and slipped in a pink filter to give the stage a warm, cozy glow. As always, a student ran down the center aisle with a bouquet of roses for Mrs. Mackey. By mistake, he handed the flowers to Fischer instead. Everyone laughed. But with the poise of a professional, Fischer presented the flowers to Mrs. Mackey and then bowed graciously to her. The audience applauded all the louder. High in my perch, I clapped and yelled louder than anybody.
Unexpectedly, Fischer then stepped forward onto the apron of the stage and lifted his hands for the audience to become silent. "You're in the Circle, all of you," he said. "All of you are in the Grand Circle."
Bewildered by the remark, the audience remained silent for a moment, and then everyone applauded again. I doubted that anyone, myself included, understood Fischer's message.
* * *
After the crowd had left, I sat and waited for my new best friend to climb the steel steps to the projection booth. Finally, he stood in the doorway of the cave and leaned against the jamb, his face flushed with excitement. Over one ear he wore a red rosebud. "So how did I look from up here?"
"You wowed the audience." I tapped Fischer's shoulder with my fist. "Really, pal, and me, too. But what about that little speech at the end?"
"The Grand Circle? It's about my own special war."
"We'll get enough of the war next year," I said. The war was still raging in Europe and in the Pacific-truly a world war. And as a high school senior who would graduate in June, I considered military duty inevitable.
"Not me." Fischer stepped toward me and pointed to his chest, to his heart. "Put your ear here and listen."
I pressed my ear against his chest and heard the familiar lub-dup, lub-dup of a heartbeat; then I detected a low- pitched rumbling sound. I stood back from him. "Wow, Fischer, what's that?"
"A heart murmur. When I was nine, I came down with rheumatic fever, which damaged my heart-a heart valve, actually. Mitral stenosis, the doctors call it. I missed a whole year of school."
"Already eighteen. I registered with the draft board in August, back in High Point. They labeled me 4F, unsuitable for military duty."
Fischer began stashing light bulbs and extension cords into a drawer. He spoke rapidly without looking at me. "In wartime people love fighters, Tuck, men who carry rifles and bayonets. Guys with bad hearts don't rate." That was his harshest criticism: "It doesn't rate." I'd heard him say it a dozen times about a dozen different things-"It doesn't rate, Tuck!"
"You rate with me, buddy." I grabbed a couple of candy bars from our stash and tossed one to Fischer.
"We're in a war of armies and navies, that's true, Tuck, but it's much more than that. We're engaged in the eternal battle of good versus evil. So, you see, I can do my part in this war. I can fight evil in my own special way." With his finger he drew a circle in the air.
"With a circle?" I mimicked his gesture. "What does that mean?"
"It's powerful. The Circle has power."
The auditorium had emptied, and below us the janitor began flipping off lights. The stage went dark first, and then one section of the auditorium after another. He stared up at the booth. "You guys have keys, so lock up when you leave." I jangled my keys at him, and soon the last big overhead lights went out. Only the projection booth-our little cave-remained lit. As we sat and munched candy, neither of us spoke. Fischer said nothing more about his own special war that night, but I sensed that I would learn about it soon enough, and about the Grand Circle and its awesome power.
Chapter TwoThat night I took the long walk home and arrived at the front steps of my house near midnight. The place appeared dark, even the upstairs bedrooms. Everyone had already gone to bed. The air felt warm and moist for October, more like springtime than autumn. Already, dew had formed on Mom's roses. A big yellow moon shone directly overhead. My kind of night. Marco Polo, Mom's big tomcat, ran to me, sniffed, and rubbed against my legs. I picked him up, nuzzled his soft belly, and then held him at arms' length. "Hey, what are you up to? Got a girlfriend out there? Lucky bastard."
I sat on the top step and took out a Lucky Strike. I'd been sneaking smokes for nearly a year, but I hadn't yet found enough courage to light up in front of my parents. First, I sniffed the cigarette, inhaled the sweet aroma of raw tobacco; then I tapped the tip of it against the pack, the way Bogart did in the movies. Only then did I light up. It had become a ritual for me.
Sooner or later, whenever I was alone, my thoughts turned to the war. Somehow, I could never think past the war. My life, it seemed, had only one direction: finish high school and enlist. My hope, of course, was that the war would end before I left school. Already, the Allies had landed at Normandy and swept across France. On the Eastern Front the Russians also had the Germans on the run. Surely, the Nazis couldn't hold out forever. But for how long? And what about the Japanese? For most of us guys, the final year of high school was one of endless speculation and apprehension. Would we have to fight or not? Our senior year, traditionally the finest year of all, was marred by the jitters. Happy times, sad times, we danced on the brink of the abyss.
Excerpted from The Between Season by Lon Rogers Copyright © 2009 by Lon Edmond Rogers. Excerpted by permission.
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