There is still little magic left in the world. You just have to look to see it.
It’s ten o’clock. February. Cold. When I walk up to the theatre, I always look at myself in the street windows. I look like an Everyman hero in a melodrama. I am wearing too large pants, fingerless gloves, and a denim coat. My pants keep sagging to my hips; they are two sizes too big. I am missing a belt loop on my right side. I ripped it out tugging my pants back up to my waist. My gloves keep unraveling on me, and I keep picking at them. Some day, I will pull at a loose thread, and they will transfigure into a ball of yarn. When this happens, I will probably buy new gloves. Or it will be summer. My denim coat was a birthday present; I wear it everywhere.
Kevin unlocks Earl’s closet and the backstage door. I open the stage door, prop it open with a traffic cone, and pick the orange maintenance ladder off the wall. Light shines through the doorway, and I frame it in my mind. I imagine it in black and white on 35mm film. Fellini would love to shoot this, I think. It’s beautiful. I should buy a camera.
I shoulder the ladder and pause. I always pause. Sandy insists a ghost lives backstage; she heard it playing piano one night when she was locking up. David and Earl insist we have a homeless problem. Regardless, I always hesitate before walking out into the street. I always look into the dark theatre, hoping to see something move. Sometimes I imagine a tuxedoed man with slicked hair, a white scarf and white gloves walking out of the darkness. He smiles at me, opens the lights, and walks me over to a piano at center stage. We play together to an empty auditorium. I sing. He smiles. Other times I imagine a grizzled man in month-old clothes hiding in the movie speakers. He sees me. I see him. Sometimes we nod at each other in mutual respect. Other times we knife fight to John Williams score. We stab each other and lay jumbled, bleeding in the darkness. We spend our final minutes talking and reflecting. Years of narrative collapse into this moment, where two strangers die in mutually assured destruction. We become friends.
But I never see anyone in the darkness. Nothing ever happens. I shrug the ladder back up into my hand, and I exit out into the street.
I unfold it in front of the marquee and gather the letters from Earl’s closet. David usually writes the new sign on a piece of paper. Sometimes he texts it to me. I always gather the letters in reverse–from right to left. That way, the first letter of each line always sits on top of its respective letter pile. The closet is alphabetical. My hands always reach for the correct letter before my mind remembers where to look.
I have always felt comfortable working with letters. They always calm me–the same way, I think, numbers and equations calm mathematicians. In the past two years, I have gotten very good at reverse-spelling and anagrams. I love finding words within words–like “fun,” “fund,” and “mental” in “fundamental.” I always wonder if people driving by misread my incomplete signs. Sometimes I fantasize of reworking them to mess with people. Last year, I almost wrote “BLACK WARRIOR MILF FESTIVAL” on the “BLACK WARRIOR FILM FESTIVAL” sign. Last week, I nearly wrote “LIVE NUDES” to see if anyone would notice. Aside from dates, no one usually catches my twenty-foot shenanigans.
I count the letters per line (factoring spaces), and separate the characters in half. I always write the second half of each line first, working out from the middle. There are ten panels on the Bama marquee–three letters per panel, with two exceptions: words with consecutive “M”s and “A”s and words with “I”s. “M-A” words (like ALABAMA or MASSACHUSETS) take up too much room to allow a third letter, and words with “I” can fit up to four letters. Each line allows up to thirty characters; however, I once managed to write a sign with thirty-two characters. I was secretly proud of myself for almost a week; I still feel a rush of accomplishment when I think about it.
I set the ladder about a foot away from the sign, just far enough to miss the bottom lip of the lights. The brick pavement is uneven. I always shake the ladder to adjust it before climbing.
Pedestrians love to help me change the sign. I hate it when try to hold the ladder. Last year, a drunk held the base and monologued something about the government and construction workers. “You shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “Gov’nent won’t allow it. You shouldn’t even be up there. If you fall–” he shook the ladder hard “–you’ll get hurt and there’s nothin’ you can do ’bout it.” I clung to the marquee and told him to beat it before I called the cops. He walked away mumbling about ungrateful motherfuckers. A couple months later, a little girl handed me letters. We talked about boys and school and theatre. The thirty minute job took nearly an hour. I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the conversation. When we finished, I paid her three dollars. A pregnant woman watched me change the letters a month ago. She asked to hold one. “These are heavy!” she said. “Are they magnetic?” “No,” I said. “And they weigh about a pound each.” We talked about shows and theatres for ten minutes before she waddled away to meet her husband somewhere. She was very pretty. I wished her the best.
When I finish, I step back to the street and look at the job. Catharsis. After a pause, I fold up the ladder, hang it back up on the backstage wall, and tell Kevin to lock the doors back. Then I walk back to my truck, glancing up at myself in the shop windows, and go home.
There is magic in the world. It’s out there.