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WIZARD/Michael Byers YOU COULD TELL the Players Theater in Eugene had been a glamorous place in its prime, maybe back in the thirties—the chandeliers still spun in the lobby, and the big ornate balcony still swept across the back of the hall, but somewhere along the line things had gone sour, the neighborhood had gone to hell, and when I got there we couldn't turn on the furnace except during performances, and the red velvet seats were torn and patched—we took turns sewing seats—and the water in the toilets, when there was any, was always rusty. Across the street there was a big Ryder rental yard and a liquor store, and people were always creeping around in the parking lot at night and setting off car alarms. But I enjoyed being there: I liked the cold and the penury, taking them as signs of our virtue and cultivation, and I loved the back crannies, too, the deep basement prop rooms where the old painted stage sets leaned against the walls like ruins, the cardboard bricks light as air when you leaned to move them. You got the sense that you were doing something dutiful and good, putting on plays, giving people a good time, and really you had to feel that way; there wasn't any money in it. One way or another all of us wanted a better life, but the whole thing wasn't bad, as a stopgap. I did what you'd call assistant directing, probably, but really I did everything that needed doing: I worked as a lighting man for a while, climbing around in the rafters with my leather gloves, and above me the ceiling opened and opened, forty feet at least of darkness, into which I could see the shapes of ladders and ropes disappearing, and if I climbed up toward the ceiling I could hear the rain hammering on the old tile roof and then running down the gutters into the alley. Often we had a certain amount of smoke to contend with during rehearsals, especially if the play called for gunshots—so by the third act we'd get a big rolling smoke cloud collected up there above the stage, wispy, moving with the slow grace of an underwater animal, extending a long limb hesitantly, then pulling it back again, as though it were mulling something over. I could watch it for hours, and usually it was a lot more interesting than what was on stage: two chairs, a man in black, a woman playing Death for a change. It was that sort of theater. The Missouri Review · 61 Td been working on a play about Thomas Edison for a long time, a thing I started in college and just kept banging away on, and one summer around this time I finished it; in the fall season we produced it. A week into the casting a guy named Howard Turner walked in holding his raincoat over his arm, looking curiously around the theater as though he were thinking of buying the place. He was a high school chemistry teacher, forty years old, and he read more or less naturally, leaning to one side with his hand on his belly, his eyebrows lifting now and then as he stood in the yellow light. He had a big black smudge on his white shirt and he was tall, and a little fat, and his hair was matted and greasy around his hatline. We signed him up. We rehearsed four nights a week for six weeks or so, and sometimes when rehearsals were over Turner pulled on his black raincoat and shambled down the street with me to a shitty little tavern where he played Pik-A-Winner scratch cards and drank Henry Weinhard's from the bottle. He shelled peanuts with one hand and farted by leaning to one side. "The one-cheek sneak," he said, grinning across the table. I wasn't much of a drinker, but I put on appearances, in part because drinking with him made me feel older or, I guess, made me feel as though I were in a more advanced state of decline...


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