Written by James McCann
The Chestnut Theatre was a grand old place that, despite not being the largest or best-funded entertainment venue, had seen some of the all-time greatest performers grace its stage. Singers, comics, poets, ventriloquists, magicians, and everybody else that had an act had been seen and heard on its boards. During the summers, brief comedy shows would be the dish-of-the-day, hour-long sets before people headed into town. During the winter, it would be two hour plays with inexpensive tickets that were the huge draw.
Over the last few years, the advent of technology had taken its toll on the place. Why go out when you could watch any number of films and TV shows or readings on your phone? As it was, Arthur Martsen had seen the writing on the wall. Arthur was 86, but was by no means feeble-minded. His grandfather had been an actor-singer, and after a summer-long run at the theatre the owner at the time had absconded (with both the money and his secretary). In a very quick legal battle, it was determined that Grandfather Martsens owed monies roughly the equal to that of the value of the theatre.
With the slashing scrawl of a signature or two, the Martsen family had acquired a theatre.
Grandfather Jesse Martsen had used the place to put on his own shows, and was quite the showman. However, it was Jesse's son, Arthur's father, Eric, who had truly realised what the place was worth. Eric had begun promoting other shows in the building, even putting on children's puppet shows and family-friendly farces during the early afternoon, and then having a risque Saucy Susan burlesque show on the same stage later that night. For Eric, an empty stage was a travesty, because an empty stage meant empty seats, and empty seats meant an empty cash register.
Often times Eric would book three, sometimes four acts per day, letting each act know that if they went over their allotted time, or if they didn't pack their belongings and get out of the dressing rooms on time, he would dock them quarter of their pay.
Eric Martsen ran the theatre with clock-work precision.
By the time Arthur took over (he bought it from Eric, no way was the elder Martsen just going to hand it over), some of the bigger acts were actually asking to play the Chestnut, such was its reputation.
One such act was Johnny Blues. Nobody ever knew his real name (hell, that might actually have been his real name for all anybody knew) but everyone felt like they were his best buddy. He was slightly on the portly side, but each night he put every last ounce of his being into his performance. He would tell jokes and sing deeply moving, incredibly energetic songs. Depending on his mood and what night, the jokes were interludes between songs, other times the songs were thrown in to break up the jokes.
During the show he was a dynamo, he was a keg filled with nitroglycerine just begging for a spark. He was his own pyrotechnics. He was his own laser show. He was a tornado in a tux, electricity on the loose looking for trouble. Away from the stage, he was prone to bouts of manic-depression. He could be the calmest, coolest guy in the room, and then-boom! - he'd be crying in a darkened corner lamenting his failed career (as he would see it in those moments) and ask what the point of it all was.
It was this violent shift that made him the most captivating man Arthur had ever seen.
Arthur walked, slowly but unaided, through the aisles. He let his stubby and arthritic fingers caress the backs of the plush seats, looking up at the stage, wishing at some point he'd had the guts to get up there in front of a crowd. He could tap-dance, in his much younger days, and had a few good jokes that he bought off an old touring comic some decades ago. Arthur couldn't remember the fellow's name, but less than twenty months after killing at the Chestnut the stand up went and killed some lady, bashing he head into pulp in the door of his car.
No matter now.
He sat in one of the seats, closed his eyes, and inhaled deeply, relishing that smell, that odd mixture of fresh cleaning products and old-time muskiness that lets you know some real living had been done in the room.
Arthur checked his watch. It was three pm.
They'd bought the place. They being some multi-national conglomerate, going to tear her down, brick-by-brick, put up a huge (and ugly, no-doubt) block of luxury apartments in her footprint. Well, they'd paid Arthur handsomely. Enough certainly for him to not care what they did with the place.
'That's a damn lie and you know it, Artie.'
Arthur opened his eyes. He knew the voice, and even if he hadn't recognised the voice, only one person had ever called him Artie. His mouth hung wide open, looking for all the world like a large, smiling cavern. His eyes full of joy and love and laughter. On the stage, in his best tux, was the ghost of Johnny Blues.
'That's right, Artie.' John patted himself down, as he always did, looking for that always-escaping pack of smokes. 'Damned things go?'
'But, no Johnny, you're... dead, aren't you?' Arthur asked, not really understanding what was happening. Not really wanting to. He knew it would be heart-breaking to wake up now, not when he'd just been reunited with Johnny.
'Does it matter, Artie? We were never ones for labels.'
'Oh Johnny,' Arthur began, 'are you angry because I sold the place?'
Even from the distance to the stage, Arthur could see Johnny's slight smile, the twinkle of mischief in his eyes. It was a smile that meant he could eat all of your food, take all of your money and stand you up yet you'd still be completely in love with him. With the idea of him.
'No Artie, I ain't mad. The world moves on. I just wanted to be the last guy to ply his trade on these boards.'
'Even if it's just for an audience of one?'
'Especially because it's an audience of one.'
A smile came across Arthur's lips, a blush of roses bloomed in his cheeks, and a tear ran from his eye.
'Close your eyes and remember the old times, Artie. I'll sing your favourites.'
The band began to play-
where are the band you know where they are but how you know how
as Arthur closed his eyes, got comfortable, and listened to Johnny Blues close the show one last time.
The coroner's report was nothing special, it held no perverted secrets or sexy break-throughs. It simply stated that a man in his mid-eighties had died peacefully in his sleep. The time of death was placed at three pm.
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