Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Teen

Closing Night

By Nisha McNealis

About Nisha McNealis

This year in my English class, we each had to write a descriptive paragraph modeled on the beginning of John Steinbeck's "Cannery Row." After joining the Stage Tech class at my school, I was awestruck by the beautiful Haymarket Theatre. As my classmates and I became increasingly excited about Paly's state-of-the-art new theatre, I wanted to ensure that the Haymarket would be remembered. When I started to write my paragraph, I knew that I wanted to capture the essence of the Haymarket. Six months later, the paragraph I wrote became the beginning of "Closing Night." I live in Palo Alto and just finished my freshman year at Paly. I love debate, tennis, computer science, spending time with my friends and family, and, of course, writing. I have always enjoyed expressing my ideas, whether it be through poetry or prose. I'm grateful to the Palo Alto Weekly for giving me the opportunity to share my story. I hope that when you read my writing, you feel the magic of the Haymarket.

 

Judges' comments

This story is our unanimous top choice. It is a beautifully executed series of vignettes with insightful characterization and wonderful description. The format is interesting, almost experimental. The writer makes us care about the people and the place.

Listen to the story read by the author, Nisha McNealis:

The Haymarket Theatre in Palo Alto in California is a machine, a rhythm, the sound of color, a perfect blend of old and new, an electric current, an emotion, a song. The Haymarket Theatre is the loud and the quiet, wood and paper and lights and dusty rags, drying paint and overflowing trash cans and rustling scripts, weary volunteers, billowing curtains and missed cues, and props strewn about the green room, and blue paint on the wall, and boxes of makeup brushes stacked in the closet. The Haymarket Theatre is the laminated sign that reads "Danger! Demolition work in progress" and the three dusty handprints just above the green room door, purple and red and green. And the Haymarket Theatre is the woman that stands under the handprints, deep in thought.

The woman could be called beautiful, but not in the traditional sense. Her dark curls are swept into a careless ponytail, exposing her round, freckled face and bright eyes. She wears faded blue jeans and a brown sweater, and though the theatre is sweltering, she doesn't seem to mind the heat. She clutches a brown leather journal and a sharp yellow pencil. The woman is immersed in her thoughts, deaf to the beeping trucks that shatter the peace outside and blind to the construction workers that silently slip in and out of the theatre with glistening measuring tapes and glossy hard hats.

The woman's gaze is fixed on the three handprints above the door. Her inquisitive eyes absorb every crack in the handprints, every dried drop of paint frozen in its path to the green room floor. The woman quietly lifts her own slender hand and fits it inside the first large handprint, her pale skin standing out against the purple background. She closes her eyes.

- - -

If the dictionary definition of geek came with a picture, it would be of Louise Bertha Hemmingfield. Short with long limbs, tangled brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Louise could be found playing Minecraft at lunch or tinkering with her robot collection late into the night. Louise had long since accepted that she wouldn't be invited to high-school parties or have a date to prom. She didn't expect to have friends, and she was fine with that. She adored anything that could be taken apart and put back together. She loved lights, motors, cars, circuits, microphones. So you can imagine that, upon hearing about the Stage Tech class offered at her school, Louise signed up immediately.

"Welcome to Stage Tech! We're so excited to have you here. Stage Tech is a vital part of …" Louise tuned out the leader of the class, focusing instead on the giant spotlight that sat on the balcony. She imagined separating each part of the spotlight, laying the yoke bolt next to the set screw next to the C-clamp. A soft voice interrupted Louise's thoughts.

"Hi!" A small, mousy boy and a tall blonde girl beckoned Louise over. The boy pointed up at the spotlight. "I saw you looking at that spotlight. It's an ERS -- an ellipsoidal reflector spotlight."

"I know! I would love to operate it." Louise smiled.

"Really? Well I'm the lighting designer. I can show you how it works!" the blonde girl said excitedly.

Louise had never felt like friendship was something she needed. But as she ran up the stairs to the balcony with the small boy and the tall girl, she felt like she belonged with them.

Three months later, Louise and her friends sat backstage late at night, flushed from the euphoria that one only feels after a successful opening night. Louise's head rested on the girl's shoulder as she laughed at something the boy had said.

"No!" She protested. "I'm not going to do that!" The boy laughed.

"It's a dare. You have to."

Louise rolled her eyes and walked into the paint closet. She pulled out a can of purple paint, dipped her hand into the can and pressed it firmly on the wall.

"There. Satisfied?"

"Yeah. Now we'll remember this moment forever." The boy smiled. Louise flicked her paint-covered hand at him, covering his face with drips of purple paint. The boy gave a startled, high-pitched yelp and fell backwards.

The blonde girl giggled. "Now that's a moment I never want to forget."

- - -

A large crash from outside startles the woman back to reality. She pulls her hand from the purple handprint and stares at it with confusion in the fading light. She hesitates for a moment before sliding her hand to the small green handprint. The woman's hand is not large, but it covers the second handprint completely. The woman feels her eyelids begin to droop.

- - -

"So nobody can tell me the answer to problem 23?"

I know, Amalie thought, it's 1/2.

"Are you guys serious? Have I taught you nothing all year?" The teacher's stern voice rang across the classroom.

Come on Amalie. You know the answer, just raise your hand!

A boy in the third row tentatively raised his hand.

"Is it … one?" The teacher frowned.

"No, James. Though I do appreciate the fact that you tried to answer me. Does anyone else want to venture a guess?"

I do, Amalie thought. I know the answer! Why can't I raise my hand?

"Isn't it impossible?" The boy in front of Amalie asked.

"It's definitely possible. I explained this just last week." The teacher's lips pressed together. She folded her arms, clearly indicating that she was not going to give up until someone had said the correct answer.

Amalie took a deep breath. Ok, she told herself, I'm raising my hand now.

But wait! Amalie's hand shot back to her lap. What if I'm wrong? What if I mess up in front of the whole class? Amalie shook her head. No, I'm definitely right. I'm just going to go for it.

Her hand quivered as it rose. Suddenly, the bell rang.

"I must say, I'm very disappointed in all of you. The answer is 1/2."

Amalie internally screamed at herself.

"Class dismissed."

Amalie grabbed her binders and followed the mass of students heading to lunch.

"Amalie! AMALIE!" Amalie turned in confusion, trying to place the voice. Her friend Sarah burst out of the crowd, waving energetically. "Amalie oh my god I'm so glad I found you!" Sarah adjusted her bright gold scrunchie, trying to untangle a lock of blonde hair from her huge earrings. "You have got to come to audition for "Grease" tonight. It's going to be amazing. It doesn't even matter if you're bad at acting. I'm a hundred and five percent sure that you'll have fun. See you there!"

Amalie blinked and Sarah was gone. She smiled. Conversations with Sarah were usually one-sided, but Amalie didn't mind. It was refreshing to not have to worry about keeping up her side of the conversation.

Later that night, Amalie's dad dropped her off at the Haymarket. Amalie had debated whether to audition for over an hour but eventually decided that she would do it for Sarah. She hurried inside the theatre and sat down next to her.

When it came Amalie's turn to audition, her palms were sweaty and her knees were wobbling so much that she feared they would start knocking together. Amalie stepped on stage and began to read in a shaky voice.

"I just left your g-girlfriend back at the p-pajama party." Amalie blushed, feeling the harsh stage light hit her face. The director stopped her.

"Amalie, right?"

"Yeah."

"Amalie, look. You're auditioning for Rizzo, one of the most confident characters out there. What's going on? Why are you so nervous?"

"I guess … I just don't want to mess up and not get the part." Amalie stared at the ground, acutely aware of everyone's eyes on her.

"Stop worrying about failing. If you don't try, you'll never know if you could have gotten the part. Just relax. You're not Amalie when you're up here. You're Rizzo. So what do you say, Rizzo? Ready to try this again?"

Amalie nodded, grinned and began to read.

After the audition, Amalie felt exhilarated. Sarah bade her goodbye and left the theatre, but for some reason, Amalie couldn't let her amazing night end. She wanted to remember her confidence and carry it with her. Amalie quietly made her way to the green room and pulled out a can of electric green paint. Impulsively, she dipped her hand into the paint and slapped it on the wall above the door. Amalie collected her bags and walked out of the theatre without looking back.

- - -

The woman's eyes flit open for just long enough to observe the rapidly darkening sky through the crusty window that hasn't been opened in years. Almost reflexively, her hand climbs to the third handprint. It aligns almost perfectly with the red print.

- - -

"Oh my god. This is a complete disaster." The sea of half-dressed actors parted rapidly as Bella strode into the room. "Nobody picked up my boba, I forgot to highlight my cues, and some idiot messed up my carefully organized makeup kit. I'm not going on."

"Calm down Bella. None of those things actually impact your acting," Mr. Portman assured her.

"Look, I have certain things that I need to do before I go onstage. Otherwise I mess up."

"Fine. We're running fifteen minutes late. See what you can do in that time."

Bella hurried out of the green room. But she didn't get her boba. She didn't highlight her cues. And she didn't organize her makeup kit. Instead, Bella rushed into the car park, where eager fathers and mothers poured out of minivans and into the theatre. She sat on the curb and waited as each family entered the school. Ten minutes later, Bella hadn't moved a muscle. Her eyes sparkled with tears, but she hurriedly blinked them away. The car park was quiet now, save for one scrambling mother with mussed hair who rushed into the school. Bella gave the packed car park one last glance before following the late mother.

Her performance that night was spectacular. She hit every cue and brought the audience to tears during her heartbreaking monologue. At the end of the play, Bella was deaf to the congratulatory exclamations and pats on the back from her classmates. She methodically began to remove her elaborate costume, but she felt numb. None of her jubilant classmates seemed to notice -- except for one. Neema walked over to Bella, who was removing her makeup. She said hello. And before Bella knew it, she was sitting outside the green room pouring her thoughts out to Neema. She talked about her father. She explained that until this year, he had been to every single one of her performances. But this year, something had changed. She talked about the divorce, how her dad had moved away, how he had promised that she would still be his priority, how she never seemed to be his priority. She told Neema that traditions had always been important to her. Her pearl tea, her highlighting, her organizing, they were all traditions that probably didn't change her performance, but they made her feel confident. But then she told Neema that they didn't matter anymore. The only tradition that she cared about now was her dad coming to her performances. It was the one thing that they had always bonded over, the one time when she was sure that she could count on him. And now she couldn't.

Neema sat with her and listened. She never spoke, but Bella knew that she understood. Talking to Neema had made Bella feel a thousand times better. But suddenly, Bella felt a wave of red-hot anger wash over her. She pulled her car key out and leapt to her feet. She dug the key into the wall above the green room door, right next to two faded handprints. She carved three angry, ugly words into the wall. I hate him. Sharp, jagged lines tore the dark paint from its light wooden background. As soon as Bella had defaced the peaceful wall, she regretted it. A hot tear slid slowly from her eye, meandering to the tip of her pointed chin. Neema's eyes widened and she stood up quickly. The tear on Bella's face fell to the floor.

"I have to fix this." Bella hurried to the paint closet. She dunked her hand into the nearest can of paint. She left the paint closet, wary of the red paint that dripped off her hand and onto the floor. Then, Bella covered her angry words with a handprint. She turned to face Neema, embarrassed at her outburst. She expected Neema to look disgusted, awkward, confused. But Neema's face was perfectly calm as she handed Bella a paper towel to wipe the paint off her hands.

- - -

The woman opens her eyes the way one does after a long nap: slowly, peacefully, happily. She takes a long breath, opens her journal and begins to write.

"The Haymarket Theatre in Palo Alto in California is acceptance and confidence and companionship, making mistakes and passion and spreading joy. It is more than an ancient building with green cloth chairs and a stage that gets dirtier each time you clean it. The Haymarket Theatre is every student who has performed on its stage, every parent who has sat through shows with bouquets of pungent roses on their lap, every teacher who has gone hoarse lecturing rebellious students about getting to rehearsal on time, every volunteer who's painted props and changed sets and sewn costumes. The Haymarket Theatre is a wonderfully complicated tangle of every life it has touched."

"Miss?"

The woman is pulled out of her thoughts by a brusque voice.

"Miss? I'm afraid we're going to have to ask you to leave. We're going to begin demolishing the building."

The woman turns to face the construction worker.

"Would you mind giving me one more minute?"

The man hesitates, looking uncomfortable.

"Fine. But just one minute," he agrees.

The woman walks quickly into the green room. It feels empty without the plump, hole-covered sofa and the dozens of lighted mirrors that she is used to seeing. She walks quickly into the paint closet, grabbing what she needs without turning on the weak light. The woman walks back out to the green room door, eerily aware of the whirring sound of machinery outside. She opens the paint can effortlessly, the way only an experienced painter can. The woman dips her hand into the sky blue paint and presses it right next to the red handprint on the wall. The paint drips from her hand onto her sweater, but the woman doesn't care. She returns the blue paint to its place and walks away. But as she closes the chipped theatre door, the woman glances one last time at her wet handprint on the wall.

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