Station Eleven (Page 58)

“The seahorses are dangerous?”

“They’re not like the seahorses we saw in the jar in Chinatown that one time. They’re big.”

“How big?”

“Really big. I think they’re really big. They’re these huge—these huge things, and they ride up out of the water and they’ve got eyes like fish, and they’ve got people riding on them, and they want to catch you.”

“What happens if a seahorse catches you?”

“Then it pulls you under,” Tyler said, “and then you belong to the Undersea.”

“The Undersea?”

“It’s an underwater place.” He was talking fast now, caught up. “They’re Dr. Eleven’s enemies, but they’re not really bad. They just want to go home.”

“Buddy,” Arthur said, “Tyler, I want you to know that I love you.”

The silence was so long that he would have thought he’d lost the connection if not for the sound of a passing car. The boy must be standing by an open window.

“You too,” Tyler said. It was difficult to hear him. His voice was so small.

The door to his dressing room opened a crack. “Five minutes,” the stage manager said. Arthur waved in response.

“Buddy,” he said, “I have to go now.”

“Are you doing a movie?”

“Not tonight, buddy. I’m going up onstage.”

“Okay. Bye,” Tyler said.

“Good-bye. I’ll see you in New York next week.” Arthur disconnected and sat alone for a few minutes. He had a hard time meeting his own eyes in the dressing room mirror. He was very tired.

“Places,” the stage manager said.

The set for this production of Lear was magnificent. A high platform had been built at the back of the stage, painted to look like a balcony with elaborate pillars, stone from the front, bare plywood from the back. In the first act, the platform was the study of an aging king, and Arthur had to sit in a purple armchair while the house was filling up, in profile to the audience, holding his crown. A tired king at the end of his reign, perhaps not as sharp as he had been, contemplating a disastrous division of his kingdom.

Below on the main stage, three small girls played a clapping game in soft lighting. At a cue from the stage manager they rose and disappeared backstage left, the house lights dimmed, and this was Arthur’s cue to stand and escape. He made his way into the wings in darkness, his path guided by a stagehand with a flashlight, just as Kent, Gloucester, and Edmund entered stage right.

“I don’t get it,” Arthur had said to the director, whose name was Quentin and who Arthur privately didn’t like very much. “Why am I up there?”

“Well, you tell me,” Quentin said. “You’re pondering the vagaries of power, right? You’re contemplating the division of England. You’re thinking about your retirement savings. However you want to play it. Just trust me, it’s a good visual effect.”

“So I’m up there because you like the way it looks.”

“Try not to overthink it,” Quentin said.

But what was there to do up there on the platform, if not think? On the opening night of previews, Arthur had sat in the chair as the house came in, listening to the whispers of the audience as they noticed him there, gazing at the crown in his hands, and he was surprised by how unsteady he felt. He’d done this before, this loitering on stage while the audience entered, but he realized that the last time he’d done this, he’d been twenty-one years old. He remembered having enjoyed it back then, the challenge of living in the world of the play before the play had properly started, but now the lights were too close, too hot, and sweat poured down his back.

In his first marriage, he and Miranda had gone to a Golden Globes party that had gone wrong at the end of the night. Miranda, who’d had perhaps one cocktail too many and wasn’t used to high heels, had stumbled and sprained her ankle in a blaze of camera flashes as they were leaving, Arthur just out of reach, and he’d known as she fell that she was going to be a tabloid story. In those days he knew a couple of actors whose careers had flamed out into an ashy half-life of rehab and divorces, and he knew what being a tabloid story could do to a person, the corrosive effect of that kind of scrutiny. He’d snapped at Miranda, mostly out of guilt, and they’d both said unpleasant things in the car. She’d stalked into the house without speaking to him.

Later, he’d walked by the open bathroom door and heard her talking to herself as she removed her makeup. “I repent nothing,” he’d heard her say to her reflection in the mirror. He’d turned and walked away, but the words stayed with him. Years later in Toronto, on the plywood second story of the King Lear set, the words clarified the problem. He found he was a man who repented almost everything, regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light. This was actually the main difference between twenty-one and fifty-one, he decided, the sheer volume of regret. He had done some things he wasn’t proud of. If Miranda was so unhappy in Hollywood, why hadn’t he just taken her away from there? It wouldn’t have been difficult. The way he’d dropped Miranda for Elizabeth and Elizabeth for Lydia and let Lydia slip away to someone else. The way he’d let Tyler be taken to the other side of the world. The way he’d spent his entire life chasing after something, money or fame or immortality or all of the above. He didn’t really even know his only brother. How many friendships had he neglected until they’d faded out? On the first night of previews, he’d barely made it off the stage. On the second night, he’d arrived on the platform with a strategy. He stared at his crown and ran through a secret list of everything that was good.

The pink magnolias in the backyard of the house in Los Angeles.

Outdoor concerts, the way the sound rises up into the sky.

Tyler in the bathtub at two, laughing in a cloud of bubble bath.

Elizabeth in the pool at night, at the beginning before they’d ever had even a single fight, the way she dove in almost silently, the double moons on the surface breaking into shards.

Dancing with Clark when they were both eighteen, their fake IDs in their pockets, Clark flickering in the strobe lights.

Miranda’s eyes, the way she looked at him when she was twenty-five and still loved him.

His third wife, Lydia, doing yoga on the back patio in the mornings.

The croissants at the café across the street from his hotel.

Tanya sipping wine, her smile.

Riding in his father’s snowplow when he was nine, the time Arthur told a joke and his father and his little brother couldn’t stop laughing, the sheer joy he’d felt at that moment.

Tyler.

On the night of his last performance, Arthur was only halfway through the list when his cue came and it was time to exit. He followed the white tape arrow and the stagehand’s flashlight and descended to stage right. He saw Tanya in the wings at the far side of the stage, herding the three little girls in the direction of the dressing rooms. She flashed him a smile, blew him a kiss. He blew a kiss back—why not?—and ignored the murmurs that rose in the backstage area.

Later, a woman from Wardrobe placed a crown of flowers on his head. He was in his costume of rags for the mad scene. He saw Tanya across the stage again—already in the final week of her life, the Georgia Flu so close now—and then a stagehand appeared near him, holding Kirsten’s hand.

“Hi,” Kirsten whispered. “I love the comic books.”

“You read them already?”

“I just had time to read the beginning.”

“Here’s my cue,” he whispered, “I’ll talk to you later,” and he wandered out into the sound-effect storm.

“But who comes here?” the man playing Edgar said. In four days, he would be dead of flu. “The safer sense will ne’er accommodate his master thus.”

“No, they cannot arrest me for coining,” Arthur said, bungling the line. Focus, he told himself, but he was scattered, a little dizzy. “I am the King himself.”

“O,” Edgar said, “thou side-piercing sight!” Gloucester raised a hand to his gauze-covered eyes. In seven days he would die of exposure on a highway in Quebec.

Arthur was having trouble catching his breath. He heard a shimmer of harp music and then the children were there, the girls who’d been his daughters at the beginning, hallucinations of themselves, little ghosts. Two of them would die of flu on Tuesday of next week, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. The third, Kirsten, flitted behind a pillar.

“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” Arthur said, and this was when it happened. A sharp pain, a clenching, a weight on his chest. He staggered and reached for the plywood pillar that he knew was somewhere close, but he misjudged the distance and struck his hand hard against the wood. He held his hand to his chest and it seemed to him that he’d done this before, something familiar in the motion. When he was seven years old on Delano Island, he and his brother had found a wounded bird on the beach.

“The wren goes to’t,” Arthur said, thinking of the bird, but to his own ears his voice sounded choked, Edgar looking at him in a way that made him wonder if he’d flubbed the line, he was so lightheaded now. “The wren …”

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