A Member of the Audience

“Why do you stand here?” growled a voice from behind.

“To see that movie. By that guy.” She turned and found herself face to face with that guy. The Director.

The scheduled start time had receded by an hour, ninety minutes, two hours, but the doors showed no sign of opening. Gwen’s fingers worried the damp ticket in her jacket pocket, miserable in the rain but afraid to leave.

“Leave,” the Director said.

She glanced behind, where no line remained. Then ahead, where umbrellas tessellated tight as shields in a Roman siege phalanx. Drizzle plastered cold hair to her skull as the filling sewers exhaled urban halitosis. Her feet hurt. Nobody turned around to offer help. She coughed, perhaps the beginning of a cold, or worse. “Sorry, but I already bought a ticket.” She held up the frayed stub.

He tried to snatch it away, but she moved too fast.

Reviews described the movie as a story about a sensitive boy born into a patrimony of violence, possibly autobiographical, this film not yet rated. All the critics managed to use the word “harrowing.” None of her friends wanted to come. Now even her underwear felt soggy.

“You will not understand,” the Director said. “You lack sufficient gravitas.”

The word tasted like the coarse particle of her sister’s cremation ash blown back into her teeth by the wind. She considered skipping the movie, finding a barstool beside someone she might tolerate well enough for an evening, maybe get a ride home. Anything to not be alone. Why would anybody even want to see a movie like this? Still. “I bought a ticket.”

“You are birds peck-peck-pecking at the face of a dead childhood. I rescind your right to admission. I banish you from the audience.”

Pockmarks dotted the margins of his dense beard. Her friends liked to discuss the lyrics of songs by bands she’d never heard and decry plot gaps in books she hadn’t read. She felt intellectually insignificant, in need of a culture transfusion, which was why this movie seemed perfect at the time. “Wait, you banish me? This isn’t the nineteenth century. What exactly is your deal?”

“You.” He jabbed a tuberous index finger to within an inch of her nose. “Have not suffered. Your soft American life is devoid of pain. You lack agony. I see this in your bovine eyes.”

She was too surprised by his use of the word ‘bovine’ to be sufficiently outraged. Hadn’t she lived long enough with survivor’s guilt from a sister dead of leukemia at age eight? Even now she clenched her fists in her pockets to hide nails chewed to the quick. She wasn’t special. Not the kind of person who deployed obscenities in a casual manner. But the answer seemed unavoidable. “I bought a ticket,” she said, as politely as possible. “So fuck you.”

“No, fuck YOU! These doors do not open until I say. You are a carrion bird at the abattoir of my life. Go kill art of your own making.”

“Again with cliché bird metaphors?” she said. “Don’t you want people to see your crappy movie?”

“Shoo little girl.” Ten malformed digits flicked in her face. “Come back when you understand human cruelty.”

Her instinct was to slap him and run, but there was something about the eyes darting to the side, the exposed raw dread in his rudeness. The desperate terror of his insults. She owed this to both of them. “Too bad,” she said. “I—”

“I will buy back your stupid ticket at double the price, but in exchange you are excommunicado. Go see a movie concerning super heroes.” He held a fan of twenties like a magician.

She considered grabbing all of the money and running. “I wish it were that easy,” she said, turning to the back of the line and grabbing an epaulet on the raincoat of the human mountain in front of her. She put the toe of her shoe in a pocket and clambered above the cloud surface of umbrellas.

“Hey,” the man below her cried. “Wait your turn.”

“It is my turn.”

Gwen stepped forward onto the shoulder of the next in line, a nose-ringed woman with metal studs in each eyebrow. “Watch it, man,” she yelled.

“The guy back there,” Gwen said, “Says you’re a face-eating vulture who doesn’t know pain.”

“I’ll show him pain.”

Gwen stepped forward. Wobbling through parting umbrellas on shoulders past fedoras, hoodies and knit hats toward the double doors of the theatre where an usher built like a linebacker eyed her progress, arms crossed, bicep skull tattoos twitching in rhythm with her stride. He could not stop her, not with the crowd surging as one. She stepped fast, honing her line of attack, ticket at the ready.  

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