Paul woke in a cold sweat. Theatre X, an experimental independent theater company in Milwaukee had dropped its final curtain more than a dozen years ago, and he had forgotten about the talkback after the play. The discussion had turned to how to deliver lines in a convincing way. Someone asked for an example and one of the actresses had stepped forward, motioned for a spotlight, and said, “Number 17, kill me!” The light had cut out, and when it came on again, she was laying on her back her rib cage not moving. Another cast member stepped forward, made eye contact with the now quieted audience, and whispered, “Number 23, kill me.” When the light came back on, he was curled in a ball his hand clutching his throat.
The director, who was sitting to one side, came to stage-center and asked if anyone in the audience would like to try delivering the lines. He smiled. “It’s not like the joke about the traveling salesman convention where there’s one number that designates a joke that isn’t funny. Here any number will do. And you can stay in place; we’ll bring a mike around.”
A couple of hands went up. The director brought the mike to the volunteer closest to him, a young man Paul’s age, and to relieve any tension, suggested that the first volunteer should “just think of this as an audition.” It was clear to Paul that neither of the volunteers would get the part. He was tempted to try it himself: stand up, and say, “Number 79, Kill ME!” However, the thought quickly became too real. He was afraid to take a chance. He found himself looking around the audience to see if there was anyone looking at him with intent to kill. He was about to rush out in a panic when the director moved on to another question.
Paul hardly heard anything that followed. When the talkback was over, he left the theatre and stopped at the first bar he found. A shot of whiskey and a beer calmed his nerves. He all but looked for an assassin under his bed when he got home and took a tranquilizer along with another beer before retiring.
Over the years, he had successfully suppressed the memory of that night but now in his dream it had come back with a vengeance. He got up, put on his robe, and went into his study where he poured himself a stiff shot of whiskey. He sat down in his reading chair, the crystal glass on the end table alongside. He looked around the wood-paneled room. Paul, you’ve done all right for yourself. Seventy-eight and still getting out. You’d be a prize catch if you ever moved into a retirement community. He took a healthy sip from the glass then got up and paced around the room. Finally, he stopped and sat down at his desk, where he finished the whiskey.
He couldn’t get the dream out of his head. It was as vivid as if he had just returned from the theatre. He felt his heart beating louder. Damn, you’ve never been a coward and this house has thick walls. Just shout out those lines and be done with it!
He got up and replenished his drink. He had to pee. He closed his eyes as he relieved himself and remembered that the talkback was after a puppet rendition of Macbeth. Frightening, it was like a scary Japanese movie on steroids. Probably the best play I ever saw. He washed his hands and stared at his reflection in the mirror, moving his hand to the rings under his eyes. Never saw those before. It must be the dream. He threw out his chest, snarled at his reflection, and taunted, “Coward! Chicken shit! Go back there and say it. Take a chance – what can go wrong?”
He returned to the study, picked up the glass, and then put it down. Again, he paced around the room – to the door, back to the desk, and around to his reading chair. He picked up the glass and drained it in three swallows. He coughed once and decided a faster pace would generate the energy he needed. He stopped in front of the desk and stared at an imaginary image of himself sitting there. Then he took a deep breath, let it out, and yelled, “Number 79. KILL ME!”
His eyes opened wide and his hand shot to his chest. His face twisted in pain as he fell to the floor.
Kenneth Kapp was a professor of Mathematics and did research at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee [Ph.D., 1967, University of Wisconsin-Madison]. Following that, he “starved” as ceramicist and welder [local galleries]. Since he needed to eat he worked for IBM until being downsized in 2000. He now teaches yoga and writes. He lives with his wife and beagle in Shorewood, Wisconsin. He enjoys the many excellent chamber music concerts available in Milwaukee. He’s a home brewer and runs whitewater rivers with his son in the summer.