A Day Spent at the Theater

Jenna was learning not to expect much when she had a visit. Mom and Dad had not shown up for three weeks in a row. At the end of the third “non-visit.” Miss Laurie had a long talk with Miss Ortiz. Miss Ortiz said, “From now on, they have to call thirty minutes before a meeting, or you don’t have to show up.”

Jenna swallowed really hard when she heard that. When they left the building, she expected it to be raining, but the skies were blue without a cloud in sight.

When they got home Mr. Dan was dressed in his full costume. He looked like an old fashioned detective, and it wasn’t just the clothes. His face looked the part too. He looked tough, like a different person. He was acting already, Jenna thought. She had forgotten tonight was the night of the play. She smiled, eager to see Mr. Dan up on stage.

Miss Laurie said, “Dan, maybe we should go in two cars.”

Dan was walking back and forth and repeating his lines, trying to say them the way an actor would. He didn’t notice anyone else.

Miss Laurie gave Jenna a look. She was trying not to laugh, but both she and Jenna started chuckling.

Dan glanced over at them and said, “What?”

“We will meet you down there,” said Miss Laurie. “Break a leg.”

Laurie and Jenna grabbed their jackets and walked outside. “Why did you tell Mr. Dan to break a leg?” she asked as they got in the car.

“Actors say it’s bad luck to wish another actor good luck, so they say break a leg. They think the opposite will happen.”

Miss Laurie started the engine, and they pulled out of the driveway.

The theater wasn’t what Jenna expected. She thought it would be a huge hall with seats for thousands of people in fancy dresses and jewels. It was a lot smaller than the cafeteria at school. She looked around, counting the seats and figured out it was maybe the size of four classrooms put together. The stage was tiny, and it jutted out into the middle of the seats. There was no curtain, just a lot of strange furniture, the kind of tables and chairs you would see in an old black and white movie.

The seats were filling up. A lady with a leopard print coat sat next to her and placed her arms down on the armrest, her elbows nudging against Jenna’s side. Jenna scooted closer to Miss Laurie who put a hand on her arm. Jenna looked down at Laurie’s shirt, the one with the wide sleeves. Jenna had on the same kind of shirt. “We are twins,” whispered Jenna.

The lights went out, and for a moment Jenna could see nothing. There was a flash of blinding light, and Jenna took a moment to realize that the lights went off, and when they came back on, the actors were out on stage, including Mr. Dan. The audience clapped. Jenna clapped louder than anybody.

Mr. Dan, she soon realized, wasn’t just the actor; he was the star of the show. He was like a different person on stage. He didn’t walk across the stage, he strode. He didn’t point a timid finger at people; he pointed all four fingers, almost in their faces. When he spoke, he practically shouted. After he realized he arrested the wrong person, he said he was sorry, but his sorry sounded like a growl.

Finally, Jenna’s favorite scene: Dan was questioning the lady, the one who looked innocent but was really a crook. She was lying and wouldn’t look at him.

Mr. Dan demanded, “Tell us what we need to know! Tell us now, or we send you upstate for ten years.”

The woman muttered, “I don’t know anything.”

Dan shouted, “You’re lying to me, Miss Abbot,”

She said, “How do you know?”

Mr. Dan said, “You don’t look me in the eye.”

Jenna kept thinking the woman would confess, even though she had heard the words to the play and knew that wouldn’t happen. She felt she was on the stage with them, part of the action.

Later, Mr. Dan was questioning the woman’s boyfriend. This was the big scene.

The boyfriend squirmed in his chair and said, “You want me to do a favor for you!? I never did a favor for anybody in my life.”

“Do a favor for yourself,” said Dan.

“What are you talking about, cop?” said the man.

Nobody noticed but Jenna. Dan stared at the man, giving him a hard stare, like he was doing it on purpose.

Jenna knew better. Dan never paused like this when he was practicing.

He was stuck. He forgot his lines.

She remembered this part well. This was the first line she ever read on her own.

She couldn’t whisper. Everybody would hear, so she mouthed the words:

I have an offer for you! An offer you can’t say no to.

Mr. Dan noticed Jenna, spying on her out of the corner of his eye.

Taking a deep breath he said, “I have an offer for you! An offer you can’t say no to.”

The other man said, “I will take that offer, cop, and after this is over, I hope I never see your ugly face again.”

When the scene was over, everybody in the audience clapped. Mr. Dan turned, just a little, toward Jenna. Slyly he winked at her. She was the only one who noticed, but that was enough.

Jenna and Miss Laurie sat at the kitchen table and read some of the project ideas the teacher gave her.

Jenna tried to read a hard word, “Graff… graff-ee… graff-ee..”

“Graffiti,” prompted Miss Laurie.

Jenna said it slowly, “Graff—ee—tee.”

Jenna looked at Miss Laurie. “I know what that is,” she said. “That’s the project I want to do.”

Miss Laurie looked at her, puzzled. “Why do you choose that one?”

“We used to have a lot of tagging… You know, spray painting walls and buildings, over near where I used to live. This project is all about…”

Jenna looked at the handout and read, “Best Ways to Stop Graffiti. Maybe I can come up with a way to stop graffiti and save the planet or something.”

Miss Laurie skimmed over the handout and said, “Some of this involves cleaning, and you have to use paint.”

Jenna smiled and said, “I like to clean, and you like to paint.”

“I can help, but I can’t do it for you.”

“That sounds fair,” said Jenna. She looked up at the clock. “Miss Laurie, it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“We need to go to the Ammonia Room and meet Mom and Dad.”

“Sweetheart,” said Miss Laurie. “If they don’t call, we don’t go.”

“Miss Ortiz might have forgotten,” said Jenna.

“Your Mom and Dad are supposed to call,” said Miss Laurie firmly. “They never did.”

Jenna got a sick feeling in her stomach. She realized that one of her hands shook a little. “It isn’t fair,” she said in a quiet voice.

Miss Laurie put a hand on Jenna’s shoulder.

Jenna hit her fist on the table. She didn’t mean to hurt her hand, and it did hurt, but she didn’t care. “What did I do wrong?” Jenna pleaded.

“Jenna, you didn’t do anything wrong,” said Miss Laurie. “Your parents made mistakes, and that’s why Miss Ortiz took you out of your home. The judge said they had to learn how to be a better mom and dad and that they had to do other things.”

“Other things?” asked Jenna.

Miss Laurie looked away. Did that mean she was lying? Jenna didn’t think so.

“We talked about drugs in class the other day,” said Jenna.

Miss Laurie took a deep breath and said, “Jenna, I am not sure how much I should say…”

“Colton talked about crystal meth. It’s a drug that makes you wired…”

“Jenna, I will have to ask Miss Ortiz how much I can say…”

Jenna blurted out, “And I found out that it makes you stay awake, and when it wears off you sleep a long time…”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Miss Laurie said.

“I think Mom and Dad were taking crystal meth,” said Jenna. She realized she was using her grown-up voice and she hadn’t used that in a while.

Miss Laurie called Miss Ortiz, and they stayed on the phone for a long time. Usually Jenna could overhear, but Miss Laurie shut the door and spoke in a whisper. Even though she waited outside her bedroom and put her ear up against the door Jenna couldn’t hear anything. The waiting is terrible, thought Jenna.

The door opened, and Jenna tumbled over. She scrambled to get back on her feet.

The next day Miss Laurie took Jenna back to the building where she would meet with her parents. Instead of going to the “Ammonia Room,” they went to an office, a small room barely big enough for a desk. Jenna sat across from a tall, thin man named Mr. Singh who said he was a counselor, someone to talk to about your problems. He told her that her Mom and Dad had a problem with drugs. Mr. Singh told her that her parents had to quit using drugs before they got Jenna back. Mom and Dad had to go to a clinic every week and “get tested” to see if they were “clean.”

Jenna wanted to know what he meant by clean, and he told her it meant drug-free, that they didn’t use drugs anymore.

“Do you have any questions?” he said.

She only had one.

“Did they quit doing drugs?” asked Jenna.

“No,” he answered. “They are still using them.”

That night Jenna had a hard time falling asleep. She was glad she had the book light, and she read, trying to escape into her imagination. Tonight it didn’t work. She flicked off the light and put her book away. By the light of the moon and the streetlamps outside her window she could see all the little splotches on the ceiling.

She didn’t remember falling asleep, but she woke up a moment later. At least, it seemed like a moment later.

That day at school, her eyes kept wandering over to Colton’s empty chair.