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    Diogenes
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.

About Carl - 8. The Kelso Players

My first school year at Milfield High ended with a significant milestone. Principal Gary Dimitriou called me into his office and said, “I have some good news. You've been on a probationary contract for a year, and we're pleased with your performance. The Board of Education has agreed to offer you a permanent contract.”

“What exactly does that mean?” I asked.

“Well, mainly it means that, barring any drastic change in enrolment, you are presumed to be permanently employed by the Selkirk County School Board. It also means you're considered to be permanently assigned to Milfield High,” he said.

This was a big step for me. In Toronto, I was bounced from school to school every year, always on a probationary contract at each new school. This meant that, for the first time, I knew where I would be working from one year to the next.

“Can I assume you'll accept the offer?” Gary asked.

“Hell, yes,” I responded.

Gary laughed and stood to shake my hand. “Congratulations. I'll have the papers for you to sign by the end of the day.”

On the way home, I considered the implications of my new status. For the first time, I felt attached to a school and a community. I was gradually putting down roots in Selkirk County, which felt good.

On an impulse one day near the end of the school year, I stopped in to visit a real-estate agent in Kelso. I was mulling over the idea of buying a house now that my employment situation was more secure, and I wanted to find out if I could do it on my relatively modest salary. She told me that I could probably make it work with a fairly small down-payment and a mortgage that was within my means if I considered looking at what the agent called “down market” properties – houses at the low end of the price range that were difficult to sell. I asked her to put together a list of properties for me to visit.

Over the next few weeks, I looked at some really awful places. I saw houses with no indoor plumbing. I visited places with serious structural problems that were in danger of catastrophic failure. I looked at houses with no insulation and bat colonies in the attic.

I initially looked at houses in Kelso, the biggest town in the area, but began moving farther afield to find homes in my price range. I was just about ready to give up when I drove through the little village of Ravenbridge, a bucolic place about a half-hour drive northeast of Milfield. There I saw a big, old, brick Victorian with a For Sale sign on the front lawn. I jotted down the agent's phone number and called her that night.

On the following Saturday, I met the agent, and she took me for a tour of the house. As we pulled in the driveway I got a close look at it; looming over the front yard were a full two storeys and a smaller ell attached to the back. A sagging porch ran along one side. I wandered around the wild, unkempt yard. The house was perched on the edge of a ridge, and through the overgrown bushes out back I could see the Raven River in the distance.

I stepped up on the porch and was startled to see a teenage girl in a bikini sunbathing on a towel. “I’m here to look at the house,” I said.

“Whatever,” she said. “Go on in; help yourself.”

The agent and I walked in through the kitchen door. The house was a horrible mess; the agent told me that the owner was moving to a new house in Toronto and had left her three teenage children living there until the place was sold. There were empty beer bottles strewn everywhere and unwashed dishes piled up on every surface in the kitchen. I saw a squirrel on the counter eating cat food out of a margarine container. There was a stack of empty pizza boxes in one corner.

I went into the main house. The house’s big spacious rooms were subdivided into smaller ones by putting up cheap drywall partitions. Stained carpeting covered the pine floors. Flies buzzed in the filthy windows. The real estate agent was apologetic, saying, “This house doesn't show well.” That was an understatement.

However, I could see through the dirt, garbage, and cheap renovations, that the house had some charm. I noticed the original doors and woodwork under the coats of bright-pink paint. I saw the imposing entrance hall with its ornate staircase, even though the front door had been boarded up. I looked past the tiny, subdivided rooms to see the eleven-foot ceilings and the ornate mouldings. I could tell that the house was lovingly built by talented craftsmen. It had been a beautiful home once and, with a lot of work, could be one again. I could see myself settling in here, inhabiting the space like the Victorian gentleman who built it must have done during the town’s more prosperous days.

Above all, I took note of the price; it was easily within my means. The next day I made an offer, and by the end of the week I was a homeowner. I would take possession on the Labour Day weekend.

When I moved in with the help of a few friends, we spent three days clearing out garbage and cleaning the house from top to bottom. On Monday night, the last day before school started, I collapsed in exhaustion on the sofa that had been dumped in the middle of the living room. I only had time to unpack clothes for work the next day and to find my razor and toothbrush. In the dark, with my dog Blanche curled up at my feet, I could hear mice scurrying in the walls. I wondered what the hell I had done; I'd signed a mortgage for a big, old house that needed lots of work and tied myself to this tiny community for the foreseeable future. I wondered if I'd made a big mistake.

I didn't have much time to feel sorry for myself. The start of the school year kept me busy, and setting up the house was hard work. There were boxes to unpack, furniture to assemble, and pictures to hang on the walls. My parents took the opportunity to clear out their own house of things they no longer needed; almost every weekend my mother arrived with a carload of linens or old dishes.

After I got settled, I had a chance to explore Ravenbridge. I took Blanche for long walks around the town. I met my friendly neighbours, who were glad that I had taken over the house from the teenagers who, as I found out, threw lots of raucous drunken parties. People stopped by to welcome me to the neighbourhood.

The little town was, as its name suggests, located where the old highway from Toronto to Ottawa crossed the Raven River. Upstream was Raven Lake, a large pristine lake surrounded by forest where a lot of wealthy Torontonians had summer homes. A big expressway built in the 1960s now diverted most of the traffic much farther south along Lake Ontario, depriving the village of both traffic and importance. It was a sleepy place, seemingly with not much going on.

Ravenbridge had a population of about 1500. It was founded in 1842 by Robert Fraser, a Scottish immigrant, who built a sawmill at the falls on the Raven River. In the 1870s, gold was discovered on the outskirts of town, and the community experienced a brief economic bonanza. Most of the big homes in the town, mine included, dated from that time. The gold was mined out by 1880, and the sawmill closed in 1910, but the town carried on, catering mostly to the local farmers. Today it survived on the tourist trade from visitors passing through on their way up to Raven Lake.

In the village there were two main streets that ran perpendicular to each other, with the community’s only stoplight at the intersection. One of them, Fraser Street, had rows of 19th century brick commercial buildings lining both sides of one block now occupied by a convenience store, a liquor store, a bank, a lawyer's office, a pharmacy, a diner, and an auto-parts distributor. The other main thoroughfare, Victoria Street, was home to a couple of churches, a gas station, a grocery store, and an elementary school. Along the river, near the bridge, was a pretty little park with a wooden gazebo overlooking the water.

Looming over the main intersection stood the old, stone Lord Selkirk Hotel, built in the 1870s when the road carried considerable traffic and the trip to Ottawa took days. In its heyday it was filled with gold miners looking for somewhere to spend their money, but today its three storeys were mostly empty, with a bar struggling on in a dingy space on the ground floor. Filling in the gaps between the two main streets were a few minor roads where most of the town's homes were located. Some houses dated back to the 1840s and were built in a grandiose style from the town's more prosperous past. Many of the big houses were now divided up into apartments and had clearly seen better days. My own house had been built at the south end of Fraser Street during the brief gold rush. Ravenbridge was a picturesque, quiet town, and I looked forward to living there.

The months went by, and I settled into my new routine, teaching at Milfield High during the week, stripping paint and tearing out partitions in the house on weekends. Winter came and I covered the ancient windows with plastic while trying to coax more heat out of the overworked furnace, huddling with Blanche under layers of blankets to stay warm at night, and making lists of repairs to be done when the weather got warm again.

After the Christmas holiday, my colleague, Beth Johnson, approached me at school. She was Milfield High's drama teacher and was involved with a community-theatre group in Kelso in her spare time. She wanted me to consider trying out for a part in their spring production.

“Me?” I said. “I've never done any acting before. Well, unless you count that time I played Northern Ireland in the British Commonwealth Day pageant in grade 6.”

“Most of the people in our group have no previous acting experience,” she said. “We're all amateurs. I wish you would consider it; we're desperate for men willing to appear on stage. We're looking for someone to play a male character about your age, and we're having trouble casting the part.”

“Well, I'm not sure,” I said. “What exactly would be involved?”

“It's not a huge time commitment. We rehearse twice a week during the winter at the Kelso Community Centre, and we put on three performances in May at Kelso High School.”

“I don't know,” I said.

“Just come down for the auditions on Thursday and meet the rest of the group,” she said. “I'm the stage manager; I'll introduce you to everyone. You can talk to the director, Derek Reid, say a few lines, see how it goes. No commitment.”

“Well, OK, I guess it couldn't hurt to go check it out,” I said.

“Great. I'll leave a copy of the script in your mailbox,” she said. “I'll meet you at the Community Centre on Thursday at 7:00.”

The play that the Kelso Players were performing that year was a drama called The Tomorrow Box, by Canadian playwright Anne Chislett. It was about a farmer, Jack Cooper, who, without telling his wife Maureen, decides to retire and sell the family farm to his son, Joe, and move to Florida. Maureen resists the move and decides to stay on the farm that she helped to build, causing a rift with her son and eventually divorce from her husband. Beth wanted me to audition for the role of the son, Joe.

I went to the audition and met Derek and the rest of the Kelso Players organization. We had coffee and chatted, and then Beth and I read a scene where I played Joe Cooper and Beth read the lines of Joe's wife, Alice. In the scene we were supposed to be having a fight about the future of the farm. I was surprised that I could dip into some hidden well of emotion and give a spirited reading of the scene that felt, to me, like I was actually fighting with Beth.

“Wow, I'm not sure where that came from,” I said to Derek. “Something Freudian, obviously.”

“That was really good, Mark,” said Derek. “Thank you so much for coming in. We've got a few more auditions, but I'll call you before 10:00 o'clock tonight and let you know.”

During the car ride home I had second thoughts about getting involved with this play. Did I really have what it took to perform in front of a large audience? Granted, I performed in front of a classroom every day, but an auditorium full of paying customers waiting to be entertained? What if I was terrible? I had to live in this community when the play was over, after all. Could I be that guy who ruined the Kelso Players big production? How would I memorize all those lines? Maybe Derek would pick someone else.

I took Blanche for a long walk, and when I got back the phone was ringing. Derek was on the line. “Mark, we loved your audition, and we would like you to play the role of Joe Cooper. I hope you’ll say yes; we think you'd be perfect for the part.”

“Thank you, Derek,” I said. “I'm really surprised by this. But I’m not sure I’m right for your production. You know that I've never done any acting before. An audition is one thing, but a performance in front of a crowd ...”

“Don't worry about that,” he said. “It's amateur community theatre, so you'll be in front of very sympathetic people. And let me tell you, this play really resonates with rural audiences. You'll really make a connection with them.”

“I hope so,” I said. “A lot of my students and their families will likely be in the audience.”

“All of us felt a little trepidation going into our first plays,” Derek said, “but we’re a very supportive group, and we all help each other. I’m sure you’ll fit in just fine. And I must say, your audition was quite impressive. Why don’t you come and meet the rest of the cast, and if you decide you don’t want to go ahead with it, no hard feelings?”

“All right, I guess I can at least do that,” I said. “Thank you, Derek.”

“Excellent. Our first rehearsal is next Tuesday at 7:00 at my house,” he said. “You'll meet everyone, we'll all have a glass of wine, and we'll do a read-through to get everyone familiar with the script.”

“Great. I'm looking forward to it,” I said. I wondered what I'd gotten myself into.

On Tuesday night I arrived at Derek's house in Kelso feeling a little nervous. I was the outsider in a group that knew each other very well and had worked together on several previous productions. My worries were quickly put to rest as Derek welcomed me to his home, a beautifully renovated limestone farmhouse on the edge of town. Derek was a retired lawyer who had moved to Kelso from Toronto. He lived there by himself with two golden retrievers. His home was decorated with taste and refinement, furnished with a mixture of antique and modern furniture, and beautiful artwork adorning the walls. Clearly he had put a lot of money into restoring the house. I thought about my own dilapidated home in Ravenbridge; I hoped it would look half as good when I fixed it up.

Derek handed me a glass of wine and introduced me to the rest of the cast, who were gathered around the big fireplace in the living room. “This is Keith Davidson, who's playing your father, Jack,” he said. “And this is Barb Elliot, who's playing your mother, Maureen.” I shook both their hands. “Over here is Michelle Mackenzie; she's playing your sister-in-law, Lisa. And this is Kim Parr. She'll be playing your wife, Alice.”

I shook hands with Kim. I knew her slightly; she was a music teacher at Kelso High School, and we had run into each other at professional functions once or twice. She was about my age, with deep-brown eyes and shoulder-length, brunette hair. She was attractive in a no-nonsense, low-maintenance, country-schoolteacher kind of way.

“You know,” she said, “we have a love scene together in the first act. Now that I've met you, I'm really looking forward to it.”

The rest of the cast laughed, and I blushed deep red. Derek rescued me from my embarrassment by directing me to a chair. “Take a seat, Mark. Now, I guess we can start the read-through.” We went through the play together for the first time. I could tell it was going to be fun working with these people. At the end of the evening, I told Derek that I would take the part.

Rehearsals went well for the first few weeks. The cast got along nicely, and Derek was a talented director. I immersed myself in the character of Joe Cooper, and Kim and I showed some real chemistry together while portraying the newlywed couple. Except, that is, for the kiss.

In the first scene, newlyweds Joe and Alice, feeling testy because of their cramped living conditions, have a fight. Joe is anxious to move the deal with his father forward and escape their tiny trailer, move into the big house, and take over the running of the farm. Alice wants him to give his parents an ultimatum, and a heated argument ensues. They feel guilty about fighting and apologize to each other, then share a long passionate kiss on the sofa.

Every time we rehearsed that scene, I was awkward and clumsy. I tried to make it look realistic, but every time I kissed Kim it happened mechanically and without any hint of passion. The harder I tried, the worse it got, to the point that I dreaded rehearsing the scene every week. At first it was a big joke to the rest of the cast, but after two months of rehearsals it became a real problem. Kim was frustrated, and the tension between us threw the rest of the cast off.

Finally, Derek stepped in. He called a special rehearsal for just Kim and me, and we gathered glumly at the Community Centre to work it out. Derek was wonderful. He talked us through the scene, making us look at the motivation of our characters and examine the dynamics of their marriage and the tensions in their relationship. Then he sat us on the sofa and stood behind us as we went through the scene step by step, coaching us, leading us up to the kiss, but always stopping just short.

When we had done this for about an hour, he told us to start the scene from the top and stepped away to watch. We went through the argument like we had dozens of times before, but this time Kim and I were really worked up. When I retreated to the sofa and Kim followed me, she looked at me with real anger in her eyes. I felt genuinely sorry for arguing with her, and I leaned over and kissed her, but this time naturally, romantically, with passion. It was a remarkable moment.

We pulled away from the kiss, looking at each other in surprise. There was silence for a few seconds, then Derek said, “Hallelujah! Guys, that was wonderful.” I looked at Kim and breathed a sigh of relief. Why was that so hard? Why was it so difficult to just kiss her? We had great chemistry otherwise, but before Derek’s intervention, I felt like a little kid being forced to kiss his sister.

After that breakthrough, things went smoothly, and the cast coalesced into a tight ensemble. We moved onto the recently constructed set at the Kelso High School auditorium for dress rehearsals. On opening night we played to a sold-out crowd.

Derek was right; the play did resonate for our rural audience. There were many farm families in the crowd who identified with the struggles that Jack and Maureen had while running the family farm, and women in particular were moved by the plight of Maureen, whose husband made life-altering decisions without consulting her. The day after opening night, an elderly woman recognized me in the bank and said to me angrily, “I can't believe you treated your mother like that.” I explained to her that Joe was just a character I was playing, but she was still incensed. I was flattered that I had played the character convincingly enough to make her mad.

We did three performances to packed houses. After the last night, we had a wrap party at Derek's farmhouse. There was lots of food and wine, and everyone in the cast and crew were riding the emotional high of a successful production. Kim and I drove over together, and we were applauded when we arrived. “You were both amazing,” said Derek as he pressed drinks into our hands. Everyone congratulated us on our performances.

When the party wound down, I offered to drive Kim home to her apartment in Kelso. We were both still wound up after the excitement of our successful run, and I felt like we had some real emotional connection after working together so closely all these weeks. When I pulled up in front of her building, she leaned over and kissed me. “Why don't you spend the night?” she said, running her fingers through my hair.

“I'd like that,” I said. Expecting to be out late, I had left my dog with my neighbour so there was no need to rush home. We hurried up the stairs to her apartment, and she took me by the hand and led me into the bedroom. We undressed each other in the dark, and I lowered her onto the bed. In between kisses, I whispered to her, “Do we need to worry about birth control?” It wasn't my most romantic moment.

“Don't worry, I'm on the pill,” she said. I was starting to wonder if this was such a good idea, but she reached down and took my hard cock in her hand and guided me into her. It felt good, and we slowly, gently made love until we both climaxed in a breathless, sweaty heap. “Wow, I really needed that,” she said. “Thanks.”

She got up to go to the bathroom. When she returned, she said, “There's a toothbrush on the counter for you, and I left out some towels. Help yourself.”

I got up and went into the bathroom. I cleaned myself up and brushed my teeth, and returned to the bed. Kim was under the covers, and I climbed in beside her. “Thanks for staying over,” she said.

“Thank you,” I replied. I couldn't think of anything else to say. She spooned against me, my back against her chest. I could feel her breasts against my skin. Within a few minutes she had drifted off to sleep. I tried to sleep, too, but the bed was cramped, and I was sweating where her skin touched mine. She was snoring in my ear. I thought, I wish I could talk to Carl about this.

Carl? Why am I thinking about Carl right now? My mind quickly slammed the door on this intruding thought. I’m in bed with a naked woman. We just had sex. Don’t overanalyze this.

I spent a restless night, sleeping fitfully. In the morning I got up to take a shower. When I came out, Kim was in the kitchen making breakfast. I got dressed and went out to join her.

She greeted me with a cup of coffee. “Good morning, handsome,” she said.

“Good morning,” I replied, grateful for the hot coffee.

She served up a plate of bacon and eggs and handed it to me. We sat down at her little table, not saying much. Finally, in between sips of coffee, she said, “Look, I don't believe in beating around the bush, so I'm just going to come out and say it. I really like you, and I think we should be dating.”

I tried to make a joke. “Well, we've gotten past the awkward seeing-each-other-naked stage already, so there's that.”

She smiled. “So, is that a yes?”

I couldn't think of a good reason to say no. My mind refused to contemplate the obvious reason. “I guess it is,” I said.

And just like that, I had a girlfriend.

Thanks as always to rec for editing, and to Parker Owens for beta reading.

Copyright © 2016 Diogenes; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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How wonderfully evocative this chapter is. I can see the places, hear the voices, and be in Mark's shoes throughout. Beautifully written and crafted. Can't wait for more.

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On 10/22/2015 11:33 AM, Parker Owens said:

How wonderfully evocative this chapter is. I can see the places, hear the voices, and be in Mark's shoes throughout. Beautifully written and crafted. Can't wait for more.

Thanks, Parker - and thanks for the input on the first draft.

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There always was at least one girlfriend before the dawn!! Really clear, with amazing realism, and it jumps you perfectly. Great job!

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On 10/23/2015 04:56 AM, Cole Matthews said:

There always was at least one girlfriend before the dawn!! Really clear, with amazing realism, and it jumps you perfectly. Great job!

Thank you so much, Cole.

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I hadn't forgotten about your story...this was lovely and well written. Girlfriend huh? Hmmm. I see trouble up the road...

 

Nice job

 

tim

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