Monday, January 9, 2012
Not the Same Old Story
Ray Nardo skipped out on his 8th period study hall to saunter over to the TPHS auditorium. He had a permission slip from Mr. Smalls, the English teacher, but preferred not to show it unless forced. Sure, everybody already knew he had a part in the spring musical, but it wasn’t something a cool dude cared to advertise, and Ray counted himself among the coolest of the cool.
He stepped inside the auditorium and saw he wasn’t the only class-jumper taking advantage of Mr. Smalls’ generosity. The artsy bunch, put to work on scenery, went at their New York City backdrop with gusto, and the occasional actual perspective. Ray waved to the paint-spattered ladies up on the stage, and got a few waves in return.
This year’s musical was West Side Story, adapted for a Talbot’s Peak audience as a tale of the herbivorous Jets fighting a gang war with the invading predator Sharks. Since Mr. Smalls insisted on casting to type, that put Ray in the Shark camp. This had pissed him off royally, because everybody knew the best singing roles were on the Jet side. To add insult to injury, the teacher cast Leo Jenks as Bernardo, the only decent Shark part. Ray still hadn’t forgiven either of them. Sure, Leo was one hell of a dancer, but Ray knew he had the better voice. What did a coyote bring to the table that a fox couldn’t, anyway?
With Tony and Riff denied him thanks to species bias, Ray ended up as Chino, the only other Shark with a speaking part. Better than nothing, but only by a hair. It did have one thing going for it: at the end, Chino got to shoot Tony. Ray was looking forward to that.
No singing, some dancing. Suck it up, Nardo, Ray told himself. He needed this, and not just for class credit. Someday, he and his garage band would be filling arenas. The high school musical was his first step in learning how to perform in front of an audience. Being able to sing and play a guitar wasn’t enough in the age of viral videos. You had to put on a show.
On his way to the stage Ray stopped to touch base with his buddy Brock Wolverton, seated on the aisle with a seriously-furrowed brow as he went over his script. He’d been cast as Officer Krupke, mostly due to his imposing physique. Thank the shifter spirits the part required no singing or dancing. The big wolf could pass, run and block like a pro footballer; musical theatre, not so much. “Yo, Brock. How goes it?”
Brock growled at his script. “Can I still get out of this?”
“Not if you want to pass English. Look, you’re playing a cop. You just have to snarl at a bunch of herbies. You can do that.”
“If they’re carrying a football, yeah. I think I’d rather flunk English.”
“You’ll do fine.” Ray patted Brock’s broad shoulder. “Is Leo here? Or Mr. Smalls? I want to work on my choreography.”
“I think Leo’s backstage with some she. Mr. Smalls isn’t here yet.”
A shouted oath drew their attention to stage right. Brock bared his teeth. If he could reproduce that look on opening night, Ray thought, he’d be a winner. “Looks like the happy couple’s at it again.”
No need to ask for clarification. Teddy Simms, the production’s Tony, hadn’t bothered to hide his disdain for his leading lady since rehearsals started. Okay, so the girl wasn’t exactly in the Angelina Jolie category. She was stocky and round-faced and only had a stub of a nose, in spite of smelling like a fox. Her pale skin, silvery-blonde hair and colorless eyes made her look like a ghost. In fact, she was pretty colorless on all fronts, and Ray hadn’t paid much attention to her.
Until she started to sing.
Holy Joe. Now there was a voice that could pack an arena. He stood mesmerized while she ran through her portion of “Tonight.” He paid no attention to her baggy sweater and dull cargo pants. His mind’s eye saw her fronting his band at Superbowl halftime, and record deals up the tail. Judging by the rapt looks on the faces of the others in the auditorium, everyone agreed with him.
Everyone but Teddy. “Bored,” the hulking elk announced, and stalked off up the aisle, leaving his Maria to stutter to a halt in confusion. She didn’t even shout at him to get his grass-eating tail back there, as any self-respecting predator would have done. Her white balloon of a face crumpled, on the verge of tears.
Instantly Ray dashed down the aisle and vaulted onto the stage. Nobody with a voice that awesome should ever be miserable. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t let the weed-whacker bother you. Even if he wasn’t a herbie, he’d still be a major dick. I don’t know how he got the part of Tony in the first place. Oh wait, sure I do. He’s Mr. Smalls’ nephew. That makes him a dick times two. He’s probably pouting because your voice is way better than his and he knows you’re going to steal the show.”
None of this made a dent in her expression. “I just wanted to rehearse. I know I’m a carnie and all, but it’s just a play.”
“And he’s just a dick. Forget him.” Ray held out his hand. “Ray Nardo. Chino in the cast. At least you get to sing.”
She stared at his hand but made no move to touch it. Hoo-kay, let’s try round two. “I don’t remember seeing you around school before,” Ray said.
“We just moved here from Alaska. My parents thought the musical would be a good way to meet people. Our old home was pretty remote. We’re Arctic foxes,” she explained.
Aha. That put her lack of color and compact build into perspective. “How about if you rehearse with me?” he said. “I know all the songs, and most of the lines.” The Tony role had been his aim, until Mr. Smalls had walked into tryouts with Teddy in tow. Shooting him, if only pretend, was going to be a joy.
The girl’s round face brightened in a smile. For a second she looked as beautiful as her voice. “Would you? I really need to practice.”
For answer, Ray switched on the CD player with the arrangements. He found “Tonight” and started singing. Hesitantly at first, then with confidence, “Maria” joined in.
Trout in a bucket, this frozen fox girl could belt out a tune with a skill Eddy Vedder would have cried for. Ray added dance steps and found her as light on her feet as the ghost she looked like, baggy clothes and squat body notwithstanding. Screw Teddy; put her in makeup and costume and she was going to steal the show from everybody.
All too soon, the music ended. They stared at each other, holding hands, panting and bright-eyed. Loud applause from throughout the auditorium brought them back to earth. The scenery-painters gave them a standing ovation. Even Brock was clapping. The girl looked around, startled and wide-eyed. “Get used to it,” Ray whispered. “You’re a star.”
“Not bad, Mr. Nardo,” Mr. Smalls’s high-pitched, smarmy voice said from behind him. “Although it’s not your role. Where’s Teddy?”
I thought I smelled elk patties. More diplomatic words made it out of his mouth instead. “He had to make a trip to the can. I was helping—” Scat. He’d never even asked “Maria” her name.
“It doesn’t sound like Callista needs any help. That was magnificent, my dear.” Mr. Smalls beamed at her before adding to Ray, “Your dancing needs work, Mr. Nardo.”
“That’s why I’m here. Look, as long as I’m here, why can’t I at least understudy for the Tony part? Teddy could snap a leg or something”—one could only hope—“and Phil really doesn’t have the range for it. Nobody needs to know I’m a fox. It’s not like we’re going to shift on stage or anything.”
“True, but Phil is a horse, and I want to keep the cast divided between carnivores and herbivores. It adds verisimilitude to the acting.” Not to mention keeping precious nephew Teddy in the starring role. “Perhaps next year, Mr. Nardo.”
Yeah, and perhaps wolves would eat salads. Ray held his tongue until Mr. Smalls was safely out of earshot. “All elks are dicks,” he pronounced. “Hey, listen, if Teddy keeps on being a douche and you want to work on your lines or whatever, why not come over to my place? We’ve got a garage with great acoustics. My band practices in there all the time.”
She smiled again, less brilliantly but still dazzling. How could he have thought her plain, with a smile like that? “I’d like that.”
At that moment, in the pinnacle of bad timing, Leo Jenks reappeared with his she of the moment in tow, and called the “Sharks” together for dance rehearsal. Ray quickly blurted his address, twice to make sure she got it, then skipped over to join his castmates. His heart also skipped in a syncopated beat, and music ran through his mind.
Callista … I just met a girl named Callista …