When Caroline Crane stepped on stage at the Second City Mainstage Theatre, her dream had been in the grave for the better part of a month. No one took the time to inform Caroline, however. She hardly would have cared even if they had.
As far as she was concerned, receiving no callbacks during June was merely another setback in another month brimming with disappointments: losing her metro card, slipping on the apartment building’s rain-slicked stoop and tearing her best skirt, her husband Paul being shot in the shoulder in the line of duty, and the Cubs eliminated from playoff contention. Caroline met each with a shrug of dissatisfaction and found assurance in July’s arrival. “A new month with new opportunities,” she told Paul over breakfast. The lackluster months were mounting, though. Two hundred and forty consecutively, or twenty years, whichever you prefer.
Caroline never received callbacks for three reasons. First and foremost, she was overweight by industry standards; nowhere near obese, however. Not even pudgy. Corpulence worked for men in comedy, but women had to be something beyond talented. Her pale hair and clear complexion were not enough to compensate. Anyone exceeding a size six was deemed unfit, while sixes were almost certainly cast in skits and plays as maternal characters or the lead actress’s best friend. Secondly, she’d just turned thirty. She might as well have turned three hundred years old. Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Amy Sedaris: all discovered while in their twenties. And lastly, Caroline was not funny.
“Thank you, Miss Crane. Callbacks are in a week,” said a voice. It was the casting director sitting in the auditorium, though the theater lights shone so brightly upon the oak wood stage it was as though he sat in the mouth of a dark cave.
“Mrs. Crane,” said Caroline.
“You said ‘miss’. I’m married.”
“Hmm. Callbacks are still in a week. Next.” Caroline turned and disappeared between the folds of the scarlet stage curtains.
North Wells Street was wet under a misty slate sky and glossed with a dim yellow splash of sodium streetlights. Caroline lifted the collar of her pink slicker to protect her neck from the cool breeze and made for the El train platform.
Across from Caroline on the El sat an Indian man, drooping in his seat, his eyes laden with fatigue and the hood of his navy jacket drawn over his head. Cumin and coriander and all manner of curry scents wafted throughout the train car. Chicago is not a sterile city thought Caroline and it made her most uncomfortable. She clutched her purse and made for the exit when the P.A. announced her station.
In between auditions, Caroline worked as a customer service representative in a call center for an airline. Most evenings, for she worked the second shift, were spent in a perpetual apology, as the airline would often misplace passenger’s bags or shipments or cadavers. The call center hosted a congregation of selfsame cubicles arranged in a serpentine layout and the fluorescent bulbs overhead cascaded an electric glow upon the taupe walls. Caroline enjoyed her workplace immensely. Not once did she consider her aspirations for a career as a comedienne while clocked in.
Once home from work, Caroline consented to making love. It was sweet and sufficient. Afterwards, Paul fell asleep. He was a kind man, though she suspected it would not be long until he sought more fertile pastures. His shoulders were broad and his skin baked black by a brilliant sun. Caroline showered and watched Letterman in bed before sleep took her.
* * * * *
Caroline swims a perfect breaststroke through the inky black expanse of space, the twinkling white stars of the universe bobbing and bouncing like buoys as she makes for the velvety Milky Way ahead on the horizon. She glides through the creamy ether, the radiance of the galaxies growing more clean and colorful, full of greens and blues and purples and pink. . .
Caroline is delivering her opening monologue on Saturday Night Live and the crowd is aflutter with laughter. She delivers zing after zing after zing. No one is safe; no president, no empire, no diva, no reality star. All endure the scathing wit and tenacity of Caroline’s satire. Still, she is left uneasy. . .
Caroline is home in the fecund hills of Kentucky. She is standing in her mother’s garden and wearing the lavender romper her grandma gave to her on her tenth birthday. The air is pungent with the sour tang of cow manure and blooming dogwoods. Upon the crest of the hill beyond the pasture breezes Rhince, Caroline’s grey roan mare, still galloping along the border of the green and wild wood. Caroline’s heart bulges with longing and desire. The surroundings are familiar.
Protruding out over the stalks of corn is the big house, sky blue with a black shingle roof and wrought iron weathercock. Caroline walks through the back door and upstairs to her father’s study. Leather bound books line the shelves of the study and in the hearth hiss hot embers. In the far corner sits a staircase, its ramshackle railing held aloft with wooden slats. She ascends the staircase and finds a door of knotted oak. She rattles loose the rusty chains and a bulky copper lock hanging about the door's entryway. The hinges creak and moan as the door gives way.
The air is stifling and musty in the attic. Each breath is a labor for Caroline. There are no windows in the high room, though it is filled with an unnatural quality of light. The stretch of the space is vacant but for a brown and battered chest. Caroline reaches out and tugs on the golden catch, loosing it and throwing open the top. Inside sits a stone imp, a gangly thing, no larger than a goose egg and grinning a wide impish grin. His teeth are ivory tines like toothpicks chiseled of ancient bone; his eyes inset with rubies. Caroline is frightened by the demon figure and closes the chest.
She is outside again somehow, on the edge of the garden, but the chest remains before her. Caroline sprints to the barn and grabs the garden hoe where it leans against Rhince’s stall. She takes the imp from the trunk and pitches him to the ground and begins to swing and hack wildly with the hoe, chipping and chinking the stone surface until it is disfigured and mutated. Caroline digs a patch of soil in the garden and thrusts the imp deep into the tilled dirt. Self satisfied, she steps back from the unconsecrated sepulcher.
Night falls without the forewarning of dusk. It is mirthless and pitch black. An orange glow flays the darkness and glistens over Caroline’s shoulder. As she rounds in place, the volume increases. The barn is ablaze, its skeleton crackling as the flames lick the marrow from the bones. Yelps from within are only just discernable as her mother and father. Soon thereafter, the yelps fade to low groans and die away. The high whinny and demented squeal is Rhince. Caroline is stock-still where she stands, subject to the same tragedy she endured in childhood, but not for the first time since and certainly not for the last. She no longer cries and is fiercely proud of this.
Just beyond the long shadows cast in the flickering light, amongst the trees upon the hill, lopes a slinking and lanky figure, its eyes glinting red and pernicious.
* * * * *
Caroline awoke with a start, her chest heaving in breathless gasps, and Rhince’s sinister neigh still ringing clear in her mind. Beyond her bedroom window plush purple lightning twined itself around the darkness; a peal of thunder shook the ground. Her alarm clock blinked 12:00 in a muted digital red, though dawn was only a couple of hours away. She pulled open her nightstand and rooted through the socks and underwear until her finger felt that familiar caked surface and she grabbed it. The stone imp was as dark as coffee with sparkling white teeth.
How much more? She thought. When will I have given the Devil his due?
She turned on her side in bed, pressing her back into the warmth of Paul’s naked chest and continued to fear all things beyond the fire’s light.