“Ain’t Houses, Ain’t Names”
Nino Cipri’s story this week will wind its way into your thespian souls. ~ Julian and Fran, July 16, 2023
“Ain’t Houses, Ain’t Names”
by Nino Cipri
Lynn is lucky to be in the spring play at all, since as far as Mrs. Velasco or anyone knows, she didn’t show up for auditions.
She was there, technically. Signed in with Angela DiMartino, the junior who’d be stage-managing the play. Sat in the back, waiting to be called. She’d read Our Town over and over in preparation. It was a foregone conclusion that Carla June Mayfield would play Emily. Who else had the range? Lynn signed up to audition for George. He was just there to prop up Emily’s performance, to fall in love with her with the audience, to crouch at her grave and give everyone permission to cry with him at the end of the third act. Lynn could do that. Lynn was made to do that.
Carla June had played a gender-bent Wade Walker during the fall production of Cry-Baby. Lynn had spent every performance watching her, from the second she entered the stage, backlit into a boxy, bulky silhouette with a leather jacket and Janelle Monáe–inspired pompadour during “Watch Your Ass,” and then another two hours of her singing, dancing, strutting, and, of course, crying. She sat for hours in the dark, trying to understand the shape of what the play made her feel, what Carla June made her feel, and has been quietly obsessed ever since.
She imagined how it would go. Mrs. Velasco calling their names out together like a prophecy, them both slowly approaching the stage and their eyes meeting across it. Carla June would see her. Really see her. Because Lynn desperately wanted to be seen, and it felt like being perceived by Carla June carried enough extra weight to balance the other voice in Lynn’s head—the one constantly urging her to disappear.
But when Mrs. Velasco actually called out Carla June’s name and then Lynn’s, reality and her most embarrassing fantasies collided together. The voice—which she called the shithead voice—spoke up before Lynn could get a thought in edgewise. What do you think Carla June will see? it demanded. Some creepy zit-infested weirdo with tiny boobs and horrible bacne, who’s only been kissed once on a dare? And it’s not like Kent O’Shaughnessy gave you a glowing review. He had, in fact, wiped his mouth and said, “Well, that happened.”
Lynn slid down the upholstered seat and crouched on the sticky auditorium floor, praying Angela DiMartino hadn’t noticed where she’d sat.
Mrs. Velasco called her name two more times, then muttered something to Angela beside her. Lynn snuck the rest of the way out, carefully opening and closing the auditorium doors so nobody would notice her leaving.
Probably for the best, the shithead voice said, and she had to agree. If she had embarrassed herself that much just during auditions, imagine the damage she could have done during the actual production.
She only looked at the call sheet posted outside Mrs. Velasco’s office out of a sense of morbid curiosity, and maybe to punish herself a little. But there her name was, sandwiched between Rina Tagore and Melinda Byers under the word STAGEHANDS.
It’s the first day, and Angela DiMartino is leading all the tech crew through a backstage tour: the costume room and changing areas, the prop closet, the light booth, and the catwalk. Everyone regards Lynn, the only upperclassmen who’s new this semester, with a little wariness. Generally, you’re a theater kid from your freshman year; there are easier clubs for kids who want to round out extracurriculars for college applications.
The two freshmen listed as stagehands, Rina Tagore and Melinda Byers, are already discussing their plans to work their way up to lightboard op and stage manager, respectively.
“Does Our Town even need this many stagehands?” Melinda whispers to Rina. “There are barely any props, right? No scenery?”
“Everyone who signed up will have work to do,” Angela answers, though Rina didn’t intend to be overheard. “And I think Mrs. Velasco has plans for the stagehands specifically.”
They all look over at the stage right then, where Mrs. Velasco is supervising the cast through . . . warm-ups? Everyone is standing face-to-face, uncomfortably close to another person. They seem to move in sync, mirroring each other while maintaining intense eye contact.
The shithead voice creeps into Lynn’s head again, spitting out, Oh god, I would die if I had to do that. What if the other person has bad breath or something in their teeth? What’s even the point of looking so stupid? How can they all take this so seriously?
Lynn lived in fear that she would meet a telepath someday who would overhear the voice, think it was her thinking all those things. How to explain that it was hers but not her. Like a badly trained pet, but the curtains it shredded and the rug it tore up was, like, also her.
“Lynn?” says Angela. “Hey, Lynn, we’re moving on.”
“Sorry,” Lynn says instead, apologizing for zoning out, and also for her entire existence.
“No worries,” Angela says. “So we’re supposed to do a scavenger hunt. Mrs. Velasco says the first person to find everything on the list gets extra credit.”
Melinda and Rina grab their lists and immediately sprint off. Lynn clears her throat, manages to ask: “We’re supposed to do this ourselves? Not in a group?”
Angela hands her the last of the papers. “Listen,” she says. “Just, like, try? Mrs. Velasco’s totally gonna give extra credit to everyone who hands in the list, even if you don’t get everything on it. You just have to . . . show up.”
Lynn assumed Angela had forgotten about the random weirdo who disappeared between sign-ups and the actual audition. How else to explain her name on the call sheet? But she can see now that Angela knows exactly who she is, and remembers what she did. Maybe she even saw Lynn hiding on the floor last week.
“Okay.” After a long second, she adds, “Thanks?”
Angela gives her an awkward thumbs-up.
Lynn picks a direction and starts walking. She can’t help but glance at Carla June on the stage. She doesn’t look stupid doing the weird mirroring exercise; she looks intent and focused on her partner.
Look at me, Lynn thinks. Is it too much to wish she would look at me?
Yes, it is too much, the shithead voice insists. Carla June is Carla June, who took a name that Lynn wouldn’t have cursed an enemy with and made it music that everyone wanted to sing.
Lynn retreats before she loses control of her body and falls on her worshipful knees, or just, like, shits herself.
She hasn’t looked at Our Town again since her audition-that-wasn’t, but something about that mortifying failure has turned her against it. The first two acts are dull as dishwater, trying to make so much of so little. “Once in a thousand times, it’s interesting,” says the Stage Manager. But if Thornton Wilder had a thousand stories to choose from, Lynn knew, he wouldn’t have chosen hers, and she feels it like a personal rejection. She is too afraid to make anything of her life, and always will be.
Lynn squints at the list in her hand, holding it up close to her face. Half the things on the scavenger hunt list sound made up. What the heck is a color gel? And sandbags? Are they expecting a flood?
The backstage is dark, a maze of black curtains and black floors that are designed to devour any stray bits of light. A student jogs along the catwalk overhead, sending down dust that accumulated over winter break. Lynn’s not ready to venture up there yet, or down into the basement, where they store the costumes, so she heads to the prop closet.
The prop closet is lit by pale blue LEDs, and something about that makes the room feel like it’s enclosed in ice or glass. Angela explained that backstage lights are always blue—their reach stretches farther when it’s dark. Its tall walls are stacked with shelves, every kind of imaginable object heaped on them.
The other kids must have come through here already on their scavenger hunt. A few things are on the floor: a plastic drinking glass, a teddy bear with a red satin bow, a big hunting knife with a plastic blade. A rolling ladder stood next to the shelves. Lynn stands on the first step, and when nobody springs out to tell her to get the heck down, she cautiously begins to climb up.
The name prop closet seems inaccurate. Closets are small and enclosed. This one stretches up and up, right up into the catwalk itself maybe? The shelves wear labels handwritten on yellowing masking tape. Lower down, the labels are for settings in the mundane world: office, kitchen, train car, science lab, police station. As she crawls upward, the labels get more fantastical: magical mushroom forest, fairy castle (spooky/abandoned), narcissus’s pond (keep covered!!!).
She gets to the end of the ladder, but the shelves still stretch high above her. More of that old masking tape marks off an area free of props, maybe two feet in both directions. A path? Lynn carefully steps off the ladder and onto the shelf.
The dust is thick up here, collecting into fist-size tumbleweeds. The shelves are much taller, presumably because the props that they’re storing are bigger. Bookshelves, a row of airline seats, a full-size pinball machine, a streetlamp on its side, a whole row of articulated skeletons. She accidentally stumbles and sets all the bones rattling. “Sorry,” she whispers. “Sorry!”
She feels an urge she hasn’t felt since she was a kid: to keep looking, keep walking, keep climbing up the tree even as the branches get thinner and the wind grows sharper. She walks past a small fleet of kids’ bikes, can’t keep from combing her fingers through the streamers attached to the handlebars. The taxidermy animals, however, make her step a little quicker. She can’t shake the feeling that their glass eyes track her movements. One floor is taken up by a giant terrifying machine. She has no idea what it does; all of its pistons and arms and gears are still but have that same waiting quality as the taxidermy. She averts her eyes from the big button that says ON.
As she pulls herself up to the next floor, Lynn hears voices, though they’re tinny and distant. She can just make out a line of black boxes in the dimness, their tops open and leaking light. Any labels they’d had are long gone. The tape has peeled away, leaving ghostly imprints where dust stuck to the left-behind adhesive.
She makes her way over to the nearest box and looks down.
For a second, Lynn wonders if these are windows down into the theater, portholes, like on a ship, or maybe trapdoors where stagehands like her could throw down Styrofoam snow or feathers or leaves. Because it’s the auditorium down there: curved rows of the seats cloaked in anonymous darkness, the black-painted stages with bright fluorescent bits of spike tape. The lights are on, so bright that they seem to burn in the air. And Carla June Mayfield stands center stage, bright and vibrant.
“Light cue forty-seven, stand by.”
“Standing by,” someone answers, and suddenly Lynn’s not looking down on the stage from above, but from the wings. A heavy headset presses against her skull, wires running down her shirt to a little box clipped over her belt. It’s the play. The performance. Our Town. This is the third act, the heartbreaker act, where all the mundane whatever-ness that wandered through the first two acts suddenly looms up and breaks your heart.
Onstage, the actors are seated in orderly rows or straight-backed chairs. Angela is onstage, too, off to the side, not in shadow but in a spotlight. Lynn realizes—no, she remembers—no, it’s some combination of the two, new information that she already knows. Like her brain is a set stage, all the facts there simply waiting for the right light cue to be illuminated. Mrs. Velasco pulled Angela into the role of the Stage Manager after Esteban Garza got mono and the freshman understudy had a breakdown from the pressure and had to withdraw. Who better to fill the role than an actual stage manager, one who’d practically memorized the whole play?
“But I won’t live over a sad day,” Carla June is saying as Emily Webb. She wears an ankle-length dress, tall boots beneath it, and she’s braided her hair into a dark crown around her head, queenly but not ostentatious. “I’ll choose a happy one. . . . Why should that be painful?”
She first asks her castmates, who sit indifferently in rows beside her. They’re dead in this part, all of them, the neat lines of chairs meant to evoke a graveyard. This is the way we were,Wilder wrote. In our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying, and death is where the play inevitably arrives. Emily has grown up, married, lived, and died in childbirth, and now watches her own funeral.
“You not only live it,” Angela as the Stage Manager answers. “But you watch yourself living it.”
Unlike Carla June, she’s not in period costume, but in the same backstage blacks Lynn always sees her in. She’s wearing a headset as well, has a flashlight and multi-tool clipped to the pocket of her black jeans.
“Yes?” Carla June’s Emily is not the shy ingenue that she was in the old PBS version that Lynn watched on YouTube. She’s demanding, headstrong. And Angela’s Stage Manager is not a kindly God-like narrator: she’s distracted, despite or maybe because of her omniscience. Her attention is divided between her duty to the audience, the cast, and running the show. But at Carla June’s imperious Yes? she pauses, looks up from her binder.
“And as you watch it, you see the thing that they—down there”—Angela nods at the audience—“never know. You see the future. You know what’s going to happen afterwards.”
“But . . .” Carla June chews this over for a beat. “Is that—painful? Why?”
Lynn would never think to ask that question. If she had the script of her life, and could see every single moment ahead, every triumph that got undercut by mortification, every time she tried and failed, or let the ugly shithead voice in her head out where someone could hear it—
“But . . . how can I ever forget that life?” Carla June asks. “It’s all I know. It’s all I had.”
Angela’s voice speaks softly in her ear. “Stagehands, stand by for scene change. Light cue forty-eight, stand by.”
“Lynn standing by,” she replies, and Rina and Melinda say they’re standing by as well. It’s impossible that Angela’s voice is in her ear when her body is on the stage, but Lynn has a job to do here, so she can’t dwell on it too much.
“Cue forty-eight, go. Stagehands, go,” Angela says. Soft blue lights come up downstage left, enough for her, Rina, and Melinda to see the spike tape on the floor. They come out unobtrusively, carrying the tables and chairs to re-create the Webbs’ kitchen. After the furniture is set, Lynn crosses the stage to the makeshift graveyard. If Angela is the Stage Manager, all-seeing, then Lynn and the other stagehands are psychopomps, mostly invisible laborers except for when it’s funnier or more poignant to remind the audience that they’re there. She holds out her hand to escort Emily back to her family kitchen on her twelfth birthday, the day she has decided to relive.
Lynn’s hand shakes as she holds it out, and Carla June’s is sweaty when they touch. Every night for the three performances, her soft, damp palm crosses Lynn’s. There’s another of those dips in time and space, and Lynn suddenly sees—
She sees the first time Carla June will look at her, exactly the way she dreamed. Lynn isn’t sure it’s real, until Carla June convulsively squeezes her hand. It’s a magic, she’ll say later, isn’t it? Theater, I mean. You’re onstage with empty hands, but everyone sees your heart spilling out of you.
This is before she’ll kiss Lynn at the after-party, during some drinking game, before Lynn finds the courage to tell Carla June that her name is a song, but not to think of a good reply when she asks, “What kind? What kind of song?”
“I should have said a love song,” Lynn will later tell Angela, because they’ll be friends by then, bonding over a shared taste in sad old books and plays and poems, over a shared crush on Carla June Mayfield.
“No teenager alive is that smooth,” Angela will tell her. “And if they were, we’d have to kill them for making the rest of us look so bad.”
And at the after-party for Urinetown, the fall musical for their senior year, Carla June will kiss Angela the same way she kissed Lynn. It will be the most exquisite pain that Lynn has ever felt—at least until then.
Because from the stage where Carla June’s hand hovers above Lynn’s, she can see further out into their futures, all the pain that awaits them. Pain and misery and heartbreak, uncertainty and anxiety. She sees her parents’ divorce, sees her dad become estranged as he falls in with a church who tells him that his bisexual daughter is a Hell-bound deviant. She sees his absence at her wedding, her absence at his funeral. She sees friends and family members die from car accidents or cancer; she sees a lover detransition and re-closet herself. She sees cruelties and callousness on great scales and tiny ones, and worse, she sees that she’s not innocent. Sometimes the cruelties are hers.
That’s all it is, the shithead voice says now, come to have the final word. Life. It sucks and then you die.
“Light cue forty-nine, stand by,” says Angela, and Lynn re-remembers something else: Angela apologizing with a bottle of wine that she stole from her parents, only it’s port, thick and syrupy in their mouths as they cry together in Lynn’s bedroom, because Carla June likes to kiss girls but doesn’t seem to date them, and because she’s still incredibly nice even when she breaks your heart.
“I had to,” Angela slurs, drunk. “I couldn’t not. I’m sorry. I love you so much.”
“I love you too,” Lynn tells her, and then she and Angela kiss as well.
It’s nothing like kissing Kent O’Shaughnessy, or even Carla June. So much will precipitate from this kiss: her first relationship and her first breakup, and a steady, lifelong friendship. And there will be other kisses and other hands in hers, and other friendships, and sunsets and sunflowers and sex and amazing meals and—so much of it. Life.
Lynn sees that she will have to choose, over and over, what it all means: whether the sum of her life’s parts will come out to a curse or a blessing.
“Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?” asks Emily in the final minutes of the performance.
“The saints and poets, maybe,” answers the Stage Manager. “They do some.”
On closing night, Angela will laugh halfway through the line, a bright giggle that breaks character, and that will make Carla June laugh, both of them bordering on hysteria. It’s a mistake, but the audience laughs along, none of them any the wiser.
How will I ever tell anyone about this? Lynn wonders. What if they think it’s fake? What if it is fake? What if I forget?
Carla June is waiting for Lynn to take her cue. She stands in a circle of tired yellow light in a pantomimed graveyard while Lynn stands just out of it, in the dim blue that they use for scene changes. Lynn’s hand quivers and shakes as she holds it out, and Carla June’s is damp with sweat when she takes it.
“Cue forty-nine, go,” says Angela, and the lights shift around them.
Thank you for joining our journey this week.
Nino Cipri is a queer and trans/nonbinary writer, editor, and educator. A graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and the University of Kansas’s MFA program, Nino has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson, World Fantasy, Lambda, Nebula, and Hugo Awards. A multidisciplinary artist, Nino has also written plays, screenplays, and radio features; performed as a dancer, actor, and puppeteer; and worked as a stagehand, bookseller, bike mechanic, and labor organizer.
One time, an angry person on the internet called Nino a verbal terrorist, which was pretty funny.
“Ain’t Houses, Ain’t Names,” © Nino Cipri, 2023.
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