by Robert Oldenburg
The Capital Theatre was undoubtedly the nicest building in town. Few locals would debate it. It was one of the few buildings that could still be dated back to a more prosperous time. When, with the first moments of the town’s inception not far removed, the monies from the city’s participation in arming the allies for the Great War helped to build the first of the town’s finer things. The theatre now stood as a testament to a social vision of culture, and community. It was a representation of an identity I fear may have been lost forever somewhere in the past. It sat on a block, at the cities centre, which was almost completely abandoned and run down. The irony of the town’s nicest building being located in the city’s lower profile area made the town’s people roll their eyes and make with many a sarcastic comment. “Hey, if you’re going to the Capital, you better bring a gun!”, I once heard a local say with a sarcastic smile. He was one of many, well aware of the abandonment of the town’s city centre.
One rich man held the city hostage for years. He refused to fix the buildings that were condemned, and he refused intervention to stop the few operational buildings from heading to a similar ruin. He wanted the city’s top dollar for his land and he was prepared to let the buildings crumble to the ground as a way of strong-arming the municipal authority. For a city dependent on tourism, an eyesoar in the middle of our town reflected poorly and affected everybody. Still the theatre survived, against all odds, in the middle of a decaying infrastructure.
The exterior of the building was unassuming – aside from the large, semi-circle, bright yellow marquee sitting above the front doors, hanging out over the sidewalk– but when you entered through those front doors, into the beautiful lobby, with its ruby red carpet, handmade banisters, gold railings, exquisite moulding, and its antique furnishings, you instantly had an idea of the rich history behind the building. On the wall, closest to the doors leading into the performing space, hung original portraits of all the old entertainers that had come through the town in the past. Some were autographed and most were in black and white; some even had water damage from the old fires that had devastated the building in years past. Personally, I always loved to look at the old picture of Johnny Cash, and I often imagine what the streets must have been like when the man in black came to town.
Above the theatre space there was a grand battlefield mural painted on the domed ceiling, both breathtaking and elegant. The mural depicted a story of a long past time and place; A town tumultuously tied forever to a forgotten war; the war of 1812. There were serene Angels painted in the corners of the battlefield mural, and they were playing harps. Adding to it all, the moulding in this part of the theatre was sensational as well, and most of everything was still original — some having been restored after the fires.
These days, few local patrons wondered about the story depicted on the mural. Inevitably, somewhere along the line the locals stopped wondering what the history of the mural was meant to represent. Most of us took it for granted. The majority of the locals didn’t seem to realize the sheer grandeur beyond the surface of the great work so high above them; the beauty of the idea behind the idea and labor. Most didn’t seem to know or care much about the theatre at all really. From one generation to the next, living stories were not as prevalent as they were one hundred years earlier, and it was getting harder for some folks to appreciate that the past had ever existed at all. History was tedious. One need wonder, if it becomes so hard to imagine the past, are we not in danger of losing site of the future as well? I wonder, without either, what is the purpose of the present?
Live community events were more or less scoffed at now. The community was more interested in catching a flick at the flashy local silver screen, interested solely in quick cuts from scene to scene and a limited need for personal imagination; and some simply stayed home, watching the television or surfing the internet. This building, for the kids who would settle into their adult lives early, before seeing the world outside of the town, this theatre was as close as they would ever get to bearing witness to the likes of the Sistine Chapel in person.
* * *
The rain beat down on everyone as they ran from the parking lot to the front entrance across the busiest street in town. The wind blew hard giving the falling rain a horizontal impression as the drops were lit by the streetlights overhead, the bright marquee, and the headlights of the passing motorists. Tires splashed and horns honked. Parents, dressed in their finest clothing hurried toward the theatre — some dragged children, siblings perhaps, unhappily dressed in their finest clothes — along the sidewalks and across the road as they splashed in puddles. Some of those same parents were also helping their own parents avoid any slips or falls, placing an umbrella above heads or using their jackets in the same way, locked arm through arm, watching carefully.
People were still filing into the theatre well after seven p.m. The scheduled start time came and went.
The evening was set back an hour due to the traffic congestion caused by the big spring storm. The crowds shook the rain from their umbrellas as they entered the building, and saying hello to the faces they noticed along the way, they all walked, loud and excited, toward the main attraction. I knew very few people personally so as Gordo’s mother was saying hello to her friends, I wandered over to have a look at the old pictures until she was ready to go in. The man in black was still hanging in the middle. We ended up sitting above everyone in the very back.
I had watched Gordon grow up, from a knee high, impressionable boy, to a handsome, impressionable young man. He stood well above my height now. I knew him quite well. In fact, better than he would think. One night, about a year ago, when his mother and I were drinking together at their home, he got his hands on my car keys after I had passed out. I kept his mother company, and slept on their couch more often than not. She was a lonely single mom, and I was simply comfortable there. Her and Gordo were the only two people who knew about my secret, and they both accepted me as I was. I appreciated them dearly for it. On this night, he knew I was out like a light, and they knew they would not get caught. Furthermore, I had taught him to drive, so he was comfortable in my car. In fact, it was the only car he knew. His dad did not trust him to drive yet. In retrospect, I suppose I can understand why.
He received his learner’s permit a few weeks before. He was excited about the upcoming chance at adult freedom. On this night, while dreaming of a new chapter in their lives, they got the idea to drive along the highway to the next town, to see some girls from their school. I assume that he and his friend Will, as young boys will do, began joking about the idea, until finally they had convinced themselves it would be uncool if they did not follow through. It was a game of chicken. He was not aware I knew this. I overheard him in his room the following morning, as he spoke to Will, who had slept over. They discussed how lucky they were to have avoided a crash when my car had sped through a stop sign on a country road, with Gordo at the wheel. At first, I was ready to throw the door open and beat their asses; but after the story, I heard them both expressing their shame, and regret. So, I decided to give him a pass on that one. I was more careful with my keys after that. They grow up so fast. It was not long before that, I remember him crying, screaming at the top of his lungs in a shopping cart, when his mom would not buy him a toy he really wanted.
Tonight was his graduation and I noticed him as he sat with his pale face and his medicines in his pocket, hidden beneath his gown, to tame his stomach. He sat between his classmates in a sea of forest green caps and gowns. Some of the kids were waving at their families and friends as they walked in behind them; some were hitting the person next to them and pointing at someone they just noticed, or laughing at
something they found unusual, pointing to it in the distance. Some joked with each other and enjoyed their last few hours as high school students by playing tricks on the classmates seated in front of them; by flicking an ear or making the pretty girls jump by catching them off guard. They all felt a little more mature now, but the atmosphere threw some of them into a state of adolescence again; joking as they would have done four years earlier, instead of acting like the accomplished young adults they were now. Some of the graduates had resisted the temptation to behave childishly at first, but it seemed most had joined after a while in futility, and the crowd grew unbearably louder as the room filled, and the ceremony was long delayed.
As Gordo sat silent, begging the powers above to get this uncomfortable situation over with so that he could return home to bed, the rain continued to beat down on the high domed ceiling of the old heritage building; but the patter was only heard when the audience, with the dimming of the lights and sensing the start of the ceremony, had hushed. As he would tell me later, Gordo watched the mural on the ceiling of that battlefield and felt as though it was now coming to life, as the rain mimicked the sounds of war just below the sounds of the rustling audience. He felt as though he were the only one watching the coming attractions as he put his head back in a drug filled haze and watched the 19th century soldiers go to war.
He had fought hard to attend the graduation, to mark the end of this stage of his life just like all the other kids, and he felt horrible due to a particularly bad strain of influenza. He was particularly deflated to find that his father was not in attendance. Tony had stopped speaking with his son based on some things he was not happy with in Gordo’s life, and he would refuse to attend the ceremony due to his dissatisfaction with the young boy’s recent decisions involving a girlfriend that his stepmother didn’t like.
He had a terrible week dealing with this situation, and the sickness made it that much worse.
His parents had been divorced for over sixteen years, and they often threw Gordo right in the middle of their battle. When his mom could make one of his events -like this graduation- often his father and step mother found reasons not to be there, mistaking the event to be in their honour. His mother, on the other
hand, would drink excessively to balance the stress and pressure of making ends meet, and often tell Gordo to go and live with his father whenever he asked her not to drink so much. It was obvious to me that the adults, the ones guiding him, often caused chaos whenever a situation was uncomfortable for them. For Gordo, it was simply confusing, and over time he gradually eroded.
Gordo’s mom had never graduated from high school, and with all of the hardships she had to endure for her son’s sake while raising him, and for all the many hardships her family had endured before he was born, she was now reaping the rewards of being an accomplished mother at this moment. She wasn’t perfect, and she often fell victim to her vices when confronted with her own position in life, but it was miraculous what she was able to do with the few resources at her disposal. She continued to take pictures of the sick boy and all of his friends, watching as Gordo’s friends laughed and hit each other and told jokes all around him as he sat, almost motionless. She did not bother much with the other parents.
She fixed her eyes tearfully on her brave boy, knowing he was sick and loving him even more for it. Once in a while she would turn to me and express her amazement and joy, but mostly we sat quietly, appreciating in silence her relationship with her boy. In the future the pictures she had taken here would hardly ever see the light of day. Gordo was too sick, and in all of the pictures he looked as though he was some mysterious ghost caught on film, lingering in the old seat of the Capital Theatre, watching the young souls receiving their diplomas. The pictures were never on display, but when she missed her son, after he left home, she would open a dusty old unmarked photo album that she kept in the back of her closet, and she would look back on this moment with such fond memories.
As Gordo’s mom and I sat there, I watched all of the young graduates. They were smart kids at the very beginning of their path’s in life. Gordo was quiet and uninvolved on this night, but his potential was obvious to teachers and other parents alike. I was present on more than one occasion when he came home with positive remarks from teachers praising his selflessness, or coaches praising his abilities. I truly believe he could have excelled doing anything he wanted. However, his start was destined to be a rough one. His father had recently remarked that he was lazy, like his single mother, and further schooling would only be a waste of money. Upon hearing this, Gordo decided to forego the college experience to appease his paternal influence. I questioned him on this, and he often made excuses for why he wasn’t going. It was sad to see such an inquisitive mind staying in town, when all of his friends were leaving.
When the lights dimmed and the principle approached the podium, Gordo peered around, his eyes glazed and medicated, and his pale green face, now an even deeper shade of green, searching to find his father in the crowd. He looked through his mother, sitting proud, smiling the whole time and still taking pictures. Will, Gordo’s best friend, was sitting in front of him, and he looked back in sympathy for his best friend, who was using all of his remaining strength to find a person who would never arrive. He asked Gordo how he was doing. Gordo looked over at Will and smiled. “I’ll make it.” He said.
Will smiled back. “Good stuff buddy.”
After Gordo looked behind him again, Will motioned silently, with an inquisitive glance to Susan, the girl beside Gordo, silently asking how he was. She was the girl in the sitting next his friend, and she smiled at Will thoughtfully, and nodded with assurance in response to his inquiry.
Soon the ceremony was in full swing, the pageantry was passing like a dream to Gordo. Later he would mention hallucinations and personal confusion in a grand and entertaining story; but now, he knew he would soon have to stand and complete the monumental task of walking, after all of this idle time and so much medicine. They were sitting in alphabetical order, so when he heard the name of the girl beside him get called, “Susan Anne Hendrickson”, by the school principle at the podium, and when she grazed his leg with her hand, Gordo lifted his head from his chest and congratulated her with a sincere smile. “You gonna be okay Gord?” She asked.
“I’m right behind you,” he replied, and he watched her walk up to the podium ahead of him.
He was happy for her, and she was a great help to him while he had been feeling so sick; she had done what she could to take care of him as they sat there, checking in with him periodically to make sure he was doing okay. They had gone to school together for ten years now, so they were quite familiar with one another. He would remark, in that grand story, that he sure was thankful she was there to help him.
He heard his name called; the crowd kindly and constantly applauding for all graduates. He collected himself and began the walk down the aisle toward the bright stage. The crowd didn’t realize he was feeling under the weather. Some close to the stage might have guessed by his appearance that he was sick, but they were all happy to see all of their children accomplishing such a milestone, and they were happy for everyone else and their children, too. It was at this point in the ceremony that he realized, as his knees buckled, that he was not going to be able to go out with his friends for drinks afterward. He would not get to celebrate their achievements for one last time before they all went their separate ways in life. The medicine did not work. This, of course, made him even more upset. He confided in me that he felt cursed. He reflected on all of the accomplishments he had in high school, and now, he wondered if displeasing his father had somehow cursed him into having all of his former achievements being washed away in an instant. They were gone already, and he was only now receiving his diploma. He felt a new found uncertainty in life — which to him felt like a mysterious new limb protruding from the back of his head like a weight pushing him down into oblivion. What a terrible thought on such a happy day.
After the ceremony was over the graduates all congregated in the lobby and showed off their papers to each other. They took pictures with their families and arranged plans to go out and extend this final night together. All of the younger siblings, who earlier were overflowing with energy as they sat idle in the seats
before the show, were finally able to run and joke and tease their older brothers and sisters for the strange green robes, and hats they were wearing. Gordo, however, was already gone. He made a quick move for the door and he asked Will to say his good-byes for him. He was so sick that he couldn’t even be sad for the way the night had gone anymore. The rest of the group, including Will and Susan, went out and partied all night long and had one of the most memorable nights of their lives. Susan asked Will about him and was sad to hear that he would not be around. Gordo went home, lying in bed as his mother brought him medicine and told him she was proud of him as she rubbed his forehead to ease his nausea.
He spent the rest of the night slipping in and out of a hazy, foggy, depressing slumber. His mother and I
sat in the living room just outside his bedroom door.
* * *
I hadn’t thought back on this graduation until I heard from Gordo’s mother few days ago. I had only seen him once after this night, at a funeral home close to the old theatre, when he came to pay his respects to
my deceased father. He came alone, and I asked how he was doing. He said casually that he was getting
by. “More importantly, how are you doing?” He asked me.
He took off soon after that and never came back. He took his confusion with him. He cared an awful a lot about finding his place in life, and it was never clarified for him at home, so he took off in search of it. The
most important thing he ever received from his “home sweet home” was a message of judgment and disappointment, for being too much like the people he knew best — the people he would obviously resemble. Like a good kid he looked up to his parents, but he was punished for it. As an adult, I believe it
was everything he could do to avoid being like either of them. In his lonely mind, this was the only way to
satisfy both of them. It makes me wonder how anyone could hope for growth with such an unstable foundation.
It’s a strange thing to hear about the suicide of someone you love. You’re left wondering if there is anything you could have done. Gordo’s mom isn’t doing so well now, and truthfully I doubt she will ever make it through this event. She can’t understand how this happened. I cannot begin to console her either. All I know is that Gordo fought a battle that I imagine many children struggle to fight every day. Growing up with a set of circumstances where they never really feel like they are a part of the world that surrounds them. My lifestyle makes me sympathetic to them. I know what it’s like to feel different based on things out of one’s control. For the type of child Gordo was, and for the type of young adult he had grown into, he always wanted to be accepted for the person he was. Unfortunately, I don’t believe he was ever able to find the ground beneath him.
The note said he was very sorry. I am sure he was. He wanted to live longer than his mother to save her
from the agony; but his personal agony, of drifting further down into a dark and confusing hole, had become too much for him. He turned twenty five last week, and for the fourth straight year he heard nothing from his father. He lived in a beautiful little cottage, a short walk from the water, and spent most of his time alone. One day he locked his car doors in the garage of his rented house, locking himself inside, and he started the engine. The car was left running for the majority of a day before someone finally found him.
Today I saw him at the capital theatre one last time. I looked at the picture of Johnny Cash before I entered the main space. A large portion of the town had showed up to see Gordo on stage again. It was packed, much like the last time I saw him on this stage. He was at peace now. I peered around the crowd. I saw a lot of faces that I noticed this time. Will, Susan, and other members of his family; but I could not help noticing that his father was not there. I heard later, Tony’s wife was ashamed of his son’s decision, so she insisted they did not go.
illustration by David Pratt