Short Fiction by Stephen Poleskie
The joy of John’s youth had been putting on plays. This he did this in his parent’s basement, where he personally acted out all the roles from scripts that he created. His younger sister was the only audience. Sometimes he wrote in a part for her. Then there was no audience, unless her girlfriend from next door could be enticed to come over to watch. Once he created a scene for the girlfriend, and she danced naked for them.
John’s father didn’t approve of his son being in the basement all the time, and told him that he should be outside in the fresh air, playing sports with his friends. But John had no friends. And despite all the times his father, who had been a pitcher for his high school baseball team, threw a ball to him, John had not mastered the art of catching it. As a batter, John was even less skilled. Because he was so short, John never even considered basketball, nor was he bulky enough to be a football player. And soccer had yet to arrive in his part of America.
The little boy was quite good at sliding into second base, a feat John enjoyed doing and practiced quite diligently in the backyard, tearing up great clumps of his father’s finely groomed lawn. John fancied himself having a career as a base stealer, perhaps even setting a record and being elected to The Baseball Hall of Fame. Alas, the father pointed out to his son that before he could steal second base he would have to get to first base, a task which John realized he had little possibility of accomplishing. Thus John stopped practicing sliding and the grass grew back.
As his father disliked going to the movies, John always went with his mother and sister. Being short he preferred to sit on the aisle to avoid having a tall person in front of him. John enjoyed cowboy movies best, which they did not often go to see. He knew about these films mainly from watching the previews. John decided that he would become a cowboy movie star and began working on it seriously. He set up an old mirror in the basement and started practicing his quick draw with toy guns. He even began to talk like a cowboy. At school, raising his hand to go to the boy’s room, he would say something like: “Howdy, ma’am, kin ah mosey on outa here fer a spell?”
After John’s teacher called John’s father urging him to have a talk with his son, the boy revealed his desire to become a movie star. His father told John that he was too short to be a movie star, “And besides,” he added, “actors are all queers.” When John asked his father what he meant by “queers” his dad said that he would find this out soon enough. Nevertheless, John continued to produce “Westerns” in the basement. He got a cardboard box and some broom sticks and made himself a camera through which he “filmed” the neighbor girl dancing wearing only a toy gun holster and a cowboy hat.
One day his father came home with a new baseball glove for John, the kind with webbing like the big-leaguers used. Handing it to his son, he said, “Now you can go up to the field and play with the big boys.” John thought that this must be some kind of magic glove that would enable him to catch the ball. Maybe next week his father would bring him a magic bat. Happy with his new glove, John went up to play with the big boys.
“Hey kid, that’s a nice glove, let me see it,” one of the big boys said.
John handed it to him.
“Whoops! It flew away,” the boy laughed, throwing the glove to his buddy.
“Give it back!” John cried; too short to pull it from the other boy’s outstretched hand.
“Whoops! It’s gone again.”
The glove was passed back and forth until one of the biggest boys finally ran off with it. John went home crying and told his father, who said that he should have stood up for himself. Secretly, John was happy that the glove was gone; now he had an excuse for not going up to the baseball field anymore.
In high school John was finally cast in a real play. He had auditioned for the hero, but was told that he was too short, so became the understudy to the comic lead. The teacher who was the director soon discovered that John was a far better actor than the person he was the understudy to; so John took over the role. On opening night, which was the only night the play ran, John held the audience in his hand; his every word, every move, brought laughter and applause. When he learned that many famous comics were short, he was convinced that he was destined to become a famous comic. For one scene in the play John came out dressed as a girl. One of his male teachers said that he had very nice legs, and should perhaps think of becoming a woman. This was the teacher the other students said was “a queer” a word John now knew the meaning of.
When he was in college John tried out for numerous lead roles, but always got to be the comic because he was so short. Remembering the many productions that he created in his parent’s basement, John wrote a play for him to star in. It was a drama. John wore elevator shoes so he would be as tall as the woman he played opposite. In the competition he entered the play in John did not win anything for his acting, but his play won the prize for the most original script. John considered that perhaps he should become a playwright.
When her touring company performed at his college, John fell in love with a beautiful ballerina. He wrote the young lady letters and went to New York on weekends to see her perform. As he had very little money, John snuck into the ballet at intermission with the crowd that had stepped outside to smoke. So many people did this that the theater had a man working the lobby watching the people coming out and going in, randomly checking ticket stubs. After a few encounters the lobby man knew John by sight and watched for him.
One day the ballerina wrote to John that she would see him after a performance. The man from the lobby also worked the backstage after the show. When John went to meet his ballerina, the lobby man grabbed him by the coat and was about to throw him out when the ballerina appeared.
“I’m John Janowski!” he shouted, waving, a worried smile on his face.
“Oh, I’m very happy to meet you,” the ballerina said seeing him.
After that John saw the ballerina quite regularly. Although she gave him free tickets, John continued to sneak in at intermission, only showing his complimentary when he was pressed. One advantage of being short was that you could easily become lost in a crowd.
The ballerina told John that although she “liked him a lot, and they had fun together” she couldn’t take their relationship seriously, as she was becoming famous and would need to marry someone who was also famous. She didn’t mention that as he was about three inches shorter than her, it made her feel awkward when they walked together. John was crushed. He brooded for a while and stopped going into New York City on weekends to see the ballet.
John eventually graduated from college and moved to Manhattan, determined that he too would become famous, even though his ballerina had since been married to two or three already famous men.
Unfortunately, it was not easy for short men to become famous, so John was soon back in his home town working for his father in the family real estate business. John Janowski and Son Homes was the name of the company. No, John Jr. had not changed his name to Homes. After arguing for years about the need for a comma in the company name, his father died and the business became simply: John Janowski, Homes.
Times were good and money flowed in. One day, when John was trying to sell an old firehouse in the downtown, he got the idea to buy it himself, and convert it into a theater. This way he could write, produce, direct and star in his own plays. It would be like his childhood all over again, only this time real people might come, and even pay for their tickets. There were plenty of frustrated actors in town who would perform without pay. And if his theater didn’t make any money all the better; John could take the whole thing as a tax write off.
The renovations were completed. The actual theater was on the second floor, with the lobby below in the space where the fire trucks used to be kept. John left the huge doors intact and pulled his own car into the firehouse when he needed a space to park downtown,
Deciding to write about what he knew, John’s first play detailed the humorous goings on in a real estate office. Although some well-known contemporary playwright had already written a successful play using the same setting, John had seen this play and thought it not that funny. It was probably written by a tall man he reasoned—tall men can’t do funny. His play would be hilarious. Not wanting to tax his energies, John did not cast himself in his play. Happily, he was able to find an actor even shorter than he was. Being shorter, he would probably be funnier.
Opening night came in the middle of a heat wave. John had neglected to install air conditioning in his little theater, opting instead for picturesque ceiling fans. The fans, however, could only be run on low speed as anything higher drowned out the actor’s voices. It was too hot. No one was laughing at John’s cleverly conceived comical lines. Some of the crowd, which was not exactly a full house anyway, had gotten up and left. John needed to do something quick.
He opened up the firehouse doors and pulled his convertible into the lobby. John put down the top and turned the car’s air conditioning on full blast. It will soon be cool in here, he told himself. Leaving the car’s motor running so the battery would not wear down, John stepped outside to sell half-price tickets to the passers-by. “Two acts still to go. . . .” John cried but no one took him up on his offer.
It was now almost time for intermission, so John opened the doors and backed his car outside to make room for the soft drink concession. The crowd upstairs was strangely quiet.
John was disappointed. The last lines of the first act should have had the audience rolling in their seats. As John tip-toed up the stairs for a look he thought he detected a strange odor in the building. Opening the door a crack, he peered in at the house. John was astonished to find the cast and the entire audience slumped over—apparently asleep.
Embarrassed that his play was being received so poorly, John vaulted into his convertible and drove off into the night. That was the last anyone in our town ever saw of John Janowski, even though the State Police put out an extensive search for the playwright.
About a year ago word went around that our John was living well in Hollywood under a different name and writing scripts for action movies. However, to the best of my knowledge, this rumor has never been confirmed; the suspected script writer was reported to be rather tall.