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Here’s a 3-second sequence of events: Joanna sees Hank approach her bar stool and she groans; Hank says “Hi Joanna”; Joanna says “Hi Hank.” She hopes Hank did not hear her groan; he is aggravating as shit but she doesn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“You OK, Joanna?” Hank asks. “I thought I heard you groan.”
Shit, Joanna thinks. She channels Matt’s ability to lie instantly and believably, and says “I’m fine. Just some neck strain from work.”
“I’m so glad I don’t have an office job,” he says. “Unhealthy in so many ways. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.” Hank, as we have learned, is a wannabe actor and supports himself in a series of temporary jobs.
Joanna covers the new groan she feels welling in her throat with a fabricated coughing fit and refrains from reminding him that many of his jobs are, in fact, in offices.
“Bad cough,” Hank says. “You must work in a toxic building.”
“My building is fine. I just choked on a peanut,” she says.
“You’re probably allergic,” Hank says.
Joanna feels this line of conversation will literally kill her, and changes the subject. “Matt is down the other end of the bar talking to Ben and Ed if you want to go see him. I need to make a work call anyway.” She says this as she conspicuously holds her iPhone ear-high.
“Can it wait a minute? I have something I really want tell you.”
Joanna begins to sigh but fake-sneezes instead, and quickly says, “Sure,” to prevent Hank asking her if she’s coming down with a cold.
“I got a part!” he says.
Joanna vaguely recalls reading that a movie was coming to Philadelphia to shoot; it’s not an uncommon occurrence—gritty urban locations, toney suburbs, bucolic countryside, and the Jersey shore are all within an hour’s drive.
“In that movie that’s coming to town?” she asks.
Hank waves this off. “No, a real acting job. In a play.”
Joanna decides to be nice and not ask “On Broadway?” Instead, she says, “Nice, where? What’s the part?” There are a number of local theater companies that are always putting on productions; she figures he got a part in one of those. She thinks You know? Good for him. Following his dreams.
“It’s a small but pivotal role in an Ayn Rand play,” Hank says. “Do you know who Ayn Rand is?”
Her good feeling toward him evaporates. “Yes, Hank, I know who Ayn Rand is. I read Atlas Shrugged when I was 13. Is it The Night of January 16th?”
“Of course. It’s the only play she ever wrote,” Hank answers.
Asshole, she thinks. “What’s the part?”
“I’m the bailiff. The part is akin to the chorus in a Greek tragedy.”
“Is his name Rusty?” She’s thinking of Judge Wapner and The People’s Court.
“He is unnamed. Naming him would diminish his relevance.”
It occurs to Joanna that he didn’t say where this play was being staged.
“So where is it? You didn’t say,” she asks now.
“The high school,” Hank answers.
“The high school,” Joanna repeats. “Where you substitute?”
“That didn’t give me an unfair advantage, if that’s what you’re thinking,” he says.
That is so far from what Joanna is thinking that she’s at a temporary loss for words.
“Well, best of luck,” she says.
“Will you and Matt come to opening night? I can leave tickets for you at will-call.”
“I really need to make this work call now. Why don’t you go talk to Matt? You can ask him.” She knows Matt will say yes, but they can always make up an excuse when the time get closer. A bout of food poisoning, a cousin from the Midwest visiting unexpectedly, an emergency at Matt’s work involving a defective batch of twine.
“Okay,” Hank says. “I can probably get you backstage passes. Not sure if I can get you into the after-party.”
A party with Hank and a bunch of high school kids. Gee whiz. “Well, I’m sure you’ll do your best,” she says as she leaves to make her pretend call.
If you like this story, please check out my completed book, “Butts in the Seat”; one reviewer said it was “amusing, entertaining, and provides therapeutic value.”