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It is ungodly hot and Hamlet should shut up.
“You cannot call it love, for at your age the heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, and waits upon the judgment,” over-enunciates one of the actors while wildly gesticulating with a plastic human skull. The skull does not normally appear until Act 5, and Hamlet certainly is not waving it at his mother while lecturing her on how to control her sexual desires.
The community theater auditions are going poorly.
“You may want to pay close attention to this next one,” warns Bob, handing me yet another acting resume. It’s so humid inside the moldy theater that the paper curls.
Bob and I are old friends, finding ourselves surprisingly single at 70. How he convinces me to help him stage Hamlet in the middle of the hottest July on record chiefly results from my utter boredom. Retirement is turning out to be stupefying, as there are only so many crossword puzzles one can do.
“Why am I looking at this actress more closely than the others? It says here she’s almost 50 years old, Bob, and she’s auditioning for Ophelia?”
“She owns five KFC franchises,” Bob states flatly.
“So Ophelia is going to drown in hydrogenated soybean oil?”
“She can finance a large part of this operation. The city only contributes so much, and I’m not good at fundraising. Do you want to shake down some car dealerships to support the arts?”
“Ugh,” I concede and peruse her resume more thoroughly. “C’mon, Bob. She played Annie at 40. It’s a half-lived life for us. Are you sure the KFC Queen is right for this production? How about we start a GoFundMe page instead?”
“How about you look at our mature Ophelia . . .” Bob pleads.
“Fine,” I sulk.
I hear her footsteps before I see her. These are not the tentative taps of a poor, dutiful Ophelia, but long purposeful strides of a King of Denmark. She is tall with unruly hair, dark brown eyes ferociously gazing up at Bob and I as if we were auditioning for her.
“I have rehearsed Act 3 Scene 1, immediately after Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy,” she states boldly.
“Fourth—?” I’m flipping papers for no reason. She’s gorgeous.
“After To be or not to be . . .” She waits for us, suffering fools gladly. “I will need one of you to read Hamlet’s part.”
“I will do it.” I immediately volunteer while sweat pools under my armpits. I would kill Bob if he offers otherwise. I want her to talk with me.
“Ready?” she inquires with an arched eyebrow. O, that I might kiss that eyebrow!
“I am absolutely ready.” I almost choke on my own unintentional irony. Bob audibly snickers, and I hate him for knowing me so well.
She pauses, collecting all the kinetic energy in the auditorium.
“My lord, I have love-tokens of yours to return to you. I pray you now receive them,” she laments, suddenly a broken-hearted young maiden. Her transformation blinds me. I literally cannot find my place on the script. Bob is threatening to laugh uproariously at my besotted state, but, gratefully, he controls himself enough to point out my line.
“No, not I. I never gave you anything!” I half stand, calling out to her from behind a table in the audience.
“My honoured lord, you know right well you did. And with them, words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich.” She eloquently articulates each luxurious syllable. I sit down because I don’t trust my knees anymore.
“Are you virtuous?” I reply. Please say no.
“Are you fair?” My god, you are so fair. She grows more beautiful the longer I look at her. I cannot stop looking at her.
“What means your lordship?”
“That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty. I did love you once,” I proclaim, probably more ardently than the script calls for. Bob looks over at me pointedly. I punch him under the table.
“Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” Ophelia is all vulnerability now, eyes wider than one can imagine, exposing the depths of her trusting soul to the love of her life. Due to the heat, her eyeliner has smudged, giving her a heartbreakingly desperate look.
The next lines are cruel, and I read them poorly because they are not true. “You should have not believed me. I loved you not.”
Broken, the actress appears as if physically in pain. In a quiet, dejected voice, she simply says, “I was the more deceived.”
I want to run onto the stage and comfort her. Instead, as Hamlet, I rip out my own heart by uttering the words, “Get thee to a nunnery.”
Bob stands to applaud while she formally bows, smiling from ear to ear. As she gathers her things, I am paralyzed, not trusting my voice or my body language to give away the fact that I’m hopelessly in love with a 50-year-old Ophelia who sells fried chicken.
To my delight and disbelief, I watch her make her way up the aisle towards us.
“So how are the auditions coming along?” She fishes.
“Very good. Lots of talent in this town,” Bob offers in his genial, noncommittal way.
“Well, not that much talent,” I add lamely. “But not you, though. You were excellent. What I mean is that you definitely have talent. You are talented.” Kill me.
She looks at us both skeptically.
“Well, let me know at your earliest convenience. If I get the part, I’ll have to hire another store manager or two.” She turns on her heels to leave, but not before flashing a dazzling smile.
“They say the owl was a baker’s daughter,” I shout one of Ophelia’s nonsensical ramblings after her, just to get her to stay a bit longer.
“We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” she replies and my heart nearly bursts.
After the auditions, Bob and I walk out into the early evening air, still stifling hot, causing beads of sweat to trickle down our faces.
“I think we have a solid final cast list,” he says, tiredly. He dabs his face with his tie.
“Hamlet is a little weak,” I caution him, but it would be hard to find an equal to Ophelia’s commanding stage presence. And her eyes.
“Do you want to grab dinner?” he asks.
“No, I have other plans,” I smile at Bob.
“Are these plans original or extra crispy?”
I place my hands over my heart, “Do not take tenders for true pay, which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly.”
“That’s what you’re going with? Chicken tender puns?” Bob rolls his eyes.
“You’ll tender me a fool,” I say, blowing Bob a stage kiss. And then I do what Hamlet should have done.
I walk to my car, determined to find the fair Ophelia at one of five KFC restaurants.
This story won the weekly writing contest on Reedsy Prompts
This story won first prize in the Rotary Club of Stratford Short Story Writing Contest, and was performed by HERE