Friday, December 9, 2022

God Bless Us, Every One by Mary Dutta

One by one, the aspiring Tiny Tims walked onto the stage. It only took five minutes for the first one to burst into tears. More criers followed, along with a smattering of bellowers, a handful of whisperers, and one six-foot college thespian who declared “Tiny” an oppressive construct.  

To be fair, last year’s Tiny Tim had needed a shave. But he was a legacy hire. For as long as their uncle had directed Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a local family had owned the role, handing it down from one to the next like an heirloom. But now the nepotistic uncle had stepped down, the casting call was open, and the battle for the spotlight was on.

Lauren, the temporary replacement director, turned in her seat in the theater’s third row and eyed the line of contenders, each child accompanied by an adult. It was always the parents a director had to worry about. They never learned that they were auditioning too, and pushy stage mothers (and fathers) would not make the cut. If Lauren was going to get the full-time position at the theater that topped her Christmas list, she was going to have to keep them in line.

Although clearly instructed otherwise, more than a few doting dads and moms had snuck into the wings to cheer on their precocious progeny. The assistant director did his best to fend off the more aggressive among them, but he was busy wrangling the pint-sized actors, taking their photos on his phone and noting down their names. Despite his efforts, a blast of music erupted as the twelfth kid to audition hit his mark and started belting out a Christmas carol. The music stopped abruptly and a woman ran onto the stage. “I told you,” she called back into the wings, “he prepared a song.”

The boy, who had paused mid-Fa La La, took a deep breath but let it out again as Lauren gestured at him to stop. At least he knew how to take direction.

“This isn’t a musical,” she said.

The boy’s mother strode to the edge of the stage. “You might change your mind on that,” she said, “once you hear how well he can project.” She turned to her son. “Go ahead, honey.” Luckily, the assistant director finally appeared and hustled them both off, stage left.

The next few children thankfully followed instructions, obediently speaking a few lines, sitting on Tiny Tim’s stool, and taking a few steps with his crutch. That pattern held until a girl with her hair tucked up under a newsboy cap suddenly cast aside the crutch and launched into a tap dance.

"This isn’t a musical,” Lauren said again. “And Tiny Tim isn’t actually able to dance.”

“What if he could?” a voice asked behind her, causing her to jump in her seat. A man, presumably the hoofer’s father, had slipped into the row directly behind her. “What if you staged a dream ballet, like in Oklahoma?

It wouldn’t involve tap dancing, Lauren thought, but all she said was “Next.”

Auditioner Number 22 asked what his motivation was. Number 30 handed Lauren a headshot, despite the fact that the assistant director had already taken his photo. It was better than Lauren’s own professional portrait. She would ask for the photographer’s name if she snagged the permanent job. Surely they would need a picture for the press release if she was hired. When, she told herself, not if. This Christmas Carol production would make it inevitable.

The line of hopefuls finally came to an end. “God bleth uth, every one!” the last contender declared with a grin that displayed several missing teeth.

“Amen,” the assistant director said, closing the theater door behind him with more force than was strictly necessary.

"We can compare notes tomorrow,” Lauren said. “I’m going to sneak out the back in case any of those parents are hanging around out front waiting to catch me.”

She made her way through the backstage areas, stumbling back in alarm when a woman popped out from the costume shop clutching a shirt in one hand and pants in the other.

“I couldn’t help noticing,” the woman said without a greeting, “how perfectly this Tiny Tim costume would fit my son. You remember him, he had the green pants.”

The kids were a blur. At this point in the day, Lauren didn’t remember if any of them were wearing pants at all, let alone what color they were.

“You shouldn’t be back here,” she said.

“I also couldn’t help noticing,” the woman barreled on, “some of the children here were much too chubby to fit into these clothes. I mean, Bob Cratchit has to carry Tiny Tim on his shoulders. Some of those kids could give him a hernia.”

“You need to leave,” Lauren said, wondering if the woman had hidden her child somewhere backstage among the props and scenery so he could materialize at center stage without warning.

“I’m sure we’ll see you at call backs,” the mother said. She dropped the clothes on the nearest chair and walked off. Lauren left them there for the wardrobe mistress to sort out and pushed open the exit door.

She headed to the one place she could be sure to avoid any children—the bar on the corner. Nursing her gin and tonic, she willed her stress away and focused on speaking her goals into being. “The show will be a huge hit,” she said, manifesting success as hard as she could, “I will be hired as the full-time director. Christmas will come early this year.”

The bartender set a refill down in front of her, breaking her concentration. “Compliments of the gentleman in the blue shirt.” Lauren looked down the bar to a man who raised his glass, then a photo of his child. She pushed the drink away and headed again for the nearest exit.

The next morning brought a knock on the door of Lauren’s short-term rental before she had even had her coffee. She opened the door to find a massive gift basket. She didn’t notice the child-size sneakers sticking out below it until they started to dance. Lauren shut the door and stood with her back to it. When she finally peeked out, both the gift basket and the child were gone.

The pressure only intensified after call backs went out. Once the parents knew their kids had a serious shot at playing Tiny Tim, they upped their game accordingly. Lauren felt under constant surveillance, since people approached her everywhere she went. Parents offered everything from friendly smiles to envelopes full of cash. However tempting the payoffs, she wanted a permanent job far more than anything the stage parents had to offer. She took to avoiding every woman she encountered of remotely child-bearing age, but then the grandparents started in. She understood now why the previous director kept things in the family.

Lauren took to looking around her building’s parking lot before darting to her car. She stopped eating at restaurants, choosing the anonymity of drive-throughs. Even then, she had to start using a false name after her burger and fries came packaged with a kid’s resume.

She couldn’t wait to post the cast list and put an end to the madness, but she dreaded it too. A final decision meant a crowd of angry parents gathered around a bulletin board and out for her blood. The first thing she would do when she was hired full-time was switch to online notifications.

Lauren told the assistant director to stay home the day she posted the list, hoping her willingness to shield her subordinate would carry weight in the director-hiring decision. She pinned up the sheet of paper, unlocked the theater door, and made herself scarce to avoid being trampled in the ensuing rush. The parents left their children in their dust.

Wandering among the backstage flats, Lauren admired the magical Christmas scenes and listened for sounds of upheaval as the crowd shifted from the lobby into the theater. While Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, and the ghosts of various Christmases congratulated each other and headed out to celebrate and commiserate, an increasing hubbub warned her that disappointed parents were up in arms. Lauren had cast a perfectly normal child with perfectly normal parents as Tiny Tim. She needed to keep the drama on the stage and out of her life. That was her best bet for manifesting her own Christmas miracle—convincing the theater to hire her full-time.

Lauren tensed at the sound of footsteps, then relaxed as Tiny Tim’s mother approached.

“Listen,” the woman said, “we’re going to have to pass on the gig.”

“What?” Lauren tensed again, hoping that she had misunderstood.

“We’ve been auditioning all over and he got Tiny Tim in a bigger theater downtown. So thanks for the opportunity, but no can do. Good luck with the production,” she called over her shoulder as she sailed off, a stage mother after all.

Lauren was starting to share Scrooge’s low opinion of humankind. She headed for the stage with leaden steps, wondering how long it would take the other parents to renew their efforts to snag the abandoned role for their own children.

Thirty seconds, apparently.

“Who’s going to be Tiny Tim now?” The woman who had brandished the costume at her confronted her again. “Why didn’t you name an understudy?”

Lauren ignored her. Parents swarmed the stage, conversations growing increasingly heated as they argued over whose child should get the coveted role. If the theater powers-that-be got wind of the growing chaos, Lauren’s job prospects were doomed. A director who couldn’t manage the audition process wouldn’t be handed a leading role with the company. The parental free-for-all was turning the shiny gift-wrapped box containing her new job into a lump of coal and making her question why she ever wanted a theater career in the first place.

“Bah, Humbug,” Lauren said, ready to pack it all in and ghost them. Let them take it up with the Ghost of Christmas Future, who would show them a vision of an empty theater where A Christmas Carol was never performed because no director would work with them.

Arguing turned to shouting among the parents and the dancer’s father shoved another man. He crashed into a Victorian Christmas tree, knocking it to the ground in a shower of shattered ornaments. Two women went down in the ensuing tumult, cutting their hands on the glittering broken glass. Then a woman emerged from the wings waving a gun and total pandemonium broke out.

Lauren whipped her head around looking around for the kids. Where were they while all of this was happening? Did their feuding parents even care about their safety?

“None of your kids has half the talent needed to play Tiny Tim,” the armed mother screeched, pointing her gun at different people in turn. “None of them.”

A hush descended on the stage. Lauren let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding as she recognized the theater’s tag hanging from the pistol. The gun was a prop. The woman must have grabbed it from the prop room in all the bedlam.

Time for some direction. “Put that down,” Lauren commanded in her loudest voice. The other parents looked between her and the pistol-packing mama. “Don’t worry,” she added, “it’s a prop, not a real gun.” The woman dropped it to the stage and burst into tears.  

“I just need you to understand,” she said, between sobs. “My daughter has so much talent.”

“You all need to leave this theater,” Lauren said. “Collect your children and go.”

The parents suddenly seemed to realize their kids were nowhere to be seen, and the hubbub rose again. Lauren held up a hand to silence them. For once, they took direction. “I hear singing,” she said.

The parents ran after her to the lobby. The aspiring Tiny Tims were singing Jingle Bells at the top of their lungs, dancing, clapping, and spinning, all together. Fa-La-La boy even provided some harmony. Their parents had the grace to look abashed.

It was as if the Ghost of Christmas Past had come to show Lauren a vision of her own childhood joy and love for the theater. She needed to embrace that vision and bring it into Christmas Present, job or no job.

She climbed a couple of stairs toward the mezzanine. “I have an announcement,” she said. The kids stopped singing and the parents leaned in, each presumably hoping to hear their child’s name announced as the new Tiny Tim. “I’ve made a directorial decision. As of now, there are enough roles to go around. We’ll alternate Tiny Tims for every performance. There are six Cratchit children, and one of them will have a lisp. I’m adding a chorus of carol singers, and some dancers at the party Scrooge’s nephew throws. Every child here is going to send a message about the true meaning of Christmas.”

Lauren made eye contact with every parent. “The show will be a huge hit,” she said, manifesting with all her might. “Christmas will come early this year.”

The parents looked at each other and down at their children.

“God bless us, every one!” one of the Tiny Tims called out.

“God bless us, every one,” the parents echoed.

“Amen,” Lauren said.



KM Rockwood said...

A charming Christmas story with a satisfying ending.

Kait said...

What a perfect coda to the Dickens story! Well done.

Lori Roberts Herbst said...

Great story, Mary! Left me with a warm, Christmasy feeling!

E. B. Davis said...

Real and true!

Shari Randall said...

This made my day! Thank you Mary!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

Clever ... and so true