The Subterranean Shakespeare Club

by Jay Levin Installment 2

Chapter 21

Hamlin awoke to the sound of thundering feet and the shrill whistle of Coach Ken. That
was his P.E. class. He could hear Max and Buck taunting Jake Jacobs, the second smallest, weakest kid in class. He guessed, in Hamlin’s absence, that the Rigley Boys moved onto a new victim. For the faintest moment Hamlin felt a pang of nostalgia for P.E.. Hamlin thought about the smell of the mildewed gymnasium, the crisp military lines Coach Ken demanded, getting tripped and falling headfirst into a mud puddle. What stupid thoughts you think when you’re alone. Not having to go to P.E. and get embarrassed is a holiday. Standing up Hamlin felt dizzy and had to rest on one knee to keep from falling down face first. His last meal at the hospital consisted of only a concoction of string cut potatoes and a few dehydrated sticks of carrots. No matter what the risk I have to eat tonight. His stomach growled like a hungry tiger and threatened to turn on him at any moment. He knew that his school had been notified of his disappearance. If he showed himself there he would be turned over to Mayor Rigley. Hamlin didn’t want to think about what would happen to him if that happened. Maybe he would be sent to an orphanage. Little orphan Hamlin, he joked to himself. Hamlin tried to envision himself trying to act cute so he would be adopted. At thirteen, his cute and vulnerable years were far behind him. At least his cute years were behind him. What family would want to take in a thirteen year old? Stop! Hamlin hated thinking about what the future held in store for him. I have to focus on the present, and what’s behind this wall. Curiosity had always been Hamlin’s best asset and so he turned his attention to the mysterious brick wall. It was at least a diversion from the growling in his stomach. Where the one brick had been removed Hamlin could see small cracks in the surrounding bricks, and decided to pull with all of his might. Suddenly the brick came loose. Hamlin threw it far back. It echoed off the walls. Hamlin froze. Listened for a reaction. Luckily, from the gym above, he could hear his classmates dribbling like mad men. Still he was fearful of them hearing his work and suspended his demolition of the wall. From now on he would work only at night and on weekends. The larger opening allowed Hamlin to see more. It was a large room with a tremendously high ceiling. There looked to be rows of chairs. Hundreds of chairs. An old auditorium nearly the same size as the gym above. Hamlin saw what looked like red velvet draperies along the walls. He was even more curious than before. I need two things, Hamlin thought. Patience and tools. Hamlin settled down with his back against the wall. It would be almost twelve hours

before night, before he could leave the tunnel and until he could move freely in the dark. He took from his satchel his volume of William Shakespeare, and with nothing to do, began to read involving himself in the story, not as a scholar, but as an actor. When he read a line he liked he committed them to memory, and when he thought about the characters, he thought as people he knew or had known. But it was during his reading of Hamlet that he began to recognize his own unique story. Hamlet, the main protagonist of the self-named play, much like Hamlin, felt that the life he had been living had become a drama in which he was an actor. Maybe Shakespeare wrote about people in his own life who had impacted his life. Caused his reputation harm, who had made him feel as weak and vulnerable as I feel now. Hamlin at times felt like Hamlet. Both had felt a great sense of loss in their lives. Hamlet’s father had been murdered by his ruthless uncle Claudius sending Hamlet into a dark place in his life and Hamlin’s Mother had disappeared. Hamlin spent hours reading the text dramatically, enjoying the poetics of the writing. Hamlin thought that the characters were navigating the same murky waters of doubts and frustrations he was feeling, discovering the larger world as he was discovering the small world behind the brick wall. Nearly the entire day passed by for Hamlin without him feeling the pangs of hunger. He was so involved in the reading of the plays that he barely noticed the din above. Peering out the window through a small bullet hole sized opening Hamlin viewed the janitor slowly sweeping the walkway that crossed by the corridor. Weakening, the light turned amber, then pink and soon the corridor was as dark as when Hamlin had first entered it the night before. Hamlin, knowing he had to conserve the batteries of his flashlight, sat for a long time in the dark. His stomach sent signs of distress in the form of baritone gurgles, and his small bottle of water had been empty for a few hours. He put on his backpack and opened the door ever so slowly. Scanning both ways he left his hiding place in search of food, water and most importantly tools to knock down the wall.

Chapter 22

It was still relatively early in the evening, the November air crisp and filled with the
sharp scents of maple leaves that scattered and shattered at Hamlin’s every step. In many spots the leaves were as high as the tops of Hamlin’s high topped tennis shoes. Sensing the cold of approaching Winter, families strolled the streets together, many on their way to the houses of friends to share hot chocolate by roaring fires. Gift tins filled with delectable cookies were in many people’s hands. Crowley, which could be called a conservative community, was at times the warmest, most wonderful of places for children. This was the 21st annual Cookie Day. Of all days for a hungry Hamlin to be walking the streets alone and hungry Cookie Day had to be the most painful of all. Hamlin tightened his belt. It was really a symbolic gesture for Hamlin was in no way starving to death. He was, however, imagining eating every variety of cookie ever invented: chocolate chip, macadamia, snicker doodles, shortbread with cinnamon on top, gingerbread and a thousand others. All of these wonderful confections, and worst of all their intoxicating scents, surrounded him suddenly. He had become a cookie animal able to discern from a passing families cookie tin the slightest scent of nutmeg. Worst of all many of the fathers in these families held large casseroles with oven mitts filled with apple, cherry, pecan and doubly worst of all lemon meringue pie…Hamlin’s favorite of all times. Thinking of lemon meringue pie was bitter sweet for Hamlin. It was the pie his mother made. Little did Hamlin realize that his feet and the memory of his mother had taken him to the opposite side of the street from his house. He began to examine his house. He felt as if he was looking at his past life—or a life that was not his but belonged to somebody else. Most things were the same, and at the same time, everything was different. Yellow tape now crisscrossed the front door. Police Do Not Cross. Hamlin didn’t know if somebody might be watching his house thinking that Hamlin might return, so he kept on going. He had to think about another way to enter his house. Hamlin skulked slowly from one house to the next peering into the picture windows that looked like illuminated show cases depicting all the best parts of family life. Fireplaces lit the rooms in dancing amber and golden tones. People, mostly in Christmas inspired sweaters filled with knitted reindeer and Santa Claus, held fine crystal goblets, while others eagerly took massive bites from their cakes, their faces smudged with fudge frosting. Laughter erupted at regular intervals. Adults grinned at each other warmly as their kids chased each other in wild delight. In one of the houses a portly woman brought out a 5 gallon bucket of ice cream and announced, “Come one, come all for hot apple pie a la mode.” Soon a line formed and she scooped out heaps and heaps of ice cream. Hamlin sadly watched the

children eat as his kettledrum of a stomach growled and fluttered in empty agony. In the next house sat an entire family seated cozy on their couch. all with their arms warmly draped over each other’s shoulders. The father smiled as contentedly as a lion studying his pride. Hamlin wondered, why does my family have to be so different? Why did his mother abandon him? Why am I on the outside looking in? Hamlin wanted to knock on a door and invite himself into one of these parlors complete with fire, cookies, pies and ice cream. He wanted to be apart of a home composed of a mother, father and a few brothers and sisters to play with. Hamlin wished for a mug of hot chocolate with a thin sprinkle of nutmeg on top. He wanted what he could not have...a family that cared about him above all other concerns. Hamlin didn’t really like lemon meringue pie, he liked the amount of time his mother spent making the pie. It took her hours to squeeze lemons, kneed the dough, roll out the crust, and season and bake the pie. Her smile let Hamlin relax. His mother was, for the brief time she was baking the pie, radiantly happy. Hamlin believed it was the only time she was not worrying about bills, or their life of deprivation. Many times Hamlin had passed his mothers room and heard her crying. For all his learning about the frailty of human beings, when his mother was frail he didn’t have the ability to help her. Simply, as he had seen the family in the parlor do, he wished he could wrap his arms around his mother and hold her tenderly. Hamlin’s growling stomach began to roar. It had been over twenty-four hours since he had eaten. Hamlin, with his cap pulled tightly down and his hands anchored at the bottom of his pants pocket, now dragging his feet, made his way back to his old house and stared at it long and hard. Only a few days before, he could enter his house with no fear, with a sense of ownership. After all it was his house. He had a key and could go in and out—if he asked his mother—as he pleased. Hamlin held his house key out in front of him. He could go inside for a few minutes, fix himself a snack of peanut butter and celery. If he remembered correctly there was a large container of orange juice in the refrigerator. There were other items he wanted as well. So many items he could use a house to store them in. Another thought. Are there people hiding in the house waiting to capture me? Hamlin studied each and every car on his block. Buick’s. Chrysler’s. Ford’s. He searched for cars that were unfamiliar. Unfortunately since it was the twenty-first Annual Cookie Day, most of the cars were unfamiliar. Hamlin examined both ways and crossed the street. Squeaky porch steps didn’t help to calm his nerves either. Hamlin put the one key on his clip-on key chain in the lock. It wouldn’t go in. He shook the key. No luck. After trying another time he threw the key down on the porch and stomped on it as hard as he could before he kicked it off the porch. Rumple Stilskin couldn’t

have stomped it harder. Without being stealthy or quiet Hamlin sprinted around to the back of his house. As he had done in the school he checked every window for an open one. Not one. Hamlin went to the kitchen door in the rear of the house and knelt down. He saw a thick plastic dog door curled outward. Behind it was a heavy metal plate meant to keep unwanted animals or people out. Hamlin applied pressure to the plate and gently slid it upward until he could fit his fingers underneath. He pushed it until it fell on the kitchen floor. Even at thirteen years of age Hamlin’s skinny body easily fit through the dog door. He found himself in his kitchen. Everything seemed as it was before he had left. His refrigerator hummed softly. Opening it he quickly surveyed the contents. He found a paper bag filled with sandwich meats and mustard, and from the vegetables he took tomatoes and a cucumber. Opening the freezer he took a block of frozen bread—his mother always had frozen bread. Unable to wait Hamlin quickly opened the milk container, tipped it back as far as it would go. Nothing. Undeterred he tipped it back and shook. A tremendous gelatinous glob of milk splashed against his lips sending disgusting new-formed cheese into his mouth and down his cheeks. He raced to the sink, spit out what landed in his mouth and washed the offensive matter from his face. Hamlin had no time to feel sorry. Again he made his way back to the refrigerator and found a large jar of raspberry jam. Using a large spoon he ate great globs of the jelly, and when he reached the sides, scooped them out with his finger until nothing remained. His stomach heaved and rumbled, but after a minute settled down. Now that his growling stomach was taken care of Hamlin’s attention again returned to supplies he needed to break down the brick wall. He went down into the basement. Over the years many families had rented the house, and over decades they left a fair amount of odd junk in the basement. In order to pass the time, Hamlin spent many hours studying the contents. One family left an ancient archive of family pictures from the nineteenth century. Another tenant of the house left behind an entire toolbox complete with an assortment of hammers and chisels. Hamlin hefted the toolbox in one hand and the bag of groceries in the other and headed back to school. He had work to do, and now, tools to do the work.

Chapter 23

His flashlight clutched by his teeth, Hamlin found demolition of the wall both back
breaking and thumb splitting work. Hamlin’s hands quickly grew weak from wielding the heavy hammer and if he didn’t hit his mark the hammer struck his thumb. Luckily the pain in his thumb made him remember to concentrate because he knew he could not afford an injury. Slowly, Hamlin found his rhythm. Brick by brick, swing by swing, chunk by chunk he willed and whittled the wall that had been erected to keep him out. As the dark night lightened Hamlin had made a hole big enough to fit through. So, with a high step, Hamlin entered the walled room.

Chapter 24

If anybody had been with Hamlin as he entered the room they would have seen his mouth
agape and his eyes as large as two full moons. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. A theatre. Not a movie theatre with a tiny stage and a white screen, but a massive one with a stage complete with three layers of tattered curtains. Painted scenery from another era lay haphazardly against the back wall. Hamlin spent hours searching through the contents of the theatre, wondering about its history. Who in his right mind would wall away this magical place? What purpose would it serve to block peoples’ access to a theatre? From his research into Shakespeare he had learned how many different types of people used to attend plays. Every walk of life from kings down to scullery maids saw his plays. As popular entertainment as television is today people viewed plays regularly. What had gone so tragically wrong in Crowley to make the central theatre go dark, to turn this beautiful theatre into a trash depository? Before Hamlin lay heaps of trash piled ten feet high in spots, old furniture, much of it broken, and boxes of moldy books that came apart like moths wings. All around him lay decay and worst of all abuse. Like a person who had been injured, so was this once magnificent theatre. Chunks of the stage were missing like teeth lost to gum disease. Many of the tattered draperies were moth eaten. In order to look up at the painted ceilings Hamlin sat in an old chair and nearly brained himself when the back of the chair collapsed sending him with a crash to the dusty floor. Hamlin laughed. He laughed hard. Pure joy filled him for a moment, and like a swimmer in a river full of currents, he went with the flow and laughed. He kept laughing and the ghosts of the theatre laughed back.

Chapter 25

Hamlin moved his meager possessions into the theatre and immediately opened his book
of Shakespeare to Hamlet. Giddy, he couldn’t help himself. He stood on the cluttered stage— dead center—and holding a plastic skull he had found in a box, read Hamlet’s famous Soliloquy. “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlin’s voice surprised him greatly. Even though he spoke softly, his voice inside the voluminous space of the theatre seemed as vast as an ocean, his voice clear as if each note were magically amplified. Inside the theatre Hamlet’s words had an unmatched power. Even though Hamlin spoke to rows and rows of trash, illuminated only by his flashlight, he felt more powerful than ever reading these immortal lines. ‘To live or die’, that seemed as much the fact of the theatre as Hamlin’s life itself. If Hamlin wished to evade capture he knew he would have to work to evade capture. If this theatre were to survive, that meant it would have to avoid detection as well. This theatre is mine. It was odd to be alone in such a place that could hold approximately two hundred and fifty people. Just Hamlin. Just one voice upon the once magnificent stage. It seemed odd to Hamlin, but it was thrilling as well. He didn’t want to admit it…he loved being alone on the stage. It was pure vanity to be in the space all by himself. Hamlin, who had felt so much sadness in his life, began to heal. Whenever he began to feel sad he told himself not to worry about the future, or attempt to always live within his memories of the past. An entire week went by as he read and performed Shakespeare. What he did in the present became his way to deal with the pains of his past. Each time he thought about being abandoned by his mother he cleaned another piece of trash from the stage. If I can’t make my own life perfect I can at least make the stage perfect. When Hamlin’s batteries began to wear out, he found a large stash of candles, and worked by candlelight. Moving all of the trash from the worn red velvet chairs to the back of the auditorium, Hamlin found that by stacking it carefully, what once covered everything could now be neatly contained leaving many of the seats empty. As a person living in the moment, clearing all of seats of debris didn’t make much sense until one time he looked out from center stage and truly studied the chairs standing at attention. It was as if the empty chairs expected him to speak. It was as if they were waiting for a performance. Hamlin began to imagine the empty seats filled with the people of Crowley. Rich people and poor, women with hats and without, farmers in over-alls and bankers in three piece suits--all gathered to hear the same play. Community meant all its varied members. Hamlin stood center stage dreaming about the past glory of the place. The theatre filled with people would be the only

way to really appreciate the grandeur of the theatre. Before movies, before television, before the age of personal entertainment devices, this place must have been a palace of entertainment the likes no longer existed in Crowley. Hamlin realized that his theatre both existed and didn’t exist. It was a place in limbo. A lost, and now, found world. Hamlin felt powerful standing center stage. Anything could happen here. People could die as quickly as rise from the darkness of death. Imagination could blossom into creation, and ideas voiced by one, had the power to impart meaning to all. Hamlin, who felt weak, and who had for his entire life felt powerless to control his fait, felt that here, in this creative space, a person could become as powerful as Hercules, as polished and glittery as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and as witty as the author Mark Twain. It went off in his mind like a lighthouse beacon. I was born to be in a theatre, and this theatre had been waiting for me to rediscover it. Hamlin’s fingers tingled, his toes began to dance, his face twisted into a tortured and pained expression. His hands gnarled into an old man’s hands. Hamlin wanted to transform himself into a bird and knew that here, on this theatre’s stage, by unfurling his hands he could soar. So he did. Why had this theatre been closed off, allowed to slip from the conscious minds of Crowley’s citizens so easily? Hamlin knew the only way to find out was to risk a day light trip to the Crowley Library.

Chapter 26

Before daybreak, before the janitors arrived to clean away the beer bottles from the
school grounds, Hamlin snuck out of his hiding place, and walked free and tall in the early morning darkness. Fresh air rushed into him replacing the stale air of the theatre. As much as he valued his alone time in the theatre, the hours of seclusion had begun to take their toll on Hamlin. Hamlin’s senses eagerly soaked in the song of birds, a robin flying and landing on a thin branch, a squirrel scampering across a high-powered wire like the finest trapeze artist. A red fox, puzzled by the sudden approach of Hamlin, cocked his head at an angle smartly before sauntering on. The Red Fox. That’s what I’ll call myself from now on. I am the illusive Red Fox avoiding detection and evading capture. The Red Fox went to the Rigley Library to wait until it opened. He knew that he could not risk being seen by anybody for fear of getting caught. On the other hand he craved being with people, or at least observing them. As the sun rose he settled into the high branches of an oak tree off of Main Street. From his vantage point he could see all of the morning business that made Crowley bustle. A bread truck from Girabaldi Breads made many stops. Mr. Girabaldi hopped out and took from the back a whicker basket of baguettes. Each one looked crispy and inviting. Hamlin imagined the interior moist. Mr. Girabaldi hand delivered the baskets of bread arriving back at the truck with an empty basket. From a Main Street house he heard the faint notes of piano scales. The young pianist stumbled, stopped, and tentatively began again. Maybe, if I return in a few weeks, I will hear the first melodies played with enthusiasm defying nervous mistakes. While Hamlin missed school having a few days to dream about the theatre, and now observe the society around him, invigorated Hamlin’s soul. He, for the first time in his life, had time to view goodness instead of always being in the middle of bad happenings and the bad mood of his mother. Hamlin felt the first impulses of what it felt like to be superman. If a purse-snatcher were to so much as hint at taking Mrs. Elderberry’s purse, the Red Fox would bound down from the limbs and wrestle the thief to the ground. Newspaper reporters would take pictures of Hamlin and they’d be broadcast to every state in the union and every country in the world. Wherever his mother and father were, they would see the bravery of their son, and return home within the week. Hamlin would have his family back. He’d be more than happy to get his nervous mother back. As the morning wore on he saw the Rigley Boys causing havoc on their way to school. When they reached a stop sign the two boys kicked at its metal post with such force it began to bend. Both boys then hung from the top of it, and with all their might, bent it to the ground.

Hamlin wanted to jump down and stop them but that would mean blowing his cover. He couldn’t risk it. He would remember the event if he needed a favor from the boys later.

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