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On the March to Moscow

by Thomas R. Healy

 

            “Sound off like you got a pair,” Cochella, a tenor who once served in the infantry, barked as he marched the supernumeraries back and forth across the parking lot of the ornate opera house.

 

                      “They say that in the Army

                      The coffee’s mighty fine.

                      It looks like muddy water

                      And tastes like turpentine.”

 

            “Your left, your left, your left, right, left,” the tenor cried, striding beside the motley group of men whose shoes quickly became covered in dust.

 

            Owen Jacklin, an optician, had not served in the military but he did play trombone in his high school marching band so he had little trouble following the cadence.  Others were not as nimble, frequently having to skip to get back in step.

 

            “If I’d known we were going to be doing this,” a portly man behind Jacklin grumbled breathlessly, “I wouldn’t have worn these damn brogues to the rehearsal.”

 

            Jacklin, who had on tennis shoes, smiled to himself for his prescience.

 

            “I thought we were hired to play soldiers,” another super complained, “not become soldiers for God’s sake.”

 

            “Stay together now.  You’re not a herd of cattle.” “Mooooo,” someone whispered in response.

 

            Their shoulders back, their arms straight with their thumbs in, they marched along the chain- link  fence, through puddles of rainwater and motor oil, shouting as fiercely as they could.  Dogs in the neighborhood barked.   Boys, riding by on bicycles, laughed at them and made faces.  The men were hired to portray French and Russian soldiers for a production of War and Peace, composed by Sergei Prokofiev, and the stage director wanted to be sure they marched like real soldiers when they were on stage so they were told to report to the parking lot to practice moving in a military formation.

 

            “Eyes front, gentlemen,” the tenor growled. “Imagine you’re marching straight to Moscow.” “It sure feels cold enough to be there,” a super muttered to Jacklin as they tramped past the stage director ’s arctic white Mercedes.

 

            “Your  left, your left, your left, right, left.” 

 

            Compared to most of the other supernumeraries, Jacklin was a veteran because this was his sixth opera.  He had never attended one until the first time he worked as a super, in a production of Beethoven's Fidelio, which was nearly two and a half years ago.  Jazz, especially the west coast style that was prominent in the fifties, was the type of music he enjoyed.  He had never really been interested in opera, probably never would have been if Irina had not recruited him one evening at the supermarket.

 

            "How tall are you, sir?" she asked as he was sorting through some heads of lettuce. Startled, he turned around and looked at the slender woman with the flame-colored hair.

            "Excuse me?"

 

            "You're over six feet, aren't you?"

 

            He nodded.  "Six foot two, to be exact."

 

            "I thought so." "Why do you ask?"

            She then made her sales pitch, with a hand on his sleeve, insisting that he was just the right height for one of the prisoners in an upcoming production of Fidelio.   Smiling, he declined the offer but she was as persistent as an insurance salesman.  Describing supernumeraries as the "eye candy" of opera, she admitted that few were very attractive but he was the exception.  He wasn't sure why, supposed he was just charmed by her flattery, but he agreed to become a supernumerary and for a week of performances wore a black leather vest and striped pantaloons.  To his surprise, he enjoyed the experience so much he would have done it even without the $20 he received for each performance.   So when Irina asked if he would be interested in appearing in other productions, he readily agreed because he had become very fond of her.  She was unlike any woman he had ever met, doing whatever she pleased whenever she pleased.  She was the one who initiated their first kiss, taking his head in her hands as if they had known one another for weeks instead of minutes.  He continued to see her after the opera finished its run, sometimes spent the night at her cramped little apartment that was around the corner from the opera house.

 

            They were together nearly four months when he found in his mailbox an empty brown envelope with her return address printed in the corner.  He was stunned.  Soon after her father moved the family to the States, he received an empty envelope from his half-brother in Prague, which she said meant that he did not want to have anything more to do with him.  Certainly they had exchanged some harsh words during their time together but nothing was ever said serious enough to cause her to send him an empty envelope he believed.  Immediately he called her for an explanation but she hung up on him and refused to respond to any of his letters and emails he sent to her.  She acted as if they had never met.  He was hurt, of course, but even more he was thoroughly confused by her sudden departure from his life.  For a while, he was embarrassed to admit, he followed her when she went out with other men, walking sometimes only a few steps behind her, but she never gave any indication she noticed him.  He felt almost invisible then, much as he did on stage as a supernumerary, just part of the background.  Soon he stopped, realizing how foolish and pathetic he was acting, and tried to put her out of his mind.  It was difficult, though, because she was someone he thought he would be with for a very long time.

 

             *

 

            His hair gleaming with make-believe blood, a stained bandage wrapped around his forehead, Jacklin marched across the smoky stage with the other supernumeraries while the chorus sang mournfully.  In their hands were torches they had used to set Moscow on fire.

 

            He had not seen Irina in months, understood she had moved out of town, but still he continued to audition for operas, hoping some day she would be in the audience again.  Then, he knew, he must not make any mistake, must appear as authentic as possible, so he marched crisply every night as if she were there.

by Thomas R. Healy

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