He was nearly an old man, or so he thought.
She was hardly any younger.
Both had been successful.
Both had been married.
Only he had a child. A daughter. Once a smiling baby, now a woman grown.
Somewhere in there she became a smiling little girl, then a young lady who fell in love, got married and all of that. She loves him too, that boy she found. And the boy loves her. Her father is happy for her, though he could never believe it himself.
The girl’s mother was a good woman. Still is. A fortified human capable of phenomenal feats. Forgiving the girl’s father was one of the most incredible. Truly. Eventually.
‘She’ was not his daughter’s mother.
To the world, ‘She’ was a renowned filmmaker.
A genius, a few notable magazines had claimed.
She was also capable of a small army of other abilities that were surprisingly easier to get into the public sphere, once she had attained directorial fame.
He was able to pull off a slightly different scheme. His day job was that of a late night talk show host. A comedian with a steady gig. A suit and tie standard to pay the bills.
The studio was in the middle of that big city where they film most of those shows. The city that has every kind of wonder and filth you could dream of.
He’d been with the show nine years so far. Ratings rose with his hands on the wheel. Just enough edge, but still wide reaching appeal. The consensus was that he was handsome, though the mystery about him most likely drove that. Unlike many before him, it appeared that not one of the millions upon millions of people who had met him seemed to know a thing about his personal life. He made appearances at this and that, but under contractual motivation. Other than that, the charming late night host did not exist outside of the television.
That same flesh and blood had also written and published a few books. Released a few albums over the last two decades. All different guys.
All the same guy.
That was his trick.
Each area of work had it’s own identity. Different names and appearances for each. The actor, the author, the songwriter- all different people. All the same person. All of them with their own names, none of which were the name he was born with. No one has figured any of that out yet, even after decades.
Even ‘She’ doesn’t know, he thinks.
‘She’ had only ever used the name she was given at birth. He knows who ‘She’ is.
Sweaty palms, he thought. Usually a hangover is the prompt for such a condition.
His EP said the scheduled guest had canceled on them, all last minute and such. ‘She’ was to be the replacement guest. So said the EP. The Executive Producer. Her name was Martha. Martha couldn’t believe that ‘she’ had never been on the show before. ‘She’ was Martha’s favorite, or so she claimed.
He agreed to have her on. Of course he agreed.
Paranormal in sweetness is the name thought to be nothing more than a dream from so long ago.
He was told to get ready, she’ll be here soon
What’s the difference?
It echoed insatiably through his mind before ever escaping out over the backstage monitor.
Tonight on After Hours with Shane Kilgore,
Blah, blah blah…
With musical guest blah, blah.
And special guest…
That was her name. Always was. Still is. Might always be. For all eternity.
Shane Kilgore was not his real name.
Very few people still called him by his name, the one on his birth certificate. The last time that name was used as part of a public identity, some grubby looking kid used it. That kid was in a band thirty or so years ago. It was a rock band, or so it was called at the time.
Jolene Joyce did not know Shane Kilgore.
Jolene Joyce had known a Rory Emmet.
She knew him before his grubby looking band ever got on the radio. You know, that catchy tune about a failed love. About that one kind of girl, who had somehow slipped away. That tune everybody knows. Yeah, that one.
Rory wrote that. A few years after Jolene had stopped talking to him.
But Shane Kilgore looks very little like Rory Emmet.
Age draped itself fluently across Shane’s face.
Rory was, quite visibly, a very young man.
They have the same eyes, however. Still bursting brightly, even from their shaded and wrinkled residence. The color of what Rory used to exclaim as the most honest genre of music.
Still in character, Rory strode down to Shane’s office.
The door locked.
Add, don’t stir.
Drinking in the office was possible, even if not permitted.
Mints and mouthwash.
Shane Kilgore has a private bathroom connected to his office.
An ice cube cracked in modest violence as it started to shift its state of matter.
Inexplicable emotion consumes he who is forced to remember what he knew he had never forgotten.
He had seen her films.
He had gone to a few plays but never risked the art galleries. He could see what she created, as long as he didn’t see her. He had gotten it down perfectly. It is quite simple to fade into a dark theater. Hoping to be seen from within all that eternal darkness always seemed a bit easier.
At first, it was days. Then weeks. Then months. All soaring by between his chances to see her again. To even talk to her. The romance grew, for him, from the impossibility of it all. It grew ferociously in the depth of her absence. Waiting for a second chance. A short while became long. That chance never came.
After that, just emptiness. A motivating hurt. But a poison just the same.
The first year was hard. Only exchanges of birthday greetings occurring in close proximity to each other. Out of some inexplicable sense of responsibility towards each other.
The second year was just as hard. The third was much more difficult. After that, each one numbingly the same until the correspondence died completely. It was a bad knee that you can no longer recall hurting. Just there, no explanation. By the time his daughter was born, it was no longer a conscious thought. Just a bad knee.
Once Jolene’s first film had premiered, she had already become unreal to him. Which, by the way, is an incredible task for a real person to do.
But by that time, Rory had already disappeared in his act. He had published his first book three years before her big break. The pseudonyms protected his daughter from unnecessary attention.
The girl never knew all of this about her father until she was a teenager. She had brought home a copy of Jack Vonn’s first novel to read for English class. After a fit of laughter, Rory told his daughter he wrote that rag the year she was born. Jack made enough money for Rory to quit his day job and keep writing while still raising his spawn. He told her she didn’t have to read it if she didn’t want to.
A natural romantic failure, his marriage crumbled. They only got married because she got pregnant. Terrible idea to get married under such circumstances. Some would argue any marriage is a bad idea.
It has since, been made up for. After all, even atoms can be split.
But they could be parents well enough. They both loved their daughter. They just didn’t like each other anymore. Its the curse of living too long. People had figured out monogamy is bunk, for the most part. Your ancestors need you to share the pain of their foolishness. They need their choice to be validated. So they pressure you to get married, like happened to Rory. Even if it’s a bad idea, like Rory’s marriage.
Somewhere around the divorce, Shane Kilgore started getting attention with his comedy act. The timing was precise. There is a humor in bitterness. Some acting gigs popped up, small at first but growing. Thirteen years later, Shane found himself as the seventh host of After Hours.
So Rory sat in Shane’s office, sipping on the unrivaled and unrelenting awe. As ice cubes melted. As time kept passing.
Towards the end of his second glass, something buzzed.
“Yes?” Rory asked the box.
“Martha on line two.,” his secretary Beth told him. “Regarding Ms. Joyce’s arrival.”
“Tell her,” he gulped. “I’ll be with her shortly.”
Like magic, his glass refilled.
He could run. He knew that. It was all by design. None of it was real. Shane wasn’t real. Rory was a free man. The chains crafted for Shane could be undone. He had even made sure it was in his contract.
Rory Emmet did not care if Shane Kilgore disappointed millions of people.
He found himself caring a great deal about disappointing her.
Hoping he smelt as fresh as a past middle age man can, Shane stepped out from his office. He walked until he reached a door featuring the name Martha Sanchez. Beneath the name, was her title: Executive Producer of After Hours.
That door was left slightly ajar. Voices found their way out. A familiar sound, Martha’s voice, said something. The voice responding was nothing short of impossible.
Perfectly preserved, a sound which the most skilled symphony could not synthesize, leap down his rattling ear bones until meeting with its memorial counterpart wrapped deep in forgotten neurons and tissue. He had nearly forgotten. As is oft to happen amidst the impossible, existence ceased forever.
Then, after an instant of eternity, it began again.
He found himself watching the back of two knuckles tap on the name on the door. His knuckles, wrinkled with red.
He almost said Rory.
Cue audience laughter.
So he did.
He used to smoke, years ago. If he still did, Shane Kilgore may have gone into cardiac arrest. Thump-thud. Thump-thud. Thump-thud, said someone Rory had not heard in years.
“This is Jolene Joyce,” Martha announced.
She hadn’t turned yet.
“It’s a pleasure, Ms. Joyce,” said Rory. I mean Shane.
Rory recalled a floral pattern skirt, all fushcian and indigo. A purple shirt. A red jacket.
Shane saw long dress slacks, modest heels and a black blouse over a white shirt.
Rory recalled a burning crown of crimson, faded seamlessly with setting sun. It was impossible to tell those two celestial beings apart in that moment, all drunk with hormones and cheap wine.
Shane saw a hue more earthy, still a crown of amber. Eternal embers. All cut neat. Shorter. Professional.
Rory and Shane looked into the same eyes. Emerald isles. An infinite expanse.
“The pleasure is mine,” she said. “And please Mr. Kilgore, call me Jolene.”
“Will do. As long as I’m Shane.” I mean Rory.
Shane went on about being a fan and his excitement about her finally being on the show. Oh, and a sorry about it taking so long to get her on the show.
She had a few courtesies memorized from flash cards as well. Very elegant, as always.
Before reality slugged its way back, Shane said how he had to go meet with Tommy, the stagemanager, before the show. He said he was sorry and that she will be great and that it will be fun and that he was looking forward to it. They would talk again in front of millions of people.
Obviously, he did not go meet Tommy. There was absolutely no need to, as there never is. Tommy always has the same things to say before the show.
“Don’t worry, we’ve got it.”
So instead, Rory went back to his office. He could still run. At any moment. It was just that easy.
“Don’t tell anyone I’m in here,” he pleaded with Beth. “Tell them I’m busy. Please.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Kilgore.”
He poured a third glass. Last glass. Smaller than the first two. Not by much, though. Shane was saving that particular scotch for a special occasion. He believed that this qualified.
He sipped on the adrenaline with ever so slightly shaking hands.
After an hour, he realized he had twenty minutes until show time. Not a thought had gone either in or out of Rory’s head regarding that. He had the script on his desk. Been there for hours. He pushed it off his desk and fished around the floor for his shoes. On they went and out the door. Once the sound of the door bellowed behind him, he thought about running again. He did not.
Instead, he marched. Down the hallway, the same way he goes every day at work. He greets the people as they pass. No one knows anything. Shane is always perfectly in character. He smiles, he makes jokes, he asks about your day, the kids and not believing how big they’ve gotten and if that thing with your grandmother went well.
Closer to the stage, you can hear the crowd gathering. The warm-up comic should start soon. Good kid. A.J. Bernard. He’s been opening the show for about two weeks. They do a month rotation. Gives young comics work. Get them a shot.
He runs past very politely.
“Hey Shane,” A.J. meekly hollers.
“Hey buddy,” Shane calls back. “Break a leg.”
A thumbs up goes over his head as he goes around the final bend to that long hallway with the bright lights at the end.
Just before that bend is a room with the door open. It smells of beauty chemicals. It sounds of laughter. Stomach churning laughter.
Shane says don’t stop. Rory says they have to stop.
Shane thinks its a bad idea. Rory has to do it.
He has to see her before this whole thing happens.
Shane won’t let him. He can’t let him.
“Greetings ladies,” Rory smiled, leaning on the doorway of the makeup room.
“Hello Shane dear,” sang Suzy.
Suzy has been doing cosmetics at the show for years. Shane has been the third host she’s worked with. Grand gal. Knows her business and loves doing it.
“Hello Mr. Kilgore,” said She. She sat in a chair but wasn’t having anything done. Just Suzy and herself, shooting the breeze.
“Now Jolene,” Rory managed. “We talked about the whole Mr. Kilgore business.”
“I remember,” Jolene smiled. “I just wanted to see if it would get a rise out of you. I suppose I’ll have to try something else.”
“Trying to get me flustered during the show?”
“Why not? Might be fun.”
“Well, I’ll be sure to bring up your attempt to sabotage my career.”
“Wouldn’t that be something?” she laughed. “Even if they can you from here, I’m sure you’ll get by. Multi-talented guy like yourself.”
Was that a hint that she knew? Had she read the books? Had she put it all together? Panic, if only for a second. A microscopic feeling to vomit rose and fell, nearly simultaneous.
“Hopefully it won’t have to come to that,” Shane said, on cue. “Is there anything I can do for you before the show? I hope the staff has been meeting your needs in my absence.”
“The villagers have been quite hospitable,” she smiled. “I believe I am quite satisfied.”
“Martha filled you in on when to be backstage and all of that?”
“She did indeed. What a sweetheart, she is too. Everyone here is quite wonderful. By far the most courteous TV show staff in this city.”
“I thank you.”
“Well, I didn’t say you,” she smirked. “I hadn’t really spent much time with you yet.”
“My apologies for that. I had a few things to do.”
“I believe it. Tommy said he hasn’t seen you before the show in a while.”
Could she tell the bluff? Did she know who he was?
“Plus, Martha said you were locked in your office for the past two hours. So I’m sure you very busy.”
Was she fucking with him?
“Well,” Rory gulped. “You get to meet me out there. Under the lights. If you aren’t crippled with stage fright, that is.”
They both laughed. Hasn’t happened in ages. Eons. Maybe longer.
“Unfortunately, I am going to run away again,” Shane sighed. “I always watch at least part of the warm up guy. I get a kick out of watching these kids. This one in particular has a lot of gusto.”
“You are excused, Mr. Kilgore. I shall see you out there.”
“I can’t wait.”
“Make sure you go for the right cheek. Don’t want one of those awkward entrances with the host.”
“I fancy myself a professional, Jolene.”
She smiled. Rory melted. Shane smiled and turned.
There was about ten minutes left in A.J.’s act. Everything was in place. All Shane had to do was walk out on stage with the lights and the end of the band’s first tune. The would even say his name over the speakers. The audience would clap, if for no other reason than the big sign that told them to do so.
So they did. And out walked Rory Emmet, in his finest Shane Kilgore costume.
Then the monologue. Crowd work. Topical humor. Banter with Tommy off camera. The warm up guy works as the sidekick for the tenure of their stay on the show. Keeps things fresh. A.J. has good chops for this kind of stuff. Shane told him so.
The audience seemed to be of above average enthusiasm today.
He could see her, just beyond the light. She smiled and waltzed away.
Then they do the desk bit. That night was funny news stories. Laughs and such. A.J. kills it with younger crowd.
She was just on the edge on the camera’s scope. She looked at him. It was that smile. The sad smile, sweeter than anything. The smile from across the room. Any room. Every room. Thirty years ago and now. The smile that said goodbye for the first time. The one that said goodbye the last time. It was there, as it had always been.
“Cue in thirty.”
He turned. It was Tommy. Commercial break was just about over.
He looked back and she was with the PA, waiting to be told when to go.
The light above the camera blinked.
“Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six,” Tommy said outloud.
The rest with his hands. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.
Shane closed his eyes. Took a deep breath.
Back. All those years ago. The first night they met. Dopey drunk teenagers. It was late. They were crashing at a friend’s house. The television was on. It was Rory’s favorite comedian.
He remembers Jolene there. Just the two of them. Her long, fair legs tucked into her chest. Arms wrapped around them.
He was standing up, going on about how that’s what he wanted to do. He wanted to be one of the greats. She smiled. She said she had no doubts he would.
The kissed the next day. On the edge of a park. As the sunset. Her hair burst in light with the solar rays. She kissed him. He remembers that feeling. A feeling that was never had again.
The interview went phenomenally. So much so, he canceled the second guest and kept her on after the next commercial break.
The audience was enthralled.
Even Tommy said the show was going great. Tommy never says that.
They spoke of her films and her life. Where she’s been. Where she lives. Still in this city, after all these years. He told anecdotal stories about actors they’ve worked with. He asked her about the presidential race. She said she was doing a write-in. Some dead, famous king. He said he was going to put her name down.
They went on and on, and on. He could no longer tell if she realized who he was or not. He didn’t care. He had waited decades to talk to her again. He wasn’t wasting a moment of it.
Sadly though, capitalism shoved its way in. Another commercial break. Then they had to do the musical guest.
Turns out, it was a now classic rock band. One that they used to listen to together. They had a new album. A good one. They sang a beautiful song. Sad, but beautiful. It was about a girl running away from something perfect. She was afraid it wouldn’t stay perfect if she stayed. It would always be perfect if she ran away.
Shane invited Jolene to stay on stage to watch them if she’d like to. So she did. She watched them intently. He watched her.
She placed her hand on his knee as she turned. Gentle smile upon her face. Eyes of eternal shamrock. It could have lasted forever.
It did not.
The next commercial break, she returned backstage. He got up from his late night throne and closed out the show. He thanked the audience and retreated himself.
Heart pounding, he looked about the hallways for her. When Martha appeared out of a room, he asked her Jolene’s whereabouts.
“She had to leave,” she said. “Right after the show. Why?”
“I just wanted to thank her for a great show.”
“It really was. It’s like you two have known each other for years.”
“Yeah,” Shane laughed. “It seemed like that, didn’t it?”
The heart that was bounding away just moments before, now sat sunken in his stomach. Just like that, she was gone again. Just a bad knee.
In a rare move, Shane went to the staircase and out the side street door. He asked a stage hand for a cigarette on his way down.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Shane told him. “I quit years ago.”
He pushed open the heavy steel door and went out to the street. The glow of nighttime resonated with the rumble of machine and man, fumbling about the streets. Smoke filled the sky from his lungs. It was like a dream.
She didn’t even know it was him. He didn’t think he could feel like this, as a nearly old man.
“Rory,” said a voice a few feet away.
He turned to see the phantom herself. Out on the chewing gum painted sidewalk. She wore a red coat. It couldn’t be the same one, he thought. This can’t be real. He said nothing. Just stared.
“I really enjoyed that,” she said. “It was nice to see you again.”
“How long have you known?” Rory asked.
Then there was nothing. Years of thinking and he had nothing to say. A sham without a stage. She wore that smile again.
“Would you like to get a drink?”
“I can’t,” she sighed.
“You think I’d be used to hearing that by now. I suppose I never will.”
“It’s alright. I’m glad you made it, kid. I always knew you would.”
“It was all worth it, if for nothing else than this.”
With undefinable grace, Jolene kissed Rory on the cheek. Her arms wrapped him. A moment. An eternity. Arms fell until hands just barely fell into one another. His blues met the emerald isles, one last time. Then she turned and walked away.
“Maybe again,” Rory called out. “In another thirty years?”
“Maybe,” she sang back. “Goodnight Rory.”
He watched her walk away. Yet again.
It was in that moment, he found himself wondering how he had blown it.