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* * *
Back to the classroom, at last. My eyes snap open.
"Okay. Shylock." I say this again, but this time, I am, finally, ready.
"You know the speech. Act Three, Scene One. It's one of the most famous monologues in the Bard's work. You know... 'Hath not a Jew eyes, Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed by the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same...'"
My voice catches.
"'Healed by the same means...'"
Another pause. I shake my head to clear it.
"'Warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?'"
"This is not a nice monologue. It goes on to say a whole lot of stuff about revenge and other things like that. But for this particular part, I must interject that the answers to all the above questions are, unequivocally, 'Yes.'"
They look at me a bit confusedly. I didn't necessarily expect them to understand. I smile.
"You still want to hear it?"
"Yeah!" says the kid in the front row with the trademark-able puppy-dog eyes, who has been getting impatient with me.
I act. Again. The glory of the theatre fills me. Words cascade from my mouth and I find myself possessed by the holiness of it all. Fueled by my memories, shaped by my consciousness, given form by the words, given life by my life.
And then it is over.
Applause. I stand exhausted, smiling. Thankfully, Mrs. Lemke takes the helm.
"Well, class, it looks like we're about out of time here... I want you all to thank mister Bix for coming in today..."
They do, obediently.
"And... well... you can go a little early on to the next section that you want to attend. Some of the others aren't out yet, so no noise in the halls..."
She is drowned out by the clamor of departing students. Puppy-dog-eyes looks at me and smiles, and then turns to leave. Soon, it is just me and Mrs. Lemke.
"Well. Thank you, mister Bix. That was very informative."
I bow, deeply, in the Grand Classical Style, removing my beret in the process. Going out on a limb, I take up her hand and kiss it once.
She _doesn't draw back!_
Grinning widely, I say, "Enchanted, madam. Glad to have been of assistance." I stand upright, turn on one heel, and walk out into the crowded hallways of the high school.
And soon, the students all disappear into their next section, and I am left alone. I wander the now-empty halls of the high school. Memories. High school theatre. I find the auditorium / stage, and look in. Ah... how innocent I was then...
Yes. It's there. An Empty Space.
Not satisfied, I turn around and begin peeking into other rooms. Classrooms, lunchrooms, the commons area, the gymnasium, the library...
Thousands upon thousands of Empty Spaces. Waiting to be filled.
I sigh contentedly, and walk away. To the Blind Pig Gin Mill.
It was a task I had set for myself since the beginning of the day.
A bit cautious, for perhaps obvious reasons, I step inside. The place is bustling with the lunch crowd. I catch the eye of the wolf from that first fateful night and nod to him. Try to put all the emotion of remorse and apology I can muster into that one nod. I'm an actor. I can do this.
He receives me. He gets my meaning. And in response, he gives me a smile and a nod that says "All is, if not completely forgotten, at least forgiven." Good crikes. He must be an actor too.
For the second time, I approach the bar. The hulking barkeep looks at me. Judging me.
I swallow hard.
"Tonic. No gin. No vodka. Just the tonic."
He smiles faintly, and complies. Somewhere, I sense, Jenny is smiling too.
"Lime, too, please."
He does so. He gives me the glass of effervescent liquid. I study it. It will be the first time I have been in a bar holding, drinking a non-alcoholic drink. It fizzes quietly, almost in approval.
And like the ocean in a seashell, I hear the roar of a thousand audiences in the noise of the effervescence.
I turn dramatically to the gathered crowds of my fellows and raise the glass.
"To all the Empty Spaces of the world! That they may be filled, in turn, with new life of their own!"
Okay. So it's a pretty stupid toast. Nobody gets it. A couple good- natured mutterings and half-hearted glass-raisings. Nobody stands bolt upright and shouts, "Aye, Sir! To all the Empty Spaces!"
But in my mind, they all do.
I turn back to the bar and, tipping the glass to my lips, I take the applause within me.