Context: While watching a production of King Lear at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Jeevan watches as the actor playing Lear, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack. Since he has begun training as a paramedic, Jeevan tries to resuscitate Arthur but is unsuccessful. Instead, he could only comfort one of the child actors in the production.
THE KING STOOD in a pool of blue light, unmoored. This was act 4 of King Lear, a winter night at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Earlier in the evening, three little girls had played a clapping game onstage as the audience entered, childhood versions of Lear’s daughters, and now they’d returned as hallucinations in the mad scene. The king stumbled and reached for them as they flitted here and there in the shadows. His name was Arthur Leander. He was fifty-one years old and there were flowers in his hair.
“Dost thou know me?” the actor playing Gloucester asked.
“I remember thine eyes well enough,” Arthur said, distracted by the child version of Cordelia, and this was when it happened. There was a change in his face, he stumbled, he reached for a column but misjudged the distance and struck it hard with the side of his hand.
“Down from the waist they are Centaurs,” he said, and not only was this the wrong line but the delivery was wheezy, his voice barely audible. He cradled his hand to his chest like a broken bird. The actor portraying Edgar was watching him closely. It was still possible at that moment that Arthur was acting, but in the first row of the orchestra section a man was rising from his seat. He’d been training to be a paramedic. The man’s girlfriend tugged at his sleeve, hissed, “Jeevan! What are you doing?” And Jeevan himself wasn’t sure at first, the rows behind him murmuring for him to sit. An usher was moving toward him. Snow began to fall over the stage.
“The wren goes to’t,” Arthur whispered, and Jeevan, who knew the play very well, realized that the actor had skipped back twelve lines. “The wren …”
“Sir,” the usher said, “would you please …”
But Arthur Leander was running out of time. He swayed, his eyes unfocused, and it was obvious to Jeevan that he wasn’t Lear anymore. Jeevan pushed the usher aside and made a dash for the steps leading up to the stage, but a second usher was jogging down the aisle, which forced Jeevan to throw himself at the stage without the benefit of stairs. It was higher than he’d thought and he had to kick the first usher, who’d grasped hold of his sleeve. The snow was plastic, Jeevan noted peripherally, little bits of translucent plastic, clinging to his jacket and brushing against his skin. Edgar and Gloucester were distracted by the commotion, neither of them looking at Arthur, who was leaning on a plywood column, staring vacantly. There were shouts from backstage, two shadows approaching quickly, but Jeevan had reached Arthur by now and he caught the actor as he lost consciousness, eased him gently to the floor. The snow was falling fast around them, shimmering in blue-white light. Arthur wasn’t breathing. The two shadows—security men—had stopped a few paces away, presumably catching on by now that Jeevan wasn’t a deranged fan. The audience was a clamor of voices, flashes from cell-phone cameras, indistinct exclamations in the dark.
“Jesus Christ,” Edgar said. “Oh Jesus.” He’d dropped the British accent he’d been using earlier and now sounded as if he were from Alabama, which in fact he was. Gloucester had pulled away the gauze bandage that had covered half his face—by this point in the play his character’s eyes had been put out—and seemed frozen in place, his mouth opening and closing like a fish.
Arthur’s heart wasn’t beating. Jeevan began CPR. Someone shouted an order and the curtain dropped, a whoosh of fabric and shadow that removed the audience from the equation and reduced the brilliance of the stage by half. The plastic snow was still falling. The security men had receded. The lights changed, the blues and whites of the snowstorm replaced by a fluorescent glare that seemed yellow by comparison. Jeevan worked silently in the margarine light, glancing sometimes at Arthur’s face. Please, he thought, please. Arthur’s eyes were closed. There was movement in the curtain, someone batting at the fabric and fumbling for an opening from the other side, and then an older man in a gray suit was kneeling on the other side of Arthur’s chest.
“I’m a cardiologist,” he said. “Walter Jacobi.” His eyes were magnified by his glasses, and his hair had gone wispy on the top of his head.
“Jeevan Chaudhary,” Jeevan said. He wasn’t sure how long he’d been here. People were moving around him, but everyone seemed distant and indistinct except Arthur, and now this other man who’d joined them. It was like being in the eye of a storm, Jeevan thought, he and Walter and Arthur here together in the calm. Walter touched the actor’s forehead once, gently, like a parent soothing a fevered child.
“They’ve called an ambulance,” Walter said.
The fallen curtain lent an unexpected intimacy to the stage. Jeevan was thinking of the time he’d interviewed Arthur in Los Angeles, years ago now, during his brief career as an entertainment journalist. He was thinking of his girlfriend, Laura, wondering if she was waiting in her front-row seat or if she might’ve gone out to the lobby. He was thinking, Please start breathing again, please. He was thinking about the way the dropped curtain closed off the fourth wall and turned the stage into a room, albeit a room with cavernous space instead of a ceiling, fathoms of catwalks and lights between which a soul might slip undetected. That’s a ridiculous thought, Jeevan told himself. Don’t be stupid. But now there was a prickling at the back of his neck, a sense of being watched from above.
“Do you want me to take a turn?” Walter asked. Jeevan understood that the cardiologist felt useless, so he nodded and raised his hands from Arthur’s chest and Walter picked up the rhythm.
Not quite a room, Jeevan thought now, looking around the stage. It was too transitory, all those doorways and dark spaces between wings, the missing ceiling. It was more like a terminal, he thought, a train station or an airport, everyone passing quickly through. The ambulance had arrived, a pair of medics approaching through the absurdly still-falling snow, and then they were upon the fallen actor like crows, a man and a woman in dark uniforms crowding Jeevan aside, the woman so young she could’ve passed as a teenager. Jeevan rose and stepped back. The column against which Arthur had collapsed was smooth and polished under his fingertips, wood painted to look like stone.
There were stagehands everywhere, actors, nameless functionaries with clipboards. “For god’s sake,” Jeevan heard one of them say, “can no one stop the goddamn snow?” Regan and Cordelia were holding hands and crying by the curtain, Edgar sitting cross-legged on the floor nearby with his hand over his mouth. Goneril spoke quietly into her cell phone. Fake eyelashes cast shadows over her eyes.
No one looked at Jeevan, and it occurred to him that his role in this performance was done. The medics didn’t seem to be succeeding. He wanted to find Laura. She was probably waiting for him in the lobby, upset. She might—this was a distant consideration, but a consideration nonetheless—find his actions admirable.
Someone finally succeeded in turning off the snow, the last few translucencies drifting down. Jeevan was looking for the easiest way to exit the scene when he heard a whimper, and there was a child whom he’d noticed earlier, a small actress, kneeling on the stage beside the next plywood pillar to his left. Jeevan had seen the play four times but never before with children, and he’d thought it an innovative bit of staging. The girl was seven or eight. She kept wiping her eyes in a motion that left streaks of makeup on both her face and the back of her hand.
“Clear,” one of the medics said, and the other moved back while he shocked the body.
“Hello,” Jeevan said, to the girl. He knelt before her. Why had no one come to take her away from all this? She was watching the medics. He had no experience with children, although he’d always wanted one or two of his own, and wasn’t exactly sure how to speak to them.
“Clear,” the medic said, again.
“You don’t want to look at that,” Jeevan said.
“He’s going to die, isn’t he?” She was breathing in little sobs.
“I don’t know.” He wanted to say something reassuring, but he had to concede that it didn’t look good. Arthur was motionless on the stage, shocked twice, Walter holding the man’s wrist and staring grimly into the distance while he waited for a pulse. “What’s your name?”
“Kirsten,” the girl said. “I’m Kirsten Raymonde.” The stage makeup was disconcerting.
“Kirsten,” Jeevan said, “where’s your mom?”
“She doesn’t pick me up till eleven.”
“Call it,” a medic said.
“Who takes care of you when you’re here, then?”
“Tanya’s the wrangler.” The girl was still staring at Arthur. Jeevan moved to block her view.
“Nine fourteen p.m.,” Walter Jacobi said.
“The wrangler?” Jeevan asked.
“That’s what they call her,” she said. “She takes care of me while I’m here.” A man in a suit had emerged from stage right and was speaking urgently with the medics, who were strapping Arthur to a gurney. One of them shrugged and pulled the blanket down to fit an oxygen mask over Arthur’s face. Jeevan realized this charade must be for Arthur’s family, so they wouldn’t be notified of his death via the evening news. He was moved by the decency of it.
Jeevan stood and extended his hand to the sniffling child. “Come on,” he said, “let’s find Tanya. She’s probably looking for you.”
This seemed doubtful. If Tanya were looking for her charge, surely she would have found her by now. He led the little girl into the wings, but the man in the suit had disappeared. The backstage area was chaotic, all sound and movement, shouts to clear the way as Arthur’s procession passed, Walter presiding over the gurney. The parade disappeared down the corridor toward the stage doors and the commotion swelled further in its wake, everyone crying or talking on their phones or huddled in small groups telling and retelling the story to one another—“So then I look over and he’s falling”—or barking orders or ignoring orders barked by other people.
“All these people,” Jeevan said. He didn’t like crowds very much. “Do you see Tanya?”
“No. I don’t see her anywhere.”
“Well,” Jeevan said, “maybe we should stay in one place and let her find us.” He remembered once having read advice to this effect in a brochure about what to do if you’re lost in the woods. There were a few chairs along the back wall, and he sat down in one. From here he could see the unpainted plywood back of the set. A stagehand was sweeping up the snow.
“Is Arthur going to be okay?” Kirsten had climbed up on the chair beside him and was clutching the fabric of her dress in both fists.
“Just now,” Jeevan said, “he was doing the thing he loved best in the world.” He was basing this on an interview he’d read a month ago, Arthur talking to The Globe and Mail—“I’ve waited all my life to be old enough to play Lear, and there’s nothing I love more than being on stage, the immediacy of it …”—but the words seemed hollow in retrospect. Arthur was primarily a film actor, and who in Hollywood longs to be older?
Kirsten was quiet.
“My point is, if acting was the last thing he ever did,” Jeevan said, “then the last thing he ever did was something that made him happy.”
“Was that the last thing he ever did?”
“I think it was. I’m so sorry.”
The snow was a glimmering pile behind the set now, a little mountain.
“It’s the thing I love most in the world too,” Kirsten said, after some time had passed.
“Acting,” she said, and that was when a young woman with a tear-streaked face emerged from the crowd, arms outstretched. The woman barely glanced at Jeevan as she took Kirsten’s hand. Kirsten looked back once over her shoulder and was gone.
Jeevan rose and walked out onto the stage. No one stopped him. He half-expected to see Laura waiting where he’d left her in front-row center—how much time had passed?—but when he found his way through the velvet curtains, the audience was gone, ushers sweeping and picking up dropped programs between rows, a forgotten scarf draped over the back of a seat. He made his way out into the red-carpet extravagance of the lobby, careful not to meet the ushers’ eyes, and in the lobby a few remnants of the audience still lingered but Laura wasn’t among them. He called her, but she’d turned off her phone for the performance and apparently hadn’t turned it back on.
“Laura,” he said, to her voice mail, “I’m in the lobby. I don’t know where you are.”
He stood in the doorway of the ladies’ lounge and called out to the attendant, but she replied that the lounge was empty. He circled the lobby once and went to the coat check, where his overcoat was among the last few hanging in the racks. Laura’s blue coat was gone.
Snow was falling on Yonge Street. It startled Jeevan when he left the theater, this echo of the plastic translucencies that still clung to his jacket from the stage. A half dozen paparazzi had been spending the evening outside the stage door. Arthur wasn’t as famous as he had been, but his pictures still sold, especially now that he was involved in a gladiatorial divorce with a model/actress who’d cheated on him with a director.
Until very recently Jeevan had been a paparazzo himself. He’d hoped to slip past his former colleagues unnoticed, but these were men whose professional skills included an ability to notice people trying to slip past them, and they were upon him all at once.
“You look good,” one of them said. “Fancy coat you got there.” Jeevan was wearing his peacoat, which wasn’t quite warm enough but had the desired effect of making him look less like his former colleagues, who had a tendency toward puffy jackets and jeans. “Where’ve you been, man?”
“Tending bar,” Jeevan said. “Training to be a paramedic.”
“EMS? For real? You want to scrape drunks off the sidewalk for a living?”
“I want to do something that matters, if that’s what you mean.”
“Yeah, okay. You were inside, weren’t you? What happened?” A few of them were speaking into their phones. “I’m telling you, the man’s dead,” one of them was saying, near Jeevan. “Well, sure, the snow gets in the way of the shot, but look at what I just sent you, his face in that one where they’re loading him into the ambulance—”
“I don’t know what happened,” Jeevan said. “They just dropped the curtain in the middle of the fourth act.” It was partly that he didn’t want to speak with anyone just now, except possibly Laura, and partly that he specifically didn’t want to speak with them. “You saw him taken to the ambulance?”
“Wheeled him out here through the stage doors,” one of the photographers said. He was smoking a cigarette with quick, nervous motions. “Medics, ambulance, the whole nine yards.”
“How’d he look?”
“Honestly? Like a fucking corpse.”
“There’s botox, and then there’s botox,” one of them said.
“Was there a statement?” Jeevan asked.
“Some suit came out and talked to us. Exhaustion and, wait for it, dehydration.” Several of them laughed. “Always exhaustion and dehydration with these people, right?”
“You’d think someone would tell them,” the botox man said. “If someone would just find it in their hearts to pull one or two of these actors aside, be like, ‘Listen, buddy, spread the word: you’ve got to imbibe liquids and sleep every so often, okay?’ ”
“I’m afraid I saw even less than you did,” Jeevan said, and pretended to receive an important call. He walked up Yonge Street with his phone pressed cold to his ear, stepped into a doorway a half block up to dial Laura’s number again. Her phone was still off.
If he called a cab he’d be home in a half hour, but he liked being outside in the clear air, away from other people. The snow was falling faster now. He felt extravagantly, guiltily alive. The unfairness of it, his heart pumping faultlessly while somewhere Arthur lay cold and still. He walked north up Yonge Street with his hands deep in the pockets of his coat and snow stinging his face.
Jeevan lived in Cabbagetown, north and east of the theater. It was the kind of walk he’d have made in his twenties without thinking about it, a few miles of city with red streetcars passing, but he hadn’t done the walk in some time. He wasn’t sure he’d do it now, but when he turned right on Carlton Street he felt a certain momentum, and this carried him past the first streetcar stop.
He reached Allan Gardens Park, more or less the halfway point, and this was where he found himself blindsided by an unexpected joy. Arthur died, he told himself, you couldn’t save him, there’s nothing to be happy about. But there was, he was exhilarated, because he’d wondered all his life what his profession should be, and now he was certain, absolutely certain that he wanted to be a paramedic. At moments when other people could only stare, he wanted to be the one to step forward.
He felt an absurd desire to run into the park. It had been rendered foreign by the storm, all snow and shadows, black silhouettes of trees, the underwater shine of a glass greenhouse dome. When he was a boy he’d liked to lie on his back in the yard and watch the snow coming down upon him. Cabbagetown was visible a few blocks ahead, the snow-dimmed lights of Parliament Street. His phone vibrated in his pocket. He stopped to read a text message from Laura: I had a headache so I went home. Can you pick up milk?
And here, all momentum left him. He could go no farther. The theater tickets had been intended as a romantic gesture, a let’s-do-something-romantic-because-all-we-do-is-fight, and she’d abandoned him there, she’d left him onstage performing CPR on a dead actor and gone home, and now she wanted him to buy milk. Now that he’d stopped walking, Jeevan was cold. His toes were numb. All the magic of the storm had left him, and the happiness he’d felt a moment earlier was fading. The night was dark and filled with movement, snow falling fast and silent, the cars parked on the street swelling into soft outlines of themselves. He was afraid of what he’d say if he went home to Laura. He thought of finding a bar somewhere, but he didn’t want to talk to anyone, and when he thought about it, he didn’t especially want to be drunk. Just to be alone for a moment, while he decided where to go next. He stepped into the silence of the park.
About the book:
Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.
Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.
Snippet from A Fine Balance
- Rohinton Mistry
Snippet from The Underground Railroad
- Colson Whitehead