The following is from Richard Bausch's Playhouse. Bausch is the author of twelve novels and nine volumes of short stories. He is a recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lila Wallace–Reader’s Digest Writers’ Award, the Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. He is on the Writing Faculty of Chapman University in Orange, California.
His full name—that is, the name on his birth certificate—was Wolfgang Amadeus Thaddeus Deerforth. His mother had just turned eighteen when he was born. She’d been with only one man, once: a young clarinetist she met at a concert in Alexandria, Virginia. The clarinetist’s name was Thaddeus T. Deerforth, fresh out of Juilliard and newest member of a rather well-known ensemble touring the East Coast. The concert was part of a summer festival of the arts. They played Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet. She was just out of high school, winner of an essay contest sponsored by the festival. After the concert, she struck up a conversation with him because she liked his looks and his playing. When he talked about playing the Mozart, his eyes shone. “I love Mozart,” she told him, lying only a little: she had loved the quintet (and now she loved Mozart). They spent a languid afternoon walking along the Potomac and then lying on the grass in the shade of a silver maple. They watched the sun go down. She still maintained it was love at first sight.
The young clarinetist lost his life the next morning in a train accident on his way north. She never knew what the T stood for, but she took the name Deerforth, because she was in love and because to her Deerforth sounded far better than Ealey. Naming her child Wolfgang Amadeus came from what she later called the harebrained idea that her child might be brought to a life in music with it, since his father had been a musician whose playing of the great composer’s clarinet piece had caused her to notice him in the first place, and because, in her grief at his loss, she had listened incessantly to Mozart during her pregnancy. After nine months and one week in the womb, with Mozart’s music flowing every day over his little space of warmth, Thaddeus was born with a distinct taste for Aretha Franklin. It was Aretha from day one, his mother would tell friends, laughing proudly. But she had named him Wolfgang Amadeus anyway. She married a man named Strekfus who claimed he was happy to have an “instant family,” as he called it, but in whose heart there lurked a strand of judgmental cruelty; she had been dreaming for more than a year of taking her little boy with her to Tennessee to live with her aunt Anna, when he told her he was in love with someone he’d met on the road. She laughed. Hysterically. He thought it was grief. He couldn’t believe it was anything else. Thaddeus was three. He had no memory of Strekfus.
And by the time he was in kindergarten, it was clear that he’d inherited nothing of his biological father’s musical gift. Plus, he possessed no real interest in music. So, his mother, now Effie Deerforth, started calling him Thaddeus.
Gina, now and then, called him Wolfie, an endearment only she was allowed.
It had seemed to Thaddeus that all of his wife’s darker moods were tied to the winter months. In spring she slept better, even with the bedroom windows open to the nightsounds—the hum of things, the ruckus of night bugs, and the distant moan of the trains crossing the delta. She would wake in a cheerful mood, seeming rested, up for anything.
But it was June, and though she still slept deep, there was a recurring flatness in her disposition. Watching her from his office window as she crossed the street below to come into the confusion, mess, and clatter of the theater’s transformation, he held on to the hope that the flicker of vexation he saw in her face was attributable to the noise, and only that. She paused at the bed of flowers bordering the entrance, picked one, and went on out of sight, into the doorway beyond the west side of the building. That was Gina. Girl of my dreams, he often called her. This time, thinking the words, he might’ve spoken them aloud, standing there in the noise. But now it seemed that something in the noise itself, abruptly compounded by the battering of a jackhammer against concrete out on the sidewalk below, moved bluntly through his body. There was a quick shift in his chest, under the breastbone. A skipped heartbeat. Again—what had awakened him this morning. It was exactly as if someone had put a finger there, pushed, and then taken it away. And now it happened again. And then, more pronouncedly, once more. He sat down at his desk and waited for it to stop. But it went on. He knew something about palpitations and their causes—his mother had dealt with them periodically from her twenties through her forties. He took a breath, and remained stock-still. These were palpitations. He took a deep slow breath and tried to turn his attention to something else.
He considered the anxiety level of the last few days, and absurdly, in a helpless spasm of grief as if he’d known every one of the victims personally, he recalled the deaths in the South China Sea. Gina was right. Somehow the sad news in the world had begun going deeper into his psyche. When he could look at it coldly, the images that came to him in sleep or lying awake were often nearly qualifiable as visions. And that could certainly explain palpitations. Then, too, there seemed no time to deal with all there was to do in the days: the darkened theater seemed overcrowded with tasks complicated by construction, dealings with contractors, the finance office, and the several local colleges about the new works contest, a prize for new drama, the winning play to be performed in the black box theater. The renovation was proving more stressful than a full season.
Almost an hour earlier than expected, Reuben H. Frye strolled into the far-from-finished central lobby. People began going back and forth letting others know he’d arrived. The young director he’d chosen for Three Tall Women was with him, and they walked around the lobby looking at things, as if they were tourists. He was surprisingly short. He had on a red bow tie, and a light blue suit, with black tennis shoes, and he wore a factory-abraded baseball cap from the Gibson guitar factory. The hat was slightly askew on his head. She was slender, fair, with almond-shaped brown eyes, shoulder-length auburn hair, and a sprinkling of freckles across her nose. She didn’t look old enough to be out of high school—though according to her portfolio she was thirty-four. Gradually everyone collected in the disarray of boards and cans of paint. And after quiet handshakes and a brief tour of the new venue with Jocelyn Grausbeck (whom he embraced, to her clear embarrassment), he introduced Kelly Gordon. There was a smattering of applause. “Yes,” he said. “Well.”
For an awkward interval, everyone waited.
Then he strode back into the crowd, greeting people, shaking hands, talking individually about airline flights, rental apartments, the attractions of Memphis, and the summer heat so close to the big continent-running river (his phrase). Nothing but small talk, all around, like a polite party on a patio. Then, turning in a circle, taking in the faces, he said, “We’ll convene precisely at noon, on the main stage, such as it is. Give everybody an hour or so to get themselves together. Thank you.” And he nodded at Jocelyn Grausbeck, who led him down the side hall to Miles Warden’s old office. He hugged her again, then entered and quietly closed the door. It looked like he was shutting her and everyone else out.
Kelly Gordon seemed unconcerned. She kept shaking hands all around. And she made a near curtsy to Thaddeus, who, in the exact instant he offered his hand, received the discomforting sense that his hand might be clammy. He was unpleasantly aware of his own heartbeat. It seemed regular now, but it was beating in his neck—thudding there. “Has Frye told you he’s close friends with Edward Albee?” she asked him with a crooked little smile.
He was unsure how to react. “Well, no.”
She seemed faintly disappointed.
“There was something in a postcard about visiting with his great friend Al Pacino during the holidays,” he said.
Her response was almost lazy. “Oh, yes, that too. And the thing is, some version of both is actually true. He does know both men.” Her small, knowing smile only involved her lips. “Be funnier if it was a lie.”
They gazed at the closed door where the visiting artistic director had gone.
“Is this your first visit to Memphis?” he asked, reaching for casualness.
She nodded. “I’ve already driven around a little to look at things. I’m figuring to stay at one of those places near the river. I’ll be at the Peabody till the end of the week, at least. I’m giving that to myself. Always wanted to stay there and go down in the lobby in the morning and watch the ducks get ushered out to the big fountain.”
“So you know about that. I’ve lived here most of my life, and I’ve never seen it.”
“Maybe you’ve missed something wonderful.” She nodded at him, as if agreeing with herself. His assistant, Lurlene Glenn, walked up. She was a quick, fluid-moving, clear-eyed woman near seventy.
“I’ll show you to your office, dear,” she said.
“I have my own office?”
“You’re one of our distinguished visitors.”
“Distinguished.” Kelly smirked.
The theater manager went back to his office, and almost immediately Lurlene joined him. “Looks like a kid,” she said about Kelly Gordon.
“I had the same thought.”
The two of them went through menus and possible suppliers for preview nights, deciding on wine and refreshments, snacks, and soft drinks, guest lists for receptions and dinners. This was interrupted by the contractors, who had encountered new wiring problems—and then he had to deal with the several members of the company who were upset at the new situation. The longest-standing company member, Maude Gainly, who had from toddlerhood performed with one group or another at all the venues in the city’s theater life, had been passed over for the part of Cordelia because, she told Thaddeus, Frye said she was too heavy, and not young enough. (“I can lose this weight, Thaddeus. What the hell. And I’m only thirty-eight.”)
The oldest member of the company, Terence Gleason, said, “This about-to-be new, shiny Globe Theater already feels like a small country with a corrupt dictator.” He had believed, not unjustly, that he would be Lear, or at least Gloucester. He hadn’t been cast at all.
Through all this, Thaddeus kept surreptitiously pressing two fingers against his wrist; there was the strong regular beat the first few times, but then suddenly he felt another shift. He sat at his desk, taking his own pulse. The strong beat made him think it must be laboring. Then it paused. He was certain it stopped for a second. A few strong beats later, it paused again. And started again. He breathed deeply, slowly. And it happened once more. Finally, he closed his office door and called his mother to ask about her experience of the phenomenon.
“Did it ever feel like your heart stopped?”
“Yes,” Effie said. “That’s what they feel like, honey. It’s a little scary, but it’s not serious.”
“A little scary.”
“Well, for the anxiety-prone—dear—maybe more than a little scary.”
“I can feel it actually stopping.”
“That’s the way it feels, but it’s not stopping. It’s actually not even pausing. It just feels that way. A missed beat. It’s a prematurely contracting ventricle, sweetie. A PCV, they call it. No fun. But everybody gets them now and then, and it usually goes away on its own.”
“It’s extremely disconcerting,” he told her.
“Well, go to the doctor. The doctor’ll tell you what I just told you, and that’ll help your anxiety about it.”
“It makes me feel elderly.”
“Well, come on, dear. You were an old man when you were nine years old.”
“What happened when I was nine?”
“You know, Thaddeus—my darling boy—the first thing that happens when you get this sort of anxiety is you lose your sense of figurative speech. And look at you, a lover of Shakespeare.”
“Okay,” he said. “But you said since I was nine. You were very specific.”
She sighed. Then changed the subject. “Your aunt Anna and I are going to Europe.”
He did not want to talk about Europe. “I’ve got a meeting I’ve got to get to.”
“Bye,” she said.
Excerpted from PLAYHOUSE by Richard Bausch. Copyright © 2023 by Richard Bausch. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.