Chapter 1: The Limes CHAPTER 1 The Limes
MARCEL LISTENED AS GOMER DUPREE wrapped up the day’s battle against the old janitor’s sworn enemy: bubble gum. Blobs on the metal trash baskets, wads under seats, globs stuck like growths to the flying monkeys carved into the pillars.
When the last wad was vanquished, Gomer (getting on in years and stooped with arthritis) valiantly vacuumed candy and popcorn kernels from the seat cracks and scrubbed what soda pop glue he could from the floor. He missed some things.
When Gomer came back in after changing the marquee, Marcel perked up his ears.
The old man grabbed his empty thermos and keys, stepped outside into the dark cloak of early morning, and locked the glass doors. There’d be quite a few hours before he’d return for tonight’s showing of Dragons of the Deep: A Love Story.
When at last the theater was quiet and Gomer Dupree was safely away, Marcel scrambled up the broken railing of the balcony and popped his nose over the edge. He gave the air a good sniff.
“Two Licorice Twithsts under seat 26D, a small bag of popcorn behind the trash bin—nearly full—and one lime Fruit Gem stuck to the exit sign in the north wing. I think there might be a yogurt raisin near the restrooms too,” Marcel said proudly. (He might depend on a strong pair of glasses—hedgehogs have terrible eyesight, particularly with the chandeliers dim, as they were now—but boy could he sniff out a yogurt-covered raisin when he needed to.)
But where were his glasses?
Marcel looked away from the fuzzy sea of seats below and back into the balcony. He didn’t like creeping up on the sisters when they were still sleeping, so he cleared his throat and tried again.
“We could probably do without the Fruit Gem, huh?” he asked, squinting at the green mountain of lime gummy candies piled in a corner.
He was met with silence.
His glasses. He needed them in order to get started, and…
He’d just remembered where he’d seen them last.
Marcel coughed into his fist and raised his voice a hair. “Auntie Hen? Uncle Henrietta?”
Auntie Hen, who’d been snoozing in the seat next to Marcel’s overturned popcorn tub of a house, in a nest made from a blue cashmere cardigan she’d plucked out of the lost-and-found box behind the concession stand, stirred, flapped her wings, and stretched. “Lime,” she clucked. “They always leave the lime ones! No one ever leaves a strawberry.”
“That’s true,” said Marcel as he scrambled to the row in front of Auntie and poked his nose between two seats to squint at her. He could count on his paws the number of times they’d come across a coveted strawberry Fruit Gem.
“Now, why do you think that is, dearie?”
Two seats over, Uncle Henrietta opened one eye. “Because the lime ones taste like grass, that’s why.”
“They do taste a bit leafy,” said Auntie Hen, eyeing the mountain of lime candies in the corner and shaking her head.
“Like grass!” replied her sister.
“Don’t forget about the yogurt raisin and Licorice Twithstssss,” said Marcel.
“The what?” said Auntie.
“The Licorice Twithstssss,” said Marcel. Auntie Hen frowned.
Marcel had a voice the hen sisters said reminded them of the slush machine in the lobby—sloshing, a bit wet. S’s always seemed to get caught in the back of his mouth and shimmy before they squirted out.
He said it slower this time. “Lic-or-ice Twithstssssssssss.”
“Licorice Twists! He said Licorice Twists!” shouted Uncle Henrietta. She took one look at Marcel. “And where are your glasses?” she barked, before turning her head and plunging it into the coppery feathers of her back.
Auntie blinked. “Oh! Marcel! What’s happened to your glasses?”
Marcel pointed behind her and blushed.
“Well, how did they get there?” said Auntie, turning to find his spectacles wedged beneath her feathery behind.
How indeed. But eyeglasses of all sorts had a way of turning up in many a seat. Marcel had often thought that his, found stuck between seats 93 and 94A after a Saturday matinee, were like a gift from the Good Witch Glinda herself. From the moment he’d put them on, everything was crisper, brighter, Technicolor. The world looked like a bit of Munchkinland magic with the right pair of glasses.
It took a good amount of tugging and clucking, but Marcel’s spectacles were soon retrieved. He adjusted them on his furry nose.
Auntie Hen beamed at him. “Don’t you look dashing.”
“He looks like a horsefly,” came Uncle Henrietta’s muffled grumble.
Marcel smiled at his friends. “Good morning, Auntie. And good morning, Uncle Henrietta. How was your sleep?”
“Terrible,” said Uncle.
“I’ve had better,” Auntie mused. “I think a chunk of plaster got me right in the head last night. Barely slept a wink!”
On trying mornings such as these, Marcel usually volunteered to scrounge up breakfast alone. Even when fully rested, the hens were slow. They might get distracted by a petrified gummy worm and peck at it for hours. They’d stop to catch their breath and fall asleep in one of the seats and Marcel would have to start a one-hedgehog search party. And then there was that time Auntie Hen caught a claw in the carpet, lost her footing, and rolled down the entire length of the grand staircase, end over feathered end, landing in a heap at the bottom, a gumdrop wedged in one eye.
It wasn’t a pretty sight.
“You can rest if you’re not feeling up to it today,” he said.
“Up to it?” Uncle Henrietta repeated. “You try balancing on a couple of straws for legs and then ask me if I want to climb stairs.”
“I can get your breakfast. I don’t mind,” Marcel assured her. And he didn’t mind. It kept him busy, kept his mind off, well, things.
Okay, it kept his mind off her.
Dorothy. His Dorothy.
Auntie Hen waved a wing in his direction. “No, no, Marcel. You can use the assistance. And we could use the exercise. We’ll help!” She leaned close and winked. “If my dear sister didn’t insist on stuffing herself with so many Toffee Beans, her legs wouldn’t be such a trial.
“Can’t blame her, I guess,” she went on. “I’ve acquired quite a taste for Cinnamon Snaps myself. I can’t tell you what a relief it is not to be eating chicken feed for every meal.”
It wasn’t a year ago that the hens had arrived. And on a howling storm of a night.
The French film Bonjour, Mes Amis had played that evening (Hello, My Friends, the subtitles read); Marcel always thought it a serendipitous wink of fate. The hens were the only visitors who’d laid foot or claw in the balcony since Marcel arrived. Even Gomer Dupree gave the abandoned, not-quite-safe and never-needed-anyway balcony a blind eye.
The hens had escaped from a poultry truck crammed with cages, awhirl with flying chicken feathers, and bound for a warehouse. What a warehouse was, they couldn’t be certain, but Uncle Henrietta always had a good gut instinct about things and felt they didn’t want to find out.
Into the broken air vent in the alley, they went. Through a maze of metal tubing—left and right and up, up, up. Landing finally in the balcony by way of a missing heating grate, the same twisty path Marcel had taken… Was it more than six months ago now?
Had it really been more than six months since then? Since…
Marcel shook his head to chase the thought away.
The sisters had tumbled into the balcony with a wet crash and a flop, rolled down an aisle, and come to a stop at the balcony’s edge, thunder heralding their arrival.
And Marcel had barely been able to contain himself. He’d held out a paw, just like he’d seen people greet each other in movies. (His was a tad shaky with excitement.) Spouting a hundred hellos, he’d asked for their names.
The first chicken blinked at him. “Sister,” she’d said.
“Sister,” Marcel repeated. “And your name?” he asked the second.
“Sister,” said the other. “She calls me Sister.”
Marcel had frowned. “You’re both Sister? Don’t you have names?”
“Since when does a hen need a name?” the second chicken had asked. “Don’t see why it matters.”
But to Marcel, it did. “I might like to tell you apart better,” he answered her. “Do you think I could give you names?”
“Of course you can!” said the first chicken.
“Don’t see why it matters,” repeated the second.
But two names popped into his head then. From his favorite movie, The Wizard of Oz.
Auntie Em. Uncle Henry.
Those were names he could work with.
He’d looked to the first chicken. “Can I call you Auntie Hen?”
“It’s perfect!” she’d said.
He looked to the second. “And, you, maybe Uncle Hennn… rietta?”
“Fine,” she’d answered.
And fine it fairly was and had been ever since. For two old hens who’d never seen anything more than the inside of a cage their whole lives, the Emerald City Theater was a pretty good gig: room to stretch, plenty of snacks, and the movies weren’t bad either.
But to Marcel, their arrival meant he was no longer alone.
He’d always be a bit lost, mind you, but at least now he wasn’t alone.
Marcel, listening to Auntie peck at her sister to get moving and Uncle squawking her displeasure in reply, wandered back to the balcony’s ledge. He climbed up, rested his chin on the mahogany, and peered into the empty seats below.
It was surprising that for all its beauty, for the cheery show tunes and happy endings, for the many smiling faces it welcomed and friendly whispers soft as a kiss, a place like the Emerald City Theater could still feel very lonely. He’d seen it in the face of an old woman sitting in an empty row, dabbing her eyes during Summer’s Loss. She’d left before the movie ended.
He’d seen it in a boy with his mother on opening day of Sea-Space 9: Intergalactic Octopus Invasion, stealing glances at a group of kids his age. When the group spotted him, they’d pointed fingers, whispered, snickered. The boy had slouched deep in his seat, trying to disappear.
Marcel knew lonely feelings well.
Sure, there were things he supposed he liked about living in the theater: The smell of popcorn, heavy in the air and clinging to the patchy carpets. A caramel when he could find one. He found himself getting swept up in every romantic movie and trying to imagine what it felt like to have an arm around your shoulder or someone holding your hand. He loved when children came for the cartoons; the sound of their excited babble was as soothing as a scratch behind the ears. Marcel liked it when they laughed at the funny parts. He laughed at those parts too.
And then there was The Wizard of Oz every Saturday.
It had been their movie—his and Dorothy’s.
He remembered the first time he’d stepped into the theater, and there it was playing! Hope had swelled in his heart like a hot air balloon.
It was a sign! It was something. If his Dorothy fell from the sky anywhere, surely, surely, she would fall right here. And then maybe everything could go back to what it was. Maybe?
He thought he’d found her again so many times.
The flash of red high-tops might do it. A glimpse of auburn braids. If a girl with freckles on her cheeks and braces on her teeth walked down an aisle, lowered a seat, and settled in with a tub of popcorn with extra butter, he only saw her.
His long-lost Dorothy.
But visions like that tended to melt as quickly as slush from the slush machine, and hope gets tossed away as sourly as folks tossed out their Fruit Gems.
It was always, always the limes.