Joan Leotta

Joan Leotta has been playing with words on page and stage since childhood. Her poems, articles, essays, and short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in dozens of journals around the world including Yellow Mama, Spillwords, Microfiction MondayEkphrastic Review, The Lake, Pine Song, A-3 Review, Ovunque Siamo, Potato Soup, Silver Birch, When Women Write, Verse Visual, and Verse Virtual, Mystery Tribune, Crimeucopia, Bould Anthology, and two different Sisters in Crime anthologies. She has been a Tupelo Press 30/30 author, and a Gilbert Chappell Fellow. Her chapbook, Languid Lusciousness with Lemon, is out from Finishing Line Press. Her free chapbooks are Nature’s Giftsfrom Stanzaic Stylings, Dancing Under the Moon and Morning by Morningmini chapbooks through Origami Press.

As a performer, she tells folk and personal tales featuring food, family, nature, and strong women. When not on stage or at her computer, she’s in the kitchen, curled up with a book, or walking the beach.

Death Among Truth and Lies

Bodies littering the stage is not uncommon in murder-mystery plays, or even in the literary dramas of Shakespeare,  but having one fall out of the lobby snack closet on opening night is not a regular occurrence.

Getting to that opening night debacle began for me when at the end of my sophomore year, I decided to transfer into the theatre department from medieval history at Alcalde U. Then, as I was talking over my new major’s fall courses with Professor McConnell, one of the members of the summer stock theatre group walked in and announced she was going to Europe instead of going with them to Cape Cod. The prof was short a cast person, so  I,  Jean Marie Silver became a last-minute addition to this prestigious college summer troupe.

The group went through two, two week runs of 1930s comedies where I was the entire stage crew, even though crew duties were supposed to be a shared. Audiences were sparse. However, our mid-summer production of the professor’s own original play, Truth and Lies, was getting a lot of advance publicity, so we were hoping for bigger audiences. Professor, Aloysius McConnell, our mentor, director, dramaturg (the man who picked and occasionally wrote the some of our plays—like this one),  often reminded us, he had been an acclaimed actor, with a devoted female fan following before deigning to become our professor.

This newest  script, was actually an updated medieval morality play McConnell called Truth and Lies. As a former English major who specialized in medieval works, Mc Connell drafted me to decipher some of the odd words in the original tale and explain some of the more arcane customs of the era so he could update or eliminate them in his tale. My reward was one speaking line, a program listing, and to be assigned as Gemma’s understudy. My character was “White Lie.” My costume was white jeans and a white t-shirt.

Gemma was three for three as leading lady. Her best buddies, Susan, and Sonja, the other two female members of our merry band had taken turns as her understudy until this play. This time, I was the understudy. Usually the three of them acted as if I did not exist. After I was named as Gemma’s understudy, they began making pointed remarks about my lack of talent.

“Miss Innocent,” the star, played by Gemma, of course, also wore white. Her costume, from a local thrift store, was a flowing skirt and filmy blouse showing off Gemma’s assets and hopefully would generate an uptick in ticket sales when the local paper printed pix of curvy Gemma. David played “Truth”, the hero, who would win Gemma away from the temptations of “Prince of Lies”, played by Austin, and sidekick, “Malicious Lie”, played by Preston. Sonja played “Gossip” and Susan was the  “Sly Laugh.” (Type casting for those two.)

All of us (except the Professor) were supposed to handle backstage duties, lights, sound, etc. and rotate odd things like snack bar duty, since I’m new to the theater group, working backstage became my primary role and I was assigned to snack bar closet operation, a job no one liked, for the entire summer. I had to keep it stocked and  open it before each show, at intermission, and after each show. Actually, even though it was blatantly unfair, I had to admit I didn’t mind since I was still a bit shy about performing and working the snack bar gave me lots of time to people -watch.

 Gemma really  had to really hone her acting skills  for the role of Miss Innocent since her sharp tongue, arrogance, and constant flirting with any male certainly contrasted with any idea of her as an innocent.

Both Gemma and I were supposed white face make up for our roles. The University’s low budget made it necessary for the us to provide our own make-up. Regular all-purpose flour was deemed sufficient for my brief appearance. My relief was great.  Gemma and I shared one thing in common—very delicate skin. Theatre quality hypoallergenic white-face makeup was quite expensive, so I was glad to be spared. Gemma bought some of course, because she was on stage during the entire play, and she could afford the $75.00 per jar.

When Gemma fell out of the closet on opening night, she was dressed in her gossamer gown and her face was already slathered with the white make-up making her look more like a ghost than she was. One of the patrons standing by the snack bar, actually fainted when Gemma slammed face-first onto the counter and then slid to the floor.

Back to Opening Night….

It didn’t take long for the cops to come. They sorted us into groups for questioning. A good-looking young officer, whose tag proclaimed him as Officer Salazar took me aside (since I had opened the snack closet and was starting to ask me when I had last seen Gemma alive when an older and decidedly grumpier policeman in plain clothes came up, interrupted, and began to bark questions at me.

“You found the body?’

“Yes Sir.” Badge on his belt but no name offered. No nametag.

He glared at me and waved a program. “So, you were her understudy?”

“Yes.”

Okay, I admit it, I felt really guilty. In the last week of rehearsal I had often daydreamed about Gemma taking ill, so I could sweep onto the stage in her role. I guess anxiety made me look even suspicious.

“Tell me about today, everything from getting up to the moment of discovering the body.” he ordered. He took notes as I began. The uniformed officer wandered off to question some to the patrons who had come early and were now trapped in the crime scene with all of us.

“Well, this morning, we had a final dress rehearsal. We always schedule our dress rehearsal the morning of opening night. We broke for lunch. I sat alone. Too nervous to eat, I  grabbed a cup of coffee at the Wired Puppy and sat on a bench in the park to calm myself down. Tonight would be my first speaking part.”

“Go on.”

“Then when everyone returned to the theatre for a final another run-through, no one could find Gemma.  We went over the notes and started a quick final run through without her. The Prof read her lines.”

I told him as the time for performance drew closer, we all grew more anxious.

However,  I did not tell Detective Grumpy I was secretly hoping to get to play the lead.

I heard David’s voice talking to Officer Salazar: “The Prof and I thought Gemma was probably off with a new boyfriend and had forgotten the time.”

Grumpy looked at me. “You didn’t open the snack closet until the show was about to begin?”

“Right. As soon as people began to dribble through the front door, the Prof told me to open the snack bar. I asked about getting ready to go on instead of Gemma, but the Prof said he was sure she would show up and if not, my white jeans and t-shirt could also serve as costume for Miss Innocent. I unlocked the door to the snack cupboard and Gemma fell out. Dead. I screamed.”

David walked up behind me and added, “That’s when Prof M. called 911 and closed the theater.

No one else could come in and no one could go out.”

I looked around the lobby area. Officer Salazar had finished questioning the other players and our few potential audience members who were released. Then the cops let everyone in the cast go back to our Victorian—except for me, David, and the Prof. I had a key to the cupboard. So did the Prof. David had been “outed” as Gemma’s former boyfriend. I heard Detective Grumpy tell Salazar, “motive and opportunity” mostly with these three.

Another Detective arrived, wearing a smart blue suit. Detective Grumpy talked with him for a few minutes. Blue Suit took us into the theatre, separated us and motioned for me to sit.  He started questioning me.

 “I’m Detective Wilson. My officers tell me you all have keys to the back door here but only you and the Professor have snack bar keys? Seems strange.”

“Not really, Sir. We all need to come in and out of the theater, but only the professor, who collects the money and refills our stock,  and I  need keys to the snack closet. I sell the stuff before every show and at intermission and at the end of each show.”

He checked the notes Grumpy had given him. “Now that Gemma is gone, you’ll be the leading lady. Right?”

I nodded. “If the show ever goes on.”

He made some notes and then said, “You can leave now, but I don’t want any of this company leaving the Cape anytime soon—especially the three of you. ”

I waited for David and the Prof. to walk back. As we were leaving the theatre, I watched one of the uniformed cops mark off  the snack area as a crime scene. Back at the house, Prof announced since the search had not uncovered blood traces anywhere else on the premises, we could rehearse and even perform the show the next night as long as we let the audience and ourselves in and out through the side door. The lobby was off-limits indefinitely.

A reporter called and the Prof explained about the tragic loss of the star and tickets were still available. “The show will go on, but the audience will need to enter by the side door.”

The next morning, at long last, the prof formally announced, “You’ll play Gemma’s Part, Ms. Silver.”  While we were rehearsing, Detective Wilson came by to tell us Gemma had been poisoned. I teared up, even though I really never liked her.

“Your character does not cry in this scene, Ms. Silver!” So much for sympathy from the Professor.

Wilson sat down to watch the rest of the rehearsal. We finished just before lunch. We called in our order at Pop + Dutch and the Prof tossed me his car keys. It was my turn to pick up the order. I ran into the green room, picked up my purse, and headed for the side door. Detective Wilson stopped me.

“Sit down a minute, please. I think you lied to me yesterday about not seeing Gemma at lunch. After all, according to everyone here, you hated her. I think you poisoned her sandwich. Maybe you only wanted to make her sick, so you could go on in her place, but you gave her too much. Then, when she collapsed, you hid her body in the first place you could think of, the snack closet, hoping to dispose of it before the play.”

I was stunned. My face went genuinely white. “I’d never do something so unsanitary and why would I leave her body where I would be the one to find it? Anyway, yesterday, we had the sandwiches delivered because we were all in costume.”

“Who passed them out?”

“I did. But in front of everyone. Then we went off in our own directions, most of us wanted to eat alone to stay in character, prepare mentally for the performance.”

He didn’t arrest me. “All right for now. But I’m watching you.”

Evidently others shared his suspicions. My fellow thespians stood a bit farther from me than necessary in almost every scene. Offstage, every huddle of conversing player grew silent when I walked by.

The snatches of conversation I overheard were distressing. “Gemma was my best friend.”

“ A doll.“

“So sympathetic. Wonderful girl.”

“ Jeanne Marie is a sneak.”

Was this the same Gemma each and every one of them had cursed—aloud and to her face at some point in the few weeks we had all been together?

I was a bit shaky on the lines and even worse on the blocking, but I took some deep breaths and was determined to do well. Prof had David direct people to the side door and usher them in. Publicity about the murder meant we a full house. Just before the curtain was to rise, Prof pulled out a bouquet of white roses and gave us each one.

“Line up. When the curtain goes up, one by one, each of you will walk to center stage, say something nice about Gemma and place a white rose in a vase on the table and exit.”

Right after our little tribute moment, just as the Prof was about to tell them this was the world premiere of his play someone called out, “Aren’t you opening the snack bar tonight?”

 “No, the Prof snapped. “That’s real crime scene tape.”

I admit I was a bit nervous filling in for the lead role. So much time on stage! I was embarrassed to go through the whole play with flour on my face. I thought about buying some of her good makeup for the next night. We cancelled the usual cast party, and I went back and collapsed on my bed.

At breakfast the next morning, the Prof read the local review aloud. It described ne as  “pale” and said my performance was even more anemic than my appearance. My fellow thespians chimed in with their own assessments of my lack of talent.

“You were awful,” David complained, looking straight at me. “Your poor performance took the whole play down. You hurt my reviews.” The others agreed.

“I’ll do better tonight,” I said. No one offered consoling or encouraging words.

Truthfully, even if I did improve, the reviews were already in and those reviews were what would guide sales for future performances. No one would care if I gave a great show on the second night.

The Prof glowered at me and said, “I think we should have one more run through this afternoon to help improve everyone’s blocking.”

David pointed at me and stomped out of the room. “She’s spoiled the play.” The others followed him out, complaining loudly as they exited. The Prof shouted we could start an hour later than usual, giving us a bit of free time. “The show must go on,” the Prof shouted after them.

I knew the others would be going to the beach in their hour off.  I decided to give myself some extra rehearsal time and headed for the theatre to practice the blocking on my own.

Even though the sun was bright, the windowless theater was really dark. I flipped on the master switches, giving the place universal lighting—same light on stage and in audience. I headed for the green room to see if there was anything better than my jeans and t-shirt to wear. Gemma had not shared the common Green Room. (Boys on one side of a curtain. Girls on the other.) They had converted a little closet for her.

I set down my things. Nothing there. I decided to see if Gemma had a spare outfit in her room. The police had searched Gemma’s little star quarters and “sealed” with a length of crime scene tape. I decided a search for a new costume was not worth slipped under the tape and defying local police. Then I remembered the special glow face cream Gemma used as Miss Innocent. Since I was going to be on stage longer the flour was awful look, I needed better make up. However, I did not have the funds for it. Gemma’s expensive hypoallergenic brand of white cream was one I could safely use too. Borrowing was worth it.

Ameliorating my pale performance would take hard work but my face could at least have an ethereal, “angelic” glow, with the use of Gemma’s special cream.

Not wanting to leave any proof of my entrance, in spite of having justified it to myself, I pulled the sleeve of my summer hoodie down over my hand, gripped the doorknob and turned.  Whew! They’d left it unlocked. I slipped under the tape.

Black dust covered various surfaces like the remnant of an angry storm. Fingerprint powder. I spied “Angel Glow Cream” on what had been Gemma’s vanity table. Black dust revealed it had also been fingerprinted. They might miss it if I took it away, so I decided to try some right there. If the cream worked, maybe I could ask my parents for some money to buy some at local pharmacy, assuming Prof kept me in the role.

 I took a tissue from a box on the dressing table and gingerly screwed off the top of the jar. Then I dipped my fingers lightly into the goop to spread some on my face.

Almost instantly my fingers began to turn red and “burn.” A deep, painful itch began to creep down from the tips of my fingers into my palm. I was allergic, really allergic, to Gemma’s fancy hypoallergenic stuff!

I tried to put the lid back on the jar, but the lid fell from my burning fingers and rolled under the skirted vanity. Although I literally ached to get back to the green room where my purse, its Benadryl tablets (always with me) and a bottle of water awaited. I knelt to find the lid.

Ack. Stupid allergies. This had happened once before to me—a hypoallergenic product set off my allergies. No refund in this case, however, since the cream was not mine. I wanted to get things put back in order as fast as possible so no one would see how red I was.

The lid had rolled on its side into what appeared to be a mouse-sized (ok, rat-sized) opening between the baseboard and the wall. As I pulled the lid free, I could see the wallboard was also hiding a small notebook, covered in rainbows.

I grabbed the notebook and pulled it out along with the lid.  I then replaced the lid as best as my burning fingers would allow, slipped back out of the room, and ran into the green room where I scarfed down a Benadryl tablet. I put the book on my portion of the dressing room table.

The Benadryl usually worked right away.  This time , I was beginning to feel worse as the minutes went on. Especially my fingers. It occurred to me that the jar of cream might be contaminated with the poison that had killed Gemma. If so, the Benadryl was not going to help. I reached into my pocket for my cell phone to call 911, confessed my crime of entering the forbidden room and begged for a doctor.

“What are you doing here?”

I jumped. The Prof was standing in the green room doorway.

“I came early to go over my blocking on my own.”

He scowled and strode toward me. “Again, what are you doing here. The truth this time.”

“I came to rehearse my blocking, like I said.”

Prof M took another step forward glowering down at me, much too close for my personal space preferences. I saw his eyes move to take in the table.

“What’s that book?”

Harking back to my first role as the teller of White Lies and not feeling comfortable with Prof M, I said, “It’s my diary.”

“No, it’s not, you little sneak. I know that diary. It’s Gemma’s. Where did you get it? Give it to me.”

He leaned over me to grab it, but I was quicker. I wound my itching fingers around the notebook, slipped under his arm and made for the door, screaming, “Heeeeellllllpppp.”

I had  not hung up on the 911 call and could hear the operator shout, “Crime in progress..”

“Jasmine College Summer Theater backstage,” I shouted, not recalling if I had given her the address before. My hands could not manage the exit doorknob and the diary. Prof M. had a scarf in his hand. He grabbed my arm. I dropped then book. Then the blessed sound of pounding and shouting.

“Open up!”

Detective Wilson, accompanied by two uniformed officers, pushed open the door to the green room.

Taking the offensive, Prof shouted, “She did it, she’s the killer.” He pointed to the floor. “ See, she has Gemma’s diary.”

The Detective, who had come to ask more questions,  put us on the opposite sides of the curtain in the green room. The curtain was not soundproof. I could hear Detective Wilson’s first question for the professor: “How did you know that was Gemma’s diary?”

Sirens announced the arrival of EMTs and more police. The detective let the EMTs take a look at me. They rubbed my hands with another cream and gave me a pill to take.

“Don’t take her away yet,” Detective Grumpy ordered.  I laid on the gurney and watched him wave off everyone while he read a little bit of the diary.

Then he ordered Detective Wilson to accompany me to the hospital and take a statement form me there. Grumpy put cuffs on the Prof.

Gemma’s rainbow-covered notebook was pretty steamy, I guess—and detailed. It seems Prof had, early on, promised to help Gemma skip her senior year for the bright lights of Broadway. She dropped David in order to take up with the Prof. From what I learned later, the book described several trysting spots around town, including her little private dressing room (How did they manage in that small space, I wondered?) where he had probably seen the diary.

I was getting a little sleepy from the meds they’d given me, but I did talk to the detective before I fell asleep. “I  have a lot of allergies. I can’t afford the cream Gemma uses so I thought instead of using flour, which looked pretty bad last night under the lights, I would borrow some of Gemma’s. She used hypo-allergenic stage make-up, a really pricey one. As soon as my fingers touched the cream, they began to burn. I dropped the lid, looked under the table where it had rolled and saw the diary”

Even the kindlier Detective Wilson became annoyed when I confessed to ducking under the tape sealing her dressing room. “However, I think your allergic reaction is punishment enough,” he chuckled.  “You don’t have to worry. We tested the cream for poison and there is nothing wrong with it, although you evidently are allergic big time to some of  the chemicals producing its phosphorescent glow.”

Faced with the contents of Gemma’s diary and some photos they found stuffed even father back into the little hidey hole, Prof  confessed.

He finally admitted he’d told Gemma she would not be able to skip right off to Broadway. Her diary noted he had called her acting, “derivative.” She  wrote she threatened  him with exposure as a sexual predator and get him dismissal from the college drama department. He said he had made up with her on the day of dress rehearsal—pretended to—and then poisoned her with a post-coital orange soda while the rest of us were out of the building having lunch.

Detective Wilson later told me, “He thought he’d have time to put her in the trunk of his car, but when he heard the noise of someone returning early, (me) he stuffed her into the snack closet and dropped the orange soda can into the recycling bin behind the theatre.  He figured your wish to be the star would make you the prime suspect.”

The poison was cyanide. Not sure how Gemma had missed the taste, but then again,  local diet orange soda is awful……

I didn’t feel sorry for the Prof. He was a genuine predator and a terrible playwright. I remembered hearing him offer Sonja the lead in the next play. It was after Sonja refused him I was suddenly named as Gemma’s understudy—evidently as a warning to Gemma and Sonja he could make or break folks.  David confirmed the Prof as an equal opportunity predator since he had  also been a recipient of Prof’s romantic attentions.

After all that real-life drama, Alcalde U. cancelled the rest of the summer and gave us all a “Pass” credit for the work.  Susan and Sonja changed majors. David too. Austin, Preston, and I decided to stay on with theater. I am determined to get better at acting.

Besides, I learned the school is planning to do a production of the Scottish play (aka Macbeth to non-theater types) to open the fall semester season. I’m planning to audition for the role of Lady Macbeth. After all, my allergic reaction to Gemma’s stupid anti-glow cream gave me lots of sympathy for someone trying to wipe something off of one’s hands.

“Out damn spot”  became my very own mantra. And after all, in Macbeth, although bodies do litter the stage at the end, there is no call for bodies in the lobby snack bar.

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