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How Would Shakespeare Choose?

Having been out of work for over a year now I was becoming a little frantic. I had done everything I had been advised to do by all of the organizations out there attempting to help stem the joblessness in our economy. I had joined self-help groups, resume writing seminars, you name it. No one was hiring a city planner right now, or in the near future. The ones with jobs were not leaving unless they had a job in hand. The ones without were in the same boat as I.

It seemed to be a true blessing when I found a letter in my mailbox from a headhunting company. It was a firm offer to come to a town in the middle of the state of Kansas and fill the position of city planner. It seems the town had been established by a man of great means to house his own labor force, and all the people needed to give them the services they needed. I had never heard of such a thing.

Oh, I had heard of company towns, but they had gone out decades ago. This was an oddity indeed. A whole town founded by one ultra-millionaire just to produce his products and keep his labor force happy and well taken care of. I jumped at the offer. It was for all expenses in the town, including a free place to live, and all the other necessaries one would need to live happily. There was an extra stipend of several thousand dollars that one could just bank if one wished.

The next odd thing I discovered was that the only way into the town was on the train. It made two stops per day just for the folks in this town. It picked up the products being manufactured, and dropped off materials needed for the work done in the town's only factory. It also dropped off new arrivals to the growing population. I was one of them on a bright morning in June.

As I dismounted from the train, with the help of a porter, I noted up on a hill above the town what appeared to be an open air theater. It must be used to put on plays during the warmer days of spring and summer. I was greeted by a gentleman in a summer suit and a somber manner. He shook my hand with his left hand. His right hand had been lost somehow. He introduced himself as John Jennings, and I reminded him of my name, Bill High. I didn't find it too strange that he was one-handed. In farm country you see many with such losses.

He was gracious enough to take me to my hotel in the little electric car that seemed to represent the transportation means in the town. They were supplemented by a trolley system running on the major surface roads. While we slowly passed through town I noted several more handicapped persons on the streets. Some were limping and using canes, others had full head coverings, or carried themselves as if they had lost parts of their bodies. It was strange, but perhaps the owner, Mr. Kocker, had hired people with handicaps as a philanthropic gesture.

As we were driving he pointed out the main features of the town. It had, in addition to the open-air theater, a downtown Opera House. It was very retro. I liked it. I liked the whole town and was eager to begin my duties. Apparently I would be helping in the expansion of the town now that it had been established. John told me that I would not be starting work until I had seen several plays put on by the townsfolk.

This was another strange thing. What in the world did plays have to do with my work or this town itself? But, when I questioned John he waved it off, with his one hand, as an eccentricity of Mr. Kocker. It seems that the owner and patron was a great lover of Shakespeare, and all the townsfolk were required to see a certain number of plays each month or lose their jobs.

It was my duty to begin my life in the town by seeing some of Mr. Kocker's favorite plays. At the end of the week I would have completed that rite of passage, so to speak, and would begin my duties as the new city planner. So, it was a given. I had to do what I was told if I did not wish to get back on the evening train and leave the town for good. That was simply not an option. I needed this job too much.

John left me at the hotel where I would be staying until a real house was ready for me. Not a problem, of course. The desk clerk limped up to the counter and checked me in. He did not smile. The porter who carried my luggage up to my room also had a limp. He was using both hands to carry my baggage. He refused a tip. He did not smile either.

I had been informed that I could eat at any restaurant in town for free. Just give my room number at the one hotel. So I went out to lunch, and passed so many limping folks, or people just walking oddly, or with unusual postures. I arrived at a restaurant I had seen coming in and was seated immediately by an unsmiling waitress. As I sat she leaned forward to place the menu and I could not help but see that one breast was missing. Not too odd. Women did have breast cancer. She refused my tip at the end of the meal without a smile.

Later, in my room at the hotel, I took stock. I had seen so many with disabilities or seeming deformities. Of course, not all had apparent bodily problems. But I could only guess what their clothing was hiding. I was beginning to think this man, Mr. Kocker, was a grand man. He seemed to have hired most of the disabled persons in Kansas. I wondered what that meant for me. I was perfectly healthy. I must be one of the exceptions.

Anyway, I started my week of Shakespeare with Macbeth. I did not know if that was a good or bad sign. It was a bad luck play. The actor's didn't even name it. They called it the Scottish play. It was played in the open-air theater. We had perfect weather all week and all plays were put on there. It seemed all the actors had some form of physical disability. Another instance of Mr. Kocker's goodwill?

We got a new play each night. After Macbeth, was a historical play, Henry V. Then another tragedy, Hamlet. It was followed by The Merry Wives of Windsor, then Coriolanus, and Romeo and Juliet. The last, I found from asking at the front desk would be The Merchant of Venice. Odd. Mr. Kocker was indeed a merchant of sorts. Perhaps this referred to him somehow. The merchant in the play was named Antonio, but many mistook Shylock for the merchant. Not true of course. However he was the most memorable character.

During the last play I could see many in the audience glancing surreptitiously at me. Some whispered behind their hands, if they had one. The play came to the famous scene where Shylock demanded his "pound of flesh" in payment for the money he had lent out. At this point the players all stopped their performances. They turned as one to gaze at me.

Onto the stage came a tall, thin man of around 60. He introduced himself as Mr. Kocker and asked if his new city planner, Mr. High, would please come up on the stage to be introduced. The crowd rose. They took hold of me with whatever appendages they still had and, with enthusiasm, escorted me to the stage steps. I was dragged up to center stage.

I glanced into the wings. The man who had played Shylock was approaching. He held in his hand a butcher knife and a surgeon's saw. I was almost in shock. I could not perceive what was occurring. But I was frightened out of my skull.

"Now, sir. It will be your choice. Please choose wisely. I must have my pound of flesh."

Thus spoke Mr. Kocker, and I realized, finally, what was happening. Oh god, I thought to myself.

"Mr. Kocker, sir, can I not just refuse this job. Please, let it pass me by. I will leave tomorrow."

"Oh no, sir. It is either the pound of flesh or death. Now choose, sir!"

What do you suppose I chose?

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