We converge in the auditorium. Circle on the scarred stage. It smells of paint and its slippery cousin turpentine, also, of forgotten oranges and pancake make-up. Mostly it smells of dust trapped in the old velvet curtain, shaking free in swirls with every dress rehearsal, opening night, and curtain call.
The theater is infested with mice. The janitor has installed little black boxes that emit a squeaking noise meant to hurt the mice, scare them away. The squeak is supposed to be too high-pitched for human ears, but some of us hear it anyway, tinny and relentless. If we ever saw a mouse, we’d hide him in one of our pockets, name him after an ex-president, speak for him in a miniature voice, wear him out, and bury him in the soft mud behind the props’ entrance, singing and speechifying at his grand funeral.
We circle up for vocalizing. The nice, neat night nurse needs new nylons. What a to-do to die today at a minute or two to two. Toyboattoyboattoyboat. We lie on the floor and visualize light flowing into our limbs, smoke flowing out. We link up in massage circles. We pretend to be a lion, mouth gaping, and a mouse, face scrunched. We are a train, a waitress, a love machine. We release our inhibitions. Blurt on command. Primal scream.
The drama teacher is a wretched woman, portly and divine, square cheeks sagging like those of a rhinoceros. She drapes herself in fringed pashminas and bobs her hair. We call her Mrs. Robinson and always imitate her with an imaginary cigarette holder balanced between our fingers—Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
Mrs. Robinson has discovered that her job, like those of ward nurses and traffic cops, gives her a small but satisfying amount of power over the helpless. She will manipulate us, one against the other. It is her own personal drama, one in which she plays writer, director, and audience member shifting in anticipation. And if we protest? If we tattle? We are only teenagers, and not even teenagers of the toothpaste commercial variety. Already, we’re in a wary truce with the adults of our world who consider us maudlin and pumped full of hormones. Believe us, we would not be believed.
Mrs. Robinson lets it slip that one of the girls got an abortion last year. She drops heavy hints about the homosexuality of a couple of the boys. She basks in the resulting uproar, like the lazy alligator in a children’s story, one watchful, yellow eye ever upon us. We unite against her, this villain more interesting than the lug nuts on the football team or the baby dolls in the homecoming court.
Our battle rages through the months. We can fight her, but we can never defeat her, for she is not only our villain but also our protectress. She casts the plays, prints the programs, and reports to the school board with reimbursement requests for cans of paint, stacks of plywood, and lengths of brocade. She holds down our world, the formidable thumbtack at its center. If she were not here with us every day after school, our parents would think we were just fucking around.
And we are fucking around. We smoke pot during the intermission of the spring musical, sneaking away from the milling audience, returning to our marks dizzy-headed, velvet-happy. We get sick on vodka, can’t touch it after that. We give and receive blowjobs in the narrow costume room on piles of forgotten white frocks, which had been carefully stitched for the teeming, yodeling daughters in The Pirates of Penzance. We gossip about it afterwards. She did what with who? Everyone is doing something with someone.
And when we have nothing to do, we still stay out all night, swinging on the twisty gates of our old elementary school playground, the air thick with tangled lilacs and the weight of a predicted storm. We play screw, marry, throw off a cliff. We catch fireflies. The boy who was cast as the Pirate King tears off the bugs’ lit bottoms, pressing them to his earlobes where they continue to glow. This cruelty makes one of the girls cry and the other girls scold him with words fit for our plays—ruffian, brute, scoundrel. Then, the cops come to shoo us away. We sneak back an hour later, irresistibly drawn to the site where a decade ago we ripped the crusts from peanut butter sandwiches, callused our hands on the monkey bars, and squished ants into a sticky black paste.
The girl who is rumored to have had the abortion is brash with hair like a brushfire; she plays character roles—a zany cowgirl, a gangster’s moll. We search her face for hints (the suck of the vacuum, the scrape of the knife), but her eyes are shuttered, her laugh like the call of a fat crow hiding shinies in its nest. She can’t act, but it doesn’t matter. All we need is for her to march out across the stage, that cackle hiding what we suspect she has lost. The girls have been educated about this loss by their older sisters who know: The doctor inserts the tip of the vacuum and then there’s pressure and a suck of air that’s sometimes interrupted by a clogging sound. The girls don’t tell us about the clogging sound, but we can see the relief spread on their faces when the brushfire girl’s clunky Bronx accent makes the audience laugh. It’s reassuring that they didn’t suck out her laugh.
One of the boys, our golden boy who plays all the leads, has been having sex with another boy, a tiny-boned techie, in the crawlspace of his tree house. Above the ceiling, below the roof, the crawlspace is not childproof; uncovered nail-points jut inches away from his swaying back, so he must fuck tentatively, fearfully. The techie’s father is a psychologist, trained to notice. He grows suspicious of the frequent sleepovers and has an awkward but stern talk with his son about this unusual friendship. The next day, the techie answers the golden boy’s knock with his father’s shotgun in his hands. The techie chases him through the backyard, stopping at the curb as the golden boy jerks open his car door and speeds away. We tell the golden boy that it was a bluff. The techie doesn’t know how to use a gun, we tell him. The safety must have been on. We watch him flinch at the word “safety.”
We have two suicide attempts. One from the girl who played the bag lady in Little Shop of Horrors, her voice a deep, rich gulch. She swallows a bottle of her mother’s Percodan. Gets saved. Everyone says she only did it to get attention. Yet, we are quieted by her voice, her voice like wind through the trees, like wind through the trees after the leaves have fallen.
The other is the boy we call the beast, his face a tragedy of oversized bones. The girls accuse him of trying to feel them up during the lifts in the dance numbers. Really, it’s a lie. He is gentle, like that beast in the fairytale. It’s just that he holds their waists too tentatively and their dresses are made of such synthetic fabric. When he tries to lift them, they slip through his fingers like water. He has a room above his parents’ garage, raises stray kittens there. He drapes their fuzzed middles over his shoulder and lets them mew in the crook of his neck. The rope breaks when he tries it.
The beast has enough rope left to retie the knot. His mother finds him the next morning, the kittens batting at his shoelaces. We attend the funeral en masse, deciding to dress in purple instead of black, because one of the chorus girls tells us that purple was his favorite color. Are they in a cult? we hear his aunt whisper to her neighbor.
Halfway through the service, a woman up front begins keening like one of the birds that circle above the railroad tracks. The sound is absurd. Next to me, the brash girl begins to giggle, tries to stifle it in her indigo sleeve, can’t. People are turning in their seats, so, mid-laugh, she does something with her throat and changes the laughter into sobs. She peeks at me slyly between her fingers to see if I’ve noticed that she is not truly crying. She says, This is real.
Mrs. Robinson organizes a tribute in the beast’s honor—a Sondheim ballad to be sung directly after each performance of the spring musical. She strides center stage, cheeks sagging with woe, and reads from a note card—great tragedy, brilliant talent, unrecoverable loss. Each night the same note card, the same speech, and we can’t be certain that she is sincere. Some kids say that you can see on the card where the ink has been smudged by her tears. Maybe we have misjudged her, then. She used to be nothing but the make-up lady, dabbing on base, while men were the directors. Tonight, we might believe that she waited them out, retirement after retirement, just to be here with us. We gather behind her, trussed in our costumes, and when she nods to us, we sing.
And me. I squint, trying to glimpse the people in the audience, wondering what expressions their faces will have. But the stage lights shine in my eyes, and all I can see is row after row of shifting silhouettes. A great crescendo, and we finish the song. The girl next to me is crying in tiny, choked sobs. The boy on my other side grabs my hand and squeezes it painfully. The greasepaint is stiff on my face. The audience applauds. Then, they close the curtain and sweep us all away.
Katie Williams earned her MFA at the University of Texas in Austin under a Michener Fellowship. Her short stories have appeared in such journals as Subtropics, Prairie Schooner, and Indiana Review. She currently teaches writing at Academy of Art University in San Francisco. (8/2007)