Thursday, October 4, 2007

Featured KY Author, Marian Silliman

Miss What?
Written by Marian Silliman
Performed on stage at Actors Theater on September 14th, 2007 for the Kentucky Girlhood Project.

It started with a smile. Her mother first noticed it and thought something must be done. From ear to ear, with teeth aligned, a thrust out chin and sheepish eyes, Amy smiled and her mother saw an opportunity. “Come here, Amy, I want to show you something.”
Amy ran from the kitchen still laughing at a joke after hanging up the phone when her mother’s eager voice stopped her. “Show me what?” she called from the other room.
“You need to come here to see it.”
“See what?” Amy said her back still to the door.
“You’ll have to see it for me to show it to you,” her mother said teasingly but with an exasperation that after another whiny what-for! she just got angry. “Come here this minute, young lady.”
Amy sighed. She could not stand being called ‘young lady,’ it sounded so old the way it dripped off her mother’s tongue. Then there was something else to it, as if she were responsible for something, as if there were expectations of her, when all Amy really thought of herself as a 13 year old kid without boobs and social studies homework due and a pimple that just changed places on her face.
Her mother waited, arms crossed, as Amy popped her head through the door. “What?” Amy said. She was going to have to do something about that attitude, she thought, but it might just work. “What do you want?”
“I want you to drop the attitude.” Her mother eyeballed her. “And look at this.”
Amy stepped cautiously in the room weary of her mother’s chastising attention and sudden appraising eye. Her mother slide a piece of paper across the table and said, “I think you should do it,” with an enthusiasm that made Amy decide not to before picking up the pamphlet to read, “Be the Belle of the Ball.”
“What is this?”
A picture of a smiling girl in a turquoise dress with off the shoulder ruffles, puffed up hair and a mask of make-up starred at her. Amy starred back. “What am I to do with this?” Amy looked in confusion at her mother whose way too eager plastered on smile was way too similar to the girl’s in the turquoise dress.
“Apply,” her mother said forcefully through the smile.
“To what?”
“To the Ms. Kentucky contest, silly. I know you can read.” She shook her head as if to say, Really!
Her mother had decided days ago that Amy would win, given how talented and pretty her daughter was— even though Amy couldn’t sing or play the piano or any instrument for that matter, and had only taken a year of ballet when young and couldn’t possibly form a dance routine from it, let alone remember which foot went where in a plait. Neither could she, though she tried, having once given herself a concussion, twirl about and throw batons, or whistle if anything a full tune. She was athletic and loved basketball, and was the best on the girls’ team at recess with kickball, and outran any of the boys in her class, but none of those things brought out her more feminine charms. She was well-spoken when not shy, but around even those people her family knew, she clammed-up. She helped her mother in the kitchen but since her mother couldn’t cook and hand no desire to learn, Amy didn’t know how either. She read well, quickly and with a passion for the story, but to watch someone on stage no matter how easy on the eyes go through a copy of Moby Dick, had to be anything but exciting.
And that was the thing, the girl was smart, wanted, needed to be smart, for her own reasons, if only to navigate safer waters, and though she was pretty having taken her mother’s features, there was nothing of an exhibitionist about her. She preferred being behind the curtains to standing center stage, though her mother knew well enough she wasn’t an audience.
“Well, what do you think?”
“What do you think I think?”
“I think you can win.”
“And I think it doesn’t matter.”
“But Amy people respond to you.”
“Yeah, when I ask them questions.” Amy had a hope of being witty when she was older. Her mother frowned.
“Come on, Amy, this is important.” The only response her mother got was the ticking of the coo-coo clock, the only response Amy thought necessary.
This was uncomfortable, like the time her friend dared her to ask her father what 69 meant and she had called up the stairs, Stacey laughing on the phone until she heard a gruff voice, “It’s a sexual term, don’t use it,” and hung up. Amy hoped that Stacey thought she was joking, home alone with no one to hear, but by the time she made it to school the next day, Stacey told everyone that she asked everyone obscene questions and didn’t know what 69 meant at her age and ‘of all the girls’ in the class. That was what hurt the most, whatever that ‘of all’ meant.
“Well I thought you’d be interested,” her mother said in disappointment and again Amy felt like she wasn’t let in on something, how to be, what to do, what she should want. Her mother having dismissed her for the dishes, Amy felt let down, or that she let her mother down which left her down. No matter the reason, Amy suddenly agreed. “Okay, mom, if you think—”
Her mother didn’t let her finish. In excitement, she clapped her hands and, giving her a quick hug, ran past her to the phone leaving Amy shell-shocked and feeling as if she had just sold her soul. Amy walked outside and sat down in a slump on the stoop. Her mother’s voice in her head— “You’re smile’s contagious, people respond to you.”— she thought for a brief moment her mother might be right. She smiled at her neighbor next door, a plastic glued on grin in mimic of the girl in the picture, but he just looked confused and after a quick look around went back to his gardening. She turned to the old lady walking down the street, her expression unchanged, but the woman grimaced and grumbled, “What are you up to?” before moving away as if her contagiousness was a deadly disease rather than a motivating happiness. This wasn’t working. Amy needed to prepare.
She had watched the Ms. America contest a few years back at her babysitter’s request and knew some sort of talent, speech and prancing about the stage was needed to win. The speech with her studious mind and persistent desire to learn that her classmates’ nicknamed ‘brown-nosing’ would be the easiest of the three and Amy set about brainstorming a good topic. While it seemed everyone had talked about saving the rain forests, plants and trees they have never seen in far off places most will never vacate, she thought of horses and their local value, their gleaming coats and wild eyes, gentile nah’s and bulging muscles, and decided that if she were to prepare a speech she would entitle it, “How Glue Is Not For You.”
Motivated, Amy went upstairs determined to prance. She put on her favorite black one piece a favorite since she was nine with three large strips across the middle: pink, purple and turquoise, and posed in the mirror, her belly round and protruding, her flat chest looking even flatter above the stomach. She knew she shouldn’t have eaten that cake with the extra whip cream after dinner gorging her face in front of the television screen, but she couldn’t watch television without eating, a family tradition of hers and her brother that started in the afternoon with four pieces of toast and a bowl of fruity pebbles to chips, popcorn and dessert at night since television watching was what their mother called what they did best and their only extracurricular activity. It did however nothing for her figure.
She hopped around her room in front of the mirror, belly shaking, until she decided to go to her dad’s tool shed for some duct tape. She had seen this on an after school special once, and sucking in her breath started wrapping duct tape tightly around her middle. She’d hope that the air in her chest would form breasts but realized that though puffed up she needed definition and went to the bathroom for some toilet paper. She stuffed the balled up paper on each side to form two distorted and squishy lumps that only looked right from the side.
This was sad. No matter how she smiled or posed, at whatever angle, Amy did not feel right and not just physically. She knew she’d used glue to make her look like a woman, a stupid one at that. She thought about speaking of the rain forest and the cutting down of trees for useless products when the toilet paper for breasts made her think otherwise.
She’d have to settle with her natural attributes, or lack thereof, and hope to out win the audience with talent, but as for the performance Amy had no clue. Nothing of her skill could be set on stage without causing physical injury. She had once played piano when she was little but all she could remember was Mary Had a Little Lamb and the first few notes of Clementine, nothing compared to the Bach and Beethoven the other girls had no doubt practiced to perfection. Her chorus teacher once told her that she had a fine voice, but with 80 years on her and no doubt a hearing aid, Amy wasn’t so sure.
Amy decided she’d put her singing to the test and asked a boy who worked check out at the local super market if she could sing there. Though he could not promise the intercom, there would definitely be a crowd and Amy set about singing at the front entrance. She sang in a high falsetto too uncomfortable for the ears a rendition of “On Eagle’s Wings,” until an elderly lady adjusting her ears and blinking through the noise, put her hand on her arm and asked, should she call for help, had someone tried to hurt her? to which Amy already crimson matched the bright red savings sign behind her. Her friend, after the manger came to see what the noise was about, acted as if he didn’t know her and asked as did the manager for her to leave the premises immediately. The long walk across the parking lot felt worse than dead man’s walking since Amy was to live another day now with this embarrassment and still without a talent to show.
Arriving home, blessed that no one had yet heard of her operatic catastrophe, Amy found a deck of cards and tried to shuffle like they did on TV. A card shark, that’s what she’d be, a regular Ace, but Amy was all thumbs. Her brother witnessing the misguided hand laughed out loud and asked if she was playing a solo game of 52 card pick up, followed by his favorite insult, “Retard.”
Amy gave up. She tried teaching the dog to jump through hoops, thinking if she didn’t have talent, the dog would, but every time tail wagging Snuffles ran around the side for the biscuit no matter how much she yelled or cooed or petted. Amy was in tears.
Unloved and useless, Amy paced her room gathering the courage to tell her mom she wouldn’t be able to win even if she tried. She was talentless, boobless and at this point, with no confidence and very little patience, speechless. Amy starred in the mirror hating what starred back in myopic what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it, and she knew, nothing could be done. She was who she was and she wasn’t Ms. Kentucky, but when Amy found her mother in the kitchen and muttered, um, about the contest, her mother gave her a quick pat on the arm and said not to worry, she’d do just great, her daughter she knew was second to none.
“But I have some unfortunate news,” her mother said wiping her hands on a dishcloth and kneeling down to Amy’s eye level. “Now, don’t get angry, but your mother made a mistake.” Amy starred. “I waited too long to tell you, and when I saw how eager you were, I just didn’t have the heart. We’re only human, right?” And Amy didn’t know what to say. “We missed the application deadline, honey, I’m sorry.”
Amy though mortified, heaved a huge sigh of relief. Her soul intact, she felt her spirits lifting.
“There’s always next year,” her mother said standing, giving her a wink, but Amy knew other wise. She glimpsed a knowing smile through her mother’s disappointed expression decideding not to question it. She did however decide having witnessed her mother’s fevered enthusiasm that one day she’d make her mother proud and that no matter what she’d find her talent and do a little prance.
Happy Birthday, Mom, I made it on stage.

Marian's Bio

Marian Sillman graduated from Boston College, phi beta kappa with an English Literature degree. A member of the New York Writer's Room, she has been hard at work on a novel and a series of short stories. Of her upcoming novel she says, "The plot runs a little like Jack Kerouac in an age with very little beat, more like loud clashes surrounded by some deafening silences, but definitely an on the road type. It has the feel of a memoir but is very much first person fiction, set in the present with memories interrupting and juxtaposing time frames and context." Marian currently resides in New York City.

1 comment:

Essye Klempner said...

This is a great story. I can just feel the girl's anxiety and humor.