Authors: Barbara Suter
a novel by
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
In Memory of
“They carried the sleeping girl to a
pretty spot beside the river,
far enough from the poppy field
to prevent her breathing any more
of the poison of the flowers . . .”
âL. Frank Baum, T
The phone rings once, twice. I open my eyes. Morning sun slaps me full in the face. Damn. I pull the sheet over my head and the answering machine picks up.
“Hi, honey,” a familiar voice says, “we're on the corner at Broadway and Ninety-sixth, waiting for you. Hope you're on the way.” I sit up and squint at the clock. My left eye twitches and my head begins to throb. Shit. The voice belongs to Dee-Honey Vanderbilt. She produces the Little Britches Children's Theater. She's over eighty years old and although no one knows for sure, rumor has it she served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War.
“Maggie, dear, are you there?”
I reach for the phone.
“Hi, Dee, what's up?” I say.
“We're waiting for you. We have a
in Connecticut. Did you forget? I'm sure you confirmed with me.”
“Oh no, what time is it?” I ask.
“It's eight o'clock. We're waiting for you.”
“Uh, I was sick. I was going to call youâfood poisoningâhad some bad tuna,” I say, lying neatly through my teeth. Truth is I
had totally (and perhaps wishfully) forgotten I am supposed to play Dorothy this morning.
“Do you think you can be here in ten minutes? We want to miss the traffic.”
“I don't know, Dee. My stomach is still queasy.”
“We'll get you some Pepto-Bismol. Fix you right up. The kids love you as Dorothy, Mags honey, and we can't disappoint them. We'll drive down to Eighty-seventh. Meet you right on your corner.” Then she hangs up. Damn and double damn. My cat, Bixby, peers up from his nest at the foot of the bed. He gives me a knowing look.
I definitely need coffee. As I throw my feet over the side of the bed I hear someone in the bathroom and then a flush. My God. Someone has broken into my apartment and is using the toilet! Seconds later a tall handsome young man walks into my bedroom.
“Mornin', Maggie Mae,” the handsome young man says with a grin.
My head starts to pound louder than the tympani section in the second act of
âthe result of shock smacking butt up against big hangover. I force a smile because by now I'm pretty sure he's not a burglar. Mr. Handsome is barefoot, bare-chested, and holding a pair of Nikes. He sits on the side of the bed and puts on the left shoe then the right. He finds his shirt in a pile of clothes in the center of the floor; I can't help but notice my black lace Victoria's Secret push-up bra in the mix. I pull the bedsheet up to my chin and keep smiling and try to quickly reconstruct the night before. I went to the Angry Squire Bar on Twenty-sixth Street and started off slow with a couple of beers. Then someone played Janis Joplin's “Get It While You Can” on the jukebox, and
I switched to scotch. Apparently I got Mr. Handsome and he got me. Thanks, Janis.
“Mornin' to you too,” I say trying to remember his name, but nothing comes to mind. Then, remembering Dee, I say, “I've got to play Dorothy in
The Wizard of Oz
today. I forgot all about it.”
“Is that the dog?” he asks, pulling on his shirt
“The dog? No. The dog is Toto. Dorothy is the girl. You know, Judy Garland in the movie?”
“I've never seen it.”
“Never seen it?” I ask incredulously. “You've never seen
The Wizard of Oz
? I can't believe there is a person left on the face of the earth that hasn't seen
The Wizard of Oz
“Well,” he grins, “you're looking at him.”
“Where are you from, Mars?” I ask.
“No,” he says, buttoning his shirt, “Queens.”
“Oh,” I say, still smiling.
“Look, I've got to run,” Mr. Handsome says. “I have an appointment downtown. It was great meeting you.” He leans in and nuzzles my neck.
“You too.” I nuzzle him back.
“I'll call you,” he says over his shoulder as he makes his exit.
“Sure,” I say. And he is goneâout the front door and gone. What was that? I wonder. I shake my head a few times to make sure I'm awake and not dreaming.
The phone rings. It's Dee.
“How's it going? We got the Pepto-Bismol.”
“I'm on my way. Can someone get me a coffee at the deli?”
“Okay, but hurry, honey, we're running late and traffic on the Major Deegan is going to be awful this morning. It's already backed up.”
“This is a nightmare, Bix,” I say to the cat, going to the kitchen and putting out his food. “I hate playing Dorothy. That damn pinafore is too small, the zipper is broken, and gingham makes me look fat.” Bixby rubs my leg. He doesn't care if I look fat; he doesn't care about anything as long as I feed him. I get my backpack, throw in my makeup and my pigtail wig, and shift into high must-get-to-Oz mode.
I emerge from my apartment building to find Dee and the cast waiting on the corner at the end of the block. Randall Kent is leaning against the van, holding a large coffee. He's been out of town for the past few months doing Henry Higgins in
My Fair Lady
at Virginia Stage. He works constantly. He's what they call, in the biz, a triple threat. He sings, he dances, and he acts, all with considerable relish and plenty of ham. His motto: More is better. I met him at a small theater in Wisconsin. I was an apprentice and he was the leading man in every show that summer, including playing Tevye in
Fiddler on the Roof
and Don Quixote in
Man of La Mancha
. I called him Mr. Kent, and when I moved to New York, he got me a job with Dee-Honey. That was almost twenty years ago.
“Mags, my dear,” Randall declares in his booming actor voice, “how are you?”
“All right,” I say. “Good to see you.”
Randall hands me the coffee. “For the little princess, from your loyal servant,” he says with a bow.
“Thanks, I'll remember this when your clemency hearing comes up,” I say.
Dee-Honey sticks her head out the window of the van. “Let's get going. The radio says the traffic's getting heavy.”
“And mornin' to you, Dee,” I say, taking my first sip of coffee. The caffeine immediately shoots through my system, and the majority of my molecules snap to attention. The rest turn over and go back to sleep.
“And how was the show?” I ask Randall as we climb into the van and get settled.
“Well the show was fabulous,” Randall says. “I was telling Dee that the girl playing Eliza was wonderful. She's just out of Juilliard. A lovely voice but needed help with the humor. You've got to find it or it's dullâdull, dull, and duller. And Dylan Ross was playing Pickering. Do you know him, Mags?”
“Doesn't ring a bell.” I'm sitting in the backseat next to Pauline Letts, who plays Glenda, the Good Witch of the North, in our little production and also doubles as Auntie Em. She's seventy-three, originally from Georgia, and has been playing the Good Witch for the better part of forty years.
“Pauline, didn't you work with him? At Utah Shakespeare?” Randall asks.
“Oh, yes, he was Polonius when I did Gertrude. Does he still have those nasty dogs? What were they, schnauzers? They were awful. They used to pee in my wig box.”
“Maggie, honey, how are you feeling?” Dee chirps from the driver's seat.
“Better, I think,” I say.
“What's the matter, Maggie? Late night, dear?” Eddie Houser asks from the far backseat. He plays the flying monkey and doubles as the munchkin. Eddie, now sixty-five, started with the company when his hair was black and his teeth were mostly his own. He is drinking coffee spiked with bourbon out of his Superman thermos.
We all know there is bourbon in the thermos. Dee-Honey doesn't say anything, she just doesn't let him drive anymore.
“Careful when you're spinning on that cellar door. That could really make the old tummy flip,” he says with a nasty chuckle.
“Thank goodness you were able to make it, Maggie,” Dee says. “I might have had to put a wig on Frank and sent him on.”
To Dee, the phrase “the show must go on” isn't just a catchy saying, it's the eleventh commandment, carved in stone and delivered down from the Austrian Alps in
The Sound of Music
by Thespis, the Greek father of actors. Last month I saw her squeeze into the crocodile costume for Peter Pan and crawl on all fours across the stage because Scott Lovelady came down with the flu.
“Anyone have some aspirin?” I ask.
Randall rummages through his bag and hands me an economy size bottle of Tylenol.
“And here's the Pepto-Bismol,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say, popping two pills and swigging some Bismol.
Dee-Honey does a head count. All the players are present and accounted for, so off we go. I tell myself it's not going to be so bad. The only thing I have to remember as Dorothy is to hang on to the dog and try to get home.
We arrive at the theater ten minutes before curtain. I find Dorothy's costume; white puffy-sleeved blouse, the dreaded blue gingham pinafore, and a white crinoline. I start to squeeze in. The costume is too small and the zipper is still broken from last time I did the part. Pauline is right by my side with a box of safety pins.
NOTE TO SELF
. . .
If the costume doesn't fit, suck in your stomach and don't turn sideways.
“Pull that tummy in, Mags,” she says,
coaxing the sides together with the help of the pins. The blouse fits, but the pinafore is hopeless.
“Don't turn sideways and you'll be fine,” Pauline says as she scurries off, muttering something about false eyelashes. My head pounds in spite of the aspirin, and now random light flickers on the periphery of my vision. I ask Randall about it.
“I don't know,” he says, “sounds like the onset of a heart attack or possibly a stroke.”
Frank, our trusty stage manager who almost had to double as Dorothy, calls five minutes.
“Feeling all right, Mags?” he asks.
“A little better, and lucky for you I do. Dee said she would have put a wig on you and made you play Dorothy,” I say.
“And she would have. Forget that I'm sixty and have a mustache,” he says. “Come on, let's do the door thing and make sure it's working.”
I follow Frank backstage and we practice spinning the mechanical cellar door, with Frank pulling the cord that turns the wheel and me perched on top. Frank moans and the door turns slightly and Frank moans again.
“Save your energy for the show,” I say.
“Sorry, Mags, but have you put on a few pounds?”
“Frank, we've all put on a few pounds.”
“Yeah but it's only you I have to spin,” Frank grumbles as he totters off to set the rest of the props.
“I heard that,” I say.
“Let's do this,” Frank announces. “Those kids are getting restless. Places, everybody.” The cast assembles in the wings. I find the stuffed dog that plays Toto and stand stage right. The music starts and Randall squeezes my arm.
“Break a leg, kid,” he whispers.
The curtain opens. I run onstage clutching the little dog and say, “Oh Toto, Toto, what are we going to do?”
I hear a tiny voice in the first row say, “Mommy, I thought Dorothy was a little girl, not a big lady.”
I glare out into the audience. Silence. Followed by more silence. I can't remember the next line. Frank whispers something from the wings but I can't understand him.
Then Dee-Honey comes onstage as Miss Gulch. I squeal and run upstage and hide behind the curtain. Lights flash and Frank makes tornado sounds in the offstage microphone. Randall and Eddie chime in with cow moos and chicken clucks. Pauline darts across stage yelling, “Get those animals in the barn. There's a twister coming.” The lights continue to flash. Pauline disappears stage left and the cellar door is pushed on down right.
“Oh Toto, oh Toto,” I cry and then climb on the cellar door. Frank pulls the rope. It doesn't budge. “Oh Toto, oh Toto,” I cry again. I shake the dog up and down and circle my head as if lashed by the wind. Frank groans as he tries the rope again. I reach over and brace my hands on the floor and try to propel myself around.