QUITTER TAKES ALL
by Maggie Light
A review? In the Times? Impossible. It’s an Off-Off-Broadway. Two offs. And Beth is only sixteen. Yet Cedric Plum’s judgment, the judgment, is seven paragraphs and in her sunburned hands. But why now? Weeks after her opening? While she’s trapped in South Carolina?
So she should read this, right? This would be good, or why bother. Right?
But what does Mr. Plum mean by cute? By not unfolding? Oh. No. The thunderbolt from reading the words—an anathema on the stage—only shocks Beth for a split second. That’s because she faints. Fades into darkness atop the bright beach rental’s kitchen floor. Beth has never fainted before, and it’s a gradual ordeal. The Arts & Leisure section sails to the sandy lime vinyl faster than she does.
“Beth? We’re back,” her mother calls from somewhere. “Stop playing around, sweetie.”
Michael, her ensuing stepdad, who has an odd smell and who only speaks in cliché, has to step over her prostrate body to get the butter cream wedding cake in the fridge. Yesterday, for a full hour, Beth had done a deep breathing body scan, a very important relaxation technique, in the hallway of this beach house prison, so both mother and Michael assume this partially unconscious Beth is merely Beth releasing her actor’s tension.
“Up and at em,” Michael says.
She opens her eyes and everything’s cloudy, but she can make out the man’s chest hair, creeping out the collar of his blue T, like pubes. Why couldn’t this be his fault? Wasn’t it? His weird cuminy sausage smell. This urgent location wedding, ripping Beth from her title role for an entire weekend, thus leaving her precious part in the hands of Marian, that hussy understudy. Such stress had to have hindered Beth’s connection with the world of the play, her connection with the rest of the cast. That’s what Cedric the critic didn’t understand. Beth’s special circumstances.
“Hup to,” Michael says, faux demanding.
She can’t hup. This is certain.
“We got beach cruisers,” her mother says. “Beth? Baby? What’s wrong?”
“She’s acting. Act as if you want to be here,” Michael says, less faux. “Let’s hit the pavement. Might rain later. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
From the looks of it, neither has read the review now spread on the vinyl of this God forsaken lemon yellow house. And speaking of yellow, doesn’t Cedric Plum’s claim that Beth doesn’t use her senses classify as yellow journalism? And is this even legal? To slaughter a minor like this? And now what? Has she been fired? Have they called? What if she just drops her cell phone into one of those gullies? These thoughts come in screams as she peels herself off the floor, peels herself a banana, and scoops up so much peanut butter that Michael smirks as his scent (cilantro and bacon?) wafts over, hovers above the slices of white bread she’d vacantly lined up on the counter. She eats the sticky sandwich, the second, the seven Oreos.
This savory sweet gorging does such a fine job numbing her, plucking from memory her rooted sorrow. (That’s a line from her Macbeth monologue, the one she’d auditioned with. Why couldn’t Cedric Plum have critiqued that?).
She doesn’t even notice what color beach cruiser she sits on, just knows it has silver streamers and a basket for her Triscuits. She pedals. Belches. The chinstrap of her helmet impairs her crunching through this buttery, stiff wheat, crackers that cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff (more Macbeth; it comes to her unbidden). The breeze chaps her bloated cheeks, and now that the Triscuits are all gone, the shame of Cedric Plum’s second paragraph—the vanity of ignoring others—settles into her taut gut.
Meanwhile, it’s a five-speed and Beth can’t change gears so can’t cruise on these deceiving slopes, and the other players keep talking.
“Look, Beth. A frog!”
“Like a frog in a frying pan,” Michael says.
Beth slows down to make them diminish, but this only makes Plum’s “forgetting her responsibility as an actor” barb ring louder, ring truer. And this marshland. It smells like Michael.
“Come on, sweetie!” Beth’s mother calls through cupped hands.
Fine. She’ll pedal. She can do this. Keep on, keepin’ on. She’s a sparkling princess for fuckssake (paragraph three). Memories of bicycle journeys with her childhood friend, a fat girl who doesn’t even know what a headshot needs to look like, fortifies her. Yipee! Beth is scaring herself, hallucinating perhaps. This is what her Stanislavsky coach meant by not pouring cement on the scene. Only the ball of her foot on the pedal, only the infinite blank canvases amidst these South Carolinian colors that hurt her eyes. The battle cries of all her acting, singing, and dancing teachers, past and present, course through her pumping legs. Action verbs! The ego Chakra is orange! No indicating!
She sings and pedals and passes her mother. Oh yes. Macbeth is ripe for the shaking. Beth passes Michael, rings her goddamned bike bell, then turns to stick out her tongue at this oppressive pair, but Michael gains on her. Her mother gains on her. She’s out of breath and hears no more battle cries. Just the harsh words from that critic to pedal through. She slogs, slows, skids her feet on the grass, and kicks the kickstand down with her flip-flop. It’s over. She quits. An all encompassing quit. There’s a clap of thunder and pellets of rain to emphasize this, the end of Beth’s life.
Only, it doesn’t end. The flight back to New Jersey takes off as scheduled; coasts sans turbulence.
“So, what’s your game plan?” Michael has taken the middle seat as a courtesy.
He opens a pack of those shortbread cookies with the raspberry goo stamped in the center and they erupt all over his tray, the airplane carpet, Beth’s sneaker.
“You’re going to sulk? That it? Bad review. New weird stepdad. No turning the frown upside down?”
“Michael,” her mother says, pained but not looking away from the window of white air.
“You think that’s the way to play when your chips are down? You gotta roll with the punches.”
“What does that even mean? Roll?” Beth says. “If I’m punched, my jaw breaks. I can’t enunciate. Much less roll.”
Michael eats a cookie that had fallen on the ground. “You’re splitting hairs,” he says, yellow crumbs flying from his lips.
“I think that critic was on to something. You’re a closed book. A clam. You don’t look at us. Don’t speak to anyone. Not even that flight attendant when she asked if you wanted a snack pack.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
“You don’t think I’m right. You’re trying to get me to shut up.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
Before takeoff, Beth’s agent had called to break the news, that Marian the understudy would now be playing Beth’s role, but there was a Long Island theater doing The Miracle Worker that Beth would be perfect for. Blind, deaf, and dumb. Yes. A community theater, but Off-Off Broadway was dead. Real artists knew that. Or hey! Maybe it’s time to go back to your junior year. Let go of that tutor. Take a break from the stage.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right”
So Beth does. She takes the yellow bus, pours flammable liquids into beakers, gets a mild crush on a football player, Steve, and sits with him at the Water Tower to drink bittersweet beer.
“You don’t talk much,” Steve says, itching his large neck.
“Yeah. I know. You’re right.”
But then, between the mile-run for gym and photos for yearbook, Beth the girl without senses, Beth the quitter, Beth the anathema onstage, sees a sign. Not a metaphorical one, but an actual one: Auditions! Macbeth! Come, you Mortal Spirits, Tuesday, 4:00 pm.
It is Tuesday. It is 3:51.
“Life’s but a walking shadow,” she moans on opening night as she gambols through the agony of losing her wife (not enough had auditioned so there’d been gender switches, plus a need to draw from Special Ed to fill the smaller roles).
The shadows are stark across the front of her unfolding body as she reaches out for Seyton upright, ruddy and swaying on his special crutches.
“It is a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” comes out in one breath as she spirals downward, all five senses acute as she notes every last one of her fellow castmates.
The messenger approaches with the tidings that Birnam is on the move. She sees it. Hears it. Feels it. Yeah. That’s the stuff.
A review? They’d reviewed her? No. Wait. Stop. It’s a school play. A public school. This place had a paper? And who the hell is Trudy Higginbothin? A ninth grader? A ninth grader reviewed her Macbeth? Trudy’s judgment, the judgment, is in her pencil-callused hands. What does she mean by tense? Beth? Deep-breathing-body-scan-relaxed, Beth?
The quitting comes faster this time. By second period she’s already vowed to extract herself from life. “Yeah. I know. You’re right,” she says to Trudy. Who feels bad. Who had to turn in something for her photojournalism project. And has Beth met Mr. Firestein? He’s really serious.
“Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Michael says over a dinner of halibut and pilaf, the fish comingling with the musky spearmint emanating from his polo shirt.
“I think you were great, sweetie. Memorizing all those lines. Keeping up with Trig.”
“Yeah. I know. You’re right. May I be excused?”
“Fine. But remember what I said,” Michael says. “He who laughs last, laughs best.”
Out in the cold night, crunching the frozen grass beneath, she calls her line from Act I, Scene 4 up to the half moon—“Let not light see my black and deep desires!”
Because Beth’s problem is Macbeth’s problem. No. Worse. Macbeth wants to hide his desire to kill the king, but Beth doesn’t want to murder Cedric Plum and Trudy Higginbothin in the silence of night; she wants to murder them publicly. A hanging. That’s why Beth keeps quitting, because she knows too well her inner-Macbethness. Her ruthless ambition, greed, insatiable need for power, and her hatred for all those who don’t agree that she should rule the world. She has to quit. It’s for safety.
But She Stoops to Conquer opens in March, the weekend before Spring break, and Beth’s Kate Hardcastle is a more relaxed approach to the role. Plus, on opening night the curtain call goes awry. Actually the curtain itself goes awry, falls on top of Trudy Higginbothin’s head. An ambulance takes her away, so, surely, no review will be written. The critic is not only in the play, but her condition is unstable. Beth goes home, happy with her performance. Happy to know there will be no words in ink to say otherwise.
No. Wait. Stop. Alex Chung reviewed the play? He doesn’t even go to this school. And there was an accident. Why not report on Trudy’s head trauma? The faulty rope-pulley system? What about that? Or what if Beth just crumples this pale green Xerox of grainy photos and misspellings? Chucks it in the metal trash bin? There. Swoosh. That’s the sound of her tossing it, making the shot.
But Cindy Ho doesn’t toss the Jersey High Picayune in the trash. Cindy Ho reads it, asks Beth what she thinks of Chung’s jabs, that Beth is affected, floating on the surface. So Beth still sees Alex Chung’s limp body dangling before a crowd when she closes her eyes at the dinner table, still finds herself on the back lawn in the darkness, howling at the crescent moon for strength to really quit this time, to save herself, but not until she knows Uncle Vanya at the community theater in Long Island is a no-go.
Maggie Light teaches Composition and Theater at Otis College of Art & Design and Literature at Westwood College. She received her BA in Drama from the University of Virginia and her MFA in Creative Writing at Otis College. Her fiction will be published in an upcoming issue of Larva Lamp and she’s currently working on a novel about theater people forming a mild yet effective rebellion.
Image: “Muppet Theater” by Carterhawk, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons