Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review


Article excerpt

The emptiness of the stage surprises Sheila. One small bed in the center. One small mullioned window (no curtains) on the far left wall. One wooden door on the right. Other than that, nothing. No broad-shaded lamp to cast warm light over puffed-up pillows. No stuffed chair to cozy into. No carpet. No hearth for a fire. Just the wooden post bed, a small braided throw rug on the pine floor, and-Sheila notices only now-a man kneeling utterly still, his head bowed over a girl lying comatose on the bed.

Sheila counts the rows as she walks down the aisle. "Sit here," she says to Tom, five rows from the front. Where Julia won't be able see their faces. Won't be distracted, she assumes as she spreads her wool coat over the wooden seatback and settles herself to study the program. She feels the jitters in her hands. Tom leans over to slip a bouquet of chrysanthemums and irises under his seat. "Don't step on them," he says. Sheila nods, concealing her momentary wince. She could say something in response-How could I? Why would I?-but there's no point in discussing anything here. She stares at the open stage-so daring for a high school to keep the front curtain open-then focuses on her program. Julia's name appears in boldface near the top.

"I'll enter near the beginning," Julia has told them with utter calm, as if "enter" were a word she's used all her life. She's offered no other details about her role, only smiled coyly at her parents' questions. Sheila takes a deep breath. Since her youngest days, Julia has flashed that smile, not as invitation but as warning. As if she were born knowing secrets she would never tell. Only now, Sheila really wants to know: What does Julia know?

Sheila has little time to ponder, for the house lights go down and the stage lights come up as a black girl made to look like a middle-aged slave walks through the stage door, rousing the man to his feet. He chases her away, then comes back to the girl on the bed. Just as he lifts her limp hand and starts to murmur, Julia enters. She's wearing a long tan dress with a pointy white collar and a bodice that buttons down the front to where it meets the thick pleats of a full skirt. Her hair (she must have dyed it auburn this afternoon at a friend's) is pulled back so tightly in a braid, her forehead looks as arched and white as a temple dome. As she walks across the pine floor, her head held high, her shoulders back, her arms long and graceful, Sheila stares. Stunned. Does Julia look older-a premonition of the future-or younger-a picture of unblemished youth? Does she look more real or less real in that costume, her face all made up? All Sheila knows for certain is that the bodice of the dress, tight against the curve of her daughter's new full breasts and narrowed into a slender V at her waist, makes Julia look both more beautiful and more supple. Like a birch tree, Sheila thinks. Not the birches she's seen tonight in the school courtyard, bowed and covered with ice, their thin branches clattering and breaking in the wind. No, Julia's bones will never break like that, Sheila reassures herself, marveling as her daughter walks toward the bewitched girl on the bed and the man hovering.

"Uncle?" she says. Her voice hesitant and sweet at the same time. As if she were timid. As if Julia were ever timid. "Susanna Walcott's here from Doctor Griggs."

Sheila holds very still. To her ears, this is Julia's first line ever on stage. She enunciates perfectly. Her voice carries like the purest of bells. My daughter, Sheila thinks. Listen to her. Look at her.

But something's wrong. Julia's mouth is painted heavily red. Her lips protrude even more than in real life. As if someone were taking advantage. Mocking the one feature that has made Julia-and Sheila and Tom, though they don't talk about this-uncomfortable all their lives. Painted to excess, Julia's lips seem to pucker in a knot of petulance and daring. Don't cross me, they say. …

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