April 17, 2019KR OnlineFiction

Saints and Poets and Everyone Else

When I was a child, I had a bad influence—and she once goaded me to hang back after choir for a “secret feast.” In candlelight we palmed the sanctified like Neccos, slurped watery wine. Our titters echoed in the nave. When we were children and practically sisters, I always felt like I knew what my influence was going to say right before she said it, but this night I was wrong. “So fly,” she sighed, smacking purple lips in the direction of His loincloth. “I’m definitely, definitely putting J. C. in the spank bank.” We were twelve.

The bad influence turned twenty-six in a tomb, and I left that town. What I mean to say is: Paige married young, and I took off for a coast and acting lessons. For plenty of us, church is about learning what not to worship.

• •

We are twenty-two through thirty-eight, but each unbearably bright-eyed—everyone, just everyone, is grateful for the gig. I got tired of California. I seemed to be late wherever I went there. We’d auditioned and auditioned and now it was our magnanimous task to belt the gospel of America’s best-loved bible rock musical in thirty-nine of our fifty great states, c/o ye olde North American nonequity tour, hoo-ra! Kelly Kaluta (Featured Ensemble) has just been released from a nine-month contract on a Carnival cruise, where it’d been her job to polish the silver buffet trays in the morning before smudged, pasty children would come to swarm over flaccid sticks of French toast. It had also been her job to die each night. “Like anybody wants to see Romeo and Juliet on the high sea,” she tells us, during a getting-to-know you game of Zip Zap Zop. Kelly Kaluta will become our honorary Madam. She has really lived and has furtive tribal tattoos and an e-cigarette to show for it. No surprise then that she is the best leper in the chorus, somehow more convincing in her painted wounds.

• •

We don’t meet our Jesus until the first show, because he sends his understudy to rehearsals. Even then, he doesn’t speak a word to anyone until he’s onstage, weeping over Lazarus at the act break. When our Jesus doesn’t even acknowledge the disciples during curtain call, I press the handy authority.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know!” Kelly Kaluta crows, scratching at her fictional lesions. “Well, here is the rumor, in its entirety: our Jesus is called Lesley. He auditioned, in character, in 1982, and hasn’t worn jeans since. Went from Broadway to national tour back to Broadway and is now biding his time with us EMC losers. Answers only to ‘Jehovah,’ drinks nothing but red.” I believe her to be joking, so I roll my eyes.

But if she’s joking, so then is the innkeeper, King Herod, and all four gospels. He’s been examined by all the pertinent experts, they tell me, choral with conviction, but doctors just point to the assorted Marlon Brando biographies in his satchel. “It’s the Method,” explains Piedpont, our director. “It’s ego,” says Kelly Kaluta. “It’s a long, long con,” says Natalya Morales, who is our Mary Magdalene. Natalya knows him the best, yet their lips don’t quite touch during the show-stopping ballad. She tells me later that this is, in fact, a choice, made to render our evening more (her words) “historically accurate.”

 

On the third day, our tour bus breaks down. The natives grow restless as the coach fills with steam, and Kelly Kaluta holds court, spinning theories, planting naughty seeds. “Yo Jesus,” she yells, after a while of baking, “how about a little divine intervention, huh?” The disciples roll their eyes, but Natalya turns in the front seat and cuts the whole cast a face. “Be careful what you wish for” is its no uncertain subtext.

This is when Lesley, our Jesus, shifts into the aisle. The toga he wears instead of jeans swings low on his frame, like, I suppose, a sweet chariot. He takes a moment to survey his audience, and his eyes find me—he even makes a point to lower his aviators an inch or so to gather my gaze, which he holds. There is something stirring about this. It takes me a while to exhale.

“You all know the book of Job?” He finally asks the bus, in a baritone that could carry Othello. So quiet we must crane to hear him. “No? All right, well, let’s see here.” He peels off his glasses. “Once upon a time . . .”

Triple A is come and gone by the time Lesley has finished his version of the book of Job, in which Job is just a “dude,” and God is a “pretty cheeky bastard.” I spend his monologue seeking out faces to roll my eyes with, like how ridiculous!, but no one bites, not even our honorary Madam. The whole company just sits there, appearing rapt and sincere. We let him speak over breaths, more breaths, precious breaths! People actually clap when he’s done. “Now that’s an actor,” says one newb leper to another. “That’s a star.”

When we finally reach Vegas, I run-don’t-walk to the nearest drugstore and scribble this whole affair to my influence via postcard, sparing no detail or kindness. “It just kept happening,” I write, bubbling over in the stationery aisle, “I tell you, P: there is just nothing worse than old white men waxing po-dumbical with no one around to stop them.” Dot the i’s, cross the t’s. Standing over the one brazen mailbox I find on the strip it occurs to me to fill that last little block of white space: “Love you muchly, by the way. How are things? Miss you so!” As soon as the thing clangs shut, I feel deflated. I stand there alone in the brightest of deserts, sweating in long pants.

• •

Once, they tried to fire him. Just once, as far as we know. Kelly Kaluta tells this story in the heartland, too loud for a hotel’s lobby. “And who can blame them?” she asks the sky.  “Christ died at thirty-three, plus a hundred Cincinnati boys would do this gig for pennies? It’s absurd. He actually told them they’d never work in this town again, can you imagine? Six producers.”

And I do, I imagine, I conjure our Jesus. Owning the smug side of a long table, his contract spread out like a map before the believers. I picture his chutzpah, leaning against a rehearsal block, all casual, gnawing on his beloved beef jerky despite the fact that we’re expressly forbidden to eat in costume. I picture the light—sepia, smoky, sneaking through that gray hank, and landing in their eyes like a sign. They could have seen it, even over aviator sunglasses. What the Village Voice once called “presence.” Man of whom a leper once said, “That’s a star.”

“You know me, I don’t mince words,” says Kelly. “I say: crucify the bastard.” She laughs at her own dumb joke before looking around to see if Lesley’s in earshot. I look, too, but he is not.

• •

A review arrives, from home state: “Cannot recommend this Piedpont Players’ revival to a discerning culture vulture. The casting of role-originator Lesley Dresher as Jesus Christ is a travesty, emblematic of all that’s wrong with American theater today. Dresher’s bombastic turn as the savior is improbable as well as creepy. His bug eyes summon Ray Liotta after a rough night, and his grizzly mane makes every possible attempt to escape a bad wig.”

“Well, fuck Denver! :-)” the influence has scrawled, on the back of this clipping she’s taken such pains to mail to the top-rated La Quinta in Salt Lake City. “No one reads these dumb reviews anyhoo. Tee-hee. PS, next time you’re being a thesbian in my neck of the woods, stop by like a person, mmk? A certain domestic goddess will make you streudel.”

I ball up this letter.

• •

At the bad influence’s wedding to the handsome father of a former friend of ours, we’d been in a Denver tabernacle—the Sacred Heart of Mary. I’d stood with her brothers, in the same dress I’d worn three weeks earlier at our high-school graduation. Paige’s affair had been our gravity for a time; rumors of her held my high school’s days together. “Is she in a family way, or something?” my mother demanded, over and over. I darted my eyes like I was in on some secret, but the truth was I had no idea what her question referred to until years later, long after we’d gotten our answer.

My mother tutted about the wedding but did not use the opportunity to lecture me about my own liaisons with prospective gentlemen callers. The bad influence had crossed some invisible line with such nutty nuptials, and her locating the ceiling of bad girl-ness released the rest of us knock-kneed choristers from the obligation to rebel. We quiet, impressionable Colorado babes, with our French braids, our skiing boots. The whole choir watched her fanning herself with white gloves in an icy temple and decided—now that she truly had it, none of us actually wanted what she had.

And over ice cream sodas, months before I first flew to the coast (for acting lessons), Paige compared her sheer will to the weather. And this made Mr. Turlington, father of Stacy, the crops. He was quivering cornstalks, powerless to resist her great wind, her snow. “You of all people should get it, Bee. It’s Romeo and Juliet,” she told me, appearing rapt and sincere. “He fills me with purpose.” I’d played with my straw and thought that the things she was saying were beginning to feel predictable again, as they’d been when we were very little girls. It had thrilled me that she was going to become dull like my mother, a maker of babies and jams.

• •

I should have said earlier: none of us believe. It’s not even the point of the play, really, I mean, half the disciples do cocaine with townies, or are Jewish, or are Baha’i. My mother only ever wanted me in the choir so I would “learn some respect and stay outta trouble.” Still, when I call Mama Bear and tell her I’ve been selected to swing for Mary, her voice tips over the cliff of tears. “The music is just so beautiful,” she sobs. “The foot-washing scene. Or the fish! I can’t wait. I just can’t wait.” I smile in a direction I fancy West, but can think of nothing else to say. “Did you call Paige?” she trills next. “Because you know she’ll jump for this!” I tell her I haven’t yet, and smile some more.

I let my mother go when the task of meeting her squeals threatens to place me on vocal rest. Which reminds me of something our Jesus said on the bus last night, when everyone else was asleep and the rolling plains outside the window struck me as slightly magical. When you run out of words, Elizabeth. That’s why a musical. That’s when you sing.

• •

Lesley is the only true part of the rumor,” he confesses, wigless at last, in a Baton Rouge hotel room. Actually, we’re both naked and sticky from the waist down, navigating the ruined pages of my formerly fresh “U/S MARY” script. (And I know just what the influence would say if she were in this room. She would frame my face with her two cool palms and yell, “SLUT!” Eyes twinkling.)

“Well. I am a Method actor,” he concedes, indicating a tattered copy of Songs My Mother Taught Me with a twitch of his class ring (Vassar). “However . . .” Then his eyes bulge, briefly Liotta-crazy, and he raises his tunic to show me two dainty scars on his chest.

I need Kelly Kaluta to correct me later, her eyes rolling in circles and circles. “It was a motorcycle accident, dummy! Do you also believe ‘gullible’ is written on the sky?”

• •

On the coast, it really wasn’t so glamorous. My car smelled like diapers, for no good reason; plus, I had very few people to talk to. This is all to say, here’s how I took a job in a touring bible rock musical and managed to call that married woman and expect her to be jealous of me. Oh, I conjured Paige Lacey Turlington’s fist in her purple mouth, the porcelain uglies of her split-level eyesore, that old, forbidden husband coughing in a closed room somewhere, po-dumbical as they come. Yet. I am moving on up! I hear myself sing at my influence, just outside a bar in West Asheville. Like we’re still in the choir. “The contract was renewed!”

“But you’re still one of the randos in the back, right?”

“No. But no small parts, remember? I get to play Mary now, whenever the main girl is sick.”

“There are lots of small parts in my King James.”

“Look,” I tell her, growing huffy. “This is technically the greatest story ever told.”

Paige makes the kind of noise then that you can tell is attended by eyes, rolling in circles and circles. I exhale. There is nothing holding us together but static then, which lasts for exactly four seconds. As I count these, I make a silent pact: if we reach five, it’s over. I’ll stop with my postcards and meager curiosity. We’ll hang up the phone and go two different ways.

“Did I tell you we’re trying to have a baby?” she goes, at four and three quarters . . . “Hank wants a fresh start. And I can picture him throwing around some baseball, even with his old man knees.” She delivers this information like she is responsible for writing the pamphlet on it. I think of the disciples, drinking merrily inside. “Oh,” I manage, as Paige begins to talk about the vestry. The garden. The various clubs she attends in Boulder. “I’ve got a lot of people counting on me now,” my influence concludes―a martyr at twenty-five. I kick rocks.

What I like about actors is how they don’t hide their crazy. “I am jonesing for a rail,” Kelly Kaluta might say, hopping by the stage door exit in Anytown. “I am fucking Christ,” Lesley Jehovah Dresher might murmur, while worshipping at the altar between my thighs. There’s a long string of nothing talk between us before my influence releases me back into my road life, my real life—a nothing talk during which I don’t tell her that I may well be falling into the worst kind of love you can get, and during which she doesn’t tell me how a body goes from remedial chorister to senior warden in six short years. What are friends for? “Love you!” we say instead, at the end, like bad actors. Like the words are just lines in some play.

• •

Alas—it takes only one more bad review, on Little Rock’s top-ranked show-biz blog: Wish They’d Stopped at the Second Coming.

“Clever,” he says, but you can tell he’s being sarcastic because the fellatio has failed us. “I’m a hero they want to tear down is all. I’m like Spider-Man. I’m like Hedwig.” I slither up his body and smooth his beard with my cheek, seeking out the gray bits. I am thinking, okaaaaaay. But I am also thinking: maybe I am weather. Maybe he is crops.

“You’re like no one,” I pronounce, fingers dancing along his forehead, where the elastic from the bad wig has left marks. “But listen—can I ask? How come you never wanted to be Daddy Warbucks or Mercutio or any Shepard curmudgeon? You’re so good, you know. You could play anyone.”

“Humans settle. We’re like furniture.”

“What’s that even mean?”

“Means I’m only an actor if they’re watching me, kiddo.” Then Jesus ruffles my hair, like I am a child. “But you know what I so dig about you? How you never let a guy off the hook.”

I don’t care for “kiddo,” so I toss, I turn. “Kiddo” is the country of Mr. Turlington, bringing us brownies at one of Stacy’s sleepovers. “Kiddo” is the unremarkable vessel, the “gray hair [attempting] to escape a bad wig.” Maybe, says some darker voice, deep down and stuffed away, maybe you are Job. Maybe you are just idiot idiot Job, after all. What then?

When I wake that next morning, I see that Lesley has left me a note on the hotel stationery. “Why do YOU want make art, kiddo? Because if you can do anything else . . .” blah blah blah.

My first instinct is to call Paige, but I see her saying, “Told ya bitch!” and who wants that. Once, in high school, a version of this story happened. I was in love with a boy named Lael Crabtree, who everyone said was bonkers. When I finally mustered up my peewee courage and the drip turned me down (in public), Paige laughed in my face. That night she snuck over with booze, and we watched icky teen comedies till the sun rose while she extolled the virtues of dating “mature” specimens. The next morning Lael Crabtree’s locker had been vandalized with the word “Limp Dick.” We never spoke of this. Anyways.

• •

She is acid on the spotty cell, crackling at me through the live oaks of Houston. “How long are you even gonna be out there, huh? We’re not kids anymore.We’re not little gypsies, playing in our tree fort.” A television makes robot sounds in her background, daytime television like a parade. Blah blah blah, “Don’t you want our stupid kids to play together?” Blah blah blah, “And what about your mother? All by herself?” and blah blah blah, “I miss you,” she bleats. I try to make her repeat this last bit. “I can’t hear you!” I holler, up and down the scale. But the bad influence does not bite. I am about to eat crow when:

“I guess because I get lonely. Though I think I’d make a good Mom,” There’s wine in her wobbling hand, I’d bet my contract. “It’s tough. He’s old. But I guess I always knew these things. If you can say you know anything at seventeen.” Paige sighs. She’s so heavy. Heavy like Kelly Kaluta, like Mom dispensing wisdom—O behold, I am wiser than the ages, I am older than the tundras, look on my works ye mighty and despair! “That sucks,” I offer, for lack of better words. Then, wretchedly, “You’re cutting out!”

Understudy Jesus screeches to the cheap seats, “Take this cup away from me!” He’s off-key, but we rally. During the foot-washing scene, an old man in the front row begins to sob, which sets a tingle racing down my spine. At the bar after, I feel pristinely myself, both holy and whole. “Shots for everyone!” I cry to my chorus. When someone asks me where I come from, I say, “right here!”

• •

It is Judas, speaking through a fixed grin at fight call, who sojourns the truth.

“I heard a big skirmish in the hall around seven. Nothing since, but his room’s been cleared.” Then Judas winks at me, but in a way I decide is not sexual.

I also decide to be relieved. My Jesus should go and be free. Men are distractions. Like Morales, I will feel nothing.

• •

Here comes a long-postponed conversation with my agent, in which I gently suggest a new career move. Much is happening on the Chicago theater scene, doesn’t she know?

“Lesley’s in Chicago,” says the agent.

“Oh, is he?” I say, and she sighs.

“I’m warning you, Liz. Don’t make a foolish career decision over a man. Especially a man with so few connections in this field.” My agent talks and talks like she has no other clients, but I kick the most rocks. We are in Hilton Head, and no one ever listens to me. Can’t they tell? My heart races, not for individual souls, but for whole solar systems—the orbits conjured by Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, the Venus in her Fur. I want to tell my agent that it’s because I’m like him, not because I like him. If I’m being perfectly honest, I have grown bored of eating at Cracker Barrel, where the rocking chairs are all the same and people always say “Good mornin!” like you’re anybody. I have come to hate sleeping alone. It isn’t enough, shuffling from village to village like a circus. I came here to shake the dust of that crummy little town off my feet and, and, and!!!

“She’ll drop you if you go,” Kelly Kaluta tells me later. We are sorting harem gear, looking for ways not to atrophy in Roanoke.

“There is no future in this job. But do what they all do. Get thee back to some coast or border. Start again. I’m gonna.” It’s all worth a buck-up grin, but Kelly Kaluta is thirty-fucking- six. Which is not old for plenty of things, but it is a little old for talking like this.

• •

My mother’s iMessage is buzzkill, arriving in the corner of the screen just as I’m about to touch myself: Did you speak with Paige today?! Her punctuation is pissy. I can almost smell the angry bread, baking in my childhood kitchen.

“Should we stop?” he wonders, sensing I’m out of the moment. He is pixellated on my Skype screen, but I’m grateful for this. I worry that were he in HD, he’d resemble even more the grizzled bartender that Chicago has turned him into. His concave chest in the blank computer light makes him look like somebody’s derelict uncle. Nobody’s savior, or star.

“You’re so hot,” he continues, convincing neither of us; at the same time my mother is changing tactics. I don’t know who you think you are, Elizabeth Anne. But I certainly never raised you to abandon your oldest friends in their tims [sic] of need.

Lesley’s putting his pants back on. He is murmuring, “. . . audition tomorrow.” I note the exact second he stops caring about my face, and I wonder, Is this what it is to be older and wiser? Does he really have anything to teach? “Till next time, kid,” he says to the camera. “In the meantime, you keep shining.”

I leave the computer screen open all night long. I fall asleep in its blue and toxic glow.

 

It clicks the next morning when Kelly and her lady leave for the airport—for she and her favorite harem girl are breaking contract to start an improv school for teens in suburban Maryland. “The time has come, the walrus said,” Kelly cooed at her Rent-themed going-away fete. Cutting cake, she was full of peace. Try as I might, I could never quite see her as Juliet. What were the cruise people thinking?

• •

Paige moans into the phone. It is shocking. Like a crass joke. “Something’s wrong,” she says. “Something’s been wrong. I’m sorry.”  She doesn’t seem to hear me when I speak. Is help on the way? Who’s coming for you? The line goes dead. When I call my mother, she texts back lickety-split. Already on it. Updates to come.

I cry onto the sheep for real that night. The replacement Jesus is briefly thrown by my show of bona fide emotion, coming in half a measure late on the solo. Trenton may murder us in their trade, but for once I don’t care a whit. I duck out of curtain call even. I flee a standing O.

Later, my mother doesn’t pick up. And when I message Lesley, he auto-responds with a bunch of exclamation points. You know who doesn’t respond? The agent.

I should have prefaced: mine is not the greatest story ever told.

• •

As I am not Kelly Kaluta, no one remembers to fetch me a sheet cake before I skip town, though Judas shows up at dawn with a signed playbill, spotted with “We’ll miss our “swings!”s This is as bad as high school, when every fourth kid scrawled “HAGS, ELIZABETH!” in my yearbook and called it a day. Then there’d been Paige’s four-paragraph soliloquy, and “We’ll see your name in lights someday!” from one lovely English teacher. And how many acting turds must the one lovely English teacher have told this whopper to? She should pay.

• •

They have placed her under observation. She has lost a lot of blood. “Thankfully, the incision on the left wrist did not penetrate as deep,” the doctor tells us. “We’ve managed to do a transfusion. It would have been better if she’d been found earlier, but . . .” Whaddyagonnado? goes unsaid.

“If they give you grief, you can always get a job at your Dad’s firm,” Mom is saying, in the preowned Kia Sorento where I currently reside in shotgun. It feels like forever since I’ve ridden in the front part of a car. The worst is her tone. It is a tale told for an idiot, an ode of low expectations.

• •

When we were children, the bad influence and I used to play Don’t Touch the Floor in her Pop’s kitchen—that is, whenever we weren’t bent low in the concoction of sinful plans. Once we brewed a potion designed to make our divorced parentals fall in love with one another. “If they get remarried, we’d actually be sisters,” Paige said, which logic sounded airtight to me. We were twelve.

When we ran out of cabinets and rug (which was cheating), we didn’t touch the floor by stepping on her father’s CDs, both the cases and the iridescent discs they protected. We’d print the thin metal flesh with the whorls and loops of our toes, delighted by our own impressions—that is, until the day Mr. Bruni realized why all his America and Kansas and Boston was skipping on the stereo. He took each of us over his knee. My mother was livid. “The NERVE of that creep!” But when Paige and I were lined up in her hallway, wide-eyed terrorbirds waiting to be executed, hands clenched tight, I felt more like her sister than I ever would.

“You all should get some rest,” the doctor says, making eye contact with Mr. Turlington—who looks like a jack-o-lantern, all scooped out from the inside. My mother grips my elbow, indicating it’s me who should stay. I walk toward the little room. “Hey, bud,” I tell the body sleeping in there. “Well, way to play it, drama queen. I came back.”

• •

Paige sleeps, and I sleep. Paige wakes, and I check Facebook.

“Pay attention to me!” she hoots. “We have to talk!”

(“You raise me up!!!” his status says. The attending picture is of him and a venerable old director at the Steppenwolf, their pupils explosive, overbites all smug. He’s got 212 likes on the “Big Career News!!” I was expecting those exclamation marks to refer to a TLC reality show, a sealant on some coffin of delusion, but this all just goes to show.)

“So talk,” I mutter. Then I fix my face into a hospital smile. When I finally look at her, really look at her, I see us in our choir robes. She’s got acne and braces all over again. Our breasts are waiting in the wings.

“I didn’t do it for the attention,” my influence says, flatly. “Though I know what everyone will say. I didn’t expect . . . well, I didn’t expect any of this.” She waits for me to respond, those aching eyes a gauntlet. “OK,” is what I settle on.

“But it doesn’t scare me. Not existing. It really doesn’t. So you know.”

“I know.” I take her beatific grin as an invitation and let my hospital smile crack into something else, some face I couldn’t describe to you. “Nothing scares you, if memory serves.”

We’re laughing (I’m laughing), and then we’re talking. I try to jam Kelly Kaluta and the snoozing matinee hordes of minor towns and Lesley’s orgasmic face into a few interesting sentences―sentences which might draw her toward the light. She listens and nods, fulfilling her half of the contract, until after some time the great gray eyes begin to fold over themselves. I scramble for meaningful punctuation. Buck up noises. Failing to find these, I take her hand. It is cool and dry.

“It was very good to see you, doofus,” Paige says, before sinking back to sleep. I watch her eyelids flutter, then I turn off the lights, the TV. I listen to the chug of the heart monitor and her breathing: soft, slow, steady. Thank you, I whisper, at upwards, gripping so tight.

• •

The next picture I see of Lesley, his hair is buzzed flat. He wears an orange robe. His Big Career News!!! is apparently a leading role in a play about the Hare Krishna. The play is called Higher Ground. I don’t care, but my hand keeps flicking back into his online presence. He is in a mythical elsewhere, putting on costumes and other folks’ lives. Me, I am from here, and here I’ll stay.

My mother tells me to make my bed. My mother tells me that it doesn’t count as made if no one saw it happen and I just get back into it after I’m done.

• •

Kelly Kaluta sends her “sincerest apologies,” as if she were the one who procured the rope and slipped it over the garage door opener. Surely the Carnival cruise Juliet and the painted leper had nothing on this performance. Two mornings ago, the influence smiled at all of us, she ate raspberry Jello, she apologized for the inconvenience. “It’s good to have you back,” I told her. “Ditto,” said she, and we packed her bags. We filled her prescriptions. We made lunch plans, and jokes, and then. She gutted us whole with a third-act twist. Mr. Turlington found her in the morning, swinging low.

Kelly has this to add, in her e-mailed condolence: “We’re so glad we’ve grown roots.” Then, an attachment of a sonogram. I suspect I’m meant to draw something about cyclical, precious life, and possibly reincarnation from her Big News!!!—but no dice.

The agent may as well have committed suicide, too, but this mental adjustment is much easier. I simply pretend there is no more Los Angeles. The city’s been bombed to smithereens. There are no more coasts at all. There is just the middle, with my mother’s house, my father’s firm. Sacred Heart, its graveyard, a preowned Kia Sorento. “I don’t want to keep one foot in, one foot out,” I tell someone who hasn’t asked. “Better to take a break, you know?” They nod. We are at that kind of bar.

My mother tells me to make my bed. My mother tells me that it doesn’t count as made if no one saw it happen and I just get back into it after I’m done.

• •

“She’s no longer with us, Betsy. Do you hear that? When someone you love must leave, you go on twice as hard. It’s like you live for two people, now.” My mother can be sappy as syrup for French toast, but her words have dragged me back to church, where I’m forced to make eyes at the OG member of the spank bank. Not my Jesus, but the one we owned together―that naughty God, who was ours.

They’ve made a square on the community quilt for my influence. At the dedication ceremony, even Stacy (of the Boulder Turlingtons) weeps like a diva, refusing tissues.

They hang the quilt adjacent to the crucifix, at His right hand. So it is written, so it shall be: Paige to fap into eternity with the grizzled Son of God. One wants to laugh. One wants the world to laugh with you, or at least demonstrate a pulse. If He were present, really present, I imagine He’d eulogize: She lived in this town for a while. She was full of weird light. May some crops fail, may rain fall.

“I’m sorry!” I sob, suddenly and too loud, drawing the only kind of attention I hate, which is the kind you can’t control. Then, out of nowhere my palms are lifted and something feels pierced, my face is straining, is a flower, hungrier than it ever was for praise and good reviews and the eyes of every sinning or saintly soul fixed on me. I am dimly aware that I’m feeling, the way I never felt as Mary. Looking pure the way I never did onstage. In my head, only she bears witness. “Nice job, Meryl,” Paige is saying, rolling her eyes and kissing me on the cheek, no, in my head we’re just sitting in comfortable silence, no, in my head I’m fixing it, I’m saying all the right things. We are the kinds of friends they talk about, who come together after decades away like no time has passed, wordless and easy and pretty and sweet. In my head, no skinny wishing interrupts us. No highway, no superstar, no dream.

“This is why people believe in things, you know,” my mother mutters, beside me. “Do you feel it?” She presses her hot hand into my heart. Then she shifts her fingers, seeks another space, frowning. “There. Don’t you feel?”

Photo of Brittany K Allen
Brittany K. Allen is a New York-based writer and performer. Her prose has been published or is forthcoming in Longreads, Catapult, the Toast, Shondaland and elsewhere. Her fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and she was a 2017 Van Lier playwriting fellow at the Lark Play Development Center. Brittany's other covens include the Sewanee Writers Conference (where she works on staff), Youngblood, the emerging playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theatre (of which she is a member), and the Public Theatre's Emerging Writers Group (ditto).