Prime Decimals 13.3
by Kirk Nesset
followed by Q&A
He would defeat her, he thought, with his rapier wit. And did, but the tree grew new sparrows, and what isn’t stated conquered what is.
The leering grotesque at the bar, infinitesimally tuned, yells as you pass: Bird Man! Hey, Captain Love! No cage now? Ain’t you the shit!
She married, and that ended that. But the husband cheated, they learned. So here they were. Revenge, this was. For her first. Then for him.
Epitaph for the Buried Man
Years before the world disappeared, he paused at the door, brightly casting off doubt—prompting the first of the infinitesimal tremors.
The girl on the stairs at dawn studies you, sighing, watching you watching her watch.
Delighted, you burst into flames.
Good one, she yawns.
The sky is on fire, our buildings bright pink. We wait where the ground shakes least, by bone yards and ash, endlessly repeating our names.
Kirk Nesset is author of two books of fiction, Mr. Agreeable and Paradise Road, as well as Alphabet of the World: Selected Works by Eugenio Montejo (translations) and The Stories of Raymond Carver (nonfiction). Saint X, a book of poems, is forthcoming. He is recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, a Pushcart Prize, and grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Ploughshares, Agni, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere. He teaches at Allegheny College, and serves as writer-in-residence at Black Forest Writing Seminars (Freiburg, Germany). More details: http://kirknesset.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for these pieces?
A: These pieces began as “hint fictions,” prompted by a call for stories containing thirty words or fewer. Each of the six fictions were drawn from notebooks I keep, and were massively/minutely revised in their creating, a process that took many months (and in a few cases, years).
by Ann Hillesland
followed by Q&A
We know there’s a stain on the blue silk blouse. It’s your mother’s gravy, with a ring of oil around the spot because she never drains off enough fat before adding the thickening. And that white frosting on your wool skirt from the sticky hands of your sister’s perfect kid? Don’t worry—it will come out. Your clothes will survive Sunday dinner at your parents’ house with no whiff of your dad’s cigarettes. The smell rises from the sofa cushions and soaks into your hair, your watchband, your jacket’s polyester lining. He claims he’s quit, but you don’t have to be a psychic to know he’s lying.
Your mother is also lying about that Alaskan cruise she and your father are taking next month. Your mother booked it and told her daughters, but your father refused to go anywhere so goddamned cold. Your parents had to eat the deposit and instead are driving to San Diego, where they will stay in a Best Western by the highway, listening to the hum of traffic and avoiding the mysterious matted black patch in the carpet near the bathroom door. Your mother will download pictures off the cruise company’s web site and claim they are her trip photos. You know how your dad hates to have his picture taken, she will say, with that little giggle that should tip you off, but won’t.
You will meet a man in your office—he will be wearing brown slacks because he sells coffee supplies and needs to hide any drips from the sample cups he brews. You will go out with him, even though he has hair on the backs of his knuckles, because he has a wonderful smile. You will find his tooth-bleaching kits under his bathroom sink the first time you spend the night—syringes of whitener and rubbery, tooth-shaped trays resting on prehistoric plaster casts of teeth.
You will believe him when he says that his shirts smell of perfume because of all the secretaries he meets with at work. Even when you find the sex stains on the sheets when you haven’t made love in two weeks, you will tell your mother that he is wonderful.
Your laundry will be ready Tuesday after 5:00, but we know you won’t feel ready to face us again until Thursday. You shouldn’t worry, though. All these stains aren’t permanent.
Ann Hillesland’s work has been published in literary journals including Open City, North Dakota Quarterly, The Los Angeles Review, NANO Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, Prick of the Spindle, Bellowing Ark, Going Down Swinging, The MacGuffin, Toasted Cheese, and Red Wheelbarrow, and in the anthology A la Carte: Short Stories that Stir the Foodie in All of Us. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Queen’s University of Charlotte.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: A strip mall not far from where I live has both a dry cleaners and a psychic. The mall sign says “Psychic Cleaners.” I couldn’t resist.
A Proof of Love
by Thomas Kearnes
followed by Q&A
Celine tells the group about the summer of her sixteenth birthday when Daddy gave her driving lessons in the tire factory parking lot. Hayden never lifts his head as he recounts to the clients how his mother took him for a sundae at Dairy Queen after he lost the first chair position in his high school marching band.
“That’s very good, Hayden,” Alice says. Her hands remain folded in her lap, her elbows angled at her sides and head cocked slightly back. She does this even as she recalls eavesdropping on Will as he joked that Alice must practice that position at home all night. Perhaps she copied the pose from an instruction manual: Sympathetic Stances for the Modern Substance Abuse Counselor. “Will,” she asks, “were you listening?”
Will nods. Alice knows he has listened and understood. Celine’s father showed his love for her. Hayden’s mother showed her love for him. And now there is Will. Who loved him and how can he demonstrate that love?
“It can be any story?” he asks.
“Don’t think of it as a story,” Alice says. “Think of it as a memory. A story is something you’d tell anyone, but a memory you only share with those closest to you.”
Will inhales and lets his head fall back. “I was six and it was summer,” he said. “My parents thought I should learn to swim. In my part of Texas, there are lakes everywhere. One per county at least.”
“So one of your parents teaches you to swim?” Alice asks. Will unsettles her, so she shepherds him through the story. She fears the effect he may have on clients, the ones who weep and mourn as they stack chairs after each day’s session.
“No, my dad worked and my mother didn’t like to get wet,” Will says. “They paid this lady in town to teach me. Her pool was nice.”
“That was very kind of them, but I was hoping you’d tell us something based more in your emotions, Will.” Alice folds her elbows so they fit snugly against her sides. Her hands remain clasped in her lap.
“I wasn’t finished.”
Alice turns her head to survey the clients. Various expressions of woe. She returns her gaze to Will and finds his eyes waiting for her. She says, “Please continue.”
“This lady who taught us, she was—not old. Forties, maybe. I was just a kid, so I couldn’t be sure. But I remember thinking, what’s this woman who’s older than my mom doing with this nice, nice pool but no kids of her own?”
Across from Will, Celine shifts in her seat. Alice watches until she settles again.
“Every time you did something good, no matter how bogus—she wanted a hug. Me or whoever would be treading water, and she’d hug us every time. Even when we didn’t get it right.”
Alice knows Will wishes to look only at her. The others, she knows, are too adrift in their own puny recollections of love to listen. This story is for her, not them.
“You know when you’re a kid and something’s not right, but you don’t do anything? Maybe it doesn’t feel right because you never felt it before?”
Alice’s voice is firm. Her hands clench tighter in her lap. “What about your mother?”
“One day, we’re in the car and I think we’re driving to the swimming lady’s place. But when we get there, she drives right past. I ask her where we’re going, and she says to buy shoes. There was some sale. I asked, what about swimming? And she said we weren’t going back.”
A stillness seeps through the room. Alice’s lips press together, her forehead drawn up like a wrung towel. “What did your mother say?”
“She said, ‘That woman was a little too touchy-touchy.’”
“That’s it. She got that look on her face she gets when a discussion’s over. That was it. Gotta listen to your mom,” Will mumbles, grinning.
One of the clients gapes at Will. He looks serene as he folds his arms.
“I don’t understand,” Alice says.
“I hadn’t said a word about the swimming lady. But Mom knew, and she told me I was right. From that day on, I knew to trust myself whenever a person wanted to do me harm.” He won’t stop looking at Alice.
The counselor claps her hands once and assesses the group’s overall mood. Will eases back while Celine flails her hands and speaks in high-pitched hiccups. Another client reaches out to Celine but won’t embrace her. She backs away as Celine wails, stumbling forward. The clients look to Alice. She purses her lips and tries to locate some words of comfort.
That night, Alice sits on the edge of her bed. Her left shoulder hitches up to her ear. Her torso turned at a half-twist to her legs, she leans onto the oak footboard of the bed. She gleams with receptivity. She holds that position a moment to magnetize the air, then bows her head further downward. Her gaze never leaves what appears before her. She believes her eyes piercing. Her eyebrows arch, her jaw tightens. Watching the full-length mirror, she says, “Will, that was inappropriate. I think you should question your motives.”
This is Will, she reminds herself. She crouches deeper into her position on the bed. Alice admires the improvements in her position. She tells her reflection, “I think you should reconsider your understanding of love.” Yes, she thinks, that’s the proper way to phrase it. She adds, “Will, are you listening?”
She will practice again. The words must sound firm but compassionate. Will’s life depends on it. Alice will save him despite himself. She has memorized the actual definition of love from the dictionary. Its brevity surprised her. She waits for the day Will himself asks about love, informing her that he has finally surrendered. She must bring him to this point. She has skills, she has time.
Thomas Kearnes is a 35-year-old author from East Texas. He is an atheist and an Eagle Scout. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Storyglossia, Night Train, SmokeLong Quarterly, Word Riot, Eclectica, The Pedestal, JMWW Journal, LITnIMAGE, Knee-Jerk, Underground Voices, 2 M Magazine, Temenos, and elsewhere, including several gay venues. He is currently marketing his flash fiction collection, “Please Save My Life.” He is a columnist for Flash Fiction Chronicles and a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I was a blackout drunk from my late teens till my late 20s. My parents sent me to a lock-down substances rehab clinic in rural Texas not far from Dallas. I’ll spare the details because I’m eager to incorporate them into future stories, but let’s just say I was the only client the staff never made cry (despite begin the younger client there) and the experience hardened my devotion to atheism. On the plus side, the experience taught me that I can trust my mind and will power to protect me from malignant forces. Forget all that I’ve accomplished as a writer, those four months in rehab were the proudest period of my life.
Note: While I still have a fondness for other drugs, I haven’t touched alcohol in over two years.
by Chris Crittenden
followed by Q&A
pool in a final resting place
squirrels warily leap
of their leaf-strewn heads.
the wall has been here
since the land first swelled
with patriotic pride,
who gets to decree what.
who gets to feast.
if a bear rended it
into strewn rubble,
grim faces of harsh founders
would gnaw the ground.
and the wall would be
as impenitent as ever,
unseen and unfelt,
pious in its might.
Chris Crittenden teaches environmental ethics for the University of Maine and writes on the edge of a spruce forest, 50 miles from the nearest traffic light. He blogs as Owl Who Laughs and is widely published. He has always aspired to be the human equivalent of a prime number!
Q: What can you tell us about this poem?
A: This poem is about two ways of entering into a relationship with the land–or animals, or another human being, or the universe. It has less to do with a rock wall than how to be.
by Gail Peck
followed by Q&A
Grand Decoration, the Clouds
after Monet, 1920-1923
Here, reflected in water, a human face,
dark eyes, hint of nose and mouth, recalling
Monet’s self-portrait of 1917. Those circular strokes
of long beard that also shaped the water lilies
he so loved. Once, at an artists’ colony, I watched
as a woman made a face of clay and placed it in the river
then took photographs at intervals as it decomposed
in the current. It was beautiful, peaceful,
all burden lifted until there was nothing left.
This is how I want death to be, not the white and white
of sheets, meals and meals or day following night
to mark the days. Let me be lifted by the clouds
if only in reflection, and not at the dark edge
of this painting, but near the center, the lavender wisteria.
The House at Douanier, Pink Effect, 1897
the lonely sea
you can see
atop a cliff
I could not live here
so dark at night
except for stars
would be lovely
but I couldn’t easily sleep
through wind and tide
Who would walk
an excuse for kettle
on the fire
biscuits to share
to speak of loss
a hand reaching
a nod that says
it’s always been—
baby taken away
wrapped in a blanket
last breath of the old
the cold now
where the pillow lies
Gail Peck is the author of three chapbooks and three full-length collections, most recently Counting the Lost. Her poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including Nimrod, Cave Wall, The Southern Review, Greensboro Review, Prism Review, Brevity, etc. Work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and she has been a both a finalist and semi-finalist for Nimrod’s Pablo Neruda Prize.
Q: What was the inspiration for these poems?
A: I think the seed for these two poems was planted when I went to an exhibit in Raleigh titled “Monet in Normandy.” I didn’t know then that Monet’s art and work would become a subject for the manuscript I’m now working on. Monet painted several houses on cliffs such as the one I write about in "The House at Dounaier, Pink Effect." As for "Grand Decoration, the Clouds," this was painted after Monet had several operations for cataracts, and he later said, “My sight is totally restored. I am working as never before.”
The Policeman that Came to See You
by Marc Vincenz
followed by Q&A
The Policeman that Came to See You
asked, Did you sense it?
When the old woman died across the hall.
She used to talk to herself you said,
and on Sundays she’d thump the wall with a broom handle
screaming something about a lost god.
But you didn’t know her. Not at all.
Once you recalled meeting her in the cellar
in the room where the coin-op washing machines
churned like the engines of the building.
In twilight or near darkness she almost looked transparent,
and her hair, in its very white became like thin
luminescent strands of plastic eels—
in the dark she stopped your heart more than once.
So when you were coming in from work in the evening
and the dawn was creeping out, you’d make sure
to smoke a cigarette in the cold to avoid her creeping down the stairs.
She’s lived alone most her life, he said.
She even had no cats or birds or fish, but talked to the walls
as if that’s where she might find God.
It was strange, he said to live all those years,
then suddenly disappear into the depths
of your bath to end all things.
You nodded, sighed, then started into his eyes
as if they were pale blue Mediterranean oceans.
Marc Vincenz is the author of Upholding Half the Sky (Casa Menendez, 2010) and The Propaganda Factory, or Speaking of Trees (Argotist, 2011). His poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Spillway, The Potomac, Poetry Salzburg Review, nthposition, MiPOesias, Pirene's Fountain and many others. A book of translations is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press.
Q: Who was this enigmatic old woman? Was she real?
A: As real as any living ghost. I never saw her, but my girlfriend claimed to have seen her many times. Apparently there was a little Chihuahua involved. For months, I teased my girlfriend that she was imagining things. Only, there were the noises and the door-slamming when I would leave for work. The strange thing is that she only became real when she was finally gone, when the detective was sipping coffee in our living room.
Wife's Fantasy at Mid-Life
by Elaine Neil Orr
followed by Q&A
Some night, I imagine, my husband might read Wallace Stevens to me.
We are bolstered by pillows at either end of the bed, facing one another in a green room lit lavender with lamps. His shirt is open at the collar, jeans rumpled, his belt still on. I wear a skirt gathered at the waist, something I’ve had for years, so old it’s frayed at the long hem, and a t-shirt long ago splattered with bleach so a series of white dots cluster below my left breast; socks on my feet.
Darkness waits in the open windows of mid-summer. Cicadas sing in waves. My husband’s chest rises and falls as he reads lines of Wallace Stevens. His voice is raspy from smoking. But here in the bedroom there is no hint of smoke; instead a hint of water in grass upon some distant hill in Tennessee. There is a jar, shining clean, hovering over our heads, holding nothing else but the lavender color of the room distilled to a burgundy. A dominion of air, the slovenly wild made reverent in the space of the bed.
My husband turns the page. He smiles. He has found the blackbirds. Until now he had not known that he and I and a blackbird are one, nor that blackbirds dance at the feet of the woman he loves. Or that they wheel above the mountain, a shadow over the ground, our shadow against the wall. My husband lays the book aside, pulls off one of my socks, massages the arch of my foot. The blackbirds dance, beaks piercing green sky. Do I prefer my husband’s voice or the moment when his voice ceases?
Again my husband searches. The sound of pages turning is as promising as a gift unfolding. Wallace Stevens brings us a snow man. Ice and snow, page and leaf. The book itself smells—watery and leaf full. Our bodies shift. My husband runs his fingers through his hair, touches a finger to his tongue. The snow man, it turns out, is not huge balls of snow but a man in snow, a man accustomed to the sounds of winter. I hear the creak of the pine tree, imagine its snowy boughs. We are chilled. Our legs reach and stretch, for someone’s warmth. I close my eyes but still I see my reader’s neck, his long-fingered hands, the bright gold band, his beard as it might be frosted in snow, imagine his snow strength.
The poems are fireflies in jars let go, exciting and unknowable except in the way we touch our thighs, put a hand to the breastbone, listen for a quiver of sound.
There is more.
Now we are somewhere in Florida with Wallace Stevens. A huge moth bats against the screen, our window a portal to the sounds of all the world. We hear the surf. Here the sand gleams like glass, bright and pointed against my white feet, but dark, too, dark as the depths below coral. I step carefully, my feet so tender. I feel the lull of the land, sense the ordering of dunes. A crab juts into my line of vision though there is none in the poem. As we enter the tide, the bed sheets rise like sleeves of voice, more than ours. The air turns brassy, even as lights smear bright on boats at harbor and we sense the woman in her long song, the one she sang from the sea.
The notes thrum upon my thighs. We are shapes we did not know, spun arms in the dark.
My husband’s throat flares, a light in sea spray. I bloom like hibiscus.
Remember how you were in childhood, riding the waves. Remember how you felt later in bed, how the waves still buoyed and rocked you until at last you slept like the dead.
A daughter of Nigeria and the American South, Elaine Neil Orr is author of the memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (Virginia: 2003), ranked #2 by Book Sense among university press books of the year. Her short fiction and memoir appear in the Missouri Review, Image, PoemMemoirStory, The Louisville Review, Blackbird, Southern Cultures, and Shenandoah, among others. She has three times been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (in memoir and fiction) and has received the honor of selection as a North Carolina Arts Council Fellow. She has published two scholarly books, Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women’s Fiction (Virginia, 1997) and Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision (Mississippi, 1987). Orr is an award-winning professor of English at North Carolina State University in Raleigh where she teaches creative writing and world literature, and serves on the faculty of the Brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: My husband and I are happier after thirty-five years of marriage than we’ve ever been. And yet one can always fantasize about the next best thing! I love the idea of vivid romance in one’s fifties.
by Jesse Cheng
followed by Q&A
Two oversized marbles, about a full inch each, one of them a cat’s eye of translucent beige infused with swirling ribbons of red, black, and green, the other a mysterious clearie with tiny air bubbles suspended in the darkest, most vibrant blue I’ve ever seen. Behind me, the tinkling chatter of classmates, the snips of blunt-tipped scissors on stiff paper, but my whole world lies here at the corner of Mrs. Arms’s desk where these glass orbs are nestled atop a black velvet drawstring pouch. It’s the first deliberate act of theft I remember ever committing, a one-handed swipe of both marbles, then I scurry back to my seat and tuck them into the tight side pocket of my shorts.
“Let’s all gather in front,” Mrs. Arms calls out from the rear of the room, and the bustle immediately crescendos as sneakers scuff the floor and hurried bodies brush past small plastic chairs. Astonishingly fast, all twenty-some of us are silent and sitting cross-legged on the rug, backs straight, hands clasped, facing the teacher’s desk. I hear the marbles clink gently as my snug-fitting shorts ride up when I sit, pooling heavy in the fold of the hip socket.
Mrs. Arms holds up a classic U-shaped magnet—one of those that’s red along the length of the curve but naked metal at the tips.
“Who knows what this is?” Little hands spear the air in instant unison.
“A magnet, that’s right!” she says. “And who knows what magnets stick to?”
The high-pitched chorus: “Metal!”
Our teacher plucks a small box from the top of the desk and pulls out a single nail that suddenly leaps sideways, locking on to the magnet’s prongs with a crisp click. And I’m noticing now that the box is one of several objects, all lain out in a neat row at the desk’s edge.
“But all metal?” The magnet taps indifferently against the second entry in the lineup, a pink can of Tab soda, our teacher’s favorite.
“No, it looks like aluminum doesn’t stick. Who thinks wood will?”
A courageous few raise their hands, but the alphabet block doesn’t take. Neither does the paper (“That’s right, paper is made from wood!”), nor the plastic toy cars.
“Now, how about glass?”
Our teacher reaches for the final item in the row. She pauses mid-gesture. “That’s funny.” She straightens up, surveying the row of knick-knacks. “They were right here on top of the bag before. Did someone put them back inside?” She pokes her fingers in the pouch, swirls them around the limp velvet. Suddenly, Mrs. Arms’s kind visage is grim.
“Boys and girls, would the person who took the marbles please give them back to me. Now.”
Stillness. Then teacher’s fingernails tapping the desktop, tut-tut-tut-tut, tut-tut-tut-tut. I focus on my hands, lace my damp fingers tight, a feeling of crawl winching my gut as a cat’s eye and an alien planet bulge out of my left pocket.
Maybe someone sniffles. Maybe another hour passes.
“Okay. If no one’s going to say anything—there were two marbles here made of glass—but let’s take this glass that we use to drink water, also made of glass, right? So, is it magnetic?”
Another measure of silence, then the muted response: “No…”
Mrs. Arms looks at the young children with their eyes downcast, uncertainty in their faces. She sighs. Kindness returns to her demeanor. “All right, kids, let’s go back to our seats.” And with the shifting of limbs the chatter kicks up, life reenters the room, and everybody except me forgets what just happened. The teacher has made her point.
The real lesson I will learn, though, lies in what comes after: in my little brother’s utter joy when I unload them on him first thing after getting home, and I tell my mother that teacher gave them to me because she knows how much I love marbles even though I’m thinking Alex would really enjoy them; in my parents’ unsuspecting assent when I ask them to buy me more, just so everyone will think I actually like the damn things; in the way these contortions within become just a little more numb when I commit further acts like this, bit by bit, year after year, so that I can look deep into the eyes of the one I’m supposed to love and say, without any qualms at all, But I did it for you.
Jesse Cheng is from Southern California. His works are forthcoming in r.kv.r.y. and NANO Fiction. His website is jesse-cheng.com.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: I harbor much guilt about a good many things, this episode being but one of them. For so long I’d carried such a distinctly clear memory of my first act of theft, it eventually had to make its way into words, or I’d burst. Finally, it did.
When I Was a Mouse
by Reneé K. Nicholson
followed by Q&A
The year the sink fell in our dressing room, I was the littlest mouse. When the sink fell, water sprayed out into the long room. The sink was attached to a wall with no pedestal or cabinet underneath for support. Just an old sink with rust stains around the drain. The wall was painted gray, fluorescent lights shone overhead and mirrors lined the opposite wall. When the sink fell, no one touched it, although the backstage moms in charge of our dressing room kept telling us to wash our hands.
Instead, we gathered our bags and costumes and marched out—me petrified that I’d be blamed for the sink, because it hadn’t occurred to me that the theater’s backstage was old and maintenance shoddy, because I had complained out loud about the pink canvas shoes we had to wear with our costumes. I figured I was already branded a troublemaker and the fallen sink would be blamed on me. I was sure of it.
I preferred leather shoes to canvas. Party scene children wore black leather slippers.
Damp and cramped in the hallway, the legion of little mice was quickly divided, half sent to the dress with the soldiers, our onstage enemies. All girls were chosen as soldiers. Many were nice. We rehearsed with them every weekend in Studio B until we moved into the theater. Unlucky me, not sent to the soldiers’ dressing room.
In the Party Girls dressing room, the dancers kept their hair gelled around foam curlers so that onstage they all had perfect ringlets. Costumes with petticoats and ribbons, too. The Party Girls smeared crimson over their lips, their backstage mothers coating girlish lashes with mascara. Many begged for false eyelashes, like the company women wore. Chatter was high pitched and pointed. The party girls did not like mice.
“I have been in the Party Scene for two years,” a redheaded party girl said. “I only did Battle Scene my first year.”
“Stay still,” a backstage mom said, and then swiped a huge blush brush over her cheek.
Her friend, a little blonde with a head full of pink foam curlers, nodded. She waited for her blush and then said, “I’m the youngest of the Party Scene Girls.”
“How old?” redhead asked.
“Eleven,” curler-head replied.
When I was a mouse, I thought as a mouse. I crept around the outskirts of their conversation. Paid attention, looked for cheese and mischief.
“Last year there was a ten-year-old girl in Party Scene,” the redhead said.
“Most ten-year-olds are still in Battle,” the curler-head said.
I smoothed my hands along my pink tights, fresh from the Capezio wrapper. My mother bought them especially for performing. No holes or runs. The Party Girls narrowed their shadowed and mascaraed eyes. I didn’t need makeup because I wore a mouse head.
Curler-head pointed a slim finger at me. “How old are you?”
“In ten days I’ll be eight,” I said.
“That’s too young,” redhead said, her voice raising an octave so that she nearly squealed it. I’d made her mad.
“I don’t believe you,” curler-head said. She stared down her own reflection in the big lighted mirror on the wall of the Party Girls’ dressing room. Another mouse told her it was true. We were supposed to get a cake the night of my birthday, to have after the performance. We performed until Christmas Eve, my birthday only a few days before.
Many years later, in Studio Nine at American Ballet Theatre, I would be told, half joking, that little girls are evil, that anyone working with children should read The Lord of the Flies.
“They make you wear a mouse head because you are ugly and need to hide your face,” curler-head said. She kept staring at herself in the mirror, fussing with a foam curler near her cheek. “Only the prettiest girls get Party Scene. One of us will surely be Clara soon.”
“You might never get in Party Scene,” redhead added. “Or you might have to play a boy.” Sometimes girls would have to play boys in the Party Scene because there were never enough boys for the parts. Mice and soldiers were better than that fate.
“Everyone knows mice aren’t good dancers,” said another Party Girl, wanting in.
I looked down at my feet, covered by the wretched canvas shoes. The girls were laughing at me. “You don’t even get a good dressing room,” curler-head said. “Even your stupid sink doesn’t like you.”
I wanted to cry but didn’t. I wanted to take off those canvas shoes and hurl them at the Party Girls. Instead, I fiddled with the elastics, trying to come up with a real good reply, one that would shut them up. My ears filled with the sound of my own blood pumping. Then I heard my name.
“Quick!” said the director of the children. She was a dark haired woman with slim arms and legs and a long, imperial nose. “We need you for a photo shoot with the Company Mice.”
I heard the chorus of Party Girls. The words photo and shoot being repeated, slowly, up and down, a complaint. There were little mice like me and big mice, men from the company, and the Mouse King, also from the company. The paper wanted mice pictures. The paper wanted the little mouse. Me. I could have stuck my tongue out at those Party Girls. But I didn’t.
Within the week, the wall was patched where the sink fell, and the mice got a dressing room again. Over the place where there used to be a sink, my friends taped a copy of the newspaper picture of me and the big mice. They wrote happy birthday and signed their names. They asked the big mice to sign and they did, and on my birthday the little mice and big mice and even some of the soldiers and third act gingersnaps sang to me, and I wished hard and blew out all the candles in one breath.
Renée K. Nicholson lives in Morgantown, West Va., splitting her artistic pursuits between writing and dance. She earned teaching certification from American Ballet Theatre, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chelsea, Mid-American Review, Perigee: A Journal of the Arts, Paste, Poets & Writers, Dossier, The Superstition Review, The Gettysburg Review and elsewhere. She serves as assistant to the director of the West Virginia Writers’ Workshop, and is the 2011 Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona.
Q: Can you tell us about the motivation behind this piece?
A: Often, my writing is fueled by my experience in ballet, and this piece certainly is. But I was asked by a friend when I first knew that, no matter how competitive ballet was going to be, that I wanted to be a dancer, and this piece is my answer to her.