I was supposed to be funny crazy, not crazy crazy. There’s a difference. Funny crazy is wearing tinfoil hats and washing your hands until they bleed and talking to magical gnomes that only you can see. Maybe occasionally referring to “the voices” so long as they’re not telling you to do anything too scary. Crazy crazy involves pounding your head into the wall, screaming obscenities at men of the cloth, and rocking and moaning, clutching your heart, your body a husk of itself, a trail of spit seeping out of your useless mouth.
At sixteen, with at least as many shitty community theater productions under my belt, I considered myself an experienced actress. So funny crazy I could do, though I’d had much more practice in crazy crazy. This was the brand I had for years rehearsed in front of the full-length mirror, sitting atop a hamper full of never-washed costumes, waiting for my mind to split. This was the kind I was sure would eventually win, and I wanted to be ready. I’d stare into space for a couple of hours, occasionally stealing glances at my pasty skin, the baby crescents of moon emerging under my eyes. What I wanted to see most was the expression in my eyes – what others would eventually witness when they looked into their nutty, hollow terror. There were times when I could feel the perfection of the look, so exact I was sure that madness had finally arrived, only my need to see it distorted it. I felt like one of those cartoon paintings where the gaze suddenly sweeps to the side, a real person hiding behind the wall. Other times, though, I could master the balance. Could hold the empty in my eyes and see it all the same.
This was my third show with NightLight Productions, which I know sounds like a porn studio, but was really just some Middleton locals who met at karaoke and started a murder mystery dinner theater troupe. Stace (she insisted on Stace, not Stacey), was the writer and director and, while none of it was pornographic, she usually scripted herself as the seductress and would regularly “forget” to wear underwear for the scenes where she stood on a table to sing a murder ballad. Stace had turned 29 about 29 times, but with her throaty voice, full red lips, and shiny black hair, the men didn’t seem to notice, happily chewing their chicken marsala and stealing glances at her freckled cleavage or kingdom-come legs. I took my cue from Stace, and started folding over the waists of my skirts. In school, I’d adjust my tights more often than necessary, working my way up from ankle to thigh.
I was not part of the original karaoke crew (they were all over 30, singing songs I’d never heard of), but was invited to join NightLight by Stace’s brother Vince. He’d played my father in a recent production of Brigadoon. He had been in an off-Broadway play once and wasn’t an asshole about it. I think he had a thing for me because once, during the scene where we gathered in a crowd to search for Harry Beaton before he could leave Brigadoon and make the village vanish forever, I felt Vince grow hard against the back of my thigh. It would have been creepy if he didn’t look exactly like Mandy Patinkin.
Usually, we performed in restaurants in the Hudson Valley. Two or three times a month. I made $100 for each performance, some of which would go towards rum and cokes and karaoke afterwards. No one bothered to ID me in the company of the other actors, and my parents, glad that one of their daughters left the house on a regular basis, never asked why I didn’t come home until 3 a.m. For whatever reason, they trusted the cast and would ask in the morning, oblivious to my hangover, “How was work?”
Cruel Christmas was a new script, a new show. The debut was not at a restaurant, but at the private residence of a rich woman in Yonkers — Mrs. Devereaux — who looked so much like the slutty Golden Girl I was sure they were sisters. She hosted a fancy holiday party with men in tuxes bearing hors d’oeuvres, guests clinking real crystal glasses, laughing through bright teeth, and a live band in one of her cinnamon-scented living rooms. The band made me a bit nervous, used as I was to the cues on the karaoke tapes that usually accompanied us. My character, Holly Pine, the nutjob / number one suspect with an insatiable Elvis-obsessed bent to her madness, had three numbers: “All Shook Up,” “Blue Christmas,” and, of course, “Don’t Be Cruel.” The victim, for once, was Stace’s character, Mary Christmas, a (surprise!) beautiful seductress. Stace was rarely the victim because she wanted as much stage time as possible. But occasionally she craved the kind of admiration reserved for the dead. The motive for her murder in Cruel Christmas was a bit muddy. When we questioned it during rehearsal, she got defensive, “Jackson’s character kills me because I’m too beautiful,” she said. That’s right. I, Holly Pine, was the red herring, not the murderer. It was Jackson, or Don Apparel. Don (short for Donner, the audience learns, an inexplicably reincarnated ex-reindeer,) is the gruff, studly neighbor, who strangles Mary Christmas with the Christmas lights. Stace insisted that her body remain for the final act of the show, sprawled out on the floor. “I am really good at not breathing,” she said. Jackson agreed. “She looks like a corpse when she sleeps!” It was common knowledge they’d been doing it since Die on the Fourth of July. I figured Stace just liked the idea of a lot of wealthy men staring at her fishnets, her parted lips, her blinking, deadly necklace of knotted reds and greens.
Vince played the detective and was better than Columbo. The final character was Carol Pine, Holly’s caretaker and older sister, the one driving when our car mysteriously breaks down on Christmas Eve at Mary Christmas’s house. Carol’s real name was also Carol and she believed in method acting. Minutes before my first performance with NightLight, she pulled me into a restaurant kitchen and taught me how to apply lip liner using a mixing bowl for a mirror. “I’ve got two words for you, Lydia,” she said to our reflection, “Stanis Lavsky.” She thought Stanis was his first name, and so did I for a while.
I decided to believe in method acting, too. It didn’t seem that hard. You just took stuff from real life to make you feel the way you need to while acting. I tried to explain it to Zoe, my actual sister, who was older than me by thirteen months. She was annoyed that I was gone all of the time, and that, when I was home, I made her help me practice. When I told her about Stanis Lavsky, she said, “Oh, so like if your character has to be a bitch, you just act like yourself?” To which I replied, “No, it’s more like if my character has to deal with a passive-aggressive freak, I just pretend that they’re you.” Zoe and I had both become big fans of the term “passive aggressive,” recently learning that the harshest insults are those that include some curt psychoanalysis. Its effect had eclipsed that of “hypocrite” which had a meaner bite to it, but which we used too much and incorrectly, interchanging it with “liar.” We’d grown tired of hypocrite.
The truth is, we were best friends, and had never fought as much as we were those days. A year before, she had moved out of our bedroom and into the den, sleeping all of the time with the lights on. She stopped eating meat at dinner, not because she wanted to be a vegetarian, but because it was, as far as she could see, “all fat.” And it’s not that she cared about getting fat; she just couldn’t handle the texture of it between her teeth. I’d point at the center of a pork chop or a lean cut of chicken and say, “Look, that’s meat right there. There’s no fat on it.” And she would try, cutting away as much as she could, until she gave up altogether and just ate extra potatoes, then wandered down the hall with a box of cookies and shut the door to her room. Her laugh had shifted from when we were kids. It came at a higher pitch, and louder, like she was trying to tune it to a note she could never locate. I found myself leaning away from it a little. Every once in a while, in the middle of a conversation, she would stretch her eyebrows as high as she could and squinch her eyes closed for a split second. It reminded me of something a cartoon character would do in disbelief, Bugs Bunny reassessing his wrong turn at Albuquerque. When Zoe did it, it was like she was resetting something in her field of vision.
These are the things I noticed. We didn’t talk about them, or why we had become more argumentative, and I knew even then never to say she was being just like mom. She wasn’t really. Mom’s was an illness of rage, of lost logic. Of talking to herself, of staring at the wall, of threatening a violence she could only half-heartedly shake from her limbs. Of disappearance. Hers were the stories I bragged about when my friends vied for most fucked-up family. As Holly Pine, I used mom in method acting. Other than my sessions at the mirror, I felt craziest when I was trying to make sense of her anger and constant sadness. One thing I did, as both Lydia and Holly, was sing off-the-cuff arias composed of drawn-out curse words. At home, this allowed me to say all of the horrible things in my heart while stirring a pot of soup, my mother none the wiser.
I had never known my mother when she was young and un-crazy. It didn’t occur to me that it had been a process. I assumed that, at one moment, she was laughing and leading the sopranos in her college choir and marrying my father and, in the next, she was throwing a handful of silvery spoons at the kitchen window. Crying into open books, the pages of which she never seemed to turn. It was this flash of shattered glass, this cut of the spirit, that I feared for both Zoe and me. Not a subtle shallowing of the breath. Not a shift in expression, not the feeling that the textures of our world – the angle of the sunlight, the wrists of our sweaters, the judgment of our friends – would grow harsher by the day.
Luckily, as Holly, I didn’t need to worry about nuance, and the first half of our show went great. The guests drank steadily, complimented my baby blue bell bottoms, and tried to get me to break character. I mingled and compulsively rubbed the back of my neck and announced on occasion that The King was alive. In the scene where I mistook Jackson for Elvis, the audience howled as I wrapped my whole body around his leg and cried out, “It’s a Christmas miracle!”
Stace was supposed to act like this house was hers, this party hers. She spent a lot of time pretending to know the guests, asking them how their Christmas-themed jobs were going. “So Fred, how are things this year at the elf temp agency?” “Maggie! How’s the big lawsuit against Grinch Corporation going?” Mrs. Devereaux absolutely loved it, and followed Stace around, correcting her. “Oh, he’s not a cop, he’s an insurance salesman!” Stace smiled blankly and tried to pass Mrs. Devereaux on to one of us. It was easy for me to avoid taking care of her; I was in the midst of theatrically counting all of the black shoes at the party, avoiding eye contact and whispering gibberish.
I had just finished my first song (after two false starts), and could see Stace scouting out a good spot on the floor to drop dead, when it happened. Now, when bodies drop to the floor in plays, it’s always pretty noisy. A vase gets knocked off an end table, the person falling lets out a shout, and the body makes a decisive thud. In real life, I learned, it can be quiet. No one even heard the old man fall; what alerted us to his body in the hallway was the piercing laughter of a woman in a red velvet pantsuit. “They’ve killed Gregory!” she shouted. “I found him!” like she might win a prize.
I met Carol’s eyes first and she took my hand as we followed the others. Maybe she was trying to stay in character, or maybe she was frightened. When we got to the body, the guests, now well past drunk, were celebrating, animated. A few of them jostled Gregory’s skinny legs with their black shoes. Others clapped their hands like expectant children. The only quiet witnesses were me, Carol, Jackson, Stace, and Vince. We were frozen, eyes wide, hands covering our open mouths as we tried to recognize the blank face from earlier in the evening. All except Vince, who removed his detective hat, cast his face to the side, and shook his head, just like he’d rehearsed.
Stace broke the tableaux, gathering her wits about her and dashing towards the kitchen for a phone. The woman in the red velvet pantsuit didn’t want her moment to end. “I came out of the bathroom and he was just lying here!” she kept saying. Another woman seemed to be tickling Gregory’s sides, reporting to the man behind her, “He’s quite good!” The man found this attractive, pulled her towards him, and kissed her like it was New Year’s.
Jackson couldn’t take it anymore. “Get away from him!” he yelled. “This isn’t the goddamn show!”
“Whoa, Buddy,” said Mr. New Year, wiping lipstick in a streak down his jaw. His ladyfriend was half-laughing, not sure if she should be embarrassed or flattered by Jackson’s attention. Before anything could escalate, Mrs. Devereaux appeared and whisked him away, tugging Carol and me (hands still clasped) behind her. We ended up in the upstairs bedroom where we’d left our bags and keys and coats.
“This is not going to ruin my party,” said Mrs. Devereaux, her waxy smile nowhere to be found. “Stay here while I figure this out.” She shut the door, which Carol immediately checked to make sure it wasn’t locked. “People can be twisted,” she said. It wasn’t locked.
When we heard the approaching sirens, the three of us went to the front window, awaiting the commotion. It wasn’t long before an ambulance was there in the street. Somehow, the paramedics stayed focused, despite the gleeful cries of Gregory’s friends. “It’s just like a real ambulance!” we heard. He was on a stretcher, with a plastic oxygen mask. His shirt was open like a set of curtains, his tie missing. Maybe they had cut it off his neck. “The whole kit and caboodle!” they cried. I wondered how long this could go on. I imagined a funeral for Gregory, a burial. The party guests still in their party clothes, waiting for the priest to say he isn’t really a priest. He’s a choreographer. And Gregory isn’t really dead and Holly Pine isn’t really crazy. Everybody is fine. These sirens? Rock ‘n’ roll.
“This is bullshit,” said Jackson. He sat on the edge of the satiny bed and pulled his lumberjack suspenders off his shoulders.
“This is just what I needed,” said Carol, still at the window, clutching a fistful of drapes. Jackson glared at her. He knew she enjoyed anything that would make her better at method acting. He told me once that she got into fender benders on purpose.
“This is bullshit,” I said, feeling like it was my line. It was then that I realized I still held the cordless microphone I’d used during “All Shook Up.” Somewhere along the way I had switched it off. Now it was beginning to feel, in my hand, like some kind of weapon. I found myself holding it out to the two of them.
“Anybody want this?” I said.
In Brigadoon, the village only comes alive for one day every hundred years. I imagined if Zoe could live in Brigadoon, she wouldn’t be tired when it was time to get up, go to school, learn to drive. She wouldn’t ignore me as I warned her that we’re going to be late, you’re going to make us so late. I wouldn’t go to school alone and come home to find she had stayed in her pajamas all day. No. In Brigadoon, she would be well-rested. Even a little antsy, ready to roam through the heather on the hill and take her SAT’s. She wouldn’t try to hide her swallowing of the little pink pills I had found in her dresser. They said 20MG. They huddled in a slim orange bottle, the kind that took over our mother’s sock drawer before either of us was born.
The problem with Brigadoon is that no one is allowed to leave. Which is why we had to chase Harry Beaton. Which is why Harry Beaton ends up dead, his skull crushed. If he had escaped, it would have been curtains for all of us. No waking up in a hundred years to sing songs in our vaguely Scottish thrift shop costumes. No nothing. It was this same idea that kept my mother coming back. She never stayed away for long – a couple of weeks. A month once. When she returned, sometimes wiry and dirty, sometimes plump and stoned on hospital food and lithium, she would take up residence in her staring chair, cast her yellowed eyes in our general direction, and mutter, “You look terrible. What would you do without me?” As kids, we didn’t think to point out the neat braids in our hair, the tidy kitchen, the way we had found our father again, free from her jealousy that usually drove us to withhold affection from them both. We just hugged her, if she let us, and said that we didn’t know what we would do. As we grew older, we said the same, only from across the room, the embrace fallen out of our repertoire. And we noticed that, though she had disappeared, we had not.
Mom did love theater, and she and dad came to all six performances of Brigadoon, even though I was only in the chorus. Dad didn’t even bother to videotape the scenes I wasn’t in. For those he did record, he ignored the main characters completely, zooming in on my exaggerated background gestures. If you watch the tape, you can clearly see my lips take the shape of my ad-lib mantra, “Peas and carrots. Bubblegum! Peas and carrots. Bubblegum!” Over and over again, no matter the emotion. My father made several copies for my fellow cast members, who were polite enough not to tell him they thought they were getting Middleton Community Theater Presents Brigadoon, and not Two Hours of Lydia Drinking Out of Empty Cups. After my mother watched the video, start to finish, she concluded that she “didn’t like this episode.”
My parents’ first date was at a two-bit off-off-Broadway musical. Lousy show, said mom. True, said dad, but your mother was one hot ticket. And then mom would repeat, it was a lousy show but your mother was one hot ticket, like she was speaking of some fun-loving older sister. But then her hand would find my father’s. Her hand was bigger than his, stronger. She never seemed to notice. I think she liked to believe he could stop her from breaking anything too important. The night of their date, my mother refused to be photographed, but did take a picture of my father smoking a cigarette during intermission. He is positively dapper in a red tie and the Chelsea boots he was so proud of. His free hand is outstretched, brandishing a wide drape of fabric that he’s trying to keep from brushing the pavement. Bright yellow. A single wing. “That’s my pashmina,” my mother said, “I must have been there.” But she wasn’t always so distant from her former self, didn’t always look at that pashmina as if it were a missing girl’s ribbon stuck in a barbed wire fence. Other times, she showed me the strapless little number that accompanied the wrap, even tried it on for me and Zoe one impossibly happy winter night where, sitting on our snowy stoop, she allowed each of us to dip a finger into her glass of white wine and taste it. Her hair was twisted up and her shoulders were bare and the moon above, a chipped but glorious spotlight, found all of us. “What a night,” she said, always oblivious to the cold, and we didn’t care if she was talking about us and the wine or that night with my dad, that dress. There were times when she was the mother we imagined. Times we wanted to be like her.
The bell-bottoms were hers. They were too long on me. Zoe offered to take them up three inches. She’d recently bought herself a used sewing machine and announced she was making a quilt. Mostly, she seemed to be cutting her favorite clothing into imprecise squares. I recently had seen her tearing the back pockets off of the jeans she’d begged for just a month before. My pants were her proof she had learned to actually thread a bobbin. She hemmed one blue leg, perfectly, and hung them on my doorknob. I didn’t bother trying them on until ten minutes before I had to leave for Yonkers.
She was at my bedroom door almost instantly.
“You only did one leg! I can’t wear these! I have to leave like now.”
“Shit,” she said. “I thought I…it took me forever.” She scanned my room, our old room. “Okay.” She went to the shelves and pulled two of the fattest encyclopedia volumes. “Stand on these.”
I stood. C and S. These were how most things started.
She found my stapler and went to work around my left ankle. I had to hold on to her head for balance. “Your hair is getting darker,” I noticed.
“I know,” she said. “I hate it.”
When she was done, it was slightly uneven, but I sort of liked the shine of the staples, a slim trail of jewelry. I swung my leg a bit, enjoying the small weight. With a nod, we agreed that she should staple the other side, too, for symmetry.
“Thanks,” I said. Her cheeks were a bit flushed when she stood. She looked familiar, pretty. “So what are you doing tonight?” I asked.
She grew confused and looked back down at my staples. “You know what? Fuck you.”
I acted like her response was bizarre, like I had simply asked a friendly question. But I knew, almost as the fuck and the you were clipping out of her mouth, that I had asked because she hadn’t done anything on any night in months.
Sometimes our fights dragged on for hours, involving every door in the house slamming at least once. Other times, we found that simply resurfacing in another room was enough, like the defeated girls staring into the fridge together had hurt each other in different ways than the angry girls in the bathroom who brushed their angry teeth, took an angry leak or two, and occasionally took angry turns showering while hashing it out. After I finished getting ready for the show, Zoe turned up in the kitchen and helped me find my keys, handed me my bag, even kissed me lightly on the cheek. I kissed her back, my lips smeared with crooked lipstick. On purpose.
“Do I look crazy enough?” I asked.
They were fighting in the hall, Stace and Mrs. Devereaux. Through the door, we heard of course and inappropriate, and contract. And then contract again. And then Stace stormed into the bedroom to find Jackson, Carol, and me strewn about the bed.
She shut the door behind her and took a long, slow breath.
“Well, this is ridiculous.” It wasn’t clear if she was talking about Mrs. Devereaux or the scene before her: Carol squeezed into one of the black evening gowns she’d found in the closet, sitting campfire-style in front of a dozen bottles of expensive perfume. Jackson still seated at the edge of the bed, calmly hunched over like an actor in a flight safety instructional video. Me, stretched out on the bedspread, propping my head up on my hand like a teenager, growing ill from Carol’s sampling. She kept shoving her wrist under my nose and I kept saying I can smell it from here.
But Stace was talking about Mrs. Devereaux.
“She’s making us finish the show,” she said. “Her brother’s a lawyer or something.”
“Was her brother the guy who dropped dead?” Carol asked. She adjusted her cleavage in Mrs. Devereaux’s gown.
“No.” Stace seemed now to notice Carol, disapprove, and then turned to me and Jackson. “Her brother is at the party, though, and told her if we left, it’d be a breach of contract. And the guy…Gregory… didn’t drop dead. At least I don’t think so.” She went on to explain that he was at the hospital, conscious, his wife by his side. Everyone else, except the lawyer brother, still thought it was part of the act. They were waiting for us downstairs. Vince was nowhere to be found. We had ten minutes. I met Stace’s eyes and tried to match her expression. Outrage. Disbelief. Underlying sadness. I must have done a good job because she rushed over and sat beside me, tugging her skirt down in respect for the situation. “Lydia, you’ve got to do it.”
At first, I thought she was saying that I had to stand up to Mrs. Devereaux. That she hadn’t been strong enough. I would tell her that we would not, under any circumstances, go on with the show. She could keep her dirty money. I’d tear up the contract. Maybe I’d march down the stairs and announce to the party guests that what they had here was a real tragedy. A cover-up! And that the cast of Cruel Christmas was not going to stand for it and we were leaving. And anyone who wanted to was welcome to join us! Crowd exits front door. Blackout. But it quickly became clear that Stace was saying something else. Carol nodded in approval and Jackson sat up and pulled on his suspenders, running his thumbs along the inside to untwist them. It was obvious. I had to kill Gregory.
Or, rather, I had to have killed Gregory. Strangling with the Christmas lights was out, obviously. Poison was probably the best weapon – something I slipped in his drink. Stace began talking through a new plot for Act Two, a shortened song list, a few encounters, my ultimate confession. I barely heard her.
“But I’m the red herring!” I said. “This won’t work!”
“Hon, it’s just for tonight. You know that. Next time we do this, I promise, I’ll die. And Jackson will kill me.”
Jackson put his giant hand on her knee, “Yeah,” and put on a pathetic Godfather accent. “It’s the family business.”
Stace pushed his hand away, not unkindly.
Carol said, “My aunt was almost an extra in that movie.”
“Look,” I said, grabbing a few of the perfume bottles to have someone else on my side. “It doesn’t make sense. There’s no motive.” They looked at me blankly. “I just love Elvis.”
“Those people downstairs are tanked.” Jackson was trying to reassure me. “Plus, you’re nuts. That’s the beauty of it. It doesn’t have to make sense.” He slapped his thighs and stood up. “Let’s get this over with.”
Carol needed five minutes, and help getting out of the gown. While I tugged on the silk in the walk-in closet, I tried to gain her support. I told her I didn’t see how I could possibly pull this off. My whole success with Holly Pine depended on my knowledge that she was innocent. Crazy, but not, you know, crazy. And how was Carol going to handle her own character? She, too, had been ready for Holly’s vindication. She said, simply, “When I was a kid, my favorite cat committed suicide. I can always use that in a pinch.”
“My god, that’s terrible.”
“You’ll think of something good.”
She put on her Christmas tree sweater and I redid my perfectly fine ponytail. Method acting was losing its luster. Besides, I wasn’t actually concerned about the believability of my performance. Our original script had Jackson as an ex-reindeer, for god’s sake. The guests were tanked. I just needed to sing another song, deny an accusation, lose more of my mind, and admit everything. I just needed to get it together.
I was not one for stage fright, and I’d played everything from a hobo to a showgirl. I’d been an old man, an orphan, a pirate, a milkmaid, and, at age four, the wind. Zoe draped me in a blue sheet, hesitated, and drew a big “W” on it, in case people didn’t get my costume. “It’s windy out!” I said. It was my first line. Never once did I worry, or understand why the kids around me were always throwing up and crying. Why the teenagers and adults always wanted to hold hands in an “energy circle” and breathe together. At the finale of my second grade dance recital, I bowed so close to the edge of the stage that the curtain closed behind me, vanishing everybody else. I remember the crowd laughing; I remember turning around to see what was so funny. It was me. So I hammed it up. I did some of my favorite moves from my routine (jazz squares, three quarters of a pirouette), and then did my best leaps, back and forth across the apron of the stage until my teacher emerged from the wings and guided me where I belonged.
In Brigadoon, I’d had a two second solo during the song of the vendors. Vince pretended to sell salted meat and boomed in a low baritone, “Come all to the square.” I was next, with my erratic soprano, selling nothing. I called out “The market square!” I cracked about half of the time, but didn’t really care. I’d learned early on that if your character was sassy enough, you could screw up your song and no one would notice. As a chorus member, I didn’t have a character, per se. But all I had to do was plant my hands on my hips, take a wide stance and wink at the audience. It didn’t matter that I sounded like a bird with a broken neck. It didn’t matter that I was no good. They bought it.
Mrs. Devereaux’s friends were no different. I sang “Don’t Be Cruel” to no one in particular, thrusting my hips and curling my lip in time with what was left of the band. The dwindling audience clapped or imitated my moves or tried to show me their moves, to teach me, but my heart wasn’t in it. When I finished, a man offered me a shot of something dark. I took it, and said, “Lousy show, huh?” He asked me whodunit and I said wasn’t it obvious and accepted another drink. Then he asked if I knew that Elvis had a twin brother named Jesse who died at birth. I said of course I knew that, because I was supposed to know things about Elvis, and who would lie about a dead twin. Then Carol was there, chiding me about the drink and reminding me about my “medication.” Then she sauntered over to the band to gear up for whatever song was next. Likely a breathy pop tune suited for her insubstantial voice.
In the next room, Stace and Jackson were pretending to fall in love, surrounded by the sleepier party guests who were draped across the furniture. I took the opportunity to escape to the bathroom. I didn’t have to go but needed a moment alone, and was new enough to alcohol that I still took a visual inventory of its progression. When did my skin flush. When did my eyes brighten. When did I lean too close to the mirror and whisper “fuck” in a mix of regret and delight.
The one time Zoe and I had been invited to drink with actual high school students, I’d made the mistake of challenging Tiffany Wells on her level of inebriation. “Tiffany,” I said, “you had two strawberry wine coolers. Two strawberry wine coolers do not make you strip to your underwear and have a screaming fit about the destruction of rain forests.” Tiffany, still half-naked but no longer screaming, would have none of it, and neither would her friends. They told me I had no idea, that there were times they’d been so drunk they don’t even remember what happened. That I was naïve or repressed if I thought she was faking it. That I had missed out on some wild, crazy shit and two wine coolers was a lot ‘cause Tiff was so skinny. On the way home, Zoe asked me if maybe they were right; it didn’t take much for some people. She said what if normal, well-adjusted Tiffany always wanted to rip off her clothes and scream about global warming. What if a dose of alcohol was just the permission slip she needed.
In retrospect, it would have been a good night to get good and drunk, but I didn’t get the chance. As I came out of the bathroom, into the hallway where I had murdered Gregory, I saw Vince. He was interviewing the woman in the red velvet pantsuit, handing her his detective business card. She put it in one of her red velvet pockets and then excused herself to go to the “little girls’ room,” winking at me as we traded places.
“Some interesting stuff,” Vince said, flipping through his notebook. “The guy was on heart medication.”
“Where have you been?” I asked. “Have you found Stace? Did she fill you in on the plan?”
Vince raised his eyebrows. “Plan?” and clicked his pen into the ready position. “What plan?”
“Forget it.” I said. Vince never broke character. He’d probably been interviewing people this whole time, swabbing the lips of their wine glasses and noting their shoe sizes. When the last matinee performance of Brigadoon was interrupted by a spastic fire alarm, Vince was the only one who didn’t mingle with the audience outside the theater, waiting for the fire trucks. We were all asking for sticks of gum and clarifying plot details for the hard of hearing and sitting on the concrete steps with our kilts and skirts hiked up, feeling the afternoon sun on our legs. Vince, on the other hand, was still hocking a plastic pork roast, which he’d instinctively grabbed when the alarm sounded, the one thing he couldn’t bear to lose in the flames. I knew a real fire was unlikely, but did consider if there was anything back in the dressing room, in the pockets of my jeans or the bottom of my backpack, that was worth saving. I couldn’t think of a thing, just evacuated.
So I tried to walk away from Vince, to leave him in the hallway, but he was tailing me. “Plan?” he kept saying. And then, more loudly, “Holly Pine was just talking about some secret plan!” I stopped in the living room, where there were the most people. “Perhaps a plan…for murder!?” We were in it now.
Carol came to my defense, apparently done with her song. “That’s enough! My sister couldn’t hurt a pussy cat!” I wondered how her own cat had done it. Hanging. Falling from a window ledge. Carol was summoning real tears now. “And she’s too….(sob)…out of her mind…(sob)…to execute any kind of plan!”
I could feel a slight second wind fill the room, as if a nearby window had broken and the winter air had revived us all. This is what the audience had been waiting for. By the fireplace, I saw Mrs. Devereaux. She was holding an expensive camera to her eye, and smiling again, if only to help her close one eye to get a firm focus. She was waiting for the perfect moment to press the button.
I don’t know when she did, just that we delivered. The show became a madhouse, exactly what they wanted. I denied it all, pointed fingers, covered my ears and curled up in a ball on the floor. Stace and Carol engaged in a much-applauded catfight. Jackson got to practice his fake punch on Vince, who leaned back on his heels, his arms circling like a bird backing up, until he tumbled over the furniture, an acrobat. Audience members jumped in and out of the way, rescuing their skirts and wine glasses. We shuffled our positions, lied about alibis. I went the wrong kind of crazy. Not funny at all. Slapping my palm against the bricks of Mrs. Devereaux’s walls until my hand went numb, moaning in protest. No one seemed to notice; it was all the same to them. By the time Carol made it over to me, my hair was matted to my face, darkening with sweat. She spun me around and grabbed my shoulders and said, “Holly, my god, is it true?”
I planned to laugh here, to really lose it for them. Only I couldn’t think of anything funny. Just a dead baby Elvis that looked a lot like Gregory. And Zoe. And me. So instead, I nodded and dropped my head, unable to look at any of them. I didn’t even resist Vince’s handcuffs, just stared at my staples which I realized looked nothing like jewelry. They looked exactly like staples: hasty, crazy. I hated them. Vince guided me up the stairs while the others wrapped up the show. Carol Pine, Mary Christmas, and Don Apparel would make apologies and forge some new kind of family. Holly Pine would never be heard from again.
We didn’t do curtain calls, so I started changing once I got rid of the handcuffs. I took off the bell-bottoms first, shoving them into my backpack, a shiny blue fist. Vince was there, and maybe looking, but that was fine. One of the perks of acting was that you were always getting to take your clothes off in front of people. It was normal to stand around in your underwear, asking if anyone had seen your car keys. It was encouraged. Downstairs, the band was starting something slow, and Stace began to sing the ballad she wrote for Cruel Christmas. She wrote one for every show; it was our trademark ending. The songs were mediocre, but her voice always made everybody forget to breathe. Vince and I both stopped undressing to listen. With the new plot, some of the details didn’t make sense. She sang about “a reindeer without a chance to dance” and crooned, “Will she miss us, that Mary Christmas?” I doubt anyone cared. We were rapt.
“Wow,” I said.
“My sister’s got quite the pipes.”
“Mine, too.” It didn’t matter that she didn’t. She had other things.
“You got a sister?”
Stace finished, her final note embellished with that shimmery thing a drum can do. The applause downstairs was generous, forgiving. Vince and I clapped too, half-dressed, until we felt the air begin to muscle around us. I laughed to dissolve it, and this time the laugh came easily. And didn’t want to stop coming. It sounded young in my ears; I wanted it to. I wanted Vince to see I was a kid. I wanted to not be in a house where you could stumble upon a body in the hallway. Where everybody had a sister that was better and worse than them. Where everybody had to stay. I changed into my t-shirt, my back to Vince, and found that Zoe was not as forgiving as the audience. At the center of the chest, a perfect diamond of cotton was missing, a stolen square for her quilt. I put my hand over it and cursed her and loved her for it, and covered it with another layer.
Despite Gregory, no one could deny the buzz of a good performance. I heard Jackson say that maybe they could tweak the script so Holly Pine could stay the killer. Carol agreed, smearing her face with Mrs. Devereaux’s cold cream. I bowed out of karaoke, said I needed to get home. Stace begged me to come, but then we just hugged like actors and the rest of us hugged like actors and I said I’ll see you at rehearsal on Tuesday. Vince looked sorry for something but the truth is, if Mrs. Devereaux’s house burned down he would have been the only thing I’d have cared to save.
Mostly everybody was gone when I got downstairs. A few men were shaking each other’s hands like they meant it. The band had vanished. In the foyer, I ran into the lady in the red velvet pantsuit.
“Oh! What fun. You did such a great job as Holly!” She spiraled a long scarf around and around her neck, still proud to have found Gregory, still lucky.
“Really. Excellent show.”
“Thanks.” I opened the door, letting her go first.
“Really. I think Holly was my favorite.”
“Thanks,” I said. We stood on the stoop together. It was cold but not that cold. She appeared to be waiting for a car to pull up front. “You know,” I said. “It wasn’t supposed to be her.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be her. She didn’t do anything. It was Don. He used to be a reindeer or something. They kicked him out. He wanted revenge.”
She cocked her head at me. I wondered how much of my lipstick was left. Her mouth tightened in sober distaste. “Okay, sure.” She checked again for her ride home. “Sure it was that tall fella.”
And then she spotted the headlights, the car slowing at the curb. She made her way down the steps to meet it, flapping one arm as if it might not otherwise stop. As if she might be left behind for good.
“No, really,” I said, but she was already pulling on the door handle, anxious for the driver to unlock it. “It’s true.”
Marianne Jay writes fiction and poetry at her home in Saxapahaw, North Carolina.