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After living her life in her actress mother's world of make-believe, ninth-grader Dandelion comes to realize that it is better to face reality.
Although constant rehearsals and several part-time jobs keep her mother, Susan, so much on the fly that they seldom eat together and only communicate with notes, Danny still feels close to her; when she finds out from others that her mother has lost her bread-and-butter TV-commercial job and is waitressing to make ends meet, Danny is mystified and angry at the deception. As a stubborn silence grows between them, Danny mourns the lack of any other family member to talk to. She knows her father only from a photograph, her mother's talk of courtship and divorce, and her own daydreams. She tracks him down, resulting in a reunion that's anything but the loving scene she had envisioned: In a series of painful revelations she learns that she's the result of a summer fling, that her parents never married, and that they had agreed to go their separate ways after her mother refused to have an abortion. Griffin (Rainy Season, 1996) creates a pair of appealing characters: the elder breezy, vivacious, and funny; the younger quieter, taller, and in several ways the more mature of the two. Their chemistry animates a plot that could have easily turned soapy and leaden. Some comic twists also lighten the load, as does an upbeat ending and Danny and Susan's emergence from the crisis even closer than they were before.
That's the only word Helen Keller has to say in this play the Bellmont Players performed three years ago. One line, at the very end of the play, right after Helen's teacher, Annie Sullivan, spells the word water into Helen's hand. Helen, who's blind and deaf, is supposed to get an excited gleam in her unseeing eyes, because finally she understands there's a name for this wet stuff. The stage directions read: "Helen falls to knees facing audience, splashes water from pump."
"Wa-wa!" Helen says in a voice that Louis, the director, said should be something between a grunt and a mutter. "After all," Louis explained, "she can't exactly hear herself saying it, right?" Right. Fade-out. The lights dim as the crowd begins its thunderous applause, satisfied by the well-known and emotional ending of a well-known and emotional play. Curtain.
So, one word. Easy enough. Unless anyone was hoping for thunderous applause. Here's what the reviews said:
The Philadelphia Éclat:
As Helen Keller, Danny Finzimer gives a shockingly wooden performance that left this reviewer uncertain whether to laugh or scream.
The St Germaine Weekly:
Finally, in one of the most difficult roles ever given to a child actor, Danny Finzimer's Helen lacks not only zim but also zam, zip, and any emotion in between.
The Suburban Review:
No word could accurately describe the pain of watching Danny Finzimer struggle with a role that, right from her opening scene, dangled entirely out of her grasp.
"Well, I myself am no stranger to the occasional bad review." Mom shrugged. "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?"
Here's what the Éclat said about Annie Sullivan:
Is there any greater joy this season than to watch Susan Finzimer's portrayal of that feisty Irishwoman, Miss Sullivan? She captures all the dignity and spirit of the role, while at the same time infusing it with her own sanguine vulnerability.
There were plenty more good Susan Finzimer reviews, but I think just one makes the point clear. What none of the papers mentioned was that Danny Finzimer's bad reviews were all because Susan Finzimer could not afford a five-night-a-week baby-sitter.
"But I'm not a Bellmont Player," I told Mom right at the beginning. "I don't know how to be Helen Keller. I don't know how to be anything except me." Even at age eleven, I knew my limitations. Mom rolled her eyes up to the ceiling for answers.
"Look," she said. "I've already been cast as Annie. That's a huge role and I'm going to be in rehearsal all the time. I can't just leave you alone in the apartment night after night. Louis said you're good as cast if you try out. Come on, Danny, it'll be fun."
While I didn't die from bad reviews, I doubt they made me any stronger. In fact, the only thing they did make me was thankful that anyone who really was blind and deaf would never be in the audience to see and hear the disaster of me being Helen Keller. Another unfortunate side effect of the play was that Mom got this crazy idea in her head that, bad reviews or not, our being in a show together was a positive mother-daughter experience, meriting an encore performance.
I've tried talking sense into her. "It's good enough for me when you go to my basketball games, Mom," I explained. "I like knowing you're in the bleachers, but I never want to pass you the ball."
"But As You Like It is a comedy, with singing. And that's a whole different ball game, right? Plus you have such a beautiful voice, such great comic timing."
Although Mom persists, I haven't given in. When I come home from basketball practice this afternoon, I'm not even too surprised by the note folded up against half a head of lettuce in the refrigerator.
There's bagels in the freezer to defrost for PB&J. I'll be back late. Louis said we need some more walk-ons for the wedding song, if you want to drop by and lend a voice. Get Gary to drive you—he already said he would. I'd love it if you came!
I toss the note in the trash and open the freezer.
"Knock knock." Gary's frizzy hair and one of his brown eyes appear from behind the apartment's front door. "You need a lift anywhere, like maybe the Bellmont People's Theater?"
"Very funny; I'm ignoring you. You want peanut butter and jelly on freezer-burned bagels?"
"Again? No, no thanks. Anyway, I told Susan you'd never want to, but you know what they say: hope springs maternal. How about pizza?" Gary picks up the wall phone. "My treat."
I shove the bagels back inside their low-ceilinged igloo of our almost never defrosted freezer.
"Half nitrites for you, half green pepper for me. Okay?" I nod; he's already speaking to the pizza guy.
Gary lives in our apartment building, in 4B (Mom and I live in 4M). He's an analyst for a computer software company, which in my mind conjures up a blurry image of Gary sitting in a windowless gray room full of computers. The great thing about his job, though, is that for every birthday Gary gives me an amazing top-of-the-line computer appliance. Last year it was a color printer, the year before, a laptop. My room looks like I'm some kind of gadget geek, which is pretty ironic since I've mastered only the basic word-processing programs.
"One pizza for two is on its way," Gary says as he hangs up. "You better eat a few of my green peppers, though, so you at least can pretend to be getting some vegetables inside you."
"Sure," I lie. Cooked green peppers taste like bad breath. But Gary thinks all people's health and emotional problems lead back to their not getting enough vitamins or exercise.
"And are you still on to do the AIDS walkathon next weekend? Did you find a sponsor?"
"My coach, Mrs. Sherman, said she would."
"Nice work, Wombat." Gary grabs my nose, pinching it between his knuckles.
The years I've known Gary, which is pretty much my entire life, can be traced through the history of his nicknames for me. He started out calling me Dandelion (my real name), which he shortened to D. L., which turned into Deal, then Deal-a-Meal, which became Mealie, Mealie-worm, and then for a long time Worm until about a year ago, when he settled in on Wombat. It's an annoying name, but I guess Wombat beats Mealie-worm.
Mom sometimes calls Gary my second mother, since he's constantly on my back about doing homework and not eating fried honey-and-banana sandwiches for dinner (one of Mom's specialties). When I was younger, I used to wish that Mom and Gary would get married, but that was before I completely understood about Elliot, Gary's boyfriend, who died of AIDS last spring. Elliot never would have let us order out for pizza; he would have invited me over to 4B for spaghetti with tofu meatballs and pretended to be mad when I fed a couple to Friday, their eternally hungry Labrador. I still really miss Elliot, and I know Gary does, too, even though he hardly ever talks about him.
"Hey, she's on in two minutes." Gary checks his sports watch. "Five twenty-eight, right? Before the local news. Where's your remote?" I buzz around the living room until I find it on top of the TV. Channel three is still running the credits on Laverne and Shirley. I flop in front of the set and open my math book. Gary sits down next to me.
"So, she told you, right?"
"Told me what?" I look up from the book.
"That she lost the deal? That they didn't—wait, turn it up." He presses the remote and the red thermometer of the volume bar inches upward. I stare at the screen, now starring Mom, who stands in the middle of a phony TV kitchen much bigger and way more expensive-looking than our tiny although hardly ever used one.
"My husband, Ned." She sighs and rolls her eyes at the sound of a deafening offscreen crash. "You can always depend on him to break anything he tries to fix. Which is why I always shop at Kahani's." The screen flashes to a split-screen shot of all three Kahani's appliance stores. Mom's voice-over rings tunefully, "Right off Route 29 in Kingston, the Kingston Plaza, or the Bide Away Shopping Mall, all Kahani stores have brand-name items, full-service warranties, and unbeatable everyday low prices. And Kahani's will match the lowest prices of any other store. That's right, any other price at any other store. Just bring in your receipt."
The screen switches back to Mom in her fake kitchen. A little girl, much younger and cuter than I am, runs in holding a sudsy shirt. Soap bubbles are blowing everywhere.
"Mommy, Mommy, Daddy tried to fix the washer," the girl squeals. Mom laughs and takes the shirt. "Don't worry, honey There's always a Kahani's location nearby." Then, the same shot of Kahani's, this time with the phone numbers and addresses flashing below it in yellow type.
"Mom says that kid who plays her daughter has major halitosis."
"Hand it to Susan, though. Only she could make the happy homemaker look like a stellar career move." Gary yawns and stretches his arms over his head. "She at rehearsal?"
"Yep, a late one. But what were you saying before, Gary? About losing a deal?"
"I feel very spill-the-beans-ish if you don't know." Gary squeezes the tip of his earlobe, a nervous habit he swears he doesn't have. "But the whole Kahani's chain is going bottom-up. With everyone buying from Value Center these days, Mr. and Mrs. Kahani decided to sell the business and spend their millions in a retirement resort in New Mexico. Which is great for them but bad for Susan, since that means they're not renewing her contract."
"Oh, wow." I close my math book and set it on the coffee table. "Even the New Jersey and Delaware stores?"
"She told you that? She told you and not me?" Gary nods. He looks uncomfortable. "Wow. When'd you find all this out?"
"Couple of days ago. Don't say I said anything, Wombat."
"No, I wouldn't." The news really shakes me up, though. I can't stop thinking about it, even after Gary leaves.
Mom has been Ned's Wife for as long as we've lived in Foxwood, which is over eleven years—ever since we moved out of Philadelphia. The running joke of the ads is how you never see Ned—he's always off camera, making crashing, klutzy sounds. Mom's the star of all the Kahani's commercials, which makes her sort of a local celebrity; her picture is even up at the Laundromat. But more important than that, the Kahani's money provides a sizable chunk of our budget. Mom also teaches middle and upper school chorus, plus upper school drama club on Wednesdays and Fridays at my school, as well as being the box-office manager for the Bellmont People's Theater. She is one of the Bellmont Players, too, although unfortunately acting in a Bellmont production is nonpaying. Mostly, it's all the Kahani's ads that pay our rent.
Cleaning for diversion is not a trait I inherited from Mom, so there's plenty to keep me busy. I straighten and stack and even sweep a hand vacuum over the living-room curtains, which have collected a furry coat of dust. Mom's taste in decorating runs to buying yards of fabric, then draping it over all the walls, windows, and furniture. She picks only shades of off-white, too—colors like eggshell and buttermilk and vanilla. There's so much pale fabric draped and swathed through our apartment that Gary says it looks like a bridal shop.
After vacuuming the fabric, I use a ripped pillowcase to dust the bookshelf crowded mostly with pictures of me. A faded snapshot of Rick Finzimer, my dad, grins at me from its frame. In the picture, he's rock climbing and the background shows a mist of clouds edging the soft tips of a mountain range. When I was little I thought he was in heaven. Now I know he was only in Tibet, during the summer of his junior year in high school, so in the photo he's just a couple years older than I am now. His unworried smile is the one and only expression of his I know. I dust him off, too.
"You can clean but you can't hide," I imagine him saying through his white teeth. "What's going to happen without the Kahani's money? What are you and Mom going to do?" I frown at his smile and work my way back to the kitchen, then my room, then Mom's, where I attempt a search for the carpet, buried under piles of laundry, magazines, and crumpled Kleenexes.
The whole time I'm cleaning, I'm mentally riffling through the week, searching for clues about the Kahani's contract. Mom has been preoccupied, definitely, but I figured it was mostly due to the As You like It last-minute switch. She'd been depressed about being Celia.
"Celia's so plain pudding," Mom complained whenever she and I ran lines. "How can Louis do this to me?" Louis adores Mom, though, and so last Friday he switched the Rosalind and Celia roles, and supposedly Laura Drinker, the old Rosalind, pitched a big temper tantrum and threw a stack of light gels right at the back of Louis's bald head.
The last stop is the bathroom. As I'm scrubbing the sink I look up and catch my reflection in the mirror.
"Oh, terrific." Little aspirin-sized red blotches are spattered over my chest and neck. Gross-looking but harmless, they appear whenever I'm anxious about something. The first time I got them was in kindergarten. Mom rushed me to the doctor. After three very different but all embarrassing tests, Dr. Gavin finally pulled out the problem I'd been holding inside: that earlier in the day I'd fed our class rabbit, Trouble, some fingerpaints and was scared he was going to die.
The whole apartment is pin straight by the time the eleven o'clock news airs. I've even polished every piece of the glass collection we inherited in bulk after Mom played Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
I sit tiredly in front of the TV, as Hal "Troubleshooter" Drummond explains how he and his news crew have discovered that some local movie theaters are storing popcorn in mouse-infested closets before putting it in those glass display cases. I close my eyes and try to recall any type of mouse taste from the last time Portia and I got popcorn at the movies. It's hard to remember, and I feel my bones starting to soften in their sockets, promising sleep.
I jump, knocking my math book off my lap. Mom stands over me. Her overcoat smells like cigarettes and wet leaves. "You must have fallen asleep."
"What time is it?"
"Almost one. Hungry?"
"No, but—ugh." I run my tongue over my pasty teeth. A Clint Eastwood western is on the TV screen, orange-tinted film flickering on mute. "I need to brush my teeth and change."
"I'll make tea? And I have some sashimi, half price from Sakuro."
"Okay to the tea."
Mom and I don't usually follow the schedules that most other families have. Ever since I was little, bedtime has been whenever you fall asleep in the middle of whatever you're doing. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner happen when you're hungry, and the menu for those meals often gets switched around: half a leftover cheesesteak for breakfast, cereal for dinner, M&Ms and a grapefruit for lunch. Mom and I are also big fans of anything-goes omelettes, filled with whatever we unearth in the fridge or cupboard. One Thanksgiving we made them with chopped-up turkey franks because we'd forgotten about the holiday until it was too late and all the grocery stores had closed.
When I come back out to the kitchen ten minutes later, Mom has two cups of chamomile tea ready. Tuna sashimi is slabbed over some well-toasted bagels.
Mom's eyes are tired and glowing.
"Good rehearsal?" I ask, although I know the answer.
"So great. You never came, though. I knew you wouldn't," Mom adds quickly. "But everyone was asking for you." She sips her tea and it burns her mouth; she slops the cup back on the place mat. "Hot."
"Will Ken and Frannie come for opening night?"
Ken and Frannie Massara, Mom's superreligious foster parents, moved from Philadelphia down to Florida a few years ago. They sometimes come up and see Mom in plays, although they always first make her tell them if there are dirty words or sex parts, so they can be prepared. I don't know them too well, but personally I think the Massaras are strange.
Excerpted from Split Just Right by Adele Griffin. Copyright © 1997 Adele Griffin. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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