With four hysterical little girls running from my left and from my right, I could only think of one thing: I never wanted to go to Oklahoma.
A month earlier, when my dance teacher announced that the whole school, including my intermediate tap class, was going to entertain Evening Star Retirement Village in a Broadway-themed show because old people would already know the words to the songs, I was pretty excited. I was 12. It would be my first real performance for people I wasn’t related to and I was eager to show off my showbiz skills, of which I assured myself I had many. I was dedicated. I could sing just like Judy Garland if the music was loud enough. I had a bold ball change.
While other classes danced to “The Sound of Music” and snapped along to “West Side Story,” we shuffled off to “Oklahoma!” as the audience of the infirmed, dazed, and mummified barely gazed in our direction, as tiny, pin-sized beads of sweat formed a horizon over my upper lip. I hit every mark and was in time to the music, even as the four-year-old next to me spun out of control and unprofessionally wandered the “stage,” which was really just a cleared-out space at the end of the cafeteria.
It didn’t matter. I was in it for the reward, the shower of applause that our audience was about to deliver after the chorus ended and we finished big with a heel click, turn, and jazz hands.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, from the back of the cafeteria, an old man, his face sagging and folded, rolled himself to the front of the “stage.”
“We know we belong to the land/ And the land we belong to is grand…”
Listen to Denali Gillaspie read Laurie Notaro’s “Showbiz Folk Hero”
And at first, I wasn’t sure what was happening. Sure, I was 12, but I had two sisters, no brothers. And we were Roman Catholic. Biology hid behind a dark curtain in our house. In a box that was hammered shut with nails of shame.
“And when we say / Yeeow! Ayipioeeay!”
The things I was sure of were this: The old man’s fly was open, I know because I watched him unzip it. And suddenly, a puddle began to spread on the floor, bigger, larger, heading right toward a big finish, as was I.
Not even the shrieks of my fellow cast could divert my attention. It you’re showbiz folk, you’re showbiz folk. Everybody else should just buy a ticket. I had a routine to finish and I was there to entertain my audience. Even the one who was getting pulled away from the stage now had paper napkins stacked in his lap by a nurse. I was a dancer, I was going to dance until I was the only one on stage, as the other performers shot off stage with looks of horror and the unprofessional four-year-old was hyperventilating. My teacher lifted the needle off the record player and the only sound that could be heard in the cafeteria was the lone tap, tap, tap of my forging on with my unplanned solo.
It was definitely not, in any way, OK.
Published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 7, April 1, 2014.