"I didn't get the part," Beebe said. She leaned against the door, and waited.
"You didn't get the part?" her mother repeated. She turned slowly in her chair, fastened her eyes on Beebe's face, and waited.
Beebe tried to avoid looking at her mother's face, at the pain sure to be spreading down from her eyes to her mouth. The pattern was always the same.
"No," she said quickly. "Jennifer Evans got it." With a false and exhausting show of enthusiasm, Beebe added, "She was very good. I'm Lady Montague, and I can also be Juliet's understudy if I want. I'll probably do it. I know a lot of the part already, so I may as well. Mrs. Kronberger said I could try out for the nurse, but I knew I wouldn't get that. Rebecca Chin got it. She always gets the funny parts. And besides, I wouldn't want to be the nurse anyway." She was chattering away nervously. She knew she was, and she tried to stop herself but she couldn't.
"But ... but ... you knew the part perfectly, and you sounded ... I thought ..." The disappointment in her mother's voice was heavy and familiar. Every time Beebe had tried out for a leading part, and failed to get it, there invariably followed the scene with her mother afterwards.
In a way, that was the worst part. Her mother suffered so much over her lack of success that she felt squeezed and flattened. Like a pressed duck, she often thought, seeing them hanging up in Chinese groceries.
"I get to wear a stunning green gown with a tight-fitting cap, covered with gold braid and pearls. It's funny how they have the costumes already even though they don't have all the parts filled."
Her mother shook her head and waved a hand angrily downwards. She wasn't interested in costumes. She was interested only in why Beebe hadn't gotten the leading part. Why she never got the leading part.
Sometimes Beebe also wondered. But usually she was too worried about how to break the news to her mother to think about anything else. Sometimes, even before she actually tried out for a role, she would already be worried about consoling her mother and acting cheerful over being rejected.
Ever since third grade, when she had tried out for the part of the girl in The Night Before Christmas and had only succeeded in being picked for one of Santa's reindeer, there had been the scene afterwards with her mother. And always, her mother's grief and disappointment seemed deeper than her own.
Beebe stopped talking suddenly, took a few deep breaths, and tried to summon up the standard words of comfort she generally offered to her mother--like a bouquet of wilted flowers. They included "... next time ... said I was really very good ... don't really mind ... not really important... too much homework anyway this term ..."
But first her mother had to speak those few bitter words that included "... don't know real talent when they see it ... one of those teacher's pets ... mother probably president of the PTA ..."
Beebe waited as her mother's eyes narrowed and her lips parted across her clenched teeth. How pretty her mother was, she thought, even with her face so tight and angry. Her mother should have been an actress, would have been an actress, too, if she hadn't met and married Beebe's father. She had acted leading parts in a whole bunch of school and summer-stock plays, and was playing Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing that summer when they had met.
"He was so sweet," she told Beebe. "He had seen me act...." Whenever Beebe's mother talked about that summer, her face brightened. "He came with some of his friends to the play. One of them lived in Sonoma. That's why he was there in the first place. It's so funny how so many things in life are like that. If his friend didn't live up there, and if he didn't come to visit him, and if somebody hadn't given them a couple of extra tickets, they never would have come. Your father wasn't at all interested in Shakespeare." At this point, her mother always leaned back and laughed out loud. Sometimes Beebe would join in--not interested in Shakespeare! Imagine, her own father not being interested in Shakespeare!
"But then, but then," said her mother, eyes shining, mouth smiling, "then, he said, when he saw me, he said I was the whole play ... the best one ... and it was true, Beebe. I was. Then, he said, then he got interested in Shakespeare ... because of me."
Again her mother would laugh, and Beebe would laugh too. Those were the best times for both of them--talking about the past when Beebe's mother had been a young, lovely actress and Beebe's father had fallen in love with her.
"So there I was, eating breakfast all alone in one of those dinky diners, and up comes this guy--a sweet, little guy--and he says, 'Pardon me, Miss, but weren't you in the play last night?'
" 'Yes,' I say to him, 'Yes, I was.'
" 'You were wonderful,' he says. 'I never saw anybody act like you. But I don't want to interrupt you. I just wanted to tell you I thought you were wonderful. I'll never forget you.' "
Beebe's mother's face sometimes when she got to this point looked so young and happy that Beebe wanted her to stop talking. To just stop and remember that perfect time when nothing was wrong.
Because afterwards everything went wrong. Not right away because they married within the year, and, even though Beebe's mother got pregnant, she and Beebe's father agreed that wouldn't stop her from acting. Nothing would stop her.
But something did. Beebe's father developed leukemia. That stopped her. And when he died there was no money, and a full-time job to contend with, and Beebe to take care of, and Beebe's career as an actress to develop.
Beebe waited, leaning against the door, for the bitter words her mother would speak next, and prepared to counter with soft, soothing words of her own. She watched the tension in her mother's face, saw the taut lines of her lips as they stretched across her teeth--it was all so familiar--and now those harsh words would issue forth... ,
Suddenly, surprisingly, Beebe's mother's face changed. Her mouth softened, her eyes opened, and she said--she actually said--''Well, never mind, Beebe. It's not the end of the world."
Beebe crumpled up against the door. "Wh-what?" she asked.
Her mother smiled. "I said it's not the end of the world, Beebe. You did the best you could. I know you did. I heard you--you were marvelous. But if you're going to be an actress, you're just going to have to get used to a certain amount of rejection. You have to be a little tougher skinned." She cocked her head to one side, and inspected Beebe as she clung to the door. "You take things much too hard, honey. You really do. I keep telling you not to make such a big deal of it."
Beebe burst out crying. She was sixteen years old, and for at least eight years now, she had never been able to cry over all those years of rejection. Her mother had cornered the market on suffering until now, for the first time, Beebe was able to play the leading role.
It was wonderful. She wept. She raged. She screamed at her mother that Jennifer Evans, who got the part of Juliet, was a big, stupid girl with a loud voice who made Juliet sound like a yodeler. She cried that Mrs. Kronberger hadn't even let her finish reading the part, had been distracted, and hadn't really listened. That it wasn't fair. That she hadn't had a real chance. That none of it was fair, that it never was.
Somewhere along the line, she had been gathered up into her mother's arms, and it was all so lovely having her mother rock her and croon soft, soothing words in her ear. "... next time ... never mind ... it's not so important...."
Beebe did not want to waste the opportunity. She attacked each person who had gotten a major role (except for Dave Mitchell/Romeo) and then went on to complain about the lousy acoustics and the noisy seats. Her mother continued rocking and crooning, so Beebe moved on to all the other painful areas in her life. There were years of hurts, slights, and failures to lament--how much her new contacts irritated her eyes, the B+ on her book report in English--a host of possibilities crowded into her head, clamoring to be heard, and Beebe had just taken a deep, satisfying breath before continuing when her mother said quickly, pushing her away slightly and smiling down into her face, "I know what. Let's go out to dinner."
"I can't," Beebe wailed. "I have to go to the library and get started on that dumb report for history. I haven't got time to eat."
Which wasn't true, as her mother pointed out. "We'll have a quick bite, and then I'll drive you over to the library and get some books out for myself at the same time. You can pick the restaurant."
The food was so good at the new Thai restaurant, and Beebe was so hungry, that it wasn't until she had gobbled down the curried chicken and most of the Pad-Thai that she realized her mother was hardly eating anything.
"What's wrong, Mom?" Beebe said nervously. "You're not eating anything."
Not that Beebe's mother was such a big eater at any time. Both Beebe and her mother were small and slim, but usually it was Beebe's mother who had to urge Beebe to eat and not the other way around.
"Oh, nothing's the matter," her mother said, poking the food on her plate with her chopsticks but not raising any of it to her lips. She smiled at Beebe, and her pretty face quivered with excitement. "Everything's fine--really fine. The sale ended today."
"Oh?" Beebe examined her mother's face questioningly. Something had to be responsible for that heightened glow. "Did you buy yourself any shoes?"
Her mother worked as an assistant sales manager in a very expensive shoe store. Most of the shoes came from France or Italy, and generally her mother spoke bitterly of the wealthy women who could afford to buy three or four pairs of shoes at a time, shoes that sold for hundreds of dollars a single pair. Beebe's mother had beautiful, slim legs and graceful, high-arched feet, but it was only after a sale that the staff was allowed to buy the dregs and leftovers, the mismatched shoes, the ones with scuffs and flaws.
"No, I didn't buy anything," her mother said cheerfully. "That dental bill last month was a killer, and you're going to need a new jacket."
Beebe picked up some of the noodles with her chopsticks, and carried them to her mouth. She savored their clear, sharp, sweet taste and chewed slowly. It didn't seem to her that the dental bill or the new jacket should be making her mother so happy.
Her mother laughed out loud and pushed the food around some more. "But I really did enjoy the day. It was a ... fun day."
"Oh?" Beebe swallowed a mouthful of noodles, and waited.
"We were busy, busy, busy from the moment I opened the store until we closed. And Florence Sadler didn't show up again. That woman is impossible. No call. No nothing. As far as I'm concerned, she's finished. So the rest of us had to kill ourselves taking care of the customers, and I couldn't even stop for lunch."
This was a much more familiar conversation, except for her mother's cheerful recounting of it.
"And then, at just about three in the afternoon, when I was trying to help a bunch of customers at the same time, Melissa asked me to deal with this man who wanted to return a pair of Maud Frizon shoes bought on sale yesterday. I explained to him that the sale was final, and that we never give refunds for this kind of special sale but would be willing to let him have a credit. No! He said no! He wanted the money. He really became almost unpleasant." Beebe's mother was smiling now.
"But you're used to people like that," Beebe said. "Aren't most of your customers unpleasant?"
"Oh, yes," said her mother, nodding. "Oh, yes. But then most of them are rich, older women. And this man--well, he must be around my age, nice looking, tall, red-headed--not dressed in business clothes, not anybody who works on Montgomery Street, that's for sure.
Now Beebe was finished. She laid her chopsticks on her plate and waited.
Her mother also laid her chopsticks down. "He said his sister bought the shoes, and that she was home with a sick kid and asked him to return them for her. He said she really needed the money, and I kept right on explaining the store's policy. So after a while, he calmed down. I told him again, as pleasantly as I could, that we would be happy to give him a credit, but he said no." Beebe's mother shook her head and smiled. "He said he would come back tomorrow and continue the argument. He asked me to have lunch with him, and I said ..."
"Yes," Beebe finished the sentence.
"No! I said no." Her mother's cheeks grew pink. "But I guess I didn't say it very strongly, because he
said he would be back tomorrow around noon, and he hoped I would change my mind."
"I have to go to the library," Beebe said, standing up. "That report is due in a few days, and I have to get started."
Her mother dropped her in front of the library. "I'll park," she said, "and meet you inside."
As Beebe hurried up the stairs, she thought nervously about her mother. It was seldom that her mother ever went out with men. Once in a while, some friend would come up with a divorced brother or a neighbor with a widowed son. Nobody her mother had ever liked especially. She hardly ever met any men at the store. It surprised Beebe to see her mother so animated. Of course, she had no objection to her mother meeting some nice man--eventually. At least, she didn't think she had any objection.
Somebody at the top of the stairs held the door open for her, and she murmured "Thanks!" as she passed inside.