Queen for a Day ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
The year is 1958 and Mrs. Thelma Caswell has applied to go on the TV show Queen for a Day. That’s the show where four contestants, all women, go in front of a studio audience and tell their unhappy stories. Delivery is everything because the audience votes for the saddest, most deserving story, with its applause; that is, the loudest applause determines the winner. (There can be no doubt about which story garners the loudest applause because it’s registered on a scientific instrument known as the “applause-o-meter.”)
The lucky winner is given what she wants and needs most to make her difficult life more bearable, whether it’s a wheelchair or a washing machine or an iron lung—sometimes all those things. The losers are given a basket containing colorful little bars of soap, a set of shot glasses, and coupons for reduced prices on lobster dinners.
One month after applying to be on the show, Thelma is asked to come to the television studio where the show is produced for what they call an “initial interview.” The “producers” of the show (a fat man and a mannish woman) want to speak to her to make sure she is “telegenic” enough and won’t “freeze up” in front of the television cameras and the studio audience. Thelma is told at the end of the interview, which takes an entire afternoon, that she will be notified of the producers’ decision regarding her suitability to be a contestant on the show.
In the days and weeks that follow, she won’t allow herself to become excited at the possibility of being on Queen for a Day. In fact, she tries to put it out of her mind because there is a very real possibility they won’t want her. For that reason, she doesn’t tell her husband, her children, or any of her friends or family; she will tell them if and when she is chosen to be on the show.
Finally, when she least expects it, she receives the phone call. She is requested to be at the television studio at ten o’clock for a twelve o’clock taping of Queen for a Day on Thursday. When she hangs up the phone, her hands are shaking and for a few minutes she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She seems to be walking on air. When she regains control of her senses, she immediately starts going through her closet to see what she has to wear. She doesn’t see anything that she can stand anymore, so she goes shopping.
She tries on many dresses in the store but has a hard time deciding. Since the show is in black and white (color is still a few years away), she thinks she will look better in a light color, although black or navy blue will make her appear thinner. (She has put on a lot of extra weight in the last couple of years and she has heard somewhere that TV cameras add fifteen or twenty pounds to a person’s appearance.) She settles on a simple white silk dress with peach-colored trim, elegant but not flashy. She can’t think about how much it cost.
On the day before the taping, she spends six hours in the beauty parlor, availing herself of all the services they have to offer. She gets a henna rinse, a cut, and a permanent wave that makes her hair look like a poodle dog, but still she believes she looks better than she has ever looked in her life.
That night she hardly sleeps at all. She didn’t think she would be nervous, but now that it’s getting so close she feels as if she might die. She feels alternately sick with dread and giddy with excitement. In the morning she’s up long before she needs to be and spends hours on getting dressed, “putting on her face,” and getting her hair just so. When finally it’s time to leave for the TV studio, she feels thoroughly exhausted.
She can’t find a place to park so she squeezes her car in at the end of a block too close to a fireplug. She is sure she will have a parking ticket when she comes out but that’s a trivial matter, she believes, that she will deal with when the time comes.
She expects the emcee of the show, Durwood Sherwood, to be there to greet her with a little hug and a peck on the cheek, but instead she is directed to a third-floor office where she finds herself before a middle-aged woman behind a desk with facial hair and big glasses that make her look like an unhappy owl. The woman gives Thelma a stony look and bites down on her dentures.
“May I help you?” she asks.
“I’m here to be on the show,” Thelma says.
“What show might that be?”
“Why, Queen for a Day!”
“I know,” the woman says with a laugh. “I was just messing with you. Queen for a Day is the only show taping today. What’s your name?”
“All right. Have a seat. I’ll let them know you’re here.”
Thelma sits on an orange plastic couch while the woman picks up a phone and murmurs into it words that Thelma is not able to make out. In a few minutes a door opens and the fat man who Thelma met earlier as one of the producers of the show emerges.
“How nice to see you again, Miz Caswell!” he says, holding out his hand for her to shake. “Please follow me.”
He takes hold of her arm as if she is blind and leads her down a hallway.
“Are you excited about being on Queen for a Day?” he asks.
“Oh, yes!” she says.
“Well, right this way.”
He takes her around a corner and stops at another door. He opens it and gives her a little shove inside. “Well, have fun!” he says and then he’s gone.
The other three contestants are sitting in chairs against the wall like in a doctor’s waiting room, smiling at her wanly. She sits down with them, making four. It’s quiet in the room and nobody is saying anything, as if they are in a church. It doesn’t seem to Thelma like the kind of room they put you in before you go on TV. She wonders if she is in the right place or if they have mistaken her for somebody else.
Soon a man with a clipboard comes in and gives them nametags that he instructs them to put on their chests over their hearts. There’s Buffy, Chichi, Peaches, and Thelma.
“We use only first names,” he says. “You’ll be up in alphabetical order, but you don’t need to worry about that. Durwood will cue you. Now, if we’re all ready, we’ll go in and meet the studio audience.”
They all stand up as if they are one and follow the man out of the room. He takes them through a labyrinth of dark passages lined with what looks like clutter until they come to a black curtain. He arranges them in a line in reverse alphabetical order (Thelma, Peaches, Chichi, and Buffy), opens the curtain and motions for them to go through it.
The studio audience, numbering about five hundred, has already been sitting for two hours. They have been “primed” and are relaxed and ready to be entertained. They are cued to applaud at the entrance of the four contestants.
“And here they are!” Durwood Sherwood announces in his sonorous voice. “There are four of them! They are all worthy! But only one of them will be. Queen! For! A! Day!”
The audience applauds wildly again while the contestants take their places behind four little podiums bearing their names. Two cameras roll forward to beam their movements to the millions of people watching at home.
After Durwood has dispensed with the preliminaries, it’s time to get down to the business of hearing from the contestants. Buffy is first.
“I think you have a very special story to tell us, don’t you, Buffy?” Durwood cues her.
“Well, Durwood,” she says, “I used to be a bareback rider in the circus.”
“Ohhhhhh!” sighs the audience.
“During a performance to a packed house two years ago, the horse I was riding stumbled and fell. I, of course, was thrown forward. Two clowns tried to catch me but they missed. I landed on a low wall that was used to separate the audience from the performers. I had serious neck injuries.”
Here she pauses for effect and points to her neck brace that is, oddly enough, the same color green as the dress she is wearing, making it look as if she has no neck at all. Her black hair interspersed with gray is splayed over the neck brace to her shoulders. Her mouth is a wide, grim, lipless line. As she stares into the TV camera, she looks like a frog about to catch a fly.
“I was in a coma for two weeks,” she continues. “When I woke up, my doctors told me I would never ride again. Bareback riding was all I knew. There I was, my livelihood taken away, with two children and no husband. My daughter desperately wants to go to modeling school. She is so pretty and everybody who has ever seen her believes she has a future in modeling. If we had enough money to put her through school, she could get herself a good job and support the family while I get myself back on my feet.”
The audience is here cued to applause. The applause is interspersed with whistles and cheers.
“Now we have Chichi,” Durwood says. “Chichi, won’t you tell us your story?”
“Well, Durwood,” Chichi says in a breathy whisper, “my husband and I have eight children.”
“Ahhhhhh!” sighs the audience.
“We were always able to get along quite well on my husband’s salary, but he got into a fight with the foreman at the factory where he worked and got fired. That was six months ago. He hasn’t been able to find another job. When his unemployment runs out, we won’t have any income. He’s depressed and has been drinking quite heavily. I think he’s seeing another woman.”
Here she lowers her head and squeezes her eyes shut. The camera moves in for a close-up, showing the ugly splotches on her face and bare upper arms. For a few seconds she can’t speak at all.
“I know this is difficult,” Durwood says sympathetically.
When she speaks again, her voice is a-tremble. “If we had the money for my husband to go to trade school, he could get a good job as an auto mechanic and everything would be all right again. It would give him a new purpose in life and would make him stop drinking and running around so much.”
“That’s wonderful!” Durwood says, holding up his arms to indicate that Chichi is finished. The audience applauds.
“Now let us hear from Peaches,” he says. “Peaches, won’t you tell us your story?”
“Well, Durwood,” she says, her fleshy chin wobbling. “My husband Stan and I have four beautiful children, two boys and two girls. The oldest is twelve and the youngest four.”
“And there’s something quite different about your husband Stan, isn’t there?” Durwood prompts her.
“Yes,” she says in a kind of drawl, ”Stan is four foot tall. He’s a midget!”
Here a picture of a tiny, smiling man is flashed on the screen. He’s wearing a tuxedo and top hat and is carrying a cane. The audience applauds and cheers.
“And I couldn’t love him more if he was six-and-a-half foot tall!” Peaches shrieks.
“Ahhhhhh!” sighs the audience.
She pivots her head from side to side, obviously enjoying the attention. Her eyes are tiny slits and her cheeks apple-like, her head an inverted black bowl.
“I’ve always been a short woman,” she says, “but I’m a whole foot taller than he is!”
The camera pans out over the audience to show how much they are enjoying this moment.
“All is not well, though, at your house, is it, dear?” Durwood asks.
“No,” Peaches says, a handkerchief at the ready. “Stan works as a bouncer in a nightclub. The pay is meager, at best, but he works very hard and loves all of us very much.”
“Ahhhhhh!” sighs the audience.
“Our youngest son, Leroy, is four,” she says.
“And is Leroy a midget, too?” Durwood asks.
“No, he isn’t. He’s normal-sized. Although he’s only four, he’s almost as tall as his father and is going to be a big man some day.”
“Bless his heart!” Durwood says.
She waits a moment for the laughter to subside before she continues. “The problem is not with his height but with his eyes. He has a rare eye disorder and will go completely blind in the next few years if he doesn’t have an eye operation. We aren’t able to afford the operation on the money Stan makes as a bouncer. We already have a second mortgage on our house and can’t borrow another cent until we pay off the debts we already have. That will take years and it might be too late to save little Leroy’s eyesight.”
She begins crying uncontrollably, covering her eyes, and the audience almost swoons with sympathy.
Durwood gives a big sigh and looks directly into the camera. His eyes are moist. “We’ll all be rooting for little Leroy, won’t we?” he says earnestly, and the audience breaks into thunderous applause.
After a few seconds he holds up his hands to bring the applause to an end. “And, now,” he says, “that brings us to our final contestant, Thelma. Thelma, won’t you tell us your story?”
“Well, Durwood,” she says, feeling more at ease than she expected, “I don’t know where to begin. My husband is in prison and has no hope of getting out for at least six more years. We spent all the money we had for his defense. I have a sixteen-year-old daughter, Lulu, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. She believes aliens from outer space are trying to kidnap her and she needs constant supervision. My eleven-year-old son, Raphael, is an albino. He’s very smart but he has to go to an expensive special school because the kids in public school would kill him.”
“Ohhhhhh!” sighs the audience.
“Our house is heavily mortgaged and we’re behind in the payments,” she continues. “The bank is about to foreclose. I’d like to have enough money to make the back payments to keep us in the house for a few more months until I can finish the novel I’m writing and get it published. It’s sure to be a bestseller.”
“Well, well, well,” Durwood says. “We wish you and your family all the best!” He faces the audience and raises his arms as a signal for them to applaud.
When the applause subsides, he holds the microphone in both hands and looks reflectively at the floor. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “we’ve heard the stories from our four contestants. Now the time has come for members of our studio audience to vote with their applause for the contestant they believe is most worthy to be crowed Queen for a Day!”
There’s a little bit of stage resetting as Durwood retreats to the left away from the contestants and the TV camera rolls in for close-ups. The first close-up is of Buffy. The picture the audience sees at home is Buffy’s face with the applause-o-meter on the bottom half of the screen. The audience applauds, with some cheering and whistling interspersed. The needle on the applause-o-meter goes over about three quarters of the way. The same with Chichi. Then Peaches. Then Thelma. There is a drum roll. All four contestants are nearly tied, but the judges determine that the needle advanced just a little more for Peaches than for the others. Peaches is Queen for a Day! It was the blind baby and the midget husband that did it!
Peaches is crowned and robed to the cheering of the audience. She cries, screams, and jumps up and down. When the hoopla subsides, Durwood announces in an excited voice that little Leroy will have an eye operation at the finest eye clinic in the country and his eyesight will be saved, all because his mother was crowned. Queen! For! A! Day!
Thelma gets away just as soon as she can. She doesn’t want anybody looking at her. She is the loser, along with Buffy and Chichi, and there’s no joy in that. She wishes now that she had never gone on such a show that’s obviously aimed at imbeciles. She sees now that she’s smarter than that, better than that.
While she’s driving home, her hands are shaking and her mouth is dry. She wants to find a hole and crawl inside and die. She cringes at the thought of her mother and her friends seeing the show and laughing at how insipid she is, along with those others. She has humiliated herself in front of millions of people, bared her soul, and then lost to a fat little woman with slit eyes and a midget for a husband. She can hear the world laughing at her! Woman, thy name is Fool!
By the time she gets home, it has started to rain so she pulls the car into the garage. With the motor still running, she gets out of the car and closes the garage door before any of the neighbors have a chance to see her.
It’s comforting, somehow, with the rain on the roof and the purr of the engine. It feels intimate, restful, secluded. Her own little world. Leaving the car door open, she stretches out on the seat with her feet under the steering wheel and the top of her head against the passenger-side door. Soon she begins to feel drowsy. She has never known a sweeter feeling.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp