The Final Curtain Call ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
Nine-year-old Edith Mullinex couldn’t keep her legs still and when her legs moved her arms moved and then her whole body moved. When this ceaseless movement turned to dancing, she believed herself to be one of the all-time great dancers of the world. Never mind that she didn’t know anything about the all-time great dancers of the world, but, whoever they were, she was sure she was better than any of them.
She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon and she danced every chance she got between morning and afternoon. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom and after she had eaten her lump of meatloaf and her cold mashed potatoes and her two canned plums in a puddle of mauve-colored juice, she danced her way back to the fourth-grade classroom, where all of her classmates and her teacher, Miss Divine, watched in open-mouthed wonder as she danced her way to her desk at the back of the room. Stop dancing, people would say, but she just ignored them. She knew they would never be able to understand.
“We have a dancing problem with little Edith,” Miss Divine told Edith’s mother. “Don’t I know it!” Edith’s mother said. “She has somehow go it into her head that she’s a dancer.” And then Miss Divine said, “Have you considered Therapy?”
Her thirteen-year-old brother, Fairfax, taunted Edith mercilessly when she was dancing at home, but she ignored him, as she did the others. When he tripped her dancing into the kitchen when it was time to eat dinner, she made the fall part of her dance and in this way annoyed him even further. When friends of Fairfax’s visited to watch a football game with him on TV, she danced all around them and in front of them, obstructing their view, until suddenly they remembered they had a previous engagement and left. “Boy, Fairfax sure does have a screwy sister!” they said when they were out the door.
Edith was always improvising new dance steps. When the phone rang, she danced her way to answer it and when it was time to go to bed, she danced her way into her bedroom, making closing the door part of the dance. Her mother sent her to the store with a list of things to buy. She danced her way there and she danced her way up and down the aisles of the store until she had everything on the list. People looked at her with curiosity, sure she was either filming a television show or was an escapee from the mental hospital.
Edith had a cousin named Steph Mullinex. Like Edith, Steph was very thin with lank blond hair to her shoulders and stick-like arms and legs. Edith and Steph were the exact same age, born five days apart, and could have passed for twins. Steph should have been in the same fourth-grade class as Edith, but she still read at a first-grade level and was in special education.
On the playground at recess, Edith showed Steph some of her latest dance steps and soon they were dancing together. They worked up a dance routine to the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Edith taught Steph the words. They sang and danced every day at morning recess and, on a good day, attracted a crowd of forty of fifty other children watching them. That’s when Edith knew she loved having an audience.
The school talent contest was coming up. The whole school would be watching. First prize was five dollars. Edith proposed to Steph that they enter, and, if they won, they could split the five dollars. There wasn’t much you could do with two dollars and fifty cents, but it was more money than they were used to having at one time.
Edith chose two pop songs for her and Steph to dance to in the talent contest. First, there would be “The Shoop Shoop Song” and then “Please Love Me Forever.” “The Shoop Shoop Song” was bouncy and upbeat, while “Please Love Me Forever” was more mellow. These two songs would allow them to show their range and versatility.
They knew they couldn’t depend on their preoccupied, alcoholic mothers to help them with their costumes, but they each owned identical white dresses that would do. They each had patent leather shoes with a strap over the instep, so that is what they would wear on their dancing feet, along with white socks. To add some pizzazz, Edith bought some taps and tiny nails from a shoe repair store on Main Street and turned both pairs of shoes into tap shoes.
They rehearsed for days on a sheet of plywood in an old wasp-infested shed behind Steph’s house and, when it was time for the talent contest, they were both ready. To offset the white of the dresses, they each wore a red ribbon in their hair. Edith was able to confiscate from her older sister some face powder, lipstick and rouge that they would use to keep their faces from looking so pale.
Edith knew about the other acts and she considered them stupid. There was a girl twirling two hula-hoops, a boy playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his banjo, a boy acting like Curly from the Three Stooges, a girl moving her lips to a Connie Francis record, another boy playing spoons to the tune of “Swanee River” and other assorted acts. She knew that she and Steph were better than all the rest of them put together and were almost certain to win first prize, unless something bad happened, like freezing up in front of an audience of two hundred people and not being able to dance at all. She was sure nothing like that was going to happen.
They didn’t go on until about an hour into the show. During that hour, they stood on the sideline just behind the curtain watching the contestants go on and come off. The audience applauded after each act—and there were always a few cheers—but Edith knew they were just being polite. People didn’t go to a show like this and just sit on their hands.
Finally, it was their turn. They started out behind a screen with a big light shining on it from behind so that, to the audience, they were only silhouettes. They danced behind the screen and after a minute or so they came out, Edith on the left and Steph on the right. After that they owned the talent contest. They tapped and jiggled and turned and swooped. Edith twirled Steph and then Steph twirled Edith. They joined hands and jitter-bugged, they waltzed and did some tango steps. They were a two-person conga line and then they drew laughs when they acted like chickens pecking and scratching at the ground. Steph remembered all the steps Edith taught her and even improvised some of her own.
When the music stopped and Edith and Steph finished with a flourish in which they both went down on one knee with their arms extended, the crowd went wild with clapping, cheering and whistling. Edith and Steph had to give a couple of curtain calls before the show could go on.
There were still more acts waiting in the wings, but Edith knew it was all but over.
The show finally ended and then all that was left was for the judges to make their decision. The judges were all teachers and as Edith looked out at them from backstage, she saw they had their heads down and were talking among themselves.
The deliberations among the judges took about five minutes. When they were ready, Miss Mish, the music teacher who was also one of the judges, took to the stage to announce the winners.
Miss Mish wheezed into the microphone, “No matter who wins, there’s one thing on which we can all agree. Everybody on this stage tonight is a winner!”
The audience clapped and cheered and Miss Mish held up her hands to get them to shut up. “Our third-place winner,” she said, “is none other than Marvin Hittler and his banjo!”
Cheers and huzzahs for Marvin Hittler.
“Our second-place winner is Leeman LaFarge for his remarkable impression of Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. Come on out, Leeman, and take a bow.”
Leeman came out from backstage and, to anybody who had ever seen the Three Stooges, he was a pint-sized version of Curly. He gave the audience a few Curley mannerisms and then he pretended to be shy and had to retreat behind the curtain.
Miss Mish clapped and laughed like a donkey into the microphone. When the laughter and cheering died down, she intoned: “And now the moment for which we have all been waiting! The first-place winner of this year’s school talent contest is…Edith Mullinex and Steph Mullinex for their sparkling dance routine!”
Edith wasn’t even very surprised. She took Steph’s hand and they both bowed graciously again and again before the audience. After they left the stage, the audience was still applauding, so they gave a curtain call and then another and another. After a few minutes, Miss Mish took to the microphone again and told everybody to shut up and go home. The show was over.
As the crowd dispersed, everybody wanted to congratulate Edith and Steph, but especially Edith because they knew the whole thing was her idea.
Edith’s mother, who had been sitting in the audience, was going to give Edith and Steph a ride home, but Edith insisted on walking. She was too excited to ride in the car. She was a bundle of energy and she needed to dance her way home.
She said her goodbyes and danced down the street away from the school. It felt good to be alone and to breathe in the cool night air. In her head she still heard the music and the applause. She was happy and distracted, still reliving the moment, her moment, that her name was announced as the first-place winner and the crowd went wild.
As she danced off the sidewalk into an intersection, she didn’t think to look for any cars. She didn’t see the speeding car that hit her and sent her flying twelve feet into the air.
Traffic stopped, a crowd gathered, and an ambulance was summoned. They picked Edith up off the pavement and took her to the hospital, but it was already too late. She had died instantly of internal injuries.
School closed at noon the day of the funeral so everybody could attend. Her entire fourth-grade class was there and all the teachers. She was buried in a white casket with a spray of red roses that her classmates had taken up a collection to buy for her. And, on her headstone, beneath her name, was etched one word: DANCER.
After Steph got over the shock of Edith’s death, she assumed the dancing mantle for herself. She danced her way to school in the morning and she danced her way home in the afternoon. She danced before, during and after. She danced her way to the bathroom and she danced her way to the lunchroom to each lunch. The special education teacher, Miss Cornapple, called Steph’s mother and said, “I’m afraid we have a dancing problem with Steph.” Steph’s mother told her to mind her own business and hung up the phone.
As Steph’s dancing skills improved, so did her reading skills. Soon she was allowed to move out of special education and take her place in the fourth-grade class. She danced and danced and danced, and she looked so much like Edith, and acted so much like her, that soon people began calling her Edith instead of Steph and she never bothered to correct them. It seemed that Edith was back or had never left in the first place.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp