Gender Ambiguity

Rita Hayworth
Gender Ambiguity
~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp ~

They sat in a semicircle in front of the television. Old black-and-white movies, they agreed, were the best thing to watch on TV. Not only were they clean, but they brought back memories of happier times.

“Rita Hayworth is certainly a lovely woman,” Ivy said.

Woman!” Jane said. “Don’t you know she’s really a man?”

“Rita Hayworth is a man? I don’t think so!”

“Hell yes, she’s a man! Everybody knows she’s a man!”

“That must have come as a surprise to Mr. Orson Welles,” Vernon said.

“He knew she was a man before he married her.”

“How do you know so much about it?” Ivy asked.

“I read those newspapers they sell at the supermarket checkout,” Jane said.

“Of course, that makes you an authority,” George said.

“I know what I see. If I see it in print, I believe it.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of being skeptical?”

“What’s that?”

Myrtle sat forward in her chair and pretended to burp her baby, a lifelike doll made of rubber. Everybody turned and looked at her.

“How is Baby Doe, Myrtle?” Ivy asked.

“He’s the best baby in the world,” Myrtle said.

“That’s because he’s not a real boy,” George said.

“Is he eating his carrots?”

“Oh, yes! He eats everything I give him!”

“We believe what we want to believe,” Vernon said with a roll of the eyes.

“Do you know today is my birthday?” Ivy asked.

“I don’t think so, dear,” Jane said. “I think your birthday is in December, isn’t it? Right before Christmas?”

“If I want today to be my birthday, then it’s my birthday.”

“How old are you?” George asked.

“You should never ask a lady her age,” Jane said.

“I’m as old as I want to be,” Ivy said. “If I want to be twenty-one today, then I’m twenty-one.”

“There you go!” Vernon said.

“I wouldn’t want to be twenty-one again and have to go through all that shit again,” George said. “When I was twenty-one, I was in jail.”

“What for?”

“They got me on a robbery charge but I was innocent. I was in the slammer for two and a half years.”

“I’m surprised they let you out,” Ivy said.

“I paid my debt.”

“I thought you said you were innocent.”

“I was.”

“Then why did you owe a debt?”

“Twenty-one was so long ago that I can’t even remember back that far,” Jane said.

“Wasn’t that about the time Lee surrendered to Grant?” George asked.

“It’s time for me to put Baby Doe down for his nap,” Myrtle said. She threw the baby by the arm behind the couch, hitting the wall with a thud. “He’ll be fine until his two o’clock feeding.”

“Whatever happened to your husband?” Ivy asked.

“He’s still in the war,” Myrtle said.

“What war is that?”

“Isn’t there always a war going on someplace?”

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“I don’t know. I think it’s been about fifty-seven years.”

“But what about Baby Doe? Are you saying that somebody besides your husband is Baby Doe’s father?”

“Of course, not! What kind of a tramp do you think I am?”

“She creates her own reality,” Vernon said, “which is not altogether a bad thing when you think about it.”

“And when my husband sees Baby Doe, he is going to be so happy!” Myrtle said, tears in her eyes.

“What is your husband’s name?” Jane said. “I haven’t ever met him.”

“His name is Percival, I think. Unless he’s changed it.”

“Why would he change it?”

“He’s impulsive that way.”

“Fifty-seven years is a long time for your man to be away at war.”

“Don’t I know it? I get so lonely for him sometimes I think I’m going to go mad! I don’t know what I’d do without my little Baby Doe.”

“My own children were never much of a comfort to me,” Jane said. “They never liked me very much.”

“That’s because they had a witch for a mother,” George said.

“And if you want to know the truth, I never liked them all that much, either.”

“How many children did you have, dear?” Myrtle asked.

“Seven.”

“That’s a lot for somebody who doesn’t like kids!” Vernon said.

“Where are they now?”

“I don’t know. Some are dead, I think. Some are in prison.”

“Hey!” Ivy said. “The movie with Rita Hayworth is over and another one is beginning.”

“Which movie is it?”

“This one stars Bette Davis.”

“Oh, I like her!”

“It’s the one where she steals Olivia de Havilland’s husband and drives her car through a fence and breaks her neck when the police are after her.”

In This Our Life,” Vernon said.

“What a memory you have for an old bastard!”

“We just watched it last week. Don’t you remember?”

“Is Bette Davis really a man?” Ivy asked.

“No, I believe she’s really a woman,” Jane said. “I’m not too sure about Olivia de Havilland, though.”

“I think Olivia is definitely a woman,” George said.

“I wouldn’t be too sure of that.”

“What is that movie where Lana Turner and John Garfield kill her husband?” Ivy asked.

The Postman Always Rings Twice.”

“Yes, that’s it. I’d like to see that one again.”

“Is Lana Turner really a man?”

“She started out as a man,” Jane said, “but she had a sex-change operation. Now she’s a woman.”

“Maybe she’ll go back to being a man again,” Vernon said.

“Anything goes with those motion picture people.”

“They get sick and die just like the rest of us,” Jane said. “Beauty fades and then what do you have?”

“Ugly.”

As if on cue, Nurse Tillinghast came into the room, rolling the medicine cart.

“Time for your meds, people,” she said in her voice that was like fingernails on a blackboard.

You take it,” George said. “I don’t want any.”

“Just what the doctor ordered,” Nurse Tillinghast said. “Take your meds and then you can get back to your movie.”

“We were just discussing whether Lana Turner is really a man,” George said. “We’re about evenly divided.”

“A lot of those movie actresses are really men, or so we’ve been told,” Ivy said.

“Everything is all illusion, you see,” Vernon said.

“I wish I had nothing better to do,” Nurse Tillinghast said, “than sit around all day and talk about which women might really be men.”

“Are you really a man? George asked.

“That’s for me to know and you to find out!” Nurse Tillinghast said. “To you, I’m just a sexless dispenser of meds. Now take your meds and let me get on with my rounds.”

The meds were handed out and swallowed and Nurse Tillinghast pushed the cart out of the room.

“What is that movie about a women’s prison where they have a cruel matron who shaves somebody’s head?” Jane asked.

Caged,” Vernon said.

“That’s it! Tillinghast looks just like the cruel matron in Caged.”

“The matron’s name is Evelyn.”

“That’s right. How do you remember all that stuff?”

“I’m having a really lucid day today. Tomorrow I might not remember a thing.”

“Come to think of it, I think Nurse Tillinghast really is a man,” George said. “She has a big nose and big hands.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Ivy said. “I think we should accept at face value all we see. That’s what God wants us to do.”

“How do you know what God wants?”

“I talk to Him all the time!”

“It’s all illusion,” Vernon said. “We create our own illusion. If you want to believe you’re talking to God, then you’re talking to God. If you want to believe that Bette Davis is really a man, then she’s a man.”

“Yes, isn’t it wonderful?”

Copyright © 2021 by Allen Kopp

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