This week, the fictional Kevin Gregory of Moral Ambiguity fame continues to recount his experience with Burtonville’s community theatre. Here is the third installment of A Final Folly.
Burtonville’s population is comprised of many faithful Christians. The consensus was to forego Wednesday evening rehearsals so people could attend mid-week prayer services. Truth be told, anyone involved with Founders Follies would’ve preferred clowning around on stage to reading scripture. The notion of a missed rehearsal did not sit well with Andy, who’d never heard of such religious fervor, and he ranted about provincialism and superstition though few hung around to listen to his diatribe.
With Wednesday out of the question, vocal auditions were to be held on Thursday night at “six sharp!” The Picardy Pavilion was practically empty until 6:45 when the biggest collection of scene-stealing wannabes managed to crawl out of the woodwork in hopes of getting a piece of the spotlight. There were a few men, but the theatre was filled with 40 women carrying purses stuffed with cassette tapes, CD accompaniment tracks and tubes of lipstick. Most were in their forties, all were heavily made up, and the majority had recently emerged from her favorite nail salon. Puddin’s granddaughter was among them, and she shared the family fondness for clowns by having them painted on the tips of each fingernail.
“They’re appliqués!” she exclaimed to Puddin. “Donna Jean can’t draw worth a flip. I can’t believe you thought she painted ’em on. That’d cost me a fortune!” Carmelita was one of those attention-stealing women with strong lungs. No doubt she could be heard over every other spectator at a Crimson Tide game against LSU, but it wouldn’t stop her from insisting on a hand-held microphone when it was her turn to sing. To her, the whole point of performing was to appear as if she were “in concert.” Holding a microphone simply lent an air of authenticity to her “art.”
Carmelita was not the only one who felt that way. The advent of Karaoke and reality television had given these women courage, and each took to the stage, belting out everything from Under the Boardwalk to Top of the World like American Idol hopefuls. One woman moved into position and tried to sing How Great Thou Art. She twisted her upper body in my direction and hissed: “It’s in the key of D!”
“You’re mistaken, it’s in B—flat,” I shot back. With that, I rolled a chord and told her to hit it. She started off with a weak, “O, Lord my God,” and Andy screamed like he was thwarting a rape. “I can’t tolerate religious music!” The entire auditorium went silent. “I will not have this in my theatre!” he shrieked.
“His theatre…the nerve…can you believe?” These were some of the words I could make out amongst the murmurs and whispers after the would-be soloist ran from the stage and people started moving about again. By Friday morning, the entire town had heard about this scene, and Andy had been branded an atheist. No one in Burtonville knew much about Jews, but it was assumed that someone from New York City who didn’t have a personal relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would never deny someone the right to sing about God. This is still America, after all!
I wasn’t sure if people skipped Friday evening rehearsals or if they’d dropped out because of Andy’s tirade. The small crowd, as I learned, was due to the fact the entire evening had been set aside for the ultimate Founders Follies challenge: the jitterbug.
Being musical director for this event was not an honor as much as it was a thankless inconvenience. Transitioning into a fulfilling life in Burtonville after my years of singing all over the world meant establishing a good reputation. If I walked off the job, my social life would suffer more than if I’d been given a 960 telephone number. There were others falling all over themselves to take my place. Sooty could be there in ten minutes after feigning reluctance for five, but Bobbie June Benefield was already in the building and waiting to pounce.
Having grown up amongst the pious, I’d learned early on what a floozy was. Floozies were women who rarely went to church without someone insisting they go. They seldom made second visits unless they’d been “convicted by the Holy Spirit.” If a floozy were particularly troubled by her wild life and had decided to change her ways, she might return a third time before concluding Hell might be hot, but it was at least full of fun people who knew how to have a good time.
Bobbie June Benefield was a floozy I’d met during my elementary school years. Back then, her hair was the color of a fine French burgundy, and it was styled like Jackie Kennedy’s circa 1962. The frames of her sunglasses had been dotted with rhinestones, and she had metallic threads woven into her clothes, which caught the light when she moved, giving the impression that she sparkled. She smelled like Kool menthols barely masked by a layer of White Shoulders.
I only saw Bobbie June during the Christmas season when she played the piano for our school musicals. Mama didn’t like her because she showed the signs of “hard living.” I asked what hard living was, and was delighted to learn it was everything I’d ever hoped it would be. It meant “going out all the time.” When I pressed for more details, I learned that going out all the time meant Friday and Saturday nights in dark places full of music, drinking and dancing. Mama had hoped painting a sad picture of tortured lives would keep me away from riff-raff, but I became desperate to get my childhood over with so I could have adventures with the likes of Bobbie June.
Bobbie June didn’t read music even though she claimed to have written a song, which had been published in New York City. She could barely thread her way through the musical called Santa and the Spacemen in which I’d been cast as Martian #1. I had a few lines to speak before joining two other Martians in the number Little Red Men from Mars. After we finished, we were to vanish. This script notation had excited me, as I envisioned going up in a puff of smoke like Samantha Stevens, but ours was an elementary school production without a special effects budget.
Every afternoon between Columbus Day and the week we blocked the musical on stage, I spent twenty minutes with my fourth-grade teacher and Bobbie June Benefield. It turned out she wasn’t as much fun as I’d hoped. She was not the least bit interested in the fact I’d been taking piano lessons for two years and probably read music better than she. By December 15, her smoky odor had finally gotten to me, and I hoped to never deal with her again.
As Andy told the jitterbugging couples where they would stand, Bobbie June Benefield arrived with an old vinyl handbag on her left arm, and she plopped it on top of the piano, covering my stack of music. The years had been unkind, and the purse was missing three of its four pegs on the bottom, causing it to lean like a tree in a strong wind. She’d not maintained her looks, and the deep burgundy locks of middle age were now the color of steamed shrimp and two inches of white roots beneath looked like a side of rice.
Bobbie June no longer wore heavy makeup, but this was a period in life when she should’ve considered something to soften her severity. The circles under the eyes were dark, and her mouth was framed with deep hash marks, which had been etched by countless drags on her beloved menthols. She was wearing an old t-shirt, which had been handed out to Founders Follies cast members long faded into memory.
“You’re in my seat,” she said in a friendless tone. The humility approach hadn’t worked with Sooty, but I gave it another try.
“Oh? How is that?”
“I’m here to play the jitterbug number.” She said with such confidence it might’ve been true.
“No one has mentioned this to me.”
“Why would they?” She paused to look me over. “Who are you?” She may have looked like a bag lady, but she still had the self-assurance to believe she was top dog.
“Who wants to know?” I asked. It was time she learned a thing or two.
“I’m Bobbie June Benefield,” she said as if I’d just landed from outer space. She had chutzpah, but I wasn’t giving up so easily.
“Oh, yeah, I remember you.” She beamed just before her face morphed into the same eerie expression Gloria Swanson wore in Sunset Boulevard. “You played for a Christmas musical back when I was in elementary school. So many years since then, I didn’t recognize you.” The haughtiness drained from her face.
“I’m sorry, but I still have no idea who you are.” If she subscribed to The Burtonville Register, as everyone did, she couldn’t have helped but notice the recent articles describing my retirement from professional singing, my appointment to the local college’s music faculty and my community involvement. She might not have recognized my face, having not seen me in person since I was nine, but I was sure she recognized the name Kevin Gregory.
“Be that as it may, I’m directing the music for this production, and no one has mentioned your participation to me.”
“No one plays the jitterbug like I do, and this town loves it!” she barked. “I play it every year, and they always want me back.” Could this be true? Did she show up to play the number, take a bow and maintain a reputation of being the greatest honky-tonk pianist in the region? Her t-shirt was terribly faded, but I could see the year printed on it was 1978. Unless her other wearable souvenirs were in the laundry, I suspected she hadn’t played for Follies since.
“I’ll get Puddin and we’ll work this out.” I walked away without looking back, and when I returned with assurances that Bobbie June was not allowed to go near the piano, she’d vanished like the Christmas Martians of my childhood along with her worn-out handbag.
To be continued
© 2016 by Patrick Brown
The narrator of A Final Folly is Kevin Gregory from my first book Moral Ambiguity. To learn more about the book and my second book Tossed Off the Edge, visit my author page at http://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brown/e/B005F0CYH2/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1419885131&sr=8-1