Playacting

by Elizabeth

 

A pigtailed girl sitting next to Dorothy May in the public library one Saturday afternoon was the nearest thing to an audience Dorothy May ever had. The girl was giving her a sidelong glance and making no effort to conceal it; and, leaning back very slightly, the girl asked Dorothy May in a loud voice why she was wringing her hands in that nervous way.

Dorothy May seemed startled for a moment but only looked up from her book after a lengthy pause. She turned her head toward the pigtails and blinked two times. Her mouth was small and nearly a straight line, except for how the lips curled up slightly at the part where they were thinnest. Her eyebrows were raised high into her forehead like arch-backed cats. Dorothy May blinked once more then returned her stare to the book on the table. She kept on wringing her hands.

The girl widened her eyes and wiped her nose, which was running badly, on her whitish sleeve. Wrapping her finger around one pigtail, she began twisting the hair in a coil. She looked at Dorothy May unabashedly for a minute, in silence. Then her mouth opened and she spoke again, rather more quietly than before: Miss, why you got so many knots in your hair? Don’t you got a brush?

Dorothy May exhaled from her nose and repeated the blinking of a minute prior. This time she did not lift her head from the book; instead, she held it perfectly still and if you cared to, you could balance a basketful of eggs on top. But of course no one did care to do this, or even think of such a thing, and the perfect stillness of the posture was lost on the girl, who by now had stuck a pigtail in her mouth and was holding it with her lips pressed tight.

The patrons of the library were pacing the aisles and twirling pencils between their fingers, or else sitting scattered at the rectangle tables, wheezing or chewing gum in front of newspapers and weekend magazines. At the far end of Dorothy May’s table, an old man wearing a bowler hat was leaned back in his chair, half asleep. Nearby at the front desk, the librarian was holding pince-nez glasses with one hand and dragging fingers down a record book with the other, mouthing words in all practiced noiselessness. Dorothy May, if a little unbrushed, looked like all the other people in the room in all the vaguest ways, except for the ever-present fact that she had the gaze of the pigtailed girl fastened securely upon her. Truth be told, the gaze gave her some small glamour, and you might almost think that Dorothy May smiled, as if aware, at the thought of it.

The girl did not speak again for a while. In the meantime, Dorothy May turned several pages in the book she was reading. By the turning of her pages and the biting of her lip, you could see she moved in the style of a bookish woman who reads a shade too fast. She did not mark passages with her finger or look up and stroke her chin – after all, her hands were still twisted together anxiously; she merely read on with her head quite still and her eyes blinking in an odd little regular rhythm.

Whatchoo reading? said the girl finally. Now Dorothy May quieted her hands and closed her eyes and smiled serenely, almost crazily. You thought she must be praying to Heaven. With her eyes still shut, she pushed the book a few inches toward the girl with careful fingertips and kept on smiling. The pigtailed girl started, then recovered, taking the book with something near reverence, and peering at its cover. A book of plays, miss? she said. Dorothy May dipped her chin almost imperceptibly and did not speak a word. She was still pressing her eyes tight together and wearing a mad grin and her silence could break a baby’s heart, almost. Then she pushed back her chair, all of a sudden, and opened wide her eyes and stood at the table. Her arms hung like boards at her sides with hands like paperweights tied to the ends, and in a dramatic gesture, Dorothy May, not glancing at the girl, strode away, past the old man in the bowler and the librarian in the record book and out the revolving glass door that took you to the street. They were the most gorgeous ten seconds of Dorothy May’s life, you thought. The man in the bowler hat gave a loud snore as the girl watched Dorothy May disappear from sight. Dorothy May walked and smiled and then you almost thought she had the look of someone who had just killed a man and was exiting stage left, meanwhile, just before the curtain dropped.

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