Wednesday, April 22, 2009

My Lone Short Story--Please Rip it to Shreds

The following is the lone short story I've ever felt remotely proud of, the only one I've written for pleasure or passion and not because a teacher made me. I'd really appreciate honest feedback on it ... since I'm not of the opinion that it's a great piece, any suggestions for how to approach it would be beneficial not just in terms of this piece but also in how I look to improve my novels.

There is less of me personally in this piece, and maybe that's why I'm more open to having it shredded.

Thanks in advance : )

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"Ruffled Feathers"
by KLo
Every once in awhile, people will do a double take when they walk by me at the mall or on the street or whatever. A good many will even take it to the next level and say, “Excuse me, but where do I know you from?” Invariably, I tell them that they must be mistaken. I have told virtual multitudes about how I have “one of those familiar faces.”

I am a liar.

The age bracket of my familiars fits squarely in with those that would have been three to five year olds in the late eighties and early nineties, when “Birds of a Feather” burned up PBS stations across the country. The only exception are those that look to be my mother’s age; I guess that shouldn’t surprise me, either.

On occasion, my mother, the epitome of all stage mothers, is with me when one of those close encounters transpires. I have to put my hand over her mouth and pull her away quick.

“Why don’t you tell them you’re a Feather Friend?” she always asks. It breaks the woman’s heart that I teach middle school. She had expected far more grandiose bragging rights.

“Was, Mother, was.”

Most of the time, it is easy to forget that, for three years, I was Peggy Feather on “Birds of a Feather.” I live a quiet existence. I rent a small apartment with my cat Whiskers and teach seventh graders how to write paragraphs and diagram sentences. My mother comes over for dinner every Sunday and tells me how brown the lettuce is and how I wouldn’t be overcooking meat if I’d stayed in “the business.”
I knew something was wrong when her elderly gray sedan was in my parking lot when I got home from work today. She hauled her hefty frame out of the car and minced over to me in high heels that matched perfectly the purple sequins on her full-length jacket. She was wearing sunglasses although it was a cloudy day; I’d seen enough Hollywood funerals on television to know what that meant.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” I asked, hoping she couldn’t hear the annoyance in my voice. I mean, I had work to do; I didn’t have time to commiserate with her on the loss of her favorite soap star.

“Oh, Jennifer, Petey’s dead!” She pulled a spangled purple handkerchief out of her pocket and blew her nose loudly.

I cringed, both inside and out, but my mother didn’t notice. “Petey?”

“Petey Feather!” she sobbed.

I sat down hard on the fender of my car, stunned. “Mike’s dead?”

Blowing her nose again and nodding, she contemplated sitting next to me but accurately assessed that my little Honda would not hold her bulk. “I saw it on the news!”

Of course Michael Gladstone’s death would have been on the news. He was, after all, a world famous film star. Even before his stint as Petey Feather began when he was ten, Mike had been fairly visible through all the commercials he’d done. He’d once admitted rather embarrassedly that he’d been in over forty commercials … beginning with the extreme close-up of his derriere in the Huggies ad when he wasn’t even old enough to crawl. Mike was an old pro, and he’d taken me under his wing (so to speak) during the “Birds of a Feather” years.

Mike Gladstone had me pegged from the start. Before we ever arrived on the set, my mother was legendary with all the network bigwigs. She had spent the vast majority of my father’s life insurance money on trying to break her pretty little daughter—me, of course—into the acting world. There were the photograph portfolios, the singing lessons, the dancing lessons, the acting lessons. I acquiesced meekly enough, although I could see the truth in the blank eyes of my singing and dancing teachers as they looked through me and toward the more talented members of the class; I was not exceptional in any sense of the word. There wasn’t anything special about me that would result in my standing out from the crowded, crooked line of pink leotards and ballet slippers—except, of course, my overbearing mother. Through sheer perseverance and pushiness, my mother made connections in the power-hungry world of entertainment as I moved through my childhood years. These connections were definitely on the fringes of things and resulted in pretty much nothing until I was nine and they were looking for a sort-of pretty (in a plain way) girl who could sing (moderately well) and dance (a little bit) for a regular, recurring role in a television show for children.
Mike was sitting on a stool inside a huge warehouse-like building the first time I saw him. The building contained the set-in-progress, but I had no idea about that at the time. To me, it was an impossibly huge room full of a veritable passel of grown-ups, all talking at the same time … and one boy about my age reading a sports magazine. From the start, I couldn’t take my eyes off of him; he lit up the room even though he was just a child. Part of it was how handsome he was, beautiful, really. You could stare at his face for hours in complete awe of something so perfect, so artistic, almost, as though he’d been sculpted by Michelangelo. His movements were so graceful they seemed impeccably choreographed, even those as mundane as flipping through the pages in his magazine. When he looked up and saw me, I felt cold all over. The thought of those huge brown eyes within the porcelainesque face looking at me, looking into me, was almost more than I could bear. The feeling went away when Mike smiled and there were braces on his teeth and he walked over and told me about the playground out back. He looked warily at my mother, glanced at me again, smiled reassuringly, and led me outside. We had our first forbidden jump-off-the-swing-for-distance contest that very afternoon. Mike won, of course, and I was just happy to have spent an hour in his presence. I didn’t realize how much time we would soon be spending together … or how seriously Mike took his role as my first and only friend.

“Birds of a Feather” sort of bridged the gap between that old childhood classic “Sesame Street” and the more modern shows created by “creative experts” that emphasize the learning as well as the entertainment such as “Blue’s Clues” and “Dora the Explorer.” The premise was fairly standard—a family fond of singing and dancing travels the country sharing their performances with children of all ages, making friends and having adventures in various locations. The “parents” of the family, Mama and Papa Feather, were actually huge puppets that frightened me terribly at first. These rainbow-colored mutant birds somehow procreated, resulting in two human children, Petey Feather and Peggy Feather. Petey was the family superstar, perfect at everything he tried to do, happy and cheerful, loved by all; playing Petey Feather was barely acting for Mike Gladstone. In the same vein, Peggy Feather was no stretch for me. Peggy was the picture of mediocrity, especially when compared to her crackerjack brother. A common theme in several episodes of “Birds of a Feather” is a focus on Peggy’s feelings of insecurity. Perhaps the television viewers never realized that Peggy’s feelings of insecurity were well-founded; that was not the case for me. I spent four years singing back-up to Mike as Petey, four years shadowing his dances, four years on television bringing milk and cookies to the “nice friends Petey made” at locations all over the country. Mama and Papa Feather even gave me-as-Peggy a cursory good-night peck (sorry, even after all these years, the bird jokes keep on coming) before heading over to Mike-as-Petey’s nest to discuss the central theme of the day with him for the purpose of really driving home the lesson of the day to our young audience. If I had been a different person, I would have hated Mike Gladstone, or at least I would have had terrible jealousy pangs in his very presence. However, I had spent my entire life in the formidable shadow of my brash, loud, pushy mother; Mike’s shadow may have been huge, but it was at least benevolent.

“Birds of a Feather” had a good four-year run before it ended in 1992 because Mike was offered a pivotal film role that was just too good to pass up. They decided not to recast Petey Feather and, since he really was the heart and soul and star of the show, “Birds of a Feather” was delegated to the archives of memory. The episodes were released on videotape, of course, and sales were good. I was able to go to college without taking out loans because of those videotapes. My mother and I moved to a small town in New Hampshire where I started eighth grade, my first time in a public school. My English teacher, Ms. Gardner, showed me that I did indeed excel in something—writing. “Maybe,” Mike wrote in one of the two letters I received from him, “you can come out to California and write screenplays.”

Indeed.

Screenplays are not my medium; I am a novelist, or at least I think I am. I’ve been working on a novel since eighth grade, the same one since that time. It’s actually pretty good now, and one of these days I might get up the courage to try to figure out how to go about getting it published. Until that time, I entertain my students with my sarcasm and enlighten them about how to write. “Writing,” I repeat over and over, “is an art.” I am no Ms. Gardner, but I think I’m pretty good at teaching, too. I never got any commentary from Mike on that count; his star had risen far beyond my reach by the time my teaching career started, and besides, he probably couldn’t have connected a teaching career to himself the way he could a writing career.

Mike Gladstone received an Academy Award nomination for the role he dropped “Birds of a Feather” to take. It took him four more years, to the age of eighteen, before he actually won an Oscar. Like many, many stars that came before him, Mike was on a rocket ride. He sped to the top, to dizzying heights, to a world of beautiful women and never-ending parties, to a place where each role brought him accolades and the awe-struck praise made him more and more famous, more and more unattainable. His body was found this morning in his California mansion, full of a lethal dose of alcohol and Vicodin. I’m sure there will be the standard accident/suicide debate, but I don’t think it really matters in the long run. Like Marilyn Monroe and River Phoenix, Mike soared through the sky, reveling in the way people looked up to watch him, the way people couldn’t take their eyes off of him. Like Icarus, Mike (and so many of young Hollywood) had a hell of a ride. Like Icarus, he was not careful, and he paid with his life in the ensuing fall.

“Do you want to come up and have a cup of tea?” I asked my mother when my legs felt strong enough to support my weight.

She shook her head. “I just thought you should know.”

“Thanks, Mom. That was nice of you.”

“I’ll be happy to join you for his funeral, Jennifer.”

I stared at her for a long, long time before I turned and headed up to my apartment. Whiskers was in the window, anticipating my arrival. He would be happy to receive a thorough patting and his cat food dinner. My bag was full of essays to grade.

The phone was ringing as I walked in the door. Ignoring the purring of my cat, I raced over and grabbed the receiver. “Hello?”

“Please hold for Ms. Watkins.”

“Excuse me?”

The only response was the “you’re on hold” music. Just as I was about to hang up the phone, a woman’s voice said, “I’m trying to reach Jenny Pearson.”

“This is she.”

“Jenny, this is Lucy Watkins.”

“Umm … do I know you?”

The woman made a noise of frustration. “Used to be Lucy Gibbs?” She had an irritating habit of making all of her sentences sound like questions. “From ‘Birds of a Feather’?”

But I didn’t need any further clarification; the statements-as-questions had clued me in. She’d been a lower-level producer of the show, and not one that I’d particularly liked. “Um, hi. What can I do for you?”

“A favor? Please, please, please tell your mother to stop calling my people?”

“Um … my mother?”

She huffed in irritation at my evident idiocy. “If you want to go to Mike’s services, it could probably be arranged? You know?”

“Um …”

“Tell her I fold? I’ll e-mail you the details? Just stop calling?”

“Um, listen, I have no interest in going to Mike Gladstone’s services.”

“Excuse me? No interest?”

Suddenly, I felt powerful. “I had an enormous amount of respect for Mike as an entertainer and, while it’s true we were friends during ‘Birds’, I haven’t heard from him in over twelve years. I have no place at his funeral; I’ll do my grieving in private.”

“You could have saved me the trouble of calling?” she said, then hung up with an audible click.

“How could I have saved you the trouble of calling?” I asked the receiver as I hung it up. I was laughing uncontrollably. As I fed Whiskers, relishing his purr of gratitude, I looked out the window and saw that, while my mother had squeezed herself back into her car, she still sat in my parking lot. She had wanted me to have wings; she had wanted me to fly. If I had set the screen on fire like Mike Gladstone and melted the wax on my wings in the process, it would have been worth it to her.

She saw me in the window and began gesturing frantically; I turned away. She’ll still be here on Sunday for dinner, and she’ll still be criticizing my cooking, and she’ll still wish I was more than I am. I don’t. I’m okay with who I am. I may never fly shrieking with excitement to dizzying heights, but I can be safe in the knowledge that I will never fall either.

Later, I took a break from making red marks on student essays to walk out onto the porch with a glass of Cabernet. Night was just starting to fall; there was one star twinkling like mad in the darkening sky. Impulsively, I raised my glass of wine to the faraway light, then I went back to the kitchen table, picked up my red pen, and got back to work.