Asta in the Wings
On the last day, the day before everything changed, my mother told me her theory about the movies. It could have been a theory about anything else . . . Mother was always bursting with ideas. A few weeks earlier, she had expressed her thoughts on evolution, which included her conjecture that the towering dinosaur remains in the Museum of Natural History were not dinosaurs at all, but a hoaxa man-made likeness built from human bones.
On this day, however, the subject was movies. I was guilty, I think, of not listening closely enough; I was only seven years old, and greater things beckoned to me. I was busy awaiting the arrival of an insect, concentrating on the sodden strip of bathroom tilethe one just alongside the tubs foremost clawfoot from which earwigs or silverfish might emerge. Balanced on my haunches, head lowered till my face grazed the floor, I whispered this urgent enticement into the cracks:
Come out, you big bug.
Above my head but below the lip of the tub, my mothers hand agitated the water. She had a habit of spreading her fingers and raking through the bubbles as if they were in her way.
Turn the page for me, Asta, my mother said. Im about to reach the All the worlds a stage speech. Try saying it with me. I hopped up to stretch my arm over the rim, to reach over the white crop of bubbles that foamed to my mothers shoulders. She kept a tea tray perched on her knees and had positioned her book (a compact Shakespeare that morningit had been compact Shakespeares for more mornings than I could count) atop the tray with one dry hand.
As was customary, Id been enlisted to provide the second hand. This task was not bothersome to me. I liked to be in the bathroom at that hour, for the bugs most often emerged just after dawn; I also liked the simmering sound of the bubbles, the sticky presence of steam and vapor in that enclosed space. I even had a fondness for the pages of As You Like It, yellowed and softened to the exact texture of muslin. I knew that my touchmy turninghad contributed to that.
Smooth it down, I cant quite read it, Mother instructed once Id flipped the page in question. I smoothed it, and she shifted in the water, placed her limbs in better alignmentbetter to PROJECT THE VOICE, shed often told meand began to read aloud.
All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players, she quoted with a piquant trilling of Rs. Go ahead, Pork Chop, try saying it with me. I didnt respond. Instead, I lowered myself till I lay flat on my stomach and peered aggressively into the rotted tile; I poked at one corner and found it pliable, claylike.
Is it just me, Asta, or does that line contain a falsehood? Something a little bit off? What word in this line sounds phonybaloney to you? All the worlds a stage, and all the men and women merely players?
That got my attention. I turned my head in her direction, liking a challenge, as well as the word baloney (I was hungry), and found myself wishing I had a smart-sounding answer to give.
Stage? I hazarded.
No, merely, she said. Do you know what merely means, Asta? It means nothing more than. You are merely seven years old, and that is one way of looking at it, a correct way to use it in a sentence. But in this context, doesnt it seem fallacious? It is no mere thing to be a player in these hard times. I know that Mr. Shakespeare had no good reason to anticipate the coming of movies, but still, it seems awfully shortsighted, writing a thing like that.
From the corner of my eye I saw something stirring under the crack: first two pincers and then a long and shining body. Something resembling a shell.
Excerpted from Asta in the Wings by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Copyright © 2006 by Jan Elizabeth Watson. Excerpted by permission of Tin House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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