Life of a Star

by Jane Unrue

Excerpted from Life of a Star, which will be published by Burning Deck Books on April 15, 2010.

One night, a very long time ago, a couple stepped into our boarding house; they had a daughter named Jeanette. The rain came down that night as if it had been yanked from buckets poised on rafters up above. Inside, each object, every room through which the family walked, including mine, seemed instantly converted; nooks and crannies ceased to be what they had up until those moments been. Wet, woolen clothing gives a musty smell, and they were dripping in it. Two shows every Saturday, my mother was not there. The following morning by the sink I found her washing out her underthings and told her that I thought that we should leave. I cried. It was not hard to manufacture tears: I thought about a bridge at night, I’m on the bridge, a cottage glowing in the distance—bridge uproots and drifts me out to sea. I stomped my feet and clenched my teeth and tightened both my fists and crumpled to the floor and moaned about how I could see that this girl hated me and that, now in, her mission was to drive me out, take over, and that she would stop at nothing to accomplish this. I caused myself to tremble. Coughing. Wild-eyed. Spitting. Head-snapped. I hate everyone! “You get up off the floor,” said Mother. And I hate (looked: sink) you (mirror) too! (Floor.) Then she pointed to her face when she said, “Wash your face,” her eyes unmoving and unblinking as if they’d been painted on. “I don’t know who you think you’re fooling with these histrionics, I’m sure she’s a very friendly little girl,” she pushing bra cups right-side out.

Next night, that girl looked eagerly around the top-floor nursery, room to which we’d both been sent with all our toys, the downstairs of the house off limits to us more or less, off limits to our toys. This was our playroom now, shared bedroom too. Those walls that had been mine were ours now, papered in a faded floral, seams and corners peeling, bubbled in some places, cracked. On every wall a stitchery picture: scenes from storyland were also faded. Soiled. No glass. Frames: chipped-off painted wood. Threads pulled in places, evidence of little fingers that can’t keep from touching, pulling—as if doing so could take a body out of this and into that: round wooden door to mouse’s tree-trunk house; white wicket gate set in the background of a garden overgrown with purple blooms; enchanted cottage all but hidden in a forest thicket; green-and-ruby turret window that, despite the ravages of time and all those dirty little fingers, still appeared to be enough to make a castle glow. And in that decorated room that had been mine but now belonged to us, the place in which unpleasantness seemed not just possible but downright inescapable, I told her stories with more stories stacked on top, all set in carefully described locations peopled with the characters I represented and the objects I pretended (on behalf of characters) to see, pick up, and operate. One day she told me, “You should be an actress, too,” her little hands clasped earnestly together, eyes bright, “like your mother.” (I resisted smiling back; pretended that I had not really heard; I chose a truck to play with on the rug.) And suddenly I felt that I had really gotten somewhere with this child before whose mind I’d soon begin to flash the kinds of images that have a power to return as slowly, stiffly walking figures when the lights have been turned off, all children on their way to sleep. She whispered, “You could be a star….” And I remember being silent for a time because I knew, the curtain slowly shifting, that she was far more likely to dazzle than I would ever be.

I was diminished by her.

Thus, by chattering on through meals, though never in a way so as intentionally to draw the spotlight to herself, the waiflike child began to captivate. She was that genuine. She was that modest. Sweet. Not loud. So natural. Real. And grateful for each morsel set before her, drop of soup, a ragged napkin bordered scantily in a printed pattern; chipped plate, cup, her banged-up knife, fork, spoon; yes, even for the creaky wooden chair on which she sat on top of books—“Oh, thank you very much!”—selected for their thickness from the reading room, my stomping ground no more. And by the end of not much time at all, that girl, wide-eyed, long auburn hair, a kissable upturned nose, frayed length of ribbon in her hair, thin body under heavy wool, was getting nods from everyone, warm sparkling smiles from everyone. To me, however, she looked not across a—not across that table full of hard-luck if respectable room-and-boarders; she panned outstretched hands and saw
I heard a roar of cheers that shook me to the core.
And it was during the removal of the soup tureen one Sunday night when I began to fear, to know, that things were getting treacherous.

My prayers that I would never disappear behind the aura of a more compelling little girl had always been administered so softly in my bed and to the wall beside my bed; increasingly, though, I pleaded silently to the mirror and my toys as well. Saints faces peeking out among the flowers on the walls. My desperation stronger, my appeals became compact. A room enlarging in its holiness by the day. And while these prayers that she would leave that boarding house had last grown brief and rather vague, they next began to swell with promises, desires, sincere excuses for malicious past-done deeds; they grew precisely detailed too. Long verbal reaches into potent and unfriendly image-laden scenes. Sweet smell of incense sneaking underneath a door. Respectfully ornate demands for help. White roses creeping silently across a rooftop. Mother of God, I’ll be so good from now until the day I die, just tell me what to do. Repeated words. So good. Me what to say. Repeated. Scratches in my skin. Until. Repeated. God, I hate her, get her out of here.

And so, within that famously intoxicating blooming garden, I awoke one night to find that I was walking toward that charming wicket gate as if I had been summoned there. But it was dark, the moonlight on the metal gate latch, shining latch unlocking not by hidden hand of gnarled, wart-covered wickedness but by my own pale fingers…gate was opening…I listened carefully, advancing toward the cottage door…
No, this was not the kind of voice that whispers to small children in the middle of a dream ideas for evil deeds and wicked doings, plans for trickery, cruel sleights, mean scares and recipes and riddles—this was something else.

(Turn slowly. Standing mirror: face it. Blink. Part lips.)

A few weeks later, suddenly, that girl was moving out.

Jane Unrue’s novella The House was published by Burning Deck in 2000; her collection Atlassed was published by Triple Press in 2005; the novella “Dear Mr. Erker” appeared in the final edition of 3rd bed. Jane Unrue, born in Nevada, now lives in Boston and teaches at Harvard.