MS. S. STEEM

By Justus E. Taylor

2,935 Words

Copyright 1995 by Justus E. Taylor

spaceLittle five-year-old Sue had put on beads and one of her mother's old hats that had a veil. Now she spun herself round and round in small circles, tilting her face upward, with her arms halting in different positions, usually with one arm stretched for the ceiling, while the other pointed downward, with the palm of the hand parallel to the floor. She was a star!

spaceSue accompanied herself by humming the melody of the "Blue Danube" waltz, having heard many repetitions of it on a tv commercial that hawked an album of "fifty great classics" for only $19.99. Between a series of quick little curtsies she watched carefully to see if the audience of two was watching her. She feared that her parents might not be looking at her.

spaceMelissa and Herman Steem sat on their sofa smiling, amused and proud of the awkward ballet their only child was performing for them. They also suspected that the show had an admission price; a new stuffed giraffe that Sue had been requesting, in return for her good kindergarten report card.

space As Sue finished her dance and exited, stage right, into her room, Melissa turned to Herman, showing pursed lips and a thoughtful brow. Supporting her plump left elbow by folding her right arm across her chest, she toyed with a thumb nail between her teeth and said, "you know Herm, I think she's been doing shows of one kind or another for us ever since we brought her home from New York General Hospital. Can't say I liked her early shows though, crying and kicking and screaming and not sleeping through the night. But from her point of view we must have been the perfect audience. She got everything she wanted, and she still does!"

space "I never thought about it like that Hon, but you're absolutely right. Probably the first thing anybody learns is how to get attention, then get admiration, and when we have those we can survive."

space"Yeah, Herm, it's easy to see why everybody has a lifelong fascination with show biz. Seeking admiration is like an instinct, Melissa said smilingly, both the way to survive and the goal of life at the same time!"

space"You mean, Sissy Sweet Cakes, that you agreed to marry me because I told you that you were beautiful, clever and kind?

space"Yes, you Clod, and you only told me that because I had convinced you that I thought you were strong, handsome and smart. I'm sure you don't think seducing me was your idea. God knows, I put a lot of overtime into that! And...Sue appeared at the doorway of her room and interrupted the conversation with her own major concern, "Toyland now, Ma?"

***

spaceIt was Friday and a hundred-and-fifty dollars take-home pay from her summer fast-food job seemed like a fortune to slender and attractive sixteen-year-old Sue. She clutched her small purse to her body and stared out of the window of the bus. She had stopped to buy two new tops and had picked up another car magazine from a newsstand, for after-dinner browsing. Her parents' offer of half the money for a car, when she would turn seventeen, didn't seem very generous to her, but she had been forced to run through her whole repertoire of crying, pleading and threatening to date boys in their twenties, to get them to contribute anything at all. It seemed to Sue that the older she became the less her parents were affected by her performances. This reality served to generally undermine her self-confidence, not only at home but in all of her relationships. She often wondered now where she had lost her touch. Was it her looks, her smarts? She was pondering the problem as she alighted from the bus, two blocks from home.

spaceSue didn't pay any attention to the two muscular, twentyish women who also got off the bus at her stop. Not until they walked one on either side of her and leaned forward to stare into her face.

space"You're Estella Morgan aren't you?" they both chorused. "You're the star of 'My Good Neighbors' on channel 9 on Wednesday mornings, aren't you? Can we have your autograph, please...please?"

spaceSue was surprised and flattered, quickly recalling that she had often thought she resembled Estella Morgan, but no one else had ever said so, until now! Still, there was no way she could actually pass herself off at the tv star, she lamented, so she had better confess quickly before these two women realized she wasn't a star and embarrassed her.

space"NO, it's nice of you to think that but I'm really not anybody, she offered with a smile that was evenly shared with both women, on her left and right.

space"Oh no, come on, be nice," the two women insisted, let us have your autograph. The woman on Sue's left began rummaging around in her pocketbook, causing Sue to stop in her tracks, in apprehension. But the woman produced only a small address book and a pencil and she shoved these at Sue persistently while her companion kept up and incessant pleading, "Please be nice, come on be nice. It'll only take a second."

space"But I'm not Estella Morgan," Sue insisted, still smiling slightly from the flattery. She began trying to walk around the two women but they stepped into her path no matter which way she turned. "Look, I told you I'm not anybody famous, so why don't you leave me alone? You're wasting your time. I'm just a high school student. Leave me alone, please!" Her smile had gone. She noticed that the tone of the womens' pleading was changing as one of them began to scowl and extend her arm to hold Sue in front of her while she raised her voice intimidatingly. "You could be nice, but you just don't want to be nice, do you?"

spaceThe other woman pushed herself between Sue and her scowling companion and suggested with a broad smile, "Look I'll bet you a hundred dollars that you are Estella Morgan. A hundred bucks!" As she spoke she flashed a folded wad of bills from her purse. He companion simultaneously began attempting to step around her while again chanting, "You're not gonna be nice, I can tell, you're not gonna be nice!" Then, turning to her smiling cohort, she protested, "Don't bet with her, she could have been nice and signed the autograph. Don't bet her, don't give her a chance to win our hundred dollars! She don't even have a hundred dollars! I read where she's one of them stars that's strung out on coke and hardly's got a dime to her name. Get outta the way, let me get at her.

spaceThe smiling woman turned to face her friend and purred reassuringly, "Don't get mad at her, we can settle it the right way. She just shows us some identification and that decides who wins the hundred dollars. I think she's got a hundred bucks. She looks like a tv star to me! She can't be doing coke. Let me handle it. I think she's going to be nice and bet."

spaceSue was stymied. It seemed to her that the only way she might get rid of the two frightening pests was to bet, and then refuse to take their money after she proved to them that she was only a student. After a few seconds of thought , she complied by saying, "OK, I'll bet you that I'm not Estella Morgan." She was already sensing some relief at the prospect of soon ending the annoying encounter.

space"Where's your hundred dollars?" the smiling woman asked. Sue fished in her purse, and while pushing back a few extra bills, managed to withdraw exactly five twenties and show them to her antagonists. "Maybe you want to raise it to a hundred and fifty?" the woman asked.

space"No, a hundred is all I got," Sue answered.

space"Well, we'll need somebody to hold the money so there won't be any argument when it's time to pay off. That's good for both of us," the woman assured Sue. "Let's ask this stranger coming down the street to hold the money and stand right here with us while you show some identification OK?"

spaceBefore Sue could express an opinion the woman had stopped a young, but balding, man wearing a suit and carrying an attache case, by telling him that she and her friend had cornered a tv star and were about to get her autograph. The man looked curiously at Sue and then shouted in wide-eyed surprise, "You're Estella Morgan!" Sue started to protest again, but before she could the smiling woman told the man about the bet and asked him to hold the money. The man readily agreed and took an envelope from his attache case as he informed the three women, "I'll put each one's hundred dollars in this envelope and then after the proof I'll give the envelope to the winner. All right?" The three women nodded in agreement.

spaceSue began thinking of all those attractive pictures in the car magazines while she was handing over her hundred. By the time she was producing her schoolls ID card, which contained her name and her picture she had changed her mind about giving the losers back their money. She then only hoped that the belligerent one would accept her loss without starting a fight.

space"There, you see, I'm Susan Steem, so you lose." Sue delivered this proof while trying hard not to sound boastful. She also cast a wary eye at the scowling one! To Sue's surprise, the two women merely said, "OK," and turned and walked away. The man handed Sue the envelope and then likewise simply walked away. Looking after him, Sue saw him enter a subway a half block away from her.

spaceTraversing the short remaining distance to her home, Sue was ecstatic about the extra money she had won and the consequent improvement in her car aspirations. Her mother was watching the evening news as Sue entered the living room and her mother resisted all of Sue's attempts to distract her. Then, having waited patiently for fifteen minutes, she burst the story of her triumph upon her mother for the next ten minutes without hardly breathing. As she talked she started to perceive a spreading frown of alarm on her mother's face. Finally, she simply had to stop and ask,"Ma what's wrong?"

space"There's nothing in that envelope!" Her mother almost whispered the words. Fear and panic squeezed in on Sue's stomach as she quickly seized her purse and then frantically tore open the envelope the man had given her. She felt queasy as she realized that her mother was right! The envelope contained only newspaper, cut to the size of currency. Some of the strips even contained used car ads. She slammed the envelope to the floor and fled to her room, failing to get there before the tears welled up and showed on her cheeks.

spaceMelissa had told the story to Herman. Sue had missed dinner. The couple in the downstairs apartment had finished their nightly argument about money and the last prime-time sitcom had ended before Sue emerged from her room. She was holding a batch of recently uncrumpled fives, tens and twenties.

space"Mom, Dad? I have three hundred dollars here that I've saved for the car. If I hadn't gotten robbed today I'd have four hundred." Then, tearfully, "this proves that I was making a real effort and denying myself things, like you said I should. I've figured out that what happened today wasn't my fault! If I hadn't agreed to bet they probably would have mugged me anyway." Then hesitatingly, with timed gasps for breath in between words, she went for the throat: "I think you two should give me the hundred they took from me! Otherwise, I won't be able to buy anything by my next birthday."

spaceHerman and Melissa looked at each other only very briefly, more as a way of deciding who would respond, not to consult with each other as to the substance of the reply. Herman became the spokesman, by dropping his gaze to the floor and speaking confidently, but without hostility, "We think you should save the hundred again, on your own, dear. That's what growing up is about, as we've been telling you for the past couple of years. It's a matter of not getting everything the easy way. You'll see, it won't seem so hard once you get started again. We're on your side. You can do it dear. Go to it!"

spaceTo Sue this all sounded like a poor excuse for being cheap and it forced her into loud, obvious wailing as she left and thunderously slammed the door to her room. Her parents, one on the sofa and the other on an extended recliner, glanced sympathetically at each other and Melissa spoke for both of them by saying, "She's got to learn sometime. Even at her young age she should be able to spot a con-job. She's been to enough movies, watched enough tv, that's for sure. She simply couldn't get over a fantasy of being a wealthy tv star. She'll think twice the next time somebody flatters her. She really could have been a child star, but I think she's only passable now, lookswise . By the way, I'm bored to tears, to you realize we haven't had our evening out this week? Whadda ya say, big boy, hows about us goin' out and showin, off a little. Attractin' some attention? Like seeln somethin' on Broadway, after a dinner at that nice French place, or maybe Tavern on the Green? There might be somethin, in it for ya," and she grinned coyly, "I might come across...hmmm...just might!"

***

spaceSue couldn't find anything poetic about her life at age eighteen. Yes, she was young, almost finished high school and she felt that she was good-looking, but she had and eight-year-old car. What seemed to her to be her major life's achievement was that she had been able to find the world's greatest cheap mechanic, Mike. Sue guessed that he must be in his seventies, since his economic mind-set dated back to the time of the three-cent postage stamp and a white-on-white, single-needle-tailored shirt for three dollars. Even though he didn't charge that much, Sue found his car repairs to be totally reliable. But she felt she could do without his constant philosophizing, which he subjected all his customers to , while he worked.

space"Missy, have you ever thought about why a car chooses not to run sometimes? Hand me that screwdriver please. Well, I'll tell you. It does that to survive! Think about it. If it ran all the time you'd never pay any attention to it, do anything for it, like change the oil! You'd simply run it into the ground. Stand back a little, or you'll get grease on you. But if it never ran, then you'd sure as hell junk it, and get another one. So what does that mean? Well, I'll tell you. Cars figure out that to survive they have to be exactly like the people who drive them, changeable and unreliable. Do you see that screw anywhere that fell on the floor? Take it from me, if anybody was to stay one way they wouldn't last long. You're up against life, and it's too changeable, from one minute to the next! If you were always the same it would run over you, break you! That's why everybody lies sometimes. Take me, for example, fifteen years ago I wasn't no good at fixing cars, I had to pretend. Now I'm the best, and that's the truth! There now, listen to that engine. That rebuilt distributor I put in is every bit as good as a new one. You won't have any trouble with it for years, mark my word!"

spaceBacking slowly out of Mike's two-bay, one-story repair shop, Sue had to admit to herself that Mike had never been wrong about anything having to do with her old Ford. She wasn't sure if he knew much about life, but he knew old American cars, and the important thing to her was that she was driving again.

***

spaceBy the following year, the year in which she was to be married, Sue suspected that her life's gratifications were going to be limited to whatever admiration she might get from becoming a wife and mother! At least the mother part was already decided one night when her boyfriend (the same one now to be her husband) convinced her of his eternal admiration for her beauty, gentleness and intelligence . He was very persuasive and she was deeply flattered. So they had been reckless. When she learned she was pregnant he reluctantly agreed to become engaged.

spaceAfter learning of Sue's pregnancy, cursing her, and then celebrating her engagement, her parents stopped being concerned about what hours she kept. Therefore, even though her husband-to-be was known to be working nights as a security guard, Melissa and Herman never raised any questions about Sue's nighttime excursions. They would last for several hours at a time and she always seemed to be very pleased when she returned.

spaceFor Sue the excursions were crucial times. They seemed essential to keeping her sanity.

spaceUsing her car, she was able to quickly and relatively safely visit many parts of the City's deserted business districts where the roll-down steel doorways of the stores made perfect canvases for her to spray-paint, "E.M." surrounded by big, five-pointed stars.

End



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