The Midwest |

Heritage Theater

by Rebecca McKanna

There was a little memorial on the side of Highway 67, right past the S&W Manufacturing Plant, with a knee-high white wooden cross in the ground. Every spring, Mayor Asher and his wife repainted it. In warm weather, they left flowers – daisies, clumps of baby’s breath, blue or pink carnations. In cold weather, they lit candles, and white stuffed bears sat in the snow until they became soggy and gray from street sludge.

Mayor Asher and I had never talked, but one of his granddaughters was a year younger than me, and I saw him at our high school’s choir concerts and football games. Sometimes he’d stare at me. I looked like my mother, and I knew he was thinking about her, about that Halloween ten years ago, about the drinks she had at the Big River bar with her friends after taking me trick-or-treating.

My father had taken a picture of my mother and me earlier that Halloween night. My mother was dressed in a black body suit, with whiskers painted on her cheeks, her lips bright red, a headband with cat ears holding back her blonde hair. I was five years old, wearing a grey mouse costume, with matching black whiskers drawn on my tiny face. Afterward, my father stayed home with me, affording my mother a rare night out. While I was sleeping off my candy sugar crash, my mother’s heart stopped beating.

I always wondered when her makeup smeared and the cat ears fell off. Or was she wearing it all on the ride to the ER, after Mayor Asher’s daughter had already hemorrhaged to death? Did my mother drive drunk often or was this the result of one reckless choice? Was she a good person who did a bad thing? Or a bad person who did the things bad people do?

I found the Craigslist ad September of my sophomore year of high school. It was for a position at the natural history museum. Energetic, enthusiastic entertainer sought for part time position performing for patrons. When I emailed for more information, ideally information not written completely in alliteration, a man named Jared told me the position was an important one: performing educational skits about the museum’s exhibits. Jared and I set up an audition for a weekday afternoon after I got out of school.

“Meet me at the front desk. I’ll be the skinny dude with the ponytail and ear piercings,” he wrote.

When I arrived, Jared and I shook hands. When I told him my name, I did what I always did back then: searched his face for any hint he recognized my last name, any realization I was the daughter of Jessica Hadley. That woman who used to mow the lawn in shorts and a bikini top. The one who was rumored to have been cheating on her husband. Who had driven drunk and killed the mayor’s daughter.

Jared’s eyebrows rose slightly at my name, but I couldn’t tell if that meant he knew. Although almost everyone in Bettendorf, Iowa, remembered the story, it wasn’t as much of a legend in some of the neighboring towns like Davenport.

Jared led me through the museum’s lobby into the “Mighty Mississippi” exhibit. We wound through the fake prairie grass and the stuffed deer until we arrived at a small theater. The stage was decorated like a river, blue and gleaming, although everyone knew the Mississippi was brown as dog shit. The stage had large river stones buttressing its edges. The little theater had 12 seats, and a large tank of catfish bordered the back row.

Jared handed me a piece of paper and sat in the front row. He asked me to stand in the middle of the stage and read from the script. He pointed his fingers at me, as if both hands were guns, and said, “Showtime.”

The monologue was an Egyptian woman talking about her life and how she came to live in the museum as a mummy. I had seen the mummy on elementary school fieldtrips. I always felt bad for her. It seemed wrong that of all the mummies in the world, she had the bad luck to be the one stuck in Iowa, in a glass case smudged with little kids’ fingerprints.

The monologue was cheesy, but if I got the part, I hoped I’d get to wear heavy eyeliner and a gold armband shaped like a snake. I thought I would like pretending to be royalty.

“You have real positive energy,” Jared said when I was done reading. “When can you start?”

I told him I was free other than when I was in school. In front of me, one of the catfish rested on the bed of rocks at the bottom of the tank. When a shrimp floated near it, it jerked forward and took the whole thing into its ugly mouth.

It was dusk when I left the museum. I took River Drive home. If I stayed on the road long enough, it would turn into Highway 67 and take me past the memorial. Some people said if you drove out to the memorial at night and stood next to it, you could hear Mayor Asher’s daughter’s screams and my mother crying and begging for forgiveness. Around Halloween, teenagers’ cars clogged the side of the road, everyone waiting for their chance to go and see if the ghost story was true.

I had gone one night after I got my permit, even though I was only allowed to drive unsupervised for school or work. But I felt like, of all people, I needed to know if it worked. I needed to know if there was a way, however macabre, to hear my mother’s voice.

When I got there, I couldn’t get out of the car. I didn’t know if it was because I was afraid it would work or if I was afraid it wouldn’t. I sat in my dad’s Taurus for a long time, its headlights illuminating the tiny wooden cross. Finally, I drove home.

After that, the only time I passed the memorial was in the car with my father. He tried to avoid the road, but sometimes he couldn’t. On those occasions, we’d pass the little memorial and say nothing about it.

“We’re really pushing the bug exhibit,” Jared told me, as he gave me a tour of the dressing room a few days later. The room clearly used to be a janitor’s closet, as evidenced by the custodian sign next to the door. “The bug exhibit is going to be big. Really big.”

Jared had talked nonstop since I’d arrived at the museum, and he had volunteered to show me around before we began rehearsal. During his frenzied monologue, I learned my audition had been misleading. Although there was a skit about the mummy, the one I had read, the Egyptian exhibit was being remodeled, so that wasn’t one of the skits currently being performed. Instead, I would be performing one show during the week about Iowa and Illinois Native American tribes – and another show on the weekend.

The weekend show was called “Blues Beatles.” It was for an exhibit about beetles commonly found in the prairie. I would wear a giant beetle costume with Blues Brother’s style hat and sunglasses. It included a big dance number about a beetle’s favorite plant-based snack, milkweed, set to the tune of “Rawhide.”

I stepped further into the dressing room. It housed an old couch with ripped cushions, a rack of costumes, a cracked mirror, and a table with some stale-smelling makeup and old wigs on it. One of the wigs was so ratty it looked like a ferret had curled up and died on the table.

Jared stared at me. Finally he said, “You have big shoes to fill, Bree. You’re replacing Zach Perrin, one of the finest actors I’ve ever worked with. He moved to New York this summer to pursue the stage.”

I had heard of Zach. He was always one of the leads in his school’s musicals and in various community theater performances. I would often see him after productions, shaking hands with audience members and smiling in the extra-wide way that only people who have been in too many musicals can do. His curly, red hair was cut in a way that made his head look like a mushroom. Other than his theater prowess, he was known for his weird family.

Zach had suffered a particular and peculiar humiliation the previous year in Assumption High School’s production of You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown. In this production he played Snoopy. In his standout number, “Suppertime,” Zach danced around with a dog bowl while wearing a white and black Snoopy costume. At some point, the buttons of the Snoopy costume’s crotch became unsnapped. Allegedly, the Snoopy costume got hot in the stage lights, so Zach didn’t wear anything underneath it.

The exposure would have been humiliating in itself but something about Zach’s family dramas – the maybe-statutory-rapey uncle, the father who looked a little too long at the girls who came into his bowling alley – twisted the freak accident into something premeditated. As if Zach were some exhibitionist who thought dancing in a Snoopy costume in front of the whole school with his dick hanging out marked a swell time.

For his sake, I was glad he had escaped to New York. I didn’t know if he’d become a big star, but I was glad he could live somewhere where his family’s past didn’t hang on him.

Jared had me change into my costume for the weekday show. A few minutes later, I stood on the river stage ready to rehearse. Jared had written the show himself.

The show found nothing awkward about a white girl wearing a feather headdress and doing fake Native American chants. At one point, I was supposed to sit on a packing crate and mime paddling a canoe down the Mississippi.

“I am a little Indian boy,” I was supposed to tell the audience. “I love hunting duck.” Then the chanting would start. “Hey-oh-wah-nay-hey-oh-wah-nay!”

The piece ended with me looking up at the ceiling, saying, “Whenever I feel lost, I stare at the stars and hear the voices of my ancestors.” Then I was supposed to hit the play button on the boom box next to me, and the instrumental suite from Pocahontas would swell.

“Diction, Bree,” Jared screamed, as I rehearsed the skit. “For the love of God, diction.”

“What?” I asked, alarmed.

“Enunciate,” he cried.

Throughout the rehearsal, he found more and more things to critique. His face turned redder and redder until the tendons on his neck stuck out. Eventually he stood up and said, “Make me believe you’re an Indian boy. Make me believe you want that duck.”

At the end of the rehearsal, I asked Jared how I was doing.

He stared at me for a long time. Finally, he said, “You’ll get better.”

That night I lay in bed debating whether or not to quit the museum job. I needed the money, and the museum paid more than bagging groceries or working at the movie theater. But I would die if anyone I knew saw me perform.

The disappointing part was that I had actually been excited about the job. The only time I could remember being happy in the last few years was when I had been in plays at school. I knew this was pitiful. I never even had lines. My freshman year, I played “Girl” in Gramercy Ghost. My sophomore year, I was “Second Poor Woman” in Robin Hood. My hopes for junior year were not much higher.

Still, there was something magical, something comforting, about the smell of fresh paint and sawed wood from the sets, the smell of pancake makeup and hairspray in the dressing room, the heat of the stage lights, the sound of people clapping, and the feeling that you could escape yourself just by putting on a costume.

I turned on my side and looked at the picture of my mother on my nightstand. I never knew her, but the picture’s presence felt important. Like a big Fuck You to all the people who considered my mother trash.

Someone, my father probably, had taken the photo when I was about two. In it, I was playing with a Barbie doll, clearly absorbed in whatever fantasy I had created. My mother stared down at me. Whenever I looked at the picture, all I saw was someone staring at me with complete awe, as if my very existence, my ability to hold a big-titted plastic doll, was a fucking miracle. I wasn’t the wisest or most mature fifteen-year-old, but I knew enough to know that only a few people would look at you like that in your life, and I had already lost one of them.

The next morning was a Saturday, and my father and I cooked breakfast together. He fried the bacon, and I made coffee and hash browns. Then he read The Quad City Times and I flipped through Seventeen while we ate across the table from one another.

Toward the end of our meal, he cleared his throat. I looked up, surprised. He wasn’t a very talkative man, and he had worked the night shift the night before (he was a security guard at ALCOA), which usually made him even more taciturn. He set down the newspaper.

He shifted in his seat and ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I just wanted to tell you I’m real proud of you.”

“For what?” I said.

His cheeks reddened. “You got a good job. Working at a history museum will look good when you’re applying to colleges.”

“I’m just performing stupid skits,” I said.

“It’ll look better on college applications than waitressing.” He was using his firm voice, the voice that signified the end of a conversation. I had heard it many times –whenever I asked about my mother, until one time I kept pushing him about her, and he finally wiped tears from his eyes and said, “It’s just too hard to talk about, Bree.”

My father picked up his newspaper again, and we lapsed back into silence.

Once I started performing, I learned that children enjoyed tormenting things in costumes. Maybe it was that I was usually dressed as a bug, which children innately enjoy torturing. It could have been that I never really owned my role as an entertainer, and the children could pick up on my self-loathing. Either way, I found that performing at the museum was worlds away from performing in my high school productions. There were no stage lights to blind you from the bored faces of the audience members. The shows at the museum never allowed me that transformative moment where I could leave myself and inhabit something else. At the museum, I was still myself, just a sweatier version who was wearing a giant bug costume or pretending to be a Native American boy paddling a canoe.

In between shows, I’d wander the museum, looking at dinosaur bones or dead butterflies. I’d lie on the floor of the planetarium and listen to James Earl Jones narrate the cosmos as the stars swirled above me. Sometimes I’d slip behind the plastic curtain that blocked off where they were keeping all the Egyptian exhibit materials until the remodeling was done. I’d look at ancient pottery or cat statues, or I’d stare down at the mummy in her glass case, noticing the bone of her right pinky toe peeking through her yellowed wrappings.

After I was “trained,” Jared was rarely at the museum. It was up to me to walk around before the performances telling people about the show, trying to boost attendance. After each performance, I filled out a log Jared had created. I recorded the number of audience members and general notes about how the show had gone. A typical entry was something like: Three people attended. Two walked out halfway through. The remaining 12-year-old threw wads of paper at me.

Jared would read these logs, and leave notes for me. Bree, if people believed in the story you were telling, they wouldn’t throw things at you. Remember that you are telling important stories.

One Saturday, I was walking around the museum in my beetle costume, trying to find patrons to tell about the show. As I entered the Mighty Mississippi exhibit, I saw Lee Reynolds staring at a stuffed deer. A balding man I assumed was his father stood next to him.

Lee had graduated from Bettendorf High School a few years before, and he must have returned home from college for the weekend and been dragged to the museum as part of some family bonding outing. Lee had been a senior when I was a freshman, and he had been one of the guys who picked me to be the “lamb.”

Every year, a group of senior guys picked a freshman girl and spent the day saying horrible – usually sexual – things to her all day until she finally cried. In past years, the lambs had cried by third period, but I refused to. When Lee told me he wanted to titty fuck me and cum on my chin, I acted like I hadn’t heard him. They said other things, worse things, about me, about my mother, things I would never repeat to anyone. Still, no matter what they said, I didn’t cry.

At the end of the day, the guys offered to share a flask of booze with me in the parking lot, but I ignored them.

“You were so cool about everything,” Lee said, as if this had been some fun game we were all in on. “You’re, like, Queen of the Lambs.”

The guys pushed through the front doors of the school into the August heat. I went into the musty, puke-green bathroom off the gym hallway. Once I was safely locked in a stall, I cried until my stomach ached. 

Standing there in my bug costume, I knew there was no way I could perform like this in front of Lee and his family. I turned and walked out of the exhibit. I didn’t stop walking until I was safely behind the plastic curtain, sitting on the floor in front of the mummy’s case. I stayed there for the rest of my shift.

In that day’s log, I wrote about the record attendance. Twelve people! And the uproarious applause at the end of the performances. People said I made them see prairie beetles in a whole new way.

This marked the beginning of a new phase in my time at the museum.

Several weekends later, I was sitting by the mummy’s case, reading a magazine, when I decided to slip out and use the restroom. It was late afternoon, and I had successfully avoided two shows. After one more, I would be able to go home.

I felt some guilt about hiding, but I told myself this was a win for everyone. Patrons weren’t subjected to my horrible performances. I didn’t have to be embarrassed. Jared could rest easy feeling like his artistic vision was being carried out. The patrons didn’t even know what they were missing, because I had dragged the sign advertising the shows behind a large potted plant.

On my way back from the bathroom, I heard footsteps behind me, but I didn’t think anything of it. It wasn’t until I was settling back down with the latest Cosmo that I heard the rustle of the plastic curtain and saw Jared standing there.

Imagine my surprise when I sat in the theater waiting for your performance and you never appeared,” he said, eyebrows raised, his expressions exaggerated like he was on stage and not standing two feet from me. “I said to myself, ‘Bree must be running late. Or maybe she’s sick. What she lacks in talent she makes up for in reliability.’”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I –”

Imagine my surprise when I asked the receptionist about you, and she said she hadn’t seen anyone walking around in a bug costume for several weeks now. That she assumed the shows were on hiatus.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll go.”

He shook his head. “You’re not leaving.”

“But I thought you were firing me.”

“Oh, yes, you’re fired,” Jared said. “But you’re doing this last show. I applied for a grant for more funding, and there are several public officials who are coming to the museum today just to see the 5:30 show. You’re going to perform, and you’re going to do a goddamn masterful job of it.”

I nodded and walked to the dressing room to put on my costume. I knew I was in the wrong. As annoying as Jared was, he hadn’t deserved my duplicity. After I had my costume on, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the lose threads on the sleeve of my beetle costume. A few minutes before 5:30 p.m., I walked to the tiny theater. When I arrived, I saw Jared chatting with two gray-haired men. I didn’t recognize the man with large ears and even larger teeth, but I recognized the other man. It was Mayor Asher.

He wore a white button-down shirt under a gray sweater. Even just in a sweater and hanging out at the local museum, he wore cufflinks.

In the minutes before the show, I stood next to the river stage behind a wooden screen that blocked me from the audience. Jared eventually walked over to tell me to begin.

“Mayor Asher,” I squeaked.

“Unlike you, Mayor Asher is a professional,” Jared said. “He can put his personal feelings aside and watch the show.”

I nodded but realized my hands were shaking.

“For the record,” Jared said. “I hired you despite whatever reputation your family has, and you did a pretty shitty job repaying me for that.”

He stared at me for a moment. His face was all the more eerie for its blankness. “Break a leg,” he said finally.

A moment later, I stood on the stage as “Elwood Bug.” I talked in a Chicagoesque accent about being a beetle and hiding from predators. Midway through my first lines, I looked out into the audience and saw Mayor Asher staring down at one of the programs we kept in baskets on a table at the entrance to the theater. I could only imagine what was going through his mind as he read the words, “Elwood Bug played by Bree Hadley.”

When he looked up his face was unreadable. During the first part of the show, I stammered a lot and paused in awkward places. Finally, my first big dance number started. It was called “Milkweed,” a beetle's favorite plant-based snack, and sung to the tune of “Rawhide.” I danced from side to side, my cloth bug legs bouncing around. Mayor Asher watched me, his expression unreadable.

The end of the song came. “Find it, chew it,” I sang and then paused. My high note was coming. In the past I had hit it all right, but anxiety made my throat feel tight and dry.

“Milkweed,” I tried to sing. However, the noise that came out of my mouth wasn’t at all like singing. It was like a cross between a 13-year-old boy’s voice cracking and someone gargling. I shrugged my shoulders, my cloth bug legs dangling limply in front of me.

After changing back into my street clothes, I walked through the museum to leave. Mayor Asher was walking toward the museum’s exit, too. My heart beat fast as I approached him.

“Mayor Asher,” I said. “I’m Bree Hadley.”

“The bug girl,” he said and smiled.

I stared at him, unsure what I wanted to say. Then I saw it in his gaze. He had no idea who I was. Even hearing my name, even with me out of the beetle costume, he hadn’t made the connection. Jared may have known. The kids at school may have known. But the person, who by all accounts should have cared the most, didn’t know. I blinked at him, wondering if all this time I had been dodging a shadow that wasn’t even real.

Mayor Asher cleared his throat.

“Did you like the show?” I asked him.

“Very educational,” he said. “Although, you have to be careful about beetles. I had some in my garden. They gave my tomatoes hell.” Then he gave me a cheery wave and walked off toward his Lexus in the museum parking lot.

An hour later, I sat in my father’s car near the little memorial. Once again, my headlights lit up the cross. It was dusk, and the sky was a dusty purple with a smear of red near the horizon. I unbuckled my seat belt and got out of the car. I walked over to the tiny cross, my feet crunching on the gravel. There was an oak tree nearby, and it’s skeletal limbs scratched toward the darkening sky. The paddlewheel of a riverboat on the Mississippi churned, its lights reflecting in the dark water. I heard the honking of geese and then nothing but my own breath.