Oralism by Amanda Bales

When Kim arrived to set, the Stage Manager lifted his mic and moved his lips in exaggerated syllables. Kim knew he was saying “hello” as best he knew how. She smiled, but signed “jerkoff” behind his back. From across the stage, Mark caught this gesture and gave her a “steady now” before returning to his camera. Mark was the only one who had bothered to learn her language. She would miss the secrets between them.

Someone shoved Kim’s shoulder and she turned to watch the show’s host, Helen, hand a coffee mug to a waiting personal assistant. As the assistant scurried away, Helen lifted her face for Kim’s inspection. Kim removed a brush from her apron and corrected Helen’s lips, then powdered her chin and forehead. The Stage Manager flashed the APPLAUSE sign.

“Wish me luck,” Helen said, and Kim signed “break-a-neck” at Helen’s back as she walked out onto the stage. When Helen began her monologue, Kim touched the arm of the Stage Manager and motioned backward over her shoulder. The Stage Manager signed “asshole,” which Kim had taught him meant “okay.” Kim mirrored the motion back to him.

In the makeup room, Kim swept the floor clean of sticky tape, latex strings, scar putty crumbles, q-tips. A drunken car crash and botched plastic surgery had left Helen ‘less than ideal,’ as the producers termed it, so each day Kim forged from the wrecked flesh a face every American mom admired, and though Kim knew she had been hired for her skill, she also knew the producers had hoped hiring a deaf make-up artist might cut down the threat of a press-oiled tongue.

They did not know she had scheduled a cochlear implant. Alone in her apartment at night she watched television and practiced the shapes of words. She imagined arriving to work one morning and saying Mark’s name. A smile would break across his face. “The miracle of modern science,” she would say as he hugged her.

When she’d finished the floors, Kim gathered her brushes and prepped the sink. She turned the faucet to its mark, positioned the drying rack, inspected the soap block for residue. After the water had warmed, she palmed the soap and dampened a brush head. She swirled the head clockwise against the block, rinsed the bristles, worked the head counter-clockwise, rinsed again. The lipstick trails reminded her of she and her sister scrubbing their forearms in the basin outside the farrowing barn. Kim knew she would be standing beside them still had Ms. Behn, her high school drama teacher, not come to town. Kim checked the brushes against the back of her hand, was satisfied only when the water ran clear.

The lights flashed and Kim turned to see the personal assistant hurrying from the room. Kim didn’t know what about her deafness made people nervous. Perhaps it was a leftover animal instinct, the way pigs would separate themselves from weakened members of the sounder. She wondered if Helen could feel the same aversion now that her celebrity was dying. There were rumors this might be the final season.

Kim arrived to set just as the Stage Manager cut to commercial. She jogged out and knelt before Helen, corrected a smear of eyeliner and cleaned the jaw line as the host chatted with the audience. Kim worked quickly, but still had to sprint back to the wing when the APPLAUSE sign flashed. The Stage Manager lifted his eyebrow as she jogged past him. She signed “get fucked” behind his back and saw a smile spread over Mark’s face, though he kept his attention on the camera.

The post-monologue breaks were shorter, so Kim stayed and watched Helen introduce the first guest, a woman who dressed her cats in Edwardian costumes and conducted scenes from Pride and Prejudice on YouTube. The guest entered holding a cat dressed in an empire gown. When the guest introduced Helen to Ms. Elizacat Bennet, Helen shook the offered paw with the same delighted expression she once wore when actual celebrities graced her couch. What Helen would do if the show ended, Kim did not know. In the chair each morning, Helen said she was thinking of starting a theatre company, doing real work again. Or maybe she would write her memoir. “The world deserves to hear my story,” she would say. Kim was glad she was not expected to reply.

As the YouTube guest explained her inspiration for the Puuuride & Puuurejudice videos, Kim motioned for Mark’s attention, a pussy joke on her fingertips, but before she could begin, the Stage Manager grabbed Kim by the shoulders and started shaking her. The headset covered his mouth, so Kim could not understand him, and before Kim could explain, the Stage Manager ran onto the stage and began leaping in front of the audience, whose faces had been replaced with phones. Kim followed their attention, but did not see the cause of the disruption until Ms. Elizacat Bennet stretched her paw and batted at the strip of latex that flapped like a loose shingle over Helen’s left eye.

Months later, Kim will watch this moment again and again and again. Her sister will have recorded the show, as she did each show, and after her sister is asleep, Kim will pull a cushion from the couch to the floor and sit in front of the television the way she did as a child, trying hard to understand without the captioning.

The screen fills with a clip of Ms. Elizacat Bennet hissing at Mr. Catzwilliam Darcy, then the show cuts back to the guest who begins to speak, but stops mid-sentence as Ms. Elizacat raises her paw. The camera holds on the guest’s face until something blocks the view.

Kim knows the something is her shirt, and that this shirt is herself, or some version of herself, whatever version is caught here, forever a blur of yellow as she rushed on stage. The show cuts to commercial.

Kim switches to her laptop, she pulls-up the phone camera versions on YouTube. She sees herself puling tape and pigment from her apron, opening jars, prepping cotton swabs until Helen reaches down and grips Kim’s wrists so hard she leaves bruises that will not fade for weeks.

“Get. Out of. My. Eyeline,” Helen says, her lips moving in exaggerated syllables. The women sit like this, so close they might be about to kiss, then Kim pulls her wrists free.

Kim watches herself turn to look at the audience, their phones still recording. She looks at the Stage Manager, who stands with his hands on his knees, his head bent. She looks at Mark, but he has turned away.

Kim turns back to Helen. “Why?” she asks.

Helen gestures for Kim to move aside. When Kim remains, Helen stands and steps past her. The camera zooms-in until Kim is no longer in frame. Helen waits long enough for everyone to focus, then lifts her hands.

Kim pauses the video. She raises her fingertips to the screen, traces her thumb over the latex flap. There. Right there. Maybe that was the seam.

 

 

 

Amanda Bales hails from Oklahoma. She received her MFA from the University of Alaska. Her work has appeared in Southern Humanities Review, The Nashville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

 

 

(Front page image via)



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