Memoir: Only a Cabaret

“Here’s how it’s gonna go,” I told Mom. “Mrs. Hayward will play the piano for us, but for now I’ll just sing the introduction. Ready? Du-duh da-duh-duh-duh.”

Esther stepped forward and sang, “What good is sitting alone in your room,” her hands miming an open-handed shrug. And then I stepped forward and sang, “Come hear the music play,” miming a trumpet. Then Esther and I sang the refrain together in unison, kicking chorus line style.

Esther taught me the song, one of many she’d learned from watching her mother’s movie videos.

As we sang the song for Mom, we worked through a series of gestures. For come hear the band, I cupped right hand to right ear with left hip cocked off in an eleven-year-old’s imitation of a Vegas lounge singer. For come taste the wine, Esther knocked back an invisible pint glass in one imaginary gulp. Having no idea what a poppet of doom is, we stood stiff with faces set in exaggerated grimaces. For the finale, we alternated the lines “life is a cabaret, old chum” and “only a cabaret, old chum,” circling one another, alternating upstage and downstage. Our performance was a cross between burlesque and kindergarten action song, and we knew it’d be the most spectacular act in the Balbo Elementary talent show.

I convinced Mom to help us with our costumes.

I’d gotten the idea for the Cabaret performance even before there was a talent show in our future, a performance without a cause. Esther came over on Boxing Day, wearing the new skirt she’d gotten for Christmas. I’d never seen her dressed up, except for when we had to wear our choir uniforms for school assemblies, the polyester navy-blue skirts with white cotton shirts that made us feel frumped and lumpy. On Boxing Day, she was wearing black tights and those shoes with the little heels I’d wanted but Mom wouldn’t let me get. (“You’ll break your neck on the ice.”). We were playing with my new Hungry Hungry Hippos game on the floor in the upstairs hallway (“Take that racket out of the living room.”). At the end of the hall, I could see the box of craft supplies; Mom had been making satin-smocked Christmas tree ornaments that year. I looked at the blue satin fabric where it lay folded on top of the box of Styrofoam balls, the shimmer on the cloth a royal blue imitation of the fabric in Esther’s new black skirt. A length of snow-white garland drooled down from the corner of the box, and I imagined a shiny blue skirt with a snowy-white trim on the edge. I imagined Esther and me together, looking spectacular in our satin skirts trimmed with white tree garland.

“Where on earth would you wear a skirt like that?” Mom said later that night when I asked her to make me a skirt with her Christmas ball smocking material.

“It’s for a skit,” I told her.

In January when our teacher announced the talent show, the Cabaret performance seemed divinely appointed. I told Esther my idea, and she was all for it. Finally, a chance to show our talents to the world, and it all started at Balbo Elementary School.

(“As long as you don’t get arrested for indecent exposure,” Mom said as we finished the demo performance.)

I found two fake feather lapel pins in a box in the spare bedroom. I attached them to stretchy hairbands, the kind you buy because they’ll give your long hair a nice preppy look, but you end up using them to hold your hair back when you apply a mud mask. The red feather would complement Esther’s black skirt perfectly, and the black feather would look great with my blue skirt. Esther agreed when I suggested she let Mom attach white garland to the hem of her black satin Christmas skirt.

(“I’m not doing that, it’ll spoil her skirt,” Mom said.

“You’ll be careful,” I reassured her.)

When Mrs. Hayward came down with the flu during the week of the talent show, she arranged for one of her piano students to accompany the choir performances. The student wasn’t able to play Cabaret without sheet music, as Mrs. Hayward had been doing during rehearsals.

“We do it all the time without music,” I told Esther, “It’ll be fine. Don’t forget to bring your black skirt when you come over this evening, so Mom can work on it while we rehearse.”

She forgot to bring her skirt to my house, and with only one day left until the performance, there was no time to do the garland embellishment. I tried on my costume after she went home. The skirt hung stiffer than Esther’s skirt seemed to do. Hers had some kind of pleating that kept it fitted around her hips and then fell into soft folds around her thighs. My blue skirt had a simple elastic waistband that made the fabric pooch out in front of my belly. I tried shifting the material to pooch more in the back, but then the stiff white garland trim shot the fabric out in a way that I knew would cause someone to make jokes about my bum.

When Esther showed up on the day of the talent show, the only piece of her costume she had with her was the feather headdress she had tucked in her book back at my house the night before.

“Can your mother bring your skirt?” I asked.

“She’s at work.” Esther said. “Anyway, I think it’s dirty. Mom didn’t do laundry yet this week.”

That afternoon, when the curtain opened on us, I was wearing my blue satin skirt that my mother made out of Christmas ball smocking fabric and snow-white tree garland. I sang the introduction: “Du-duh da-duh-duh-duh.” Esther, in jeans, jumped in front of me and sang, “What good is sitting alone in your room,” to my stage-exaggerated look of shock and outrage. Then, I pushed her to one side and sang, “Come hear the music play.” We sang the refrain in unison, our voices rising at competing volumes. Our well-rehearsed choreography became expansive, a dramatization of some fictional stage conflict between divas. By the finale, my headdress had fallen down around my neck, the feather flopping about in front of my face. We alternated the lines “life is a cabaret, old chum” and “only a cabaret, old chum,” pushing each other aside, alternating upstage and downstage, before tumbling into a heap as we sang the final line, “So come to the Cabaret” to laughter and applause. We were completely spectacular.


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