At ten they closed their books and glanced quickly, furtively around the table at one another. They were guarded. No one showed anything, not one emotion played out over one face. Finally, after what seemed a single exhalation of breath on the part of the entire group, Margaret broke into a broad smile, her tongue emerging from between her teeth, and Frank spoke.
"Margaret loses," he said in a loud, sharp voice.
"Margaret loses," the others intoned solemnly.
Margaret’s smile spread across her entire face and became an outrageous chuckle. The others sat silent again as she followed this with unbridled laughter. They watched her as she rose from the table, clasping her right hand over her mouth, trying to suppress her idiotic reaction. She couldn’t stop what nature had demanded from her and she fled the room. When the door slapped the sill crisply closing behind her, when the silence had once again overtaken them all, they rose and silently left the hall. The first rehearsal was over.
Margaret Culver was nineteen. She was tall, almost six feet, slender and light on her feet. She had been dancing since the day after she stood up and took her first steps. Her mother had enrolled her in ballet class the next day. Thelma Clover, Margaret’s mom, had an instinct about this child, her third, from the moment she was born. When the nurse had placed the tiny infant in her arms she looked into baby Margaret’s eyes and she’d known that this child was special, was talented. She’d said as much to anyone who would listen to her. This was the one, she said to them, this was the one. The others were very nice, but Margaret was the one. She had treated her daughter differently from the very beginning and now, at nineteen, Margaret was going to prove to them all that her mother had been right.
Divorced from Hank Clover, Margaret’s mother had changed their last name to Culver. It was much more elegant, she said to anyone who objected or questioned. It was a better name for Margaret, also. Clover was common; Culver was special. Clover was a weed; Culver was the city where Hollywood made its best movies. Margaret deserved Culver, and not Clover. That, Thelma insisted, was why she changed their name.
Margaret’s older brothers chose to keep the name Clover and divorce themselves from Thelma and Margaret. The two boys left the nest as early as they could, Bob going back to their father and his older brother Elmer striking out on his own. Margaret rarely heard from them during her teen years, and never saw them. She only saw Thelma and her teachers and no one else. She was being groomed, Thelma told her. Groomed.
Sometimes, though, she felt she was actually doomed, not groomed. Doomed to a life of non-stop training, work, and such. She hadn’t played with dolls or boys or anyone for that matter. Her childhood had been one of constant lessons, dancing, singing, standing still for hours like a model. She could recite Shakespeare intelligently and dance on her toes for an hour without descending to her heels. She could sing intelligibly in English, French, Italian and German. She could actually hit a D-sharp above high C without batting an eyelash. Margaret was the product of her mother’s ambition for her, or as Thelma would have, she was the realization of all that promise she'd seen on that fateful afternoon when the nurse first placed Margaret on her breast.
But Margaret wasn’t sure. She often said to herself, about herself, and in the absolute third person, "Margaret never knows, does she?" She wasn’t so sure.
This time, this fateful evening rehearsal, was her first with the summer stock company in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The apprentice company, after all her training and work, and not the professionals, was where she found herself. The plays were an interesting lot, none of them familiar to her, so when the director informed them all at this first reading of the opening show, that this was a "serious, serious, serious" play (his hand striking the table hard with each repeated word) and that he would brook no humor, no silliness, no response not proscribed by the author, the young actors had diligently accepted his admonition. Even Margaret had felt the need to keep a straight face and not react badly to the play. Her problem was that the play seemed frivolous to her.
As they read it, and she listened carefully to every actor at the table in his or her character, and as she read her own lines, the play became more of a challenge to her. Not that there was anything strange or difficult in it; it was just the play itself. It seemed slight, a minor piece about stupid people caught in an asinine situation. She had managed to hold back her reaction until the end of the third act, but then it was all too much for her. The smile had overtaken her, the laughter bubbled outward. Margaret had lost the challenge of "serious (bang), serious (bang), serious (bang)."
The night air threatened to calm her down, its chill entering her instantly. She stopped laughing, stopped moving for a moment and by the time she had taken her second deep breath the laughing scene was all behind her, all but the usual phrase, that is, the usual reaction to her own internal insanities: "Margaret never knows, does she?" She heard herself saying it out loud and when she heard the man’s voice responding she knew she’d finally gone too far.
"And why doesn’t she?" he asked from somewhere in the darkness that surrounded her. Margaret knew one thing right away: her question now had a questioner and she had no answer.