How is life for you?
Floods and fires: Is the world unhinged?
A few years ago Gold Man Review published my short story, "A True Gift," a surreal piece about wigs, a hostile audience and an ego as extravagant as wildfire. Inspired by unsettling events (political strife and climate change), it felt so good to write this. Like I could laugh in the face of chaos
A True Gift by Linda Ferguson*
Just as I was about to give my speech the lights went off, so I stood there in the dark auditorium, and quickly came up with a witty line to say when the power came back on.
And let there be light – that’s what I’d say.
I could already feel the warmth of my audience’s response, my approval ratings skyrocketing.
But when the lights did come on, I forgot all about my clever line and stared dumbfounded because – prepare yourself, this is odd – everyone in the audience was now wearing a wig.
Before, there’d been the usual array of hairdos – the balding heads, the braids and buns, the mohawks, the faux hawks, the perms, the buzz cuts. Now all of those were suddenly gone and replaced with wigs in one of two styles: blond spun sugar and a polished black cap.
The long blond strands looked sticky (unfortunate flies that landed there would never launch again) and were molded in perpetual motion – a windswept sculpture perched on people’s heads.
It was something.
And then there was the other wig, which clutched the scalp at the temples and carried a whiff of black licorice.
Standing there with my own hair tucked behind my ears, I felt out of place and wished I’d worn the wig I’d inherited from my grandmother (the cropped russet curls clipped back with an emerald bobby pin). But there was no time for regrets because I still had a presentation to give.
I’m an experienced speaker and although the wig business was strange, I was ready to roll with it. So I plunged right into my speech, only to send the evening lurching completely off the rails. Instead of saying the words I’d practiced, I was talking in a language I didn’t know. This wasn’t Spanish, Icelandic or Quechua; each word was completely unrecognizable to me.
Yet somehow, I was saying something comprehensible to the wig people (the spun sugar and the licorice), all of whom were united in their response.
Picture my winged popularity pierced by an arrow and plunging with rapidity.
You could say my wig-wearing audience was displeased, agitated, riled up, enraged. I saw visible signs of this: lips pinched, temples pulsed, knuckles ground into palms (a mortise and pestle effect) – and I concluded that the speech I was delivering (against my will!) was not the one I had down – the one I’d rehearsed until it rolled off my tongue with the ease of rhyming couplets.
That address would have had the wearer of each wig gleaming with appreciation, but the one I was giving was an irritant.
Times ten million.
Faces turned red, and what began as grumbling quickly developed into a discontent that resembled a galloping herd of iron-clad hooves.
‘This isn’t happening,’ I thought and tried speaking again, but each new syllable I uttered added another splash of gasoline onto a pyre that was already devouring the oxygen in the room.
Someone lobbed a ripe tomato that landed, splat, on my shoulder like an epaulet. One hothead in a licorice wig even threw a can of tomatoes at me. Luckily, I have quick reflexes and ducked. The can just hit the wall behind me then rolled off the stage before I could grab it. Disappointing, certainly, because I had a recipe for a ratatouille that called for canned tomatoes, and now if I wanted to make it, I’d have to stop at the store on my way home, but no matter, I told myself, as people rose from their seats, fists raised.
One was even gripping a pitchfork. Another was looping the end of a rope.
It was clearly time to scoot, so I opened my mouth to briefly thank everyone for coming and almost laughed when I heard the sound I was issuing now: Aaaaaah.
This elongated utterance sighed from the stage speakers and had an instant effect on my audience. Lips softened, fists opened and wigs that had gone askew seemed to straighten of their own accord. I took a chance and opened my mouth again:
Talk about making lemonade. My unfortunate situation had morphed into an opportunity to realize my cherished dream of conducting a choir or a symphony.
Aaaaah, I said, raising my hands, inviting more audience members to join in, and as a wave of aaaaah’s rolled back, I glowed like a kindergartner who’s just earned her first gold star.
Seizing the moment, I motioned to the those sitting on the right side of the room to aaah, and then motioned to those on the left, then scooped my hands to indicate I wanted to hear them aaah all together, and they did, just as I directed!
A pleasant ease descended. Some sank low in their seats and yawned. Children snuggled into their parents’ laps. Others rested their heads on their neighbors’ shoulders, and their neighbors’ arms circled round them amidst a breath of aaaaah’s as peace settled on the room like a soft blue blanket.
And all because of my speech!
This was better than anything I could have planned, I thought, and I tiptoed out the door.
Outside, I was still floating on the sweet cloud of my success, and I decided to walk home despite all the forest fires that had been blazing just outside of the city lately and the smoke that instantly irritated my throat.
The moon was full and orange-red, a bold twin of the setting sun – the air as silent as the looming haze – no car alarm, or ringtone or train horn.
Thanks to my new air conditioning, I’d been able to have the windows to my house closed the entire week, which kept out all but a trace of smoke, and I was looking forward to a cozy evening at home. The perfect way to relish yet another personal triumph.
*First published in Gold Man Review, Fall 2018.