Mickey Ellinger is a freelance journalist whose beat is stories that give voice to under-represented communities. This is
her first published fiction. www.mickeyellinger.com
"A story must be told with as much intentness as if the teller's life depended upon it." ~ Margaret Atwood
"Great! Myra and Peggy are here. Let's get started." Sally was so great about being encouraging without being perky
or giving us grief because we were always late. Wise woman that she was, she knew that Myra was resisting being in
a drama class for the disabled. Before the MS stole her supple grace, Myra was a locally famous improvisational
comedian and a drama teacher herself. She led the theater games, a standard exercise in the non-violence trainings
for the Pledge of Peace. When we were getting worked up to go sit down on some railroad tracks out at the Naval
Weapons Station or in downtown San Francisco intersections, after the legal briefing and before the prayer, Myra
would step into the circle, pausing just a beat to let us appreciate how she moved. We were all a little in love with her,
extended ourselves to do what she asked, maybe daydreamed for an instant about her asking us to kiss that mobile,
After Myra started to need a cane she still came to actions, still led the games, until that awful afternoon when she
stood in front of us and went blank, tears rolling down her cheeks, until someone else named the game and I took
Myra's hand and helped her sit down and rest.
The slide was pretty steep after that. Now Myra is a participant in Sally's class, along with Bill, almost horizontal in his
power chair, Mary, Sarah and Rachel, who always came together from the assisted living center down the street, and
Lydia. Lydia's been in a chair most or all of her short life. She's a fair-skinned redhead, green-eyed, freckled face and
hands, bright red nail polish a little chipped. She looks like a rutabaga, pendulous breasts, short useless legs
dangling. Tonight she's wearing a purple beret on that red hair; makes her look like a neon sign.
We know how the class works by now, pull into a lopsided circle, shake what we can: heads, hands, booties. We close
our eyes tight tight tight and squinch up our faces. Then we open our eyes open our mouths stick out our tongues,
growl, yowl, howl. Reminds me of the song about all God's critters having a place in the choir... some just clap their
hands, paws or anything they got now.
"Who's got an idea for a scene?" Sally calls them scenes, not skits or role plays; she is very serious about what we're
doing as theater; if it's therapy, that's just a bonus as far as she's concerned. Tonight it's Lydia who says, "What
about when you go into a store and the clerk talks to you like you don't speak English or else maybe you're four
years old." "And they don't want you to touch anything," adds Bill. "Or try on anything," says Rachel. Lydia laughs.
"Oh yeah. Crip cooties. I've had those plenty of times."
"Who wants to be the clerk?" Asked Sally. Silence. "I will," said Myra. This was the first time she'd ever volunteered to
play a role; she rolled right up to the front where we set up the scenes. Sally didn't say anything to draw attention,
and I relaxed back into my chair.
Lydia got to be the shopping crip, of course, since it was her idea. She backed up, adjusted her beret, and came
purring into the stage area, stopping a few feet from Myra. "Excuse me." Myra turned away from her and picked up
an imaginary phone. "Ladies lingerie, may I help you?"
"Yes, you can," said Lydia. "I'd like to see..."
"Just a minute," Myra said into the phone. "I'll be right with you," she said to Lydia, slowly and a little too loud. She
turned back to the phone, while Lydia craned up to look across the counter Myra's gestures had created between
them. Myra went on. "So then I told her that if she thought she could talk to me like that she had another thing
coming. So then..."
"Excuse me," said Lydia again. "I am still waiting."
"I'll have to call you back." Myra put down the imaginary phone on the imaginary counter and peered over it at Lydia
with a toothy over-bright smile. "Now, how may I help you?"
"I'd like to see some brassieres, please," said Lydia.
"They're right over there." Myra waved vaguely to her left.
"I see that," said Lydia, "but I can't reach them. Could I ask you to bring me everything you have in a 38B in white?"
"Oh. I see. Well, yes, of course, I'll be happy to accommodate you."
Lydia turned to us. "She's had her ADA training, folks. Note appropriate use of the word 'accommodate'."
Myra mimes riffling through imaginary racks and putting items on the counter slightly higher than Lydia's head. "I'm
afraid these four are all we have."
"That's fine. I'd like to try them on."
Myra flinched visibly. "Try them on?" She took a deep breath. "Well, yes, of course you would. Anyone would."
Lydia turned to us again. "Yes, just like anyone else. Just like an able-bodied woman. Pretty pushy for a crip, don't
you think? That's what that independent living assertiveness training will do for you."
Myra handed the imaginary bras to Lydia. "There you are. The fitting rooms are right over there." She waved and
reached for her phone.
"Oh, no you don't," Lydia says to us. Then to Myra: "I'm going to need some help."
Myra sighed, put down the phone. "Now what? I mean, how may I help you further?"
"I'll need some help trying them on. Getting off my sweater and bra and getting these on me. Especially hooking
them. Do any of them have front closures?"
Myra made a face as if someone had just made a really stinky fart, then smoothed her face back into a professional
smile. God, she is still so beautiful. "I'm sorry, I don't think I can do that. I'm the only person working in this
department. You could buy the ones you like and try them on at home, then return the ones you don't want to keep."
Lydia smiled too. There were an awful lot of teeth showing. "But there are no returns on underwear. Perhaps you
could call someone else to see to the counter. I believe I'm entitled to help in the fitting room. That's reasonable
accommodation of my disability, I'm pretty sure." She waited.
Myra turned crimson. "Pretty sure! I'll say you are pretty sure, pretty sure that you're entitled to take up my whole
afternoon and to make me wait on you hand and foot. I don't see why you people can't bring someone with you to
help you, someone who's used to handling handicapped people, who's comfortable with deformity, someone with
nerves of steel and a strong stomach." Her voice was getting louder and higher. The rest of the room was still as a
stone. We were all holding our breath.
Myra crumpled and began to sob. "Oh, oh, oh. I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. I don't know what came over me." Her
mascara was running and her beautiful face looked like a mud puddle that kids had ridden through on their trikes.
Lydia turned to us. "And there you have it, folks. Once again the forces of pushy cripdom triumph over prim
propriety, reduce normally well-mannered sales people to blubbering apologizers, and assert their inalienable right to
put their lumpy mismatched tits into new harnesses." She swept off her beret and bowed with such a flourish I was
afraid she was going to tumble out of her chair.
"Bravo!" Sally jumped up while the rest of us were clapping and exclaiming. Somehow she managed to hug both Lydia
and Myra at the same time, getting the last of Myra's mascara on her cheek. "What power! You really had me going
there. I was ready to call the manager myself."
"Will you come shopping with me next time?" Asked Sarah. "Yeah, me too." "We'll be a brigade, the crip consumer
crusade." "We'll strike terror into Sears and then... Nordstrom's! Who knows, maybe Macy's." Everyone was talking
Well, that was it for that night. Sally tried to get us going on another scene, but we were spent. After a false start or
two, we gave it up. "Go home, you guys, sleep well. What a workout! For next week I'm going to see what I can
suggest that builds on what we did tonight. Myra and Lydia, work on your characters, and the rest of you help us
think about how to make some more scenes. I think we may have us a play."
I found a tissue for Myra to mop her face, and kept quiet until we'd gotten into the car, the chair in the back, gotten
out of the parking lot and were headed back to her place. "You were really on tonight," I started. "You were fabulous."
"It's easy to be the bad guy," said Myra. "That's always the juiciest part."
"Sure, but there's way more to it than that. You know that. That's the most powerful improv I've seen you do since
Second City. So what do you think about the idea of working on a play? I'd love to do it if you did."
Myra looked out the window as the familiar Berkeley streets slipped by. As we pulled into the parking lot of Savo
Island Village she finally answered. "No, I don't think I'll be going back."
"I just can't stand being around all those cripples."