1: The Night The Queen Of Swords Appeared
1—The Night The Queen Of Swords Appeared
The rule of the cast parties was perfectly clear:
Only those who had served on cast, crew, pit, or house duties, were allowed to attend, after one of the musical performances that occurred each year in February.
Mrs. Worden and Mrs. Wright produced the musicals for the Catholic high school, and they would not be held responsible for troubles that arose from intruders to the circle of participants they had personally hand-picked.
Of course, each year there was always the usual crowd of would-be-gatecrashers who tried to breach the private houses that hosted cast parties in upscale neighborhoods of that city—usually with booze, and occasionally weed or harder recreational substances in tow.
And each year without fail, such individuals found themselves summarily bounced from the premises by Mrs. Worden, who went so far as to patrol the substance-free student-clogged corridors of host houses, with a gimlet eye.
With one notable exception.
It happened at a cast party the winter before Stellan Estel ran his mouth popularizing the “To The Harperest” epithet that would prove so tenacious, after Worden’s treasured daughter Harper ran her mouth in a frenzied effort to distinguish herself in attempting to answer the riddle that had obsessed the minds of many, including those sadder but wiser than she:
Who gets to date handsome Chris Morrell?
Because of these later complications, it should be clearly stated that Viola Metoxen, then a junior, had two years earlier had the distinction of being one of only three freshman girls to make the dancing corps of West Side Story. This, scores of upperclassmen with insider info assured her, clearly presaged her admission to Show Choir, Worden’s off-season training ensemble for the smaller group of favorites she personally mentored to take leads as juniors and seniors.
Despite the marvel of such glory, whatever occurred during rehearsals of WSS proved so unpleasant that unlike her co-frosh Harper Worden and Cora Metalman, Viola would never again show up at musical auditions of her own volition.
But she would end up taking that lead role as a senior, despite such fateful headwinds to the contrary.
The trouble arose the night she got away with crashing a cast party.
She was in the company of Hattie Wright, also a junior, cast as Rapunzel in that year’s production of Into The Woods. To avoid detection, they entered the host house through a little known side door, like two outlaws fixing to blow up the Sheriff’s Office.
Once inside, Viola took care to stay out of Worden’s patrolling line of sight by sticking to the rooms from which the teacher was absent. When she (i.e. Viola) wanted to go unnoticed, she was invisible.
Reaching the house’s front room with the picture window, she gathered together a group of eleven or twelve spectators. She said she wanted to try out a magic trick she had just learned, to see if it worked.
From the folds of her purple skirt, Viola produced a pack of Tarot cards. Her grandmother had gotten it from the nearby Oneida casino, next to the airport. Then Viola deftly unwound her skirt, revealing black stretch pants beneath. The whole of the clothing item came away in her hands, as a single floaty scarf of regal hue. She asked for a volunteer to blindfold her using the skirt-scarf, and turn her around so she was facing the blazing fireplace directly across the room from the window.
The audience was seated facing her in front of the fireplace. It defined her outline as a dramatic silvery silhouette.
Once blindfolded and turned, Viola asked for another volunteer to shuffle the deck a few times, pick any card, and hold it up for the audience to see, but not her.
That card turned out to be the Queen of Swords, upright.
Removing the blindfold and turning again to the audience, Viola pulled out a card.
“Is this what you picked?” she asked.
The card in her hand was the Tower. The volunteer shook his head.
Viola looked slightly unsettled at this, and picked another card, asking the same. It was still wrong.
She went through the entire deck like that, faster and faster and faster, until all the cards were scattered across the floor in a chaotic formation. The Queen of Swords had somehow vanished from the pack.
And there stood Viola Maryam Metoxen, looking sad and bewildered—like something had gone terribly wrong here, and the only question now was how best to make a graceful exit to minimize the humiliation.
I should just say here, that halfway through the trick, both Mrs. Worden and Mrs. Wright had floated into the room, drawn by the rapt look on everybody’s face attending to Viola. They stood now with arms folded like patient cops on the beat, ready to arrest the suspect but spare her the shame of doing it while all eyes were still on her.
You almost just had to start crying right along with Viola, so lovely in her desolation and failure, at exactly that moment.
I did not even realize that I already knew her from at least two other places, separate from that parlor performance.
Then this happened:
First Viola was looking down at the cards on the floor. Then her dark eyes flicked upward, as though appealing to God, or something, to bail her out.
Then she glanced out directly over our heads, at the picture window behind our back, with its scene of a dark and frozen winter landscape visible through its panes.
Her eyes widened. The brows above them looked like the wings of a bird outstretched for flight.
And she had that look on her face!
That look I knew so well from elsewhere—though I did not presently recognize her.
That look that said wordlessly: this is a girl who does not get angry very often, but when she does, you could be forgiven for thinking you saw lightning bolts shoot out of her irises and strike whatever—or whoever—just pissed her off.
Slowly all our heads began to turn with her glance.
Then all I remember is a scream rose up from far off to the right: Cora Metalman, dramatic as always.
And everybody else gasped.
And I jumped.
Because there, stuck to the outside of the picture window, staring in at us like a ghost, was the vanished Queen of Swords card.
A collective sigh of relief rippled out across the room in the discovery’s wake. Laughter, cheers, and applause followed close on its heels. Viola bowed gallantly, and struck a pose, clasping her hands above her head like a champion prizefighter.
(But I did not know then that her name was Viola Metoxen. All I could wonder was, how the blazes did she do that? It was witchy.)
As all this settled, I glanced swiftly at Wright and Worden, to see if they would go through ejecting the intruder from the cast party, pursuant to their rule.
Those two women had produced the musical together for so long as to have formed a special bond, closer possibly than that of twin siblings.
No words were needed. Arms still folded, a look flicked between them instantly, like a superball. Almost imperceptibly, the two directors shrugged at each other and walked out again, smiling slightly.
Viola stayed for the rest of the party.