“The only mistake I ever did, the only harm I ever did, was sing ‘Over the Rainbow.’ ”—Judy Garland to Barbara Walters, 1967
“Two minutes,” someone calls, and the makeup artist rubs a calloused thumb into the apples of my cheeks. The meticulous imprint of her thumb, engrained in black powder, now smudges my skin, like a fingerprint on a doorknob, like a criminal’s mistake.
Isn’t it funny someone does this for a living? It’s funny that I let her touch me at all. That I don’t think twice about such intrusions—the constant plucking and pruning, because, well, you get so used to things. Now, if it were Sid, well, that’d be a different story altogether. A different touch.
Most likely, no one will notice the smudging’s effect, how one touch could so fearlessly embellish a face—its hard lines. And it’s hardness I’ve got, standing behind the curtain, ready for my encore, still dressed the tramp, because there’s no time to change,
Judy, they tell me, you’re live. And don’t I know it—a real live wire. So, I’ve got to sing that song to a television audience, no longer that girl, but a mother. And a wife. A headline. An American tragedy. And so many other things I haven’t become yet.
So, the lyrics now run through my head, like answers. And, you know, I’ll never know what rainbow it was I was expected to get over, because I was never like her—I didn’t grow up that way. Long before she walked that road, I lived like a gypsy child, skipping across America’s stages for pennies. Don’t you know each cloud contains pennies from heaven....Pennies... to give my mother. Ah, but that’s another song.
I glance back at the vanity mirror, contemplate my mouth, if it should be redder. Ha—a tramp with a perfectly red mouth, and a perfectly arranged mess of rags. I suppose I was always your tramp, worked to the bone. And I suppose, all these years later, I am still your tramp, still singing for my supper, still singing the same words, out of a still perfect and red mouth.
I think about this as I stand in the wings. I think about never singing that song again. That this might very well be it. The last goddamn time. And it’s like I’m getting off a decades-long train ride, having finally arrived, somewhere, like the end, the final surrender.