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AUTOGRAPH PARTY by David Williamson

All the girls have their binders and they are all beaming, and she just has her arms all covered in her sleeves and wondering if her mother will come back before the party ends. It appears to her that the ends of Beth Beachie’s mother’s mouth almost touch her ears. Beth Beachie’s mother smiles crazy and starts it off by going to the record player and dropping the needle. A song plays that she thinks she’s heard before in a department store. Beth’s Beachie’s mother rings the bell. All the girls bounce around the floor and come together like atoms colliding on shag. She pushes her back against the corner of the fireplace.

Blaire Gurnsey comes up, starts sharing. Blaire Gurnsey has Krista Kelli the mall-pop star and one from rapper Eponymous Rex. There are others like Vic Vittles and Damien LeStrange who Blaire says are a pair of celebrity priests. When Blaire asks for hers, she shakes her head and Blaire does this back-stepping away thing even before Beth Beachie’s mom rings the bell again.

Beth Beachie comes up with a cardboard box of binders of autographs from every civil engineer from the previous year and is pushing a trade for LaDonna Marie who replaced all the town’s stoplights with artisan roundabouts but was recently fired for blocking off both lanes of traffic when managing the bridge-tunnel repairs. The bell rings and Beth Beachie moves on.

Marcy McDaniels has one single autograph from her father Dante Ferguson. Marcy McDaniels says she’s never met him and is not willing to trade anything for it unless it’s a photograph of Dante Ferguson to know for sure if she has his eyes, which her mother says she does. Does she have a picture of Dante Ferguson? No, she shakes her head.

Her arms ache from keeping them crossed. Her mother had encouraged her to fling them wide open, to be generous with who she is and what she has. That other girls would like her and would surely want what she has to offer. For several minutes she thinks of this and she suffers through more names: Snake Dog Peppers, Valerie Middlebury, Romero Bogero, Kitsch Bowers, Vip Hershey.

Jenny Oliver comes last with a binder and stares right into her insides, it feels like. Jenny asks if she has any autographs, and she says yes but doesn’t proceed to share. Jenny opens her binder and displays pieces of people protected in plastic sheets: a puss-colored fingernail clipping once belonging to the late zoologist Icky Picky and a lock of blue hair from water-dune explorer Bill Pickles. Shriveled blister skin Jenny swears is from the big toe of city psychic Lucity McLaughlin. Three impossibly large teeth, supposedly from the mouth of Os Penny, Highland monk, bulge out the plastic on one page.

Jenny Oliver presses her for what she has and advances. Arms crossed, she backs away and retreats into a small room where there’s a small bed with a floral duvet. The other girls follow and demand to know what’s happening. Even Beth Beachie’s mom with her bell comes, her pumpkin head floating above them, craning, leaning, leering in.

Fine, she thinks. She pushes up each sleeve, turns out each wrist. All the girls look at what’s scrawled from the crease of her elbows all the way to the crease of her wrists. They read each name, some fluttering on their small lips, others said aloud, and others asked as questions because the names are impossible to pronounce. After they take in the names, Venessa Bermuda says, I haven’t heard of any of those people. Janus Cooper asks, How do we even know those are their real autographs?

Do you want any? She asks.

The girls tilt their postures, and Beth Beachie’s mom shifts. Everyone looks uncomfortable. They back out slowly, not wanting any of her autographs.

She stays in the room for the rest of the night. She stays through ice cream and popcorn. She stays and watches the darkness descend upon the house. Watches for cars to come. Watches for her mother. When her mother comes, she doesn’t wait for a knock at the door. Before she slips out of the window and enters the warmth of the car and drinks it all in – the dashboard lights, the sticky pale leather, her mother’s cigarette fingers – she sloughs off her skin, leaving the inscrutable cursive of names no one wants shriveled and coiled in the folds of the comforter for someone else to find. Someone else to bear.

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