* — April 2, 2017
Tough Cookie
Kurt Bauschardt, 2012*
The men in black greet Ava’s mother and pause to avoid her with their many lights as she swans her way down the carpeted corridor into the “Green Room,” which she shares with her two fake children, their real parents, and her fake husband, who perhaps does not have a real wife and kids, or, if he does, they are not there. Ava finds it funny that the Green Room is called such, when it is mostly beige, and the set is called “The Set,” when that is almost all green. They are filming a commercial for a new type of maple syrup, but, her mother has explained, they must film on a green screen, as it will be a joke that the kitchen is actually floating in outer space. Ava thinks this is the dumbest thing she has ever heard. She is glad this is their last day.

Samples of the syrup abound—they are everywhere, except in the commercial, where the waffles are topped with glue, thinned with water and dyed with chocolate-flavoured food colouring, the syrup itself being not syrup-like enough on camera. Ava has enjoyed hanging around the art department this weekend, watching the fake syrup mixing process. The mixer is a petite and pretty girl, with hair that is dark at the roots and blonde at the tips. Yesterday, she let Ava stir the glue, though apparently Ava over-stirred it, as, much to her solemn disappointment, she watched the girl throw it out. She then heard her say to another boy, with floppy hair, thick eyebrows, and becoming paint stains on his jeans and hands, “There’s nothing worse than a kid loose on a film set.” Ava was furious and humiliated. A kid! She is ten years old. She is sure she knows all the swear words in the world. Once in a fury she smoked one of her mother’s cigarettes in the dead of night, curled against the cold in the bottom of her garden. The smoke was a hair in her throat. She has kissed two boys already, lunged fearlessly against them. She is hardly a kid, like the fake children in the commercial are, with their blank faces, wide white teeth, and big bobbly eyes. They are just a bunch of adjectives, thinks Ava.
Ava sucks on a maple syrup sample in the green room. Her mother gets on well with the fake children. She asks them questions about what they want to do when they grow up. The teenage girl says a social worker. The boy says a dentist. How boring, thinks Ava. “What about you, Ava?” calls her mother. The highlights in her blonde hair are bright as if lit by wires. Her eyes have been traced with white and lined with black flicks, her eyelashes gluey. She has been smoothed and buffed. Who is this woman? wonders Ava. Is she real or is my life one endless commercial for maple syrup? The thought pleases her. The syrup winds its sweetness down her throat.
“I would like to work in a shoe shop,” says Ava. She imagines the great raucousness of a large silver cashier, tilting the many pairs of shoes into skewed straight lines. She imagines the coolness of the grey back room, rows and rows of boxes, clean missing pairs. She enjoys shopping for shoes, the ritual measuring of her foot, the feel of the salesperson’s hand around her ankle, the coolness of the metal measurer around her toe. The bad jokes about growing so big so fast, or not growing at all.
“Oh Ava,” says her mother. “How did I raise such a small dreamer?”
Her mother is a great believer in dreams. She likes to relate her own to Ava in the mornings before she goes to school. These dreams nearly always occur onstage. In one, her mother spun in a long costume, which her partner grabbed in order to unravel it, until she was left, still turning, in a short, sparkly tutu. But, in her dream, she could not stop spinning, and the costume did not stop unravelling, and eventually she herself began to unravel, her skin peeling off, then the muscle, then the bone. Ava does not like hearing about these dreams at all.
Ava drifts out of the green room onto the set. The girl in the art department smiles at her, and Ava makes a rude hand gesture at her that makes her laugh. Ava wanders over to her usual haunt, the snack table. A man sits beside it, chewing a dainty quarter of a sandwich. He has many tattoos etched over his wide hairy arms. He is one of the only men not wearing black—his t-shirt is voluminous and not quite white. He is staring at the empty set like it contains something.
Ava picks up a sandwich, too, and sniffs it. “Why do you have a tattoo of a dolphin?” she asks the man. The sandwich is tuna. She puts it back.
“Well don’t just smell it and put it back!” says the man. “Didn’t your mother teach you manners?”
“My mother taught me to be a small dreamer,” says Ava. The man picks up the discarded sandwich and eats it, mayo tainting his lip.
“That’s good,” says the man. He looks at the horrible blue dolphin on his arm. “I guess I got the dolphin because I always fancied the idea of swimming with them. And I had a dolphin-shaped hole next to this lady.”
He points at the woman next to the dolphin, who has red hair and is dressed in a leathery-looking winged costume.
“What’s her name?” asks Ava.
“Angela,” he says.
“That’s sort of like my name,” says Ava. She waits for him to ask what that is, but he doesn’t. Ava’s mother, her fake husband, and her two fake children, arrive on set to a timid round of applause. The director stands near the camera. He is wearing stripes all over. Even his glasses are white and red striped like candy canes. Ava’s mother has described him as “overzealous.”
Neither Ava nor the tattooed man applauds. Instead, Ava says, “You know, tuna from the can is probably all dolphin. The net goes through the same mincer and who’s to say what’s in what?” Ava and her mother are vegetarians, except on national holidays and when they go to McDonald’s.
“Jog on, kid,” says the man. The little boy on set waves in their direction, and both Ava and the man wave back. Ava’s mother waves, too, and both Ava and the man lower their hands. Her mother does not seem to notice, and her wave gets wider, seeming to embrace the whole set. There is a flurry of hands in the air.
Ava takes a cookie and moves next to the director, who is peering intently into a screen showing her mother with her fake family. Another woman stands beside him, repeating everything he says in a louder tone. Ava watches her mother and the others sitting around a wooden dining table, laden with cold inedible breakfast food. The floor and the wall behind them seem to buzz with green.
“Okay, I’ve got line, from Mum…” says the director.
“Line from Mum!” says the woman.
“Cute chuckle to Hubby, line from Son, let’s all laugh, hair ruffle, and let’s lift the fork as if about to eat the waffle, but kid, eat the bit without the glue?”
“Laugh, line, laugh, ruffle, eat!” shouts the woman.
Ava squints through the screen. “There’s glue all over that waffle,” she says. The stripy director looks around the room, as if trying to recover the voice. Ava raises her hand. The woman, looking alarmed, starts to pull her away.
“Set clear, PLEASE, people,” says the stripy man, still looking around as if he cannot see Ava’s waving hand.
“Ava, shoo, darling, there’s a good girl!” calls her mother.
“I’m not a good girl!” shouts Ava, but the shout is just in her mind. The tattooed man stares at her as the woman pulls her from the studio; for a moment, their eyes seem glued. Then the door slams. She is pulled back into the not-green room and planted on a chair with more cookies in her lap. Then the woman leaves again, as if she is in a great hurry.
“I will never eat another cookie as long as I live,” says Ava to the empty room. Then she eats a cookie. Nothing happens. Promises are useless, thinks Ava, and wanders out of the room.

 

    The corridor is deserted. Everything is clean and has the smell of carpet freshly vacuumed. Ava sits cross-legged in the middle of the corridor and stares up at the pebble-dashed ceiling. She badly wants someone to find her, to be surprised that she is on her own, to worry about her, to tut at her mother’s behaviour, letting her go off on her own all the time. Perhaps someone will kidnap her, the dolphin-scarred man. Ava is fascinated by the idea of kidnapping, of being pulled from a familiar road to live life off in some small-walled room. There is so much horror around her that is never made clear. There are whispers of it from the television, from the shadows that slide past her window and under the bed.
She gets up to peer through the window that leads into the studio. She sees her mother ruffle the little boy’s hair, looking happier than she ever looks on an ordinary morning, or, in fact, ever. It seems ridiculous that her mother can turn her face so easily, with all those lights and people bearing down on her. Through the window, the spotlights hang in the air like cartoon moons. Ava shivers and turns away. She walks down the corridor, through the reception, and shoves open the door to the world.

 

    The sky is at that point just before it gets dark, where everything seems to get light again. The trees are shivering in their bony winter way. Ava struts around the car park.
“This is the light I will have in my shoe shop,” she says to no one, and spins around, pretending to have fun. But it is not fun, and she is alone, and so she sits down in the middle of a white-lined parking space and wills someone to appear out of the air and talk to her.
The door opens and out of the shadow comes the tattooed man, his dirty white shirt catching the late light. For a second, she wonders if she has summoned him. This has happened before with people, ghosts she has managed to invent to stand beside her and give her ideas. He does not seem surprised to see her. He takes out a packet of cigarettes and lights one with a bright silver lighter, a snake slithering up its side. He holds out the lighter to Ava.
“Want a look?” he asks, and she notices his voice, the gruffness of it, which means he is most likely real. All of her other ghosts speak in voices she has never noticed as being different from her own.
She takes the lighter and feels its weight in her palm. She looks away towards the motorway above them, the brightening headlights of cars swishing and slowing past, some going blink-blink-blink like a video game. She has a sudden urge to run off towards the horizon, holding onto this heavy, precious thing. Then she gives it back.
He flicks it and the wick plops up its orange circle. The snake on the side squiggles.
“It’s cool,” says Ava. She waits. He looks at her, seeming to wait also. The quiet makes her nervous; she meets the eyes of leathered Angela on his arm.
“What are you doing here?” she asks.
“Here, where?” he asks.
She rolls her eyes. “You know, here. On set.”
“Ah, the boy’s mine,” he says. He looks serious, but then a smile seems to worm its way out. Ava thinks of the little boy on set, his perfect teeth. She tries to imagine her own mother, stating in this simple, booming way, “The Girl Is Mine.” She cannot.
“You weren’t in the green room,” Ava says, suspicious.
“Not for me, all these drama types,” he says. “Don’t know where my boy gets it from.”
“I thought he wanted to be a dentist?”
“Aye, he says that,” says the man, shaking his head. “Your mum told him to; he used to be saying movie star, but she told him people will like him better if he says something different. Don’t want to be a show off, she said, though the kid’s been showing off since the day he was born. She’s the expert though, eh? She feed you that small dreamer line?”
Ava glares at him. “No,” she says.
He keeps smoking. She doesn’t like the way he looks doing it, sucking it in for too long and then expelling it in short puffs like coughs. Her own mother, she must admit, looks fantastic smoking. She likes to smoke quietly, eyes fixed on some distant horizon, and Ava feels like she can almost see her thoughts while she smokes, pulsing out from her big red hair, drifting off like let-go balloons. Going places Ava would never recognize.
She wishes she was dreaming, as she could then get a real drama going. Maybe she would steal the lighter and run towards the motorway, be lifted onto the traffic’s quick-moving river of light, perhaps saved at the last moment by the illustrated arms of this large man, who could be anything, a criminal or an astronaut, but nothing so boring as a father.
“Your mother is a piece of work,” he says, after a pause, in a rushed voice, like he’s considered saying nothing but then said it anyway. “A tough cookie, but guess she’s had to be, to be, well, in the public eye so long.”
Ava rests her chin in the cove between her knees and stares up at him. She wishes the art department girl were here instead, perhaps with the other art boy, the pretty one with the paint stains. Perhaps they would run away with her, or give her something precious, not just show it off to her and then take it back. Nothing worse than a kid loose on a film set. Am I a tough cookie? she thinks. Am I something worse?
“They’re about done now,” he says.
Ava lifts her head off her knees. “Are they looking for me?”
The man takes a breath.
“You know, kid, I don’t know whether I should tell you this, but your mother really gets on my nerves,” he says. “She keeps running over the kids’ breaks because she can’t go one take without butting in, telling them to do it with more emotion, telling my kid to say, ‘Thanks for breakfast, mum,’ with more power, more, she keeps saying, gumption, and I’m just there thinking, man, I’m sorry for her kid. And I am. I’m sorry. She a hard boss? Making you say thank you for breakfast twenty times every morning?”
Ava peers at him. It is not the first time such a rant has been directed her way. She thinks of breakfasts. Cereal and orange juice. Her mother lets her have tea with six sugars in it sometimes. Silence. The night’s dreams relayed.
“Could you say that line any better? Could you?” The man’s eyes have gone glassy, his voice hard and ragged and gaining speed and volume. Ava’s heart starts to trip up a little, like it is trying to go up a down escalator. She is scared. There is something about her mother that inspires the fanatical. “Would you ever say thank you like that? At a bloody breakfast?”
“No,” says Ava, realising the truth of this as she says it. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“No, you couldn’t,” says the man, with something like triumph. He leans back against the wall, and his breath comes out in one smoky stream, his eyes leveling out again like something has been realigned for him.
“Did you ever get to swim with dolphins?” asks Ava.
He starts to laugh, a laugh that doesn’t sound like a laugh, more angry than funny. Ava decides she does not like this man.
“Keep dreaming small, kid,” he says, heaving open the door and stepping through it sideways as it races back to its frame.

 

    The light is no longer shoe shop light, no longer light at all. It is dark. Ava still sits in the parking space. There are no visitors. She lies down on her back and lifts her arms and legs until she is all angles, a sort of reversed diamond. Her heart pumps a little faster at the idea of those large vans filled with lights and cameras, reversing into her small self. For she is small, and she knows this. The man’s voice rings around her, now her own, planting a hard seed of anger in her. There are so many things larger than her in the world. She can barely fill half a parking space.

       

        Her mother steps out of the door, a cigarette already peeling its way out of the packet. Behind her, the corridor lights have been switched off, and she emerges from darkness to more darkness.
      “Ava, darling,” she says. “There you are. Dreaming again?”
      Her face starts to shift away as Ava huddles on the curb. Vans have started to arrive, people are coming and going, waving their hands, shouting. Ava stands up, running to her mother and head-butting her in her hard stomach. Her mother squeezes her shoulders, but then some one calls her name and she looks further into the distance, her hand raised.
      “I don’t like when you tell me your dreams,” says Ava, as one of the many vans revs its engine, preparing to reverse.
Originally published in No Tokens Issue No. 6. View full issue & more.
*Photo has been altered following the licencing guidelines of Flickr, Creative Commons. Attribution belongs to Kurt Bauschardt.
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Dizz Tate is a writer currently living in London after growing up in Florida. She was long-listed for Young Poet Laureate in 2013, and went on to be part of the Spread the Word collective, Podium Poets. She took part in the Lyric Young Writers Workshop in 2013, and has had short plays performed at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, and as part of the London Design Festival with Riff Raff productions. Her short stories have been featured in the Wrong Quarterly Issues 1 and 3, Squawk Back, Femmeuary, and Arachne Press, with work forthcoming in Corda and 3:am Magazine. In 2015, she was long-listed for the Bare Fiction and Bristol short story prizes.