What Martha Plimpton Was Waiting For

Martha Plimpton was standing when I first saw her, blond strings unraveled from a tight nest of hair, whipping around in the wind. Expressionless eyes, set in a pale, triangular face. She was smoking. I had hardly noticed her smoking, but my friend mentioned it after we were indoors, after I had spotted her and instinctually said, “She’s a great actress.”

The Oscars, those foolish golden statues often awarded to undeserving films or scripts or Jack Nicholson, were being handed out in less than a month. That’s why I even saw her at all, sitting once I turned around; viewing her through the fragmented sight of revolving door glass. Her nose was pointy, a knapsack swung in her left hand. She looked west, away from Lake Michigan, and cabs went back and forth on North Avenue. But, it seemed to me, she wasn’t interested in cabs.

When I was younger than ten, though I cannot accurately guess my age, my mother had spotted Willie Nelson in a Howard Johnson’s in Memphis. She told me while she drove a 1974 gold stationwagon that wheezed and coughed upon starting, being driven, or being turned off. It was a horrible car to be a passenger in, particularly for my older siblings who were in the process of choking on the first-time lung-raking steam of cigarettes. But I liked the ugly ride because it was made of a doughty steel Superman couldn’t slug holes through. It’s rumble fitted me with the illusion of an invincible tank, grumbling through helpless Tennessee streets.

"I saw Willie Nelson," she told me.

"Who?" I was the only one in the car. Once, after we’d gone grocery shopping, I hadn’t closed the door tight enough; it had opened and I’d fallen out.

"Willie Nelson," she said. "You know who he is."

I didn’t. "I don’t," I said.

"He’s a country singer," my mother told me. No one I knew listened to country. No one I knew listened to anything. Save for my brother David, always indiscreetly high on anything but life, who listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall until he turned blue in the face or passed out from smoking too much marijuana.

"Oh," I said. "Did you talk to him?"

She said she hadn’t. "Nope," she said.

I asked her "why not?"

"I don’t know," she said. "He’s famous."

Inside the theater we coasted up the escalator. I waited for the baggy cuff of my jeans to be sucked into the teeth of it, for my leg to be torn from my body. I was tired, hadn’t heard of the movie we were seeing, my love life was in perpetual shambles, and I knew a severed leg would warrant plenty of rest.

Atop the toothed stairs, safe, I told my friend I had seen 'The Glass Managerie' at the Steppenwolf Theatre two years before. Martha Plimpton played Laura Wingfield, who wobbled around the stage like a maimed turkey. It was the first time I saw Martha and she had been outstanding. At the end, after Tom Wingfield gave the monologue, Laura Wingfield was literally blowing the candles out, something my mind’s eye had not envisioned happening in my vision of the play. It was a beautiful image, this girl exposed and hapless. It repeated in my mind, over and over: her breath on the bouncing flame. Then darkness. After the show (it was a preview) I stayed with a scatter of the audience. The actors came out one by one, and Martha Plimpton came out last. She was smiling and blond, not limping. It had been a long spell since I’d been attracted to a woman with blond hair, lastly Robin in third grade who I loved because her birthday was the same day as mine, along with her being left-handed.

I was in the third row; Martha was closest to me. The audience unleashed a series of trite queries. The questions were always the same, grasping for understanding of the trivial, already understood points, preceded by a cauldron of compliments. Martha Plimpton talked with a slight lisp, the way I had in third grade when I loved chunky, blond Robin. She was wearing a low cut t-shirt. I wanted to kiss her. I raised my hand shyly, and the director of the question asking, a tall, short-haired stick of a woman, pointed at me.

I spoke slowly. "Do you think it’s possible Laura even likes Amanda? And do you think she ever escapes? I mean leaves home?" I asked. My throat went dry.

Martha Plimpton nodded turbidly, maybe still in character. She said she thought Laura did, in fact, love Amanda, probably because she was afraid not to. And I can’t remember what she said to the other half of my inquiry. She smiled as she spoke, as if an excited gallery of snowglobes had been turned over all at once and she was witnessing them.

That night I was the only mildly attractive guy left in the audience and I thought if the world ended outside of the theater, that Martha Plimpton would choose me over any other man on earth. I also came to the conclusion that she was flirting with me. I nodded respectfully as she cordially answered, the whole time I was somehow certain of a capricious subtext that pervaded our vocal exchange.

Later in the week I wrote a short story titled "Lit By Lightning," a title playing off Tom Wingfield’s concluding Glass Managerie speech. And while my friend and I bought tickets, I was ready to excuse myself so I could tell Martha Plimpton about that, because Minnie Driver another beautiful, beatific actor, said actors should not date actors. And I was no actor. But in a flash of light, my friend skittered off to the bathroom while I waited for the usher, whose preposterously sized melon of a head was three times too big for his body, to tear the tickets: which he did with painful lethargy and reluctance, along the perforated lines.

After the movie--which was hysterical and left me laughing so hard at one point I clapped one swift, hard, noisy clap in a theater of seven people, which only left me laughing harder--we exited into the street where Martha Plimpton had been standing and sitting. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by her disappearance.

My friend asked why she’d been sitting there and it got me thinking.

On our left a Cadillac drove by and a plastic bag flew up and hooked onto the hood ornament. It made the sound of a shopping cart with a bad wheel. The oddity, along with the timing, struck me, certainly complemented by the buzz of the movie still ringing in my head, and I doubled over in an unexpected roar of laughter. I settled down, stood up and we talked about the movie on the way to my car. I took my friend home. We laughed, for most of the ride, about a scene where the protagonist descends onto a stage on a moon. He is off-balance and jumps from it safely before the moon crashes hysterically onto the stage, scattering a band that wouldn’t have been more surprised if they’d seen the Seven Dwarves feeding chili to caterpillars.

After dropping my friend off, I headed north to see a spot of the city that was in the novel I was working on. An officer followed me the entire way, and after passing the spot I turned down a short street, then immediately into a closed gas station, readied to take a right onto the original street. Down a short way the cop turned around, and I was hoping I wouldn’t get pulled over (which I didn’t) because I was wondering what Martha Plimpton had been waiting for and wanted to keep wondering about it without interruption.

Instead of heading directly home, I decided to detour and pass by the theater. Just in case Martha Plimpton might be outside, smoking a cigarette, the straight blond locks of her hair free in the dance of wind, I wanted to say hello. By the time I was within eyeshot I had convinced myself that she would ask for a ride if I stopped and rolled down my window.

Martha Plimpton wasn’t there. And she hasn’t been. For a week I drove past Piper’s Alley Theatre and it’s maudlin set of blinking lights. On the broken off stem of streetlamp, swelled at the bottom, coming to a narrow surface, there has been no one sitting. A few smokers straggling, but none of them kissable women. None of them even blond.

But as I’m driving there, holding my breath until nearly passing out, and after I know she’s gone from that spot for good, I remember my friend asking what Martha Plimpton was waiting for.

It could not have been a cab. There were at least three that passed in the few moments that I saw her. So, maybe it was her lover, who had been reckless with time, leaving her to wait in the fifty degree night, with a cigarette and a knapsack and my consideration. Or maybe, and this seems the least likely, and I don’t mean specifically, but maybe Martha Plimpton was waiting for me. Not because she recognized my face the time I pretended she was flirting with me, when I dared myself to rise, step onto the stage and kiss her sweetly on her ashen cheek. But my flattering willingness to drive by the same spot eight times in seven days, not for the sake of obsession or childhood frivolity, but because of the way she knelt down, her blanched palms flat on the hardwood stage, head angled forward, and blew those candles out.

About the author:

Todd Zuniga is a writer living in Chicago. Also, he is the editor of Opium Magazine. Too, too, he is in the process of outlining a new novel which will have something to do with lying.