I Cain't Say No
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
By William Wodhams -
“I don’t know if I want to do this,” she said.
“Look at that guy. By the stop lights.” Alan pointed at a heavy man wearing nothing but a pair of old Nike shorts and an unruly mass of hair covering his head. He was shouting at a crowd of half-baked tourists in a Hop-on, Hop-off Sightseeing Bus. “Sorry. What aren’t you going to do?”
“So sad. It kills me. And I don’t want to do this,” she said, pointing at the building next door.
“It’s just an audition.” Alan pointed out, putting his foot up on the dashboard of her old Prius. “Relax.”
Shauna looked over at her brother. He gazed out the window while she half-listened, half-contemplated killing him. “Alan.” She punched his shoulder, harder than she intended. “In the history of this planet, when has telling someone to relax ever helped them relax?”
“Ouch! Why do always get like this?” he asked, rubbing his shoulder as if it hurt, though it didn’t. “What happened to your mantra?”
She took two, three, four deep breaths before answering. “Om Mani Padme Hum. Om Mani Padme Hum.”
“See? You’re getting calmer. It’s working!”
“Absolutely,” she answered, shaking her head. “Can’t you see how fucking calm I am?”
Alan was scrolling through his phone. “You wanted me to help you to stay calm for your audition. So Om Mani Padme Hum, or else.” He looked at her. “Why do people do that? Post pictures of their lunch? Or dogs? Who cares?”
“I don’t know. Why do you keep looking at them?”
“What does Om Mani Padme Hum mean, anyway?”
“Hail to the jewel in the lotus. The jewel is the Buddha of compassion.”
“Nice! I like it. Hey, look. Isn’t that Alannah?” Alan held his phone out. There was a photo of a 30-ish redhead underneath a headline that read: ‘Local Actress Kills Self’. “Wasn’t she in your acting group years ago?”
Shauna took a quick look and sucked in a slow, deep breath. Then two. “Yeah. No. Yes. I guess I sort of remember her. She was nice, I think.”
He put the phone away. “Wasn’t she your buddy?”
“No. No. Look, not now, OK?”
But she was, and they were.
Alannah was one of the original members of the acting troupe Shauna had started almost ten years ago. There were eight of them: they wrote and performed their own work, a multi-media mash-up of performance art, opera, spoken word poetry, and attitude. Performances were held in basements, small bars, neighborhood churches. A few friends and relatives would occasionally show up, but audiences weren’t the point: they were the fringe of the fringe, and they liked it that way. They lived off whatever scrubs they could get from grants, parents and donations. It was enough.
Shauna could feel Alan watching her as she redid her makeup. “What time is your audition?”
She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “Three o’clock. We’ve still got an hour.”
“What’s the audition for?”
“I told you. It’s Oklahoma.”
He shrugged and turned up the radio. It was a busy weekday afternoon on King Street West, despite the oppressive heat weighing down on the city. The ever-increasing number of people, cars and bikes strained the limited capacity of the narrow sidewalks and streets. The smell of roasting hot dogs mixed with exhaust fumes. Discount stores sat beside high-end retail shops, dive bars beside expensive restaurants, slim young couples in designer clothes stepped over men sleeping on the sidewalk.
Shauna’s acting troupe had existed happily in the black hole of the undiscovered for years. They felt proud of their anonymity, as if their lack of popularity was proof of their credibility as eccentric provocateurs. Then a critic in ARTX Magazine wrote a rave review of the musical/drama/opera they had recently introduced. The show was called Chopin’s Brain, a mash of disconnected auditory and visual experiences that included dancing fish, opera-singing robots, and a flying Queen wearing a neon cape. The play was narrated by a brain in a jar. It was eclectic and irreverent nonsense, but for some reason it appealed to him. He loved, loved, loved the play! Shauna can still remember the first time she read the review:
“Chopin’s Brain is experimental, edgy and powerful. It’s the creative shot in the arm this town needs. This troupe has blown up every accepted trope in theatre and wildly succeeded.” He gave it ten “thumbs up” emojis and five stars. It was the first time Shauna had read anything about anything she was involved in, and although she hated to admit it, it was thrilling. The reviewer went on, and as Shauna read she started hoping, really hoping, that he would mention something about her own performance. Images of fame forced themselves into her consciousness. Then this: “Do not miss this show, in particular the breakout performance by Alannah Myles, by far the most outstanding member of this talented group.” Shauna’s brain started pounding and her stomach dropped. It was first time she had experienced what, she found out later, were the early symptoms of an anxiety attack.
Alan turned the radio up louder. A disc jockey rhapsodized about the marriage of two reality-TV actors he had never heard about. A manly voice promised that this beer, this beer was a beer you would really love, because this specific beer had a such a genuinely refreshing, cold taste.
“Cold is not a fucking flavour!” Shauna shook her head. “How can beer taste cold?”
“Easy, ohmmm. Didn’t you audition for a beer commercial?”
“A nightmare.” She shook her head as if there were bugs on it. “I wanted to kill myself.”
“You always say you want to kill yourself,” Alan said. “I used to think that was your mantra.”
Shauna checked her make-up in the mirror. “You walk into this big, piss-yellow room, like an oversized high school gym. Must be — I don’t know —thirty or forty of the most beautiful women in the world sitting there, and they’re all years younger than you are, and they’re all dressed like Beyonce.”
“Not seeing that as a nightmare. Must be a guy-girl thing.”
Shauna drew a red line on his cheek with her lipstick. “Then someone shouts out your name, and you go in and pretend there’s nothing you’d rather do in your in your entire life than serve beer to four male models that think they’re Tatum Channing.”
“Where does Oklahoma sit on the actor’s scale of respectability?”
“Closer to beer commercial than Shakespeare. Low-middles. But it’s a job, and I need a job.” She glanced in the mirror, reconsidering her lipstick shade.
“Our parents would be happy.”
“They’ve seen it, like, a hundred times. We used to sing it at home. Remember?”
“Ooooookla-homaaa!” Alan sang, or bellowed, drawing stares from the crowds on the street.
She shrieked and laughed. “That was horrible.”
The review in ARTX magazine started something. More reviews followed, more people started to show up. They moved to a bigger theatre, and still more people would show. They were actually making money. A full house every night, as they say. But most of the attention, in the press and from the audiences, was focused on Alannah. She got the longest applause, the best reviews. Shauna couldn’t understand it. Alannah was nice enough, a short, thin girl with big eyes, lips and a long curly, red hair. She played the sweet, innocent, quirky girl that happened to be borderline psychotic and liked blowing things up. But why her?
Shauna’s anxiety attacks came on more frequently, unpredictable and therefore all the more frightening. Her heart would start pounding, she would have trouble breathing, and then her stomach would go. Soon, she would be in the washroom, on the floor, throwing up. Once, during a particularly excruciating episode after a show, there was knock on the bathroom door. It was Alannah. Shauna swung the door open and let her in. Alannah sat down on the floor beside her, hugged her, held her, calmed her down. Told her about her own attacks, talked her through the worst of it. “Here,” she said, looking into Shauna’s eyes. “Take one of these.” Alannah pushed a few green pills into her hands and left.
Over the coming weeks, Alannah and Shauna spent on a lot of time on bathroom floors together. They became close, shared anxiety-attack horror stories, sent text messages signed: “BBF: Bathroom Buddies Forever,” and “SOS: Sisters of the Stall”. Shauna’s anxiety came in short, unexpected bursts; Allanah described hers as a “generalized anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder combined with “a bunch of other things” – her psychiatrist’s term – and treated it with a combination of therapy, meditation, alcohol, and a rainbow of prescription and street drugs. As it turned out, the psychotic act wasn’t all an act.
Alan’s phone started beeping. “Time for the audition.”
“OK, OK.” Shauna checked her make-up again and jumped out of the car. “Thanks for coming today, Alan.” She leaned in the window and hugged him.
“Break two legs, sister. You got this.”
Shauna followed the signs on the door and down the hall, into a waiting room that was jammed with over fifty actors. Most of them were on the few chairs lining the walls or sitting cross-legged on the floor, a few of them were stretching, few spoke to each other. Six of them were wearing outfits suited for the role: bellowing, oversized frilly polka-dot dresses with white bows in their hair and small lace umbrellas. Rookie mistake. Shauna started to do her breathing exercises, going through all the steps her acting-meditation-life coach had given her. Inhale, count to five –
She looked up. A short, unsmiling woman wearing a plaid shirt and track pants was standing at the door. Shauna raised her hand. “Yes.”
“What? Oh. OK, great!” Shauna felt her stomach turn. Already? “Yes, here I am!” Nodding gamely to the unsmiling woman, she walked down a hall and through a door that opened up onto a large stage. There are only 305 seats in The West Village, one of those small, community-type theatres, but it looked much bigger when it was empty. A few bright spotlights were shining on her, and she could dimly make out the few men and women sitting in the fifth row.
“Hi Shauna,” one of the women said, sounding rushed and bored. “You’re auditioning for the role of Ado Annie. Can you sing “I Cain’t Say No” for us, please.”
Shauna nodded, swallowing so hard she could hear the sound reverberate off the back wall. Then she started singing. It was an old, corny, silly, song, but she knew it, and had a soft spot for it. She was halfway through the song when the lady with the bored voice cut her off.
“Thank you, Shauna. We’ll be in touch.” Shauna thanked them and walked off the stage, wondering what happened.
It didn’t take long before those critical reviews for Chopin’s Brain turned into job offers. Most of the troupe got calls from other local theatre groups or small movie parts. Alannah got calls from agents in New York and California for Broadway theatre, mainstream movies, national television programs. Real, paying jobs. At first, Alannah insisted she would never leave the troupe, that this was her home. BFFs kind of thing. She swore to Shauna she’d always be there for her, no matter what. Sisters of the Stall! Within three months, she was gone. Shauna refused to talk to her, refused to say goodbye. If she had any feelings of betrayal, jealousy and anger at Alannah, they were successfully submerged under an ever-rising ocean of drugs and alcohol.
“Whatever happened to her? Alannah?” Alan asked. The audition was over: they were sitting on the small balcony at the back of Shauna’s three-story walk-up in High Park. He opened two cans of beer, handed one to Shauna, and sat on one of the old lawn chairs left over from the previous owners. “Didn’t she get famous?
“Kind of. The old story. Local actress makes it big, marries rich producer, gets addicted to drugs and alcohol, gets divorced and she’s done. Over.” Shauna sipped her beer, slowly. She knew how close she had come close to the edge herself. It had taken years of therapy and a series of interventions from Alan to keep her from going over. “This beer sure tastes cold, doesn’t it?
“Genuinely cold and so refreshing. Did she come back?”
“Not that I know of.” She was lying. Alannah had come back. After the divorce, after her fire had burned out, she had come back to the troupe. But she was still taking too many drugs, drinking, and after all, as Shauna constantly reminded everyone, she was the one that had left them. Why should they take her back? One night over a year ago, while Shauna was home alone, Alannah had knocked at her door. Shauna could see her standing out there, crying, shivering from the cold November wind that tore through her thin, worn Hermes jacket. Her pale skin had turned ashen, her small thin body almost skeletal. For the first time in years, Shauna felt all her anxiety symptoms coming back as they stood there, staring at each other. Alannah mouthed the word “please”. Shauna felt like she was about to throw up. She shook her head, shut the door, and ran to the bathroom. It was the last time she saw her.
A phone rang from somewhere on the deck. Shauna had to look for it, finally finding it in her sweater pocket hanging on the deck chair. “Hello? Yes, it is. Oh, I did? Oh! Really? I’m excited. Thank you!” She put the phone down, put her head in her hands and groaned. “Shoot me. Please.”
“What happened? Did you get it? You got it! It sounded like you got it.”
“Not this Alan. Not this. I didn’t want this. It’s the beer commercial.” She looked up at him. “I’m such an acting slut.”
“Oh.” Alan sat down and thought for a moment. “So don’t take it.”
“I have rent to pay, Alan. I’m not in a position to say no.” Shauna picked up another beer, then put it back. “This is officially the end of my career as an actress.”
“It’s a job. Might be fun. This could be your big break.”
Shauna put her hands around her stomach. “So depressing.”
They sat quietly for a few minutes before Alan spoke up again. “I don’t understand you. You want to act but get depressed when you get a job. You’re excited about every audition, but despondent if they call. You’re the Queen of Contradiction. The Princess of Paradox.”
Shauna turned around, not answering. They sat quietly, watching the sun as it sank behind the roofs of the neighborhood houses. The heat of the day had eased off, and they could hear a family having a barbecue in the backyard across the fence. The smell of half-cooked hamburger was everywhere. “Remember how our parents’ were always telling us to do what we love?” she said. “That was bad advice.”
“So bad. They should have told us to do whatever makes it easiest to pay the rent.”
“Why don’t you come work with me?”
“You’re a carpenter, Alan.” It sounded more dismissive than she meant it, and she felt him wince.
“Writer-carpenter.” Alan corrected. “And you could never do what I do.”
“I should have helped her. I’m evil. I hate myself. And I want to quit.”
“Don’t stop, Shauna.” Alan was opening another beer, slapping at the mosquitos buzzing around his face. It was late now, and young stars were starting to appear in the black sky.
“Why not? It’s over. It really never started.”
“You couldn’t have helped her. It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, I could have.”
Alan stood up, leaning on the rickety rail surrounding them. Then he looked back and stared at Shauna. “You know what I think this is really about? It’s not the job. It’s something else. I think it’s you. You want to be the compassionate one, the perfect one, the one that’s pure and selfless. You want to be the Jesus figure. The Buddha in the lotus. And every time you don’t live up to that, it kills you. It kills you that you couldn’t help Alannah, even though if you had—if you had opened that door— you’d probably be back on drugs or dead by now. It still kills you though, because it reminds you that maybe, just maybe, you’re more like us than you think. The fallen ones. And for some weird reason, we want that too. We want you to be perfect as much as you do. Because while we’re working away, swinging a hammer for eight hours a day, or filing papers or adding numbers or stocking shelves, we need to think there’s someone down here that hasn’t given up. That’s you. You’re the only one left. So suck it up, angel. Take the job. Serve the beer. Even if it does kill you. Do it for us. Hell, as far as martyrs go, your job isn’t so bad.”
Shauna had forgotten she’d told him about Alannah. “That was really good, Alan. When did you write that?”
“Is it too long? I feel like it’s too long.”
“You should be a writer. You’re really good.” She threw her empty can in the recycling bin with a noisy clang. “At that. At everything. You’re my jewel in the lotus.” Prozac requires a prescription and drugs are addictive. Alan, on the other hand, could be rented for a price of a beer or two. It was a pretty good deal, overall.
“I’ve got a job coming up, Alan, and I need to rehearse. So. Can I get you a beer? There’s nothing I’d like to do more in my entire life than get you a nice, cold-tasting beer.”
William Wodhams lives in Burlington, Ontario. He has been writing advertising copy for over twenty years, inspiring people with the life-changing possibilities of cell phones, hamburgers and drywall. He is currently at work on his second novel. Find him on Twitter @WWodhams.