“Is Dorothy serious?”
The Great and Terrible Countess of Arcadia (an Oz-adjacent suburb just west of the Munchkin City) picked up another handful of hot, buttery popcorn and continued munching, which is customary among the Munchkins, except those elitist residents of East Munchausen, for whom munching is considered terribly rude. And let’s not forget those deviants in East Munchausen-by-proxy, who hardly ever eat, because they’re all so paranoid that someone has poisoned their food.
“Does she even realize what she’s asking?” Penny reiterated, evidently unaware that I was ignoring her.
“Are we really going to do this?” I asked with a tired sigh. “Can’t we, just once, watch The Wizard of Oz without you trying to deconstruct it?”
“Can you even dye my eyes to match my gown? Helena, it boggles the mind.”
It doesn’t take a lot to boggle Penny’s mind. You remember Penny, darlings. Quirky quixotic Penny, prone to profanity, with a penchant for playing the prat. Eccentric fashion sense, and a tendency to occasionally talk like a Dickensian street urchin. My niece, all grown up now, but still hanging around like that stray sock everyone has in their laundry basket, hoping that the other one will turn up eventually.
“I mean, does she intend to wear the same outfit for the rest of her life?” Penny asked, not letting it drop.
“Maybe they can dye her eyes with some sort of magic dye that changes colour according to what she’s wearing. You know, like a chameleon.” I might remind you at this point, darlings, that Penny is a grown-ass adult. But yes, this is pretty typical of the conversations you might hear around Casa de Hann-Basquiat.
“Huh,” Penny considered, slipping flawlessly into the aforementioned Dickensian urchin accent. “Well, thass a horse of a different colour, then, innit?”
“You know, they used Jello powder to colour the horse, right?” I offered the Countess a tidbit of tasty trivia.
“That’s right disgustin’, innit? Loik, cannibalism and such, roit? Bloody awful, you ask me.”
I knew I was going to regret asking the cheeky Countess Arcade to elaborate, but it was hot, and I was tired, and I also knew that my curiosity would eventually get the better of me, and so I surrendered, unlike the good folks of Emerald City, who would never surrender Dorothy.
“What are you talking about? It’s just food colouring.”
“‘Cept it’s not, izzit? Loik, cheerio and such, gov. Jello’s made wiff, loik, gelatin and such. Made o’ ground-up horsies. Beggin’ your pardon, milady, but if the ‘orses licked themselves (which li-oh ‘orsies are bound to do, if’n you catch my meanin’) then they’d be eatin’ their own ground up ‘ooves and bones.”
I sighed. What else could I do, really?
“First, can you stop talking like that? Do you have any idea how hard it is to write in Dickensian Street Urchin? Never mind the poor readers who have to decipher it. Secondly, I’ve seen you do much worse than eat your own fingernails.”
“Well, I never!” Penelope protested in a manner most persnickety.
“Yeah, you did,” I countered, recalling a certain incident involving an infant Penny and a diaper full of poo marbles. “But that I am forbid to tell the secrets of thy deviant childhood behaviour, I could a tale unfold that would make your gorge rise and your stomach turn to jelly…”
“Dear sweet Julie Andrews, Helena, you know Shakespeare wrote other plays from which you might crib lines, right? Did you only ever read Hamlet?”
I had read more than just Hamlet, of course, but Hamlet is, as the kids say, my jam.
“I’m not going to dignify that with a response,” I said, aware that this was, in fact, a response. “Besides, you never answered my question. Why can’t we just watch the movie without you picking it apart?”
The Countess Penelope of Arcadia — sweet, sad, orphaned Penny — began to cry.
“It was mom’s favourite,” she managed through her sobs. “I hate it.”
A few years ago, Penny’s parents — my sister and her husband — died in a car accident. Since then, she’s stayed with me.
“We always looked forward to it coming around on TV,” I told her. “This was before VCRs and DVDs and BluRays, of course.”
“How primitive,” Penny remarked. “However did you cope?”
“Har de har har,” I said. “Somehow, we managed to entertain ourselves just fine before the Internet. Anyway, why do you hate it? It’s a wonderful movie.”
Penny shrugged. “It gave me nightmares as a kid. And then, when Mom and Dad died — Jimmy Stewart, Helena, do we have to talk about this?”
“No,” I said. “Of course not. We can talk about why you’re suddenly using random names as curse words, for instance.”
“Meh,” Penny said with a playful cock of her head. “One name’s as good as another, I s’pose. But my nightmares — when Mom and Dad died, I kept having a nightmare where we were in Oz at the end of the movie, and they got in the hot air balloon instead of the Wizard, and then floated off without me, leaving me behind. And you were there. I turned to you and asked you what I was supposed to do now, and you just said ‘Don’t look at me, kiddo. I don’t have a ride home, either.’
“Why would you say that, Helena? And why did they have to leave? I wish…”
“Don’t,” I said, putting an arm around Penny. “Don’t wish. It doesn’t help.”
“I wish I’d been with them that night,” Penny whispered. “Oh, Helena, nothing’s made sense since they’ve been gone. I wish I’d died with them.”
I held her tighter and began to cry with her. I’ve known what it is to want to die, to feel guilty for still being alive.
“Look at me,” I said, pulling Penny’s tear-stained face up off my shoulder and holding it between my hands. “I love you, Penny. I love you, and I see so much of your mother in you. So much sometimes it hurts. She put the very best of herself into you — and your father, too. Your dad was an excellent dude.”
“Totally,” the Countess of Arcadia interrupted in a voice that seemed to suggest that Arcadia was someplace in the Valley. She does this whenever I use the word ‘dude’. Then, invariably, we break into Valley Girl by Frank Zappa, which I will leave to your own imagination, and spare you the next five minutes of Penny and I doing our best Moon Unit Zappa impressions.
Okay, we’re back. Like, totally back. Gag me with a spoon. As if.
“I love you, Aunt Helena,” Penny said, half-laughing and half-sobbing. “You’re, like, an excellent dude.”
“Like, totally,” I replied. “Excellent.”