Miry Brook Johnson

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Life in Place (Historical Fiction, Screenplay Award 2021)
Genre
Screenplay Type
Miry Brook Johnson always believed she would know how to be a grown-up when the time came. Miry Brook Johnson is a story about simple values, decency and how one insecure girl, grows up isolated on a farm in the Plains of Miami.

MIRY BROOK JOHNSON

By Andria Goldin

Scene 1: Miry Brook Johnson, 14 years old driving with her mother to Miami, Oklahoma.

“Mama, watch out for those horses!” Miry shouted. It was normal to see horses running in open fields, or to spot two or three riders on the side of the road as they drove to town.

“Calm down, Miry. I see them!” Miry’s mother, Caroline, said defensively, gripping the steering wheel of their dilapidated old station wagon.

“Mama! Stop! Wasn’t that Scout I just saw?”

“Scout? No. He’d be dead by now.”

Miry twisted back to see the three horses and riders they had just passed. The middle horse looked like Scout, her father’s horse. Her mother had sold him seven years ago.

“No. No! It looks just like him!” Miry said, trying to do the math to figure out his age. “Who did you sell him to?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Mama, can’t you slow down a little?” Miry pleaded.

“Let it go, Miry.” Caroline warned.

Miry turned to face front and settled, unsettled, in the passenger seat. She felt the tense undertow between them.

It was a classic case of abandonment. One day her father left the farm and his family. Disappeared. She didn’t remember much about him. She knew Dave, her older brother, remembered more, but they never talked about him. What was the point? He wasn’t there.

Miry had grown up all her life in the Plains, about forty minutes north of Miami (pronounced “my-am-uh”), Oklahoma, population 13,484. Actually, the farm was closer to North Miami (again, “my-am-uh“), population 381.

She loved the Plains. Some people saw them as desolation. Not Miry. The wind seemed to permeate her skin with all the wisdom she would ever need in life. The darkness in the middle of the night made her feel she had been transported to a whole new universe, not of this world. It was her private religion.

Miry knew she belonged here. She was comfortable in the isolation. Sometimes she felt like she got left back in time.

It was a lonely life, working the rundown farm with her mother and big brother, Dave. She still could remember the headache she felt as a little girl when Caroline made her ponytail too tight. It never occurred to Miry to complain about it.

Now she was consumed with the usual angst and insecurities of a fourteen year old girl about to enter ninth grade.

Miry often felt wistful but could never figure out what she was yearning for.

She preferred dresses to pants or jeans and wore her dark hair up in Gibson Girl fashion. It suited her. Her smile was warm and a bit winsome; her large soft brown eyes reflected an expectancy, as if wanting to hear a good story or one’s latest adventure.

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Scene 2: Flashback to childhood memory

It was a fleeting memory—like a faded 16mm home movie: Tom Weber chasing Miry around the outside of his family’s huge plastic above-ground pool (huge to a five-year-old). The walls were so high she felt protected by a fort until Tom came barreling round the curve. Miry would scream, running the other way around the wall where, inevitably, her big brother, Dave, would ambush her from the other side. Together Tom and Dave would lift Miry up and throw her into the pool, ignoring her squeals of delighted protest. She would wriggle her sticky bathing suit down as soon as she hit the water. The recollection lasted six seconds at the most.

Tom’s parents sold their farm soon after and moved to Miami. Occasionally Tom would come to the farm to hang out with Dave and ride horses. When Tom was sixteen, he took to wearing a white Stetson cowboy hat that never seemed to make his thick, wavy brown hair go flat. It shaded his hazel eyes in a way that compelled a person to want to look up under the brim.

Tom would always say politely, “How are you, Miry?”

“I’m fine, Tom. Thank you,” She was practically squirming.  Why do I feel all awkward around Tom? she wondered. She was shy around most boys, but why Tom? She used to charge on him with a water bucket on a regular basis when they were little kids.

++++

Scene 3: Caroline comforts nine year old Miry

Caroline recalled a memory of Miry coming home after school one day. It was September, the beginning of the school year. She must have been around nine years old, Caroline speculated. She could tell Miry was out of sorts just by the way she was walking from the school bus.  

“Hello Miry.” Caroline said evenly.

“Hello.” Miry’s voice was muffled and rich with emotion.  She went right past Caroline into the farmhouse and dropped her knapsack. She stood in the middle of the living area with nowhere to go. She did not have a bedroom where she could hide.

“What happened?” Caroline called in from the front door.

“Nothing!”

Caroline waited. She knew her daughter. She watched Miry pace herself into a tight circle. She watched her daughter begin to fill up.

Caroline took a glass from the kitchen cupboard and filled it with tap water from the sink. Miry appeared to be on the brink. As Caroline took a step towards Miry with the glass of water, Miry finally burst.

“Nobody likes me!” Miry flopped on the floor and sobbed.

Caroline thought, Not possible, nor necessary. She flopped down and faced Miry, without spilling a drop. She watched her daughter sob the hurt out of her system. Between jagged breaths, broken sentences came out from Miry’s insides that did not make sense. Obviously something had happened. Caroline impassively observed Miry’s face and listened deeply. She did not ask why. The details did not matter as much as Miry being able to figure this out for herself, in order to be strong. Nevertheless, Miry had Caroline’s full attention.

Miry’s sobs started to subside. Caroline waited patiently until Miry’s eyes finally connected with her own. Once they locked eyes, Caroline swiftly brushed the hair out of Miry’s face and said firmly, “Like yourself, Miry. That’s all you need.”

++++

Scene 4: Miry on the high school bus

But when Miry started high school, she felt the separation acutely. Her classmates didn’t venture to include her, knowing she was always having to catch the bus, so consequently, she didn’t have many friends. 

“See you tomorrow, Miry.” sounded more like a dismissal.

The ride into school was always full of loud and boisterous students. Every morning Miry hoped to get a window seat close to the front of the bus, where she could just look out and daydream.

Occasionally, she would strike up a conversation with someone on the bus.

“How was your summer?” Miry asked the girl sitting next to her.

“Oh, it was great. My parents took me and my sister to Europe!”

“Oh really! Where?” Miry asked, expressing great interest.

Miry kept feeding her questions, listening, imagining and living vicariously through her bus mate’s adventures in Europe.  Throwing the conversation back to the other person or persons she was talking with had become Miry’s defense mechanism. It shielded her from any curiosity they might have about her that she would rather not discuss. She didn’t want to have to explain about her missing father, her God-awful clothes, why she never took trips or why her mother had to work and run a farm.

She knew it was her way of avoiding judgment or pity. Nobody ever asked her questions.

One day it finally occurred to her that, simply put, no one really was curious about her.

Miry was receding into a shell. It was more comfortable for her. Easier.

++++

Scene 5: Robbie, the locker mate

On Friday, Robby Palmer, her locker neighbor—a nice guy, she knew that—had really gotten to her.

“Miry! Why weren’t you at the premiere last night?”

“Premiere of what?”

“The latest Avengers movie. You saw the flier—free to everyone at Miami High School! Why didn’t you come? It was a really cool movie!”

Miry felt herself twisting up. She would have loved to have seen the movie but had to catch the school bus ride home. She’d slammed her locker door in an attempt to control her emotions.

“I just didn’t go, all right? It’s not like I didn’t want to go! The pig was sick!” The pig was sick? For an instant Miry had seen her true self and her disappointment.

“All right, then!” Robby had clearly been surprised at her outburst, slamming his locker door just like she had, and stomped off. “Sorry about your pig!”

++++

Scene 6: Miry’s turning point

Later that night, Miry thought, I should really apologize to Robby on Monday. For what though? Being myself?

Miry got up from the couch, exasperated. I have to do something! She began straightening up things around the couch—old magazines, pillows, dishes. Time to throw this plant out.

Miry reached for the plant and inadvertently a couple of books fell off the couch’s side table. There on the floor was a diary her aunt had given her for her birthday. She had completely forgotten about it.

Miry picked it up and flipped through the pages, all empty. Grabbing a pen, she sat down on the couch and quickly began scribbling on the first page, fearing she would not be able to keep up with what was going on inside her mind.

Dear Diary,

That’s what you are, right? Well, we’ll see. I am feeling bottled up right now. I can’t see what I can do to change things. I see nothing. Maybe you can get to know me.

I am sorry I shouted at Robby Palmer. Didn’t mean to. I shouldn’t make a movie so important. I shouldn’t feel like I am missing out on stuff all the time.

There are subjects I like in school and some that I don’t. I thought I wanted to try out for the cheerleading team, but those girls are really beautiful and I am too fat. They practice all the time, and I wouldn’t be able to stay late. I thought about trying out for Wardog, the school mascot. If I tried out and got it, then no one would ever know it is me in that costume. And it would fit! But I think it would be really hot inside it, and that ammunition belt looks pretty heavy. Still. You have to have at least a B- average. I don’t know if I can do that. I have to think about it.

Writing that much helped Miry feel a little better. She knew she really didn’t want to be the Wardog that much, and she was glad she got it out of her system.

Miry picked up the TV remote again and began flipping channels. She landed on a cooking show channel and started watching the program on casseroles. She watched the whole show and  the next one and the next.

++++

Scene 7: Miry’s Pot Luck Suppers

By the time Miry had started her junior year in high school, her church had decided to hold regular potluck suppers. Miry carefully strategized and planned which meals and dessert she would bring to the very first potluck night.

Miry looked to her mom for guidance.

“Mama, how much should I make?”

Caroline carefully considered the question before answering.

“Enough to feed them—not stuff them.” 

The benchmark was now set. Miry got to work.

Thursday evening finally came. Miry prayed not to drop the pasta dish or smear the icing on the cake when she carried them to and from the car.

The first potluck supper night had a great turn out in the church basement. Pastor made a little speech with the microphone thanking everyone who brought a contribution. When Miry heard her name, she felt like a rock star. Standing by the buffet table, she beamed with happiness as she watched the parishioners help themselves to her dishes.

She would smile and say as they went by, “Thanks for stoppin’ in. Thanks for stoppin’ in.”

As the weeks passed Miry expanded her menu selections. Unbeknownst to her, there was a curiosity building among what was now a regular Thursday Pot Luck Supper crowd.

“Did you try that carrot ring on the end of the table? It goes so well with her meatloaf.”

“I especially enjoyed the brisket last week.”

“Caroline must eat like a queen every night.”

“Wonder what that Miry Brook Johnson will bring in next week?”

“She’s such a shy girl. So sweet.”

“I hope she brings back her blueberry pie.”  

A few weeks later the church asked if she would be willing to make a light breakfast before the Sunday morning service. Happily, she said yes.

++++

Scene 8: Miry’s Senior Prom

By the time Miry was settling into her junior year, she was developing into a lovely looking young lady with no dates. Big boned, taking after her father’s side, and a bit buxom. Some would think her fat, but she really wasn’t. “Chumpsy” was a more accurate description. Her soft spoken voice hid her shyness well and endeared people to want to talk with her.

Tom finally did come home for Thanksgiving and attended one of Miry’s potluck dinners.

“Yeah, I’m pretty much a round-the-clock student. I don’t mind,” Tom said, explaining his prolonged absence. “You do what you have to do,” his voice drifted off at that.

“Yet you still find the time for girlfriends,” Miry said teasingly. She couldn’t resist. Lainie, his kid sister, had filled her in.

Tom’s hazel brown eyes reflected on her comment.

“Well, you always need to make time for a little fun,” he said, the twinkle returning in his eyes. 

++++

Miry could count on one hand the number of dates she had in high school and still have fingers left over. She conveniently blamed it on living so far away from school and was relieved when her junior prom slipped by as she watched television all night.

Miry’s senior prom night was a different story. Her mother insisted she go. “This will be one of the most lasting memories of your life.”

Even her brother, Dave, weighed in. “Yeah, my senior prom was okay.”

Her girlfriends, Dannie and Joanne, kept insisting, “You really don’t have to have a date to have fun.” Yet they both had dates.

Miry forced herself to go to Bessie’s department store and buy a dress that she already knew she wouldn’t like. She did not want a second opinion from her mom or girlfriends; she just wanted to the whole prom thing to be over with.

It turned out to be worse than even Miry had anticipated. She got there way too early—in other words, on time. The gymnasium was decked out in colorful décor and moving lights. There she was, standing alone on the gymnasium floor in a pink polyester dress with an empire waist that clung to her body, making her large breasts to appear even larger and her tummy and backside look like they were two different continents.  The dressy patent leather Mary Jane shoes her mother had bought for her eighth-grade graduation hurt her feet and she had decided to wear her hair down, which, frankly, didn’t look so good.

Finally, couples started to show up. Two, maybe three of her classmates said hello to her in passing, looking back to get one more peek at that awful pink dress. Miry gave them a smile; her throat tightened with nothing to say. She completely felt like a fish out of water, which was how she felt most of the time anyway—yet this was ten times worse. The band opened with a Temptations song, “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” and now the congregating senior class of Miami High School began dancing and partying. Miry began backing up, away from the dance floor, until she was pressed up against the door leading to the girls’ locker room. Tears began to well up inside her. She felt strangled with embarrassment. The classic wallflower, and the music blared on.

Thank goodness no one wanted to talk to her. Her neck muscles were beginning to relax and she was breathing easier, but her stomach muscles still felt twisted. If she left now all this could go away. Then Miry saw Mrs. McKilroy, the school activities director, and Mr. Lawrence, the school guidance counselor, waving hello to her from across the gymnasium. Too late, Miry thought completely deflated. I have been seen by too many people.

Miry put on her best cheery face and waved back. Mr. Lawrence was unpacking some boxes and Mrs. McKilroy was starting to set up the refreshment table.

Now that she could do! Miry walked across the gym with newfound confidence.

“Oh, Mrs. McKilroy, let me help you with this!” Miry said. She began unpacking the punchbowl, already feeling a little better now that she was back in her element.

“Oh, no, dear, you don’t have to do that. Go have a good time. This is your night! Your prom! Peter, did you remember to bring the napkins?”

“Here they are, Mrs. McKilroy,” Miry said, desperately wanting to stay and help. “With all the church dinners I have done, this is second nature to me.”

“Oh, yes, I have heard about your delicious cooking, Miry.”

“Too bad you live so far out of town, Miry,” Mr. Lawrence chimed in. “You could have catered this. Ha. Ha.”

Miry started setting up the punch cups, stunned by what Mr. Lawrence had said. “You could have catered this….” What an idea.

Within minutes the refreshment table was all set up, lovely with the tablecloth and decorations Mrs. McKilroy had brought.

Her classmates were gathering around the table. Miry started pouring punch into cups.

Mrs. McKilroy had put out two of her famous angel food cakes, one frosted with chocolate, the other with strawberry icing. These cakes were always a favorite at the high school football games—gone in sixty seconds. The students formed two waiting lines, waiting patiently, no doubt hoping to get a piece of either one of those delicious cakes, just like they did at the football field.

“One last time, Mrs. McKilroy!” one of the senior football players called out. 

Mrs. McKilroy nodded back, appreciating the sentiment.

Miry automatically started slicing the angel food cakes for easy taking. Mrs. McKilroy smiled wisely. Her eyes flickered once or twice toward Miry. Suddenly Miry knew something was terribly wrong.

By slicing the angel food cake, she was taking ownership of something that didn’t belong to her. All this was Mrs. McKilroy’s effort. It was her right to cut her own cakes. And here, Mrs. McKilroy kept smiling, not to be unkind. She was not dismissing Miry, but worse, she was tolerating her.

Miry put the knife down and backed away from the table, completely mortified. She looked at Mrs. McKilroy, silently pleading, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to!

“Thank you for all your help, Miry,” Mrs. McKilroy said graciously, even giving her a little hug. “You have a fun evening.”

Miry blindly went to her car and drove straight home. All was dark and quiet in the house.

She ran to the bathroom as if  being chased and locked the door. She didn’t mind the dark. She bent over and took a breath. And another. Deeply fighting off the tears that were threatening to spill. Finally she straightened up and stood stock still in the moonlit shadows gracing her body from the tiny bathroom window. Do not. Do not look.

But she did. Miry turned her head slightly to glimpse her own form dappled in the mirror above the sink. Please don’t! But she did. She turned and faced herself full frontal and stared at the miserable young woman in the mirror staring back at her in that awful pink dress. Her smeared mascara and streaky blushed cheeks said it all. She hated what she saw. She leaned in closer to the mirror, placing her hands firmly on the bathroom sink. Stop it! This isn’t good for you!

She stood back  from the sink, never taking her eyes off her reflection. A couple of tendrils of her black hair framed her face. Her mouth still rouged with color. Reaching back for the zipper tab, she pulled it down her back very slowly, already feeling the relief of the awful pink dress relinquishing her form. Parting her lips, Miry touched her left breast, and let her hand slither up to peel the dress off her shoulder, pause, and then tug gently at the sleeve until she was free of it. Then the other side, imagining the strip tease unfolding in her head. She felt the awful pink dress surrender to the floor in a polyester heap. She didn’t move.

The tears started to emerge from her eyes reflecting back like shiny jewels, until she could not see. She could not answer the wail that was dying to burst out of her gut. Don’t wake Mama! She had to keep quiet so no one would hear her. So no one would ever see this.

Miry collapsed onto the toilet seat, kicking the pink pile away with her feet. In desperation she started the bath water running, to help stifle the sound of her impending sobs. But that wasn’t enough. She grabbed the pink pile from the floor and buried her face into it, muffling her anguish, seeking comfort in its soft folds.

Later, after a hot bath, Miry curled up on the pull-out couch in her warm terry cloth robe and stared into space, decompressing from the evening. The only thing that she could take away without pain or shame was Mr. Lawrence’s remark. “You could have catered this.”

“How was the prom, dear?” Caroline called from her bedroom.

“Oh, it was fine, Mom. Thanks.”

++++

Scene 9: Tom would have gone to the prom

The next morning Miry arrived extra early at the church basement to start preparing the morning breakfasts. – anything to shake off last night’s prom debacle. She started the coffee pots and went into the kitchen to make some eggs.

When she smelled the fresh coffee brewing, she took an open milk carton from the fridge and went back into the dining room to find Tom helping himself to a cup.

“Oh! Good morning to you!” Miry said cheerily, surprised to see him. Even Miry had to admit Tom had grown into a very good-looking guy. His thick brown mustache suited him.

 “Good morning to you, too, Miry–thank you!” He took the milk carton from Miry and pretended to sniff it for freshness. “You’re up bright and early for the ‘morning after the prom.’”

            “And how would you know?” Miry challenged him.

“Lainie saw you there.” Tom sat down at the table where he had left his white hat.

“Oh? Well, she didn’t say hi.” Miry followed him to his table, pretending to be insulted, when really, she was grateful Lainie had spared her the attention.

“Yeah, apparently pink is not your color,” Tom said, smiling mischievously up at her.

“Oh, you!” Miry swatted Tom’s arm. Tom laughed and Miry did too. She was comfortable again with Tom now that her adolescence was over. Already she was beginning to heal from last night’s humiliation.

“She said you didn’t stay long.”

“Yes, well, I helped out with the refreshments for a bit.” Standing next to Tom, Miry tightened up, feeling awkward again at the memory. “But you know, I knew I had to be here church this morning, so I went home early.”

She was not a liar by nature, but she knew she was hedging here. She hated the thought of ever lying to Tom.

“Miry,” Tom said, cajoling her a little, “I think if you had put up a sign here saying, ‘Closed Due to Last Night’s Senior Prom’ everyone would have understood.” He took a sip of coffee. “I would have taken you, had I known.”

Miry was dumbfounded.

Tom’s hazel brown eyes had a way of inviting people in, which was why so many girls were attracted to him. His laugh was endearing, his giggle infectious. Miry always felt that Tom’s God-given gifts of charisma and charm were safe in the modesty he bore.

But she had to admit, Tom taking her to the prom would have changed everything. Her mind quickly replayed last night’s scenario, only with Tom there by her side.

“Really?” She had to test what he’d just said.

“Well, sure. Nobody likes to go to those things alone.” Tom took another sip of his coffee. “I even would have told my girlfriend, Donna. She would have understood.”

With that, the bubble burst. All Miry could barely audibly say was, “Well, maybe next time.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.” Tom laughed, amused, as he got up and left a couple of dollars on the table. “Don’t you get left back Miry Brook! You have too much going for you. Have a great graduation!”

End of Scene