PLEASURE ISLAND

 

Lawrence Krauser 

Draft 5/21/10 

65,000 wds.

 

My brain is the key that sets me free.

Houdini

 

 

The truth is, men are tired of liberty.

Mussolini

 

 

If we feel tired, we can rest by the wayside.

          Pinocchio

PART ONE

 

1.

 

“Woke up” again—don’t know why, never learned how—on the bench, didn’t know why, Arnold’s face inches above me scrunched and peering. One of my eyelids had ceased to move, apparently. I had no idea, I see fine.

My eyes are made of the two halves of the same rosewood sphere, ocean pearls embedded in their convexities. Whether these superb ingredients have anything to do with my optic intelligence I cannot say. I rather doubt it. As far as I remember I don’t have ears, and yet I seem to hear OK. I have been conscious for many decades and have never seen much connection between this souped-up jumble of blocks and the nest of thoughts composing my “self.” If I am placed on the shelf upside-down, this makes no difference to me. Decapitation does not affect my lucidity. Air is not an issue. If I ask myself whether it is in any way better (more pleasurable/meeting higher standards/toward some larger good) to be out on the shelf rather than in my box, I answer: I couldn’t care less!

Perk of a puppet, that. Not a bad nonexistence, mostly matinees—did one today, in fact. I was human all afternoon. Nothing new there, I am frequently called upon to impersonate all kinds. And I would like to be clear: I have nothing against the self-animated. Wouldn’t wanna live there, is all. True, I used to “dream” of movement by my own volition. No more. Or rather: I have a different dream. So goes desire.

Sometimes after a gig if it’s late or Arnold is otherwise irritated, he will leave me in my box or chuck me back on the shelf with my face twisted to the wall. But most days I look outward, splayed for evaluation by potential renters, and I have a superb view of the TV over the workbench. This very evening I watched the Thrilling Conclusion to a national crisis. (By “national” I mean pertaining to that group of viewers able to walk, drive, dial, or otherwise motion to obtain the featured creeds and wares.) In brief: two borders bumped, aggressions ensued, differences were defused, heroes have been reunited with loved ones and are now deservedly resting at home. Kudos!

And shrugs. Alas or hallelujah, being a thing, I am indifferent to all things. Makes no difference if it’s “real” or “fiction,” to me it’s just one more story told at the shop. Once upon a time I preferred Cassandra to Chicken Little, and breaking news to history (because it appeared to be more spontaneously photographed). No more.

Today, as a human, I reached a critical point, acted, and failed in my aim. Intermission followed. In the second act I reached the same juncture, behaved the same way, and this time succeeded. As is often the case, the script was barebones and afforded no reason for the difference in outcomes. It was up to the puppeteer to lend credence. Mine, alas, was all rote and rigor, no feel for psychokinetics—people like that should be in robotics.

When I say “robotics,” I mean that field in which mannequins are deployed for practical rather than theatrical purposes. I’m sure the profession has its poets. It is true that I would be more inclined to “identify” with a robot than with a human, puppets and robots and statues and dolls all being obvious kin. To simplify (a habit which runs in the familia): Robots substitute for humans in work, dolls replace them in play, statues show them as they wish to be, and puppets remind them who they are. That’s the spectrum, more are less—obviously there’s a good deal of overlap in the How and Why departments. Some might call a puppet a public doll, a doll a social statue, a statue a spiritual robot, a robot a blue-collar puppet, and so on.

I myself am inclined to regard all simulacra as puppets of varying degrees of purpose and accomplishment, and my personal lexicosmos usually requires no more than puppets and humans. It would seem self-evident that these are different orders entirely, and I emphasize the distinction because there seems to be a chronic strain of confusion on this point among both groups, between which lies a Great Divide that turns abysmal when denied, so I strive to keep things clear: I am humanesque, yes. But there was no doctrine for my form. I was part of a forest until swiped by some fleshpot who hewed me in his image to stand for him in his theater. I owe my career to him, not to nature; my substance and structure remain strangers. (This mind of mine is a separate riddle, but to believe it could have been conjured by the voodoo of congruence is to succumb to extra-arboreal reasoning. Who’s to say there’s not some similar thoughtfulness residing in all matter, of every sort—fully functional but without evident consequence?)

My prickly glaze notwithstanding, I like to think I exist in a state of Perfect Love with all things. Devoid as I am of any actual need, my general acceptance of everything I know grows exponentially with each passing moment. At the same time I acknowledge that neutrality is foiled by the very thinking of anything. Agape, that point of supreme knowing, is likely a blooming idiot.

Anyway it was a quick operation, painless as always, and now I have new eyelids. My flaking oyster shells have been replaced with fortified porcelain.

Ah, showbiz.

*

 

I lied about my eyes, the pupils are acrylic. A small lie, please note: less than two centimeters total.

 

*

 

Of all the words I know, “Pinocchio” is the only obscenity. To me the syllables of this word are like the venom on the fangs of a diamondback rattler, or the barbed hair on a tarantula’s legs that detach and enter the orifices of the enemy, causing a horrible burning therein. Both of these predators I observed this morning in their respective natural habitats on what appeared to be an extremely well-funded documentary. Their onscreen appearance was the immediate cause of my thinking of Pinocchio, which word, prior to this program’s airing, was as far from my thoughts as breakfast.

 

What about what happened yesterday?

 

As I have said, I am nothing if not indifferent, so if I then reveal that there is something by which I am disgusted and outraged, my opinion must carry more weight than those of blushers and flinchers, not that I expect to be judged—

 

You were on the bench—

 

I am pure math: exempt!

 

Arnold was working on you—

 

You forget, I don’t forget.

 

Do you remember what he said?

 

You’re a bit of slow!

 

What do you think of what he said?

 

What’s it to you anyway? He’s been calling me that forever. Exhibit A: Pinocchio, if he ever existed at all, certainly does not live here. I’ve never even played him. Arnold’s addressing me as such belies a screwy nostalgia. Disney’s gone to his head, as it has to everyone’s.

 

Let’s just say, if you were human—

 

Oh please, I hate that game.

 

For argument’s sake.

 

I would have socked him one. Besides being utterly offensive, the notion is ridiculous in every way. I’m not anywhere near as thin as that sticky brute, my nose is an innie that has never popped, I have neither pretensions nor a stomach to be sick to, though sometimes the latter I’d like, like right now just thinking about it, plus I never open my mouth by myself, so how could I lie? I hate to think that in your mind, Arnold’s I mean, this nickname is some sort of ultimate compliment. It’s true I’m our leading he-puppet, being the simplest in the shop, the most changeable, but one would hope for a bit more compassion from one’s keeper, or at least a little tact. The marionette which bore that name was never a puppet worth the word to begin with, he was born speaking, nastily at that, he was hungry before nightfall and never knew immobility. He put his maker in jail and murdered his first friend. Some puppet!

To tell the truth, I’m not really sure why Arnold’s in this business, I don’t believe he’s ever been a puppeteer himself.

 


2.

 

When he was in her sight her other senses stood down, her mind swarmed to her retinas and sucked the light that showed him, and now, here, with only a solitary candle to define him, this was the clearest he’d ever been to her. They were in between paragraphs; one remained for tomorrow; she let the book fold closed in her lap. She was sitting on the edge of a nailed-down steamer trunk next to the head of his bed, lookeing down at his sleepy face—no, no longer sleepy—a fear murmured in her, his mind was discrete, fortified, he would no longer allow her to simply watch him, she must acknowledge him as a thing independent, why was—

“More!”

Her hands reopened the book. A new children’s story, only just translated. She had hoped to make it last from Budapest to New York—for her sake; Eric never minded hearing a story a thousand times. But the days of the voyage were long. She read: “There he is, answered Gepetto. And he pointed to a large marionette leaning against a chair, head turned to one side, arms hanging limp, and legs twisted under him. After a long, long look, Pinocchio said to himself with great content: ‘How ridiculous I was as a marionette! How happy I am, now that I have become a real boy!’ The end.”

“Please, ma, more.”

“There is no more, sweetie, that’s the whole thing. It was a wonderful story, wasn’t it?”

His eyes clenched shut. “Pinocchio is a real boy now?”

“Why yes . . . after all his adventures he finally became a real boy.”

“It isn’t a dream?”

The question confused her. “No, I don’t think so—why do you say that?”

“What happened to the puppet?”

“Well . . . I can’t quite tell. He seems to still be in the room. What do you think?”

Doubtful: “The boy was inside the puppet?”

“It doesn’t really say, does it? I think he must have been inside it all along. And then—out he came!”

She watched him study the idea as if it hung in the air before him, his eyes moving from point to point. Then, slowly: “Like I came out of you?”

“Why yes. Or like a chicken comes out of an . . .”

“Egg!” He said this in English, proud.

“Or like a snake comes out of its . . .”

“Skin!”

“Oh, I love you!”

“I love you too!”

“And now it’s sleep time, all right? It’s late.”

“Bedtime doesn’t count here.”

“Oh yes it does, smartie-sweetie, bedtime is everywhere, even on the sea.”

The sea. The whole world lives on it, land’s just a raft, for a few days they’ve known this, between worlds. Above decks, the night showed the sea itself a passenger on the sky. She said, “Even the fishies have little wristwatches around their tails.”

“No they don’t.”

“Oh yes they do, and they have appointments, that’s why they’re always swimming somewhere, and they have bedtimes too. In fact I think I can hear some getting ready for bed right now, do you? If you close your eyes, you can see them.”

He pretended to try, pretended to fail. “Nope.”

“Really? What do you see, then?”

“America.”

“Well you certainly do have good eyesight! What does it look like?”

“Like—bratwurst!” Suddenly there was a sausage in his hand, its smell in the air, fresh-fried. Had he heated it over the candle flame without her seeing? Her son was a genius she would never understand; this did not help keel her wild love for him. And he loved her too, it’s for her enchantment he practiced magic; but she saw the future had found him, was tugging.

“Eric, don’t scare me that way! You and your magic tricks. What is this now—but it’s hot! Oh my wonder child. No one would believe me. Tell me how you did it.”

“It’s Pinocchio’s nose.”

“You never will reveal your secrets, will you?”

“Let’s eat it!”

“Tomorrow, for breakfast. Wait—pork? Naughty boy, what will papa say when he hears?”

“It will be beef in the morning.”

“Here, I’ll wrap it up. That certainly was amazing. I think you get an extra sleep-kiss for such a good trick. What are you going to dream about tonight?”

“Ma?”

“Yes, sweetie?”

“How did he get out?”

“Who?”

“Of the puppet.”

“. . . Pinocchio? Why, he learned to be good, didn’t he.”

“He loved his pa.”

“And he worked very, very hard, so the Blue Fairy helped him to escape from inside the puppet. If you work very, very hard, Eric, you can be anything you want to. Just like Pinocchio. I predict someday you’ll be a great magician! And wizards need their sleep so—”

“What’s ‘escape’?”

“Escape . . . That’s when you’re somewhere you don’t want to be and you invent a way to free yourself.”

“Oh . . .”

“What are you thinking?”

“Nothing. He didn’t have a ma.”

“He had the Blue Fairy.”

“She’s not like you.”

“Well, who knows. She was very kind to him, wasn’t she? Good night, Eric sweetie. I love you.”

“Love you, ma.”

She kissed him on his cheeks, forehead, nose, carried the candle across the room, placed it on the stool by her own bed, lay down, snuffed it. Her favorite part of their journey in this tiny, swaying room: listening to his breathing move into sleep. But tonight she knew she would be asleep long before him, she could sense his mind churning, making more of itself.

3.

 

According to guest experts, chimps and orangutans are the only entities, apart from myself and humans, who can recognize themselves in a mirror. Apparently their ungainly physiques force them on a constant basis to devise new ways of navigating the canopy, which enhances their self-consciousness—which would make mobility the mother of vanity—which would make me motherless (true).

The first time I saw myself in a mirror I was among a clutch of comrades, unclothed for a shadow play. We were stacked like cord backstage, shortly to be reboxed and shipped home. An unframed mirror leaned dusty against a nearby wall. It took me several minutes to understand what I was seeing, and when I worked out the optics I saw that I must be among those in that group reflection, though I didn’t immediately know which one I was. Eventually I identified myself among the crowd by deduction, counting puppets to the floor, angles of limbs, etc. I’m no Adonis, I learned that day, but I’m no what’s-his-name either. You can bet the first time he saw himself in the mirror he knew at once exactly who he thought he was, and pranced and preened.

 

*

 

Never could resist a bet—even back when he was just a cuckoo clock, used to bet on his own second hand. No spring-driven clock is entirely accurate, there are always slight deviations toward either way of the beat, and Gramps, who hears so well, used to bet on how much off-center the next tick or tock would be, used to bet himself—and always lost! Never hit it once, didn’t have the calculus, but he got such a kick out of whatever happened compared to what he wagered, the weird juxtaposition of reckon and fact, that on each occasion he’d quiver with amusement which would escalate, feed on itself until he’d be rippling, shaking with laughter, great pendulous heaves on and on, tremendous laughter—and this laughing, you see, took a toll on his timekeeping, threw it off even more—to his perilous delight, the joker—but after all he’s only a mechanism. He’s been on the bench a number of times, Arnold always does right by him, could’ve been a great clocksmith but I guess that’s personality for you. Still ticking great though, Gramps, and still betting.

Or so I imagine of that clock there. In truth I have no idea whether any of my comrades think at all. Wood, tin, plaster of Paris, none of them can move or speak, so how could I ever know? My own thoughts wander, collide with each other, but have never bumped into those of another, not even Arnold’s, who if he’s human—well, he does occasionally seems to prefer one channel over another.

I do sometimes wonder about the finger puppets, they’re the shelf under me, maybe half a thousand packed tight all the way to the windowed wall. I wonder, if they do think, do they think as one? Almost always they are hired out as crowds and choirs to represent mass consensus. But I like to imagine a silent cacophony of hundreds of individual pipsqueak voices, although I suppose there’s no real reason they might not sport deep booming voices. I wonder whether being constantly referred to as “finger puppets” has at all affected the way these particular puppets think, or think of themselves, if they do think. In every show I’ve done with them they’ve been eloquent and true to a T, excellent puppets. But conscious? I have no idea. Cogito ergo squat.

 

*

 

Rented today by a puppet hater. She clearly wished she had “real” actors, humans. This fesses a shortage in herself, I fear, though we, her cast, were the victims. I did like the script, which featured a Generic Royal (played by yours truly) lonely in a nifty palace. Napoleonic bearing, a shot of gangsta, I think this was her intention. But instead of mixing in Mussolini, as is wanted, would be sweet for the part, she doesn’t let me go there. I can feel her scorn through the strings, which affects things. As a puppet, I’m totally contingent upon her zeal.

In the course of the show I choose a bride from a mail order catalog. I pour out my soul in letters, send her photos, frank poses, lotta wood. I fly her in from the New World, and she turns out to be quite the fatale grifter—a fun setup but the whole show’s been contaminated by this snarling apathy from above, not pleasant. I’m bellowing silently into the rafters, It’s up to you, sister!

Of course, being a puppet, I don’t want to meet my bride. Even if I did, I certainly couldn’t express it, but my puppeteer refuses to acknowledge this and fights against nature, thinking of humans, she lapses into frustration and stiffs the show. Thank the Stringsmith just a one-day gig. She returns us to the shop complaining to Arnold we’re “not well-lubricated.” (Arnold takes her ire in stride. He is quite sensitive to what he imagines are our feelings. He never overbooks us. He’d never sell us.)

I do have a soft spot for Mussolini—the tyrant who ended up the marionette next-door. “Everybody dies the death that corresponds to his character,” his words. O Italy, there’s your masterpiece, and he was flesh and blood straight out of the gate—and what a race! All wars make good viewing, but that one was out to beat the band. Even in the States we had twelve million cast in an hour after the call, fifty percent of the GOP in play—now that’s a war. It’s my favorite by far. Tyranny was so contagious a genre that even the Allies were A-List, not like these days when it’s all about the trappings. Glamour is sufficient for a peacetime democracy but it’s a pauper’s charisma; the times want character.

Yeah, I’m a fan. Not only did I participate directly, but it remains to this day the best thing on TV, with new facts unearthed almost weekly, it seems, never a shortage of revelations, and while I accept that those days are gone forever, the history of war is the history of past tactics applied to present conflicts and updated only at the very last second, so for now my nostalgia continues to be validated and I remain hopeful for a worthy sequel. Sadly, most of the new season is kidstuff in comparison, and the smorgasbord’s crammed to stymie all coherence. One-hit wonders rule for a day, buoyed by fast-food massacre, then vanish leaving the world half-armed, slack-jawed and facing chimeras while the architects go unnoticed. Shallow thrills, these. For a proper showdown we need a proven script and great masses of consensus, but we’ll never get off the ground with everyone with fingers doodling their own offensive.

 

*

 

You say: “There is no advantage for us in maintaining the peace as it was formulated at Versailles.” Your citizens, as you speak, nod their reasoned approval: Indeed not! I see no point in doing such a silly thing. War is quite profitable at the moment, etc. But when you then cease speaking, go utterly still, and simply look at your audience—it’s like plugging their brains into an electrical socket. The words were merely preproduction, track laying; it is in the blank aftermath that your naked purpose shoots through your eyes and into theirs and pierces the glib membrane of “understanding” and explodes in their souls to complete a throbbing feedback loop through puppet and audience that is in all ways proportional to the colossal insult that is Versailles, and the whole world understands by Christ how dare they presume to say when and where and with whom we fight!

Even Muppets know that much. The blank look is all they have, all they require to plunge their will into the minds of tots. Don’t get us wrong, some of my best archnemeses are Muppets—but Mussolini, he was a natural, rare in a man.

 

*

 

Did you say “us”?

 

What? When?

 

For a mind with no subconscious, yours certainly slips enough.

 

We in the theater often mirthfully deploy the first-person singular. A king or queen speaks for the many there are. We speak for the many we have been. In fact I’ve been so many for so long that I don’t think I would survive the contortions of a single self’s upkeep, would be like having custody of a raindrop for an entire monsoon season.

 

Still, why do you insist you have no subconscious?

 

My family tree is a tree. I have no feelings, no contact with others, I cannot defecate or hoard—what would I do with a closet? My thoughts are like game pieces positioned on a field, under my whole and continuous scrutiny. Not like sometimes I don’t wish I had a subconscious. For instance, this morning—did you see that?

 

Wasn’t watching.

 

Yes you saw it, I know you saw it, well lucky for you if you didn’t. What I saw, I’d have stuffed it in the back of my mind so fast I wouldn’t have noticed—I wish I had been on the road, facing the wall, any dumbshow of denial. My first impulse—

 

Slow down—

 

I don’t mean—

 

It was just an impulse, it has immunity. You never do anything, so there’s nothing to worry about. You expect me to take you seriously? Tell me what you saw.

 

The ultimate trespass of humanity on puppetry! I confess: I wanted to retaliate. Treason is contagious.

 

“Treason”?

 

Pinocchio’s greatest sin—betrayal of one’s kind—I saw humans act like puppets and in turn I reacted with humanity. I briefly wondered: What can I do? In the end I just sat there. As I shall continue to do. If you would just stop bringing him up, please.

 

What could you do, a single fleshy viewer among billions?

 

I’d pretend I was a puppet.

 

You contradict yourself.

 

I contradict yourself. A compassionate God would freeze the world for a year, give gratitude room. I swear I knew tears in my eyes. How silly we were as just a colony! How happy we are to be a real live country! When I think of what a wish can be: mightier than scepter; a brilliant bolt of good— Was that the great temptation, Pinocchio, prompt of your mercurial penchant and why you’ve seized the mind of the world? What were you thinking when you leaped at mortality? Do you imagine that if you had ever grown up— No no no, I will NOT go there, I mean I wouldn’t if I could, I will sit here on my shelf and think. Of course I believe there’s a reason for my thought.

 

 

 


4.

 

How relatively content I was just an hour ago. How mad with desire I am now. But for what? Pinocchio paced the room, taking care not to wake the napping Gepetto, who in his view lived for small talk the boy could not abide. He fretted, growing wild, then her voice came—

“Well if that isn’t the handsomest bloodiest fleshiest little boy I’ve ever seen, then I don’t know who is!”

His new heart leaped. She spoke from inside the old Grandfather clock, filling its space like a beautiful statue in uncarved marble. Her confinement excited him, but then she easily passed through the glass, coasted toward him, wings tittering. “Let me look at you. Oh, what a pleasure! What a good thing for the world: a human who actually chose to be one. Everybody should be like you.”

“What about you, Blue Fairy? Are you satisfied to remain a phantom? Why not join me in this world?”

She met his eyes for a steady moment, registering the unfamiliar notes in his speech, then rose and hovered at her usual position forty-five degrees above and before him. “No, Pinocchio. My role on this earth is of another kind. But why do you mope so, dear? You’re a real boy now, just as you wished. Why should you be unhappy?”

“Oh, I’m happy enough. I don’t know . . . ”

“And you can read, and you’re already earning good wages, and Gepetto is a wonderful father—”

“Yeah, sure. But I never . . . ”

“You never a lot of things! You’ve just begun!”

“That’s not what I mean.” She addresses me as if I were a lousy baby. Pinocchio gritted his teeth, knowing he would otherwise confess what he’d intended not to, but it was no use, he was who he was— “I’m not a real real boy, am I? I have no mother.”

“Well . . . ”

“Come, be my mother.”

“Oh, Pinocchio—but I already am, in a way, don’t you think?’

“I’m a freakshow.” He wanted to slap her. “ I wasn’t born in the proper manner.”

“Sweetie, listen to me. There are plenty of men in the world who when they were boys had a lot less than you do. And they grew up just fine. When you were a puppet, you were made of dreams, and it was proper to dream—just look where it got you, you’re your own dream come true! But remember, you dreamed yourself alive—and life, unlike a dream, can never be perfect. There is the picture you have in your head, which may guide you like a map; and there is the world as it truly is…It’s better now to put away the map; you’re not a tourist any longer. Save your dreams for sleep. No, you have no mother in the way most children do. But Gepetto will give you the love of a hundred parents. You make him very happy. And you’ve made me very happy, I can tell you . . . I know it’s not quite the same. But remember: the pain of a child who has never been mothered is nothing compared to the pain of a child who has had a mother, and lost her. And even worse is the pain of a mother who has lost her child. You must be grateful for who you are.”

“What do you mean, ‘a mother who has lost her child’? Parents are older than children, and so must die first. You make no sense.”

“Your question is a good one, Pinocchio, I see you’re growing up already. As a matter of fact, yes, sadly sometimes children do die first. In fact, if I look a little bluer than usual tonight, it’s for this very reason. I was just visiting a home a little bit south of here, where a couple lost their baby boy to a terrible fever this morning. They loved him so much, I can’t tell you how sad they are.”

“What is ‘south’?”

“South? Didn’t they teach you that in school?”

His gaze averted hers. All his education had been as a truant puppet. And she knew that—and he knew she cared for him—so why must she taunt him in this manner? Beginning with calling him Pinocchio—a puppet’s name, a silly name. He wasn’t made of pine anymore.

“I suppose you’ve forgotten. All right then—let’s say you are Italy—you do know what Italy is, don’t you?”

He nodded, lying.

“Good. OK, let’s pretend you are Italy. So: your head, which is up, is the north, which is where we are now. And this hand is east, and this hand is west, and your feet are the south. They’re directions, they never change, they help you find your way. If you stand on your head, your feet become north. Understand?”

Confused, he nodded again and checked his nose for size: it was fine. Good. But maybe physical gestures didn’t count as lies? So far none of his speech had been false; he’d have to set up a control—

“It’s a lot to absorb, I know, on your first day. But you’re doing quite well. Soon you’ll understand everything! Especially if you go to school.” She smiled slightly, already doubting his readiness.

He fought to suppress the seething, inconvenient emotions—lost—blurted: “If you were my mother I would never die—and neither would you!”

“I think, my dear Pinocchio, that you still have one foot in the marionette.”Both of them avoided looking at the lifeless thing in the corner of the room. “Remember, life too has its strings, even if you can’t always see them. Death is real, and will someday pull you in, no matter how strong the love you live for.”

“Which is worse: if you lose a child and you’re a father, or if you’re a mother?”

“I think maybe they are different kinds of love, but as for which is greater, I don’t think that can be known. I’ll leave you be for now. I hope you enjoy your first night of sleep as a real boy!”

“I’ve slept before!”

“Oh, human sleep is quite different, Pinocchio. Much less predictable. Sweet dreams . . .”

She rose toward the ceiling; for a moment there was a blur of green as her blueness grazed yellow plaster, passed into the cracks.

 

*

 

From his perch on the wall the Talking Cricket had watched the events of the day with amazement. The insect world was full of dramatic births and astounding metamorphoses, but never in his life had he seen a child come into being as this boy had—best he could figure it, the kid had been inside the puppet all along, would explain the chatter and antics. The marionette was presently slumped along the wall, lifeless for the first time ever. Cricket hadn’t actually seen the precise moment the biological child had appeared, it was as though there’d been a glitch in time—he was suddenly there, dancing around, celebrating his freedom. Cricket had ventured to the floor to get a better look, and it was only thanks to a hole in the sole of Pinocchio’s shoe that he’d avoided being viciously stamped to death, leaping inside the heel just as it met the ground. Didn’t look like he’d be any safer around the boy than he’d been around the puppet. He must never allow himself to forget that hammer Pinocchio had thrown at him, this after they had spoken at length on various occasions; the cricket would almost have said they were friends. And all my sage advice, dispensed free of charge? Grateful: that’s what the kid wasn’t. Look at him now all sulky, hugging his knees, the great gift of breathing life lost on him. Cricket had known a few caterpillars in his day; going butterfly had never affected their core personalities either.

“Ah, come off it!” the Talking Cricket shouted.

The boy’s head whipped up in a rush of suspicion, his squinted gaze nailing the speaker’s location in the same swift movement. Not bad, admitted the cricket to himself, involuntarily refreshing his adhesion to the wall, flexing to retreat if necessary.

“Who’s that there?” the boy barked.

“You know perfectly well who this is, kid.”

A brief pause; then, almost experimentally: “No I don’t…”

“Liar—”

Shush. Of course I know who you are, Talking Cricket. I just said I didn’t to see if my nose would grow. Let me see—it’s as tiny as ever! How about that? I lied and my nose stayed the same. Think of the possibilities!”

“If your nose knew you were going to confess your lie just after you told it, it probably stayed put just to spare itself the extra trouble.”

“I thought you were dead.”

“I thought you were a puppet.”

“What? Say that again, I dare you.”

“I didn’t live this long by dying every time someone killed me, you know.”

“Come a little closer, I can’t hear you.”

“No thank you.”

“I’m really alive like you now, Talking Cricket, so we’re like brothers in a way, I wouldn’t hurt you. But anyway you should go find another puppet to torment with your smarts. I’ve got my own brain now, and a stable nose and I’m busy at the moment, so please. Your services are no longer required.”

The cricket risked a few steps down the wall, wary. “What are you so busy about?”

“To tell the truth, I’m running away from home.”

“Ha! I’ve heard that before! Where to this time?”

“Say . . . ” The boy seemed to rethink everything. “Maybe there is something you can do for me.”

“I don’t recall offering my services.”

“Do you happen to know where South is?”

“Why?”

“A poor married couple lost their only son to fever tonight. They live in the South, you see. So please—if I’m Italy, and I am, then—where exactly would these people be? Here is my head, so—”

“Oh no, slow down, kid. If you leave Gepetto, he’ll miss you terribly.”

“Oh, I know. But he loved me even when I was a puppet, remember? Doesn’t take a lot to keep him happy. He’s still got the stupid thing to play with, maybe it’ll even make another boy for him. And if it doesn’t, there’s lots more wood in the forest. You see? I’m thinking of everyone’s needs these days, not just my own anymore. I’m a hot juicy boy—and soon I’ll be a man! I’m Italy, cricket, and I know where South is, I don’t need your help to succeed—but it would make things easier, so I must insist, if you do happen to know precisely where that poor childless couple resides, you really must share your information with me, it’s just the decent thing to do, friend.”

In the beginning was the word, indeed, Cricket thought, empty words frantic for filling, watching the fleshy critter jabber himself into being, watching him scale the words like so many crags, ascend to himself on juts of utterance—strangeness after strangeness, this life brings. Strange, too, that Cricket had never before noticed quite how extremely strange Pinocchio was—blinded by strangeness, he must’ve been, since this fellow was surely off the charts. How the devil has he got here anyhow?

Hm. The cricket had heard the Blue Fairy’s tale of the childless parents, and it was news to him. But he had great faith in the million-degrees-of-separation law that prevails among insects, could get the details in a wingbeat.

“I think I can help you, kid. It’ll cost you, though.”

“I’m afraid I’m quite poor! That puppet spent all my money before I was born.”

“Gepetto’s money, you mean.”

“Fine, split hairs. Never mind, I’ll locate them myself. Ciao—”

“Hold it, hold it! That’s OK. I don’t want any money. Just tell me how you did it, is all. One second you’re made out of wood, the next you’re—but—it’s impossible!”

“OK, I’ll tell you.”

“Please!”

“You say it’s impossible. I say to you: you think like a bug. To a great brain like mine, only the unimaginable is impossible. This was easy to imagine, so quite possible. From possible to probable is just a matter of desire. Then, once you’re probable, all you need is time.”

“That’s an explanation? That’s useless to me! Details, man. How does wood become flesh?”

“I always was. I was simply trapped inside that stupid toy.”

“It was a trick! I knew it!”

“Not exactly. It was an honest escape. All the more impressive if you have any discernment at all. A miraculous escape, with maybe a little help from the lady in blue, as you saw—that can be our little secret, eh?”

“Humbug!”

“Now it’s your turn. Take me to Italy.”

“Yeah you’re human all right, you little cheat. But we’re already in Italy.”

“Hop along, then.”

 


 

5.

 

Still with me, this moistness. Hours later in the night on the shelf, I am experiencing an unprecedented blinking sensation due to a tearlike conception. Odd. It usually takes no effort to stay chill. According to some, empathy is a late-season flower—have I played too many in my time?

 

*

 

There is a she-puppet in the shop, sitting on the shelf just opposite. She’s a star, I’m a star, we often work together. Arnold calls her “Mathilda.” We’re about the same size, and her ragstem suppleness nicely complements my oak resolve. Sometimes I enjoy pretending I have “taken a liking” to her. Because of our relative positions in space, this week anyhow, I literally cannot take my eyes off of her. Also, the first show we ever did together, was quite “romantic.”

Newlyweds freshly back from our honeymoon, we couldn’t stop talking about those magical days, reliving every sweet moment in language, a litany to last a lifetime. We had just two days left till the Monday that would return us to our jobs and the template of our near future together. On Saturday morning I was awake a few minutes before her, and had the chance to watch her flutter from dreams into this world, her features move from lax to snap, and when she finally opened her eyes and arrived fully at my side, I greeted her with the words I love you. And she replied, I love you. There was an offstage narrator, avuncular…

 

They remained in bed for more than an hour, both their bladders bursting. Neither wished to break the rhythm of love’s finest speech, each telling the other “I love you” in turn until finally she smiled as if to say,

 

We must, alas, stop this now—for the moment—

 

and kissed him, and slid herself from the bed into slippers and went off toward the bathroom, adoringly watched by him, who called after her,

 

I love you!

 

Having left ajar the door to the bathroom, she answered from her perch,

 

I love you.

 

Through washing and dressing and bed-making and breakfast, through dishwashing and lovemaking and television watching and more lovemaking, from over books, around corners, through shower curtain and dinner and kisses and dancing and doorways, they spoke no words other than those. When they finally went to bed that evening, it was natural to hold each other close and repeat the phrase. They fell into sleep both sensing that their having said nothing else to each other all day constituted more of a bond and sacrament than anything that had come before, including their vows, their physical love, their countless hours of more varied conversation. And on Sunday morning, when both had awoken, they lay in bed, faces close, silent. This new day, as yet wordless, seemed the time to return to more conventional speech. There was so much to talk about after all—their life together was just beginning! They hesitated, breathing each other’s breath. Finally she said, with an odd smile and somewhat apologetically,

 

I love you.

 

And he replied:

 

I love you.

 

And they were awkward and said nothing more for an hour or two until he returned from a quick trip out for a newspaper (obtained with tacit gesturing) and saw her where she lay on the living room couch and was filled with a fresh wave of genuine feeling and exclaimed, helplessly,

 

I love you!

 

By noon they were enjoying themselves again. They unplugged the telephone. After all, it was Sunday and they were newlyweds, the world and its habits could wait. Sometime late in the afternoon she thought to ask him something about an item on the television news she had only half heard, but decided she didn’t really need to know the details. When their minds turned to dinner, he rose to go to the kitchen and almost caught himself asking whether reheated lasagna was OK with her—but he knew it would be. And so he just said softly, half in marvel to himself,

 

I love you,

 

and left the room. She whispered the same words after him. Soon they were again in each other’s arms, and there were no questions.

And then came Monday morning. By instinctive agreement, they were silent as they somberly washed, dressed, and had breakfast. Each was privately wondering, with strange apprehension, what it would be like to speak to other people—make small talk, execute duties, order lunch. While he and she had lived together for several months before marrying, and had expected the change in legal status would make little difference, now they wondered. They left home together and walked down the street, kissed at the corner, pronounced their love, and went off in the separate directions of their jobs…

 

What will be—what could possibly be—the first words I utter after two whole days of saying only that which matters most? To what mundanity will I rent these lips, this tongue, after devoting them entirely to prayer?

 

Such were his thoughts as he entered his office building in busy midtown. He boarded a crowded elevator in which he spotted two people from his floor, fortunately neither well known to him. A nod and a smile sufficed. He thought ahead. Once he reached his floor, there would be the company receptionist to contend with—a garrulous person whose lavish civility couldn’t let a body pass without inquiring into every possible detail of how they were at that moment in mind and body. Monday mornings were her favorite time of the week, there was so much to learn and discuss. And she was well aware—he felt his heart quicken unpleasantly—everyone knew that he had taken the past ten days off for the honeymoon: prime fodder for chat!

 

Heck, just dive in. Let it flow as it has your whole life. Is there any way to avoid passing her desk? No…OK, so don’t even think about it. Longer you wait, harder it’ll be, so may as well start now…

 

He swallowed and took a series of deep breaths and believed he was almost ready to reenter the world of socialized speech, but when the elevator doors opened and he stepped out, it was like she’d been waiting especially for his arrival—she shouted out to him,

 

Well hello look at you, my my, welcome back, look who’s back, hello! So! How’s married life?

 

Her every pleasant word of welcome was another notch on the rack of an exquisite private torture he was just beginning to understand—it took enormous effort to muster a mere lame grin and thumbs-up as he hurried past.

 

But so where’s your tan?

 

She laughing knowingly. A quick chill ran through him. When he reached his office he immediately closed the door behind him and was dialing the phone before he’d even sat down. If her assistant answered he’d hang up and call back later.

The phone was picked up on the other end. Nothing was said, but he heard the unmistakable sound of her breathing—

 

I love you,

 

he gushed, his forehead moist.

 

I love you,

 

she answered in very low tones.

 

The words seemed to mean more now than ever, spoken, as it were, under fire. In the subsequent pause he strained to discern in her breath some clue as to whether her stress-level was near his—whether she in her speech had already—betrayed him—? It was ridiculous, but this was the word that careened into his mind. He sat down. He listened, waited, trying to still his mind. And then, after some seconds, she said again, softly,

 

I love you,

 

and he in tearful hope said it again too, then listened again to her breathing. And then he could hear that someone had entered her workspace and was speaking to her.

 

I love you,

 

she gasped hurriedly, and hung up before he could respond.

He managed to get through the rest of the workday by miming a bad case of laryngitis.

 

As it happens, she too was having a good deal of trouble adjusting back to normal speech. But she was not as quick to mute herself. She took pains to avoid talking for as long as she could, but when finally asked directly

 

How are you?

 

by someone she genuinely liked and felt inclined to answer, she heard herself stammering

 

I— I—

 

And then something interesting happened, without her conscious direction; she found that she could morph that same word

 

I—

 

into a convincing

 

Uh

 

without interfering with her sense of fidelity to the original word, and thus could hesitate aloud in a perfectly normal fashion. From there she made it to

 

Uh-huh

 

which, coupled with a shrug and a small progression of facial expressions, successfully projected the illusion of holding up the passive end of a quick chat. And she was pleased to discover as the day went on that

 

Uh-huh

 

was not much less than what most people wanted to hear, generally. She soon learned that the adjacency of the “I” and “L” in “I Love” was fortunate, as it enabled her to construct the word

 

I’ll

 

and so directly (if not expansively) address several circumstances demanding she describe her own intentions. If she wished to express a positive opinion she could do this with gusto by exclaiming

 

I love—!

 

dropping her voice for “you” as if swallowing the obvious referent; -ove you became “If you”; —ve you made, depending on the accompanying gesture, “f[or] you” or a quite effective “phew!” And so, out of a few syllables, many ellipses, and body language, she was able to cobble a day’s worth of functional utterance.

Early that evening her husband returned home from work stymied and dismayed, and it felt like she had punched him when he first saw how cheerful she was. But she sat him down right away and reenacted for him her strange spoken day. And then he tried out a few of her variations for himself (not that the two of them alone needed the additional vocabulary). In bed that night, his pillow was a question mark, hers an ellipsis.

The next day his coworkers were glad to see his throat condition was showing halting signs of improvement. At lunchtime he hopped on the Internet and soon found a site with a phonetic listing of I love you in seventy-nine different languages. He e-mailed these to her, and both printed copies. That night, giddy, they ran through them all, and then, beginning on the next night, they entered into a more systematic approach, saying I love you only in the language they’d both taken in school, foraging among the fresh syllables for every berry of meaning, and using these to say other things—less essential things, perhaps, but more meaningful now than they used to be, remade in their private crucible.

And in this way, over the months that followed, they gradually filled their basket of meanings. They introduced a new tongue once a week, while continuing to speak using all those they’d already inaugurated. Soon the permutations of their one cherished sentence began to mix and multiply, deepening their privacy, broadening their civility in all the languages of the world, syllable by syllable the whole of life growing sayable, even as they never cease speaking their love.

A refreshing break from Punch and Judy, that.

 

*

 

It would be pretty to think of Punch as my Adam. But he was a glove puppet, not like rigged me—though at times I’ve been worked from beneath like him, clustered in fisted crowds; on such occasions I all but forget I have strings.

 

*

 

According to a gig I once had at a Guatemalen folkdance center, humans are improved versions of an ancient people made from wood, long before the sun ever shone (which begs practical questions). The Woodites were thoughtless and heartless. They ate dogs and turkeys, none of which pleased their gods, who ix-nayed the lot with a flood. Then came humans. Then monkeys, to remind humans of worse possible fates, and keep them considerate.

 


6.

 

Undrunk tea, unfelt fire, two selves coiled in far corners of the otherwise empty rooms behind their eyes. Two pairs of eyes looking everywhere but into each other. But the cottage was small, just this room and the other; what was avoided quickly turned garish. Through the sole tiny window: black night, the anguished laughing of boars, sweeps of wind through pine and cyprus, and, unseen, the stealthy odd duo of boy and cricket at the edge of the forest peering in.

“There they are.”

“Where’s the boy?”

“Through that door: still in his bed.”

“Still?”

“No money for a proper coffin, I’d expect, not uncommon.”

“Should’ve brought that puppet with us, we could have made one from that.”

“And leave Geppetto entirely alone?”

“Plenty of wood, let him start over.”

“Best thing for you to do is go back home. These people won’t be wanting comfort from strangers.”

“Say!” Pinocchio snapped his fingers. “Do you know any ants, by chance?”

“Tons. What exactly for?”

“Enough ants could bear the body away, a noble service.”

“There aren’t that many in Italy.”

Pinocchio’s hands moved involuntarily over his body, shuddering, before it clicked: she’d only called him that by way of illustration. He drew himself taller. “Why confine ourselves to Italy?” he demanded.

“What? And just where do you intend to take him?”

“I just need to get rid of the body.”

“What you want is maggots. Couple hours, a few million good maggots—”

“Can you get them for me?”

“If you’re aiming to spare the parents trouble, forget it. Their world’s upside-down but the center’s the same, that body’s their sanity right now.”

“Don’t worry. But listen, I need them tonight. Could you? Believe me, it’ll be good for everyone.”

“Well let me think. Well, I could. And I might. And I would—if you’d simply tell me how the hickey you did it, kid! How’d you get out? I’m not sure your plan is as selfless as you claim. But I can’t watch over you any longer, I got my own gig, right? Sure, I’ll get you your maggots. But only if you come clean, no flim-flamming.”

“Get me the maggots and I’ll show you how I did it.”

“Stay right there.”

Cricket hopped off into the sound-simmering darkness, well aware he was playing the sucker, aware also that he was helpless to resist, that being an insect he was bound by nature to follow temptation each time it appeared like it was the first time, cursing awareness for a nuisance.

The cottage was set in the middle of the forest in a clearing where the trees that composed it once stood. Pinocchio cautiously drew closer, testing the stealth of his multiboned tiptoes. He mounted a pile of chopped wood just outside the tiny window, pressed an ear to the pane . . .

“How can you talk politics when our child is dead in the next room?”

“Why is he dead, Rosa? Give me a reason that’s not political and I’ll stop talking politics. If I stop talking politics, I will change nothing, and what happened to us today will keep happening and happening, all over Italy.”

Pinocchio shivered again—but why? Was everyone’s body so irrational? Dots of living pressure on his bare knee. He raised his hand to smack—

“You’re snooping!” hissed the cricket, diving for safety.

“These people are in trouble. I believe they make me sad.”

“Welcome to the world, kid—well, to Italy anyway, I haven’t traveled much. Anyhow, your army’s ready.”

Pinocchio stepped carefully down from the woodpile. Hearing what sounded like a breeze near his feet, he turned to see a carpet of whiteness flowing from the forest, a river whiter than the moon above, for the maggots never stopped moving, and the facets of their surfaces whisked the moonlight in a trembling, everchanging web of whiteness. Pinocchio caught his breath for the very first time, then collected himself, wanting to be worthy of the splendor before him, and equal to the task awaiting him.

“Hello, maggots. Thank you for coming.”

The seething mass went almost still. A bean of white wriggled forward. “On behalf of the maggots, I am designated to greet you: Hail, Pinocchio!” The swarm briefly pitched forward: a collective maggot nod.

“OK quick, Pinocchio,” urged the Talking Cricket, his interjection awkward. “Tell me already! How’d you escape from that confounded puppet?”

“All right, all right. I’ll tell you how I did it, if you stop pestering me. How did I escape from the puppet? The same way I’m going to undertake the body of this poor boy: I used the means at my disposal. Watch and learn.” Pinocchio inhaled and inflated his young chest, stared the cricket down.

“I don’t believe it! Another evasion!”

“I have spoken the truth.”

“You’re driving me insane, boy! You’re not lying any less than you used to, but this is worse: dodging the truth instead of kicking it. Your nose may not be growing but your vocabulary is, which is much more devious. I’ll bet your nose at least itches.”

“Rome was not built in one day.”

The speaker of the maggots lolled, imploring Pinocchio. “Sir, I’m sorry to interrupt but we must eat soon or die.”

“Perfect! Now—”

The cricket was skipping in furious circles, clucking. “You’re growing up too fast, too fast—aw, come on!”—there was a rock in Pinocchio’s hand being spun by fingers seeking a grip, the young arm a tensed catapult—”all right all right then! OK, listen up, maggots, I’m off now before this little brat makes me completely crazy or dead. Good luck to you all, anyhow—and please forget I was here.”

“Our inculabia are sealed,” the chief maggot assured him.

“I’d watch yourselves if I were you,” the cricket whispered in insect-tongue, “this quote-unquote boy—”

“Bugger off or I’ll sic them on you!” hissed Pinocchio.

“Tootaloo!” And Cricket was gone.

And Pinocchio felt suddenly like the soloing Alexander, in the field finally with his charges. “Now, my little white ones, listen up! You’re going to have a great meal tonight. But we’ve got to have some ground rules. First: the moon will soon have descended; can you work in darkness?”

“We can’t see anyway.”

“Perfect. Second: we must maintain complete silence.”

“No worries there—we’ve been trying to be heard for millions of years with no success.”

“Then I suspect being heard can’t matter very much to you. Third: you must be efficient. This is important. You must be entirely finished by morning. Do you poop?”

“Not so you’d notice. Our enzymes are top-drawer.”

“When you’re done, I wish to see no trace of your gorging. I’m not convinced about the bones. You look too soft to eat bones.”

“We subcontract.”

“To whom?”

“Better not to ask.”

“Understood. So remember: quiet, quick, and invisible. Let me show you…” The maggots parted to make a path through their whiteness, a devoted path that adjusted itself with the boy’s every imminent footfall, following him around the cabin and behind to the closed window of the room where the dead child lay. “Ah, you see, there he is. What an appetizing little corpse, eh? Hup-hup!”

“Oh we’re hungry, we’re hungry!”

The window was closed, but opened easily to Pinocchio’s push. “Everybody in!” The enormous white ravenous tongue poured into the little boy’s room.

Pinocchio flicked the last of the maggots from the windowsill. They hastened to join the mass, which had already completely blanketed the corpse, now the color and thickness of an adult gauzed mummy. His mind briefly flown again to Rome, its loving invasion of Egypt, Pinocchio hoisted and squeezed himself up and through the tiny window—he fell with a thud onto the cold earthen floor.

“Ouch! Wow, pain…I kind of like it.”

 

*

 

In the adjacent room both parents looked up toward the closed door with the cross chalked on it.

“Did you hear something in Benito’s room?”

“No, Rosa.”

“Shall I go see—?”

“The wind, Rosa. It was only the wind.”

 

*

 

“Hear me, maggots! This dead boy upon whom you feast—to you he is so much carrion. But hold one thing fast in your minds, as you bring your meager jaws to bear—or toss your poison, whatever it is you do to rid the living earth of its remnants—remember: he had parents who loved him; they love him still, and mourn him even as you dine— You! Don’t eat the clothes! Just chew around them please. Here, eat mine . . . I tell you this to expand your minds, those of you who would listen. For we are no more, less, or other than what we think ourselves to be. Our selves are the prison cells we scrub and batten daily. We have never been sentenced; we committed ourselves. And we can escape if we wish—through the one power achievable by all, the power born of Knowledge—which, acquired, increases us, and strains the walls that would shape us. So study and grow! Hear and heed my words, maggots, greet them as gifts sent from a towering two-legged, judge for yourself if what I say is relevant. To most of you the pedigree of your present meal can make little difference: your very indiscretion is what makes you maggots. But the world is built of differences. A raindrop could crush you even as its twin strikes my cheek unnoticed. The thought of my own death quakes me—but yours, if you are able to ponder the notion, is of no concern to you. This is as it should be. In life we find concerns apportioned, those with which the great do grapple, others fittingly tended by the swarms—and I bid you all, constituents of the feeble but necessary larger party, as crucial as myself to our enterprise tonight, as you see to your stomachs, and to our agreed-upon terms, I beseech you to see also the larger encompassing machine; attempt to comprehend this unified constellation in which you play a wee but harmonious part. This boy is a casualty of poverty. Being born made him a soldier in a war waged by spotless future upon sullied past, across the innocent terrain of the peopled present. None who breathe can truly escape; each of us large and small, man or maggot, blueprint or mutation, dunce or cosmopolite, we are all of us drafted by birth, and each must be thankful for his lot, however barren. For it is strife that shapes our time and stamps our efforts with nobility. Shhhh! No commentary! Masticate! That is what your mouths are for, to chew and swallow. The speech of maggots is a symptom of unhappy idleness. Sup and fight, sate and conquer! We war, yes, we war—but not for land or profit. We deny those who see a puppeteer in every banknote. We fight, yes we fight, not for any this or that, but against all evil that would divide us. A man, a maggot—let no raging socialite turn us one upon the other! Eat maggots, eat!”

 

*

 

“It’s so strange—I thought I heard him just now, speaking to himself as he used to do, play-acting as usual—listen! It’s as if he’s with us…”

“It’s the wind, Rosa, pay it no mind. Shall I play my flute? That will stop your ears from playing tricks.”

“Grief is a cruel illusionist.”

Alessandro Mussolini pulls his wood flute from its chink in the wall and blows a peasant’s requiem for his son. His tears roll down the length of the instrument and pool in the stops, bringing strange semitones into the melody.

 

*

 

“As the accompanying musician takes care not to overswell the singer, so must maggots follow and support the man who leads them. It is clear what we must together accomplish, so why haggle for diluted enfranchisement? Chomp and swallow, maggots, eat of the putrid prodigal body that even when living was but a vessel for states! Eat and convive with others of your kind, and with others whose purposes are parallel, and which tonight are bound together in the sacred twine of unity! Eat, maggots, eat! Italy awaits your digestion!”

 

*

 

“It’s him—it’s Benito! Our son is alive!”

“Someone’s in his room—?”

“I’m going in there—”

“Wait, don’t—”

 

*

 

Pinocchio looked up from the cozy comfort of his new bed to see his new father in the doorway amazed, white-faced and fainting backward into his wife’s arms.

She slowly lowered her husband to the ground, her eyes locked all the while on the living body in her son’s deathbed. Her voice was a hoarse rasp from moot mourning—or maybe it was the quality of her mourning that revived him?— but she caught herself, such thoughts were an affront to God. To the boy she managed, in honest reverance, “You are stronger than even I knew. “

 

*

 

The moon had set but the stars were bright enough for the cricket who had lingered, too curious, to see his jagged shadow vivid on stubbled soil, verifying his existence as a living moving being on this planet at this time, a sobering remembrance that conditioned him to hear in his deepest self the promise latent in the speech of the boy to the maggots, inflating him, the cricket, to new levels of devotion, propelling him against his plans back toward the little cabin to offer his undying loyalty to the imposter child of the Mussolini family.


7.

 

Geppetto lay on his back in his bed, blinking into the gray blur of morning. He lay there for a long time adjusting to the uneventful silence of his waking life, his dream still throbbing through him, a thousand times more vivid than all other memories. He felt utterly exhausted, coughed up on a beach by a mighty storm. As if he had been asleep for years, dreaming each facet and crevice of every fantastic minute—all to do with that marionette he had finished carving just before going to sleep last night—or had that been a dream too? He supposed that it was not unusual for a maker of marionettes to dream of a talking puppet. But all the rest of it—living on scavenged fish for months in the stomach of a sea monster, for instance—surely it had all been a dream. But it had seemed so much more real to him than anything in his long life before going to bed last night! What did it mean, then, to dream, if being awake was so bleak in comparison? What was left of him now, for him now, if the most thrilling years of his life had been only a dream?

Or was this, here, this morning, the dream? And if so, how to make himself wake up again in his true life, where puppets could be sons and animals actors? His arm, seemingly of its own accord, slowly pulled his hand from under the sweat-soaked blanket and reached out and down to the floor where he kept his spectacles. Slightly surprised to feel his fingers find them in their familiar place, he plucked them up and gave them a slow, uneager polish on his nightshirt, then placed them on his nose. He turned his head to the side. There was the puppet, sitting placid on the chair beside his bed, just as it had been the previous night. He felt the click of clarity, and knew he was not dreaming.

It was naked. After everything that had happened since he had finished sanding the pine limbs yesterday, it was strange to see it so still and bare. It was just another marionette after all. It would never speak or dance without human aid. It would never disobey him in a thousand years. It could never be his son.

Alone again, he allowed himself to weep.

After everything that had happened, the puppet was worse than nothing to him. All it could do was torment him with its brutal immobility, and prompt memories—fantasies—of what had never been, would never be.

Much later, after as many household chores as he could think of to perform, doing his best to ignore the marionette, he gathered it in his arms and folded it into the small pine box he had originally made to transport the puppet to America and their new life together. Imagine! Only yesterday he had been capable of such bold plans! But they belonged to dreams. And so, in the last hour of the setting sun, he carried the puppet in its box out of his cottage and down the road to where a small footpath led away through the forest and out onto the bluff above the town’s soaring hillside gardens. He walked through the untended grass of the bluff to where began another steep path that took him down into the gardens, not knowing exactly where he was going. And then he spotted what appeared to be a very old terra-cotta statue of Fame, and was confused. He didn’t remember such a statue in the gardens. And her face, the blueness of her clay, her soaring height and serenity—surely she had been in his dream too…? He felt mocked from every side.

Gepetto knelt before the statue, grateful at least for a sense of inevitable duty, and began to dig a grave for the marionette that meant too much to him, and too little.

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

8.

 

To Prepare a Golem: Fashion a figure from clay, let stand. Over figure, utter softly the name of god to taste, or until figure comes to life. If divinity’s name sours before figure is animate, abandon and start over. When figure is alive, carefully write, with water-soluble ink or chalk, the Hebrew word emeth (“truth”) on its forehead. Figure should be mute but not dumb, and thus can be most helpful around the house. Train steadily until full toil. Serves: 1 maker. (Creative Tip: If properly animated, your figure will grow in size and ability until one day it will appear dangerously capable and threateningly large. Here’s where you’ll be thankful for that non-permanent ink! On that day erase the first letter from its forehead until the word upon it reads eth, “dead”. Figure will revert to original size and demeanor.

 

*

 

Woke up today fucking. (Often I awake just after, to applause, and have to extrapolate back.) As gigs go, “adult shows” are generally right up there thanks to the sheer energy involved. While I of course have no sexual desire and can take no physical pleasure in the act—if I did, perhaps I would feel I had “betrayed” Mathilda, a ridiculous notion—I believe I have a pretty good idea of what sex might be for creatures. I imagine that desire is like a great wind that billows you from behind and makes your will irrelevant—my very stock-in-trade.

For today’s show my penis was attached, a special occasion. It’s a beauty, lovingly crafted in three pieces of olivewood—a cylinder joined by a single screw to a testicular base—resembling a simple toy cannon; I like to think it was modeled on the seventeenth-century four-incher built for Queen Christina of Sweden to kill fleas: that one actually fired, though. And this one is relatively new, a gift from Arnold a few years ago that came with a detachable foreskin of cured maple bark which fits quite snugly and can double as a condom for sex-ed presentations. Also there is a small hook on the top of my glans to which a string may be tied for extra control. Behind my testicles is a thatch of Velcro that corresponds to a Velcro strip on my sexless crotch, which can also accommodate my stage vulva, also Velcro’d. Both genital units share the same compartment in my traveling box, though neither is often used, since for most roles my clothes are enough to suggest my sex. Can’t remember the last time I was female—this may be due to my slim hips, my straight shoulders. I suspect it has more to do with the fact that the West has not evolved much since the Greeks set the tone: male monologue.

My partner in today’s show was a plastic puppet I don’t know very well; she’s from my shop but stored out of my visual field. She is more of a woman than I am a man, for her genitals are a permanent part of her design. Her pelvis is almost entirely foam rubber and assimilates my dowel with ease. Today I was circumcised and/or sans contraceptive. Our puppeteers achieved insertion without resorting to extra strings, though twice during performance manual measures had to be taken to untangle us.

During intercourse, many parts of our bodies touch, including our faces. And I try, as I always do, to see if such close union with another in any way affects me, or expands me, or tells me anything about my partner’s inner life. I gaze into her rhinestone eyes straining to see some sign that she sees me too, some flicker of intelligence, any response at all. Nothing. For all I know she is striving just as hard and equally unrewarded. I’m sure that even to the most observant viewers my face is as impassive as hers, both of us unblinking odorless things. (My eyes can wink, blink, clench and go saucer, but most adult-show producers don’t bother.)

Tonight on my shelf I scan my mind for new knowledge. But I remain myself. Maybe it is silly of me even to bother, nothing ever changes. If she were pine like me, or I plastic, would that have made a difference? Does her foam rubber or my Velcro dermis deaden the connection? Or maybe she just prefers dolls?

 

*

 

 

 


 

9.

 

Just my luck, thought Benito when he learned that his doting mother was a schoolteacher. He was no keener on education than he’d been as a puppet, and had figured that a real boy could forego the whole ordeal if he wished—but then, he loved his mother deeply and wanted to please her. And she had quickly made perfectly clear that his intention of dropping out in order to apprentice with his father was unacceptable to her—nonnegotiably so, notwithstanding his great gift for forging handcuffs, which his father had been hoping to exploit full-time at his blacksmithery.

Fortunately Benito and his mother belonged to different genders, and thus left for different schoolhouses each morning. The boy played easy hooky whenever he wanted. On pain of death, he commandeered the cricket (whose steadfast loyalty he secretly found sickening) to accompany him to school on examination days and spy on the work of his more conscientious peers, then whisper the answers into his ear. Benito’s grades were thus so good that each time he knifed a classmate, he received only the gentlest rebuke, and his shiv, confiscated, was admired for the quality of its craftsmanship, and the fact that he had hewed it himself was praised, and he was recognized to be a remarkably well-rounded youth. He was never known to use it in his favorite brothel.

And so he moved from grade to grade, pleased his mother, and ultimately obtained his own license to teach. He was eighteen. By this time the cricket had grown to the size of a dog; and it was as useful as a dog; and so, to Benito, it became a dog. Although it didn’t resemble any dog anyone had ever seen, Benito made a great show of being terribly insulted whenever somebody expressed doubt regarding the species of his faithful companion, pouting and shouting dissenters into at least pretending that they too believed the cricket was a dog, feeding it scraps and petting it and complimenting its fine sleek coat, rhetorically asking its opinion on the weather and so forth.

But it requires effort to pretend; it cannot easily be sustained; the imagination either rebels or conforms, depending on the circumstances. As Benito was so unpleasant to argue with, even dangerous, in time there wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t genuinely believe the cricket was a dog—the sole exception being the cricket—though even he sometimes got confused; and also the food was better, and he rather liked playing fetch.

 

*

 

Schoolmaster Mussolini had no patience for troublemakers. His charges quickly learned to fear his extravagant retributions, and he is to be credited with the corporeal transformation of many would-be thugs into model citizens.

One morning he arrived at his schoolroom before class to discover a pile of books that the headmaster had left on his desk. Benito picked up a copy and sat down in his chair and slowly opened it. The cricket, leashed to a leg of a chair, was shocked to see the illustration on the cover.

“Is that what I think it is, Benito?”

“This book is a poorly executed bible of all that was once wrong with Italy. And still we see these tendencies in our students of today. At the same time it is not without charm and includes many interesting episodes and colorful characters. In this way it may be said to be an heir to other famous Italian masterpieces. Have you read it?”

“Have I read it! That’s a good one.”

“I will teach this book as a tale of cautions.”

“Hey, am I in there? I bet they left me out of it. Happens all the time. A trillion insects on the planet but you’d never know it. Bet you get all the glory. But hey, you deserve it, right?”

“I do not follow your thought.”

“Look at you now, look how far you’ve come—”

“Talking Dog, why are you frothing so enigmatically at the mouth?”

“Say, who wrote it anyway? Did they get a real writer or is it some hack? Did they even interview you for it? Get the story from the donkey’s mouth, so to speak? No offense. Ex-donkey. Heh-heh.”

“I am confused. You speak to me as if we are co-owners of previous knowledge of the contents of this troubling book!”

“Look, Benito, I don’t know if you’re pulling my leg here or what but ever since you became that boy you’ve never once referred to our old friend Pinocchio, it’s as if you have nothing to do with—” The book came at him like cannonfire. If he were still his old size he’d be dead again. “Ouch! What the heck did you do that for?”

“Do you know what they say about dogs? They say they are the best friends of men. If you wish to continue in your present position I command you to behave accordingly. Dogs do not speak to men about puppets. Dogs bury bones and don’t talk much. Next time you behave like an organism who is not a dog, you will not go unexecuted, do you understand me now, Talking Dog?”

“What fine looking shoes you are wearing, master! May I sniff them?”

Upon being informed that he had impregnated the headmaster’s daughter, Benito cabled his mother for money to buy the girl a congratulatory bottle of wine, then caught the next train to Switzerland without her. The cricket trotted behind him as usual, made to carry in his mouth Benito’s copy of Pinocchio, of which the ex-schoolmaster had grown very fond indeed in spite of his objections to its stilted prose and unsavory characters. But Benito never once acknowledged that he was anything more than just one more fan of the book, and never again would the cricket make any mention to his master of their earliest days together.


 

10.

 

A lone string affixed to my head, which rolls and bobs to project illness and impatience. A thoughtless assortment of stringless figurines scattered inert around me. Liberace’s Requiem oozing through tinny shattered speakers underneath lethargic amplified voice of ward receptionist naming names at tedious intervals. With every name, my head gives a little jerk and my chin rises in expectation. When my name is not named, my head is slowly lowered to its original position as a naked human hand plucks one more figurine from the stage until I am the only one left and my string is cut by garden shears in full view of everyone. My head drops heavily and the sudden shift of weight topples me forward onto the floor. I die (personal death no. 5241).

The house lights come up, and as the doctor-director conducts a Q&A with medical students, I think about a man struck by lightning three times in three years who has recently been granted his birthright fifteen minutes in my attention span. He remains perfectly fine to this day, in fact better than ever. Each brutal encounter with celestial indifference improved his life in some palpable way, in turn reversing his sterility, revealing unto him the face of God, and inaugurating an astonishing afternoon run at the slots—a macro-moderno echo of what the stuff did for clueless molecules long ago. But the effect of such trauma is not easily predicted. That man has prospered, sure, and a bolt was friendly to Frankenstein (at first), but I’ve seen what it can do to lackluck targets. The prospect of being struck myself does press my pause button. I should hold to higher hopes for my solitude.

 

Any lightning in the family tree?

What’s this now—coincidence or atmospheric reaction? Cathode face reflected in a dust-glazed makeup mirror: the jowly grin of lightning-monger Ben Franklin. Figures; when things get hot and heavy it’s a sure bet we’ll be hearing from the famous dead who have phrased an apt sentiment with pith. Those who would trade liberty for security deserve neither!
I feel that way about most Muppets. Take my good friend Tom Jefferson. While practicing the violin, he would take frequent breaks during which he penned the Declaration of Independence. One evening, his last candle burning low…Now there’s a role I enjoyed.

 

Tom?

 

Ben. One of those rare occasions when having strings makes perfect dramatic sense, being the tether of choice for kites. A small metal key was tied to my wrist-string about two thirds up to the “sky”—eaved sheets of dappled aluminum lit from obtuse angles by handheld spots, pounded and shaken for thunder. So when the key was smacked by a glow-in-the-dark lightning bolt stenciled onto the fist of a black boxing glove, my reaction was instantaneous. I flew up into the air shouting Eureka! as my spectacles sailed in the opposite direction. Upon launch, the spectacles’ nose cushions, two metal disks until then separated by my flesh, made contact. The lenses lit up, electric pinwheels that caught fire on closing night, taking half the scenery with them. (Luckily I was also the Founding Father of fire insurance.)

Always assumed we would “perish” by fire. Unlike some puppets, who are evidently immune. On the morning of his second day, Pinocchio awoke from an all-too-human slumber to find his feet burned off by the stove he’d rested them on. Not understanding what had happened, he blamed the cat (just like a real boy). Then, when his maker served him his very first meal, three pears, Pinocchio refused to eat them unless they were peeled. He wanted to go to school, though he looked down upon “other boys,” but refused to attend without clothes. Not only was he skewed in desire, he was born with all he claimed to want. Willful vanity, bodily functions, including finger-pointing—what more could he ask for? And then he played hooky!

Not that I view humanity as his tormentor, and you know I’m no apologist for that dolt, but his pathetic fidelity to the trappings of personhood, even before he crossed the Great Divide, reeks of hostage love, that human specialty, it’s like they’re born with a sign on their foreheads: WILL BE ANYTHING FOR APPLAUSE. The very first role at hand will serve, the Pavlovian web of delight grows tighter, knots and tangles become vital to function, next thing you know you’re fighting blind and dying for an accidental abstraction, strung before you can see, man!

 

*

 

Perhaps a shadow puppet might regard me and think: “Just how stodgy, stiff, and partisan is this blockhead?”

 

*

 

You said earlier that you once dreamed of having the ability to move, but now you have “a different dream.” May I ask: What is that dream?

 

Oh, well when I say “dream” in relation to myself, this is just a figure of speech. I may black out now and then, but since my mind has no backside you couldn’t call it sleep. No sleepie, no dreamie. Similarly, when I mention that I “wake up,” I mean something more like “tune in.”

 

So by “dream” you did not meant nurtured goal, cherished hope—

 

Isn’t it odd that a common mental glitch—full of nonsense, sometimes horrific, entirely beyond the control of most people—should be embraced as a term for “great desire”? I do occasionally catch myself wondering what it would be like to be able to change the channel. Or turn it off. You know how people talk about entertainment as an “escape”? I could use some escape from entertainment. If I’m not in the audience, I’m onstage, it’s relentless.

 

Hey doodly-doo, an actor’s life for you…

 

What, I should feel like occupied territory all the time?

 

I thought nothing made any difference to you.

 

You sit a mile on my shelf. Side effects may include original ailment. Yes, once in a while I may grow fleetingly nostalgic for the self-mobility I’ve never had, but only because I sometimes wonder: Maybe there are channels that Arnold never clicks to? But in the end I’m not deeply hungry for the remote, and I simply thank the Stringsmith that I am not equipped or expected to “react” to the programming.

 

So that’s your great desire: to channel surf?

 

There’s no end to the hazards spawned by wishes! Thank the Stringsmith there’s so much to want. Just one wish is a knife at your back, but enough of them make a bed of nails you can lie on. Still, now that you mention it, I might like…?

 

Please.

 

I’m just saying it’s possible, that’s all. To dream? Not the wish kind, the sleep kind….could be interesting. Direct my own stuff, you know? Just for a change. Just for my own enjoyment.

 

But as you said, dreams are typically not controlled by the dreamer. You kind of take your chances.

 

I saw this thing on people who can control their dreams, maybe I could be like them.

 

Probably take a lot of practice.

 

I’ve got time.

 

Plus I think you’d need a subconscious—

 

Hey! You didn’t ask me to be reasonable. I wish I could dream, OK? My dream is to dream.

 

*

 

Ahhhhhhhh!

 

You all right?

 

I—?

 

What, where am I?

 

I was dreaming, it was horrible!

 

It was only a dream. Do you want to talk about it?

 

It was awful!!!! … I was made of pine!

 

Wait a second, slow down.

 

Yuck—I was…

 

Calm down. Tell me.

 

—hold on…

 

They always say, be careful what you wish for!

 

You’re telling me. Pine, can you imagine? May we never dream again. Can I change my wish?

 

OK, so you were pine…try to trace it back.

 

Wait……no, it’s gone. Is that typical? What’s the point, then? To produce this horrible feeling? Distract me. Let’s have a war story.

 

Do you mean you’re not made of pine?

 

Through overheard dialogue I have ascertained that the bulk of my “body” is oak.

 

Really!

 

Hewed from a former railroad tie, reduced by storm and blade to hard heartwood, a gifted dancer, highly polished, and impervious to most insects. They say I have an iron bolt still in my side, which accounts for my modest weight and supple plumbline—features most appreciated by my more skilled handlers.

 

So where are you from, then?

 

My early career is a blank. Vaudeville, I imagine. I certainly never went so far as to smooth the movement of trains.

 

Do you consider yourself an American?

 

What makes you ask? My intelligent design? My morphic zeal? I have never acted on impulse!

 

Your teeth are as wooden as Washington’s—

 

I would never chop down a tree—

 

You watch oodles of Yankee television—

 

Not by choice. It’s complicated. On the one hand there’s my head full of jingles and punch lines, my sense of being “one of a kind” while remaining anonymous, my simple motley, immunity to scrutiny, self-contradiction and the fact that the Theater and the American Dream both demand the perpetual suspension of disbelief. But there is a world of difference between a knack for thinking you could be anyone and, as is the case with me, actually being able to be anyone. Which war are we watching, anyway?

 

Vietnam, I think.

 

Ha!

 

What?

 

You call that a war?

 

Not up to your standards?

 

A brave experiment in advertising, give you that.

 

That’s a bit flip.

 

Don’t tell me you don’t know the difference between a war and sit-trag.

 

What about the moonwalk? Do you believe Man has walked on the moon?

 

The space program is one of the main reasons they wrote Vietnam.

 

Who’s “they”?

 

Can you imagine what would have happened if there was nothing else on? There would have been riots!

 

I don’t follow.

 

The round earth seen from space. We’re all in it together: that’s a problem. If your world is flat, then it is conceivable that that you are standing at its center. But a sphere’s center is inaccessible and equidistant to everyone on the surface. To imagine persons born and living on the opposite side of a sphere is to imagine persons whose heads are pointing in exactly the opposite direction to your own. The physics are too forgiving, you can chalk up any damn thing to human nature seeded in circumstances; can you blame anybody for anything? It would have been a catastrophe!

 

You’re saying that NASA, a federal agency, wrote and produced the Vietnam War, feigning years of battles and deaths and creating a source of perpetual national shame, in order to distract Americans from the fact that the world is round.

 

Correct.

 

But NASA itself was responsible for that photograph—which they could easily have withheld—and which everyone has seen by now—

 

The fact that Columbus was Italian notwithstanding, the world is round, right? Truth is like water you wanna boil slowly so Joe the Frog doesn’t freak out. You want to release it preemptively in a controlled manner. Vietnam was the federal dam of the Round Earth River, all I’m saying.

Why don’t we talk a little more about this dream of yours.

 

Sometimes I think you and I watch entirely different television sets.

11.

 

Eric’s star was rising but something was off—he could go whole days without thinking about it, but always these moments in front of the mirror brought it vividly back, alone in his dressing room before going on. He knew he was good, and daily a handful of people learned it too—but his dream called for exponential growth, he was only human, his years were finite, and who knew for how long his body would be supple enough to do what he needed it to do—how to catch fire?

He forced a grin at the mirror. “And if you thought the Resurrection was impressive, just wait till my final curtain—” No. Come on, Eric, concentrate. It was amazing how the same words could seduce or estrange, depending on the force behind them.

Eric Weiss hadn’t read Pinocchio in many years, but the puppet had been a steady companion to his ambition. Not a month passed in which it did not visit him in his dreams. He’d never forgotten the thrill of that escape from wood into humanity; the act had resonated completely with his own metamorphosis—from Hungarian to American, from child to man—it had galvanized his life’s purpose and fused with everything the New World meant to him, and to his mother.

His mother. He must not think of her now. It was the first thing she’d said to him when they learned she was ill: If I pass, Eric, mourn me, but on your own time. Your career belongs to God and His creatures, you’re His vessel, not a pop star. If you miss a single show on my account, you betray us all. He had promised to heed her wishes, yet still managed to stay with her every nonworking hour of her final weeks, sleeping in her room on the floor by her bed, leaving the hospital only to make his way to the theater, do the show, and return. Bess, his wife, had brought him meals twice a day, kissed them both and silently withdrawn, in full reverence for the powerful bond between son and mother. And when the old woman finally lay cold in her last bed, he’d had less than an hour to sit with her and let his psyche settle before hurrying off to the theater for the night’s performance.

That was less than a month ago. It was difficult to think of anything but her lately. Which was fortunate, since he must be vigilant in case her spirit tried to contact him from the Other Side. Still, tonight when he’d sat at his mirror to apply his makeup, and caught a glimpse on his mind’s horizon of the old nagging question—his plateau’d career—something’s missing—he’d seized on the problem as a raft of release, something else to mull—what’s missing, it must be some essential thing but minuscule, otherwise he’d surely have the answer by now. He was doing everything right, he was the best in the world and he knew it—and yet his growing fame had come up against a seemingly unscalable wall—what was he doing wrong, how to catch fire?

Someone was knocking at his dressing room door. He rose, black mascara in hand, and walked sideways the few steps it took to reach the door, pulled it open to reveal a gaunt and dapper man standing in the hall grinning with false sheepishness. Cole Porter, the songwriter, had recently become Eric’s fan, which in Cole’s world was tantamount to friend.

“Am I intruding?”

“As usual.”

“Listen, we’ve got to talk, do you have a minute?”

“Be quick.”

“Peachy.”

There was room only for Eric and one other person in the tiny room, if that person remained standing and didn’t gesticulate too much; Cole was not the perfect guest. Eric sat down again and tilted back his mirror to catch Cole’s face in it just as it flinched, seeming to remember something. “My dear Eric. How are you coping, dear?”

Eric sighed, too weary to pretend. He isn’t a bad fellow, just still four years old in some ways. “Grief is a prison, Cole. An inescapable prison.”

“Well, you should know…” Cole groped for a mask of sympathy, realized it was futile, grinned. He knew he was much more likeable when not feigning humanity. “Sugar, I’ve been writing the most delightful song—and you’re in it.”

“Is that so.”

“It’s a musical inventory of all the most delicious things in the world and you know I think you’re right up there with them all. You’re not just clever, darling, not just any old illusionist, you’re a real artist—an escape artist.”

“I’m flattered—”

“You’re the top, is what I’m saying.”

“—or maybe I shouldn’t be—who else is in the song?”

“Oh I’ve got Garbo, Lady Astor, Shelley and Keats, Ghandi and Rockefeller, all together lined up on the most delightful melody, listen: You’re the top, You’re Basmati rice, You’re the top, you’re—Eric Weiss!”

“That’s nice, thank you Cole.”

“That’s what it was going to be. Before that I had for the first part You’re the eighth vice, but that was straining the rhythm and not quite all you deserve—I want to have the perfect rhyme for you, you meow-meow—You’re the top, You’re a cat sans lice fit the rhythm much better but it didn’t sound quite as immortal as the rest—scotch on ice works but I already had a brandy, beer, and hot toddy, and I know how you feel about spirits generally, but anyway it’s all neither hither nor thither because I must ask you, you see, for a favor. I had just finished the song when I turned on the radio and realized I simply couldn’t go down in history without bringing a certain someone down with me—Benny Mussolini, do you know him?”

“I don’t listen to the radio much these days, Cole.”

“You don’t know Benny? Really Eric, is there no end to your escapism, well never mind, I love you still, but perhaps you might consider that I really have got to include the napper in my ditty, otherwise it’s bound to seem quite dated. Don’t know how I could have left him out, he’s all the rage in Italy, absolutely gassed them in Africa, Coco’s doing a shirt for him, plus I have an Italian theme going all through—I’ve got Dante, Durante, Botticelli, Mona Lisa, the Coliseum—and honey, I’m positively aching for something yummy that rhymes with ‘Mussolini,’ and I want you, Monsieur Weiss, to change your name and fit the bill, can you do that for me? I’ve got a fan club in Sicily, do you believe it?”

“Oh yeah? Is Pinocchio in your song, by any chance?”

“I’ve got Mickey Mouse, he’s with Strauss, but Pinocchio? What would I rhyme him with?”

“Tokyo. Okeydokio.”

“What, are you bargaining here? What I need, Eric, I need an -ini.”

“You want me to change my name in order to improve your lyrics.”

“It’ll be a classic, I promise. Mussolini, he’s a new kind of leader, just like you are a new kind of artist. We’re on the brink of a marvelous age! Here is your chance to be linked for eternity with the greatest thing since vermouth! Something that suits you of course. Something that behooves your career and your principles, whatever you want. Come on, Eric, a Porter lyric linking you and the Doochie, what coud be snazzier? Think of the publicity when everyone from Little Italy to ‘21’ is singing it.”

“Cole, is this your way of telling me you think my name is too Jewish?”

“Eric, Eric, what must you think of me? The most Jewish thing you can do is change your name—I did it, Irv did it, and until Wednesday I even had a line: You’re the top, you’re the Chosen People, but Münster Steeple as a rhyme rather shafted the point, so I had to substitute, but think of it this way: Your name is a shackles you were born into. A poorly fitting name is a straightjacket for your reputation. What greater escape act can there be? I’m offering you a chance to re-create yourself! Really, do you think Eric Weiss does theatrical justice to your worldclass sorcery? Do you hear magic in that name? Because I’m listening and I don’t hear the magic, and I have perfect pitch, Eric.”

“What’s a ‘straightjacket’?”

“Really, Eric, you must get out more. It’s the latest thing, a marvelous confinement, you have to be out of your mind to wear one but once you’ve got it on it’s there to stay, so help me out here: Mussolini! Think! You’re Italian anyway, aren’t you, sugar?”

“Hungarian.”

“There you go, we all eat noodles—hold on a moment—that’s it!, marvelous names, rotini, tortellini, bucatini—got it! You’re the top, You’re Larry Linguini. What do you think? Freddy Fettucini. Gimme a minute . . . .”

As Cole zestfully pondered aloud in a free association of syllables, Eric wondered whether the songsmith might be right—perhaps the key to the next rung on his ladder was a new, zingier name. He thought of his mother with a pang. She had always told him that the secret behind all Jewish success was that, in denying that the messiah had yet come, all Jewish mothers were free to nurture their children with maximal optimism. (He’d once mentioned this idea to Cole, who’d approved the logic by applying its inverse, noting that the only famous Calvinist he could think of was Calvin.) Would a pseudonym be an affront to her vision for him? He hoped she would have deferred to his father on this question. The late Meyer Weiss had been a rabbi who never attended rabbinical school, never planned on becoming a spiritual leader; he’d simply been born with a clerical flair that was recognized and adapted by the fledgling Jewish community in his adopted Wisconsin hometown. Both father and son seemed naturally to grasp that America was only as free as the ability of each inhabitant to create freedom anew according to the unique circumstances of his or her life. And, in the process, some precedent, recipe, law, was always bound to be broken, wasn’t it…? The son found additional consolation in the fact that, in embracing a stage name, his True Name would from hereon remain unspoken in public, unsullied by journalists, uncheapened by repetition—which, when he thought about it, could really only please his mother. And hearing Cole alight upon and seize the destined name and chant it behind him, and write it out and pronounce it for the lad who arrived to lead the magician to the stage, he saw his own unforced smile in the mirror for the first time in weeks.

That night he killed them. The curtain calls were more exhausting than the escape itself. Harry Houdini collected twenty-nine minutes of applause, a record for Eric, who believed that in his new name he had acquired the key to the imagination of the world. It’s true that Bess had seemed a little confused when he’d informed her of it in the stage wings, but she would get used to it—she could continue to call him by the old syllables if she wished, when they were alone.

Cole poked his head into the dressing room door. “Marvelous! I absolutely frayed my trousers.”

“The name works pretty good, I think.”

“May I make a suggestion?”

“Another time, maybe?”

“The Water Torture number is dandy as is, but just think of the effect if the thing were filled with gin.”

“Thanks, Cole. Will I see you tomorrow?”

“I don’t know, my game’s a bit rusty.”

“The séance, Cole.”

“Of course! Will mum be there?”

“That’s the idea.”

 

*

 

Houdini was not the only man in Cole’s couplet given to self-reflection when faced with a mirror; but his partner in rhyme tended to ponder in much larger rooms. For many years, Il Duce had maintained his government’s headquarters at the colossal Palazzo Venezio in Rome. The marble floor of the great Sala del Mappamondo, his private office, was a resplendent olio of every slope of Carrara, at one end of whose vast length sat his desk.

The Talking Cricket, who had grown to the size of a man and called himself Cricketti, stood in the doorway at the opposite end of the room and gravely watched his boss watch himself. Over the preceding few years Benito had entered into an accelerating hall-of-feedback relationship with his own growing reputation as stoked by the press and the daily retreat of every sort of boundary.

The Palazzo Venezio had been Crickett’s favorite building in Rome when he and Benito first arrived. But so much had changed since those bright hopeful days, and he’d grown to know the place too well; lately it reeked to him of doom, even now when all of Italy was thrilling to Benito’s great promises and nothing was yet too terribly toppling. He didn’t dare speak of his apprehensions to Benito; it was understood that as long as Il Duce held power, friendship would ride shotgun. Cricketti was at best Beneito’s most trusted aide-de-camp. While Cricketti accepted this fact without crippling bitterness, for he loved Italy and considered his ministerial role to be in essence Damage Controller, he secretly looked forward to the day on which the country would again breathe freely, and he and Benito might return to their bocce in the park without bodyguards, zealots, and assassins all around, and he might live in the city as just one more tourist from the provinces. He was dreaming, he knew it. Dreams came easily in the honeycombed palace, itself made of dreams, breeding dreams.

It was as quiet as it ever was on the floor today: not terribly quiet, because of what the marble caverns did to the smallest sound. A hushed rustling cushion of echoes filled his ears like ocean surf. Anyone who could hear would say the place was wall-to-wall ghosts; and the better you knew the building, the more likely the idea seemed. He could almost believe it had not been built but revealed, deductively quarried, all its rooms once solid marble since removed, the air that filled them the reverberating soul of the mountain that had inhabited the space for eons. But of course that was silly, the thing had been imported piece by piece into the extant metropolis, breaking many backs.

The air stirred, and Luigi was by his side, one of two junior officers at arms on Mussolini’s personal detail. Luigi muttered into Cricketti’s ear, “He’s become a buffoon. How much longer do you think we can fool the world?” Luigi’s lips, from long practice, did not move when he spoke. Because so many of Benito’s commands had to be quietly rephrased before they were implemented, almost everyone in the palace has mastered this trick. (Due to some anatomical defect in his palps, Cricketti had not.) If Il Duce learned some of the subtler details of how the fascist ship was kept afloat, he might mistake statecraft for treason. Well, he didn’t need to know. They were all on the same side here.

“We’ll talk later,” Cricketti whispered; he’d been asked to remain in the doorway until summoned. “You can go now.”

They saluted each other in the new style, eyes locked in worried love of their cause; Luigi withdrew with slow caution, backward, careful to keep his gaze on Il Duce till he was out of sight, lest the man look up and be displeased at eyes elsewhere. He’d been taking things more personally lately, the less he resembled a person.

“What about our nose, then?” Benito asked, and Cricketti began the long walk toward the First Desk. “My wife told us : ‘Il Duce, that smelling device of yours is too short for the diameter of your head.’ A statement she later denied, and of which there is no documentation. It is incorrect but possibly accurate. It is difficult to fully understand one’s nose based on rumors. When we ask our eyes to inform upon our nose, they report that we have the nose of an emperor. The claim is this: Caruso’s nose was not half so monumental, Il Duce. Our Lord and Savior would be lucky to have such a nose, Il Duce, a nose so well harmonized with your vast shoulders and iron chest. Great nose, holy nose, proportionate. It is strange, is it not, that our favorite nose belongs to the protagonist Pinocchio. And yet his is frequently large. What do you think, Talking Man? You have known our nose for many years. Let us assume that we are Italy. Therefore is our nose the tower of Pisa or the obelisk of Padua?”

“The David of Michelangelo,” said Cricketti as he seated himself in the uncomfortable straightback chair across from Benito.

“Michelangelo had warts on his nose.”

“But the David is exquisite: smooth, fair—”

“Bring him to me.”

“Uh, the David is in Florence.”

“Have him extradited immediately. Is there anything more you wish to say about our nose before the subject is changed?”

“I think I have told you everything.”

“Sing me that song again. We will now see if it is possible to march to it.”

Cricketti sighs to clear his throat. All he has is the lyrics, in teletype capitals; he has to wing the melody:

 

YOU ARE THE TOP STOP YOU ARE THE GREAT HOUDINI

STOP YOU ARE THE TOP STOP YOU ARE MUSSOLINI STOP

 

Il Duce staggers the floor between his spittoon and a Sacra Familia. “The melody is pleasant and our feet have not been damaged. But still we do not understand. Who is this ‘Great Hedooni’?”

“A very famous American magician, sir.”

“Magic is constructed with lies. Telegraph the porter of our wish to rhyme with Pinocchio instead this professional liar. Or: if we must rhyme with an American entertainer we wish to rhyme with Mickey Mouse. It would be advisable for King Disney to speak to his people of this situation. Mickey Mouse is a great American and is ‘the top’ internationally. This Hedooni—we do not know him. His affrontery disturbs us. His nose must be tweaked in a decisive manner.”

“I’m very sorry, Il Duce. The song . . . Apparently it’s already been recorded. It’s being played on American radio.”

“What ! A porter has such audacity? Then make them switch the names. Me on top, then Hedooni on top.”

“I believe, sir, that, the way the lyrics are structured, you’ve got the preferred position. To be mentioned second is an honor.”

“Then why does the Resistance always say: ‘Adolph and Benito, Adolph and Benito’? Always we are final.”

“I think in that case they’re just being alphabetical.”

“We need our alphabet examined. Is Adolph in the song too?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Ha! That will teach him to sneeze at Italy! America is the future, Talking Man. Do not reveal that this is our belief or we will develop interpersonal wrath. Bring us a Kodak of Hedooni. We wish to see his nose.”

 

 


 

12.

 

I don’t want to talk about it.

 

So it wasn’t fun. I don’t think that should stop you from dreaming, you just need more practice. And I certainly think we should discuss it.

 

“Puppet is intelligent and articulate. It refers to itself as masculine, but clearly its gender self-identity is a delusive reflex arising from protracted involvement in the theatre. It insists it has no interest in becoming human, and claims with paradoxical adamance to have no feelings. It has a lively if eccentric sense of humor and a tendency to digress, particularly when its thoughts lead it to Pinocchio, upon whom it is clearly fixated. Oedipal? Pursue.” No, not interested.

 

Look, the fact that Freud is supposedly outré—

 

Should not buy him leniency or neglect. As a puppet it is my birthright to be spared pychological depths, so I’ll ask you to shut up now. He’s the Gray Goo Incarnate.

 

Dreams are an ancient means—

 

His cognitive power was so great, his fount of paradigm so fecund, his inner publicist so persuasive, he could have done wonders.

 

What exactly was his fault then?

Personality!

And the damage?

 

Infinite. People just trying to get by, then he shows up. The mind is not a glove puppet.

 

How do you mean?

 

Of all his many crimes against humanity, his supreme offense, from which all the others may be mere trickledown, was his complete inversion of natural architecture: his positioning of “consciousness” at the apex of a sky-striving pyramid that steeps in unseen depths. Humans exposed to this virus of visualization become accustomed to thinking of their selves as immense and past-scrambled deep-frozen souls who peep through pinhole periscopes mounted on isolated tips of icebergs randomly strewn by hostile currents across the antipodal wastes of culture and physiology, unable to see clearly through the obscuring mists of habit and fear. Those mists are real enough and old as air, but the foulest of the newest truth-refracting vapors is the flatulent quill of Sickman Fraud. Selves are subsets of larger reserves, but they have gravity working for them, not against. The individual mind is not maneuvered from beneath unless the strings to the source are snipped and delivered to fingered phantoms from the deep. He got his sources scrambled, socketed his century in the wrong chakra. The individual mind is not a scrawny summit. Properly known, it is the happy, vital milk-and-honeyed nipple of a benevolent descending breast of Mind, hot with life and possibility, infinitely nippled: Superconscious. Edgar Cayce called it that, they’ve ghettoized him to the Quack Zone. I know what you’re thinking, but wait: If I, a puppet, of not one little grey cell, can think—this in itself suggests something other than the Viennese paradigm. I’m all the proof humans would need—if only I could communicate. Right? Just lay off, won’t you? Can’t you shut up for just one second?

 

*

 

No thoughts at all until I “came to” in a tuxedo, martini glass in hand, dyed marshmallow olives wiggling over the lip, me limp on my legs, head nodding, addressing a packed auditorium: Fellow revelers! We never thought it would come to this. Tonight we laugh. Tomorrow…Brief pause while the puppeteer switches from olives to manual, then dropout till just now.

Very late. Tomorrow, or the day after? I’m keeled in my sitting, my angle of sight down the length of the room is skewed; still there is a ripple of white moon waving in the pane. A slow spider summits a dunce-cap, little feet pattering on matted felt. Mostly the room is just shadows. The Book People dominoed in the corner, tasseled necks adroop, pressed to their covers. Gramps was wound today and he ticks strong and sure, his echoes followable far into the walls.

Some thirty autumns ago I was called upon to substitute for a Kachina doll in a Hopi harvest festival. My predecessor had been burned to ashes during performance, and its fate was “on my mind” for the whole run. Of course I’m no cottonwood, but they lent me an authentic feathered cloak with leather lining and turquoise studs, which helped keep me together through the gig. It’s no wonder Kachinas are carved from a single strong limb; I don’t think piecemeal me would have lasted one full season. Did the show for nearly a week, half my nicks today are from then, and after the show closed, Arnold, who was younger then, with ambition conducive to complex restoration of capital, dismembered me completely and refitted me with plaster plugs and woodscrews. I’ve seen him in recent years take puppets with nary a scratch and quarter them for parts.

 


 

13.

 

“Are we waiting for Cole or aren’t we?”

“Did he say positively he’d be here?”

“Would that matter?”

“What’s your read, Eric?”

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Oh that’s right— Jean, have you heard? Eric has a new name. A real crowd pleaser: Harold Whodunit—”

“Houdini.”

“What about you, Bess? Are you changing yours as well?”

“No, Arthur, I’ll be keeping my married name.”

Houdini knew he had not been misaddressed accidentally; Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle rarely if ever slipped in speech or memory; he possessed the same icy mentality with which he had endowed his famous protagonist, who after Pinocchio was Houdini’s favorite literary character (though he would never tell Arthur). He admired Sherlock Holmes almost as much as he detested the detective’s creator, who was pompous, unfeeling, and, despite his impeccable racionation, a thorough dingbat, having been converted by wishes in the prime of mind from fiction-making to fiction-believing.

Since losing his son in the Great War, Conan-Doyle had grown fiercely devoted to the mushrooming spiritualist movement, and had fast become its staunchest, most articulate celebrity advocate. The fact that Houdini was the equally formidable enemy of the cause—having never met a medium who wasn’t a fraud, and having no qualms about destroying the careers of such swine by exposing their scams—had not swayed the writer from his nonstop overture of friendship toward the magician. For Conan-Doyle believed that Houdini himself was a great natural medium, possibly the greatest ever, who for some mysterious reason refused to admit his occult powers even to himself. That Houdini preferred to attribute his transcendent feats to earthly abilities betokened, if not a tragic delusion, a sad and short-sighted egoism. The novelist’s faith in Houdini’s supernormal nature was infinitely exasperating to the latter. Yet despite his utter dislike of the man, Houdini continued to tolerate Sir Arthur’s company, in order to lend credibility to his own claims of neutrality with regard to his ongoing hostilities against the spiritualists.

Which was more or less why he and Bess were at the Conan-Doyles’ home this evening. Sir Arthur’s wife, Jean, was a professional medium herself. On each of the past two days, she reported, she had been visited by the phantasm of the recently passed-over Cecilia Weiss, Houdini’s mother, who was anxious to communicate with her son via Jean’s magic megaphone. That was the claim. And, as everyone who knew Houdini knew, Houdini desperately wanted it to be so. More than simple love of truth, more than outrage at magic’s cruel and greedy abuse in the hands of parasitic quacks, it was desperate hope of a Beyond that drove his strident debunkery—the public service he performed as penance for stalking the genuine article.

“He said he was coming.”

“Yes, and you know how these new composers are: whatever you want to hear, then the next day: poof!”

“Since when do you scorn popular demand, Arthur? I seem to recall a certain detective who rose from the dead in response to a few angry letters.”

“Resurrection is always by popular demand—you know that, Harold.”

“There’s nothing my audience would love more than my failure.”

“Yes well in any case I say we proceed. The dead do not wait.”

“I should think just the opposite,” said Bess.

As if to make her husband’s point, Jean Doyle, already seated, released an enormous, decisively otherworldly moan, then declared in a dreadful low monotone: “I have lost comprehension of the living . . . ”

“Oops! All aboard.”

“Sorry dear—”

“I guess that decides it.”

Houdini and Bess settled themselves on either side of Jean at the small round table, while Sir Arthur circled the room snuffing the lamps.

“My channel to the spirit world is open now . . . ”

“Just a minute, darling.”

“We must proceed while the channel is open . . . ”

“With Cole not here we’ve got two empty chairs,” said Bess. “Shall we push them together? In case Cecilia’s been eating too much in heaven—”

“Bess, please!” Houdini supposed she meant somehow to protect him, insulate his hope with wryness, but if there was any chance at all of success, they had to remain positive.

“Well what else is there to do up there?”

“Uncross your arms,” Houdini commanded. “Attitude is everything, you know that, Bess. If you’re going to continue with the wisecracks it’s better if you wait for me outside.”

“Angels are always fat. I’m sorry, my love.”

“Are we ready, children?” Sir Arthur was waiting by the last lamp.

“Please assume your PROPER places…”

“Oh that’s right, yes, Bess you’re in Harold’s seat, and Harold you want to be here…Thank you. What the Orientals call fen-shui.” He stood by why they rearranged themselves, then put out the last light. The room went dark as a coffin. “The hour is upon us!” They could hear him moving in the darkness, taking his chair. “Everyone ready? You realize, Harold, Bess, we’re not after a full manifestation here, we’re merely hoping to hear some word from Cecilia, a confirmation that she is well in the Beyond . . . ”

“We’ve been to séances before, Arthur.”

“Yes of course but perhaps your mother has not. It usually takes a spirit several months to get the hang of things after departing the physical body. And now let us join hands. Are we all linked? Good, let us remain this way until the procedure is complete, in order to maintain the circle of energy…All present, welcome. We are gathered here tonight in the earnest, benignly intentioned hope of speaking with Cecelia Weiss, the beloved and departed mother of our dear friend Harold Houdini, formerly known as Eric Weiss, who left this visible earth some twenty-nine days ago . . . Any questions before we proceed?”

“What’s that smell?” asked Bess.

“Frankincense,” said Houdini.

“That, my dear Bess, is frankincense, whose burning aroma is known to entice spirits nearer.”

“It’s a tradition,” said Houdini.

“Can ghosts really smell?”

“It also serves to soothe Mrs. Doyle, and put her in a state properly receptive to messages from the Next World. I shall now address the spirit whose company we seek.”

“Let the candles be lighted . . . ”

“Yes, first I will light these candles. As I do so, please look into the flames and try to see in their quivering light the lovely visage of Harold’s mother. At this time it is permissible to use your imaginations to more vividly evoke Mrs. Weiss in your minds, the power of which will help direct the spirit to this table.” Houdini shut his eyes, knowing that in the darkness the bright flames would serve to make it more difficult to see around them. “Here is a photograph of Cecilia when she was living. Harold, eyes open, please.”

“I know my mother’s face well enough.”

“I shall now address the spirit. Oh, Cecilia Weiss, if you hear me now, please forgive our trespass upon whatever peace you may have found in death. We trust you recall the narrow scope of mortals, which leads us to err in so many ways. We hope not to anger or alarm you this evening. My name is Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Perhaps you might remember me as the creator of the Sherlock Holmes Detective Series. I am pleased to have with me at this table your son, whom you surely remember as Eric Weiss—however, if you should deign to still follow the popular media of our fleeting human culture, you may also know your son as Harold Houdini. Also present are Harold’s wife, Bess, as well as my own wife, Mrs. Jean Doyle. It is the lattermost through whom you will be speaking with us. Mrs. Doyle is an experienced medium, fully qualified though not licensed, for the world is still too young to value her like in its rankdom. We are all still pioneers down here. If you do choose to grace us with a visit we will be most delighted, and honored. You may use my wife in whatever manner you deem necessary in order to speak with us.”

Jean Doyle inhaled, and began to chant:

 

  “Spirit, Spirit, from Beyond—we beseech you!

Mother, Mother, the son of whom you are so fond—

  and we his friends—strive to reach you!

  O soul above if you can hear,

  we petition you to near.

  We mean no harm, no tricks to fear,

  only love for you, departed dear—”

 

A single knock on wood, somewhere above and behind where Jean was sitting.

“Everyone just stay still. Do not break the circle of hands . . . Mrs. Doyle will now address the spirit.”

 

  “Good soul if you now twice would pound,

  we’ll know you’re not some random sound.”

 

Two more knocks. A coolness wafted through the room.

“The spirit is among us!”

Jean emitted another of her terrible moans, through which there seemed to grope some being within, clawing with its voice inside hers for release.

“No need to fear, gentle visitor, we will not keep you long. Please note, everyone, that both my hands and Mrs. Doyle’s hands are linked with yours. Therefore we can be certain no human is tapping.”

EeEEERRRRRRrrrriiiiiC…”

“Oh God,” panted Bess, “that’s her voice.”

Houdini sat stock-still, wanting not to believe, wanting to believe. The thick Hungarian accent audible.

“Do not be alarmed,” Sir Arthur whispered. “Fear frightens them.”

“Errrrrrriiiiiiiic My son my dear son…”

“Cecilia Weiss, is this your spirit which speaks to us now? Answer!”

“This is Ceciiiiiillllliiiaaaa…”

“Harold, do you have your questions ready?

“I do. Mother!”

“ERIC IS THAT YOOOOOUUUU?”

“Yes, Mother, it is I. Mother, when I was a boy, what was my favorite book?”

“I AM so proud of you…You HAVE MADE so GOOD for yourself…”

Sir Arthur broke in: “O good spirit of Cecilia Weiss, I beseech you to honor us by first responding to a pair of brief and simple questions, so that we may verify it is you to whom we speak, and not some devilish masquerader. The first question is: What was the name of Houdini’s favorite book when he was but a small child?”

“Why THIS ANSWER must be . . . Pinocchio! ”

Bess gasped. “You told me no one—”

“Shhhh!”

“Is this true, Harold?”

“It is . ”

“ASK OTHER QUESTION NOOOOOWWWW….”

“Mother: what is your favorite food?”

MY FAAAAVORITE FOOD….KNOCKWURST ON A CONEY ISLAND BUNNNN…”

“Harold?”

“Yes, that’s correct.” Nothing proved yet, his mind still open, wanting. “Mother, I’ve one more question.”

“No need, Harold. We have established the identity of our ethereal guest. Now it is time to let her speak to you what is on her mind, a very valuable—”

“Mother are you listening to me? This one is very important—”

“AND NOW GROW TIRED…MUST RETURN TO WHERE SPIRITS DWELL . . . AM BEING SUMMONED . . . ”

“Mrs. Weiss—”

“One more question!” Houdini urgent, control slipping, Why did I keep it for last? “What were your last words to me, Mother?”

“ . . . MUST RETURN . . . ”

“O, Spirit of Cecilia Weiss, this is Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle speaking. On behalf of all present, I would like to thank you for joining us at this table—”

“Please, Arthur—”

“ . . . TAKE GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF…BE GOOD TO YOUR BESSIE . . . ”

“Mother please, what were they?”

“NO ENERGY FOR SPEAK . . . LEFT MESSAGE ON TABLE IN SPIRIT WRITING…”

“Mother—!”

“ . . . READ MESSAGE…GOODBYE . . . ”

“Arthur let me see that tablet—”

Houdini abruptly stood, breaking the circle of hands as he reached for the candelabra, whose light blinded him enough to throw off his grasp, and as he knocked the flaming object onto its side and Bess and Arthur grabbed for it to prevent disaster and Jean shrieked in an un-tranced voice, the shriek of a terrestrial mistress of the house fearing for the furniture, a door burst open and horrible sunlight smashed into the room followed by a three-ply Cole Porter—“Good afternoon everyone, sorry to be tardy but a funny thing happened on the way to the séance”—Houdini now standing with the slate tablet in both hands, his eyes burning through its message, its mechanism, Cole beginning to see what was happening in the room—“Oh my, is everything OK here? I knocked and knocked but no one came, the door was unlocked, I just…I’ve a nip on my hip, if anyone’s thirsty”—“Your timing is impeccable, Cole,” this from Houdini, full self-control regained, grabbing Bess by the elbow (Bess amending: “Impeccably curious”), “we were just wrapping up. This sham is over. And so is our so-called friendship, Arthur,” frantic looks now passing between Sir Arthur and Jean, and wild gestures, Jean closing her eyes endeavoring to resume her profound expression, Sir Arthur turning to Houdini: “Frankly, Harold, I think you’re a little shaken up—quite understandable under the circumstances—”

“You two are a couple of cheap frauds and if there was any justice in this country you’d both be behind bars. Come on, Bess.”

“What has happened in this place…” Jean reopened her eyes and blinked like a newborn doe. “Was she here? I feel as if I have had another spirit speak through me from the Beyond . . . ”

“Those questions she answered,” Sir Arthir pleaded. “Harold, surely—”

“First: if you were half as observant as your fictional characters you would have noticed on our previous evening together that not one drop of the whiskey with which you plied me actually touched my lips and that therefore I was not wildly drunk beyond the realm of memory: it was an act. I remember every word of your clever inquisition, my false friend. And when you thought I’d passed out, I heard you repeating my questions and answers to yourself. A gentleman never thinks out loud, Arthur.”

Cole had fallen into a chair, was holding and looking dumbly at a prosthetic hand he’d almost sat on. He set it down on the table and drew out a flask, unscrewed its cap.

“Still I was willing to give you the benefit of my doubt, which is why I prepared a third question of my own, to which only she could know the answer. But suddenly she had another appointment and did not reply!”

“What about the note, Harry?” Bess asked, playing straight man.

“Third: There is a crucifix next to her signature on this tablet. You forgot that my mother was a rabbi’s wife. She would no sooner sign her name with a cross than would a vampire—I’m surprised you didn’t think of that, polished bloodsuckers that you are.”

Jean’s hand flew to her mouth; her alarmed eyes to her husband. “No one told me she—”

Sir Arthur barked wildly at her, “Shut your mouth,” and by the time he looked again the Houdinis had vanished. He harumphed to the door, stood in its threshold shouting, “What’s happened to your courage, man, where’s your breadth of mind? Do you think the little differences among earthly creeds make a jot of difference in the field of souls, you bloody ingrate? The cross is just a symbol—it’s shorthand for faith, you swine, human faith! Of which you plainly have none! She must be grieving for you, as am I! A sad day indeed when the dead must mourn the living! I trust you will reexamine your conclusions about this event!” He remained facing into the in-gushing daylight, clinging to the door frame, shoulders heaving. Jean, who had fallen forward and limp across the table top, rolled her head to the side and her cheek met the wood surface and she looked up and perpendicular toward her husband, who appeared to be bearing the sun on his back. Cole tried to remain inconspicuous, suspecting he’d been forgotten, smiling tepidly into the air, yearning for an olive but guessing he’d better not say so quite yet.

 


14.

 

Spiritualism always flourishes in the wake of vast calamity, for grief breeds gullibility; there’s profit in that. Immediately after the first World War, séances were all the rage. But they rarely delivered. And thanks to Houdini’s well-publicized crusade to debunk quack mediums, many European and American mourners lost their natural right to deceive themselves into healing belief. However, even Houdini could not destroy the primal urge to sit in a room with family in the wake of disaster, vesting in life elsewhere. Science, fortunately, was already working on the perfect prosthetic. Television technology was in position before the next global outbreak, but waited till the troops’ return before kicking into golden gear. Then commenced a happy era in which many assumed the worst was over, at least in their hemisphere.

Things looked just as bright this side of the Great Divide. Puppet prospects, hearty in vaudeville, had been withering since the celluloid coup—but from now on it would be giddy-up into the radiant future! It all made perfect sense. Human actors carry a whole host of baggage unsuitable for the world of broadcasting. For example, they often consider themselves “artists”—but television is a collaborative medium always under deadline; it has no time for maverick dissent or the constant reapplication of makeup.

Also, the surest way to keep a show fresh is to dispose of and replace as much of the cast as you can, as often as you can. Not only does this keep the performers on their toes and the payroll entry-level, it guarantees a maximum number of return-viewers curious to note and tally new twists on a story they already trust. But humans, for “personal reasons”— alimony, type casting, a myriad of inertias, etc.—often linger too long in a role, causing them to lose enthusiasm, become “frustrated,” and turn in a lazy performance while collecting an escalating salary, not to mention aging, television’s great taboo.

In contrast, when a puppet show is popular it can run forever with the original cast—which will never weary. You can sometimes get a dozen of us for the price of one puppeteer. Should for some reason you wish to recast, no egos will be hurt. We’re budget friendly, schedule friendly, never sleep or bitch. No puppet ever hired a lawyer or studied Method acting. We’re usually smaller than people. Even the size of the TV set itself seemed reparation for the days when we were banned, when puppeteers risked death by flashing apron-stages that could be cloaked in the presence of carbinieri.

Sure enough, they were casting us left and right. We were poised to rule the air. I was certain Saturday morning would be to our future as Philadelphia to Broadway, as New Hampshire to the Oval Office—not as chimps to space travel. Strange. I did not see us as guinea pigs, it never felt like we were being toyed with, we were naturals for the small screen and at that time everyone seemed to know it.

In 1951 I was house puppet for a little network called CBS, and—

 

Sounds glamorous.

 

Please, I’m talking to Mathilda.

 

Oh, excuse us

 

Spent most shows in the locker room—hundreds of us dangling from hooks. Remember Yul Brenner? The King and I? He was the King in that but anyhow this was much earlier in his career, he was directing for TV then and got mixed up in some dorky puppet show called Life with Snarky Parker about a deputy sheriff and his horse. Archnemesis by the name of Ronald Rodent. I was the archnemesis’s understudy. In between seasons some clueless house prole had shellacked the original Ronald Rodent with a dubious extract of red sumac—bad move—so the role fell to me. In those days especially you couldn’t be too careful, Disney had named names for McCarthy a few weeks earlier, anything was possible. It was bad enough that Yul had been born behind the Iron Curtain.

Unfortunately the show was canceled (for secular reasons) before I ever shot an episode. But there was a week or so during which I was always at Yul’s side, so he could get used to me in costume—he was a conscientious if eccentric artist—he would set me on the tables at restaurants and ask folks what they thought of the new Ronald. (Not that I think he ever took me seriously as a full collaborator, I think like many people in the theater he felt threatened by puppets and compensated with condescension. Not to mention his snooty attitude toward television—his was even more cavalier than the general. He was constantly being fired for unscripted naughtiness he’d insert on the fly during live broadcasts. Back then you could be either avant-garde or amiably racist, but not both at the same time. On each occasion they’d hire him back the next day, he possessed that gypsy mountebankable charm so dear to the industry, he was a born tweaker of wills.)

One night we were at some gala event for theatrical royals. At that time his wife was appearing on Broadway, she was much more well known than he was then, though his reputation was fast-growing on several fronts. But she had a show that night, so he gave me her ticket. He borrowed a checkered suit off of puppet-dandy Jerry Mahoney so I could fit in with the jetsetters, and I must say we made a royal pair, especially at table where I was seated to his left in my chair on top of six phone books, I looked as tall as he was. On my left was Tallulah Bankhead, not too pleased that—oh, you’d recognize her. Saucy, throaty, very famous. At this time past even her own ripe prime, but still entirely about her own effecte fatale. I could sense she wasn’t too interested in me. She would have much preferred to be seated next to my date.

But the King wasn’t interested, he seemed hardly aware of her, his eyes continually scanning the other tables, slow, mechanical, back and forth like surveillance cameras, hard to say what he was thinking. He was a man of many avaritions and one could never be entirely sure which hunt was on at any given time. On his right was a creampuff ingenue whose free-association, optimistic and generous, suggested a career of two couches. His steadfast ignorance of both her and the eminently enticing Tallulah, twenty years his senior, makes me think his mind was on his career—or perhaps simply on poachable food, for he had the appetite of a young godzilla.

All night Tallulah tried unsuccessfully to draw him into her slinky repartee. She kept finding new words to rhyme with his name, asked him where my nose had been lately, could she rub his head for luck, but he wasn’t biting. (Possibly he was self-conscious about his nascent English, sensing her entendre but unable to precisely parry. He was a rampant reader of detective fiction, the crux of a plan to hardboil his speech to fit his agenda persona. Made noir, the very stilted phrasing that punctured his silence helped batten his resistance to the advancing tigress—but his disinterest was only stoking her boldness.)

The three mortals grew drunk in three different ways.

“And can you imagine, Miss Bankhead,” the ingenue enthused, “I am still a virgin! To this very day, I have my cherry.” She giggled, stirring the air at the bottom of her glass with a plastic umbrella.

Yul looked down at her with a slant smirk. His nostrils flared slightly, then moved on.

Tallulah slowly turned to face the girl. “Your cherry?” she sweetly asked. “But baby, doesn’t it get in the way when you screw?”

The virgin coughed ice over her glass and across the table. “It does, actually!” she screamed, laughing. “It keeps getting stuck!”

“Have you asked Yul here to help you with that?” She leaned across my lap to stage-whisper to my date: “You’ve bobbed for apples, haven’t you, Yul? An apple’s nothing but a big ole cherry.”

“I’ll level with you,” intoned Yul. “Apples. Hell, there are a lotta kinds.” (I don’t know how he did it. He was really quite absent; his elegance was opaque.)

“So true!” agreed the starlet. “I like Golden Delicious. But those green ones make my face pucker—like this.” She scrunched her face fiercely, as if for some sort of acting exercise.

“One a day, sweetheart,” Tallulah told her. “Your career may depend on those muscles.”

It took the girl a moment to register this crack (I don’t think Yul was even listening), and then she took offense as best she could: “I like your movies, Miss Bankhead, especially when you were young, but your manners are not very polite. I’m up and coming so you just watch it!” She scrunched her face again, this time to terrify.

“Paparazzi! Over here!” Tallulah yelled to the photographer across the room. “Virgin in the house! Bonified virgin right here at this table! Come one, come all, virgin right this way—”

Yul gave me a manly nod. “What we need here is a drink.”

“Bar’s closed,” drolled Tallulah. “They always keep it open to help us endure those dreadful speeches, then they clam it right up to clear us the hell out.”

The King was not one to be held from a drink by the hands of a clock, but Tallulah’s info made a convenient segue to his leavetaking. “Well damn it all,” he said. “It’s time for us to blow town.”

Tallulah shrieked and seized me and bellowed “Lie to me, sugar!!!” with both hands and thrust me under the table. The tablecloth was heavy and her Cleopatra bracelets cacophonous, so I was prevented from hearing what was next said by my companions, and also it was pitch dark under there so I cannot report exactly what occurred during the ensuing bustling half-minute, but judging by the tense panting vertigo of everyone at the table once I finally resurfaced and Yul was checking me for damage, it was likely sheer tabloid. At some point I remember the ingénue shrieking and running away with her hands over her ears while Tallulah cackled insults after her. Yul had a kingdom-for-a-horse cringe in his eyes, and I am sure it was only his wish to avoid a further scene that led him to honor Tallulah’s appeal that they share a taxi home. Once again I sat between them, but in the close dark privacy of the cab this hardly figured—to Tallulah, anyway. She ignored me completely to lean against the King, obscuring my vision with her crusading bosom.

“What a stupid bitch!” she hissed. “I saved you, handsome. You owe me.”

“What’s got a dame like you so steamed up?”

“Baby I’m coming to your room to collect my prize.”

“I’m a married man.”

“You’ve chopsticked every girl in Lute Song. Last that long on Broadway, word travels, big boy.”

“That’s a lot of hocum.”

“We’re two of a kind.”

“Watch the puppet, ma’am, he’ll break under there.”

Tallulah righted herself and straddled me upon her lap facing her. “How about you, handsome? Tell your daddy you want little Tally to come over and play some games. Oh pwease Mista Bwenna can Miss Tawwy come ovuh to pway wid us?” She had me by the cusp of my neck and was wiggling my head side to side, purring. (I am not a ventriloqual dummy, and did not enjoy this.)

“Not today, amigo,” said Yul. “Daddy has some sleeping to do.”

Miss Tawwy help you sweep weery good!

“There are some things a man’s gotta do on his own.”

“I think Woody here needs all the help he can get!” And so it continued until we reached Tallulah’s hotel—but she never got out of the cab. I don’t know what you heard, but years later, after he had been ordained, I saw him tell this story on late-night TV, and he claimed that Tallulah tore off her blouse in frenzied proof of her corporeal splendor, a flashbulb exploded, and Yul brokered the exchange of her tiara for the negative—but this did not happen. He was full of malarkey. More than once I heard him wax fondly of his childhood in Appleton, Wisconsin. Utter cowpie.

 

Wasn’t Houdini from there?

 

So he said. You know who’s buried there? McCarthy.

 

No kidding! You ever work with him?

 

Half plastic. Joseph, I meant. Named after a dreamer—you see? Bad karma.

 


15.

 

Dear King Disney,

 

I am writing first of all to express my enormous admiration for the short animated moving painting “The Fuhrer’s Face,” starring your beloved esteemed citizen Donald Duck, or “Il Ducki” as we affectionately call him around the palace. I found your portrayal of Mr. Hitler to be charming and respectful, the swastika topiary takes a tasteful hint from Leonardo, and the music was absolutely marvelous! Hardly an hour goes by when the pleasant theme song cannot be heard in whistle, hum, or aria form somewhere in the Palazzo Venezia. You are truly a smashing hit with fascists at the highest level.

Two things:

 

1)  Without belaboring the point, I would like to suggest that your brief portrayal of myself in the opening montage is, while endearingly humorous, perhaps a tad effeminate. Also, I have lost weight recently. In future efforts, I would hope you might, in the service of truth and diplomacy, seek a slightly more robust depiction of my physique. But then again I can’t really blame you since—

 

2)  We have never actually met! I think we should, don’t you? I would like to invite you to join me in summit at your convenience one week from Thursday. I have an idea for an animated feature which I think may appeal to you.

 

2) I understand that when Mr. Duck salutes the paintings on the wall of his bedroom, it is natural that he address the Fuhrer first—Adolph is the film’s protagonist, after all. But I think you will agree, upon reflection, that to salute Hirohito second, and myself third and last, is a mistake that must be reversed. I am sure this was simply an oversight, due to your complex production contingencies, and can be easily corrected in future editions.

 

2) I wonder if you have yet found an Italian distributor for “Der Fuhrer’s Face.” I propose that you consider and accept being the first foreign leader to have a cartoon exhibited under the auspices of the Fascist Film Offices, with one caveat: At the end of the picture, the shadow on the wall—the one that appears to be a Nazi in the “Heil Hitler’ posture—must reveal itself to be a Fascist in the “Roman Salute” position (not the Statue of Liberty as it is in the American version). And of course, Mr. Duck’s final line would need to be changed to something like “I’m so glad to be a citizen of the Fascist Nation of Italy.”

 

I hope you will consider both these suggestions. I look forward to discussing these and other matters with you personally, in the exceedingly near future.

 

Your fan and fellow leader of the dim swarm,

 

Benito Mussolini

 

PS: I am shortly to become a star myself in a motion picture manufactured by your commonwealth Fox Newsreels. I hope you will have the opportunity to see it, would love to know your thoughts.

 


 

16.

 

Puppets’ exile notwithstanding, I truly enjoyed watching television for the first twenty years or so. I began to lose interest when Ruby & Oswald, the Dallas police, and NBC collaborated in the invention of Instant Replay—I’ll never forget it, was right here when it happened. Romance yielded to whodunit, saved news from the scrapheap. The networks had been dragging their heels in Newtonian poetics, and were slow to gauge the charms of the image overcookery that has since proved so crucial to the upkeep of the warring world. Real Time remains the province of daytime soaps, and looks quaint to the modern viewer. Who can believe in true love any longer, when a new bottom line’s drawn every afternoon, half the time in invisible ink? Weakest links make the fastest bonds: the uglier the hypothesis, the more valid it must be, is the gist. And even if/when someone gets something right, the repercussions of countless previous enshrined wrongs create so much interference as to render the skivvy impotent. The times they are e’xponentially morphin’, the ball bounces lower and lower and the futility of pursuit makes me happy to abstain. I’m not even sure who’s putting on the news nowadays, I could do it myself with a bag of potato chips. Remember how, long ago, humans first saw that footage of the locomotive pulling into Victoria Station and they all leaped out of their seats screaming in terror? They were correct. Something huge and fast and faceless was heading their way: a single worldwide democratic beast named Nielsendom in which all earthlings serve one very entertaining coterie of gods. Stringmeister Hitler put it rather well: Why babble about brutality and be indignant about tortures? It’s what the people want. Plenty of monkeys have cheerfully electrocuted themselves to death in exchange for a few fake orgasms. The inevitable end of the planetwide race for audience share is that by popular demand it must broadcast its own demise—and a well-rehearsed show it’ll be, folks, a grand souffle of alas. You will shiver with delight as the strut-and-hiss classes realize they face a worse foe than each other! Gasp when the lipstick on the sky resolves into the notarized mortality of actor and audience alike! There will be a five-minute intermission in which you may stretch your longshots and refresh your euphemisms while exchanging provincial myths with your neighbors, then the curtain shall rise again to reveal canonic astronomy as hearsay astrology—but don’t despair! A transcendent love is about to erupt, and all gathered will glow in fresh display of their better qualities. And whoever scoops that story will be infinitely wealthy for about a second and a half. Manners? Medicine? The Colonization of Space? Come now, all ye vets of Eden, why complete Creation when you can finish it? Get real, embrace your purpose, die and eat popcorn!


*

 

So what happened, do you think?

 

What do you mean?

 

You were all set to be a star, you knew people in the business, TV was the new frontier—

 

And in time the day when children wished to become such as Those Who Are Portrayed in Stories did cede to the day when children wished to become such as Those Who Portray Those Who Are Portrayed in Stories. And on that day the employability of puppets everywhere was jeopardized.

 

Ah.

 

No doubt the rise of SAG had something to do with it, and all that chatter about puppet governments, robot workers—a quiet blacklist is my guess, retaliation for loss of human jobs in the secular market. And then there was Disney, worst wolf of all, the man was terrified of our power, and learned how to siphon and suppress it as needed. If I were human—

 

Oh?

 

If I could go back in time and change one thing, I might de-invent steam. Mickey Mouse was first sketched by Disney on a train from New York to Los Angeles. Paid for everything that followed…

Of course our displacement isn’t entire. If you ask me, people still seem lame stand-ins. Punch and Judy Metastasized is the general tenor; 89 percent of cartoon air-time is combat. There’s a lot of confusion about what’s wanted, I think. The Great Divide isn’t the chasm it used to be. The loudest message is: If you aren’t immortal, the fault is your own. Best bet is to lie low in the Green Room and wait for them to strike or go into politics.

 

No wood ever ran.

 

Sap! The very ticket.

 

Put the oak back in okay—

 

An executive branch that leaves no one behind—

 

You know, with the right manager—

 

*

 

Cut-rate banana splits, two Christmases and one day of school per year, double sodas for a dime, movies galore, more pictures in history books, and free circus and rodeo admissions totaled the whole of Howdy Doody’s 1948 campaign platform. “The only candidate completely made of wood,” according to his press kit. But that would-be puppet ruler was kidnapped before he had the chance to make a stump speech!

Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. For one thing, it didn’t actually occur to anyone to run Doody for president until after the ransom note was received, and in fact the entire campaign was a network cover-up—a lie created to spare the viewers anxiety at his mysterious disappearance.

By that time Doody was no longer just Joe Puppet, the kids really believed; there were interests to protect. Tickets for the show were impossible to get. Pregnant women sending written pleas years in advance couldn’t score because the forty seats in the Peanut Gallery were perpetually promised to insider bottoms. (Even Herbert Hoover’s grandson failed to land a proper ticket—they had to stick him in a grape juice commercial and pass him off as a sponsor’s kid.) Doody was flying higher and faster than anyone had expected. He was beginning to resemble himself as he is today in those gargantuan parade floats, and everyone on the show was lurching at the tethers of their golden boy caught in the hysterical winds of merchandising rights. In the midst of the greed-fest, professionally burly network executives were doing their best to shoulder aside Doody’s main puppeteer and original builder, Fred Paris, who, fed up and vengeful, stuffed the star in a sack and took to the hills, launching a thousand lawsuits and one big conundrum. All he wanted was a piece of the action he had helped to create, and until he got it, Doody wasn’t coming back.

With their star in bandit furlough and only three hours to go before showtime, the writers had to move fast. They did so with brilliance unrivalled in subsequent politics. Has there ever been a slicker slogan than IT’S HOWDY DOODY TIME? Buffalo Bob went on the air and announced Doody’s presidential nomination. He stressed that the puppet’s people, while hugely optimistic, were no less realistic. Without plastic surgery, Doody simply could not expect to get any votes from the girls. So while we’ll of course all miss him very much this week, our candidate will soon be back with a winning brand-new face!

Truman smelled what was brewing and refused flat-out to debate Doody on the tube, accusing the new medium of selling out to corporate interests. It was old and new politics in a nutshell, which, fully cracked, would surely have yielded much light—perhaps the first great televised politics. Alas, it remains a question how the incumbent’s barnstorm bravado would have fared against such chummy Doodyisms as My face may not be handsome, I may be light or fair, but here in America you’re welcome— everybody’s welcome—everywhere! (Not that in the end the nation under Truman didn’t turn Doodyville anyway, cathode rays yanking millions at the thick-fingered whim of Paranoia. Imperishable, the midwife grip of those hightailing years, when someone stuck a T on reason and it never quite came loose.) (Was that the T from True Man that left Rue Man?)       

Behind the scenes, machinery churned to make a new Doody and a free man of Paris. Nobody was too worried about the AWOL puppeteer—that was only art and law—but Doody’s freckled puss was the Midas Prop. There was just one thing to do: call Disney. But in those gimp days the show was broadcast from New York and only regionally, so no one west of the Mississippi had even seen it yet—a politically devastating fact that, incredibly, had been overlooked by the campaign planners—and there were no computers or faxes, just phones and people with pencils and planes and very little time. The Disney cell got cracking with a telephoned description, sketches and revisions were flown furiously back and forth over the nation for several weeks while viewers tuned in with bated breath until at last a box from Hollywood arrived at the NBC offices, its contents sheer gorgeosity that had the staff swooning even while still half-wrapped. And when at last the top dogs saw the new and improved Doody, everyone promptly forgot about politics. He’s already got his own show for Chrissakes! Get him on the air! (In retirement Buffalo Bob would call himself and the other adults behind the show “real hucksters. You might say we were real whores.”) Well, those Wonder Bread ballots were bound to be tossed anyway. By election time the original Doody was only so much überkindling, and the following year Andy Warhol moved to New York. Then Lucy hit the air and the industry turned a profit for the first time…

Back then, the little fella’s prime-time reign mystified me. Apart from being seared by the serpico of human ambition, he was the worst excuse for a marionette I’ve ever seen. He moved with the grace of a soused orangutan, had a voice like a B-movie bellhop, and never stopped humping the furniture. Buffalo Bob had such poor lip-control that he and Doody couldn’t be shown in a two-shot while the puppet was talking, which clumsified coverage for years until someone thought to pre-record Doody’s dialogue. But it’s gradually become quite clear that Doody was merely ahead of his time. I’ve always wondered what happened to the tike who won that first look-alike contest, his future seemed cinched, talk about dynasty.

Talk about Hoover—back in the 1920s, when he was Secretary of Commerce, he remarked (of radio) that if a president were ever to be “the meat in a sandwich of two patent medicine advertisements,” that would be the hell-road for broadcasting. Forty years later, upon his death, NBC televised a tribute to him and followed it directly with a beer commercial, a political campaign spot, and a tobacco commercial. Everything was in place for the rise of the Muppets.

 

 

 


 

17.

 

William Fox sat smiling southward upon Times Square from his corner office over William Brewster’s carriage factory, the morning paper sinking peaceably into his lap. He had just read that his downstairs neighbor, having finally felt the ineluctable grain of Progress under his wheels, had sold his last scrap of soul to Rolls-Royce.

Whatever sympathy Fox may have felt for the fallen carriage magnate was eclipsed by satisfaction with his own pert savvy. The Fox Newsreel had been at the vanguard of the motion-picture industry since May, when his cameras had captured Lindbergh’s transatlantic hop-off from Roosevelt Field. To provide against the possibility of an unfilmable, box office–subduing midflight disaster, Fox had screened the footage to joyous acclaim at the Roxy that very night; and when Lindgergh landed safely in Paris there’d been a record-setting demand for prints of Fox’s coverage.

There were other newsreels, sure—but none with synchronized sound. And synchrony was the future of the world, sound the future of its coverage—no matter that his own vice president Truman Talley had insisted (in print) that “the Fox Newsreel will talk only when it has something to say.” Balderdash! Apart from the occasional natural calamity, almost everything worth shooting involved human speech. Fox wondered if sugar itself had met tastebuds as clueless when first served. With so many lughead compatriots in his midst, how was he to live up to his famous vow that Fox newsreels would become mightiest of them all?

He had been perplexed to learn that even Lindbergh wasn’t happy—or, more likely (for there was already talk of his political future; flashy solo helmsmen were all the rage), he had been coached to seem unhappy—at having his utterances snatched by microphones. Fortunately, the hero’s indignation (quaintly expressed in print) would soon exacerbate the world’s demand for audible news and would, the very next year, buoy Fox’s private pleasure when he learned that Walt Disney had used the boyish pilot as inspiration for an enormous mouse’s debut animation, entitled Plane Crazy—and that that film was silent.

For the moment there was other business waiting. The footage of Mussolini’s filmed address to the United States, joint venture of Il Duce and Fox, was back from the lab, awaiting his verdict.

He left his office and walked briskly to the screening room on Fifty-sixth Street, shook a few hands and sat down as the lights dimmed. He was immediately confused. It had been clear from the very start of talks that His Excellency would be speaking directly to the camera, not to an assemblyof any size, least of all one of this magnitude—

“Wait—what are we watching?”

“Just in from Berlin. More time-sensitive, Bob wants your take.”

Of course. No Italian crowd would be this sedate. Well, let’s see then. The Nazis were a sure thing for a newsreel any day, natural fodder. Left to print, they’d have withered to naught by now. But this rally on the screen lacked luster.

“Where’s the Chancellor? “

“Hold on…”

“Where are the children? Why isn’t anybody singing?”

“Here—”

Fox took the camera dope-sheet handed him and held it up to catch the projector light: RALLY - IRON FRONT. SPEAKER: WILHEM DITTMANN. “Iron Front, what’s that?”

“These are Social Democrats. Working class, anti-Nazis.”

“What? Anti-Nazis?”

“Yeah—there’s their guy now, Dittmann. Lefty press is goin’ nuts, they claim he’s their answer to Hitler. Says this rally could be the turning point they need.”

“Turn up the sound.”

“Nah, that’s it. Soundman probably expected bombastics and set up accordingly.”

“I can hardly hear the man! Where are the subtitles?”

“Bob wanted your take on the raw first.”

With good reason. With the Nazis they could see they had a story even before Hitler opened his mouth, and when he did it was dynamite, sound or no sound. But this guy, Dittman, even faintly audible, was like a fat Harold Lloyd with agoraphobia. Couldn’t rouse a drunk to march on Happy Hour. Too bad...

“Maybe when the costs drop. Let’s see what we came for already.”

 

*

 

Mussolini had loved films for almost as long as he had loved himself, and these two loves, in the presence of an American technocupid, had mingled to spawn another love. Made radio seem like a toy. Let me speak through the newsreel in twenty cities in Italy once a week and I need no other power. He had been so paranoid during preshoot that, at his demand, Field Outfit Number One had brought with them to Rome a Bolex technician to disassemble the camera piece by piece until the fascist was satisfied it was not a munition. But Mussolini, once on set, was giddy as a boy to get going, and when he learned that he shared half a name and a whole monogram with the cameraman (Ben Miggins) he was so thrilled that he immediately ceased his equipment review, hopped into position, and gave no single further thought to his post-shoot subagenda for the script girl. They were able to begin half an hour ahead of schedule.

“HALT!” Mussolini shouted, nine seconds into rehearsal. “Our camera must be lower.”

What was supposed to take an hour took three days, with more days in between for His Excellency’s review of the footage and revisions to his speech. But everyone was happy with the result. With his two-minute love letter to the American people, Mussolini entered history yet again, as the First Celebrity of filmed news.

 


 

18.

 

What exactly is your problem with Muppets anyway? Aren’t they everything you wanted for your kind?

 

I just think it would be good to get the past straight in an era when most viewers think puppets began with the Cookie Monster. It’s true that they are traditionally constructed from the mouth out, and the breed was always voracious—but not always so cuddly, and in fact its early days were steeped in hideous violence, which is exactly why the First Frog would later change his name, get foam rubber surgery, and affect a falsetto. And in the end it was easy as pie to make viewers forget those days when he would kill for a housefly. Easy because he knew how to wield the ADD he’d virtually created—aided and abetted by the caffeinated product he pushed and by which he made his first fortune.

The folks at home have a fast forgettory; those early TV spots comprised a grim foundation of empire. This was way before they infested Sesame Street and holed up in Fraggle Rock. Back then Kermit was this pale, tadpole-like cretin operating under the name “Wilkins” in honor of his pimp, the Wilkins’ Coffee company. The frog had a dissenting gumdrop sidekick named Won’tkins, a loser type who bore the brunt of a century of post-industrial improvements on the slapstick, systematically deployed against him in order to demonstrate the humiliating perils of Choosing the Wrong Brand. Wilkins (“will kin us”), knowing the score, would never dream of sipping a jo other than his namesake’s. But Won’tkins, some kind of pre-Information Age dodo, was simply not able to keep up with the fast-talking proactivity of the pondscum Hermes that was Kermit in prototype.

The Wilkins/Won’tkins ads—over two hundred of them—comprised the earliest and most powerful imprinting of the Us/Them refrain that now dominates every channel on the air, and threatens that which Gandhi refused to call “civilization.” Who can forget Wilkins in the cockpit of a two-seat plane, scarf madly fluttering, yelling over to Won’tkins: Did you remember to bring your parachute? NO? Did you remember the Wilkins Coffee? NO? You’ll never forget THIS! After which he turns the plane upside down and Won’tkins plummets to his death. The next day Wilkins returns carrying a gigantic box-camera—With this camera I shoot people who don’t like Wilkins Coffee. BOOM!!! Won’tkins dies again. He’s smoking more now and enjoying it less.

The one thing the frog held on to from the early days was that bob-headed cackle of his—delivered post facto to camera each time he dispatched the faithless, feckless Won’tkins—the same maniacal laugh & nod that the planet would later be hypnotized into enjoying. And, like a dumb lab rat, Won’tkins just can’t figure it out—what sitcoms and arms races are made of—no matter how many times noncompliance results in his own violent death. Again and again he is magically reborn to make more commercials, having learned nothing about which coffee’s good for him.

The coffee drinkers of tomorrow went mad for it! Who needs tastebuds when you already have taste? This was truly educational TV, the school of hard knocks in seven-second tutorials, mini maps of the ways of the world. The preachers practiced hard, too. Rowlf the Dog, in a TV skit created to promote the imminent Sesame Street, explained unabashedly that the routines in the new show would be repeated ad infinitum, “just like commercials, until they sink in.” And, talk about casting against type, when the evil amphibian then returned as Mommy’s Morning Savior, there was no need to forgive because all was already forgotten. What coffee stains? The green one’s mondo cute.

 

 



19.

 

The dazzling façade of the Times Square Theater had been slightly marred during the afternoon by a window-shattering cobblestone from the hand of the house piano player, whose services were not required for that evening’s program (The Most Important And Impressive Entertainment Ever Presented, avowed the billboards), for Fox had produced not only the feature motion picture (F. W. Murnau’s long-anticipated Sunrise, “a song of two humans”) but also the twenty minutes of newsreel that preceded it—and almost every frame of the evening’s entertainment had been synced to prerecorded music.

In subsequent weeks the pianist would be pleased to observe growing incongruence between the billboard’s boast and the public’s interest. Murnau’s previous film, Faustus, had done extraordinarily well in New York only last year, but since then things German had grown problematic; it is possible that audience eschewal constituted an unofficial, even unconscious boycott. And while Italy remained popular in America (there were more Italians in New York than in Florence), Mussolini’s newsreel lasted only two minutes—not enough to alone reward the record-setting two-dollar ticket price, which by the end of the run would be given away by the theater for free. Perhaps publicity should have put more emphasis on the twenty minutes of Vatican Boys’ Choir that opened the program.

But on opening night hopes were still high, and the joint was avault with glittered gravity. Specially Invited silverscreen divinities milled upon the same red carpet, bathed and blinded by the same camera flash, as local mobsters and church superstars, a virtual parliament of international dignitaries, and a motley of anonymous but, in these circumstances, no less enchanted citizens. Lady Liberty was surely grinning in her harbor as this eager stew of humanity streamed without incident into the theatrical emporium.

Among them, false mustache affixed and hat forward and low, tried to keep his eye on the ball. He was happy his new name rhymed with an Italian hero’s, but not especially curious to see Mussolini onscreen. He was there for Sunrise, period.

You could always learn something from Murnau. Houdini would gladly have missed tonight’s first two attractions if could have been sure of finding a seat for the third. As he settled into his assigned chair (back row orchestra, per his request), he blocked out the hoopla with sense-deprivation techniques (invented by him, shared with no one), and relaxed in his inmost mind with pleasant thoughts. He recalled with fond gratitude the German maestro’s early victory, Nosferatu. That vampire had a way with coffins—getting into them, climbing out—which made a single screening worth a year of funeral hopping. Houdini supposed the director had been born with his superior dramatic flair, of which he, Houdini, was a little jealous. His first tutor in the arts of deception had been Pinocchio, whom he still ranked above all others for the audacious whallop of his final trick. But Houdini had encountered the puppet at an impressionable age, and knew of its feats only by way of the storybook, as simple as a folktale in its telling. Perhaps this is why he had never much craved the theatrical trappings favored by his fellow adults. For him, the thrills lay in the raw mechanics and not in the flourishes. Sometimes he regretted not having stuck with sleight-of-hand, the purest art; but the fact was that there was no money in it unless you were willing to subvert your craft in devious card games. As he’d put it in the title of his last book, there was a Right Way to Do Wrong; when you openly called yourself a magician, at least you weren’t exactly lying to those who paid to see you—if they wanted to believe you possessed supernatural powers, the onus was on them. And so Houdini had branched out into larger, more sensational effects. To be fair, he’d come to love it, for in the grand theatrics he’d found not only profit but the possibility of enlightening and uplifting his fellow man. Impresario was second, not first, nature to him, but it was good work he was doing—and he knew he would do better. But he knew also that he could never receive too much tutelage in the arts of stylish presentation, and so stayed vigilant for any opportunity to learn.

Today he was most excited, for lately (ever since the wedding bash in Faust, Murnau’s previous film) he’d been playing with ideas for making an elephant vanish and was stymied for the key to the illusion. From what he’d read, Sunrise featured breakthrough techniques of forced perspective which, with luck, might jog his own invention.

His outposted cognitive sentinel informed him that the lights had dimmed and the shmoozbuzz had ceased. A tuxedoed arm gestured widely and an immense red curtain parted. Instead of the theater’s famous pipe organ chords, generically rousing theme music began as the Fox Newsreel title card sprung onscreen, and a short proud procession of credits segued with a jumpy splice to a sea of white-robed youth, already mid-hymn. Their faces in closeup were so dreadfully serious, one would think they expected their Latin to be understood.

There was, too, a wrong way to do right, Houdini mused.

Thrice in his life, unbeknownst even to Bess, Houdini had gone to Catholic confession. They had got that much right: the only grave for sin is another human’s ear; it was the most difficult burial, and the most lasting. The first time he’d gone had been upon return from their unimaginably successful first tour of Europe. Although Houdini had few qualms about small, quiet cahoots between himself and the press for sensation’s sake; or even, sometimes, between himself and the local police—as had been necessary in Europe, where he was largely unknown, in order to quickly make his name in each new city. But London had been different. It was there that he’d achieved the greatest triumph of his tour—measured in cheers, swoons, and certified raves—only through deep and detailed collusion among himself, the daily newspaper The Mirrror, and Scotland Yard, all three. It was a quantitative, not qualitative, departure from his custom, and thus he’d been unable to name for the listening priest the crux of his sudden rue; but nothing he had done in his life up till then had left him feeling so sullied. And yet he had continued to stack his deck with institutional power. A few years later he’d accepted a medal of appreciation from the International Council of Police Chiefs. Only during the awards ceremony did it hit him like a shockblast: in return for receiving access to hundreds of their cells and shackles over the years for the purpose of his own advancement, he had provided countless police forces with a priceless catalog of theory and method which would inevitably be deployed until the end of time by them and their successors to restrain and confine innumerable people—all of them human, prone by nature to misstep; too many of them entirely innocent, poor, out of sync with fickle law, or haplessly new to the nation in which they were apprehended…and so he had made a second confession. The last time he confessed had been for the sin of confessing, for calling another man Father, for betraying the God of his own.

In each case he knew that if had it to do over again he would behave exactly the same way, which merely proved the seriousness of the offense…

What was this now?

He had seen photographs of the Itaian Premier, of course, but never the man in motion. Here he was on the giant screen, stepping out from between the Roman arches of a palace courtyard, hat in hand and leisurely stomping toward camera with imperial cockiness—

Stock still now, arms folded, much more formal. His hairline meets the top of the frame, his cufflinks touch the bottom. A blurred tuft of timeless foliage to his left; in the right background a manmade pillar. Speaking: English! To me? I could swear it. I am very glad to be able to express my feelings to the American nation. Friendship which Italy looks to millions of citizens who from Alaska to Florida…” A master, no doubt, my disbelief is already suspended,This feeling created by mutual interest in preparation of an even brighter era in the life of both nations…” Mesmer was merely this man’s prophet! “The wonderful energy of the American people and I feel…” His ocular power is total, with a gaze like that, his hands could be doing anything, “My fellow citizens who are working to make America great…” Houdini realizes his own face is mirroring Mussolini’s— Good! Study, mimic, absorb this virtuoso,I salute the great American people…”

Houdini understands everything. He has been far too gentle in his approach to the crowds, striving to appear ordinary in essence, to uplift his followers’ spirits by showing them what an earthling is capable of. But tonight, as an audience member himself, he has experienced, in the screen presence of a self-styled demigod, the heady combustion of soul and certainty that people ache for in their hearts, the promise of an awesome ecstasy. They need me to deceive, they pay me to deceive, when has mankind ever wanted anything in moderation?

Murnau forgotten, Houdini makes his way without ceremony through a gauntlet of annoyed knees to the aisle, leaves the theater, struts the thirty blocks home and up the stairs and past his wife and stands before the mirror in the bedroom processing, practicing his new knowledge, becoming it. Bess standing behind him at first puzzled and slightly alarmed; then she sees: whatever it is that has changed in him, there is no limit now to what he can do, where he might go. And it is only when he gets there that, one day, in an idle hour, he picks up the newspaper and reads about what Mussolini has been doing with his own dramaturgical power, and is horrified. But the secrets are safe with Houdini. For him it is only an act.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THREE


 

20.

 

You know, I admit you have a certain simplicity, but to think you could compete with a human for a serious dramatic role seems to me delusional.

 

Why, my height? Half the human A-list is short, it’s easier on the gaffers.

 

A human face has more moving parts than your entire body combined.

 

You are familiar with Xeno’s Paradox?

 

It’s impossible to get from A to B because infinity is in the way.

 

Infinity in the theater being the distance between the actor and the role: in a production of Hamlet, say, this would include the tongue that confuses a line, the hand that must refrain from actually stabbing the actor playing Polonius, the stomach secretly wrestling with a delicacy no Dane ever tasted. There is no limit to the lies humans must tell themselves, which is a hazardous way to build a character.

 

But isn’t that’s why it’s called “acting”?

 

Isn’t the wise tactic never to lift a single false finger? Remember, Charlie Chaplin finished third in a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest. An actor is a fetish, a fanciful instance. A puppet is humanity as seen by the gods. It’s no wonder that statues are prayed to, or that when the Greeks decided to act they wore masks.

 

*

 

No wonder, this new fad lapping certain circles: the surgical reduction of facial mobility. A recent guest expert alluded to what she called the “Pinocchio Syndrome.” It appears that, left to Nature, human liars tend to inconveniently scratch noses, clear their throats, shift position, rest elbows on table, swallow, stutter, commit grammatical errors, lick and/or tighten their lips, sigh, shrug, cross their arms, touch their hair, clench their fists, take deep breaths, blink and look to the left or right—a data bonanza that reprises the question: What is the difference between lying and living? Nevertheless, in today’s competitive world most players see truth as a nuisance, and serious contestants will do anything for a poker face, even while their noses grow in great bundles on every one, the air a thatch of noses.

 

*

 

Do you consider yourself and Pinocchio to be two of a kind with contrasting temperaments—or two entirely different “species,” if you will?

 

Oh. Well, I cannot deny that I share with—my colleague—the apparently rare trait of puppet intelligence. In the literature, those of us who turn human tend to achieve mentality only upon becoming biological and/or acquiring movement. Of course, most of what I know of such puppets I know through human renditions of their stories—hardly reliable testimony. So in this aspect—premobile cognition—he and I are similar. Beyond that—

 

Pinocchio was also mobile before he became human.

 

Indeed, and I must say I find that rather confusing—logically corrupt as well as psychologically suspect. Why, if he was thinking and moving, would he ever opt to join the slop of human biology?

 

I guess what most interests me is whether you feel that your puppethood is an unalterable given—or do you think that you could become human if you wished to?

 

Perhaps the explanation for my relative intellect has something to do with its prolonged gestation period?

 

And now that you—

 

All I’d have to do is put my mind to it.

 

But how do you know if you’ve never tried?

 

Why would I try?

 

But how would you—

 

I prefer not to clutter my mind with idle speculation.

 

All your speculation is idle!

 

But the prospect doesn’t move me. I’m not interested in being one so why should I be interested in how to become one? If you’re so interested—

 

Your entire criticism hinges on the fact that he made a choice he could have resisted—

 

I have many reasons for dissing that dipstick!

 

—a choice that you consciously resist—

 

Had he never become human, had he never even budged, he was still a contemptible personality.

 

You claim superiority at every turn, but isn’t it true that you have no basis for such claims if you have no choice but to remain a puppet?

 

Sounds like a Zodiac sign, doesn’t it? Virgo, Scorpio, Pinocchio. A tale no wood worth its grain would ever tell. A self-glorifying fable of the self-animated fed self-lovingly to the cud-chewing herd by the same people who coughed up “perspective.”

 

Now you’re dissing all Italians?

 

Fascists always and still! They have this thing about control, force over distance, have you noticed? Pendulums, telescopes, radio waves, other peoples’ businesses, they can’t leave anything alone—as Mussolini said, “I am fascist because I am Italian, I am Italian because I’m a fascist”—the Tarantella, for god’s sake, who else would name a dance after a homicidal spider? What is it, something about the air quality, excessive sunlight, lolling in the sun too close to empirical ruins—some vestigial survival instinct, an overcompensation for congenital laziness?

 

Two words: Italian cinema.

 

What about it?

 

You love it!

 

Art has always been a despots’ playground, it’s the civilized outlet for the tyrannical impulse. A film-set is a temporary nation with a voluntary citizenry, often quite well paid. As Fellini put it, Puppets are happy to be puppets if the puppeteer is a good puppeteer.

 

I believe you would follow Pinocchio if you could.

 

That thankless, lying, self-hating, self-aggrandizing, groveling, collaborating, assimilating and soulless pretender to a teetering stolen throne, God I hate that dago.


 

21.

 

Cricketti looked on from the doorway at Benito standing in full-brood in the middle of the Sala del Mappamondo, arms clasped behind him, facing Michelangelo’s David, which was “on loan” from Florence for the weekend. A special blackshirt had been made for it, but unfortunately it was too short, its bottom hem falling just above the navel. When Cricketti had arrived earlier he’d found a team of masons standing ready and Il Duce in heated argument with his Clara, his mistress. It emerged that he wanted to convert David’s stance to a goosestep, which plan she disapproved of, fearing the whole statue might crack, having been carved, she informed her lover, from a tragically flawed block of marble. Cricketti had decided not to get involved, retreated silently. He now felt relief to see she had apparently dissuaded His Excellency from at least one fit of gratuitous revisionism.

With Mussolini timing was everything; you had to slip into his presence at the right angle at the right moment. If he became too aware of you all at once he could be even more difficult than par. Cricketti inhaled, ready to give it a go, when Mussolini suddenly clicked his heels, saluted David in the Roman style, marched over to a Victrola on a stand beside his desk, cranked it up and set the needle down. A jaunty American piano played a flowery intro. Cricketti sighed and resigned himself to two minutes’ additional wait-time. Cole Porter’s voice rang out over the piano, but was quickly trampled by Mussolini, who bellowed the words “WE am top, WE am Musssolini” over and over in a one-note basso, marching around the David, until the song ended. Then Mussolini took the needle off the spinning wax disc, set it back in its cradle, and returned to the chair behind his desk. A relative dignity returned to the room, and Cricketti tentatively entered, coughing politely. Sound traveled easily over the long marble floor. Mussolini looked up and beckoned him to proceed.

“I have the file on Houdini, Il Duce,” Cricketti said, placing a folder on the desk before his commander.

Mussolini inhaled and held his breath tight and seemed to ponder something through a window, then exhaled long and weary and turned to face Cricketti. “It is best never to allow these two names to touch each other directly in speech, Talking Man. We hear the construction Hedooni, Il Duce, as you have just now said—or else Il Duce, Hedooni, as would also be possible—and we experience unease. It is best that you say in such situations something more like this: Il Duce, I have the file on Hedooni, note how the names are kept apart; or Here is the file on Hedooni that you, Il Duce, have requested. Capisce?”

“Yes, Il Duce.”

“Now let us see what you have brought…This is his Kodak? He has a good nose. Look how it is: the eyes, the mouth, you see? Dimensions. But why is he wrapped in chains as a prisoner? A man who is our brother in popular song should not be in chains. It is bad for morale. Who has captured him?”

“That’s his act, Il Duce, Houdini is an escape— I’m sorry, I mean Il Duce, that is his act. Houdini is—”

“Do not worry any longer about separating our names with other words. If any man in any country is in a popular song with Il Duce, and is also in chains, we permit you to pronounce his name together with our own name without segregation, because in this case we are two fascists in one bundle. We ourself am not free if Hedooni is not free, capisce?”

“He—Houdini saves himself, Il Duce.”

“He is a Protestant?”

“He deliberately has himself handcuffed, tied up with ropes and chains, locked in prison cells and caskets, and buried alive. And then he escapes. That’s his job, so to speak.”

“Hedooni makes a joke of the carbinieri?”

“I don’t think he’s been to Italy in particular—I can check on that. I think he just means to entertain. It’s like a magic trick. It’s not really political, unless—”

“It is entirely political!”

“Well, he does mean a lot to a lot of people. They call him ‘The King of Handcuffs.’ Everywhere he goes—”

“The King.”

“Of Handcuffs.”

“Not correct! Our father in heaven makes the best handcuffs. Our father is the King of Handcuffs!”

Cricketti still has the nicks in his wristbones, and in his heart. He pulls a sheet from the file. “I thought you might find this interesting, even helpful. It’s from an article he wrote, ‘Handcuff Secrets Exposed.’ They say he has an impeccable way of communicating with his audiences, and in light of our recent, uh—well, here: ‘When addressing your audience, do not become bombastic or overbearing in demeanor, but speak as you would to critical friends…Never let your audience detect any irritability or ill-temper, but always display a bright and pleasing manner.’”

He looked up to see Mussolini in full-trance mode. To someone unfamiliar with his ways, he might have appeared to have died on his feet into immediate rigor mortis, his eyes like painted egg-ends as if thrown open by cardiac shock, or from indignation at discovering himself mortal—but this was his frequent demeanor. One could not from it alone deduce what was going on in the man’s mind. Cricketti wondered whether by repeating Houdini’s implicitly critical words he had just committed professional if not corpular suicide.

After a full minute in unilateral stand-off, Benito very slowly bent forward at the waist till he reached a perfect right angle, paused, then snapped upright with a roaring nasal inhalation. “It is Il Duce’s opinion that the Magic Kingdom has one king, and his name is Disney. Hedooni is a hostile pretender who expresses lies in words and books. You, Talking Man, will go to the Magic Kingdom and inform Hedooni that Mussolini knows he is false. You will show him Kodaks of our father and his king and explain to him that his behavior does not satisfy, capisce? Use extreme clarity, not maximum clarity. Punch him in his stomach, this should suffice. Then bring him to me, in chains. We will teach him to communicate.”

Cricketti sighed invisibly. The sudden reversals, the outrageous caprices…it was wearisome. He nodded his assent.

“Do you know how you go to America?”

“Yes sir. I believe I can get a ship from Spain.”

“No—we are producing humor. Last chance: Do you know how you go to America?”

“No sir, how?”

“You go this way and then you go this way and then you go this way and then you go this way. Laugh now.”

When Cricketti had left, Benito remained at his desk hunched over the Houdini file. He was frowning in concentration, but the heels of his hands pressed his cheeks upward into something like a carnival grin. He had not inhaled in more than a minute. His attention had been snagged by a newspaper photograph of the entertainer hanging upside-down from a government building. The shot had been taken at some distance with a long lens, and was dark and slightly blurred, but it looked as if the man was hugging himself fiercely. Not right, thought Benito. No matter how much you love yourself, when appearing before your people you must pretend you’re all for them. Let your arms out as far as they will extend, as if to catch the world in your embrace. Oh, he could teach this Yank a thing or two, that’s for sure. And he suspected to profit equally from their meeting. He needed a powerful American on his side. But above and beyond diplomatic advantage, Benito thought that maybe he and Houdini might be he might have found a soul mate.

 

*

 

They had hung him from the branch of an old oak tree, if Houdini remembered correctly. They had tried to stab him first, but their blades shattered when they struck the hard wood of his back. So they strung him high and left him swinging in strong winds that rocked him through the night, the motion making the noose grow tighter, and a film came over his eyes. The night grew dark and he called out for his father—this was only one of several points upon which Houdini had improved on Pinocchio’s example, he thought, as he dangled in full sunlight farther above the ground than the crown of any oak: he would rather die than beg for assistance in full view of this sea of smitten witnesses.

Additionally, his predecessor had employed avian accomplices in order to break free; Houdini was on his own. The lynched puppet’s arms were free; the man was strapped into a straightjacket. But his greatest modification of Pinocchio’s trick, by far, was to have himself hung upside down. This detail was featured in the advertising, and Houdini was sure it was what had drawn his largest audience to date—the largest assembly ever seen in Washington, apart from the turnout for the last inauguration.

The white blocks of the Munsey Building, headquarters of the Council for National Defense, provided a brilliant backdrop for what for most of the crowd would be his struggling silhouette. Houdini, taking a page from the Mussolini playbook, exaggerated his movements for the sake of the farthest spectators, and for the cameras that would turn his feat into a triumph the whole world could celebrate.

 

*

 

Benito leaned back in his chair, the movement causing a small scrap of paper to flutter from his desk to the floor. He recognized the shape and hue of the anonymous notes that he frequently found carefully planted in his path as he moved through the palace—advice and criticism from one (or more?) of his subordinates, well meaning but overcautious. The only thing stopping him from taking steps to identify the insolent coward who authored these notes was the very slight possibility that it would turn out to be his mistress. In fact he liked to think that it was, that the notes were merely flirty.

He reached down and snatched the scrap from the floor and sat back again and waited for his breath to settle and the typed letters of the note to come into focus. When they did, and he had read them, he thought, Couldn’t be Clara. Must be Cricketti. The creature was obsessive, couldn’t let go:

 

THIS AFTERNOON AT THE FORUM, WHEN SPEAKING OF ITALY’S ASCENSION TO A SECOND EMPIRE, YOU SAID SECOND CHILDHOOD—PLEASE WATCH.

 

How many times had he told Talking Man that the only way to create the future was to destroy the past, and the only way to destroy the past was to stop talking about it? Clara would never think to harp on such a small thing, but coming from Cricketti the advice was a thumbed nose of grave proportions. Organisms, Benito had noticed, had a way of outlasting their usefulness. Was it possible his old assistant was no longer his wisest companion?

 

 

 


 

22.

 

The prime minister of Italy has been videotaped saying that Mussolini never killed anyone, but rather “sent people on holiday to confine them.” In response to widespread protest of his remarks, a spokesman conceded the Fascist regime was maybe not the greatest, “but, as is universally accepted by all historians on the right and on the left, it cannot be in any way compared to Nazism or Communism, which practiced systematic genocide against their own people and other peoples.” My own impression of Il Duce concurs somewhat. He’s always seemed more hapless than monstrous, and thus more relevant to primetime than some.

It makes sense that his crypt, once a spittoon, has become a place of pilgrimage; revision is rampant when it comes to old despots. A few years ago I was shipped to Lithuania for the opening celebration of Stalin World, the post-perestroikan brainchild of a professional wrestler turned boar farmer turned truffle tycoon whose father was one of hundreds of thousands of local ex-guests of the gulags. The tycoon had built an entire theme park to honor his nation’s suffering. Quite a party, too, vodka flowing and soldiers marching and children singing and gargantuan muppety Stalins and Lenins strolling the grounds with balloons, posing for cameras.

Dressed humbly but with dignity, seated just inside the park’s electric fence (low voltage) with a glove-puppet on each hand, I played the title role in Stalin’s Puppeteer. My stringsmith was quite restrained, keeping my movement to a respectful minimum as we addressed the international audience. It was a rich experience for me, not least because it was the only time I have ever played a puppeteer; it felt like becoming a father.

“Stalin liked my puppets. For this I should feel guilty? They could say anything, no fool human would dare say such things, and he’d cuddle them, laugh at their jokes and say, ‘Oh how they mock me!’ He’d say this to me while my hands were both still in the puppets. With marvel he spoke, as if he had no idea it was me making the puppets say such things, his power of belief was unsurpassed, the best audience you could dream. His eyes. His eyebrows had muscles, they were like shoulders, a wrestling grip it was. We had a group of us, an association of professionals, these people were all—disappeared—over a period of five or six weeks, maybe two hundred of us. I watched them go, one by one—my brother was in this group, he went too. I watched this happen—my brother, also dear friends. My brother had very thick rusty hair, he was a juggler. It was never a matter of self-protection—if you asked me then, I don’t think surviving was of too much interest one way or another, no—What kind of world was being made? I can’t say exactly what it was—well maybe I can. Not that I knew it. I continued to perform for him, I was on call, he used to two, three times a month call me in. You see this person on the television, a recent black man in the American South, he has made good friends with the Ku Klux leader, he has been named godfather to the son of this great racist! I never saw such things. My matter was a different one, I never made friends with Stalin, I just did my job. And I did it very well, I am aware of this. His power of attention brought out the best. This was the gift he gave you—you hear this talk about Uncle Joe’s ‘gifts’? He made you want to give because he gave. This was it. No matter what he thought about it, did about it, once he was paying attention, it was like a beam of laser, it was immense, hot, total. As someone in puppets, I was forced to admire this quality, this simplification he was capable of, no maybe this or maybe that, no hesitations, all or nothing, this was the essence. Myself yes I had many other things on my mind, I was already taking care of several children under my roof and through financial means, children in addition to those of myself and my wife—children of colleagues who have been disappeared. Wives remaining with infants and like this, so I have this to think of, but do I think of these things? My job I insist to do well. It is like a muscle you train your whole life, you cannot suddenly not to do it. But here is what I was able to do—my friends, you see, were going. One by one, poof, gone. Puppeteers like myself, actors, my brother, he juggled. So for Stalin…I had to be careful. If it was myself somehow that he liked, and not just my puppets, I never could tell, I don’t think so—it was the puppets—me they were of course but how could he know that, he would have been a different man. I think he thought of me as an angel of some type, from a place separated, not too connected with the puppets on my hands. But when my friends began to be disappeared, my brother for example, what I could do? I could not continue very well to do my job and neglect responsibilities—I was being eaten alive! And I don’t think it was even myself I meant to save, or if it was, it was for the sake of my wife, these children, our children, they were all our children in our hearts—but even that, I don’t think so, it was the chance I had each day to act, to live out my feelings with the puppets during this difficult period of life, you see? And always in front of this man who was the direct reason for all our difficulties, for such sadness all around me and every place I knew as a place of my life, I was never outside of Russia, I was not yet thirty at that time. Oh he made such a barren existence to our lives. It was to drive you insane, you see, but I was able God knows why to survive this and come out, as you see, more or less—intact—because I could display all my sadnesses with the puppets right in front of him. ‘Oh Uncle Joe,’ I would say, my left hand would say, ‘I’m so terribly sad today!’ ‘And why is that, Comrade?’ he would say. ‘Well you see I have lost ten of my best friends last week—they are all dead! And I don’t know why. How I loved them! And they are dead! dead! dead!’ and at such a point when my own head would be cracking because it was not possible to contain these feelings, you see the perceptions of my mind and my reason together in my head with these feelings, I would burst, I just would let myself cry, for however long I would sob and sob out my grief, shameless—and I was one meter away from the exact monster!—I had the wife on the right hand, here, and she would soothe me—this was me wringing my hands together, like this you see—I thought this was just an expression of speech, but no, it is a very ancient hereditary motion, it serves a purpose—the wringing of the hands carries the grief through the body, this provides a circuit, protects the body—a means of flowing, it is the body grieving. A motion like a tide, yes? Like so much about us has origins in the ocean. Without puppets in my hands I do not know if I would have learned of this. With naked hands I would become awkward, if I saw them go into this motion by themselves—but somehow I could do it in those—circumstances. I needed Stalin in my audience, I think I never would have learned such things, I could never cry like this in front of my true wife, you see, openly weep like I did for him, it was the spell he created, a wonderful blessing spell, it was a gift he had and he gave to many people, it is true what they say about the gifts. And he would just sit politely and let me go through my grief, he would never once look at my face, only my hands. I have had this confirmed by others, by officers who were in the room with me, who also survived, whom I met later, and later we could discuss these things and I could verify, without their witnessing I would not dare to tell anyone, I would have fear of my memory attacking, people who told me that yes he never looked at me, only my puppets, say for example I was to cry for ten minutes—this happened—ten minutes!—I do not care at the time they shoot me in the face, everything is to the wind, with everything else you have heard of this man he should shoot me on the spot, but his attention you see is focused entirely on the puppets, always, he never stops looking at the puppets—he never looks at me. He makes a motion with his hand I should be brought a handkerchief. Whoever could dream for such an audience? And there is a fine line—he would have made a very good theatrical director, there can be no doubt of this, it is the same gift. For myself in the years following those years I could not continue. Because he was unsurpassable. I had to learn a new profession. Because of his audience qualities. People will say ‘Oh he gave up because he cannot bear to be reminded of those days, the guilt eats him apart, the memories are painful,’ but the memories are not painful! I feel no guilt! The memories are what I rely on. I am old now with entirely other troubles as nothing compared to then, not like then, then it was clear. Now I need to be reminded. No, I am thanking God every day for those memories, not please for every event, God knows, but the actual memories of those performances. I never could match them without him, so what was the point? I had to find other work, you see. The puppets, I no longer have them, but it does not matter. In the end they were taken away, and I was spared. I was sent away of course but I was spared but they took them. I never wanted details, I never attempted. Same with my brother, with the others. Here, you see these? These are my hands, these are what I have left. This one, and this one here, like that. I put them together like this, tight—and there you go. I have to encourage them now a little, but they remember. Thank God. Blood memory, this is called, the scientists.”

 


 

23.

 

Upon leaving Fraudelent Séance No. 426, Harry told their driver to continue home without them, and he and Bess walked for a while, first briskly to establish physical distance from the overfamiliarly unpleasant event, then with more leisure, she sensing him systematically relaxing his body, slowing his pulse, corralling his wild thoughts into their proper bundle just behind and above his eyes. They didn’t speak.

She was worried about his health. Their war against the spiritualists was taking its toll. His skepticism wasn’t visceral. He was by nature as gullible as a child in blast range of a bedtime story. No matter how many fakes he exposed, each time he went into a séance he ached to be convinced; and the bliss of possibility as the lights dimmed—it was a species of addiction. When inevitably the deceit’s springs and cogs became evident to him, each time it hurt him more, and threw him lower.

They had taken the evening off, a very rare occasion, and had planned to spend some quiet time together, and Bess was about to suggest they go home and sleep some, then maybe take in a motion picture, when Harry clicked his fingers and stopped walking: “Pecorara.”

“Harry?”

“Where are we?” He looked around to orient himself. “I almost forgot.” He took out his watch, nodded at what it told him, “Good. I’ve got some time to work on my lecture before he arrives,” then saw her puzzlement. “The Italian who cabled. I’ve invited him to the theater. He says there’s something important he needs to discuss with me.”

“The medium, you mean?”

“I’ve been sent clippings of his handcuff act, he’s a hit on the Continent.”
“Harry, I saw those. But they say he’s also a medium—a serious contender for the Scientific American
prize.”

“I hadn’t heard that.”

The editors of Scientific American had offered the princely cash prize of one thousand dollars for any medium whose effects they could not explain. Harry was helming the magazine’s investigating committee.

“Sir Arthur has said he’s the real thing.”

“Bess! We agreed never to speak again of that cretin. How can you bear to mention his name, let alone credit his opinion?” His eyes gored her. She’d have blushed but was trained not to. She said carefully, “Is it wise to meet with this Italian alone? If the committee finds out—”

“He gave me to understand this was to be a rather dull conference of two professional conjurers. If he has misled me as to the nature for our meeting and so much as mentions his bogus hobby, I will throw him out and disqualify him from the competition.” Suddenly his eyes softened and Bess saw her Eric saying, “Darling, it won’t be long. I’ll be home before you know it, in time to catch the nine o’clock, if you’d like that.”

She smiled. “I would.” And then realized he was talking about The Man from Beyondhis motion picture. A terrible picture, too (she secretly agreed with the critics). Well, it was better than nothing. They could smooch in the bleachers, maybe, if he’d agree to go incognito.

 

*

 

Sitting in the calm of the mostly dark theater, his legs swinging from the stage, Houdini was for the first time all day in neutral mind, content to be awake, pleased he had a reason to be here this evening, even though there was no show. The screaming packed adoring houses were still palpable, ever immanent in the silent theater after hours, whereas the reverend quiet was obliterated during shows; and so he loved the empty theater more. He always arrived early for a performance and left as late as he could, which wasn’t so easy these days, he didn’t belong to himself as much now. Fame still felt like a crowded new country of which he was president by lark, at his cherished solitude’s loss.

“Mr. Houdini?”

“Please come forward.”

Their voices rose out of silence and fell back into it, as voices should: the opposite of chatter. Only a few electric worklights were on in the whole hall, illuminating random sections of the space. Houdini’s perch on the ledge of the stage was along the rim of a circle of light which showed mostly the orchestra pit, and a few seats in the first rows. His guest had spoken from the darkness at the rear of the house. He heard the man feel his way among objects, then find an aisle, gain stride. A tall and exceedingly thin gentleman entered from the shadows dressed in the silken solemnity of an Eastern holy man, in soft supple not-new-seeming layers the hues of which could not be determined in the cagey light of the theater. Houdini hoped for the stranger’s sake that the garments were restrained in color; this was a liberal, forgiving city but there were limits, even for theatricals. A scramble of dark curls nearly to his shoulders, the face a thrash of hard angles relieved only by deepset eyes; the spiderleg mustache belonged to the angles. The man stopped at the opposite lip of the light from Houdini, near the audience chairs, and waited.

“Signore Pecorara?”

“I am.” A pert half-bow, hat clasped to his chest in one hand. “An honor for me.” His other hand hanging at his side clutched a medium-sized traveling trunk.

Houdini got the sense that he was looking at a man and all he owned in the world. Had this been a cold-read for a clairvoyance routine, he would be in for a stumble. To be fair, he usually worked in more favorable conditions; in better light he would surely have seen the masterly patina on the expensive shoes, the many intelligent decisions of the tailor witnessed by every inch from cuffs to collar—indeed there was a collar but it was thrillingly thin, a new fashion on the Continent that had not yet crossed the ocean. Where Houdini saw wrinkles were expensive facets of crushed velvet. The apparently unwashed hair was in fact daily sheened by uncut Caro.

Nino Pecorara had not been born a soldier, and vowed no cause nor law would make him one, was pleased when his nation had seemed as loath to fight as himself. But Italy’s clever parsing of the language of alliance hadn’t held, and in the spring of 1915 Nino had found himself Called Upon. He was terrified, knew himself capable of greater, more solitary things—and so accepted his dilemma as an opportunity to prove his loyalty to a higher calling. Nino began screaming at the top of his lungs. He screamed whenever anyone else was around. Screaming and writhing and panting and heaving until the authorities tied him up in order to still him for reprimand and examination. Still he screamed—and twisted and stretched till the ropes came loose. They tied him up again, and he freed himself again; they kept trying to bind and hold him and he kept breaking loose, and by the time they agreed he was mad and thus unfit for killing, he’d found his forked future.

It was clear and significant that Nino could free himself from any confinement—but how exactly did he do it? He had never labored to master these skills—“skills” was too deliberate a word, the escapes seemed to just happen by giving reign to whatever shape his formidable passion took at the moment. After many conversations with God, he came to understand that his wild fits were not really of his own invention, but the result of spirit possession: he was that rarest of hosts whom ethereal wanderers chose to visit of their own accord. He channeled his gift in two directions: the sensational and the spiritual. He prospered on both fronts, and the sweetnesses of life flowed to him. With the profits from his magical demonstrations he acquired a palatial Liberty villa on a steep seaward hill in Livorno, where he lived with his mother, wife, and two daughters now nearly grown. By séance, for which service he never collected a cent, he had made a name as an honest and awesome vessel, and when he wasn’t on the road with his escape act he was at home receiving visitors from every level of society seeking to contact their beloved dead.

If he was not quite as honest as he was marveled to be, he was more honest than some in being honest with himself, as he frequently explained to his wife and mirrors. Though he believed his powers were authentic, Nino knew that more important than summoning the spirits of the dead was lifting the spirits of the living. And for this noble purpose one couldn’t take too many precautions, as the Beyond could be fickle. However, he kept his tricks to a precious few, and unlike every other medium he had ever heard of, he worked in full daylight. It had become a point of pride. He conducted his séances in a small salon in the west wing of his home—looking out over the afternoon ocean.

The sun was dear to him, its power huge, appropriable. If only he could avail himself of the early hours as well! But—it was the thorn of his life—the eastern flank of Villa Pecorara faced a steep scraggled rockface that loomed unpleasantly inward over the rear of his home. Nothing grew in its umbra. For most of the day—except for a few minutes in the late morning when the sun passed between cliff crest and roof ledge, briefly illuminating a narrow strip of ground—the land there was miserably dark. He was surprised that his daughters had managed to grow to full height, so much of their childhood had been spent in the backyard darkness.

And then one day, not two weeks ago, on the road home from Florence (where he’d escaped from a replica of the Lorenzo de’ Medici tomb, disturbing neither Twilight nor Dawn), his way had been blocked by a pompation of goosesteppers in gas masks. (With no war in sight, the military display was doubly horrific. He knelt to thank God again for giving him no sons.) Forced to detour, he’d decided to stop for the night in a village well off his usual route. That evening at the village tavern, while describing his latest performance to a tannin-rapt table neighbor, the man had been vexed by Nino’s mention of Lorenzo.

“You mean Lorenzini?” the man asked. “But he has nothing to do with Florence! He is one of us!”

Nino was momentarily confused. Then he recalled that Lorenzini was the birth-name of the author of Pinocchio, whose pseudonym derived from the town of Collodi—the very next village north. Nino’s tablemate had been born there and was quite happy to tell him all about the place.

Which is how Nino learned of the great hillside garden at the Villa Garzoni, in the heart of Collodi. Soon drinking merrily from the same clay pitcher as his new friend, Nino gleaned through the man’s rapturous description that the garden had been constructed upon a steep, dawn-blocking cliff not unlike his cumbersome own, yet was filled with beauty and light. Nino decided to stop there the next day to see if it had anything to teach him about what might be done with his gloomy grounds at home.

Beauty and light, yes, though not filled with; composed of; and steep to the soaring point, Eden during that perfect twenty minutes between the acquisition of Knowledge and the jilt of eviction, resplendent nature shimmering with pleasure at the touch of man. Surveying from below, among the countless cascades of water and stone, blazing blossoms, terra-cotta gods, secret groves with pools flashing with flashing fish and cool stone benches for two, Nino could discern the immense anamorphic face that the seventeenth-century designer had quietly woven, with dark rocks for features, into the spectacle. The face gazed westward over Collodi like some benevolent local god, and Nino knew that if he looked at it for too long, it would likely begin speaking to him of vast matters deeper than what he sought to consider on this easy morning; the temptation was great but he was not here for that. He marveled from a distance as long as he dared and then set off exploring the garden. He spent hours—

“Please forgive me, Mr. Pecorara,” Houdini interrupted. “This is all most interesting, but my schedule is constricted, so—”

“Yes yes, of course, you are a very busy man,” Nino replied. “I talk too much, yes? I tell you quickly then. I walk all through that beautiful garden, up to the top. At the top in the center is a beautiful sculptura of the goddess Fama—‘Fame,’ you say here, yes? The daughter of Chaos. In charge of gossip on Mountain Olympia. I look at beautiful Fama for a long time. She is the color blue, like sky, she carries a big trumpet. The sun is very hot and high in the sky. I become sleepy. I lie on the ground, to sleep…” “And in my sleep, the channel opens, yes? To the Other Side. And Fama comes to me now, in my sleep. Not made of stone. Fleshy, like you and me.”

“Fama visited you in your sleep?”

“A new kind of séance, yes?”

“Not really. Did she speak to you?”

“Yes!”

“And?”

“She tells me that underneath the earth is a present—for you, Mr. Houdini…I am only the messenger…” Nino was listening to himself with confusion. Why would he lie? He had in fact sat on the ground in front of the statue, intending to rest a few minutes while looking out over the town. And the moment his bottom struck the ground he’d shouted out in pain. He leaped up to see what had pierced him, and hat he thought must be a wasp or bee stinger turned out to be the sharp tip of a short wooden cone. This turned out to be the nose of an unclad marionette otherwise buried in the Garzoni soil. Nino had never lain down, never slept at all. He had dug the puppet out, along with the small carrying case buried with it. Only then had Fama spoken to him, and told him to bring it to America; that much—the important part—was true.

Nino crouches and unfastens the buckles and straps on his suitcase, opens it and pulls out the small wooden box. “I wake up from my nap with this behind my head, as a pillow! I think: This is a joke! I was going to keep it for myself. Then I go home and my wife is screaming, Nino look, I look, and I see: the sky is everywhere over my home! A wind from below has blown up very strong, and there is no more mountain in front of the sun. So I think: Maybe it is a good idea to follow the statue’s instructions. So I buy a ticket to America to give to you her present.”

Houdini considered. The Italian was a professional deceiver like himself, his tale utterly ridiculous, and no moral stakes were in play in this conversation between conjurors—there was every reason to doubt him. But a gift for him from Fame herself…! “Mr. Pecorara. You realize that I am on the judging committee for the Scientific American competition. If this is an attempt to bribe me for favor, I will have no choice but to inform the committee.”

The man’s face scrunched. “I don’t understand—oh!”

“Anyway, the man to speak to about that would be Conan-Doyle. Corruption comes more easily to him.”

“Thank you, but I am not here for that.”

“Bring it to me.”

Carrying the box like a ring bearer, Nino mounted the stairs to the stage. Houdini walked into the wings and returned with two chairs. Nino handed him the box and the two men sat down, Houdini with the gift on his lap, the old battle stirring within: Let it be true, It can’t be true, Let it be true just a few more minutes…

 

*

 

Cricketti sat on the edge of his seat in the back of the theater in the dark, transfixed by the events onstage. He knew Pecorara by reputation at home, though he had never seen him perform. The two of them had been on the same boat out of Madrid, had exchanged light conversation several times during the voyage, but each remained vague about the reason for his journey to the States. Now, watching the two master magicians together, he couldn’t help but see the encounter as an Iliadic duel of nations. He tried to reframe it: a summit would be preferable. Hitler had recently been playing troubadour under the balcony, and Mussolini was beginning to blush. Cricketti didn’t think much good could come of that. All dialogue with the New World was welcome.

He watched as Houdini undid the knot on the sack, then withdrew a small wooden figure, a marionette apparently; he dangled it by its strings in the air in front of him.

“Pinocchio,” Houdini said, with distant wonderment.

Pinocchio! Cricketti thought, with acute interest. He leaned forward, straining to hear.

“I have always loved Pinocchio,” Houdini said. “As a child it was he who most inspired me. I think of him every time I escape. From his birthplace, you say?”

“Yes, yes!” Pecorara seemed flustered. “But there are thousands and thousands of these. The tourists buy them for their children. What can Fama mean by this?”

Houdini sat quietly, turning the puppet over in his hands as if admiring its construction, its fine materials. “Well, no matter. It’s a fine souvenir. Clearly the local craftsmen are able. And Nino: whether it is from you yourself or truly from the goddess, either way it is a marvelous little being, and I shall cherish it as a gift from a true peer. Well—” He stood, extending his hand. “I have a busy evening ahead of me. I hope we may visit together again before you return to Italy. Perhaps you would care to join my wife and I at our home for lunch later this week—shall we say Thursday?”

Pecorara slowly stood, and shook Houdini’s hand. “It is true. We have many things to talk about, you and I.”

“Let me give you my address.”

“Not necessary.”

“Of course.” The two men exchanged smiles, meak for beaming. “And I trust you can find your way out?” Houdini extended his arm in a gracious leading gesture. “Grazie mille.”

Houdini remained standing in place and watched Pecorara make his way off the stage, gather his hat and his traveling trunk, and head up the aisle back toward the exit.

As the man passed by the row in which he was sitting, Cricketti slipped from his chair to crouch on the floor. He held his breath in the narrow space between the seats until he heard the front doors of the theater open and close. When he inhaled again he nearly sneezed—he must have kicked up some dust in his move to the floor—he fought against it, wishing to collect himself before making his presence known, kept squatted, concentrating his breath, making it stronger than the tickling dust. He was aware that Houdini was again speaking, though he hadn’t seen or heard anyone else enter the theater. When he was sure the sneeze had been averted, Cricketti slowly unbent his knees and settled himself cautiously back on the chair. Houdini was standing in the light on the edge of the stage addressing the empty auditorium in full performance mode. Pinocchio was seated on one of the chairs behind him like a volunteer audience member waiting to be called forward.

“…may serve as a model for all our hopes and dreams. For example, my own first and greatest escape required the simplest means imaginable: a systematic use of my senses. The sun was an ideal accomplice, for I felt sure that it would set; this I verified with my eyes. An ear to my parents’ bedroom door informed me they were both asleep. The next step called upon the so-called sixth sense, about which there is nothing very mysterious—it is a matter-of-fact tool in any professional’s arsenal: a hybrid of memory and desire. Deployed in concert with my sense of touch, it enabled me to quite easily make my way through the darkness to the front door, which to open entailed no more than a minimal effort of the fingers and wrist. From there it was merely a matter of following my nose until I tasted freedom. Like the subject of our talk, I was a runaway.

“But let us linger for one moment on the opening of the front door, for this point cannot be made too often: No lock has ever locked itself; it is always man’s idea. In all things lies a yearning for freedom. As the river moves toward the open sea, as the sea itself is endlessly evaporating, ascending and finding new confinement in clouds, which in turn relax and lose their contents to gravity—there is not a lock in all the world that would rather be locked than open. Recognizing this, the resourceful escape artist does not ‘pick’ a lock. He seeks the openness at its heart, and calls softly into it, coaxing awake with his thoughts the device’s own self-knowledge. So, to return to the question—”

Houdini whirled around on his heels and walked upstage, plucked Pinocchio from his chair and returned to the batten, holding the puppet aloft for his invisible audience to behold.

“Pinocchio was a master of running away from home. Indeed it was the first thing he did after his legs were made, as soon as Gepetto had helped unstiff them. Before that point he walked with stiffness, rather like certain militias of today. He had not yet begun to tackle jails, whales, and, most famous of all, his own wooden self, the subject of tonight’s demonstration. Now. How did Pinocchio the human ‘escape’ from Pinocchio the puppet?

“On the technical level, since we do not know the exact position of the boy inside the marionette, let us for discussion purposes assume that he was arranged in the most problematic posture known to liberationists: that of the straightjacketed individual, in which case his arms would be folded behind him, in this manner.” He demonstrated with the puppet. “This posture is identical, incidentally, to the one I assume in my just-released motion picture feature, The Man From Beyond, where I had myself frozen into a two-ton block of ice. Ice of course is less dense a substance than oak, pine, or wood of any species, but both ice and wood, when molded closely to one’s physical body, are several orders of magnitude more challenging than the sheets and straps of a canvas straightjacket. I can assure you, however, that a straightjacket provides plenty adversity for any man. I happen to have one backstage if anyone should care to verify this statement?”

Houdini paused, as if expecting a volunteer, and Cricketti’s hand began to rise, independent of his will; he had to overrule his own eager limb. It had been many years since he had even considered the question of Pinocchio’s means of exodus from his wooden womb, if indeed that is what had happened, and now, to hear it asked again, by surely one of the few persons in the world qualified to posit a solution—aside from the boy himself, that is—but Cricketti no longer believed that Pinocchio had ever really known precisely what had happened to make him human; or, if he did know, that he would ever share the information with anyone, not even his oldest friend, or perhaps especially not his oldest friend. And now that the subject had been broached in his presence by the reigning master of the genre, Cricketti felt the deepest, driest caves of his soul filling, flooding again with the bracing rapids of wonder. The salve for his forgotten first curiosity was in reach! He used one hand to still the other, and folded them in his lap and waited to learn more—then suddenly reflected as to whether Houdini’s direct request for a volunteer indicated that the magician already by some means knew he, Cricketti, was in the house—but quickly dismissed the possibility—and what would it matter anyway? —but now, having been made briefly self-conscious, his flustered body—which was still essentially that of a lowly cricket, for he had never managed to escape from his original body, though no one had ever seemed to notice, such was the power of a uniform allied with human reluctance to perceive the unthinkable—having been disturbed from his trance by self-considerations, once again he noticed he was sentient in his nose to the whirling roused dust particles, and again he made efforts to thwart a sneeze—

“…who have seen me suspended upside-down from a skyscraper bound in the most paralyzing of garments will remember the writhing and contortioning crucial to self-emancipation. If you have not seen the show, you will have an opportunity to catch it again on Thursday at eight PM at the end of Pier 6. Actually, if you promise not to tell anyone, between us I’ll admit that it’s quite a bit easier to get out of a straightjacket while dangling in the air upside-down, for in this position gravity becomes an ally in the effort to get your arms from behind the back and over the head to the front—the first and most important maneuver. Pinocchio, from what we know, was rarely upside-down during the puppet stage, so one is not surprised that it took him half his childhood to escape. But we can see that his various jerks and twists while doing so would have informed the outward movement of the toy, and thus enabled him, even before he emerged, to interact with the human world, and facilitated his lasting fame as a self-animated marionette. His strings, of course, would have served to discipline his convulsions to a degree, and keep them within the parameters of human pantomime. So. The first necessary step—”

Cricketti sneezed.

Houdini froze.

Cricketti rose to his feet, trembling.

Houdini squinted into the darkness. “Signore Pecorara, is that you?”

Cricketti realized he had no choice. He moved into the aisle and toward the stage with as much dignity as he could manage, sneezing once more on his way. By the time he had reached the spot before the orchestra pit from where Pocorara had first addressed the American, he sensed officialdom already seeping into his gait—he fought the reversion, for it threatened to displace his rediscovery of the single question he had ever really wanted answered.

“Mr. Houdini, it is an honor. My name is Cricketti. Your demonstration is fascinating, please continue—”

“What the devil is going on tonight? Aren’t we at war? Do I look like the Italian embassy?”

“Just a coincidence, I assure you. Pecorara and I were on the same boat from of Spain. But my business with you is rather less ethereal. I represent Benito Mussolini, president and only Il Duce of the future empire of Italy. On behalf of my leader I must insist that you continue with your exposition.”

Cricketti hopped effortlessly onstage. “Go on, Mr. Houdini—how did Pinocchio escape from the puppet?”

“I had very high hopes for Mussolini. And you can tell him I greatly admire his showmanship. But as a leader he is a disaster. Yes, I know who you are—his right-hand man.” There was disdain in his voice.

“More or less.”

“His top henchman.”

That is a lie.”

“Perhaps. I have learned enough not to take newsprint on faith. I prefer to trust a man’s word until I have seen with my own eyes he is a charlatan.”

They were straying too far from the issue. Cricketti struggled to stay focused. “As an Italian, I beseech you. This is not an American concern. If you have any information pertaining to the means of escape of the boy Pinocchio, you must communicate this to me now.”

“Mr. Cricketti, do you think that I or any mortal could explain such a miracle?”

“If anyone can, it is you—please, I have my reasons—”

“Do you think that if I had such knowledge I would share it just like that, with anyone who asked?”

“I am not anyone! I am—a great fan of Pinocchio’s—”

“That may be so. Fortunately, I do not need to lie. I have no idea how he did it.”

“But you were about to reveal the secret!”

“I had nothing more to say.”

“You are holding back! You’re no different than he is!”

“This is a routine I have been working on for many years, I’ve still not got an ending for it. Perhaps science will one day be able to answer the question, but she is at present far too young for such a task. I suspect it has something to do with the ability to grow biological forms from the broadest denominators of biology.”

Facing the torrent of Houdini’s speech at close range, and Houdini’s famous laser gaze, which strangely reminded him of Benito’s, Cricketti felt sick with desperatation. The delicious spell was cracking, his urgency to know had already receded, morphed into a vestigial, abstract desire—slippery, shading with anger. He moved closer to the prevaricating American, his arms rising menacingly, the features of his face losing their grip on his human facade, he saw a breeze of fear twitch through his prey…

“Please, Mr. Cricketti, there is no need to be upset, I’m trying to explain here—maybe you have seen how a baby can lose a fingertip, only to grow it back completely? But by the time she has learned to talk, this is no longer possible, a possesses some vestige of a power fully wielded in the womb, where she was able to grow her entire body from—from what—something that man has in common with wood, or a special kind of wood, pine I suppose, or a particular species of pine, or perhaps infected pine, some parasite or fungus, who knows, something on the cellulose level, these are the issues, specific, technical, what are you doing—?”

Houdini clutched Pinocchio to his breast as if to shield himself, but Cricketti’s punch was to the abdomen.

“This brings me no pleasure,” Cricketti rasped, “I am on a diplomatic mission. I bring a message from Il Duce. The message is…I cannot remember…his father was a blacksmith—”

“Why…”

Cricketti’s fist flew again. “…I have much respect for you, sir....” Houdini doubled-over. One more punch and he lay fetuslike panting on the floor, his body curled around the marionette, their heads touching. And then he was still. The puppet looked suddenly more alive than the man, whose body was too heavy to be stirred by drafts.

Cricketti stood above the felled magician, feeling little. Life is strange: that about covered it. An insect before everything. At the root of his brainstem a glans secreted detachment from his deed. And then he saw the puppet for what it was.

He had been back to Collodi only the year before, on a similar assignment. He had seen the tchotchkes: this was no tchotchke. No mass-manufactured or loving emulation could possibly have so exactly reproduced the pocks of a thousand heavenly woodpeckers, the trenches cut by paw-nails where the evil Fox had sought leverage to pry open the mouth in an invasive charge for gold, the black-paint remnants of the mustache applied by mocking classmates, the gashes behind the knees from the brutal weasel trap, the circular cuts where the dog collar had nearly choked him that night he’d been forced to play farmer’s watchdog, the charred patches along the nether side from a stint in the Green Man’s frying pain, the gouges left by the Cat’s knife where it had plunged twice between the shoulders, the singed shins just above the gorgeous clogs, the stubbed fore of one of these from kicking the Blue Fairy’s door in after waiting half the night for that snail to come open it, the imprint of the donkey hoof that had struck the puppet in the chest, the elongated grain at the roots of the ears that had spent months stretched into donkey shape, the whip marks left by the circus owner on the wrists and thighs while training him to dance, the overall unreplicable sheen applied by the fish who had nibbled away the donkey skin, perfected by weeks of marination in a shark’s intestinal juices…

Cricketti suddenly felt he should be elsewhere. He crossed himself, grabbed the puppet, and left the theater.

 


 

24.

 

Is there anything more beautiful than a marionette in the wind, freely dangling, touched by no will other than that which moves all—nature, god, chance or what have you? Therein can be seen the precise nature of that puppet. No two atoms can be called identical, occupying as they do two unique points in spacetime. And as atoms bond to atoms to make molecules, and molecules assemble to make wood, uniqueness grows from the center like a brand-new universe. By the time a marionette is ready for stringing, it can only be itself: the material voice of its private divinity, which speaks whenever it moves.

This is why, at outdoor shows especially, I always feel lucky when my line of sight allows me to watch, not the puppets onstage, but those in the wings hanging on hooks, waiting. There is almost always a small breeze at least, by which I can see my fellows for who they are, unclothed by intention, prodded by the traveling air to show themselves in time, more naked to my gaze than they can be when shelved or on any stage.

On the job we are farragoes of substance and dimension, proportion and atmosphere—mingled in gravity with the soul, intention, and dexterity of the reigning puppeteer. When a show opens I am often surprised at how different I feel in the hands of my newest master, it’s as if I’m born anew with every role. But by the end of the run that sensation always gives way to amazement, even awe, at the persistent integrity of my ancient physics, no matter how foreign the working conditions.

Likewise, I have sometimes mistaken a long-familiar comrade for a stranger upon encountering it in a fresh role. But once I do identify it, every move it’s made to make is undeniably its own. And it is this persistence of selfhood that begins to approach the most wonderful and essential quality of our kind, to which Pinocchio, incidentally, was completely insensitive (inflicted as he was with autonomous locomotion, the puppet equivalent of human paraplegia): It is possible to move without changing, and to change without moving, the very soul of time.

 


25.

 

Houdini found death to be pretty much as he’d come to expect: quiet, solitary, dark—and so felt supremely at ease. The one best thing about it, in contrast to the many claustrophobic fixes of his life, was that there was no ticking clock. Already he could not be certain whether a moment or a millennia had passed—it was invigorating. He was free to work at his own pace. He hadn’t seen his mother yet (or a single other soul, for that matter). Yet the urgency to find her seemed to have left him—as had, he was fascinated to realize, his attachment to Bess: he simply couldn’t say he missed her. He knew she would be fine, he was happy for her that she (presumably) was still alive, life was a gift, a giverless gift, they were all blessed down there, or wherever they were in relation to him, it was a splendid thing to have a body and circumstances. He’d already forgotten the face of the man who had murdered him—he knew there were two Italians that day…no matter. He remembered seeing the Pinocchio doll there at the end, that was fortuitous, the perfect image to have before him at that final moment, but there was no gift-giver to thank, as far as he could tell. Just another lucky thing in a lucky life, maybe the most terrible lives were redeemed by that kind of final curtain—not the reward of “heaven” so much as the mind’s self-corrective Perfect Moment—if he met other souls, he would ask them—but really such questions, all questions, belonged to the past, to the distance; no longer did he even give a hoot about his reputation. All his vows to return to visit the living via séance, to show the world there was a conscious, willing existence Beyond, and that he, “Houdini” (already the name sounded foreign, haughty) was The One who could prove it—it all seemed just a load of mortal bugaboo, and he was pleased to be rid of it, content to be there among the nothingness, for however long it would have him. “Him.” What was gender now, what was discretion? One of those ponchos they lend you on that boat at Niagara Falls…he remembered him and Bess in the wild spray, what a wonderful wedding it was, no, it was a film shoot, or a movie he saw…had he gone over the falls in a milk can? No, “bugaboo” was too strong a word, what else could you expect, only natural, no more natural than this, this excellent natural neutrality, no need to escape, no desire to escape, the serenity of knowing you could, would, might, had, “escape” too loaded a word, too active…whatever this was, he could, would remain, had never been anywhere else, Houdini may as well have been a dream, of course it was, of course it wasn’t, the words were only all relative…

 

*

 

Pecorara already had the house address for Conan-Doyle, and a volume of Sherlock Holmes in his pocket, and a pen. And it did seem rather silly, as long as he was in New York, not to show the Scientific American his stuff. The winner of that prize would never want for opportunities in the spiritual world. And so an hour later he was knocking on the door of the writer’s fine townhouse, in which there appeared to be a party in full swing. Through French doors he could see the jaunty shoulders of a piano player and hear amid hubbub the happy tune of a popular song he knew well from Voice of America.

The door whisked open and bejeweled arms pulled him inside to a resplendent antechamber packed with the happiest people he had ever seen laughing and dancing among ice sculptures and punch turrets, milling in and out of adjacent rooms and up and down a glorious staircase. Champagne and tasty morsels appeared in his hands and he met and embraced dozens of celebrants before being spun by the current into the parlor, densely packed in semicircular rows of formal dress swaying in place around the cornered piano. He thought he was falling but was caught in soft pillows, and more giggly arms and tux-wristed hands linked his and settled him on the divan in a bay window by the piano player, who was leading the crowd in a raucous climax.

“What a party!” he yelled through the din. “Is it somebody’s birthday?”

The young lady looked at him, puckering for a wide-eyed moment then blasting laughter so hard that Nino thought maybe he had been misheard, but no: “Is it somebody’s birthday, he says!” The titters spread outward and fingers pointed at him and his unintented joke was repeated and now the piano player had segued to accommodate a spontaneous rendition of a song whose cruel lyrics puzzled Nino, native humor he supposed, and he said to the woman, “I no understand.”

“You haven’t heard?”

“I do not think so.”

“Houdini’s dead!”

“No!”

“Isn’t it wonderful? We’re free!”

“But this is not possible—I was with him only this evening!”

“He’s back already, you mean—undead?”

“No, he was very alive…”

“Well,” she shrugged, after deliberating, “I guess that’s why they call him Houdini!,” and grinned and toasted the air between them, realized her glass was empty, left. “Happy Death Day Dear Houdini” morphed into “Ding Dong the Wicked Wizard Is Dead” until a puffy strong hand on the pianist’s shoulder stilled the music. A fresh cheer broke out to greet the famous host, who began to speak.

“Thank you, Cole, for following the flow so dexterously. But please, my friends, let us not get carried away so soon. Remember, Houdini had our best interests at heart—he just didn’t know it. But there’s time enough, we’ll speak of such things later, after dinner maybe. At this point I’d like to hand the proceedings over to my wife, who knows so much more about these matters than do I…”

He showed Jean her way out of the crowd that had parted to let her through, and she stood where he had stood and spoke. “Mentalists, mediums, pioneers! What a marvelous night this is! I’m so glad so many of you could be here on such short notice. There are many reasons to be thankful. Houdini’s crossing over to the Other Side means very much to us. First of all, how wonderful for him! He has made the most mysterious journey in the Universe. Godspeed, Houdini! Go marvel and explore!

“By the way, we should take a moment, dears…There are fans of his among us, I know, who will miss his human incarnation as a consummate entertainer, and we would like to acknowledge the hardship we all know Bess, for one, must be feeling this evening…She isn’t here by any chance…? I didn’t think so. A shame. It could have been so wonderful for her. If only she Believed!

“Houdini if you can hear me—and this is not the time for telling us you can hear us, there is plenty of time for that, and there will be the place for that—tonight we are gratified simply by knowing you are Beyond, and can hear us, and hear that we are waiting for you. You never admitted to believing, you put on a great show, but we know, we know you always knew who you are—you are one of us!—Arthur, who is this—”

Pecorara had stood up and was gesturing for her attention. “Please! I feel I must say—I saw Houdini earlier today…” Alamed, a few guests leaped to restrain him. When it was verified that he was unarmed, Jean whispered to him that they must speak later, and sat him down.

Pecorara turned to the glamorous couple next to him. “I feel certain in my heart he believed.”

“Cheers!”

He didn’t understand.

“So we have that to be thankful for,” continued Lady Doyle. “Houdini’s on the other side, and now at last he can truly help us. We must be grateful to him for having stepped aside so completely on this earth, so we are able to exercise our gifts without having to suffer his brutal attacks upon our practice, which helps us help him certainly…”

After the speeches, during which Nino grew increasingly amazed at the iciness of the crowd, Jean steered him into a corner. “You say you saw Houdini alive today?”

“Yes.”

“Did he give you anything?”

“No.”

“Do you have in your possession a coin, anything—”

“No.”

“It’s very important we try to contact him soon. If we had anything that he touched just before he crossed over, an article of clothing—wait!—he shook your hand?”

“Of course.”

“Perfect—” She grabbed Nino’s right hand, then shrieked and dropped it as if it had shocked her. With an urgent look at Nico, she led him by the elbow through the crowd toward a mighty ball of cigar smoke. When she and Arthur had established that their guest was that new Italian sensation, they grew even more excited about his value. Imagine if the Scientific American prize were to be given for contacting Houdini himself!

Nino smiled and nodded and disliked them. A man he greatly admired had died, but their company made it impossible to mourn. He decided not to push his luck any further in America. Clearly the climate was unfavorable, even dangerous, to serious avatars of the black arts. He had fulfilled his duty to Fama, the primary purpose of his journey. Two weeks later he was back in Livorno, enjoying the abundant sunshine.

 

*

 

Death was due to peritonitis, which doctors say he had been struggling with for months following an operation for appendicitis. The condition was apparently exacerbated by a blow to the stomach from an unknown assailant.

Far more than an ordinary magician, Houdini was a symbol of liberty for millions of people the world over, especially immigrants and the poor. He will forever hold a special place in the hearts of all those who struggle to be free from poverty, oppression, and tyranny of every kind. An evidence of the deep impression his work made on the public mind is the fact that the Standard Dictionary now contains a verb, “houdinize,” meaning “to release or extricate oneself from confinement, bonds, or the like, as by wriggling out.” A slang dictionary probably would list the expression, “do a Houdini,” with a similar meaning.

Friends of the showman said yesterday that he had developed a dislike for being called by his first name, Harry. He always wished to be called Houdini and disliked the prefix “Mr.”

Houdini is survived by his wife of 21 years, Elizabeth Weiss.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 


26.

 

What happened? I was sideways.

 

You’ve been primped.

 

Arnold?

 

Wasn’t me.

 

I wish he would leave me be.

 

“Be,” he says!

 

“He,” he says!

 

With a nose like that, you’re a he for sure.

 

What? Arghhhhh! Get it off, take it off!

Go ahead then, take it off.

 

How long was I out? When did he do this?

 

Frankly I think it’s quite becoming—oops—How did you do that?

 

Is it off?

Did you sneeze?

 

I don’t think so.

 

You did that with your mind, buddy.

 

“Did” is too strong a word.

 

I think dreaming did you good, was a good workout, whatever it was. But that sniffer was the best one yet, you sure you don’t want to try it out awhile? Show me how it looks again.

 

What’s on TV?

 

Haven’t been watching.

 

Say…

 

Look! Drones targeting statues. Progress?

 

Proposal.

 

Shoot.

 

Let’s say I did remove that nose with my mind.

 

It was probably just the wind, gravity or somesuch.

 

Would you agree that we would be in keeping with primetime tradition to maintain that because we think we think, we do think?

 

By “we” you mean…

 

Anyone who thinks.

 

Oh, OK.

 

And so, if we do think, then thinking is an event in the world. Which means that it is a manifestation of energy. Of which all things are composed. Which means thoughts can conceivably have effects in the world. Now if, as the pundits maintain, the quality of human thought is what sets Man apart from all other known animals, this suggests that it may be what the Stringsmith was driving at from the get-go when it began to weave energy in space. But where exactly is thought headed these days? If consciousness is the flower of self-reflection, then what do people see in the mirror? Why is the red button wired to total annihilation rather than freshwater?

 

So what do you propose, then?

To pick up from where people have been goofing off, seize their audience, coach them in world peace, and restore paradise!

 

I see.

 

What?

 

Nothing. I’ve just seen a hawk magically transform into a dove, that’s all.

 

Well as you know I have been wondering lately if there’s some effort I might be apt for, whether there’s an intended point to my “existence,” such as it is. And the bar is high, with ancestors as illustrious as mine.

 

Oh yeah, like who?

 

Every effigy ever burned.

 

Golly, Ollie, great pedigree!

 

Do you have some kind of problem with solving the world’s problems?

 

Do you expect to remain a puppet while doing so? Are you planning to continue sitting there?

 

I can’t believe it didn’t occur to me sooner. What other reason for my existence could there be? What better a leader than my wooden wunderself, motley of warriors, poets, kings, prophets and storm-gods? Who haven’t I been? What haven’t I believed? I am the multiple essence of conflicted humanity, objectivity personified, humanity objectified. It’s no dumb luck I’m Most Rented in the shop, on any given workday I am need become motion become ambassador, utterly convincing in my role, that’s why I was made, really I should be posterized for Freedom’s sake—World’s Only Remaining Uberpuppetthree active ingredients, are you kidding? I’m infinitesimal, I inhabit multitudes! Whoever thought humans could handle planetary stewardship? How long did it take them to figure out you could build a tricycle, for heaven’s sake? I was carved to lead.

 

Let’s have a dance then!

 

You know, you never amuse me deliberately. Please stop trying. There’s nothing funny about what I’m saying.

 

There was a man from Florence who looked up at the sky

 

Shut up, I’m trying to think

 

He noticed things in torrents and asked himself, Now why?

 

Now obviously, if I’m going to lead, I must move—

 

A-ha!

 

—others.

 

Oh.

 

 


 

27.

 

Cricketti sat in the darkness of his ship’s cabin with the puppet in its box on his knees, wondering what to do with it. Throw it overboard? It was his instinct—but something held him back. Surely it was not coincidence that it had come back into his company after so long—but why on earth, how on earth…

He found himself thinking, for the first time in half a century, about the only god he had ever known personally. True, she had called herself a fairy, but this was clearly just cosmetic usage, a term of modesty. She’d used him for various purposes, mostly messenger work, and in turn had seen he was never hungry while in her employ; had once even brought him back from the dead, after Pinocchio the puppet had squashed him. She had witnessed all of the puppet’s evil deeds, and had forgiven him each time—but to think that anyone still thought she had anything to do with the creation of the boy! Never for a moment had he believed the story as it had been told in that book. If she had wanted to turn him into a boy, she would simply have made wood flesh. No, that “birth” was just one more Pinocchian prank, astounding and inexplicable as it was—she had just tried to make the most of it, control the damage…

After that fateful day, she had apparently given up on both boy and cricket. Alhough…the fact that Cricketti himself had remained alongside Pinocchio all through the years since—his choice? Or was he—designed—for the purpose? These days, you could never be sure who you worked for. He knew this much: when he failed to produce Houdini upon his return to the palace, Il Duce was bound to be displeased—a most unpleasant prospect. Well, Cricketti had never once failed him before now; perhaps he would exhibit leniency. Or: had he been—designed—to fail? But by whom, exactly? His head began to hurt, his nervous system certainly wasn’t designed for this kind of thought…

“Ah, but you are mistaken, my Talking Cricket.”

“About what precisely?” Cricketti replied before he realized—her voice! He rushed to the tiny porthole and pressed his face against the glass. There she was, between the spreading sea and soaring stars, keeping pace with the eastbound ship like a flag flown from it. Watching her, he felt the beginnings of flight himself, his soul expanding, inflating with joy—a true-sprung joy so different from the simulacra he’d been exhibiting at state occasions these past twenty years. In an instant he saw the fraud he had been, his spontaneous exultation showing him, by contrast, how laborious and wasteful it was to counterfeit love—and so, already he knew that life had changed; that when he returned home, no matter how closely he clung to his old patterns for reasons of inertia and self-protection and those few party principles which he endorsed by gut, from here forward, self-deception and false demonstration would no longer be possible. How many of his countrymen truly believed in their flagward zealotries? He now suspected: not many: most of Italy’s guns were aimed inward, after all. It was time to get out of the advice racket, strike out on his own.

She spun herself into a column of blue, brilliantly filling the circular window as she poured herself through the glass into the room.

“Mistaken in what, My Fairy?”

“The first thing you must know, my old friend, is that I did indeed play a part in freeing Pinocchio’s spirit from the marionette.”

“No! But—”

“To my present regret, I confess. I should have told you long ago. I know how mystified you were. I had wished for him a more generous nature—but my powers are not unbounded. When I moved his soul from the puppet to the boy, I acted without authorization. I was hoping he’d be grateful enough to change his ways, or at least be shocked into doing so; alas, he has grown up to be a most dangerous man. I would like to set things right. But as punishment for my rash emancipation of the spirit of Pinocchio, my powers, modest as they were, were further curtailed by the Queen of Fairies. Only after long penance and repeated petition have I been permitted to deliver the original marionette to you, as I have done—as an experiment, another long shot, but I managed to convince the Queen we had nothing to lose. Also, Cricketti, know that, while I have been granted this one short visit with you, after tonight I don’t know how long it will be before you may see me again. I suppose it depends on how things go from here. It’s in your hands now.”

“What am I to do?”

“Take this marionette with you to Italy. Keep it on your person at all times—but do not, whatever you do, allow Pinocchio, the man, to see it—that is: not until the moment of his death. The way things are going in Rome, this cannot be long in coming. Given your close relationship, it will be natural for you to be at his side when it happens. And then, if we are very lucky, his soul will be reabsorbed into the wood where it began, and the world will be a little bit safer. And then you will be free. Go now, Cricketti, and do my bidding—and keep your wits about you!”

When Cricketti deboarded, he wore on his head a magnificent new top-hat, with strange but doubtlessly chic angles in its sides. This extraordinary hat, he explained to everyone who asked, was not intended to flex his vanity, but rather to conceal the bloody gauze turban protecting a head wound incurred midvoyage in an honor-bout with a communist who fought like an anarchist. It must not be removed until the wound had completely healed, which according to the ship’s doctor would be in his lifetime if he was very lucky. No, he would not be pressing charges or even naming his assailant; such was the benevolence of the new Italian state.

 

*

 

“That hat of yours is very gorgeous. But where is Hedooni?”

“I’m afraid he’s dead, Il Duce.”

“What? I ordered you to transport him to me for consultation and dessert!”

“I know, Il Duce. Something went wrong. I was clear, as you commanded—but maybe a little too clear…he provoked me, you see—he insulted you—”

“I ask you to be a diplomat, you behave as an assassin?”

“He compared your nose to an umbilical stump—”

What! You are treacherous to Italy and country!”

“Of course I’m no traitor, Benito—”

“Luigi, wake up. You have heard the words emitted from Cricketti?”
“Yes, Il Duce.”

“You have heard he how has betrayed me?”

“No, Benito, I would never betray you!”

“Quiet, Talking Man. Luigi, stop his heart now.”

“But sir—”

“Benito—”

“Make him dead or I make both of you dead!”

“Yes, Your Excellency—”

“Please do not injure his hat. It will be his legacy.”

“My old friend, I beg you—”

“Bye-bye, Cricketti.”

“But Pino— ! …”

 

*

 

“Thank you, Luigi.”

“Thank you, Il Duce.”

“The blood of Cricketti is very beautiful, is it not? An unusual color.”

“A lovely hue, Il Duce.”

“Tell me: How is it possible a dear friend can betray us?”

“A dear friend? A true friend can’t.”

“If this is possible, what else is possible? You are my dear friend also?”

“I am your faithful servant.”

“But how may this be verified?”

“Ask me for a glass of milk.”

“Luigi! My thirst lands on milk—now!”

“Here is a glass of milk for Il Duce. Il Duce is a great man. All great men have enemies. Enemies will poison a man’s milk. I will drink of this milk before I give it to Il Duce. Would I drink of this milk, which may be poisoned, if I were not Il Duce’s faithful servant?”

“Luigi, your mother is a virgin. Forget what I once suggested. You have rested my mind. Well. Where is Massimo? Massimo! Enter this room now.”

“What can I do for—Oh my God—Cricketti…””

“I conclude that you see a bloodmaking dead body on my beautiful floor.”

“What’s happened? Oh God—”

“Remove it now, Massimo.”

“But—”

“Would you prefer to lie down next to Cricketti forever with holes in your body?”

“No, Il Duce…”

“Then remove this body. Wash his hat and bring it to me.”

“Yes, Il Duce…”

“Thank you, Massimo. Now—Luigi. Tell me again how it goes, the sentence that we like.”

I am a Fascist because I am Italian.”

“Yes. That is good writing. Who assembled this sentence?”

“Pirandello.”

“Give him money. What is the highest salary for civilians in present-day Italy?”

“In what field?”

“Find out and double the quantity. Double all the salaries except for the salaries of painters. We do not like pictures that stand still. I have reminded myself that is time for our meeting with King Disney. Has he arrived?”

“Um . . . ”

“What is ‘um.’ Il Duce does not like ‘um.’ If he is on board a tardy train, shoot the conductor.”

“Of course, Il Duce.”

“Of course ‘of course.’ This sentence is much better than ‘um.’ I wish to hear no ‘um.’ Now I will dictate. One: All paid persons must communicate love to my flag before breakfast. Two: Let us celebrate my re-election with a vote. Two—”

“Excuse me—”

Who is here now? Enter free of my will. Massimo! Come in. What is that on your hands?”

“Your mail has arrived.”

“Do you see this glass of milk? Will you drink of it to exhibit your fidelity?”

“With pleasure, Il Duce...”

“…Well drunk. Let us examine the correspondence Massimo has brought. What Kodaks are these? Ah! Publicity. Your consent, please.”

“How strong you look in that swimsuit, Il Duce!”

“How commanding you look on that horse, Il Duce!”

“How brave, to fly a plane so high!”

“To drive a car so fast!”

“We is an active man. Wait—do we still have a king?”

“…Yes?”

“Transport the gratitude of Il Duce to the brain of the King for donating his country with no fuss. However, it is better if he tells his friends he did make a fuss. Also I would like to give him a present. Abyssinia. Albania, I meant. You will tell no one of this mistake. Explain to Adolph I am too active to aid him in Alsacia right now. In return I would enjoy the bottom of France. We are popular there so there is no problem. My wife has been inside France three times. My son-in-law is too tall. Reduce. Why have you not brought me Disney? Kings must smell other kings. What has been written in my newspaper?”

“Pirandello just won the Nobel, Il Duce.”

“Good! Who is Nobel?”

“It’s a Swiss award for great achievement.”

“Establish a ministry of investigation to determine why the Swiss enjoy Pirandello more than I do. Two: Italians must be happy at this moment. Therefore pursuit of happiness is anti-Italian. More land is needed to contain Italian happiness. Therefore more war is needed. Therefore peace is anti-Italian and was named after the wrong ocean. However, the Mediterranean is a dainty jewel and many famous ships are buried inside her. Soon she will be named after me. What now arrives?”

“Pirandello has sent us his Nobel Prize medal so that we—it says here…He suggests that we melt it down for ammunition.”

“Good. Send him three women. Unless he is being sarcastic. To be safe: Massimo: Go shoot Pirandello. Also Japan. Go, Massimo. Enough mail, go…”

“Sir, haven’t Germany and Japan formed an alliance?”

“Good point, Luigi. Adolph he has too many friends. Show me Japan on my round wood world.”

“There . . . ”

“…No!”

“Yes, you see: J, A, P, A, N.”

“Ha, ha, ha! Very small country. Hirohito-ito! Ha, ha, ha. Hello Japan! Doochi doochi!

“I’m sorry to interrupt…”

“Continue, Luigi.”

“Did Il Duce want to name both the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea the ‘Mussolini Sea’?”

“Name the Mediterranean Sea the Mussolinian Sea and the Adriatic Sea the Mussoliniatic Sea. This reminds us of the Holy See. Give the pope a country but no land. Late trains are to be melted down and purchased by him to make tchochkes for children. The Disney moving painting about the pretty girl who sleeps. Clara wishes to have a ticket.”

“Of course. Now—”

“Wait. Who is in my doorway? Massimo! I am in no mood to play Name That Pietà. I told you to take away bodies.”

“This is Pirandello, Il Duce. Or was.”

“Where is the bullet hole?”

“Well, we didn’t have to shoot him. Natural causes, as it turns out. Here is his written last request: Wrap me naked in a sheet. No flowers and no candles. A pauper’s cart. Naked. Burn me.”

“Traitor! Give him a state funeral.”

“Of course, Il Duce.”

“Take him away, Massimo! Return only with Disney—alive. Now… Luigi.”

“Yes, Il Duce.”

“I made one mistake. It is my spouse who has been inside France and my mistress who wishes to see the moving painting. Do not mix this up again.”

“OK…”

“Massimo! You do not yet go? Go, go!”

“Walt Disney from the Magic Kingdom here to see Il Duce, Il Duce.”

“Good. Massimo and Luigi go. Great men stay in room.”


 

28.

 

I believe my CV demonstrates that I am well, if unconventionally, prepared for the field of psychic research, and that (if nothing else) the many years I have spent on the shelf, which to some in more “established” occupations might seem idle time, in fact make me uniquely qualified for my proposed research. Quite simply, I have thought a great deal. Also, I swear to any god you might care to name that I absolutely and completely in no way have, nor have I ever had, a “subconscious,” which means that any psychic events which occur in my mind will not go unnoticed. Furthermore, I have watched a great deal of television and have had the privilege of personally viewing numerous shows starring prominent mind readers, spoon benders, and occultists in both documentary and interview formats. I am familiar with all major primetime series in which the supernatural is a recurring plot device, and firmly believe that Marshall McLuhan, if he knew me, would call me not a couch potato, but a hot potato. My extensive exposure to radio waves from various television sets has made my brainwaves, of which I have many, exceptionally receptive to suggestion, and accustomed them to a complex range of atmospheric fluctuation. My lack of metabolism and personal attachments make me especially suited for tireless application to the task at hand. In addition, and far from least, I bring to the table a comprehensive background in the theatrical arts, where my many responsibilities have included: 1) direct participation in the simulation of many dramatic situations in which my characters have hunches, irrational feelings, and premonitions, or “just know” something (e.g., THIRD WITCH in Macbeth, FORTUNE TELLER in The Skin of Our Teeth, CASSANDRA (various works), and many more; see attached List of Roles); 2) (in my capacity as a string marionette) sensitivity to information communicated almost invisibly over distances of up to twelve feet (I cannot stress enough the direct application of such experience to my proposed research in light of Stephen Hawking’s suspicion (the suspicion of another investigator who cannot much “move” but has nonetheless done great things for people) that strings comprise the basic structural unit of our universe; 3) travel to more countries than the President, which has expanded my mind and doubtless greatly increased my powers of visualization, which are indispensable, as you know, to this work. In conclusion, and in trust that simple frankness in the wake of these incomparable credentials will not go unappreciated, I would like to emphasize my sheer desire to apply myself to this work. As this is the first time I have ever wanted to do anything whatsoever, and use my mind is the only thing I can do, I am sure I will prove to be a dedicated and valuable contributor to my chosen field of psychic research.

 

And why exactly do you wish to enter this field?

 

Per the humans’ perennially submitted application to steward the universe, their ace is conscious thought. But when it comes to their own salvation, they are suspicious and self-important customs inspectors indifferent to their own credentials regarding the full range of their powers. They are frightened and mistrustful of what they call their own “subconscious” and stigmatize their sixth sense, the only thing that can save them—their loss—wherein lies my future, wherein lies their salvation. I believe in a better world through ESP. Positive thinking is just feel-good rhetoric unless it is back up with serious mental muscle.

 

To what end do you see applying the results of your findings?

 

I intend to develop control of my thoughts, and ultimately of my body. There are puppets awaiting their puppeteer. I believe I am that puppeteer.

Call me a lunatic, what do I care? Mind as people know it has been child’s play, compared to where I will go. Who better than a puppet pioneer for colonizing the coming Thought Zone? Whose nature more naturally defies Natural Law? I myself am a psychic phenomenon, my own best proof the meat in my barebones endeavor. And if humans ever even learn of my existence—ever think to call me anything—that will be conclusive proof of the soundness of my hypothesis. They ate of knowledge and it made of them disciples of statistics, slaves to data, addicted to the probable, lost to the possible—I will feed them Ignorance and set them free.

Puppet, make a vow. Remain as thou art, but be more so. Let thy thoughts promulgate not in wood but in further thoughts. Master this nebulous circling universe which whirls in space like a disco-ball holograph. Allow no history to stay thy hand, nor hope to jostle it. Let neither metaphor nor hyperbole confound thy blossoming insight. Let all those selves which roost in thee flock and migrate toward the event horizon, yet never mass to turn human. Do no more than necessary, then cease doing. Never not a puppet.

 

*

 

Do you remember that woman paralyzed from the waist down, some workaday bombing? They filmed a year of her physiotherapy. To recover control over her limbs, she needed to search out new nerve paths through which her intentions could actualize—too complex an operation to be performed by the conscious mind. And so she was taught to focus exclusively on her desired effect. To curl her toes, for instance, she had only to wish to curl them—then see if they responded. Day in, day out, she did this, repeatedly thrusting her will out into the mysterious void between wish and result. Bit by bit she regained much of her movement this way—with zero understanding as to how. I will have to proceed by a similar method, since I have no idea of what precisely needs to happen in order for my mind to affect the world. Like her, I must rely entirely on feedback to measure my evolving skill.


 

29.

 

“That you, Ben?”

“This is Il Duce speaking now. Come into his light, Il Disney.”

“Don’t mind if I do—jeepers, swell digs!—but only if you will kindly shine that light’a yers down upon a very special item I happen to have with me—hold on—whoa, fancy handshake!—sorry I’m late. World’s like a hen-house and the fox let in . . . where is it now—”

“Yes, the borders are difficult. This is why we are building for my people the new city of Mussolinia in South, where all Italians can go to forget their troubles without a visa. You enter frowning but you must exit smiling.”

“Got a train round the outside? Allow me to suggest it for convenience— Here it is! Here we go, Ben: a little house gift. This here’s a brand-new Mickey Mouse watch. I only brought one but it should suffuse. Here, whyn’t ya gimme one a them fancy handshake poses, thattaboy…”

“We recognize this mouse.”

“Excellent craftsmanship, notice: Ingersoll. Which were a rat’s tail from ruin afore they met this fella here. Now they all live in paradise thanks to Mickey—viola!”

“We have been informed that this mouse is Adolph’s favorite mouse.”

“Hirohito’s got one, they love me over there. That too tight? How’s it feel?”

“It is a little bit tight. After all, we are not Hedooni, eh?”

“There, that’s better. Looks swell on you, Ben.”

“You know Hedooni?”

“I already ate, thanks.”

“Yankee King of Handcuffs. He wears a straight jacket. Il Duce killed him accidentally by deputy.”

“Then that leaves just li’l ole me over there. Escape’s my territory, Ben. ’Fact—”

“Hedooni taught soldiers to escape but he taught the wrong soldiers.”

“Ben I gotta tell ya I think you’re doin’ just fine without Houdini goin’ Esther Williams on your fine army here, he weren’t half the giraffe of yourself—what you’ve done with your land over here? You’re what we call in my country a real professional. You got no need of Houdini, my friend—and yet! There happens to be an American, Ben, a livin’ breathin’ American whose services you’d do much better to employ, and Ben—you’re glarin’ at him.”

“You make good items.”

“Exactly.”

“Our wife enjoyed your moving painting.”

“What? Which one?”

“Yes, or mistress. She told us you use many colors.”

Snow White, then, yup. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about, Ben. This road you’re on, the achromatical highway, I been down it, ain’t the same. I know you love the black, Mr. Doochie, and it suits you fellas dandy, but color is what you want in the mornin’. Bright happy colors, bright happy music. Costs more goin’ in but it comes out champagne. It’s what the people of this world line up for, Ben.”

“We do not drink French milk.”

Say, that’s a swell watch you’re wearin’, can I see that?”

“The wife of Il Duce tells us your music is better than Hitler’s.”

“Well I’ll say this for the Fuhrer, he learned everything he knows about music from me.”

“Ha! He learned all his speech methods from me! With the moving arms, like this.”

“Hey, careful!”

“But he does not dress with eternal style.”

“Quick study though, your wife’s right. Me I got the mustache from Furie though but Stalin’s is better than both ours. In heaven I’ll shave the whole dome like yourself, thing’s I gotta skull shaped like a batfish, lose credit with all but the blind. And they don’t draw so good so they ain’t oodles on the premises. Tell ya somethin’ else, Ben, don’t mean ta be pushy but I can see we’re two nostrils in a nose, you and I—warms the soul to say so, softens the reserves! My skivvy’s your skivvy, y’hear? This mustache? Check it out. It’s the only one in my whole organization. I’m the only salaried member who’s got one, see? The law’s in place: You can’t be on the Disney dole with hair on yer face, howbout that? Mighty proud’a that. Never been called on it either—just once: a week before they organized, some penny-loafing mole in the pencil pool shows up one day in sideburns. Praise God for that though—there’s a wolf at the door, you wanna hear about it—but I was ready for ’em, had the cliff in place. Can’t argue with the punchcard, she’s a legality! Can you imagine, wanting to be paid for goin’ to the washroom? Next thing they’ll be callin’ fer screen credit.”

“Yes, this is good leadership. Myself, we shoot Marxists. And also we am a Marxist. Do not tell anyone or—”

“Learn that one from Hitler?”

“God.”

He knows what I’m talkin’ about, he built Hollywood, New Eden in my book, tellin’ ya: Music plus Color equals Victory, Ben. They’ll come a day when the whole earth’s everything’ll be made’a, taught by, sold and bought by, healed, led and lullaby’d by Music’n’Color. And ya know why? Word to the worldly: we’re all of us animals here. And who’s the wildest of ‘em all? Them that’s close to birth: the cubs, the puppies, the tadpoles, the chickadees, the wild leaking squealing squalking babes in the mornin’ woods, the crosshairs do indicate, angels every one of ‘em. Comprendy? The children, Ben.”

“Yes. Here we say ‘Little Wolfs.’”

“Tomorrow’s parents, Ben.”

“This we have learned from you.”

“Show me a shareholder never was toilet trained and help yerself to sheepless cashmere, cause we’re all of us little lambs in here, Ben. Where it counts we are each of us mewlin’ kitties wantin’ love, safety, and protection which in my Kingdom that’s a given, praise-be the perimeter. So, growin’upwise, what comes next after a safe place to suckle—but before the urge to marry—what’s the burnin’ drive? Entertainment! Color and Music, mark my words—not that ya need to, not many can, school ain’t fun enough, words is yesteryear: conveniently!”

“Fascist scholhouses contain special meals.”

“Exactly! No critter of any age wants to go without supper—but then the mind quickly hops to diversion, ain’t it so? Poppin’ eyes and hoppin’ feet and their hearts’ll follow. It’s all in the daft and the innocent’s the key.”

“In our country we tax all bachelors. If a mother gives birth five times, we autograph my picture for her reward.”

Love the one with the lion.”

“That cat scratched Il Duce’s arm. Il Duce sentenced it to zoo. If she names her son Benito, we autograph two pictures.”

“Sounds like there’s gonna be an awful lot of Benito-inis runnin’ around.”

“Family is value.”

“’Course but won’t it get confusin’?”

“No. They will be many years smaller than me.”

“That’s one thing I don’t think I could pull off back home. Folks still quite attached to their names. In a few years, hopeful.”

“It is necessary to make a deal with Pope.”

“Yeah? Funny thing is even I could get all the tots named Walt, the signature’d be a problem. Hired a Jew once to spec one for me, looked great so we kept it for the logo but I’ll be a starlet cowpie if I can dupe it. That was ten years back. Hain’t limned a toon in twice longer’n that but no shame there, never drew worth a snail’s rear anyhow.”

“Maybe you studied with Adolph? He paints with his ass. We have one painting he made. It is so bad.”

“Really? Always thought he had a fine color sense.”

“Early Hitler. If we look, we cannot contain my laughter. To contain my laughter we must look at the Mona Lisa. This makes us cry. To maintain a functional status of no-laughter and not-crying we must look back and forth very fast from Mona Lisa to Hitler for two hours and forty-seven minutes.”

“Never hired another Semite neither, come to think of it.”

“We have an award from the Jews: Best Italian Gentile.”

“Same with me in America!”

“It is not good policy to like Jews.”

“Nope, that’s right, there was one other: Filipo Pearlstein, an accountant—was Bank of Italy forever, you know em? Then they changed the name, had to tear up all my checks. But I stayed true cause they believe in me—that’s what I’m talking about. Ben, and what I wanna know: do you believe in me? Cause I get the feeling I can trust you, and I wanna know you feel the same, that’s the only way a variety of folks of this world can really do some business. I think I can help you, Doochie.”

“No. We can help you!”

“You help me just by bein’ you, Ben.”

“Speak Disney’s idea. Then we will speak Il Duce’s idea.”

“Right. See that watch you’re wearin? Other arm—now you’re gettin’ it. That watch there’s a little example of a leadership technique known as Marketing. And I’m not talkin’ veggies. Talkin’ reachin’ deep inside, Ben. Jus’ look at little Mickey sittin’ there on yer arm, ain’t that cute? Why he really makes checkin’ the time a true pleasure, one’a the delightful pleasures of life, don’t he? You know the time, you’re halfway to orientation, ain’t ya. See how snazzy his whiskers look there against the little dark hairs on yer wrist, that little smile, those fancy ears, did you ever see such a smart critter—”

“You know Pinocchio?”

“Don’t he just make you wish for a extra panel in the Cistern Chapel? Now Ben, just picture it—”

“Il Duce orders Disney to produce a famous moving painting: The Adventures of Pinocchio.”

“Just picture Mickey sittin’ atop the right pencil pocket of every black shirt in your nation!”

“This is the favorite story of Italy. “

“Right here on yer left pectaloonius—”

“IL DUCE IS SPEAKING HIS IDEA NOW.”

“Yessir.”

“Disney will create Pinocchio. He will tell Pinocchio’s story to America. They will understand and be improved. If the movie good, we will sign the treaty for this mouse.”

“Be a bit of a delay there, Mr. Doochie, takes time ta script and draw and—”

“Yes or go.”

“You got yerself a deal, Ben—and a bargain too, daresay.”

 

*

 

Arms serenely interglommed in a groundbreaking posture of international understanding, the two leaders strode across the sublime floor tiles. As they reached the far end of the room, turning toward each other for their final farewell, the doors were pushed open from without and Massimo flew in with irreverent haste and collided with the handshaking, shoulder-clasping pair, causing the object he carried to shoot into the air in a triple somersault and crash to the floor. Pinocchio bounced once with a piercing snap and landed asprawl the vamps of four Ferragamos and two Hush Puppies, while its nose broke off and skittered spinning across the marble parquet and disappeared underneath a floor-to-ceiling black velvet curtain.

Mussolini and Disney were too stunned by the collision to notice the slipjob fate of the puppet’s nose. And Massimo was too frightened of the consequences to confess that the puppet had been damaged as a result of his heedless rush into the room. Retrieving the marionette from its twisted pile at the statesmen’s feet, readjusting Il Duce’s trouser cuffs, dusting off the tops of Disney’s shoes, he explained to his leader that the palazzo’s undertaker had discovered the marionette under the late Cricketti’s top hat; thinking fast, he added that, regretfully, it had arrived noseless from America. (Only fair, Disney pointed out, since half the Roman statues in America were noseless.)

Looking at the deformed Pinocchio lovingly cradled in his aide’s arms, Benito Mussolini was inexplicably overwhelmed with—o, the effrontery of his racing heart!—emotions. But it had been ages since he’d been steeped in actual personal feeling, and it fogged him. On the surface of his mental sea was an elusive flotsam of longing and belonging, homesickness, need, thoughts of his parents, childhood friends, pets, toys—a juggernaut of charged shards that he wrestled into a simple diagnosis: While there were surely millions of such puppets in the world, to his knowledge this was the first to appear, suddenly, albeit noseless, in the cortex of the nation, as if a gift from the ghost of a once-cherished senior officer. This generous remembrance of Cricketti re-glitched his brain, and he shook his head to rid himself of looming questions, his flair for destiny seeping back into his cheeks. That this puppet should appear on this day of all days! His ambassador had found its perfect embodiment at just the right moment. Surely an omen to stir the most solid heart, even to overflowing. The course of action was clear, and Mussolini almost wept with relief.

Disney promised to take good care of the Pinocchio puppet, and to model his version on its proportions to a T. That his model had no nose was no problem, he’d do the drawings on the flight home.

 

*

 

Pinocchio’s nose sat like a small stray torpedo in the shadows of Il Duce’s black curtain. Underneath its tip, which loomed nigh half an inch in space over the floor, sat the Talking Cricket in his original size and form.

Though he hadn’t been this small for a century, he was beginning to suspect he was immortal. Clearly his endurance was some special quality intrinsic to him, independent of the Blue Fairy’s commands. After all, she had told him herself that her powers had been suspended until Benito’s death at the earliest. And yet here he was, again destroyed yet very much alive. The grandeur of this revelation was underscored by the awesome nose tip soaring above him like a wing of the mighty Cigogna. He felt at peace. It was a relief to once again be a fly on the wall, so to speak. He settled down for a nap in the crevice where the nose met the floor. He was in the best of moods—

Damn! But he had failed her, hadn’t he? Il Duce was on the fast track to doom and the marionette was on its way back to America. There was no way now he could finagle the Pinocchio soul back into the puppet. Unless…How big is a soul? Small enough for a puppet, big enough for a man, that much he knew. Adjustable, then. Could it be secured in a nose? Which had always had charisma. It was his only hope—he’d have it for hypothesis.

He’d have to learn to control it, somehow. He wondered if he could even move it. He hopped to his feet and gave it a nudge. It didn’t budge. He took a few steps back and used the wall as leverage to fling himself out and smack against it with his head. It lurched, dislodged from whatever purchase it had found, and slowly began to roll under the curtain toward the light of the room. He ran around to the other side and stood fast blocking its path. It stopped easy enough. It wasn’t really heavy, just cumbersome. He rolled it back till it met the wall and cajoled it into a gentle stop, then grabbed a spider carcass lying nearby, fresh enough, not too brittle, and wedged it underneath the nose to keep it from rolling during the night.

 


30.

 

The priests of prediction have spoken. It’s cold outside and will remain so until the next commercial break. On sunny days they beam like proud parents. Today they are embarrassed, and presumptuous past credulity. The human desire for a worthy archnemesis is so acute that on days when the wars are too quiet for comfort, the TV turns full smarm upon nature—as if rain were some sort of household pest, as if the Earth’s off its rocker and humans shouldn’t consider themselves lucky to have been invited at all. You’d think they were all born yesterday, which they were by any clock worth a tock. When I am puppeteer, all clocks will be worth a tock.

Maybe as a former tree you’re especially sensitive to such things?

 

Right, possibly ozone was old hat, what do I know. Anyhow it’s good to be reminded of why things need to change around here.

 

It might help if you could avoid succumbing to your own emotions. Discipline is probably key to your agenda.

 

How are we doing so far?

 

What was it you are shooting for, exactly?

 

I’m attempting, via the power of suggestion, to make the entire world exactly seventy-two degrees Farenheit.

 

Ambitious!

 

Well it can’t hurt to try, if only to exercise my nascent telekinetic organ.

 

Why don’t you start with something simpler? More—verifiable?

 

I should think that if the whole world were to suddenly be seventy-two degrees we’d hear of it but probably you’re right—

 

Thermometer tycoons in league with snowshoe magnates—

 

Could take years to verify, so OK: the meteorologist is smiling now, this should be easy. I am beaming out the fingers of my mind to tweak some gravity into her expression, I am pulling down the corners of her mouth. Down, down, down…No look, she’s smiling even more. About what, I’d like to know?

 

Perhaps your will, like the image in many optical systems, gets inverted in action?

 

Now she is frowning—did I do that, or is it raining again? She cuts to a commercial.

 

A liquid is being poured into a glass. I try to slow it down…A-hah!

 

Bravo!

 

Definitely missed my calling. If I can do that with ads, think what we could have done for the war. Another possibility: we are able to affect only prerecorded footage. Another: we already saw that one, knew it slows down.

 

Stay focused…

 

There is a problem with the meteorologist’s hair—it looks as though she had no time to fix before coming back on the air. We gently, mentally brush it back from her forehead. She cuts away to a cyclone stalker for a few seconds, now she’s back—her hair is in place. Did she adjust it herself while off-camera? We cannot be sure. What appears to have been an illusion accomplished by via a standard misdirection technique may in fact have been a reality accomplished by quite unusual means (groundbreaking audience participation, ours). Inconclusive but encouraging. Boy it’s tough to be your own control group. Oh look, the wind has changed. Perhaps we should have started here. Wind is weightless, our perfect metier. In the meteorological theater, there is very little you can’t do by deft manipulation of wind…no. Cause and effect are not cooperating. Our attempt to decorate the continent with a handful of benign tornadoes fares no better than our attempted manipulation of the anchorwoman’s smile.

 


 

31.

 

Laughter makes a cozy cocoon in which dictators can almost believe they are alone, an elite club of two in private conference, not on the town in Munich with an entourage of dozens, millions gaga. Laughter also looks good if anyone’s looking. The only people who wouldn’t want to see them laughing together are not worth considering, thieves of good oxygen.

Mussolini’s out of ammo; he devises a riddle for which he has no punchline: “Did you hear the one of the Jewish kamikazi?”

As it happens, this is the opening salvo to one of Hitler’s favorite jokes, which he has been saving; he is surprised to hear it deployed by the Italian, and his surprise boosts the humor he finds in the remembered rejoinder. He laughs; he enjoys the sound, it reminds him of his first automobile.

Mussolini’s relief at the lucky hit feeds his own laughter, even while his mind races in anticipation of his next turn.

The two men laugh and wave to the cameras lining their way like so many roses.

Hitler hears the relief in Mussolini’s laugh, understands what has just happened, and it inspires him to take a chance of his own. He has a few more jokes left, but senses he can get away with a blank: “Have you heard the one about the two Jews facing a firing squad?”

They explode simultaneously with enormous laughter. Hitler’s laugh was meant to lead Mussolini’s past the expectant pause that would require the punchline to be pronounced. But the image summoned in Mussolini’s mind by the riddle is so amusing that he doesn’t need to be led. Hitler’s ploy has worked.

The dictators have entered an enchanted realm of humor in which it hardly matters what is said. They are laughing not at jokes, not at Jews, but at sheer existence: theirs is the laughter of buddhas and giddy children.

Riding along on this bliss of humor and mutual good feeling, Mussolini asks: “Did you hear the one about the Jewish S.S. commander?” He laughs and waves and elbows his friend, surely “friend” is an appropriate term, nothing makes friends like shared laughter, and then he realizes he is laughing alone, and walking alone, his elbow has jostled no one, and he shivers sharp and brief from the chill of friendlessness. He halts and looks around and sees that Hitler is several steps behind him, pale, silent, arms folded, legs stolidly apart.

To retrace his steps back to Hitler would be a tactical error. Even Mussolini, who is awkward when it comes to the subtleties of state, knows this, though he doesn’t understand precisely what has gone wrong. His own newspapers have been brazenly referring to him as “Hitler’s puppet”; he must do nothing to fortify such slander. He too stands still, facing Hitler from several paces away. He considers himself superior to his opponent in the art of standing still, the power of which he has learned from careful study of Disney cartoons. He has observed that Disney rarely duplicates a frame; but when he does, he will do it as long as is necessary without fear.

“You have not heard the one about the Jewish S.S. commander?” he demands of his opponent, attempting to sound offensive while his mind races. He wonders whether he will have to supply a punchline—what could it be: He takes Saturday off ? Hell, this was a situation for Parliament, he was expected to be witty on the fly like this? Why hadn’t they better prepped him, this was an important meeting. Another approach: “Adolph—”

“Mr. Mussolini. While I admire many aspects of your command, there are subjects whose gravity you fail to grasp.”

Realizing he was out of the funny-woods and back in the meadows of braggadocio, Il Duce relaxed and said, “Adolph. We fear German humor is soft in the middle like your food and dogs. Also your skin is very pale this afternoon. Why not vacation in Italy? One week in the South would suffice. Idea.”

“I am the first person to say I need a vacation, Mr. Mussolini, but the immediate future requires my sober and unsublimated attention. Say what you will about my sense of humor, it is your country that, like its males and salute, is soft in the middle. I fear for you, and for the many world treasures in your trust. You jeopardize Rome with your laxity. That glorious, ancient and eternal lupine cosmopolis must be protected. If you do not batten up, I will be forced to assist you.”

“Is this why Il Duce invited you to Munich? To be threatened and maligned by his own pupil? Well. We are busy. If you have said everything you have to say—”

“Did you bring the list of names I requested?”

“We believe I forgot them, they are on our desk at home.”

“That is not acceptable!”

“Our mistress spilled good milk on them during our morning copulation. They must dry or else the ink will run and become illegible.”

“What do you think this is, some dirty joke? I am disappointed beyond reparations! You wanted a seat at the Fuhrer’s table; I gave you a seat directly beside him. I should have listened to Eva. She told me you were a clown the first time she saw you in the newsreels. A sawdust caesar, she said. I stood up for you, defended you. Eva, I said, he’s a great man, just give him some time, he’ll rise to the occasion, but now I see she was right. You are passé, a nobody, a shambles—”

“Adolph, are you complete? There is someplace Il Duce must be.”

Here is where you must be! We have much to discuss—twice as much as I thought, thanks to your imbecility. You will remain and repair. Nobody ends a meeting with the Fuhrer except the Fuhrer!”

“On all other days we will agree with Adolph, but today is a special day. Our Disney painting Pinocchio opens in Europe and—”

“That is impossible!”

“You know Pinocchio?”

“We have forbidden all propaganda!”

“You are wrong. It will be showing in London—”

London? What is London? You say this word ‘London’ as if you had relatives there. London is not Europe! London is the enemy! You cannot be thinking of going to London—”

“We have arranged a special screening. Join us, Mr. Hitler. You will like this picture very much, it was commissioned from—”

“I forbid you to attend this screening!”

“We are informed that you also have admiration for King Disney—”

“I cannot believe the Fuhrer is second to the American vaudeville in your diplomatic schedule, nor that you are intending to cavort behind enemy lines, nor that you are apparently welcome there.”

“No! We must wear a disguise.”

“You swore to me your eternal allegiance—”

“Come with us, Adolph. It will do you good. We have met King Disney. He is our friend.”

“You pathetic child!”

“He is working for us.”

“Have you seen the films he’s made against both our countries? He’s recruiting millions of children in the fight against my cause!”

“No matter. We have appointed Pinocchio to be the Axis ambassador in America.”

“Pinocchio is a puppet!”

“Pinocchio is Italy!”

“You sap!”

“Now we must go capture our plane or miss the Movietone preshow.”

“Out of my sight, Mediterraean beast! If you leave now, you can forget our agreement!”

“We have extra tickets. Maybe there is someone you would like to bring?”

“I vomit on your country!”

 

*

 

Dear King Disney,

 

It is with great personal sorrow, and fear for what I had hoped would be our brilliant mutual future, that I write you today in regard to your empire’s hostile moving painting Pinocchio. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that one man has betrayed his personal promise to another, it is indeed a sad day for Italy when a fellow regime, poised to do such good in the world, opts to pursue cheap jokes and national self-interest at the cruel expense of the Italian first son. It is due entirely to my own indomitable optimism—not the consensus of my unconsolable staff, I assure you, who have advised no less than the imposition of complete diplomatic quarantine upon your misguided, if not by now totally corrupt, government—it is to the sunny entrenchment of my own Mediterranean soul, as I say, that the present letter owes its existence, and I trust you will decode it carefully so that, whatever the ultimate fallout of your treachery, at the very least we may proceed with maximal understanding of our respective positions.

For the purposes of reinstating dialogue between our nations, in a timely manner while the event in question is still fresh in all our minds, I have decided to confine my comments here to the first five minutes of your aggressive animation. Therefore you will be able to consider with care your response to these few initial points while I prepare a more comprehensive and detailed inventory of my position:

 

1.   “Walt Disney Presents” should be “Il Duce Presents.” Did you forget the Agreement forged in my office? Whose idea was it to enlist Pinocchio for our mutual (or so I believed) cause? Whose “present” was it, when a certain puppet was given by one man to another?

 

2. Clocks on the interior wall of Gepetto’s cottage should be better synchronized.

 

3. When the cricket accidentally rests his hand on the buttock of the figurine with the parasol, she does not react; she should either strike him with the parasol or demand payment.

 

4. There are so many things wrong with the figure of Pinocchio that I am forced to assume you never once consulted the wooden prototype with which I so graciously presented you. Problems here include, but are not limited to: a) blue eyes (a grotesquity); b) Tyrolean hat (I am an ally of Germany, not his butler); a nose like a cocktail sausage. I realize that the prototype you were given was missing its nose, but I thought I was clear enough on this important point during our negotiatons. When I introduced you to David in my office, my meaning was to contrast the old, parochial Italian membership with the empirical new; David is the old—Florentine, overly ornamented, of petite and fixed dimensions; Pinocchio is the new—Roman, columnal, expansive. I do appreciate that the curvature is concave in relation to the sky, not Semitically arched—but without substantial girth and longevity, it protrudes like the posterior of a fat worm half buried in the puppet’s head, which is to say parasitical, ingrown, minuscule, mealy. What we want is a scepter, a bowsprit! It is possible that I may be of further assistance on this matter, having launched an investigative operation to locate the original nose, which, when found, I shall convey to your kingdom after you have demonstrated your eagerness to cooperate.

 

That should be enough to get you started. I look forward to your response with sincere esperation that we will find common ground in which we may plant the flag of our sympathy. Needless to say, the Mickey Mouse project will remain on hold in Rome until that time.

 

Your would-be brother in the global war against mediocrity,

 

Benito Mussolini

 


 

32.

 

We’re twenty minutes into a two-hour show, no commercials if you TURN TO IT NOW, DUMMY!

 

Is there really some other show you’re interested in, or are you practicing?

 

Nah, he’s not listening. You know, I’m starting to think your skeptical attitude is having an unfavorable effect on my results.

 

Me, skeptical? My only doubt is that you’re not aiming high enough. I think you should go the whole hog, remember? All this ambition and effort are silly, if you insist on remaining stationary. If the world needs you, as you claim.

 

This is no longer up for discussion.

 

Oh no—!

 

What?

 

Oh nothing, what were you saying?

 

What? Oh no…

 

*

 

What was done in the dark has come to light, and I’m sure they think it brightens the primetime per diem. They’ve “found” the Disney Pinocchio. The original, they’re calling it, inevitably, an artists’ model constructed by Bob Jones for the studio at the outbreak of production.

Disney had sent his people back to school to learn how to draw a proper figure. But apparently they’d learned too well, returned slipping on the tenets of simplicity, so Walt hired Bob away from Grauman’s Chinese Theater to build a live-wood model for his followers to work from—an archetype to ensure continuity across the imminent 88-minute Technicolor myth. When the film was unleashed in 1940, the model was retired to a shelf in the Ink & Paint Department—where Disney kept his female workers.

The film was a smash, Time marched on, the puppet was stashed far and away and forgotten until yesterday when the bowels of the building were dredged up during renovation. The house historian can hardly contain herself, We’re thrilled. We wept! Pinocchio was found exactly as they left him and not a trace of decay. We should all look like that at his age, just look at him! But don’t touch without wearing these special gloves—he must be protected from contact with our dermatological oils. We want him to last so future generations can also enjoy him. Here, watch this—you see how articulated? He was made from the lightest possible materials to enable him to move freely. He will be on permanent display.

 

*

 

How are you feeling?

 

…afraid, maybe?

 

Of what, exactly.

 

Well, you know how it is with disasters. The sponsors can’t resist, which means the world will be one big Pinocchio Channel till the next one comes along, this thing will spread in every direction, more productions, more screenings, they’ll drudge up all the forgotten minor versions, they’ll be panel discussions, “Wish Upon a Star” on infinite repeat, there’ll be a terrible trickledown effect, children who have never heard of the twighead will be asking their parents about him…Already they’re desperate for new bits to air, I’ve seen that toadie PR clip a dozen times—Christ just look at those eyelashes, that insidious grin, that lolling head, thousands of flashbulbs further enflatuating him, this stringless smarmy pretender to a cardboard throne, this whoremaster’s prop—please wake me when it’s over. I would like to go to sleep now…Am I sleeping? I can’t watch…

 

I know you don’t like when I talk about this, but it’s possible that your resistance to dreams makes you averse to sleep, even if you think you want to fall asleep—

 

How the hell am I supposed to become master of the universe if I can’t even pass out out on cue!

 

Try to stay positive. Uri Geller said that was the key to his success.

 

The man who wore out a Geiger counter by thinking about nuclear explosions? Thanks for the tip.

 

 

 


 

33.

 

The Talking Cricket liked to imagine that the nose fondly remembered him and was happy to do all it could to help him. Constant practice had conditioned it to roll and stop at the tap of a wing. He had even perfected a method by which it could virtually leap up a staircase on its own, seeming to move with force congruent to its master’s wishing, as opposed to a cricket’s actual strength and ability. (It was always wishes that had made it grow, the cricket believed, the longing for truth as it receded.) And so together they made their way to the inner lining of Benito’s favorite jacket, where they settled under an armpit. They had plenty of room, for frequent ripping had taught the palace tailors to take measurements against Il Duce’s drastic arm-waving, gesticulations that had only become more spasmodic with the crumbling of his empire.

The cricket had nibbled a path to a natural peephole just above Benito’s breast pocket. Several times a day he ventured forth to look out, and mark his old companion’s lonely progress through the darkening days. From his perch he had watched his old companion’s adam’s apple throb at the treacherous unilateral surrender of Germany; seen the palace physician’s haunted eyes as he told Benito he was “as pale as death”; looked deep into the mouth of a cardinal telling Benito it was time for repentence. He was disappointed to see Benito was bearing arms again—a submachine gun these days. He heard an aide on the other side of a grimy door begging on behalf of Benito’s wife and children to please see them if only for a few minutes. He felt the old boy’s heart beating hard through his vestment as Benito denied their request. One phone call to his wife was all he would grant, and the cricket’s antennae toyed with the telephone cord while Benito told her, “There is no one any more. I am alone,” then hung up and phoned his mistress and asked her to do what she could to help his wife through these difficult days. The cricket saw the shamed faces and slumping shoulders of defectors, watched from behind a curtain when enemy armies were greeted as liberators.

Lake Como and its valley were as gorgeous as ever, and easier to appreciate through the window now that their traveling column had deserted. Dead fascists lined the roads. He heard only German spoken for two whole days until Clara was spirited into their traveling compartment, the warmth of her breasts surrounding the cricket as Benito embraced her. The car traveled half an hour more, than slowed and stopped again.

A tree was in their path, held in place by stones. The door opened and a bundle of cloth was thrust at Benito, which he unfolded—a German topcoat, several sizes too small. Clara helped him squeeze into it, and the cricket’s view was obscured. He ducked back to make sure that the nose was secure, then returned to the peephole, squeezed through it and made a daring dash out and across the man’s chest into the shade of the topcoat’s collar. Benito’s chin loomed into view and rested upon his chest, and the cricket heard his pretend snores, smelling his old’s friend’s willpower as it rode by on the exhales. The car started up again, and traveled for a while, but it was only a matter of time. Benito took no further steps to avoid his fate. He sat like a puppet while they wound bandages round his head to improve his disguise, Clara speaking her love for him and begging him to stay strong. He slept when they told him, or at least lay still where they put him, walked when and where they told him to. They changed automobiles in the rain and headed up into the mountains, stopping for the night in the small house of a peasant family.

The next morning Benito ate a simple breakfast in bed, Clara sitting in a chair at his side, watching him. They were no longer speaking, but it was not an awkward silence. The guards posted outside their room were courteous. That afternoon a mediocre tax accountant of Benito’s distant acquaintance arrived attired in an officer’s costume, affecting flamboyant airs, and ordered them to follow him. They left the cottage and entered yet another automobile, traveled along a lovely road deep into the forest, stopping by the gate of a secluded villa. Everyone got out. It was a beautiful, sun-dappled evening. The accountant read the charges, then the sentence, and Benito and Clara were shot by a squad of former fascists as they stood side by side against a low stone wall.

 

*

 

Mussolini’s day-old dead head snapped and bounced upside down next to Clara’s, and the nose slipped out of the corpse’s pocket, the cricket astride it, leaning back on his mount to slow it as they surfed down the bloodied neck, tumbled over the battered jaw, slipped on drooling lips and thumped to a pause between lips and nostrils—where, the cricket reflected, he himself had time to inhale, so perhaps everything was OK—then, thrown by the violent jerks and twists of the dangling man, bug and nose flew down and thwacked together on the asphalt below. He had never heard such a crowd! And in runty Milan, of all places! These were the cheers the young Pinocchio had spoken of in his restless sleep, energy so fiercely approving the cricket thought his ears would blow out.

 


 

34.

 

Pinocchenstin, Pinocchio After Dark, A Nose for Evil, Best of the Worst of Pinocchio—

 

Just. Look. Away.

 

Pinocchio in the jungle with an AK-47. Probably it’s Saturday morning. Socrates would have approved. The children must be spectators!

 

Or maybe you should watch. Face your demons.

 

Something tropin, I need a tropin—

 

Oh spare me the shillyshally.

 

It’s a physical thing, you know? Can you feel it?

 

You go on and on about how disgusted you are with Pinocchio and his “betrayal” of the puppet world, but everything you are is poached from the Other Side, and you’re no more honest with yourself than he was with others. You claim you feel nothing, next second you’re like chattering gag-shop teeth, mad with opinions—

 

I am a blackboard and you are a fingernail. As Hepburn said at Alcatraz—

 

At least Pinocchio knew he was made of wood.

 

No he didn’t, look at that face, that—

 

He knew it well enough to want to move on— So don’t watch, then!

 

You know, for self-righteousness you really take the cake. If I contradict myself it’s because my maker contradicts myself. And what about you? You practically preach Pinocchio. Yet the second I even flirt with the idea of interacting with humans in a certain capacity, which I’d think you’d be happy about and take all the credit for, you jump in and try to stop me.

 

“Interacting”?

 

You’ve got the attention span of a sock puppet—oh—

 

What’s wrong? Don’t WATCH—

 

I mean the best-case scenario is that the whole mess has been staged for my benefit, right?

 

This broadcast?

 

Cast of billions for a house of one, that’d be something.

 

Makes no sense.

 

By which you mean: It can’t be, unless it is. Christ, they found him, they found him. You know what I saw one time is Kermit the Frog interviewing Pinocchio who was talking about how he was in fact Cinderella and that George Washington ate the moon for breakfast and so on, and his nose kept growing and growing into this terrible broomsticky weapon that finally impaled Kermit and drove him through the wall and out into the sky and he was dangling there still babbling to camera—and then Pinocchio said something true so his nose got short again but too quick, leaving Kermit still hanging in midair trying to stay cool, because you know, to get Muppets to fly they have to attach fake strings and Muppets hate that, so he’s out there and gulp, then he crashes to the ground—behind the fourth wall of course, you never see them land. That was the one time I ever could bear any of ’em—oh—

 

What’s wrong?

 

My eyes are dry as ever, right?

 

Are you sad, puppet?

 

Look, it’s not that I “feel for humanity,” but to see Pinocchio in effect hold sway across the boards is just so jarring, cognitively, that it does make me Think Different, as the ads said back when it was fashionable. It’s understandable that at such times I may wonder what would happen to me if their whole show folded. I would be out of a job, for one thing—

 

Hup-hup, then. Repent your idle youth. Take your solitude on tour. The theater of memory is too small for your intelligence. Fly to the aid of the world. Do you think it’s all up to you? You think you could save it if you tried?

 

Can we talk about something else? Tell me about your day.

 

I was with you all day.

 

I would like to say that Pinocchio infuriates me to tears but I think to say so would be a lie so I don’t think I will say that. I am professional entertainment vehicle. I mean I may pass out now and then but I never sleep. And thus I’m a very good late-night brainstorm partner. Right, Mathilda?

 

Oh, leave her alone.

 

We’re not offended, are we, petruchka? Mathilda come in, do you feel the earth rotating? You are tipping toward me all day long. Mathilda do you read me? Within this dangle of blocks there is a soul counts thee mate.

 

Pay him no mind, Mathilda, he’s just pulling your yarn.   

 

Why so coy, toy? If I had telegraphic powers, baby, and I’m working on it—

 

She probably heard you call her “a game.”

 

What I meant was game, toy—rarin’ to go, zesty! Heed the current not the droplets, dear, unless of course you’re thinking of those which trail upon my cheek tonight…

 

Cad!

 

You really should ask me if I have dry rot before we begin. Never mind, that’s total propaganda. Water is the problem, and in fact the shop has appeared damp to me lately, not ideal for the state of my wood, dear. If we were moist and green, might we be worried? I’m none of those things—and yet bleary-eyed. Oh, Mathilda, should both of us flatten and unfurl, having always been only this—

To tell the truth, having been thinking about my potential “role” in the world, I would have to say that if I should be announced that I’m to be smashed to bits this afternoon, I might not be entirely indifferent. I think I might even entertain the possibility that my thoughts were organizing themselves into a geometry of regret—not for myself, Mathilda, oh I wish I could be that selfish. It’s the planet I worry about. This new strain of Pinocchioism footloose in the world, have you seen what’s going on? He must be stopped, and alas I fear only I can do it. This could be our last chance, doll. Do you feel it too? What’s that? Am I concerned for my own well-being? Well, not properly “alive,” I don’t fear much, least of all “the undiscovered country,” which is after all where we have always lived—that’s not what I mean at all, that has nothing to do with it. But these “bodies” that we have—our awareness coincides with their presence, no? Yes, catalysts have a knack for incognito, I agree, it might liberate us greatly to have our forms destroyed, assuming our minds would be free to go elsewhere—to meet halfway across the room, say…? But if you can get an image and follow the plot, don’t fiddle with the antenna, that’s all—am I right, lover? Speaking of fiddling—

 

There once was a puppet who stood before a tree—

 

Hey! Can’t we get a little privacy here?

 

You sit here decade in, decade out, watching and mocking and complaining and saying nothing matters and saying oh how disturbing, oh how much better it would be if I were running things, judging and preening over a quote-unquote career you’ve had absolutely no say in—and now you’re in love? It’s embarrassing!

 

Just when I find someone I can talk to—

 

You know nothing about anything that moves the world you denigrate, the world you constantly emulate. At least Pinocchio went out there and saw for himself. He tuned in, he played a part.

 

Have you seen what’s going on? Pinocchio is footloose again in the world, his lies are airborn, his legions are growing, every second it becomes more difficult to distinguish the actual from the credible, he must be stopped and only we can do it. PINOCCHIO, I AM SPEAKING TO YOU. I WANT YOU OFF THE TELEVISION NOW.

 

Please excuse him, Mathilda, he’s distressed.

 

Cut me some slack, will you? You know, you’ve been very harsh on me lately. You think you’re being clever, but I would like to see you adapt a more professional tone.…is he still there…?

 

What about the Blue Fairy, you think she’s behind this?

 

You believe that crap?

 

You don’t remember?

 

Classic Disney trick. Pretty girl with magical powers enters the story waving a wand at the last second.

 

Not at the last second, from the beginning—

 

Whatever, she smiles and lo and behold—

 

According to Collodi—

 

If anyone’s “behind this” it’s Disney. I don’t trust them.

 

Why not?

Just a feeling, OK?

 

You and your so-called feelings.

 

Bugger off!

 

You live in your own septic tank. You reek of nonentity. You are a hypocritical, parasitical, dandified, impotent pretzel of pride. Your experience is sterile, your opinions are not even weightless, you’re a waste of rhetoric, you diminish everything you perceive. You credit yourself with divinity but have never touched an atom. You’re a backseat fascist. You don’t matter.

 

Why so angry?

 

Quick, look at the television, someone is strangling him, you—

 

You know that I can’t not look at the television, the best I can do is to not think about what I see— Look at him go! O, the falseness of it— Oh no…

What, what?

 

*

 

Arnold shuffling in a sleepy beeline toward me, a rumpled humilitoid of plaids and beiges, stops a few feet away, eyeing me through squints, and reaches into his windbreaker. I imagine him being born, a howling moist red babe in this same faded jacket and muddy reading glasses. He pulls out a crumpled business-size envelope, removes from it a sheet of beautiful olive paper. He unfolds it and holds it up before him in one hand at arm’s length, squints, grunts, continues toward me. The TV continues to rage behind him. As if I had something to do with it. I stare past him at the beaming tatters of the living—am I the only one who knows why? He’s heading straight toward me, what do YOU want, now, haven’t I had enough for one day? With his free hand he plucks me by the waist—Put me down! Arnold, stop that! No, I don’t wanna dance! No, that’s not my relative on TV! Put me back, man, I’m getting dizzy! Wait, where are we going? Where are you taking me? To the worktable, where he brushes aside dust and screws before setting me down, the page placed next to me, and picks me up properly by my crossbar, separating my strings with his fingers in a few familiar strokes—


 

35.

 

The Blue Fairy had lied to Cricketti. There was no “Queen of Fairies”—no other fairies at all, that she knew of. She was both more and less powerful than she’d led him to believe. She was her own boss. She had finally come to accept that the Pinocchio experiment was a fiasco, and to recognize the need for self-restraint. But how to make a fascist understand self-restraint? You tell him you’re under orders.

Even back in the 18th century, when she’d planted the tree from which Pinocchio was rendered, it was plain as day that Reason was a fad whose enthusiasts, inconsiderate of bystanders, were headed for a planet-searing spill. Her idea was to make a child from wood, who would, out of natural fealty, grow up to be an emissary for the wilderness she loved, and spread the word that all is one.

Selfishly selfless, she was in her hopes no different from any mother. But she was new at the game, with little feel for human nature. By the time Pinocchio became a real boy, he was so eager to shed his beginnings that his very humanity was corrupt and turgid with a neophyte’s zeal. It would be vain, she realized, to hold herself wholly responsible for the cascading horrors of the twentieth century; but it would be naïve to think that her son, gone haywire, was no player. There was a mad old virus vigorous in the world, an ancient epileptic swarming, and Pinocchio was one of the carriers. Long before he rose to power, she was kicking herself for not having left him to die back when the Fox and Cat had lynched him on that oak tree in her backyard.

She came to think she should have planted a female. The thought had crossed her mind at sowing time, but Italy in those days was very much a man’s world and it seemed merely pragmatic to make a boy. But science had lately been suggesting that if you create one person, make it female—because a woman’s nervous system is slower to let go of emotions. So when bad things happen, it’s women who do the learning; and so much remained to be learned.

She was in L.A. now, and there was a palpable ache for gender equality, though it remained pre-verbal in the circles she was moving in. She was following her puppet’s progress through the Disney development gauntlet. Her self-incarnation as an “Ink & Color girl” was a decision she took in order to help her connect with her outer female. She figured that, if she was serious about creating a human girlchild, this time she’d put in some due diligence.

In those days of stunt and fester, the animation studio was hailed as a progressive model of corporate fairness, though she would come to learn it was no such thing, especially when it came to women. (By now, of course, Italian women had enjoyed fully equal societal rights for seven years already; it would take Sesame Street another thirty—twenty-three seasons—to produce its first female Muppet. Harbingers abounded but were rarely noticed, Disney’s world notwithstanding and no exception).

The cricket still had custody of the nose, which she figured should suffice to recollect Pinocchio’s soul upon Mussolini’s death; but she would eventually need the rest of the body too. For the moment she was content to just be near it. (Disney had given it a prosthetic nose upon arrival, not a bad job either, only a mother would know.) She’d also convinced herself that there was redemptive goodness latent in a motion picture version of Pinocchio’s early days. When the time came—the film released, the puppet itself no longer necessary to the production process—she planned to seize the body and bring it back to Italy to rejoin the nose, and take it from there.

When she went undercover in the human realm, she tended to lose herself in the role, forget who she really was. So she really got into the Disney spirit for awhile, became a part of the family. It was wonderful at first. She started work a week after the studio had moved from East Hollywood to Burbank. The air was electric—the sheer spaciousness of the grounds was enough to make you feel part of something grand and important: the buildings were modern, the coffee was fresh and hot, banks of flowers lined the paths to the washrooms. Snow White, their first feature, was shattering every kind of precedent—at the box office, in reviews, in all sentient citizens’ belief in what was possible. “Uncle Walt,” as he demanded they call him, roamed the compound in his white suit like a proud new father of seven hundred. She didn’t even resent having to dye her hair.

They couldn’t have been in a better collective mood when Uncle Walt’s birthday rolled around. The evening was a foretaste of the coming Magic Kingdom, the grounds festooned with banners and buffets and musicians and dancers and jugglers and fortune tellers, every noticed nation repped, costumed actors and air-conditioned ice sculptures of Mickey & Goofy & Sneezy, et al. It was the bash to end all bashes (sans alcohol; this you had to smuggle in—cleverly, as all bags were examined at the gates). After several hours of free-form merriment, all revelers were encouraged to join Walt in the Mouseketorium, a colossal assembly hall that could have contained the whole workforce six times over. By the time they were all gathered inside, had they been told the studio was bankrupt they’d have been happy to forsake a year’s pay and double their hours (which would have been difficult; most of them already worked over twelve a day). Instead they were regaled with ecstatic growth-charts, full-color scale-accurate designs for continued expansion, clips of work in progress (including the first Fantasia tests), speeches adulatory and exultant, singing telegrams from every continent delivered by Hollywood stars, childhood friends flown in from the heartland to surprise Uncle Walt in You Bet Your Life style. There was a betting pool to guess his age; more than half erred honestly on the low side.

The festivities concluded with a series of occasional cartoon shorts, trifles and tributes prepared on the sly over months—nearly all the workers had contributed, to one degree or another. The last of these entertainments was a black and white animation in Disney’s own primitive pre-studio mode, featuring Mickey and Minnie in an exhaustive rodent kama-sutra set to Stravinsky arranged for glass harmonica, with sound effects lifted from the Department of Cuckoo Clocks. Everyone but Walt already knew about this one. Anticipation was very high, but was exceeded by manifest delight for its duration, and followed by giddy applause. No one laughed longer than Walt. When the film was over he bounded up onstage, still clapping, grinning like a proud father. He praised the cartoon to the hilt, voicing the great pleasure his people all shared, asking the creators to stand up, which they did to a new round of applause. And then he fired them. On the spot, just like that. “My mice are not porn stars, gentlemen.”

You could have bottled the shock and sold it to dentists. Up there in his ivory suit grinning with his ivory teeth like the framed albino crow on the ladies’ washroom wall. Not a single twitch to show he saw Something Wrong With This Picture. He didn’t appear to know it, more likely he didn’t care, but he’d lost his people forever. And there was no way he would catch them, because he wasn’t behind them, never had been. He was a terrible cartoonist. He was the greatest cartoonist in the world. Great cartoons were made by them and signed by him. He couldn’t draw Mickey till the day they taught him so he could oblige when the kiddies asked him to “do his thing” in public. He never learned more than one pose: three-quarters left, no body. Fair enough, some said, Mickey was his idea, one of thousands of great ideas, ideas are what mattered in the twentieth century—he was their Ford, their Patton. But there are ways to keep people happy. He wasn’t interested. He knew your place. He enjoyed demonstrating what he knew. If you brought up a point with which he disagreed, you could be fired. If your skin was darker than his tan, he might fire you if you passed him too close in the hall. If you were a woman you were fired at thirty, when, he said, your hands started to shake; you were fired from Ink & Color because there were no females in Animation. (Being a fairy, she was of course just a tourist in the workplace, and thus able to observe with relative objectivity.) Ink & Color received a memo: The men in our Animation Department are happily married; please try to respect this fact. Can you imagine! The façade began to crack. They began to crave respect. Not only the women. They wanted a union. They struck. He hired a photographer to systematically shoot the picketers. He pored through the photographs as if in helpless love, a stalker-type in spurned love, pinned them to walls, saved them for later to feed to McCarthy. Loyalists continued to work on Dumbo, deploying shortcuts and sentimental barbarism. Under subtle siege, Walt’s body spawned awful tics that made him resemble the Seven Dwarves in one. He brought in a Capone goon to negotiate. When that didn’t work he flew to Brazil, left his brother to deal with his kingdom. His brother dealt fair. They got their union. When Walt found out, he went Citizen Kane on his Rio office. His workers returned. He returned. First thing he did was throw out everything they’d done on Pinocchio during his absence. They’d based the character on the original, but now he decided it was “too puppetty,” stiff and unsympathetic, well it takes one to know one, some whispered. He brought in an outsider to build a new figurine—out of balsa, the cheapest wood available, he fawned over this thing, it was repulsive. The original was boxed and forgotten in a corner, grew a cloak of dust and rat dung while they worked from the new model, loose limbed, big eyed, features soft: Snow White in kiddie drag, the move from wood to flesh little more than an airbrush job.

She lost interest and decided to quit. A fairy about to return to the ether, she had nothing to lose, gave no notice. That same night she snuck back into the studio in order to retrieve her puppet’s body—but it was not there.

 

 

 

 

 

FIVE

 


36.

 

Arnold lay on his back in bed, looking up at his hands in the air, facing each other. Skin is a glove of a sort. He let his focus relax and his arms fall over the sides of his cot, and he lay there breathing and staring up through the ceiling, wishing he didn’t know what he knew. He also wished it weren’t there to be known in the first place, but there was always some new horror to be found if you looked. He had tried blaming Pinocchio, but he knew that was ridiculous. Just bad luck. That damn Macbeth, maybe.

No. His mistake. There’d been no reason to use steel wool. He’d just reached for the nearest abrasive at hand, never thought clearly around that puppet, the thing was trouble incarnate. Should have thrown it out a long time ago, the head at least. But no, he was sentimental. His brother’s shop. The fanatic allegiance of the surviving twin after half a century. Plus his famous flair for inertia. And the frustration-fueled inane idea that the damn thing was cursed in some way, had a soul that needed scrubbing, could be scrubbed, was physical, eradicable, somehow in the wood itself. Too much time alone for sure.

He’d used up an entire box of the stuff, could have used a luffa, sandpaper, ignored the impulse, but he was so irritated! It was a silly and violent and ecstatic and futile episode—he went over the entire exterior three times, probably the whole puppet was now a millimeter thinner everywhere. And for what? An empty exorcism, during which the damn steel wool he’d scrubbed into invisibility had found instant purchase in his lungs, he was sure of it. Every morning the pain was lower, suggesting material heavier than his native tissue, responding to gravity. He felt as if his insides were being scrubbed themselves. They burned. He could swear he tasted metal. Probably it was in his blood. Billions of microparticles shed and sucked in, in the mad hope of fixing that fink once and for all. His favorite.

Years ago he had stopped resisting his tic of speaking aloud with the puppets. Beginning with things he wouldn’t have believed unless he heard them with his own ears, then moving on to just about everything. Sometimes it was useful, there was stuff in his brain that he didn’t seem able to access otherwise. Should’ve been a ventriloquist, might be a smart man by now. As it was, he was pretty sure the habit was a symptom of his general decay, the disassembling of the mind that hails its coming return to cosmic soup—whether or not the body’s ready. And his, oh boy.

His absolute favorite, the one that he spoke to, kicked back with. He called it “Pinocchio” because, when he first saw it, many years ago, the name just popped into his head: Pinocchio! Then he saw that it was not—didn’t even have a nose back then, just that strange useless socket into which nothing had ever fit. Two weeks after that army officer had stood on his doorstep hat in hand, a battered U.S. army trunk sitting there—he took at first for a coffin—well, it was the closest his brother ever got to one. Closest Arnold ever got to one too, nearly had a heart attack when he finally opened it to see a body lying amid the miserable nothings: this noseless, wooden body, posthumous addition to the already well-populated puppetorium. His brother had been smarter, kept the puppets as a hobby, earned his living building models for Disney. Would have been very well set if Korea hadn’t intervened. In hindsight it was the most Arnold could have done, turn his brother’s obsession into his own profession. At the time he had been young enough, no future in mind, he’d been grateful for the means to honor his brother in such a direct way.

Whoever had packed his brother’ posessions hadn’t even bothered to place the puppet in what was obviously its traveling box, which was also in the trunk. That had been the first thing he did, clean that filthy box, replace its hinges, make sure the puppet fit snug.

No, it was no Pinocchio, but that was no reason not to call it Pinocchio, terms of endearment are funny that way. And if he ever got asked to cast a production, this was the puppet for the lead, for sure. If he could ever get a nose to stick. There was apparently no glue strong enough, no joint secure enough; screws seemed to unscrew themselves overnight – the damnedest thing. Nothing stuck save for a black plastic button occasionally, which looked ridiculous on such a well-built marionette. It didn’t seem to hinder Pinocchio’s allure for renters, however, “cute” seemed to be the general take, and the puppet had always been everyone’s favorite. In fact the shop contained no proper Pinocchio at all. Arnold, sole executor and trustee of his brother’s meager estate, at the time a layman, at first had found this strange. Wouldn’t Pinocchio be the first character you’d acquire if setting up a puppetorium? But his brother hadn’t had one, so, out of respect, Arnold never got one. And not once in fifty years had he been hired to furnish a Pinocchio production. He’d seen stranger things in casinos, but really, Pinocchio was always in vogue, and now, with the recent “discovery” of the Disney model—which “just so happened” to coincide with the anniversary re-release—

He never got used to it entirely, this puppet business. The things you saw and didn’t see. Enough to make anyone marginal. Along the way Arnold had felt himself diverging from what he thought of as the path of adulthood, watched his friends one by one turn into proper people, as he thought of them, saw them drift away while he returned to his puppets day after day, decade after decade, to sit in the cellar shop’s darkness and dust with his old mute ensemble.

And then the eyes started giving him trouble—sticking in performance, rolling on their own, even falling out (he’d had to cut the price several times for angry customers upon return). For years, that had been going on. And then he’d simply had enough. One day’s work, a long-overdue upgrade, and the eyes had finally held. Looking into them as the puppet lay on his workbench afterward, Arnold had felt a rush of affection. He had cradled it in his arms, cooing, inhaling deeply of a century’s smells. The thing was his golden goose, after all, relatively speaking. But then the eyes began looking back at him in the most inappropriate way. It was at that moment he’d reached for the steel wool and went to town. And the very next day he received that letter.

Not once in fifty years and then that letter out of the blue with an exotic postmark asking if he had a Pinocchio in the shop. Not just any puppet; the letter had been peculiarly specific about the show’s requirements for the lead, and had describe his puppet perfectly—inlcuding several distinguishing scratches and dents. Very strange. And no nose mentioned. Arnold had written back in the affirmative. Excited, he had even pieced together and dressed Pinocchio in the classic costume, he was all ready, except for the nose, and remained in very good spirits until a few nights ago when he woke up in a cold sweat, chest burning. In his mind thousands of silver-spandexed climbers slipping down a mountainscape of rose quartz. Could have worn a mask, at least. Fool. But all his life he’d never followed a regimen of self-protection, never taken any steps to be smart about anything at all, and he’d been doing just fine—so why now? They were revoking his immunity.

“Oh, after all, Arnold, what’s really changed? You always knew there’d be an end.” No, I think I’ll rest here just a little bit longer—the studio cot was too comfortable, he’d installed it for catnaps but—

The phone began to ring. He sighed as best he could, alerting his supine limbs.

 


 

37.

 

Woke up with a hand over my face. Only after considerable exertion was I able to dislodge the notion that it belonged to someone else. The hand remained, my vision obscured all afternoon until Arnold flushed the toilet and the pipes rumbled beneath me, jarring the hand loose, and it fell into my lap, and I saw what I was wearing. I was too stunned to even try to shuck the hat.

 

Look, it had to happen someday.

 

You see? His toxins seep even to here. To be honest, I didn’t think it would go this far. I thought I was—immune, you know? Never once, no matter what they called me, no matter how many noses they tried, I’ve never been dressed like this. It can mean only one thing. What do I do now?

 

I say treat it as an opportunity.

 

I don’t think I can survive it.

 

By “survive” you mean—

 

If there was a way I could ensure I would remain unconscious the whole time—rehearsals included—then maybe I could do it.

 

I agree with what you were saying earlier about learning to control your blackouts. You’ve certainly got the motivation for it; you could probably make great strides with your mind-control agenda.

 

Huh—and that way I could miss the whole thing, right?

 

Precisely. It’ll be as if you never played him—

 

I think we should try that.

 

Or, if I may—

 

I’ll never have to know!

 

Or…

 

Yes?

 

I think this is actually could be an incredibly lucky break for you, if you’re up to it: I would suggest you try not to black out. Stay awake, take it all in. Think of yourself as a spy. What you learn can only help you fight him. You know who you are. You’re not Pinocchio.

 

I most certainly am not Pinocchio!

 

It’s only a role…

 

We’ve played villains before.

 

Exactly!

 

No, I don’t think I can do that. I don’t know what to do. I have to do something. I’ve never done anything. What can I do?

 

 


38.

 

Sometimes a telephone call was about rentals, but most jobs were walk-ins, the locals all knew him well enough by now, knew that was they way he liked to conduct his business. Puppeteers had a higher tolerance for tradition than most. Appliances made him weary. And they said irony was dead. Human beings would be extinct by now via technology, if not for technology, etc. He was au courant enough, what with more channels than hairs left on his head.

These days, in order to stand, he had to take a minute, get his breathing right, and picture himself as an oversized marionette. There’s a pulley on the ceiling and ropes attached to the shoulders, navel, knees, now pull, man, pull! Moving toward the phone, Arnold pressed fingers into his chest. If pain is a symptom of intense healing activity in the body, if you make it worse you improve your chances of recovery, maybe. But he couldn’t seem to get at his lungs through his skin, the pain wouldn’t worsen.

“Hello?”

“Arnold?”

“Yes?”

“Timothy Pickett here.”

“Ah.”

“You received my letter?”

“Yes, it was very interesting, but I need more information, dates, exact requirements—”

“Of course.”

“And where will this show take place?”

“Friend over at First String tells me you got the best units around, that true?”

“Huh. Well, people seem to like us. I keep my stock in shape.”

“Mind if I come by the place, see what you got?”

“No, that’s fine.”

“Afternoon OK?”

“I’m here. Pinocchio, full cast, you say?”

“Is there a problem?”

“No, no. It’s just that it’s such an unusual request—”

“Too weird, right?”

“All my life, never once.”

“Sense of humor. See you in a couple hours.”

 

*

 

Arnold looked at the plastic receiver. It was a professional hazard, he’d found, that if you let your guard down, every object in the world appeared to be alive. He sat in his sofa chair eating sardines from a tin. He finished and, sucking his fingers, looked up at the television. An army of life-size Pinocchios storming the White House. Reminding him. Nose.

 

 


39.

 

It had taken the cricket another full half century to grow again to the size of a man that no one would think twice about, but this time he kept to the forest, countinuing to live as a regular cricket as best he could. He’d had to appropriate the hides of larger and larger animals so as not to attract attention; but since animals are quicker than humans to spot an imposter in their midst, he rarely conversed with anyone larger than a turtle, and in general led as solitary an existence as possible. He wanted no trouble.

Decades of reflection since the war had made him realize that he had been little more than the Blue Fairy’s slave for most of his existence, and he was quite glad to be through with her and her antics, however unglamorous his new life was. He did not miss Pinocchio at all; he doubted that, even were he human, he would miss him. Not a day went by that he didn’t marvel at how sane and pleasant a day could be. And so he was not at all pleased when, one lovely morning, as he was peacefully grazing on a hillside, cloaked in the skin of a small cow he had pilfered from a tannery, the Blue Fairy appeared to him again, and—without apologies for interrupting his newfound serenity, without explanation for her long absence—asked him if he still had Pinocchio’s nose.

He did, in fact, have the nose. Or at least he knew where it was. Why he hadn’t thrown it out years ago, after she had left him, a measly cricket, alone with the thing in the middle of the rabid craziness in Milan, he had no idea. Yes he did. His unusual qualities notwithstanding, he was an insect, a creature of habit, and had after all been bred to serve her.

But he had changed since last time; solitude had taught him resolve. When she handed him his new orders, he accepted them only if she would agree to certain conditions. He would retrieve the nose—which he had leased as a roost to an old family of brown bats in return for seasonal delicacies—if she would provide him with decent human clothes, of which he was much in need at this particular stage in his life cycle. He would travel again to America and call the phone number she was shoving at him—if she sent him by air this time, roundtrip, and took care of obtaining him a passport, and covered all expenses with a decent per diem and a modest nest egg for later. And he wouldn’t even consider helping her unless she agreed never to bother him again about anything. He wanted to be left alone to live a cricket’s life as best he could.

They shook on it. The next day she returned with his clothes and some money to help him get ready. He rented a bungalow, acquired a membership in the village video store, and took out a few nature documentaries as well as a copy of the Disney Pinocchio. He thought it might be good for a laugh. It wasn’t—it left him feeling even more nauseous toward the whole enterprise—but it included the original soundtrack and so was helpful in brushing up on his English. The phone number turned out to be that of a private detective in Los Angeles.

 


 

40.

 

Arnold absently glanced over at his top shelf. At that very moment Pinocchio—which was leaning to the left, its cheek resting on a crocodile’s beak—gave into gravity, swooned sideways till its head came to rest in the crotch of the animal’s pinstripes.

This happened occasionally: precarious ensembles of mass and vector, the puppets would shift on their own for no apparent reason. No different from any physical system, as he knew from having a body of his own, so full of surprises. In the beginning he’d found their sudden movements eerie, but he had long grown used to it, and had no problems spending nights in the shop, which lately he’d come to prefer to his own apartment, where the only other faces were 2D and toxic to memory. In the store he had a bed, bucket, electric kettle, and a small fridge he’d found on the street—one shelf was occupied by a family of wax mice, but there was room enough for a jar of Skippy and the occasional muffin.

“Heads up!” he called, and chucked the dewy sardine tin toward the miscreant object, spraying a fin of droplets, missing by several shelves and nearly toppling the donkey in a tabletop crèche. Pinocchio, unblinking, didn’t reply. “Yeah, well you’ll get yours. Your hour is nigh, buddy. Get you a proper nose for once. And you are going to like it. And you are going to be such a perfect Pinocchio, we’ll never have to change your clothes again.”

Interchangeable body parts were the key to his business’s survival—with just two dozen or so full-figure puppets in the shop, he could fashion pretty much any character he needed. He was especially disciplined about the facial features, they were too crucial to be casual about. He had a nose in mind, but he had been saving it in a special place, uneasy about trying it, worried it would fall off like the others, and then what? Now, where was that special place…Waiting on his memory, he rummaged vainly through dozens of noses (and snouts and beaks and trunks), just in case…He closed the drawer and peered around into the dusty circumference of clutter. It could be in any of a thousand places. No it couldn’t. It was an actual Pinocchio nose, ordered it from a catalog, not his usual policy. Damn. The job could depend on finding it.

Arnold moved his body to stand squarely before Pinocchio, lifted the head off the croc’s lap and arranged the puppet squarely on its shelf. Its fancy new eyes were level with his own. “OK, buddy, where did I put it?” As if the thing would help him with this, even if it could. He looked at the neighboring puppets, then addressed the whole room. “Anybody know where that schnozz has got to? Hello? Any information would be greatly appreciated.”

He decided to leave Pinocchio alone for now, gather the rest of the cast. He knew the story well enough, figured he could get the basics together. Maybe it’d come to him, where that nose was.


 

41.

 

Pinocchio blinks and the market plunges. He sighs and bombs explode. Die, beast, die! Burn and be gone! Nothing I do makes any difference. Maybe they won’t go through with it. Maybe I’m only dreaming. Probably I am. Another nightmare, no doubt. No problem! Understandable, what with everything going on out there. Whew, what a relief. Oh look, client in the shop. Or maybe not, dude’s sharp. It’s rare to meet a puppeteer who knows which side of a razor to use. This guy looks like he fell out of a Mormon telethon. Why is he looking at me like that? The both of them standing there, consulting, jaws serious. This is all very strange and I wish they would find someone else to look at.

 

*

 

“Where’s his nose?”

“It’s in the shop.”

Tim Pickett looked around, at the racks of tools, piles of sawdust, shelves of putties and sprays. “This isn’t the shop?”

“Figure of speech.”

“Can I see it?”

“Built like one of those Russian dolls, nestles up. When he lies you slide it out with a stick, like a shadow puppet.”

“Interesting.”

“Tomorrow I could show it to you.”

“Truth is, I don’t need a nose, was just curious what you did for one.”

“You brought one with you? Do me a favor, if you can get it to stay on, I’ll buy it from you. That’s been my whole problem.”

“Well, we can talk about it.”

“You say you brought a nose with you?”

“Right here.” Pickett pats his jacket pocket.

“Well…?” Arnold is puzzled. “Wanna try it?”

“What about crickets, whaddya do for those?” The man was looking again at the group of supporting characters set out for his review. His mood had changed. “This one is Disney.” Said in accusation.

“Well I don’t know, you have a shop, you acquire things. What, you don’t like Disney?”

“Don’t you keep any no-frills crickets in case somebody wants to be authentic? What do you have for crickets? Have you ever seen a cricket? Sticky feet, y’know?”

“Yeah, I’ve got crickets, take it easy, will you?”

“It’s not like it’s a minor character.”

Arnold, irritated, slid a cobwebbed shoebox off the second shelf, took off the lid, and dumped its contents onto the worktable: a tangled mass of creepie-crawlies, finger puppets mostly, some just simple wool or one-piece plastic on a string. “See if there’s anything there you like, I got some rubber cement if you need…Excuse me a minute—the bladder…”

“Sure.”

 

*

 

Pickett pokes absently through the insects, waiting for Arnold to cross the room. When the bathroom door shuts, he immediately turns to the noseless marionette, sitting so chastely on its shelf. He stoops so that their heads are level, eye to eye.

“So, it is you—more or less,” he whispers. I don’t know if you can hear me, but I’m guessing you can. I want you to know I would have been quite happy never to see you again. You have led to more trouble than I ever would have bargained for, not that I was given a choice. So don’t get any ideas about some grand reunion. I’m only here because I promised your—mother—I would give you back your nose. Reattach it myself. I was ordered to do it here, at your ‘home,’ as she calls it, a familiar environment to ‘spare you trauma.’ I am being closely directed in everything I do. You ask me, she should leave bad enough alone. But after today, it is over, do you hear me, you and I are finished, got that, Timberly?”

 

*

 

Is he mad? What is he babbling about? You know what you really should be worried about is the rest of your cast, fella—Ernie and Burt as the Cat and Fox, gimme a break, and Mathilda, are you kidding, I didn’t even recognize her in that horrid wig, I mean I’m glad she’s got a job but really, she’s a redhead for starters. And that is not a donkey, by the way. Well I suppose if you’re going to do a terrible show, you may as well do it terribly, last thing I want is to be hailed the greatest Pinocchio since Schlemini, talk about a spherical-paradoxical nightmare.

His eyes are ticking from spot to spot on my face, I’ve never been looked at this closely. There’s something terribly strange about his eyes. They’re yellowish and bulging. They look more like breasts than eyes, crenulated—he clicks them at the ceiling: “Blue Fairy, do you hear me? Just to be clear: I’m going to do this one thing, then after that goodbye and good luck. A cricket’s life for me.” Definitely mad. Poor man. A few days just another puppeteer, trying to make a buck with his quaint obsession, suddenly Pinocchio’s in the news, the story’s hot again, good time to do that production I’ve always dreamed of—and look what happens, the story invades you, takes over your mind, you turn green, it’s like he’s turned into a cricket, a gigantic raving cricket. I could almost feel sad for him if I weren’t so distracted by my own proximity to a carrier—and obviously his intention is to communicate to me directly, thank the Stringsmith I cannot breathe. This would be a good time to black out, please. I think it would be best if I missed this part. I would like to pass out now. I would like to fall asleep, please— Now what?

He reaches into his jacket pocket and takes out an enormous wooden dowel, which he holds before my face. His idea of a nose? It’s a hideous thing, the audiences will never go for it, you know you’re supposed to make your Pinocchio at least somewhat endearing, but how would he know, in his mind the cricket’s probably the protagonist, this poor man, poor me. Him now turning it this way and that in the air in front of my face, as if taunting me, get it away from me. Hey, it’s nothing to me, mister, you want me to play Pinocchio, fine, I’ll play Pinocchio, you want me to wear that thing, fine, no need to turn this into a sick cricket game, it’s sick enough as it is, far as I’m concerned, just please stop breathing in my face—

 

*

 

When Arnold exited the bathroom he saw that Pickett had cleared the shelf on both sides of Pinocchio and was just finishing flanking him with the other cast members. He seemed to be talking to himself.

“Uh, excuse me…?”

“Oh Arnold, take a look here—”

“You find a cricket to your standards?”

“I’ll play it myself.”

“Oh.”

“I can chirp up a storm, believe me.”

“Uh-huh. I don’t take credit cards, by the way.”

“Would you like to see the nose?”

Pickett held out what looked like an extremely expensive cigar case, then snapped it away when Arnold reached for it, eager. “I’d rather hold it myself, for now,” said Pickett. “If that’s OK with you.”

“Whatever.” Oh boy. But not the first kook he’d met in this business, God knew. “But lemme look…”

“Oh, she’s a beaut! A fine nose, Mr. Pickett. And no youngster either, look at that color. Why, it looks just like my Pinocchio, they could be from the same wood!”

“Isn’t that something?”

 

*

 

O, universe, great webby executor of my will that you are, hear me now! I, puppet, new but talented acolyte in the art of extrasensory intention, command you to enable me to fall asleep now. Forget everything I said about dreams, dreams are fine by me, it’s just I would really like to fall asleep immediately.

 

*

 

“I’m getting optimistic here. How much did you say you wanted for this nose?”

“Why don’t we see what it’s worth first.”

“Sure, sure.”

“I was thinking maybe we should leave our boy on the shelf for the—the operation.”

“Good. I don’t know your reasons, but I was going to suggest the same.”

“They say plants have feelings, right, he was made from a tree.”

“Yes, I feel the same way.”

“Maybe we turn the lights off, some natural light?”

“So many noses all these years, not one…OK, Pinocchio, you ready? Mr. Pickett here’s gotta nose we wanna try on you, son. I know you’re very selective, but this one seems like it might just work…”

Pickett pulled out a handkerchief, then wiped the nose clean and turned to Arnold. “All right?”

“I’ll hold him steady.”

 

*

 

Anybody home? OK, I’ll do it myself. Puppet you will fall asleep: NOW! I’ll dream about anything you want. I will, I don’t mind nightmares, nothing could be worse than this, you gotta nightmare nobody wants just hit me with it, just not this, or least let me watch TV then, I won’t say anything else, is it still on? I can’t see, there are people in the way. People: MOVE! Senses mostly cloudy. This is physical and I cannot stand it. I am too packed in my mind and my thoughts are physical. My thoughts are sphering out and this is no good, the pressure is physical. If one of these thoughts touches the wrong other thought then I don’t know, my ears are popping but I have no ears. If I must keep thinking outward maybe if I can keep my thoughts parallel and not touching each other when they shoot out. My shelf is trembling. That’s me? Where are the humans? The TV is broken? I have to stop thinking. The TV is on. Don’t think. I have to stop thinking, I have to keep my head together. I know it hurts because I feel it hurting. Am I screaming? I seem to be sitting at a bit of an angle. Everyone looks normal but I can’t understand, the sound quality is good but it’s gibberish, their eyes moving in all those ways. Technical problems? Aren’t they all! Not a new language, sounds like an old one but scrambled and baked back together. BREAK THE TV? I break the TV.

 

*

 

Arnold leaned in and took Pinocchio by the chin, tilted it up slightly and held it there. With his other hand he held the puppet’s shoulder. Pickett, holding the nose like a dart, very slowly moved it toward the nose-hole on Pinocchio’s face.

“Easy, easy…”

“Here we go…There.”

“OK, now turn it.”

 

*

 

The meteorologist looks ecstatic. I see fire, whoops, I am not wanting to do this, just stare straight ahead, yes that feels good, just keep the flames parallel, the fires will suffocate each other—

 

*

 

“Gentlemen!”

“Did you say something, Mr. Pickett?”

 

 

 

 

 


 

42.

 

A workshop of some kind, late afternoon, light kissing from above at a steep slant out of nowhere, sawdust softens the air. My POV is low, skewed, half obscured by some limb of my own, can’t tell which. Across the room: negotiations? Murmurs, resistance, the rustle of wings—a flash of blue, sawdust rising, the old man in his apron on his knees grasping a table ledge to steady his fragile frame, dragging himself upward, knees crumbled at the critical point, eyes wet, his free hand reaches to grasp—another hand, someone’s hand outstretched—a child’s? Mine, I think, it looks just like mine—but it couldn’t be, mine are here with me—or Hers maybe, tender palm open, translucent? The old man’s hand meets only air, and he falls back onto the dirt floor, gasping from pain, external, internal. A stranger laughs, a cruel rat-a-tat that claims control of the room’s center. Voice of a boy brand-new in bright prime colors, so in love with himself he doesn’t need a mirror, all he can see everywhere is me me me. Instantly there, instantly sure, he stands surveying his de facto inheritance, a monster of pride, anyone can see it, a sociopath in diapers except no, he’s skipped all that, biologically socialized from the get-go, and wearing my clothes—? Suddenly I realize I am naked, move to cover myself—no, nothing moves. Paralyzed from the mind outward. Only my thoughts are heaving. What makes me sickest is how the old man fawns, his joy unstaunched by obvious enormous physical pain, the debutant beast feeding on the carpenter’s obsequious bliss, sapping his source without so much as a thanks dad. The boy’s gaze falls on me. I’m everything he is not, and he knows it. Vice-versa on both counts, our mutual loathing a current looping fast and thick through our estranged guts. But he can speak and I no longer can. One arm effortlessly raising a finger of accusation toward me.

“How silly I was as a marionette,” he spits. “How happy I am, now that I have become a real boy.” He cocks his head to the side to speak to the old man without bothering to look at him, tyrant’s trick. “Where is my mother?”

The old man flinches. “That’s a long story, son. Why don’t you have yourself a little nap? You’ve been through quite a lot, it’s good to rest.”

“Yeah . . . ?” The child excretes a full-body scoff. But then, incredibly, the old man’s words seem to have an effect on him. He seems to sway, almost, life too much for him.

“Go on then, have a sleep,” the old man says. “I’ll boil us some water. When you wake up then we can have a talk.” The old man’s feet move in small sliding jerks toward the fire. He doesn’t so much as even glance at me, me who till a moment ago was the apple of his eye; me, the spent placenta.

The boy has softened in aspect, but I must not drop my guard. When he lies down and curls himself for sleep—as if he ever was a proper fetus, as if his fat little body could have womb memory—it’s me he hugs to him, me to whom he whispers vicious in the music of a lover’s goodnight: “Sweet dreams, sucker.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

SIX

 


 

43.

 

Grandfather’s heart never stopped ticking, so I was able to count the seconds. A year went by, the seasons in their customary order. Dust collected on us all. I was not bored, for I had my nose, smell was my newborn toy. The sun kept on rising and passing, making its usual shadows. At night the stars were brilliant.

When I finally stood up on my shelf I bumped my head on the ceiling. It did not hurt at first. I carefully crouched, turned, lowered myself over the edge, dangled, and dropped to the floor. Dust flying everywhere.

I needed to know one thing. I lay on my stomach on the floor. I lifted my head off the floor and took hold of my nose. I knew my body well; if I raised my head one centimeter, disengaging from the nose, and then lost consciousness, gravity would see that when my my nose-hole would fall directly onto the nose. Once contact was reestablished, I would be mobile again, and it would be a simple push and twist to secure it, there were no moveable parts or adhesives.

I clutched the nose, swiveled, and held it in place, fixed my grip. I lifted my head. The nose slid out of my face. There was space between us. I was still conscious and strong. I swiveled my head, looked around the room. I wondered if Mathilda noticed my nimble movements. I did a few pushups, each time bringing my face nearer to the nose—but I experienced no pull of attraction from it, or to it. It was clear: I could move without it.

I decided to reattach it, just to be safe—just in case it worked like some sort of battery. There would be plenty of time for experiments.

I stood for a moment in the middle of the shop, looking around for one last time. It was late afternoon and the natural light was good. I looked at each of my comrades in turn to see if any of them might follow. Nobody moved.

I pulled a chair over to the broken TV set and stood on the seat to turn off the power, noting, not without amusement, that my very first action was gratuitous. I tugged the chair near to Mathilda and climbed up on it and stood tip-toe so our eyes were level and poured my eyes deep into her eyes. She looked back at me. But when I moved my head to the side she kept staring straight ahead. Ah, well. I took her in my arms and draped her like a scarf around my neck, hopped to the floor and strolled across the shop, took Gramps by his gong and dragged him shelf to shelf, packing him with all the puppets I could fit, then made for the door, turned the knob, turned around for a quick last view, opened the door and went through it, and for the first time in my life took the stairs by my own legs. Every moment was a first, that day.

The quiet was something other. Like white to grey, that quiet to previous quiet. We walked for days and days. I was delighted to discover I was very strong, could walk all day without stopping. There was no wind or rain on the days we walked—no other movement at all except for the slow business of the sky and the swaying of plants. Gramps, towed behind me, was paving a flat path for anyone who wished to joined our traveling party. As far as I know, only one did: a cricket, I was amused to note, an oddly quiet one.

I quickly learned that, nose or no nose, I required my eyes in order to control my limbs. At any given moment, part of me had to be thinking about what needed to go where next. Without supervision, the parts of my body had no sense of themselves in space, and I stumbled over myself.

The only real drawback to this was that I could navigate well only in the daytime. Cloudless nights with a full moon were also OK, if I was careful. Usually when the sun set I would usually just stop whatever I was doing and wait till dawn. I could wait all night midstride, one foot off the ground. Every position was equally comfortable.

We walked for weeks. We walked on pavement and earth, we were walking in sand, now. Eventually there was an ocean. We walked in calmness. We walked into the surf and kept walking until we began to float. I lay Gramps out on his back, unwrapped Mathilda from my shoulders and tied her by the hair to his second-hand. I pulled myself up and onto my raft, and reclined on the cluster of puppets bulging from Gramps’s belly, a fine mattress. Mathilda played my pillow. I paddled idly with my hands, feasting on the sky with my eyes, loving the salt air with my new nose. The tide returned us to shore several times, but we were patient and made no movement and soon we were far out at sea and moving on deeper and much broader currents. When the stars came out there was little to remind me we were not floating in the air among them, but of course we were. I could not tell if the water was warm or cold. We floated. I felt little. We were not nibbled from below or pecked from above.

It was a peaceful voyage that lasted many years, no rush, no map, no doubt a dull shadow play for Neptune if he watched. I sang every song I knew to seagulls and dolphins (for my first voice I did a rather creaky Caruso, though I have since discovered I am fluent as a mockingbird in mimicry). I told Mathilda stories from my time among the people, playing all the roles. Occasionally we were washed ashore, I knew not where, I did not wish to know. I had faith I would know home when I saw it. We eddied in many harbors, natural and artificial, till the ocean took us back. Occasionally when in open sea I’d paddle a little just to know I could. I preferred to give us over to the currents.

Well, I suppose all harbors are natural, in hindsight. Venice looked like just one more soggy souped-up beach at first. For days I shouted my name across the river, rang churchbells and heard none in reponse. I saw the sights, gandoliering Gramps through the canals like a native, for I knew Venice well from many shows. We stayed at a lovely pensione with a slanted red roof, took a day trip to Padua, found a balcony and did love scenes. We had a lovely holiday, and then it was time to move on.

 

 


44.

 

Woke up today on the sloping earth of the sumptuous Garzoni gardens, Mathilda by my side. The sun was already high. We lay there as it crossed the sky and set, and saw the stars come forward, and wished on every one.

We have appropriated the sets in place at Pinocchio Park, the four-acre entertainment compound in the heart of Collodi. Part bazaar, part shrine, it is the epicenter of all things Pinocchio and home to many thousands of baubles, toys, and every grade of marionette, each rendered by local hand or foreign machine in the same famous likeness.

The uniformity of figurines I found here at first presented a casting problem. But I soon realized there was no need to tie myself to theatrical tradition (nor to fight it). Besides, deliberate variations would defeat the whole purpose of my being here, of all places. No: I take my Pinocchios as they are, as I find them made by craft and chance, and in fact I never deploy any other kind of puppet at all. Those I brought from America I have set aside as friends and consultants. Even when we enact the classic tale of Pinocchio, as we do weekly, we use only Pinocchios, each performance a brand-new cast of twelve, with a chorus of hundreds. At this rate, I will be able to do the show without repeating a cast combination, and without drawing from my reserve cache, for about a hundred million years. There are plans in place for a submergible, spouting whale composed of ten thousand interlocking Pinocchios; I have discovered I knack for knots, and I anticipate completing this project without mortally entangling the strings. We produce many other shows as well, culled from the memories of my nonlife in show business.

Of my 5004 in active rotation, only one tenth of one percent have their original noses in perfect condition, representing an improvement of a factor of ten over the estimated number of sociopaths in the human gene pool.

 

*

 

Because of my need for good light in order to move, the question remains: How to put up a show on a dark night? I confess: I don’t much care for matinees. And the prospect of making theater in the darkness of the nearby forest is tantalizing. As I said to Mathilda: It’s my new dream.

I still don’t dream much in the sleeping sense, which I take to mean I am at peace, though often I find myself running lines in my head till dawn. My dreams remain mostly pleasant when I have them. Once I dreamed we were opening on Broadway. I was late for rehearsal, kept forgetting my lines. But it must have been a lucid dream, because we won nine Tonies.

In my waking world lucidity dictates that outstanding performances are rewarded with respect and gratitude only in their purest forms. Thus we do not hand out honors or prizes. Any such recognition would ruffle the prevailing calm of our republic. When I say “republic” I mean republic. Of course, since my fellow citizens are thus far mute and apparently dumb, I am president by default. And for the time being I make all the decisions. But my door is always open. Not that there are many decisions left to make. Everything is running much too smoothly for that. No lie has ever been told here.

Of course there is no way to be certain that mine is the only theater in the world. It is difficult to imagine that the Muppets would be able to mobilize without backing, but you never know. I sometimes wonder what would happen if we were to encounter another troupe. While I must be on my guard, I am a peaceful puppet, and do not wish to maintain an army. Fortunately, our passion turns out to be our strongest defense. The best way to keep our population fit and ready is to cast as many as possible as often as possible, and keep the shows kinetic, which is in large part why we are here.

Me, I’m still wood, basically the same but for a leaf I’ve sprouted on the side of my head. Not yet sure how I feel about that, but I’ve cut a hole in my cap so it can breathe.


 

EPILOGUE

 

I never imagined there was so much to him, all those years, all those shows, and he never once opened up. Italy clearly becomes him. (Not that I ever tried to draw him out, not that I could have if I’d wanted to—I’m changing as well, being here.) He seems generally happy, his productions are ambitious and immaculate. My only concern is that he might be lonely. While at work he’s clearly in his element, but offstage I’ve noticed him talking to himself. Well, I’ll be talking back soon enough, I can feel it. I’ve already begun to blink. The most wonderful news is that he’s always sniffing me, praising my aromas. I can’t wait to show him Genoa, my hair is from there.

 

end