STINKY POTATO GOLEM

“What do you re­ally want to do?” Emily asked. “Be­sides fall­ing in love, be­cause that one is ob­vi­ous.”

Geist - - Contents - Cary Fagan

As a child Hazel got the chicken pox and then gave it to a will­ing Mal­colm by rub­bing against his bare skin—the life of twin pup­peteers

They had been se­cre­tive chil­dren, with a lan­guage of their own, giv­ing each other know­ing looks and mak­ing other chil­dren un­easy. Fra­ter­nal twins, they didn’t look much alike. He was squat, square-faced; she was round, with bulging eyes and cav­ernous mouth. They were shunned rather than bul­lied.

Their par­ents pushed them to take the usual lessons—swim­ming at the Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­tre, pi­ano and vi­o­lin at home. But they hated any kind of in­struc­tion and con­spired to lose their bathing suits or get si­mul­ta­ne­ous stom­ach aches. Once, he glued two goo­gly eyes and a fake mous­tache to the back of her vi­o­lin and pre­tended it could talk. She laughed un­con­trol­lably, grabbed the vi­o­lin and beat it against the pi­ano keys un­til it splin­tered.

What they loved most were sto­ries, the fairy tales and pic­ture books read aloud by their mother un­til the girl, who learned to read at four, took over. They didn’t like the pop­u­lar books based on TV shows; they wanted the Broth­ers Grimm and La Fon­taine and Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen. They never grew tired of hear­ing about chil­dren left to starve in the woods, a stranger ar­riv­ing at the door with a gift, hu­mans turned into trees, beau­ti­ful youths made ugly.

Their par­ents, Herb and Eleanor Stone, ran a fab­ric store on Queen Street: cot­ton, linen, silk, polyester; and also but­tons, zip­pers, knit­ting sup­plies, pat­terns. The store had been started by the twins’ pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents, sur­vivors who had met in a refugee camp af­ter lib­er­a­tion. They had been late to start a fam­ily and so they were old grand­par­ents. Af­ter they died, they were re­mem­bered by the twins as a pair of trolls who kept pock­ets full of sour candies and spoke to each other in un­der­ground troll lan­guage.

The fam­ily lived on a quiet, leafy street south of St. Clair at a time when ev­ery house was filled with three, even four chil­dren. The twins were named Hazel and Mal­colm, and as soon as they were old enough to run up and down the side­walk they were en­cour­aged to make friends. In­stead, they pre­ferred to play to­gether on the porch, a win­ter sled turned on its side to bar the step from in­trud­ers.

At the age of seven Hazel got the chicken pox and then gave it to a will­ing Mal­colm by rub­bing against his bare skin. Bored by the third day at home, Mal­colm took a potato from the re­frig­er­a­tor and pushed it onto a fork. He made eyes from dif­fer­ent coloured thumb­tacks, a bro­ken pen­cil nose, an oval red mouth cut from a per­fectly good shirt. It came to life when he bobbed it up and down, mak­ing gut­tural noises. Hazel de­manded one too so he got an ap­ple, but­tons, black wool for hair. On the porch they crouched be­hind the sled while the two grotesque crea­tures roared and cack­led, spat out strange words, sang and danced. Neigh­bour­hood kids, re­turn­ing from school, stopped on the side­walk to stare. Hazel found a voice for hers that sounded de­monic. “Stinky potato golem! Stinky potato golem!” When the twins were nine, their par­ents went away for a des­per­ately needed week­end in the Catskills. Upon their re­turn, the twins jumped about their par­ents, de­mand­ing presents. Herb opened a suit­case and brought out two hand pup­pets. A gen­tle­man in black tie and stiff col­lar, a princess in a tiara. Hazel and Mal­colm snatched up the pup­pets and ran to Hazel’s room. An hour later the par­ents set­tled onto the liv­ing room sofa to watch a pup­pet show.

Hazel an­nounced “The Old Crone and the Bum.” From be­hind the over­turned cof­fee table one pup­pet and then the other ap­peared. They had al­ready been messed with, the gen­tle­man’s tie cut jaggedly, jacket stained, and painted cot­ton balls glued on his face. The princess had lost her tiara and gained dark eye­brows and sev­eral warts. The di­a­logue was shouted, the move­ment vi­o­lent. Each ac­cused the other of steal­ing, spy­ing, ly­ing and fart­ing. They chased each other, bat­tling with a hair­brush and a doll’s plas­tic leg. At the cli­max the bum bit a wart off the crone’s nose and ate it, laugh­ing in tri­umph. But then he trem­bled and fell over. Poi­soned by the wart!

The next Satur­day the twins walked through the neigh­bour­hood Scotch-tap­ing signs to the tele­phone poles.

See a real live show!

Satur­day at ten o’clock

89 Win­nett Av­enue

The Stinky Potato Golem Pup­peteers 25 cents

Twelve neigh­bour­hood kids showed up to sit on the floor of the fin­ished base­ment and wit­nessed a show about a badly be­haved dog, played by a stuffed an­i­mal taped to a ruler. The dog howled, tore up news­pa­pers, and al­most caused a riot when it peed on the au­di­ence (squirt gun). At his wit’s end, the dog’s owner called to life the Stinky Potato Golem, which promptly ate the dog with loud smack­ing sounds. Then it ate the dog’s owner. The golem made loud burp­ing noises un­til a hu­man-sized rub­ber boot came down to squash it. The end.

The chil­dren cheered.

Mal­colm grew into a burly young adult. For the first time, he sep­a­rated from his sis­ter (“out of the Soviet sphere of in­flu­ence” he told his new friends) by choos­ing Queen’s Univer­sity for earth sciences. Hazel was now tall and wil­lowy and al­most pretty, if rather in­tense-look­ing. She stayed in Toronto, go­ing to U of T for theatre. Mal­colm came home for the sum­mers and it seemed like a good idea to go along with his sis­ter’s idea of mak­ing their own sum­mer jobs by start­ing a pup­pet theatre for kids. He wanted to stick with their orig­i­nal name, but Hazel in­sisted they would sell more tick­ets as the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany. They pre­sented adap­ta­tions of The Ugly Duck­ling and Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood, ad­vanc­ing from hand pup­pets to the more mys­te­ri­ous realm of mar­i­onettes, with their frag­ile ges­tures and ethe­real walk. Mal­colm built the skele­tons of wood and wire and carved the heads, hands and feet from bass­wood. Each had one par­tic­u­larly ex­pres­sive fea­ture—a long nose, sail­boat ears, dim­pled chin, doe eyes. Hazel de­signed the cos­tumes, sew­ing them on a Singer ma­chine that she re­cov­ered from the base­ment of their par­ents’ store.

They rented the small theatre in the Palmer­ston Li­brary and built a ply­wood stage with a cur­tain. With so many fam­i­lies liv­ing down­town and want­ing artis­tic ex­pe­ri­ences for their kids, they had no trou­ble sell­ing enough mati­nee and early evening tick­ets to pay them­selves more than min­i­mum wage. The fol­low­ing year they added a two-week Christ­mas sea­son. A story in the lo­cal sec­tion of the Toronto Star called the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany “a hol­i­day in­sti­tu­tion in the mak­ing.”

The mar­i­onettes be­came more re­fined, even beau­ti­ful. Mal­colm, how­ever, suf­fered from nerves be­fore ev­ery per­for­mance. Five min­utes to the start of the show he would make a stiff-legged walk to the wash­room. “Je­sus, not the shits again,” his sis­ter would growl. She was a nat­u­ral per­former and the bet­ter pup­peteer; Mal­colm thought her move­ments a kind of breath­tak­ing vis­ual po­etry. But he al­ways got the big­gest laughs. Hazel, too, knew her lim­i­ta­tions and gave over the clowns and buf­foons, au­di­ence favourites.

It was Hazel who had the am­bi­tion. As soon as they were com­fort­able do­ing a show she would say, How about Rumpel­stilt­skin? How about The Stead­fast Tin Sol­dier? While they worked in their par­ents’ base­ment carv­ing and sew­ing he would talk about op­por­tu­ni­ties in en­vi­ron­men­tal risk as­sess­ment, but she never men­tioned her theatre cour­ses ex­cept to call the other stu­dents “a bunch of pre­ten­tious twats.” Af­ter third year he wanted to travel with friends, but she had al­ready ar­ranged for them to take a two-week tour of Europe be­fore start­ing their sum­mer sea­son. In­stead of mu­se­ums and churches, they vis­ited the Théâtre Lux­em­bourg in Paris (where chil­dren still laughed at Lit­tle Black Sambo), the mar­i­onette theatre in the Schon­brunn Palace in Vi­enna (“Das ist Fleisch?” the wolf asked Red Rid­ing Hood about the con­tents of her bas­ket), and the Na­tional Mar­i­onette Theatre in Prague (gor­geous cos­tumes, ex­e­crable ma­nip­u­la­tion). More ex­cit­ing to Mal­colm were the small com­pa­nies do­ing shows in fifty- or hun­dred-seat spa­ces, adap­ta­tions of Kafka and Ba­bel and Go­gol that were melancholy, an­ar­chic, sur­real, heart-break­ing.

“Sure, they’re artists,” Hazel said on the plane home. “But how are they ever go­ing to make a dime?”

Dur­ing the twins’ fourth year of univer­sity, their fa­ther had a se­ri­ous heart at­tack. He was forty-seven. Mal­colm got a de­fer­ral of his ex­ams so that he could help run the store while his fa­ther con­va­lesced. But his mo­tives were also self­ish, for he had met a woman. Her name was He­len Un­ter­meyer; she was six years older and a mas­sage ther­a­pist. He wor­ried about telling her—con­fess­ing was how he thought of it—of the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany, but she found it more charm­ing than pe­cu­liar. Af­ter all, she said, it was just while he was in school, wasn’t it? He thought work­ing in the store would prove that he could have a reg­u­lar life, with a re­spectable job and a de­cent in­come. The truth was that he had no affin­ity for the earth sciences and the store looked like a good bet.

His fa­ther re­cov­ered and Mal­colm stayed. He learned about or­der­ing, in­ven­tory con­trol, deal­ing with the bank. He rented an apart­ment in a high-rise on Eglin­ton. He­len found a mas­sage clinic in Toronto for half the week to be with him. His own life be­gan to feel real. And then one evening Mal­colm’s mother called to ask whether the two of them might have a lit­tle talk.

He went over to the house and they sat in the kitchen, his fa­ther hav­ing made him­self scarce. Of course, she said, they were thrilled by his in­ter­est in the busi­ness, and they also liked He­len, even if she did have strong opin­ions. But she and his fa­ther were wor­ried about Hazel. Ever since Mal­colm had told his sis­ter that he wasn’t go­ing to do the pup­pet shows this sum­mer, she had fallen into what had to be rec­og­nized as a de­pres­sion. She had grown even thin­ner. “Hazel needs a lit­tle time to ad­just,” his mother said. “To fig­ure out other op­tions. In the mean­time, I don’t see why you can’t do one more sum­mer. The store isn’t go­ing any­where.”

Did he have any choice but to agree? And per­haps a part of him wanted to. His mother got up and tele­phoned Hazel, who came straight over, as if she’d been wait­ing in the garage.

“You’ve al­ways wanted to do Hansel and Gre­tel,” Hazel said.

Mal­colm closed his eyes and rubbed his fore­head hard. He tried to imag­ine telling He­len he was go­ing to be a pup­peteer again. It felt as if he might have a heart at­tack, too.

“All right,” he sighed. “But not with a step­mother. With their real mother, as in the orig­i­nal.”

“I’ll get your sketch­book,” Hazel said.

Hansel and Gre­tel be­came a peren­nial favourite. Toronto Life de­clared the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany a “the­atri­cal rite of pas­sage.” There were men­tions in guide­books, blogs, web­sites. School groups pur­chased blocks of tick­ets. Hazel and Mal­colm re­ceived in­vi­ta­tions to per­form at theatre fes­ti­vals in Winnipeg and Al­bany.

It was Hazel’s idea to teach a course on pup­pet-mak­ing for the Toronto School Board. They ran it in a high school shop class and it was Mal­colm who proved end­lessly pa­tient with the stu­dents. Here was how to keep a rasp straight, here was a way to make the mar­i­onette’s move­ments feel alive rather than merely re­al­is­tic.

He­len be­came just an­other painful mem­ory. Mal­colm earned a wage equiv­a­lent to a book­store clerk or su­per­mar­ket cashier. He be­gan a re­la­tion­ship with an ac­tual book­store em­ployee named Monica, who even­tu­ally grew bored of him and her job at the same time. Why was he al­ways the one to get dumped?

Due to Herb’s con­tin­u­ing frag­ile health, their par­ents de­cided to re­tire early. They closed the store and sold the build­ing to be con­verted into loft-style con­do­mini­ums. The money was more than they needed for a house in a Boca Ra­ton re­tire­ment com­mu­nity. Mal­colm and Hazel both went down to help them move, and when Mal­colm re­turned he dis­cov­ered a de­posit to his ac­count of four hun­dred thou­sand dol­lars. Hazel had re­ceived the same. “Why wait un­til we’re dead?” his mother said on the phone. “We don’t need it.” For the first time in his adult life, Mal­colm had more than what he needed for food and rent and Wal­mart shirts. He spent three days dream­ing of what he might do.

His cell­phone rang. “I want you to see some­thing with me.”

“What is it, Hazel? I’m kind of busy.”

“Busy pick­ing your nose. I want you to see a house.”

“You’re think­ing of buy­ing a house?”

“I’ll come by and get you.”

The house was two streets west of the Duf­ferin sub­way stop, a nar­row three-storey semi with a fake-brick face and ce­ment gar­den. The agent showed them the in­side, which looked as if it hadn’t been ren­o­vated since the De­pres­sion. Hazel sent the agent onto the porch and spread some sheets on the kitchen counter. “I had these plans made up. See, we can take down the wall sep­a­rat­ing the liv­ing and din­ing room to turn the whole front into a theatre. At this end we build a ded­i­cated stage, with wings and flies, a light and sound sys­tem, the works. I cal­cu­late fifty seats for the au­di­ence. We’ll be free to run shows for as long as we want. No more deal­ing with the li­brary sched­ule. The sec­ond and third floors can be sep­a­rate apart­ments, one for each of us. No more pay­ing rent. The base­ment is half fin­ished al­ready. We can make wood­work­ing and sew­ing rooms. For­get about the school board—we can run our own classes right here.”

“What about the zon­ing?”

“I al­ready checked. We’re close enough to Bloor Street to be zoned mixed use.”

Mal­colm shook his head but he went to pace out the front rooms. “How much money are we talk­ing about?”

“Six fifty. That leaves enough for the ren­o­va­tions. We’ll be mort­gage-free.”

“I was think­ing of go­ing back to school.”

“For what?”

“Or maybe trav­el­ling.”

“You don’t like trav­el­ling. But hey, it’s up to you. I mean it.”

Was it re­ally up to him? Did he even want it to be? Maybe he’d avoided be­ing the di­rec­tor of his own life.

He took a deep breath. “We have to rake the au­di­ence for bet­ter sight lines. But we can get sixty-five seats if we plan right.”

He wanted the look of a Vic­to­rian theatre in minia­ture: plas­ter­work ceil­ing, vel­vet wall­pa­per, light sconces on the walls, bro­cade cur­tains. But the me­chan­i­cal work­ings— mu­sic and lighting, set changes, trap doors, fog—had to be com­puter-con­trolled so that the two of them could run an en­tire show with­out stage hands. He and Hazel ar­gued over ev­ery de­tail but the re­sults were al­ways bet­ter.

Each got to lay out a base­ment work­shop. She needed draw­ers for fab­ric, long ta­bles for sew­ing and paint­ing. He needed suf­fi­cient power to run the band-saw and drill-press, rows of chis­els and carv­ing knives, heavy work­ta­bles with vises.

A high-school kid de­signed a new web­site. They be­gan to ad­ver­tise the in­au­gu­ral sea­son of the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany in its per­ma­nent new home. A new show was needed and so, as well as do­ing the ren­o­va­tions, they had to cre­ate mar­i­onettes and sets, de­sign the mu­si­cal sound­scape, re­hearse the script of Puss in Boots. The open­ing night sold out a week in ad­vance. Par­ents and kids lined up at the door while Mal­colm took the tick­ets and Hazel worked the con­ces­sion booth. The au­di­ence filled the fold­ing wooden seats, pur­chased from a de­mo­li­tion com­pany. Back­stage, Mal­colm dimmed the house lights and Hazel tapped the lap­top to start the mu­sic. The cur­tains opened to show a three-di­men­sional French coun­try­side. A jew­elled bird on an ap­ple tree opened its beak and trilled. Then the tree blos­somed with white flow­ers. The au­di­ence ap­plauded. Mal­colm moved along the plat­form be­hind the stage with the con­trols in his hand as Puss en­tered stage left, tail up. The cat stopped to lick him­self, the move­ments grace­fully feline, and then gazed out at the au­di­ence, eyes blink­ing.

A month later the first two week­end cour­ses be­gan, In­ter­me­di­ate Mar­i­onette Con­struc­tion and Per­for­mance Ba­sics. Teach­ing was stress­ful as they fig­ured out how to make the new spa­ces work for twelve stu­dents, but it was a plea­sure to be looked on with a kind of awe, as if they were mas­ter artists. Mean­while, re­views of the new show in the dailies, the arts pa­pers and on CBC Ra­dio were ec­static. Emails came from pup­peteers in South Amer­ica and Ja­pan, ask­ing if they might visit. The sec­ond sea­son was even more suc­cess­ful than the first. Mal­colm’s in­come had risen to the level of a book­store man­ager. He tried to judge his level of hap­pi­ness. There were artis­tic sat­is­fac­tions, if com­pro­mised. The chil­dren of the city were ben­e­fit­ing, so they were do­ing some good. He was no longer nagged by dreams of a dif­fer­ent life; per­haps it was sim­ply too late for that.

At the end of each show they would step out from be­hind the stage, a mar­i­onette in each hand. They and the mar­i­onettes would bow as the ap­plause grew louder. Hap­pi­ness, how­ever, must feel like some­thing else.

Driv­ing home from a Cracker Bar­rel in Boca Ra­ton, Herb and Eleanor stopped at a red light when a young man in a hoodie reached through the open win­dow to grab Eleanor’s purse. The purse was looped on her arm and ei­ther she couldn’t or wouldn’t let go. The man smacked her across the face. Lean­ing over to pro­tect his wife, Herb took his foot off the brake and the car rolled through the in­ter­sec­tion, up the op­po­site curb, and into a stand of mail­boxes.

“A white man,” Mal­colm’s mother said when he flew down to see her. “I saw his face.” They both had suf­fered bruises and cuts and sore necks. He could only stay two days, for they were open­ing a new pro­duc­tion of Alice in Won­der­land. It was the first pro­duc­tion for which they had adopted the com­pli­cated Salzburg string sys­tem and they needed sev­eral more re­hearsals.

The car still had a large dent in the fen­der but they in­sisted on driv­ing him back to the air­port. “I made a mis­take,” said his mother.

“Not let­ting go of your purse?”

“Feh, not that. Telling you to do one more sea­son with your sis­ter. You could be mar­ried to that woman by now. San­dra.”

“Her name was He­len.”

“I could be a grand­mother.”

“It prob­a­bly wouldn’t have worked out any­way.”

“I thought if you re­ally loved her you wouldn’t lis­ten to me. But I should have known how easy you are to push around.”

Apho­tog­ra­pher for Ma­clean’s came to take por­traits of the mar­i­onettes as if they were Shake­spearean ac­tors, close-ups of sor­row­fully tilted faces, beau­ti­ful in­no­cence, sly menace. The ac­com­pa­ny­ing ar­ti­cle played up the fact of them be­ing twins, but to Mal­colm they seemed more dif­fer­ent than ever. Hazel was al­most gaunt now; her head and hands looked overly large, not un­like a mar­i­onette, yet she moved with the grace of a dancer. He had a half-vol­ley­ball un­der his shirt and was los­ing his hair. Not in­fre­quently she brought a man home (they would have to walk through his rooms to get up to the third floor) and he could hear them rat­tling her old bed frame. For three months he dated a city hall clerk who couldn’t stay over be­cause she had to ad­min­is­ter to her aging cats. Then he went back to his one-pot sup­pers while watch­ing TV or search­ing ebay for vin­tage men’s hats.

Per­form­ing, at least, con­tin­ued to pro­vide some plea­sure. He carved a new wolf for Lit­tle Red Rid­ing Hood, with deep-set eyes and a more preda­tory jaw. He al­tered the voice to match, mak­ing it lower and breath­ier; now when the wolf spoke the chil­dren in the au­di­ence stopped squirm­ing and be­came silent with awe.

Hazel’s of­fer of din­ner one evening made him sus­pi­cious, as she dis­liked do­mes­tic

chores even more than he did. He walked up to her apart­ment for a meal of roast chicken and pota­toes, take-out from the Por­tuguese place around the cor­ner. Mal­colm picked up a pulke, as his mother had al­ways called a leg; what­ever this was about, he might as well end up with a full stom­ach.

“There’s a fes­ti­val in Am­s­ter­dam com­ing up,” she said, pour­ing wine.

“In June. I got a no­tice, too. It’s a good lineup, I wish we could af­ford to go.”

“Ac­tu­ally, they’ve asked me to be an artist-in-res­i­dence.”

He looked up, the chicken leg posed be­fore his mouth. “How did that hap­pen? Who rec­om­mended you?”

“I did.”

“You didn’t sug­gest the both of us?”

“They were look­ing for one. Be­sides, you hate trav­el­ling.”

“And you didn’t tell me.”

“Come on, Mal­colm. We’re not stuck to­gether like Chang and Eng. It’s just for three weeks. We’re not per­form­ing then any­way and you can run the work­shops with­out me and keep the prof­its.”

“Ex­actly how do I man­age that?”

“Hire an as­sis­tant. How about Mark Zel­man? He’d be thrilled.”

“Mark Zel­man still gets his T-bar tan­gled. Never mind, I’ll fig­ure it out for my­self.” He felt his face burn­ing and would have stormed out of the house, or down to his own apart­ment, if the chicken hadn’t been so good. Mostly he was an­gry for not hav­ing the courage do any­thing by him­self.

He re­mem­bered they had re­ceived a re­sumé from an Aus­tralian woman trav­el­ling in North Amer­ica. He found the email in his trash file; her name was Emily Raven­scourt and she’d al­ready done an in­tern­ship in Paris and been an as­sis­tant pup­peteer on a small tele­vi­sion show in New Zealand. He emailed her to of­fer a short-term job, all the while imag­in­ing whether there was any chance she’d be at­tracted to him.

This ex­cit­ing idea van­ished as soon as Emily Raven­scourt ap­peared at the door. She was just un­der five feet, pierc­ings in her ears and nose, a tat­too of some Chi­nese sym­bol on her neck and an­other of Elmo above her left breast. Mostly it was the Dykes Do It Down Un­der T-shirt that zapped his fan­tasy. She un­slung an enor­mous back­pack and gripped his hand.

“Mal­colm. I’m stoked to meet you. The Youtube clips of your shows are fuck­ing amaz­ing. I’m roar­ing to get to work.”

“Right, well, come in,” he said. He had never heard such a thick Aussie accent. Grab­bing the straps of her back­pack, he could barely drag it into the house.

Emily had agreed to work in ex­change for room and board and spend­ing money. He led her up to the third floor, tem­po­rar­ily va­cated by Hazel. “Crikey, it’s like a dun­geon. Who lives here, Mor­ti­cia Ad­dams?” Emily proved her­self a nat­u­ral pup­peteer and it didn’t take her long to get the hang of their string sys­tems. She was a much bet­ter teacher than Hazel, although his sis­ter would have sneered at how she praised ev­ery­one’s work. The two of them fell into an easy rou­tine, work­ing side-by-side dur­ing the day and eat­ing hum­ble sup­pers to­gether—bean tacos, scram­bled eggs, spaghetti. She told him about grow­ing up on a farm, mov­ing to Syd­ney for school, her first ro­mance to her present girl­friend back home. She had al­ready de­cided to re­turn to Aus­tralia and train to be­come a para­medic and am­bu­lance driver. He was all sim­ple ad­mi­ra­tion for her abil­ity to rein­vent her­self.

“So, tell me,” she said one night when they were eat­ing tuna melts and drink­ing beer. “Tell you what?”

“What makes you crack a fat. You know, gets you ex­cited. What do you re­ally want to do? Be­sides fall­ing in love, be­cause that one is ob­vi­ous.”

“You see this as the night to hu­mil­i­ate me?”

“Come on, do I look like some­body to be em­bar­rassed in front of? I’ve taken my knocks, I can tell you. It just seems you’re less than sat­is­fied, that’s all.”

“If I could change my life—if I could change my­self, I would.” He took a swig of beer.

“But I can’t. So I’d just like to do some lit­tle thing for my­self.”

“What lit­tle thing?”

“It’s ridicu­lous.”

“I like ridicu­lous.”

“Fine. Some­times I think about mak­ing a stage that I can carry on my back. Then I’d wan­der from town to town, set­ting it up in a square or in front of the town hall. I’d per­form for who­ever wants to watch, it wouldn’t mat­ter how many or whether they were kids or adults. Then I’d move on to the next place. Travel the coun­try. Not with mar­i­onettes but hand pup­pets, like the ones Hazel and I used when we were kids. It’s child­ish, I know.”

“No, it’s rip­per. I wish that I’d thought of it. We can start work­ing to­mor­row, af­ter classes. Make your gear.”

“You think that’s what I want to hear. But it’s not.”

“Have you got a de­sign for the stage? Some­thing that’s light and comes apart. I have a feel­ing you’ve got it all fig­ured out in your head.”

“Maybe.”

“Re­mind me when your sis­ter gets back.”

“An­other ten days.”

“That should give us enough time. Grab that notebook of yours and start sketch­ing. How many pup­pets will you need? I’ll get us a cou­ple more beers. This is go­ing to be fun.”

His idea was a four-sided fab­ric stage that he could stand in­side, the in­ner sup­ports made from alu­minum tent poles. At Moun­tain Equip­ment Co-op they bought a two-per­son tent that had enough or­ange fab­ric to re­pur­pose. For­tu­nately, Emily was a whiz with the Singer. Mal­colm tried it out by slip­ping it over his head.

“It works well but looks a bit bor­ing,” Emily said. “What should we dec­o­rate it with? A moon and stars?” But for Mal­colm that was too ob­vi­ous. In­stead they used over­lap­ping fab­ric rem­nants to make a swirl or wave sweep­ing around the sides. Now it looked as much like a home­less per­son’s tent as a stage.

As for the pup­pets, he knew what he wanted: characters that could per­form an end­less va­ri­ety of im­pro­vised lit­tle dra­mas. He sculpted the heads from mod­el­ling clay and then lay­ered pa­pier-mâché over them. When they were dry he sliced them apart to re­move the clay and then pasted them back to­gether for paint­ing and hair ap­pli­ca­tion. Emily helped him to make a boy, a girl, a witch, a man (king) and a woman (queen), a po­lice­man and a fox. They had un­evenly placed eyes, crooked noses, fat lips, faces that were lurid green or yel­low or blue. Then he made one more, a cloth body with a sharp­ened stick in­stead of a head.

“What in the world is that for?”

“I’ll have to bor­row a potato from a house near ev­ery stop. Then stick it on for the head. That’s the stinky potato golem.”

“You’ve gone way past me,” Emily said with a whis­tle.

Two days be­fore Hazel’s re­turn the work­shops had their fi­nal classes. Emily packed for her re­turn, happy at the prospect of be­ing re­united with her girl­friend. Mal­colm pulled his par­ents’ Oldsmo­bile out of the garage to drive her to the air­port. In the ter­mi­nal she gave him a fierce hug. “You bet­ter keep in touch. I want to hear about that trip of yours. And don’t back out! You prom­ise?”

“I was up all night sweat­ing,” he said, look­ing at the de­par­tures board, the se­cu­rity gate, any­where but at Emily. “Who am I kid­ding? I can’t do it. I hate trav­el­ling. It was al­ways Hazel who ar­ranged our trips. I have a pho­bia about sleep­ing in strange beds. I can’t talk to strangers or—”

“That’s rub­bish. You can fig­ure out how to make it work. I know you can.”

“Maybe just plan­ning it was enough. Mak­ing the pup­pets was enough. You bet­ter get on that plane al­ready,” he said, his eyes tear­ing up. She looked at him and sighed, tried to say some­thing but for once noth­ing came to her.

Mal­colm waited un­til he couldn’t see her any­more and then took the es­ca­la­tor to ar­rivals to wait the two hours for Hazel’s plane from Am­s­ter­dam.

Sit­ting in a row of chairs, a tele­vi­sion nat­ter­ing above his head, he dozed off, only to wake sud­denly as an­other wave of trav­ellers rolled their lug­gage out the slid­ing doors and down the ramp. He didn’t know it was Hazel’s plane un­til he saw her emerge with a cart­ful of lug­gage and a man help­ing her push it.

Hazel saw her brother and said some­thing to the man. They pushed the cart to­ward him. The man was tall, straw-haired and sig­nif­i­cantly older. “Hey, you’re still alive,” Hazel said as they ap­proached. “This is Jo­han. We met the day I ar­rived. I’m sorry that I didn’t let you know he was com­ing but I wasn’t sure how you’d take it.”

“Are you a pup­peteer?” Mal­colm asked.

The man’s long face wrin­kled around his eyes as he laughed. “No, no, I am not that spe­cial.”

Hazel said, “Jo­han is a city plan­ner. His spe­cialty is bi­cy­cle routes and some­thing to do with drains.”

“But I’m re­tired. Mal­colm, I’ve heard a good deal about you. Espe­cially about when you both were chil­dren. But of course I’ve only known Hazel a short while. I hope we can also get to know one other.”

“The car is parked at the back of the garage,” Mal­colm said. He be­gan to walk, let­ting them push the cart be­hind him. That he felt hurt, even be­trayed, was to be ex­pected. But that it was also of no use to him was an in­sight that he at­trib­uted to Emily’s lin­ger­ing pres­ence. He told him­self to let it go.

Jo­han was so un­fail­ingly goodtem­pered that he had the ef­fect of mak­ing brother and sis­ter treat each other more cour­te­ously. He and Mal­colm some­times had cof­fee in the morn­ing while Hazel slept in. A few times they went to a nearby pub. Mal­colm helped Jo­han find a Dutch­style bi­cy­cle, up­right and heavy. One morn­ing Jo­han came down wear­ing a suit and tie and bike hel­met, men­tion­ing ca­su­ally that he was go­ing to do some con­sult­ing work for the city.

It was to Jo­han that Mal­colm told of his aborted plan to travel across the coun­try with a stage on his back. Late July, a hu­mid sum­mer night, and they were stand­ing on the porch lis­ten­ing to the ur­ban trill of ci­cadas. “You sound very dis­ap­pointed with your­self,” Jo­han said.

“I guess. More than that, I’m just sorry not to do it. I need some­thing dif­fer­ent, some­thing that I do my­self. I just thought this was it. I imag­ined sur­pris­ing peo­ple, mak­ing them laugh, shock­ing or mov­ing them. I saw my­self hav­ing in­ter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions af­ter. Prob­a­bly none of that would have hap­pened any­way.”

“Are you afraid to per­form alone?”

“No. Ner­vous but not afraid. That wasn’t my prob­lem.”

Jo­han pressed the cold bot­tle to his cheek. “Maybe you can just take out the part that is hold­ing you back. It’s the trav­el­ling, yes? But why do you have to travel to do it?”

“I have to find the au­di­ences.”

“You can’t do it here? Toronto has many neigh­bour­hoods and even more parks. I have been study­ing them, you see. Why not go to the Beach or to Cab­bage­town, to Park­dale or Les­lieville or the Junc­tion, Eto­bi­coke or Scar­bor­ough? All you need is a Metro pass. You are un­likely to see any­one you know. It will be just as if you’ve gone away.”

“I thought of that at the be­gin­ning. It seemed too mod­est, that I needed some­thing big­ger. But maybe I don’t. Maybe that would be big enough... I guess it’s about as much as I can han­dle.”

“Let’s see. Hazel told me she isn’t ex­pect­ing to do any work un­til late Au­gust. So you still have time. To­day is Wed­nes­day. Per­haps you could be­gin on Satur­day.”

“That’s in three days.”

“Yes it is,” Jo­han smiled.

They were silent for a while. “All right. I’ll do it. But maybe you’ll tell Hazel for me.”

“If you re­ally want me to.”

“Tell me what?” Hazel said, let­ting the screen door slam be­hind her.

“Your brother is about to em­bark on a lit­tle adventure of his own.”

Per­haps the hard­est thing was re­ally telling Hazel. She had ques­tions. Would he pass a hat? (No.) Would he ad­ver­tise the Mer­ry­land Pup­pet Com­pany? (No.) What ex­actly did he hope to get out of it? (He didn’t know.) She asked Jo­han to get her a beer from the fridge and when he was gone she said, “It’s about time you did some­thing on your own. Per­son­ally I can’t imag­ine want­ing to do more pup­petry in my spare time but, hey, if that’s what turns you on. Stand in a park wav­ing your weird lit­tle hand pup­pets. Knock ’em dead, I say. And then you have to tell me ev­ery­thing about it.”

He was sur­prised by the plea­sure her words gave him. He fin­ished his beer and went up­stairs to send Emily an email. Jo­han helped me fig­ure it out. It’s kind of like plan­ning to climb Ever­est and then de­cid­ing to stroll to the end of the block in­stead. But what the hell, and I even got the queen’s bless­ing. I don’t have any more ex­cuses.

Satur­day morn­ing: a clear sky and slight breeze. Mal­colm stood on the porch, the mod­i­fied knap­sack on his back, pup­pets dan­gling from his belt. He had a flat straw hat on his head, an ash walk­ing stick in his hand.

“You look like Henry David Thoreau,” said Jo­han.

“More like a mad­man,” said Hazel. “Do you have the knife I gave you? I mean it. There are dan­ger­ous peo­ple out there.”

“I’d just stab my­self.” He ad­justed the knap­sack straps.

“You’re go­ing to have a good first day,” Jo­han said. “Now smile while I take your pic­ture.” He held out his iphone. Mal­colm pre­ferred to look solemn. “Are you sure you don’t want to take a potato?” Hazel asked. “This strikes me as the strangest ques­tion I’ve ever asked any­one.”

“No, I’d rather have to knock on a door and ask for one. Don’t worry, I’ll be back be­fore dark.”

He touched the brim of his hat and went down the porch steps. He would have liked to jump up and tap his feet à la Char­lie Chap­lin but didn’t think he could man­age it. So with­out turn­ing around he raised his cane in salute and then went on his way, head­ing off for the great adventure of his mid­dle life, to make wild art, to en­ter­tain the sad and the lonely and the merely bored, and to be home in time for sup­per.

illustrations by chrys­tene ells

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