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