Puppet Master by Katherine Dreier

I feel I’ve gone mad. I feel as if we’ve switched places… like I am the jowly man, Billy, and he’s the puppet. Every night, it’s just me and Billy, acting for nobody. Taught to dress fancy, walk fancy, eat fancy, talk fancy… Nothin’. We sit on 1 ½ chairs, facing only empty ones. A sigh echoes, and we begin.

“Good afternoon, squat-nose!” I say.

“No, no Joe. Good morning! And I must compliment your bow-tie.”

“Bow-tie? BOW-TIE? That is a work of art, mista’, an’ you better believe it!”

We continue, our smiles as fake as our accents, as fake as our rudeness. My eyes glaze as we go into a routine. My arms are as heavy as wood, paralyzed in hopelessness. Even my shiny hat has a visible droop.

We leave the studio, hand-in-hand. I try to cheer Billy up with one of my antics, he just frowns. We are best friends, yet the end is near, and not because of disloyalty, but because of our misfortune. A flier rips off a bulletin board. It flutters into Billy’s hands, and he reads it to me. “Any and all! Frolic to the Garden of Eden to entertain long faces! Folks in the south need amusement! Food and transportation will be provided at no cost. And remember, you will be paid well! WELCOME NEW STARS.” Our eyes goggle. Our mouths gape. We will be rich! Famous. Livin’ da’ good life. We race to the theater where auditions would be held tomorrow at 7pm. Tomorrow at seven, we’ll have… yawn… a whole… new… yawn… life.

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Nine o’clock. We still haven’t been interviewed. Long lines of takers crowd the hallways and wait anxiously. I worry for Billy; his poor heart might give out if we didn’t get the part. So many before us heard the sharp axe and chopping block as The Boss calls: NEXT! I gulp and when 10:30 passes by and we near the double doors. 50… 42… 27… 19 left when I whisper urgently into my friend’s ear. “Let’s go! Face it; we won’t get the part – there are too many others. We’ll hitch-hike to the lands of plenty and capture our audiences’ eye before our competition. Come on, it’s a brilliant idea!” I try to make him understand, but he tells me we should wait and see. What good will it do when we’re left behind?

5 left… 2 left… 1 left… next in line! My stomach would twist in knots if it could, but cloth has no guts. The call comes out, our props are set and on with the show! We left five minutes later; words cut off and shoved back into our throats. A quick farewell stating that the winner would be announced next week; and the week after, they would depart for Denver, Colorado. Further information would be provided for the victor. We were flung back outside, into light rain. It was like a slap in the face. I managed a choke of sound to Billy. “Now?” And he agreed. We would leave the next day, for we had few belongings to take with us. Denver, of course, is only the first stop for the winner, because whoever won the contest gets a tour across the board. “Goodbye, Salt Lake – hello, Denver!” Tomorrow we will pack. Tomorrow we will vanish.

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And so we are gone – off the maps and invisible. Not a good reputation for actors. Billy kicks his bare feet on the road, while my shiny black wingtips are hardly scuffed. He sold his for food a while back, and I wish I could have sold mine instead, but I couldn’t take them off. Besides, who wants a shoe so small it can’t fit a toddler? I feel bad for having him do most of the work, but hey, I heard when you’re bear hunting, you only have to be faster than your friend. When the bear is busy eating him, you can escape. I smack myself for thinking those dirty thoughts. After all, we’re in this together.

Vultures, high in the cloudless sky, circle our heads; and I guess we are mostly skin and bones now… We must stay strong! We must cheer and entertain the citizens of Denver, and… my resolve has dulled. The idea, so exuberant back at the theater, tastes like sand now.

Is it really worth it? The papers hadn’t reached Utah, but the news is stale here. There’s been a drought, and farmers say winds have been a’ brewing – a nasty sucker punch. We’d just guessed earlier why they would need to smile. Thought it was about the joblessness, and the homeless on the streets. The vast sea of depression that had set in on our good country. A drought could be the end – no wonder their future looks grim! Suddenly I wonder if the taste in my mouth is imagined, or really is sand.

I see a Hooverville on the horizon. This one’s in bad shape, truly only about four shacks. Not that most of them we’ve passed had been even close to good-lookin’, but this was on the verge of unsafe. A dark face greets us. “You are unwelcome here,” a boy says. He was about fifteen, bare-chested and lean. Us old men were glared at, spat at, women made the sign to ward evil off as we went along the road. Billy stops and we share a secret glance. Well, the show must go on! He sits on the rocky ground, and I next to him. Then we break out in song!

The boy is shocked, still as stone. I do the chorus, and Billy the verses. It is a familiar ditty about an elephant, and soon a pack of children join in when it’s apparent we mean no harm. A woman in her twenties with amber eyes smiles at me, and gestures to the camp. Billy averts his eyes, and me, my whole head. She, or by that matter anyone, owned little to no fabric. Laughter squeals into the afternoon sun from our infant parade. A crate was offered to act as a seat for us to share. A chair! The simple, rotting planks seem a novelty to me. The little, rickety thing smells like a thousand bums, but we don’t mind. We invent new jaunts and jigs, our audience grinning from ear-to-ear. Most of the elders are still hostile, but who would blame them?

It’s way past moonrise when the last burst of applause settles into yawns. It seems we have gained their trust, for a man points to a spot under a roof-hanging for us to sleep. The next day, with efforts from the whole compound, we are given a meagre breakfast and a few cents.

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The next village is a scandalous place, full of not-so-dashing toms, rogues, tramps, and hillbillies. A wee sliver of a penny is tossed our way along with sly grins. I have a weird feeling that if we don’t spend it fast, they’ll get it back with knives in our backs. Billy uses that quickly on a cigar. I am disappointed, but I have to admit, the man has style because that action gets him admirers from a lavish bar inviting him for a free drink and payment for a show.

Dimes pour down on us, and we can definitely feel the good life now. A waitress with what I believe was way too much powder on beckons Billy with her finger and winks. Immediately I knew she was after the silver in his pocket and got him and me to leave town. I was glad to leave that fiendish place behind.

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Just around the bend were some rusty railroad tracks. A station was nowhere to be found, but the turn would make the train slow considerably. I hated myself for jumping a train, but there was no way to get on else wise unless we walked for more than fifty miles. No, this was our best bet. When the sun crowned the sky, a whistle came from the distance. One car passed, then another. In our town, after the train departed, you could always see homeless crowding the cars. They piled on top of each other and burst out the side. In comparison this ride was like a graveyard.

Only a few faces were on board. Billy readied himself, and then leapt to a passing freight car, sweeping me along after him. I whisk through the air like a faerie, peaceful and naïve. Next thing I know the train thunders on top of me. Dark masses converge. Cold fingers grip at my heart, then I am torn away from the whirlwind. My tie is shredded and I doubt my shoes fared any better. “You look like you’ve bin sapped, but by a bone-shredder!” A crooked old man with more than just a stubble of a beard laughs and wheezes at us. “Hey, baldy, you an idiot or somethin’? Whatever, do ya got any mud?” This smelly tramp was hardly speaking English. “Watch it! Therrs a bull in that X o-er’ therr! Hide!” Whatever a bull or an X was, we knew boarding a train without payment could get you in prison. We hid, panting, behind some rusty cargo. The train screeches to a halt, and a conductor with a blue suit comes to investigate. He stops at the car in front of us.

“Ere’, I got me some extra lunch tokens back at the yard! Found sommat’. Oh, a raggedy little child trying to get away from the Dust Bowl, huh? Thought you could ride around fer free?” I could hear a whimper nearby. The worker dragged out a disheveled lump.

“Oooo, shi’l git som good brac’lits out’a that.” The man wasn’t speaking to us, but more to himself. He whistled as ‘she’ was thrown under the tracks. “Aww, the Big House must be too full. He’s doin’ her a favor tho…” The train rattled on, but we were humbled by what we had witnessed. Every day the dirt outside roars like hail from Russia. This morning, we stop at Denver.

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Desolate, hostile, and bleak would be the best words to describe it. Denver was a ghost of a town. In the distance was a grey cloud that looked less like precipitation and more like ash. It’s been six days since the contest. The next day, newspapers would have the winner posted. Billy puts on a big grin and saunters over to the local diner. An old woman was cleaning counter tops, hunchbacked from overtime. When Billy sees her, his eyes sparkle and shine. She sighs as we come in, readies herself to take our order, but Billy waves her down, and she gratefully rests at a booth seat. “Y’all is kind to an old woman,” she says.

“A pretty girl such as yourself shouldn’t work so hard,” I reply. She chuckles, and I don’t know if it’s because I called her pretty, or because Billy whispered to me what to say. “That’s a fine talent, mister. You be comin’ in tonight?” Her offer would be hard to let down, and business is business, although I think there was something more that sparked Billy’s interest. That evening we drew in a crowd. Even coughing and hacking dust out as we were, it was a fine night, and the lady invited us again. “Where can we stay for tonight? The wind is murder on the ears outside.” She rung up her boss who owned a ramshackle apartment on the outskirts. We stayed there, and the next day, the diner woman hands us the paper from Utah. We are on the front cover.

The caption reads: ‘Winners of the performance competition! Act: Billy with Joe. First stop – Denver.’ It goes on and on of the stops we would visit, all the way to DC. A sub-caption shows the crowds and claims most of the ‘real acts’ were at the end of the line and couldn’t audition because of the fakers. That hurt, the bigger hurt was the fact that we won. I don’t know if I should be happy, sad, angry, or just dumbstruck. Besides, how do we collect our prize now?

“That’s us right there, miss. Would you like to stop scrubbing tables for a while and join us? We could send word of our location, and have the crew meet us here! I’ve heard you sing. It’s beautiful! If you wanted we could add you in… and even if you don’t, we’ll give you a portion of the takings! Come into show business – with us!” She blushes, but shakes her head.

“Although you treat me like a girl, I am an old woman, and this is my home. Besides, the big world out there won’t listen to a waitress sing. At least not one with greying hair. You flatter me, but I have merely known you for a day! It wouldn’t be fair of me to get your money for no work. And I just can’t leave my only home.”

Billy whispers some sweet-talking comments for me to say, but she still refuses. Something tells me Billy won’t like it when we have to leave her behind. He tells her that we still won’t leave for a week, and every evening till, we’ll stop by the diner. She kisses Billy, then me, on the cheek and says, “I’d like that very much.” Maybe we won’t bring cheer to the world, but we did to Colorado… and to ourselves.

The next night the dust blew hard. It coated the people and buried the buildings. She just wouldn’t listen. She just had to go to work that morning to see if Billy was alright, so she plowed through the storm, only to keel over in the storm choking on red mud. The dry dirt from her grave still stuck on Billy’s hands. She had no family left to dig it, so Billy worked the earth and paid his respects alone. He didn’t let me come. He set a rock carved with her name, Amalda.

He never looked back. I guess fate wouldn’t let us settle down.