“Say hello to the nice boys and girls, Corky.”
“Why should I?”
“Now Corky, these little boys and girls came to this birthday party to see you, so how about it?”
“Well, okay, George, since you asked nice. Hi, boys and girls. How are you?”
“Mom! I wanna go play iPads!”
“Hush now, Johnny, and let Mister Brussy and Corky perform for you.”
“But Mom! I can see his lips moving!”
Sigh. “Just let Mister Brussy finish his little act, then you and your friends can play iPads.”
Little act? Missus Perkins wasn’t the only one who sighed, though George kept his to himself. He soldiered on, though he knew he had lost the small group of five-year-olds seated on the grass in front of him, three boys and four girls. The birthday boy himself, Johnny Perkins, had become very interested in a grub he’d dug out of the grass, and was completely ignoring George and Corky.
George ran through the remainder of his routine, and once he finished and Corky had said, “Goodbye, kids! Now go have some birthday cake!” the seven children leaped to their feet as if chains had been removed from their limbs.
Missus Perkins came up to him as the kids blasted through the patio door and into the house. He saw little Johnny pick up an iPad that looked like a billboard in his diminutive hands. All his friends clustered around him on the carpet as he opened some game and they began playing.
Johnny’s mom shook her head. “I am so sorry for Johnny’s behavior,” she said. “He just loves that iPad. We can never get him to put it down.”
Maybe take it away from him on occasion, George wanted to say, but didn’t. He accepted the check Missus Perkins handed him. “Thank you.”
She looked at him a moment. “It must be hard keeping kids’ attention these days, what with all the electronic distractions they have.”
Who lets them be distracted? George didn’t say out loud. “It has its challenges,” he said instead. He folded the check and slid it into his trouser pocket.
Missus Perkins reached out and touched Corky’s smooth wooden face. “My husband thought it would be fun for Johnny to see a real, honest-to-goodness ventriloquist and his dummy. He loves those old Edgar Bergen routines.” She frowned. “I always thought they were kind of creepy.” She clapped her hand to her mouth. “Oh! I’m sorry!” She laid her hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t mean—”
He waved away her apology. “No need,” he said, his lower back complaining as he bent and placed Corky in the travelling case with the beige tweed covering that was worn shiny in spots. “Thank you very much for hosting us today.”
He left the exquisitely manicured back yard through the same gate by which he had entered. After putting Corky’s case into the rear of his fifteen-year-old Chevy Aveo, he folded his long frame into the cramped front seat and turned the key. The car burped to life after a few whining turns of the starter, and he rattled away from the Perkins McMansion.
Back in his second-floor room at the Starlight Delight motel, he took Corky out of his case and sat the figure up against the bed’s headboard, then sank into the single armchair with the brown stain on the cushion like a stone dropping into a bucket. A listless fly buzzed around the forty-watt bulb in the lamp beside the chair.
He reached his long arm down to the floor and felt amid the grit and debris that was a permanent part of the carpet, till his extended fingers touched the brown paper bag lying beneath the chair. He pulled it out, removed the pint bottle of whiskey from the bag—“Old Sphincter”, as he thought of the bourbon; it stunk, but it got the job done—and poured several fingers worth into the clear plastic cup sitting on the round Formica-covered table next to the chair. He took a sip, then a gulp. The cheap booze sizzled down his gullet like a line of burning gasoline.
He took another swig, looked at the empty cup, and refilled it. Probably he should get something to eat; he hadn’t bothered to stay for cake or snacks at little Johnny’s party. He looked out the window onto the parking lot, scenic with the three old cars with their spidered windshields, and Ilsa, the crack whore from the room next door, down on her reddened knees on the concrete giving some guy a hummer in the alcove beside the ice machine.
The cushion in the old chair had hosted a lot of asses, some of them quite large, judging by the buttock-shaped sag in the center of the pad. In a way, it was comforting, that so many derelicts at the end of their careers—or their lives—had ended up in this very room, buttocks to this same seat. He was in good, albeit despairing, company.
“Geezus, Corky! What?”
Silence. Oh great, he was pouting. “All right, I’m sorry, Corky.” He could hear the hum of the air conditioner in the crack whore’s room next door. “I said I was sorry.”
Corky punished him a moment longer, then said, “What’s to become of us, George?”
George pulled his gaze away from the window—fascinating though Ilsa was to watch at her work—and looked at Corky. His vent figure regarded him, his eyes slid sideways in his wooden head.
“I don’t know, Cork,” George admitted. “I’ve thoroughly fucked up our lives.”
“Now George, don’t say that,” Corky soothed, his jaw clacking as he spoke.
George drained his cup of the foul brown rotgut and grimaced. “Let’s tick off the reasons, shall we?”
“No, let’s not do that again—”
“I was married for three months when I was twenty-three. She took my nut and ran off. I had a kid’s show on Channel 41 in Kansas City for nine months, until they cancelled us for something more edgy—which turned out to be reruns of Speed Racer. I played one of the small casinos in Vegas for eighteen months, until Batshit—or whatever his name was—”
“Bigsy,” Corky offered helpfully.
“Until Bigsy decided I was putting it to his old lady. Like I’d touch that old showgirl skank—”
“Kindness is a virtue, George.”
“And we just made it out of town with our lives.” George regarded Corky. “Well, my life.”
“That again?” Corky flicked his eyes back and forth; the closest he could come to rolling them in disgust. “I don’t know any more about why I’m the way I am than you do.”
“Yeah, well.” George refilled his cup and took another drink. The cheap whiskey made his belly feel like it was the hottest part of a tire fire, but his head was getting comfortably numb.
“I don’t like it when you drink so much and get depressed,” Corky said.
“I don’t like it either.”
“And do what?” George slipped his hand into his trouser pocket and pulled forth the check Missus Perkins had given him, opened it, waved it in Corky’s direction. “One hundred twenty-five dollars, Cork. That, added to the eighty-three dollars and seventy-nine cents we have, is the sum total of our nut.”
“Did you put an ad on Craigslist?”
“I don’t know how to work a computer.”
“I said I would show you.”
“How would that look, Cork?” George said. “You sitting on my lap at the library, instructing me which of the bloody buttons to push?”
“The librarian would help.”
George made a sound like he was spitting, but didn’t. “I asked. She looked at me like I was from another planet. She said When I’m done shelving books. I didn’t like her.”
“You used to like everybody.”
“Yeah, well, everybody didn’t used to be assholes.”
“I said no. We aren’t having this discussion again.”
“But if you’d just reconsider—”
George slammed the plastic cup down on the Formica tabletop; the cup cracked, the whiskey bubbling as it took on the grime coating the tabletop in a battle to the death.
“I said no! What do you think would happen if people found out what—who—what you are? They wouldn’t find it charming, or entertaining. They’d have you whisked off to some military installation where they’d dissect you like you were some little green alien.”
“You’ve watched too many fifties paranoia movies, George.”
“Hazard of being born in the forties.”
“But we could be careful. Just imagine how amazed people would be if we did some of the tricks we’ve worked up, with me talking while you are sealed in a crate, or something?”
“Corky,” George said, the warm feeling of the booze galloping away, to be replaced by a familiar weariness. “I can’t take a chance on losing you.”
Corky said nothing for several moments. “You won’t lose me, George.”
George let go a sigh that felt like he’d breathed out his bones. “Corky, you are too trusting. Things aren’t the way they used to be when we first started. People these days are… unkind.”
“Not all of them.” Corky’s painted eyes looked at George with a depth greater than that of most people he knew. “We would be very careful in setting up our routines.” When George said nothing, Corky prodded, “George, look at the check from Missus Perkins. That and the eighty-three dollars and seventy-nine cents is all we have. That won’t last more than a week—maybe two, if you only eat once a day and don’t drink. And then what?”
George stared at the floor. “You’re too fucking practical.”
Corky made that chuckling noise that sounded like a Chihuahua being tickled. “That’s why you need me.”
George shook his head. “Okay, let’s say we run with your idea. How would we work it?”
“We’d have to start small. Anyone who knows you would be… er, startled to discover such a huge overnight leap in talent.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Sorry. Simple things at first, like the old water glass trick, but from across the stage. Then we work up from there, you sealed in a crate, or at the back of the audience, or even outside on the street.”
“I’m not letting you out of my sight. I’m going to make sure no one tries to grab you.”
“Okay, we’ll stick a pin in that last one.” Corky opened his jaw a moment, and closed it; it was his way of pursing his lips. “So. What do you think?”
They had talked about all this before, and George had been adamant that Corky would not expose himself to the world. But now, looking down at the measly check in his hands—the last gig he’d managed to line up for them—things seemed much more desperate. And when he heard Ilsa bang open her door the next room over, and three male voices booming at her to get on the bed, he sighed again.
“Okay, let me sleep on it. I’m too buzzed to make decisions now.”
George held up his hand. “I’m not saying no, Cork. Just let me get some sleep.”
“Sure, George. You get some sleep. I’ll stand guard.”
George laughed, even though it was an old joke of Corky’s—his vent figure had never needed sleep. Or food. Or anything else, it seemed, other than good company. George hoped he had at least provided that to his best friend over their decades together.
Corky was considerate enough to keep quiet while George pondered. Maybe—if they were very careful—George might consider doing Corky’s plan. But if he lost his friend… It wasn’t even the money— Okay, it was partly the money, but ninety-nine point nine nine nine of it was that he would not allow his friend to be used as a lab experiment.
He must have fallen asleep there in the butt-saggy chair, because when he came awake with a start, it was dark outside. As dark as it could be, with three big light poles in the parking lot, one of which had become misaligned when some kids had thrown rocks at it, and it shone its ten million watts straight through his window.
That must have been what had awakened him.
He checked his watch. The phosphorescent hands on the ancient Timex said it was four-twenty-three in the morning. His stomach growled, reminding him that he’d not eaten since the sandwich yesterday from the vending machine at the laundromat on the corner, before his gig at the Perkins’ house.
He glanced over at Corky, who had his eyes closed. He smiled; Corky didn’t sleep, but he was able to put himself into a kind of trance where he shut out the physical world for a while.
George shifted his gaze back to the window and the quiet parking lot, then frowned. Something…
He looked back at Corky. The bright light from the parking lot was making every object in his room throw long shadows. Including Corky. And that was strange.
Because Corky had never thrown a shadow.
The two of them had puzzled over that one years ago, why Corky could not cast a shadow. George had tried all kinds of light, running the spectrum from infrared to ultraviolet, and nada. Corky had always been shadow-free. It had troubled George in the beginning, but it had never affected Corky’s sunny disposition, so he had forgotten about it over the years.
But now that old bemusement came rushing back.
He stared at his friend, whose eyes remained closed. George opened his mouth to say something, then shut it. If Corky was getting even more human—whatever that meant—then he didn’t want to break the spell. He stood and crept to the bed and bent to peer at Corky.
The shadow moved.
George squawked, “Awp!” and jumped back, stumbling against the tiny wall-mounted ironing board he’d left unfolded yesterday. His heart was pounding out the top of his head.
The shadow rippled like an oily wave, and shifted to the other side of Corky’s small body, away from George…
And towards the bright light coming in the window.
“That can’t be,” George muttered. He realized he was clutching his chest in a vain attempt to get his seventy-two-year-old heart to slow down. He made his frozen legs move around the bed, and stood between the parking lot illumination and Corky.
The shadow didn’t go away.
“Aw shit,” George said. “Corky?”
No answer. His friend kept his eyes closed.
The shadow was a perfect replica against the headboard of Corky, only in black. George reached out a finger and touched it.
He jerked his hand back. It had been like touching hot tar, and the shadow had pulled away from the headboard, just a little, as if it were made of that sticky, rubbery stuff companies used to glue fake credit cards to the come-on letters they send people.
George looked at his finger, turning to the side to shine the tip in the light. He thought he’d been burned, but his finger looked okay.
“Corky?” he said again.
Corky’s voice was a rasp, like a wood file had been taken to his throat. But he didn’t have a throat.
“George,” he said again, forcing the name out like he was lifting a car at the same time.
George’s heart skipped ahead three beats, then restarted, but at a hundred-twenty miles per hour. He reached for his friend.
The shadow struck at him.
“Geezus!” George swore, yanking his hand away.
“George,” Corky groaned. “Help.”
George looked around, plucked up the walking cane he’d used the last time his sciatica had flared up, and poked at the shadow with the worn rubber tip.
The shadow grabbed the cane and swarmed up it like a nest of cobras.
George yelped and dropped the cane. The shadow went still a moment, then retreated to attach itself to Corky once again.
“What the fuck is this?” George muttered.
“George. He wants…”
“He? Wants? Wants what?”
“Us… to leave… him alone.”
George stumbled backwards and fell into the chair. His heart was beating like a coked-out monkey hammering on a steel drum. He felt his fingers and toes go icy.
“Who is he, Corky? Who is he?”
The shadow rippled like a row of cats stretching in the sun.
“He says… Leave him alone. He says don’t… show me off.”
“Show you off? What does that mean, Cork?”
“He’s hiding. In me. Hiding.”
“Corky. Who is he?”
The shadow came away from the headboard and flapped like a sheet on a clothesline in a tornado, except a lot faster. It made George’s stomach twist to watch it.
“He says… Don’t do the tricks.”
“The tricks?” George tried to get his mind to work. “You mean, our new act?”
“He says don’t… don’t reveal…”
George waited, but Corky was silent. “Reveal? Reveal what, Corky?”
George stood up and went to the bed. He picked up the cane where it had fallen to the floor after the shadow released it, and jabbed the tip at the thing.
“Let him go!” George yelled.
The shadow quivered, and for the oddest second George thought it was laughing at him.
“He says if… if he lets me go… I won’t… I won’t be here anymore.”
“You won’t—” And then George got it. Got how Corky could be the way he was.
A memory from decades past bubbled to the surface: His wife had just left him, taking all his money—and his self-respect. He had sat, face in his hands, in the one chair she had left him in their apartment, wondering what he would do next. Wondering who there was in the world who might see in him what he thought he saw in himself. He had prayed then, maybe the one time in his life that he had, asking for someone. Asking for a friend.
Then, Corky had been nothing more than wood and cloth. But soon after that prayer, Corky had become the— the person, that he was now. Far more than tree and cotton.
At that time, George could not have imagined that a prayer could pull a U-turn and be answered by other than the One for whom it was intended.
George addressed he shadow. “Stop this,” he said. “Don’t hurt him.”
The shadow came a couple of inches away from the headboard, then sank back.
“He says… don’t reveal…”
“I won’t,” George said. “I promise. I won’t.”
“He says… he can’t trust you now… now that you know.”
George felt his face get hot, and his skin tighten. Then it felt like his flesh was pulling off his body towards some impossible magnet, ripping from his bones.
He lost consciousness as he fell forward onto the bed. Everything went black.
And then light again, but now he was looking at himself, lying unconscious on the bed.
Through Corky’s eyes.
* * *