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Thursday, April 15, 2004
By Paul Ford
Performing “the Gingerbread Man”
We're in the suburbs, on the way to a house about 6 times as big as ours. We pull into a long driveway, and Mom gets out and walks to the door. I pop the hatch of the little yellow Ford Fiesta and begin to unload the playboard and curtains. I'm 15.
The mother answers the door and introduces us to Jennifer, or Jessica, or Jenna, the birthday girl, who's 7 today. We're shown where to set up, near the fireplace, and we begin putting together the puppet stage, tightening the wing nuts into the frame.
Maybe today my mother and I are fighting. We're living mostly off puppetry, and there's stress. A good portion of the time, I hate her. I hate everybody else, too, but she's closest. But we put it aside, because this is a performance, and even if we're screaming at each other in the car, we smile for the suburbs. I hang the puppets on hooks behind the stage. We're doing [down inflect] the Gingerbread Man.
I've tried to talk about this at school, but my friends just don't get that we're broke, that I'm helping my mother make a living through puppetry. And in a way I like baffling them, because it makes me inscrutable, unusual, at only 15. I know that right now kids are out there vandalizing and French-kissing. I'm here with my mom and my hand up a frog. So I'm jealous, lonely, angry. But I'm also doing something different, something mysterious.
The house lights come down. The stage lights come up. The farmer's wife sings a song, her papier-màché head bobbing, and the Gingerbread Man is born from an offstage oven. "I am the gingerbread man, I am, I can run, I can, I can," he says, and then all hell breaks loose. The farmer, the pig, the frog, the crow - all of them try to eat him, but he denies their advances. Until he gets to the fox.
I am the Fox, all brown fur with a pointed nose. I've been the Fox since my voice changed. So I say:
Fox: Oh, now Gingerbread man, you don't need to run from me. In fact, I have a secret that can make it so you don't need to run from anything ever again.
Why is it this knowledge, this promise of never having to run again, that gets the Gingerbread Man gobbled up? My suspicion is that he was tired of running. He knows the only thing he has to look forward to is going stale, and crumbling. So he's giving up. King Lear dies, the Titanic sinks, and the Fox eats the Gingerbread Man. The fox says,
Fox: Do you want to hear the secret?
And with a tiny shake of my mother's fingers, the Gingerbread Man nods his head.
GBM: (Confused, faltering.) I am the Gingerbread Man, I am, I am, I can run I can, I-
Fox: Yes, yes, I know you can run. But if you come a little closer, I'll tell you the secret so you don't have to run any more. There, now put your ear to my mouth—and—that's it, that's right, [bite, gulp].
With the fox's exaggerated bite and gulp the Gingerbread man is gone. The audience squeals with excitement, and the fox, ever suave, bows. I wag his tail with a twist of a coat-hanger, and he says, "And that is the end of the Gingerbread Man."
Lights down, Fox offstage. We're done. The kids are ushered off to ice cream, and the birthday mother writes the check. Packing up the theater, I always wonder, where are the fathers, and where are the books? We never see any fathers at these parties. I imagine them off golfing. And the only books are cookbooks, and a volume or two of American history. If I had this kind of money I'd have a whole library, books everywhere. I doubt I'd spend 150 dollars on something like a puppet show.
20 of that 150 is mine, and I'll buy cassettes with it, or a sandwich, something besides the endless cans of tuna fish we've been eating. It's time to make small talk, pack up the car, and go home, away from the suburbs and back to our smaller house in town, to take the puppet theater out of the car and drop it in the hallway. And that is the end of the Gingerbread Man.