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Wednesday, April 12, 2000
By Paul Ford
People find it curious that I grew up doing puppetry, but I swear to God it was a pretty normal childhood.
"We have to go," she said. "Get the theater." It was two trips from the house to the car, everything bundled in long canvas tarps, the lights in special carriers. "Here, read the directions." She handed me a piece of paper.
The car was a 1978 Ford Fiesta, and we were the third to own it. We routed our way out of West Chester and onto 202, then turned off some exit, driving past farmfield developments, the cows and corn removed for wood skeleton frames of new houses, anticipating new families, controlled technology sector growth, new middle-management jobs.
My grandfather had said, "you see the roof of these suburban houses, the snow is melted in the winter. On the older houses it stays on the roof. That's because they don't insulate the new houses; the heat rises through the roof and melts the snow. Shoddy construction."
We found the address, bay windows, brickface, three stories, two-card garage.
"How much does this place cost?" I asked, as we pulled into the drive.
"Your father and I bought it for 10,000 dollars."
"What's it worth now?"
"I don't know. More." She parked, and the car shuddered as she turned the key.
My mother opened the Fiesta's hatch, and walked to the house and knocked, steady on her black sneakers. I unloaded the car into the driveway, pulling out the playboard, the legs, the bag that held the red curtains. My mother came back out and nodded to me. We began carrying the puppet theater into the house, where little girls were talking and running, excited.
"I'm Paul," I said to a woman who opened the door. She wore a white button blouse and a pair of tan slacks, smiling with a wide rich mouth, white teeth. Her breasts pressed against the blouse. She smiled at me; I looked at the ground.
Like my mother, I wore a black turtleneck, black slacks, and black sneakers. My brown hair was shaggy. I took off my fake leather jacket. I knelt on the floor and began unpacking, assembling. Three minutes: screw the legs into the folding frame with wing nuts; slot the playboard onto the frame; mount the upper stage; wrap the red curtain and line up the velcro. Rack the lights, hang the dimmer, bend down the inside shelves, pull the puppets from a suitcase and hang them. Pour talcum powder across the playboard.
I asked for a plug and was shown one, and led an extension cord over. We asked for the blinds to be drawn. The light turned milky; in the dark, the tan carpet turned brown and the dark sofa grew larger. The theater was 7 feet tall and magestic: the stage black-painted wood, the red curtains brocaded, two small stagelights hanging from the top. Side curtains hung out like wings. The little girls assembled, murmuring, sitting on the floor in front of the stage. The sofa filled with adults.
My mother turned up the dimmer, and the voices on the other side of the curtain quieted. On her right hand was Mother Mouse, who came up carrying a broom. Gingham dress, apron, whiskers. "Hello," said Mother Mouse, in an aristocratic voice. "Goodness! There certainly are a lot of you. And oh, this stage is dusty." She began to sweep. The talcum powder clouded out over the ponytailed children. A dozen little girls giggled. "I hope the dust won't tickle your noses."
"In terms of back story," my mother once explained, "Mother Mouse is a domestically talented mouse of limited means but great dignity, and a single mother, although that is never discussed." The children said, "hello" back, enthused.
The puppet peered out over the audience, nose whiskers shivering in white light. "Seigfried!" I put Siegfried on my mother's hand, a boy mouse in plaid lederhosen with a cap. His ears stuck through holes in the cap.
"Yes mother," said my-mother-as-Siegfried, in a lisping falsetto, the "th" phoneme aspirated. When the fingers on her left hand were properly into his arms and neck, she brought him up.
She switched back to Mother Mouse's voice. "There you are. There's something very special going on today."
"What is it?"
"I'll give you three guesses."
"Is it a holiday?"
"It's a sort of holiday."
"Is it Hallowe'en?"
"No, not today. That's later this month."
"Well, what could it be..." Siegfried put his hand to his gray mouse chin. "Maybe it's...it's my birthday!"
"No, Siegfried, but it is the birthday of someone else who's very special."
"Whose birthday is it?" He's infectiously excited. The children murmur.
"Let's ask these little girls." My mother's hands twist; both mice turns their heads to the audience. "Can anyone tell me whose birthday it is?"
"Jennifer!" the children scream. I roll my eyes; every party is for a girl named Jennifer.
They scream it again.
"Jennifer? Who's that?" said Siegfried.
"Why, that's Jennifer right there." She pointed to the audience. "And we have a very special show for her."
"I love puppet shows. I hope it's a good one."
"Guess which one it is?"
Siegfried guessed Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and got it on the third try: the Gingerbread Man. The introduction ended. We dimmed the lights, put puppets onto our hands, brought the lights up again, and began the show proper. My mother always handled Mother Mouse and Siegfried. They were entirely hers, 20 years old, with plastic whiskers, propped over empty bottles at home. But the fairy-tale shows took more hands. In the Gingerbread man I was the Fox and Crow, and sometimes the Woodcutter.
I put on the Woodcutter. In a hand puppet, the palm is the torso; the palm pushes out the stomach. On the right hand the thumb becomes the left arm; the index and middle finger become the neck and move the head. Held together, the ring and little fingers are the right arm.
The Woodcutter's wife comes up first; she sings a song:
"Oh the farmer works from sun to sun,
But the woman's work is never done.
Cook and clean and sweeping too,
There's never an end of things to do."
"Well, it's about time for that husband of mine to get home," she said. She turned to the audience. "My husband is such a hard worker at chopping wood. I think I should make him something nice. I'll make him a little treat. I wonder what...." She placed her hands to her chin and shook her head slightly. "I know! I'll make him a gingerbread man."
You know the rest, but I can do the whole thing for you, all the voices, the Woodcutter's Wife, the Woodcutter, the Pig, the Frog, the Crow, and the Fox. My father and mother wrote the show in the 1970's, and I saw it over 100 times before I performed it. After I turned 13 I was always the Fox, because my voice was low; I convinced the Gingerbread Man to come closer, closer, closer, and I ate him. When I was done gobbling, I bowed, the furry tail rising into the air. There was a special wire to make the tale wag. The tail was made of real fox.
"I am the Gingerbread Man I am I am, I can run I can I can. I ran away from an old woman, and an old man, and a pig, and a frog, and a crow, and I can run away from you too, old fox, yes I can." The necks we made from hair curlers; the heads of the better puppets were plaster of Paris, dried in our electric oven, otherwise carved styrofoam coated with papier mache, the faces painted on. The bodies were sewn from piles of scrap fabric in the basement. Except for Mother Mouse and Siegfried on their bottles, the puppets were hung upside down in the basement while not in rotation.
The Gingerbread Man eaten, the lights would dim and the children would clap, and then the lights would come up again. After a pause, Mother Mouse reappeared, still holding her tiny broom, to wish Jennifer happy birthday once more. "There'll be cake in the kitchen," she said. "And ice cream." For convenience in switching hands, I had on Siegfried. I brought him up and mimed my hand movements to my mother's voice: "I love cake and ice cream," she/Siegfried/my hand said.
The puppets dropped; the lights dimmed a final time. The children clapped once more, and then there was a moment of milling confusion until they were pointed to the kitchen. One or two little girls snuck around to peek behind the curtains. Neither my mother nor I knew which one was Jennifer.
I began to strike the theater; Jennifer's mother handed my mother a check for $150 and said what most said: "Thank you so much. It was delightful." Sometimes, mothers worried that the Gingerbread Man had been eaten. "Does the story really go that way?" they asked. "Are you sure he should be eaten at the end?" "He's a cookie," said my mother to those mothers. "Of course he gets eaten."
I broke the theater in about 5 minutes, wrapping the legs to the playboard with bungee cords, folding the curtain into a bag, taking quick peeks at Jennifer's mother's breasts, declining the glass of water she offered to me.
We took the theater back to the car in two trips, loading ourselves into the car. It was a Saturday afternoon. "That's it until Wednesday night," said my mother, holding the check. "$20 of it is yours, $20 of it is mine, $110 is for heat." She took a breath. "Your father sent his check, too. I want to get an iced tea."
"Thanks," I said. I would buy two cassettes with the money, listen to them on my cheap walkman as I walked around at night. I liked bad rock, melodramatic, misogynistic songs with massive guitar solos and badly explicated emotions. I listened to the alternation, oscillation, between the vocal introduction and drumbeat kicking in.