The Ventriloquist


by Lou Gaglia

His name is Sal, and him and his wife—my crazy sister Rita—live downstairs from me and my wife, but you'd think their apartment was just some rest stop since they know their way around our place easier than their own and have become experts at cleaning out the refrigerator.  And since Sal couldn't get no job for a long time after they got married, they saved on grocery, electric, and phone bills, and the wear and tear on their carpet by doing most of their time with us.

While Sal had no job, him and that stupid ventriloquist dummy of his would be up in my apartment all the time, not just eating my food but making Marian and Rita laugh like hyenas.  Every time the dummy said something they laughed.

 At the dinner table one evening, I said, "What the hell are you laughing at? All it said was pass the salt."

"It's the way he said it, that's all," Rita said. 

"Well," I said, "what does a dummy have to be sitting at the table for anyway?"  Then the dummy turned his head to me and said, "Dummies have to eat too, you know, bub."

 The girls started laughing again but I screamed that it wasn't funny and brought my plate into the bedroom to eat my dinner in peace. Stinkin' hunk of wood.

For months Sal freebooted off me until finally landing himself a job at a bowling alley. 

I said to Marian, "What the hell kind of hit is a ventriloquist at a bowling alley going to be?"

"What do you mean?"

"How are they going to hear his jokes over them bowling balls and pins?" 

But she said, "You always look on the dark side.  He has got himself a nice job and you are still against him."

"I will always be against a moocher and a bum," I said. 

"Why tell me?" she said. "Why don't you tell him?" 

"Maybe I will," I said. 

"Who's stopping you?"

"No one." 

"So?" she said. 

"So what?" I said.

"So go ahead," she said. 

"So shut up," I said and walked away from her.  I hate when she does that.  She acts like a little kid sometimes and you can't argue with her about nothing.

 

That night at dinner everyone was quiet.  I say everyone, not just Marian and me, because as usual my sister and brother-in-law and that dummy was eating our food.

"You know," I finally said, "maybe I will go see this great performance tonight. I bet the only way you get any laughs is if you perform in the bar and everyone is all juiced up.  Or maybe you two girls will be the only ones laughing." 

"You might be right, Quasimodo," said the dummy to me (and the girls were already laughing). "Maybe you should come up on stage and you and me can take turns talking…" Sal had to stop and take a breath. "…to confuse the audience," the dummy added.

 "We'll see how funny you are tonight, buddy!" I yelled over the girls' cackling.

 

So that night me and Marian was on our way to the bowling alley to see this great act, and I was thinking, My sister doesn't know her ass from her you-know-what. I was going to say this to Marian, or say, He's a bum, or, I hope he bombs, but I clammed up instead.

 "What are you so quiet about?" she asked.

"I am having a moment of silence for my freedom," I grumped, and she looked at me crazy like she didn't know what I was talking about.

The bowling alley was packed with only bowlers, not comedians, so I said to the man at the desk, "When does the show start?"

 He looked at me blank. "What show?" But then he remembered. "Oh, that. It's in the bar."

I turned to Marian. "See? It's in the bar," I said, but she pretended like she was deaf.

So we went in, and of course no one was laughing and the place was dead like a funeral parade was passing by. "What did I tell you, he's a bum," I said, but Marian wasn't even there. I was talking to empty space because she was already running over to sit with my crazy sister.

I stood in the back and watched for a while, just shaking my head.  Sal spotted me, and it looked for minute like he got something in his eye before he and that dummy started talking back and forth all about me, razzing me about my big feet and my corns and bunions and pimples, and then getting personal, talking about once that I got dressed up like a woman. So at that point I yelled right out to the audience, "I never dressed up like no woman. I just squoze into my wife's jeans once by an accident."

 There was a big uproar of laughter from everyone, and they all clapped for a while.  Then my brother-in-law and the dummy laid off me but started talking about how the dummy and my sister (Sal's own wife!) was having an affair. Dopey Rita was laughing hardest of all as the dummy kept making Sal jealous.

"Hey!" I screamed, "that's my sister you're talking about!" Everyone laughed and clapped, even the bartender, so I beat it out of there, steaming. Outside the door, some big bowler guy came up to me and said, "What the hell's going on in there—we can't concentrate on bowling."

 

That's how it went for a while.  Rita and Marian kept dragging me to all the shows, but after a while I got tired of hearing people laugh at nothing, and besides, it was always the same jokes about me or my sister, and every time I opened my mouth to say something back, all those drunks would crack up like I was part of the act.  So I stopped going.

Then one night after dinner and after Sal and the dummy went back downstairs to change clothes, Marian and Rita nagged at me about going back to the alley to watch.

"What for?" I said. They couldn't think of nothing but they followed me into the kitchen, and Marian said, "Well, it's Friday night and it will be a high class crowd." 

"Nice try," I shot back at her, my mouth full of lb. cake, "but I'm not—you're not as dumb as—as I look."

That shut them both up. They just looked at each other, and that was that, but after a few days I begun to notice that Marian wasn't speaking to me. After about a week I couldn't take it no more, so I asked what the hell was the matter, but she acted like she was deaf and dumb.

I seen that our marriage was at the crosshairs, so to speak, and I stood like a stump in the kitchen while she went about her business. So finally I said, "You know…I feel like going to see good old Sal do his routine at the alley tonight."  She pretended like she didn't care one way or another, but pretty soon she got her coat, and then in the cab she was talking my ear off so much that it felt like we just met and were going on a first date all over again.

When we got there I told her to go in first because I wanted to bowl a few frames and maybe I'd miss some of those jokes about my sister and that jiggle-o-dummy. She kind of growled, in a romantic way, and said fine, but she ordered me to hurry up—that she'd have a seat waiting.

I bowled a few frames near a bunch of guys who were playing two against two. They seemed like good guys so I started talking to them and pretty soon one of them said, "At last it is quiet here at the alley ever since that ventriloquist act in the bar started going sour." 

"What do you mean?" I said, and another piped in with, "It used to be a big hit but ever since that brother-in-law character quit the act no one's into it no more. Lucky because we couldn't hear ourselves bowl." They laughed and I felt my face get red.

"Now maybe him and those two women of his can get out of here and let us play in peace," the first guy piled on before they turned back to their game.

 I wandered over to the bowling racks and rolled a few balls slowly back and forth over the rack, the steam building inside me. …two women of his, two women, I thought, rolling, and then I turned and stomped into the bar. 

 "The party's over, Sal," I shouted. "I told you—you and that dummy ain't funny!"  Everyone laughed and I swatted my hand at the whole place and went to the bar to get a drink.

Pretty soon Sal and that dummy started talking about me again, and it was like a riot in there.  I didn't look up once, though. I sat there quiet while they both talked about how as a teenager I was kicked in the head by a pony, and that once I thought the mailman was Mitch Miller and kept asking for his autograph, and how as a kid I kissed the caterer at my grandmother's funeral because I thought he was just another relative.  All those fools lapped it up and kept looking over at me for my reaction, but I kept my face like stone and drank. Those hyenas still loved it.

When the act was finally over and we were on our way out, we heard that the bowlers were complaining again, but I said, "Out of my way," to anyone in front of me until we all got outside.  Sal wore a big smile and said his jokes were so good  that they wanted him for another month at least.  Then we piled into a cab for home.

I stared out the window while the girls in the back with me yacked up a storm. Sal and the dummy sat up front with the driver until Sal threw him back to the giggling girls. After they finished fawning over him (especially Marian, who I looked at like she was a weirdo), they sat him next to me. I sneered down at him and muttered, "Shut up." Then I sneaked an elbow to his head.

Before we knew it, the sober driver was yelling at us to get out because we had arrived home and didn't know it yet. We all spilled out, and I was about to shut the door when I saw the dummy still sitting there alone in the back seat. I almost said, Come on, let's go. But instead of saying something to him or picking him up, I shut the door and the cab sped away.

Sal took only a few steps toward our building before he cried out like a wild man, "The dummy!" People walking by looked at him funny. I shouted out, real convincing with, "Sal, you jerk, where is he?"  And the two girls cried like they just lost their son.

The next part of the story is pretty sad, I guess.  Sal went back to the bowling alley the next night and tried his act with just his hand. He drew a mouth on his thumb and made it move like it was talking while he did his ventriloquist thing. Neither my wife or me was there, but my sister was and she said the crowd got ugly because he didn't draw no eyes on his hand, just the mouth on the thumb. "We want the dummies!" they kept shouting, and finally booed him off the stage.

"See?" I said later to my wife. "His own wife now sees what a bum he is. Without no dummy or no one to joke on he's nothing." 

"Shut up," my wife said to me, her face all twisted up and our first date feeling like a dream . "It's your fault in the first place. The dummy was next to you in that cab. I'll bet you left him in there on purpose."

"I did not leave him nowhere," I said to her, but she came right into my face.

"What are you laughing at?"

"I ain't laughing," I said. 

"You ain't now, but you laughed when I said you left him on purpose. You did leave him in the cab, didn't you?" 

"No!" I said, acting mad, but then I let some compressed laughter out.

The next part I don't want to tell about with details. It's just that she didn't believe me and kept walking away from me, so I stomped out and wandered the streets. And when I finally came home late she wasn't on no speaking terms with me again.

She didn't say nothing to me for two days, so I decided that, to save my marriage, I had to find the dummy.  I went to cab companies all over the city, but the only thing those creeps would answer would be, "No one here except us dummies," or, "No dummies here, except maybe Wilson." Or they'd say, "The manager has just stepped out, maybe we can help you." Wise guys.

Soon Rita, who at least believed that I didn't leave her husband's precious dummy in that cab, told me that Sal had quit the act, and while roaming around the city he'd gotten himself beat up pretty bad.  He was sitting on a bench in the Staten Island Ferry station calling people idiots behind their backs and even right into their faces without moving his mouth. But then he made a mistake. He said it to some big guy while the big guy stared right at Sal's face, confused. But instead of quitting while he was ahead, Sal repeated it faster, finally slipping up and saying it the regular way when someone bumped into him. The big guy looked surprised and socked his jaw.

So Sal was in the hospital and I was thinking, I will never admit it but this is all my fault. I roamed the city, looking into every store and close into every face for signs of the dummy before buying a grape juice and sitting out in the park, slumped and sour on the bench. Some kids passed by across the park from me, some teen boys and a girl, talking in all kinds of different voices and laughing. And that's when I saw him, sitting on the smallest boy's arm, while they took turns insulting each other in crazy voices. I got up slow and snuck after them from behind, and while they were pulling at him for a turn, I yelled, "Hey, that's my dummy!" They all laughed at me and gave me fingers, but when I made like I was going to run after them, they ran and threw the dummy off to the side, into the mud.

I took him over to a diner near the park and cleaned him up and sat him down in a booth across from me while the waitress brought me a big dinner. "You owe me," I told him just as the waitress got to me with my order.

I carried him over to the hospital for Sal to see. He looked up at me with sad eyes, and even though his jaw was wired shut because it was busted he still said thanks, and then he asked me if I knew of a good way to commit suicide. I said no, I did not know of no good way and for him stop talking crazy because Marian was mad at me because she thinks I left the dummy in the cab on purpose and that he had to pull himself together or she'd never speak to me again.  I told Sal to hurry up and get better and get another job ventriloquisting somewhere, and I promised to go along to all his acts and let him joke on me again.

That's it. Marian finally spoke to me again but only after Sal got better and got another job, which to tell the truth, deep in my bones, has made me quiet with her and not as mad at Sal. It all feels kind of permanent, too. A guy can only take two or three silent treatments before he gets quiet too, even if he doesn't want to be.   

Sal and the dummy are back together, closer than ever, and the dummy is as good as new except for a little mud in his ear. I don't care about their razzing me anymore because half the time I'm not even listening. Everyone down at the pool hall loves his act, especially the pool hustlers and the gang members—although a few days ago during Sal's act a bunch of gangsters got shot up just as they were laughing about my bunions.  Everyone ducked, and when we got up a bunch of the gangsters was laying on the ground and the dummy had a hole going through the two sides of his neck; but Sal uses that now by making the dummy drink something and it all comes squirting out the sides and everyone loves it.

So except for that one shooting it ain't so bad at the pool hall. At least there is conversation and violence and hilarity there, unlike at the homestead.


BIO: Lou Gaglia's work appears in FRiGG, Prick of the Spindle, Stymie, Breakwater Review, Rose & Thorn Journal, Blueline, and others. He teaches English in upstate New York.