by Lee Douglass
Jenny Oarlbockser of the Ventriloquist International Leauge leaned across the maroon tablecloth, her cleavage hypnotizing Breck. “The League has noticed you. You’re making a quite stir among the professional ventriloquists of the world.”
The restaurant was dim and the maroon that dominated the restaurant made the place even darker. Maroon cloth napkins, maroon tablecloths, maroon walls. Even the servers wore maroon silk vests that blended so well that they seemed to seep right out of the wall.
“Thank you.” Breck’s eyes jumped up to Jenny Oarlbockser’s blue ones. Breck had been doing shows around the city. All of them had been sold out. People in the city talked about Breck and his puppets to anyone who would listen. He’d come from being a college dropout with a cool party trick to a performer who made eight hundred bucks every Friday and Saturday night.
“There hasn’t been a ventriloquist like you since Greg Venderkist.” She took a sip of the maroon wine. “And of course you know he became a part of the League. You do know the prestige of the ranks you’ll be joining?”
Who didn’t know Greg Venderkist? His punch lines were fabled. Alfalfa Springboard was said to have magic puppets that actually spoke for themselves. Antony Cervesa was nicknamed the hidden voice of South America. But then there was Randolph the Great.
Randolph Silverstein III, Randolph the Great, the Voice, the King, and the Founder of the Ventriloquist Academy of America, had been the god of Breck’s religion. Breck watched every special, owned every DVD, and went to any show within a hundred and fifty miles to see Randolph the Great perform with his puppets: Frank the wise-cracking Owl, Gary the middle-aged transgender housewife, and Bernard the foul-mouthed ex-con. Randolph brought his puppets to life like he was god creating man. There was no other ventriloquist alive or dead who had ever reached Randolph’s level of ventriloquism.
“When can I meet Randolph the Great?”
Jenny Oarlbockser’s smile looked like she smelled something unpleasant. “Sadly, Randy is… He couldn’t come up with any new material, and that TV‘show,” she quoted with two long manicured fingers, “was absolutely abysmal.”
“Wait, Randolph the Great’s not a part of the V.I.L.?”
“No, he is…”
Jenny Oarlbockser’s chest inflated then deflated as she sighed. “But we are looking to let him go.”
Breck sat back in his maroon cushioned chair. The most celebrated ventriloquist in the history of ventriloquism was going to be kicked out of the V.I.L.
“We wanted new talent and as you know there are only four seats available in the League. Randolph’s act just hasn’t been…well, all that great.”
That was like kicking the president out of office and asking the mayor of little-town-nowhere to take his place.
Breck swallowed. He knew, just like every budding ventriloquist, that to be in the league meant not only big bucks, but also respect. By entering the league, he would cross the threshold that every artist strives toward, from amateur to professional.
“I can see you’re a little shook up by this. I know. I am too. Antony, Greg, Alfy, and I only just finalized the decision yesterday. It will be publicly announced in this month’s edition of Speak. You are a subscriber to the V.I.L.’s monthly magazine?”
“Cheer up. You should’ve known he was a crackpot when he started calling himself Randolph the Great.” She waved her hand, clearing the air of the ostracized ventriloquist. “Anyway, the league believes in you.” Her smile looked pleasant this time. She lay her hand on his right hand, his puppet hand, “I’d better let you get home and practice for your big night. Have you attended the Annual Ventriloquist International League Show before?”
“Once. I saw Randolph the Great perform there.”
She patted his hand, ignoring his comment about Randolph. “I don’t want to worry you, but we will make the final decision after the show.”
“Oh, I thought I was already a part of the league.”
She giggled. “The league wants to see a live performance just to be sure. You may have hooked me, but you’ll have to earn Antony, Greg, and Alfy’s approval. You have a nice night.”
“Same here, Miss Oarlbockser.”
“Call me Jenny.” She stood. “Next time we meet maybe I’ll have some good news.”
On her way out she almost ran into one of the maroon camouflaged servers. The server tiptoed up to Breck. “Would you like the check now, sir? Or another glass?” He motioned a hand toward the maroon wine.
“I’ll have another glass.”
Breck had trouble unlocking the door of his apartment. The name of the maroon wine he’d drunk five glasses of still escaped him, but he knew it was a kind that he wouldn’t have been able to afford seven months ago. Seven months ago he wouldn’t have even been living in this part of the city.
He realized he couldn’t unlock the door because it was already unlocked.
He stumbled into his grey-carpeted, white-walled living room of his three-bedroom apartment. One bedroom was for him, one for Jeff, one for Breck’s puppets.
Jeff was sprawled out on the denim couch, watching Netflix with one hand down the front of his sweat pants, the other tucked behind his head. Jeff’s red hair, red beard and thick body made him look like a fat, lazy Viking.
“What’s up?” Jeff paused Netflix.
“Did you go to class today?”
Jeff un-paused his show. “Man on a Ledge was so good I decided to have a suicide themed movie day.”
“Did you go to work?”
“I watched Dead Poets Society, The Virgin Suicides, Little Miss Sunshine, and this new show called Wilfred. It’s about a guy who fails to kill himself and the next day finds out this dog can talk to him, even though dogs can’t talk ya know? Anyway, this dog tells him all this crazy advice and gets him into crazy situations and I was like, ‘Breck! This is your show.’ ‘Cause what if your puppets started talking to you and telling you all this bad advice and—”
“You do know rent’s due tomorrow?”
“Yeah, I got it, bro.”
Jeff pulled his hand out of his pants. “You OK? Your mellow doesn’t seem to be there.”
Breck moved Jeff’s feet off the couch and sat down, “Well, it’s just some bittersweet news today.”
Breck sighed. The one good thing about Jeff was that he was always willing to listen. “Good news is I met with a rep from the V.I.L.”
“Awesome man, you’re gonna make it to the big times. I know how hard you’ve been working for this. I mean I don’t think anyone can mute Batman Begins and read aloud all the subtitles through without moving their lips. That was what? A couple months ago? I’m still impressed.”
“Thanks, Jeff. Bad news is Randolph the Great was kicked out.”
“Dang, man, I’m sorry. I know how much you like that guy. But funny story…plumber came in today to fix something.” Jeff grinned. “He loved Wilfred so much he sat down and watched a few episodes with me. I’m about to start a new one. You want to watch?”
Breck stood. “No, I’d better go practice for the show tomorrow. The League is going to be there.”
Breck tripped on his way out of the living room. The wine had hit him harder than he thought. He wobbled past the puppet room and into his bedroom. He’d just go to bed. He could practice tomorrow morning. He flopped down onto his mattress and glanced at the picture on the TV dinner tray that he used as a nightstand. Jeff took the picture after his first sold-out show. Breck was holding all three of his puppets in a hug. He fell asleep staring at the picture.
Breck dreamed of his puppets. He had never dreamed about them before. Victoria, the pregnant teen mom, with her blue eyes, stuffed belly, and nasally valley girl voice was giving birth. But she gave birth to a bloodhound puppet. The bloodhound was Rufus, Breck’s first puppet. Rufus scampered off into a mist and Breck followed. He found Rufus digging up a grave marked “Randolph Silverstein.”
“Don’t. Bad Rufus,” Breck said to the puppet, but the bloodhound kept digging until he unearthed Fingledorf, Breck’s German Monkey puppet. Fingledorf was covered in blood and slime. A skull was in Fingledorf’s cotton grasp. Breck knew it was Randolph the Great’s skull.
Breck woke up with an ache in his neck and his heart thumping so loudly he could hear it echoing throughout the mattress. He rolled over and checked the clock.
“Oh damn.” So much for practice.
It was five. He had to be at the venue at eight. He took a shower, brushed his teeth, smiled at himself in the mirror, and fixed his hair. He got dressed and walked down the hall to pack his puppets.
He pushed open the door and screamed. Stuffing was everywhere. Cotton hands, paws, and noses were strung across the room. Plastic eyes were crushed into the grey carpet. Victoria’s belly was eviscerated. Her cotton placenta and intestines were leaking out of her like a cloud of snakes. Rufus was hanging from the ceiling fan by Fingledorf’s severed tail, all four of his paws cut off at the wrists. Fingledorf was sitting on one of the suitcases that Breck packed them in. His Fiskars scissors he used to uphold his puppets pristine appearance were sticking out of Fingledorf’s empty eye socket.
“Jeff!” Breck screamed. “Jeff, what the hell happened?”
Jeff ran into the room, shirtless, pulling on a pair of basketball shorts. “Oh my god. Bro…bro what did you do?”
“What did I do? What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything.” He stepped over the stuffing, like he didn’t want to contaminate the crime scene. He kneeled down by Victoria’s spread eagled body. “Looks like we have a sick S.O.B. out to get you.”
“Yeah,” he lied down on his stomach, eye level with Victoria.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for clues, bro.”
“You’re not on CSI. We need to call the police.”
“And tell them that there was a triple puppet murder? No. I don’t think they’d appreciate you wasting their time.”
Breck tried to imagine how he could make that 911 call work. Any way he looked at it, the police would probably do nothing.
“Aha!” Jeff got up on his knees, and looked around the room.
Jeff grabbed Breck’s tweezers for the puppets and lay back down. He inched the tweezers under Victoria’s body like he was playing the game Operation. He pulled the tweezers out with a piece of folded up paper clasped between it.
“Here you are.” Jeff handed him the paper.
Breck opened it. Scrawled in an almost illegible hand was the Ventriloquist International League motto: We are an illusion to the ear. Then underneath: You may have noticed these aren’t your real puppets. If you don’t want this to happen to your real puppets come to the roof of the V.I.L. Show. Breck crumpled the paper in his hand. He grabbed Fingledorf by the butt. “Look for a tag on Victoria.”
Breck found the tag on Fingledorf’s rear. It read: “Made in China.” Breck untied Fingledorf and showed Jeff the tag. “These are imitation dolls. The theaters sell some at my shows.”
“Yep. ‘Made in China.’” Jeff nodded to the crumpled note in Brecks hand. “I can send it to a dude I know. He knows a guy whose friend’s father is a professor of linguistics at a junior college in Jersey.”
“Trace the writing. Figure out who wrote that.”
“Well, then what now?”
“Now we figure out who the plumber was.”
“The…plumber?” Jeff’s face was scrunched. Then his eyes widened and his mouth collapsed. “No. You think Randolph did it? He was too cool for that. He laughed so hard at the show. I…you know, maybe he did.”
“What was the plumber’s name?”
“His name was Randolph?”
Breck crossed the room and sifted through his piles of Speak. He found the edition with Randolph the Great smiling through his bushy mustache on the cover with the puppet Bernard the ex-con.
“Is this what the plumber looked like?” he held the magazine in front of Jeff.
Jeff grabbed it. “Yep. That’s Randolph.”
He flipped to the article about Bernard the ex-con’s personality and read a part of it out loud: “While Bernard may be a handful, pun not intended, Randolph the Great, whose real last name is Silverstein, finds the time to relax at his home in Newark, New Jersey.”
“Why do you need to know where Randolph the Great lives?” Breck asked.
“No, no, no. The note said he’ll be at the league ball. I have to go there.”
“Because Randolph the Great lost his spot on the league because of me.”
“What? What did you do?”
“Nothing that deserves this.” Breck turned from the room.
“Aren’t you going to miss your show?”
Breck glanced at the tortured and murdered imitations dolls. He was going to miss them more than his show. He was missing his only shot at making the league. “Yeah. You coming, Jeff?”
“To the fiery end, bro.”
Jeff insisted they take his green van. Even though Jeff’s van looked like a green and rust brown sewage dump, it still had some kick. They screeched to a stop in front of the ball fifteen minutes before Breck was supposed to be on. Monster energy cans clattered out of the van as Breck jumped out.
When Breck and Jeff entered the theater, they were the only ones not in formal dress. Jeff was in his blue basketball shorts, his “I heart Yoda” shirt, and sandals Breck was wearing his dress slacks and his white t-shirt he would’ve wore under his nice button shirt and jacket, until he’d seen the imitation dolls mutilated. The hall was crowded with ventriloquists, enthusiasts, and reporters. The doors hadn’t yet opened for people to file into the theater.
“OK, let’s spread out and-” Breck was interrupted.
“Breck, darling, you can’t be wearing that on stage.” Jenny Oarlbockser was wearing a low-cut blue sequined dress. “Is this one of your new puppets?” She grinned and motioned toward Jeff whose eyes were glued just under Jenny Oarlbockser’s collar bone.
“Is Randolph here?”
Her grin disappeared. “I’m afraid not. Shouldn’t you be backstage getting ready?”
“Yeah. Let’s go, Jeff.” They left Jenny Oarlbockser behind and crossed the large hall to the door marked, “BACKSTAGE ACCESS.” As Breck laid his hand on the handle of the door, a sinewy, long fingered hand grabbed his.
“Who is this with you?” The man had a large busy mustache. His long skinny arms and legs looked disproportional to his body. He looked like a puppet.
“Randolph!” Breck said.
“Shut up. If you ever want to see your puppets again, you’ll come with me,” he said.
Jeff and Breck followed Randolph the Great up four flights of stairs to the roof of the theater. Three spotlights lit up all of Breck’s puppets that were lined against the wall.
“What are you doing?” Breck asked.
“I’m going to submit you to the league,” Randolph said, but his lips barely moved under his mustache. “You’ve made this easier on me.” He pulled a dark pistol from behind him and aimed it at Jeff.
“Whoa! I’m just the sidekick!” Jeff raised his hands and his large white stomach plopped out from his shirt.
“What are you doing?” Breck yelled.
“I’ve already told you. Submitting you to the league.” Randolph eyed Breck over the pistol. “Now you need to choose. Your puppets or your friend.”
Jeff fell to his knees. “I knew it! Breck, it’s okay. I’ve made my peace.”
Breck worked his mouth several seconds before he could actually talk. “No, this is a simple choice. Jeff, I don’t need to be in the league.”
Randolph the Great cocked the gun. “So be it.” He walked over and aimed the barrel an inch away from Victoria’s face. He pulled the trigger and an explosion of confetti fluttered out of the barrel.
“Congratulations!” Jenny Oarlbockser came out onto the roof and shook Breck’s hand. Jeff wrapped Breck in a hug only a true viking could give.
Breck stared at Randolph and then at Jeff. “What’s going on?”
Antony Cervesa, Alfalfa Springboard, and Greg Venderkist were there, too, as if they appeared out of air.
“Congratulations, Breck.” Greg Venderkist shook his hand.
“You passed the test!” Jeff said.
Randolph clapped Jeff on the shoulder, “Jeff really had a great time tearing up those fake puppets.” He smiled at Breck. “In the league we value friendship and loyalty above all else.”
Breck finally smiled and gave Jeff the high-five he had been holding his hand out for. “We are an illusion to the ear,” Breck said.
“Yes, you are,” Randolph said.
Lee Douglas is attending the MFA Creative Writing program at Lindenwood University and is a graduate of Missouri Western State University. He has been published in Abomination Magazine, The New Writer, and See Spot Run.