“Do I look fat in this dress?” Betsy asked. She looked up and down herself with a toothless and cartoonish torqued lip. She was wearing the same white dress with pink polka-dots she always did.
“What?” Bert groaned. Charlie’s hands were getting numb and sweaty, but the skit was almost done. He pushed on. This could be my big break, he thought.
“Do I look fat in this dress?”
“Well I don’t think it’s the dress dear,” Bert replied. His head moved side to side, scanning the uninterested audience.
Betsy smacked Bert over the head with her rolling pin. Not a soul laughed. Not again, Charlie thought.
“I don’t know what’s holding this marriage together anymore,” Betsy barked.
“I don’t know what’s holding that dress together either,” Bert replied.
Betsy hit him with the rolling pin again. And again, nobody laughed. “You know Bert, I’m feeling uglier by the day. The least you could do as my husband is stop with the jokes and give me a compliment every now and then.” She craned her fabric neck towards Bert.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Your eyesight is fantastic,” he answered.
Charlie rotated his wrist so Bert faced the audience this time as Betsy wacked him over the head. There was a lone snicker from the audience, but it was as brief and obviously ironic.
“Alright, alright,” the director, Cal Stevens said.
Charlie’s head popped up from behind the set with Bert and Betsy perched on either hand. “How’d I do?”
Cal slid a toothpick between his teeth and rattled it around. “How can I say this nicely – um…” He turned back towards his staff who were all snickering in unison. He spun his chair back around and put his feet up on his desk. “Tired, cliché, two-dimensional…ugh, what’s the use? We’ll be in contact, Charlie.”
“Oh please, not again,” Charlie begged. He threw his hands up with the two puppets still covering them.
“That’s the most lively I’ve seen those two all skit,” Cal responded. A few of his staff laughed harder than Charlie had ever heard from any of his audiences. “Charlie, do yourself a favor, would you? Stop coming around here and making a fool of yourself. Maybe puppetry just isn’t your thing.”
Charlie meant to point a scolding finger at Cal, but instead he just pointed the top of Bert’s balding head in the audience’s direction. His nose flared and eyes swirled, locking on Cal. “Mark my words Cal: one day, I’ll be the best puppeteer you’ve ever seen. I’ll be better than Jim Henson.”
Cal and his staff broke out into roaring laughter. The toothpick in Cal’s teeth popped out and disappeared between the red velvet theater seats in front of him. “Write that down, Charlie,” Cal said between heaving laughs. “That’s the best joke I’ve heard all night.” Cal waved the back of his hand at Charlie and wiped his snotty nose. “Next,” he finally said.
Charlie walked off the stage with slumped shoulders and a pair of sweaty hands covered with the two lifeless stars of another failed audition. He really meant it – one day Charlie Cooper would be better than Jim Henson, but he was resigned to the idea that all he needed was a little more practice. He had come to the Big Apple to make it big in show business, and he vowed to never leave until he did. Charlie had vowed years ago that he would get his big break, or die trying.
Charlie slammed open the backstage door and threw Betsy into the wall of the alleyway. The great outdoors of New York City greeted him with blaring car horns, deafening lights and the permeating odor of trash. The dark clouds above slowly began to open up over Charlie’s once-again dejected essence. Betsy’s fabric body hit into brick wall without a sound, then glided into a puddle to float next to a torn newspaper. Charlie kicked an empty can against the wall and screamed into the damp air.
Just then, a man appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. He was dressed in a soaked black trench coat, soiled jeans, and a worn Yankees cap. He bent down and picked Betsy up, then flicked his wrist twice to shake some of the water droplets off. “That’s no way to treat your puppets,” he said with a deep crackling voice. “They’re a puppeteer’s best friends: his very livelihood.”
“I’m sure they are, but I’m not much of a puppeteer,” Charlie moaned back.
“Nonsense,” the man said. “Any man with two hands, a hearty set of puppets, and a strong act is a puppeteer.”
“I’m afraid I only check one of those boxes these days.”
The man shook his head. He was profoundly disappointed in Charlie, but Charlie was unfazed – he didn’t know too many people anymore that weren’t disappointed in him. The man limped closer to Charlie. He then grabbed Bert’s bald scalp and yanked him off Charlie’s left hand.
“Hey, what was that for?” Charlie asked, bewildered.
“You might have two good hands and a decent act, but these two puppets just won’t do.”
Charlie scoffed. “Oh yeah? And just what do you know about puppets?”
The man’s grin steadily widened, then turned to a broken cackle like a dying fire. “Let’s just say I’m something of a puppeteer myself.”
Charlie couldn’t tell what was so funny about that. If anything, it made him warier of the man.
The man opened his trench coat and hunched over again, blocking something in his coat from the rain. He tilted his head, motioning for Charlie to come closer. Charlie ducked slightly to see under the man’s baseball cap. Just then, he realized he had no idea what the man’s name was, never mind why he was choosing to entertain this wild encounter. “Who are you?”
“The name’s Alfred,” he replied, having to speak a little louder now as the rain fell harder. “I’m a traveling salesman of sorts. Just come a little closer.”
Charlie cautiously stepped closer to Alfred. His steps were so slight that his forward progress was almost indiscernible. He ducked down a little lower to finally see what was under Alfred’s coat. Charlie was somewhat startled at what he saw. It seemed too coincidental to be true. “You sell puppets?”
Alfred pulled his coat shut with both hands and turned slightly away. “Not just any puppets,” he wagged his finger, “these are best puppets around. You seem like a decent fellow, talking to me for this long. Say, what’s your name?”
“Charlie Cooper, failed puppeteer,” Charlie answered glumly.
“That’s no attitude for this business, Mr. Cooper. The only failed puppeteer is the one that’s given up. With my puppets, you won’t even need a good act to be the best around.”
Charlie backed up slightly. This time his steps were much more evident. “What do you mean by that?”
Alfred opened his coat again, this time with less prudence against the rain. “My friend, these puppets will make you a star.” He reached into his coat, took one out, and extended it to Charlie.
Charlie took it slowly, his eyes darting between Alfred and the so-called star-studded puppet. The rain continued down, dampening Charlie’s scalp and drenching his clothes. But this mysterious salesman had Charlie’s full attention with his strange magic puppets. Charlie examined the puppet’s every feature. It was made out of a mixture of velvet and some tougher material. It wasn’t plastic, but it also wasn’t leather. He couldn’t quite tell, but whatever it was seemed eerily realistic. He looked into its tiny face. Staring back were incredibly small but detailed eyes. They glimmered back in a strong green he’d only ever seen in human eyes. Charlie ran his finger over its face and felt the texture change between the cheeks and lips. He was taken aback by the fact its mouth was moist, but remembered it was raining. Even its clothes were majestically crafted: they felt more quality than Charlie’s own. Charlie slid his hand into the puppet to test it out. It was a perfect fit. He felt a certain emotion wash over him – a certain emotion he’d never felt before when putting a new puppet on his hand for the first time. It wasn’t that feeling of a mint-condition fabric doll just removed from the box. It was more akin to a loved-one’s embrace. It was warm and lively.
Alfred raised his eyebrows and stared anxiously at Charlie, awaiting a response. “So?” he finally said, growing impatient.
Charlie could hardly find the words for it. “I – um…how much?”
“I like you, Charlie. I’ve got a special price for you,” Alfred said. It was a common and cheap sales tactic, but Charlie was planning on buying the puppet no matter the price and certainly no matter the gimmick. “Two-hundred dollars for that one,” Alfred said.
Charlie was broke by all means, but for the puppet’s sheer quality, two hundred dollars sounded like pocket change. For a moment he thought of buying 100 of them if he ever had the money for it. But for the time being he said, “I’ll take two. One male and one female.”
Alfred nodded and handed him his two puppets, one of each sex as Charlie requested. Charlie handed him the last four hundred dollars to his name, and began walking away an excited customer. But just then, Alfred grabbed Charlie’s arm and clenched hard. “Wait, we aren’t quite done here.”
“Sorry, did I count wrong?” Charlie answered. “I thought I gave you your four hundred.”
Alfred shook his head. He hadn’t even thought to count the money yet. “No, it’s not that. I need you to understand these puppets. If you do as I say, they will bring you fame and fortune. Understand?”
“When you use these puppets, you have to trust them. Become one with them, and don’t resist the bonds you feel. You cannot afford to underestimate these two.”
Charlie was more than ready to walk away now. He was starting to feel irritated that he might have just fallen for the cheap tricks of clever beggar. “Yeah sure, buddy. Whatever you say. Now will you let go of me?”
Alfred looked down at his hand as if it wasn’t his own, then released Charlie. Charlie slipped the two puppets underneath his jacket, then ran home through the torrential downfall.
When he arrived at home, Charlie rushed to his home studio in the basement. It was already later than he usually got back. He should have eaten dinner and gone straight to bed, but nothing was going to stop Charlie from trying out his new puppets.
Charlie flicked the basement light on. It flickered on and revealed the cardboard castle he’d made years ago sitting atop a picnic table. It was where he once practiced his rendition of Rapunzel, the first and last show his father ever saw. Charlie sat on the floor behind the castle then opened up his jacket. He slipped on the two new puppets, one for each hand. He glanced at them back and forth, studying their lifelike faces carefully. He read something in their expressions almost immediately. They were telling him it would be strange to name them Betsy and Bert partially because the two of them looked younger, and partially because they just didn’t appreciate those names. They want to be called Jeff and Kate. It felt right, as if those had been their names all their lives.
Charlie raised both hands up so his wrists were still concealed beneath the castle. And then he began. He had not prepared a skit for his two new characters, but it went off more flawlessly than any other in his puppeteering career.
Kate sat at one end of the castle and looked away, pondering what exactly brought her to this point sitting alone at bars in her mid-thirties. She took a sip of her Manhattan, then sighed deeply. She’d gone almost a full night without a single man hitting on her – almost.
“You know I come around here almost every night but I don’t think I’ve ever seen you before.” a man said.
Kate turned to see a stunning man. He had a chiseled jawline with a hint of a five o’clock shadow and deep blue eyes. But what she was really amazed by was his apparent mind reading. Her cheeks turned a rosy red and she ran her fingers through her hair. “Almost every night – so you’re a functioning alcoholic?”
“Functioning? You flatter,” he said to which they both laughed. “I haven’t met too many shrinks that’d say a man who spends his mid-thirties alone in a bar hoping to be swept off his feet night after night is ‘functioning’.”
“And what would they say if it were a woman?”
Jeff revealed a charming smile and said. “I’m not sure you want to know.”
“It’s a good thing it’s my first night trying then,” Kate said. “I’d better stop before I’m too late.”
“Wouldn’t want to end up like me, now would you?”
She laughed and extended her hand, “Kate.”
He took hers gently and said, “Name’s Jeff.”
Charlie gasped and retracted his arms like they’d been pressed upon a stove top and breathed heavily. It was the greatest impromptu skit he’d ever performed, but looking at the two puppets he wasn’t sure whether he could take credit for any of it – he hadn’t uttered a word.
Charlie pulled gently on Jeff’s waist to remove the puppet, but it wouldn’t budge. The doll stared mockingly back at him with its limp arms dangling behind its body. Charlie’s face grew warm with a brewing frustrated confusion. He pulled again, much harder this time. Jeff loosened on his hand, but still didn’t come off. With one more strong pull, a grunt, and a contorted hand, Jeff slipped off on the third try. Charlie then took Kate off his other hand with similar force. He remembered how perfectly the puppet fit on his hand when he tried it earlier – it wasn’t nearly as tight the first time. He stared at the two lifeless but realistic puppets lying on his unfinished basement’s concrete floor. “We’re going to be better than Jim Henson,” Charlie whispered.
At the next opportunity, Charlie was in line for Cal’s audition again. This time, he was filled with an unbridled confidence he never carried to that stage before.
“Charlie Cooper? Not again,” Cal groaned when he saw Charlie approach. “What did I tell you last month? Do us all a favor and stop making a fool of yourself. Am I right? I said that, right?”
“Just give me one more chance, Mr. Stevens. I promise this is the last one,” Charlie pleaded.
Cal perked up and beamed. “Last one? You mean to tell me if – no, when you bomb one more time and you promise I’ll never see your face again?”
Charlie nodded. Despite the stakes, he hadn’t any fears. “I promise.”
Cal extended his arms with both palms faced up. “Alright then. A deal’s a deal. Let’s see what you’ve got.” He kicked both feet up onto the chair in front of him and chewed on a new toothpick like it was gum.
Charlie’s fingers jutted into his pockets as he stared into the unforgiving audience comprised of Cal Stevens and his staff. He took Kate out, and then Jeff and slipped them comfortably over each hand.
“Oh, a new act? Alright then Charlie, this ought to be good,” Cal jeered.
Charlie nodded loosely, then ducked behind the audition table. He felt the air cool beneath the table, out of the spotlights’ harsh glow. Charlie breathed deeply to collect himself and shut his eyes. When he came with Betsy and Bert, Charlie always had a skit prepared – but not this time. He fully trusted Jeff and Kate to display their usual magic.
“Get on with it, Charlie. Let’s see this train wreck,” Cal heckled.
Charlie shook his head, catching himself almost falling back into his usual old nervous catatonia. “We’re going to be better than Jim Henson,” he quietly reminded the puppets. Finally, he gathered the courage to launch his wrists above his head. And just like that, the act commenced.
It was everything – more than everything. Jeff and Kate’s performance glittered louder than the brightest stars in Hollywood, their dynamic was more alluring than that of Romeo and Juliet, their humor more riveting than Seinfeld’s. It was more than Charlie could have ever dreamed. Hell, it was more than Jim Henson could have ever dreamed. No such fluidity, emotion, vigor, or story-telling had ever come from a set of puppets in theatrical history. The only problem was…Charlie once again never once opened his mouth – not to speak at least.
As the dynamic duo performed and a speechless Cal watched on, the puppets began to tighten around Charlie’s wrists. His hands were growing numb, but not with the exhaustion they usually did… they were suffocating. He pulled and grunted as quietly as possible, so not to disturb the performance. But with each flick of the wrist and pull of the hand, the puppets only grew tighter. Charlie then tried to shake his wrist awake more violently, but Jeff and Kate took his movements in stride. What should have been desperate flailing came off as nothing more than intentional gestures complimenting a majestic routine. Charlie’s veins bulged and turned a dark, pronounced purple. A strange texture creeped up his arm. He couldn’t feel his skin. It was being replaced by something else, something coarser – a material he’d felt thousands of times before, but never upon a living person.
As Charlie panted and struggled against the two puppets to no avail, he remembered Alfred’s ominous and worried voice. When you use these puppets, you have to trust them. Become one with them, and don’t resist the bonds you feel. Charlie found his feet and plunged above the table in the middle of deep dialogue between his protagonists.
When he surfaced, he saw Cal sitting on the back of a red velvet chair and a few of his staff in tears. When Cal and Charlie’s eyes met, Cal stood from the chair and shook his head with a speechless mouth agape. Charlie awaited another rejection, but instead Cal slapped his hands together three times, and his staff soon followed in thunderous applause. Charlie looked at them nervously, feeling the puppets only growing tighter around his wrists. It was everything he had ever hoped for. He was on the verge of making his big break. He wouldn’t let a couple throbbing hands stop him now. Charlie slipped both hands behind his back and bowed.
Cal kept shaking his head slowly, but stopped clapping. His staff soon followed suit. “Bravo, bravo,” Cal began. “Wow, Charlie…I mean wow.”
Charlie couldn’t feel the puppets anymore, but the sensation of their constriction travelled all the way up his arms to his elbows. He didn’t want to show his arms, worried they’d already look like two shriveled corpses. I need to cut these things off, he thought. “Thank you,” Charlie said through gritted teeth.
“Come on, Charlie, smile! Show us those pearly whites. This is finally your big day. Charlie?”
Charlie’s eyes felt like they’d pop if he ignored the pain for another second. His teeth were clenched so hard, his molar chipped and crunched in his mouth. Charlie couldn’t hold it in any longer. His arms flailed forwards and he let out a blood-curdling scream until his lungs were empty. Cal tripped backwards over the seat when he saw Charlie’s blackening veins and gray, dead arms. Blood leaked from the tiny slit that still separated Kate’s body and Charlie’s hand. He ran from the studio and slammed past the same door he always left through.
Even Charlie’s legs grew weak – as if his bones were disappearing and his muscles were turning to goo. His skin continued to transform to a velvety fabric. When his teeth chomped together once more, they all fell out in unison and his lips wired themselves shut. He tried to scream again, but it came out as a muffled hum nobody would hear. Charlie looked up to see a towering man standing over him. The man sported a black trench coat, soiled jeans, and a worn Yankees cap. Charlie recognized him quickly, but realized the man was much taller than he remembered. He wanted to shout at the man – he wanted to call for help. But Charlie’s body grew smaller, and his nasal breathing slowed. He glanced down for one last time and noticed a gaping hole beneath his waist where his legs used to be. His arms grew stiff, and Charlie Cooper collapsed to the pavement.
That old salesman sighed and shook his head. He picked Jeff and Kate off the ground, then wiped each of them off before slotting them back inside his coat. And then he picked up his new puppet – the limp and lifeless man who was already at his wits end a few weeks ago. In the end, Charlie Cooper was correct: he’d make it as a puppeteer, or die trying. Perhaps his best puppeteering days would be at the end of another desperate Thespian’s doomed wrist. The salesman stuffed the velvety puppet in his jacket alongside Jeff, and walked away.