The Christian Ventriloquist
Even as a child, my lips were rigid. My entire body was very still. I used to
sit for hours, not moving, not speaking. My father was embarrassed to bring his
friends home for lunch. He called me Dummy. My mother longed for possibilities.
She thought my silence bred some kind of genius.
She would take me to the music stores and set me on piano stools and place
French horns and clarinets in my hands, but still my fingers did not decorously
flex, my mouth remained frozen.
It was when my mother had only one aspirin left in the bottle in the medicine
cabinet over the kitchen sink, after my father had long since left over the
purchase of expensive art supplies, that her inspiration came. She borrowed a TV
from Uncle Hoot. She had him fix an antenna onto a pole for better reception.
She set me on a little blue bathroom rug in front of the television all day
long. She felt the technology would help. Every few minutes she would stop her
housework and walk into the room to see what was showing on the screen and see
if the sight of it had changed my posture or expression.
Her wish for shape and purpose in my life turned to despair when my hands did
not tremble before the visions of Lawrence Welk or Liberace. But then my throat
During an Edgar Bergen movie, as Bergen made his ventriloquist doll, Charlie
McCarthy, talk, my throat began to vibrate. It was a cough or a vowel sound,
I've never been quite sure which, but my mother came running, and there I was
with my jaw and lips rigid, and my throat making ugly sounds that held for her
so much beauty and hope.
Then we were in the car driving to Eastbrook Shopping Center, to Woolworth's,
and the Dixie Rexall. Then we were whirling down aisles, my mother's hands
disappearing under stacks of Mr. Potato Head sets and Barbie Dream Houses.
The druggist at the Rexall sold my mother a special device from a rack of
colorful gimmicks. It was in a plastic pouch right next to the fingersnapper
pack of gum and the plastic dog poop.
The paper inside the pouch showed a workman carrying a steamer trunk on his
back, startled by a voice coming from inside saying, "Let me out of
here." It was a mechanism for "Throwing Your Voice." My mother
bought it, and, back in the car, she made me put the small whistle, the sole
contents of the pouch, in my mouth.
I could not throw my voice to another place or even speak a word. I could
only make the sounds of a highpitched whistle. My mother threw the disc out
the window like a tiny, silver bird.
At Toyland, her search ended. There in the back of the store, next to the
model kits of the Knights of the Round Table, was a genuine Charlie McCarthy
ventriloquist doll, dressed in his familiar black tuxedo, top hat, and monocle.
At home we found the string that operated his mouth. It came from a tiny hole
in the back of his neck.
For the next two weeks, my mother would read the pamphlet that came with the
doll to me and help me with the exercises. She would put me in front of her
makeup mirror, on her knee, and I would put Charlie McCarthy on my knee. She
would help me recite the alphabet, and, when my lips lost their tight control,
she would pinch me on the arm with her long red fingernails. We left out six
letters: B, F, M, P, V, and W. My mother said the instructions told how we would
learn the substitute sounds for these labials and plosives later. She worked at
night coming up with words and phrases that didn't use them.
For days the words came with violence or vanished without a trace or
sometimes my lips would bend down out of their fixed smile and my breath would
heave like a pigeon's breast. And still my mother would hold me and remind my
skin of my mouth's imperfect murmurings. Until, one by one, the letters came and
then the words and phrases. Until, with each breath, I could faultlessly hiss,
"She sells seashells Sunday at the seashore."
She sewed a tuxedo for me that looked just like Charlie McCarthy's. She made
a monocle for me out of a broken pair of eyeglasses. She had to buy a top hat at
a dance supply store.
Next, we were standing in the Garden Club Room in the back of Flink's City
Florist. The women all wore the same dust-colored dresses. Each held in her hand
her favorite variety of daffodil. There were trumpet and largecupped blooms
and a sprinkling of doubles and shortcups in cluster types. The flowers ranged
in color from deep gold to pure white.
I was billed as Little Ed and Charlie, Jr., and, after a short script my
mother had borrowed from an old Shari Lewis TV show, my finale arrived.
My mother had driven to Atlanta and spent almost ten dollars at a magic shop
for a trick glass that appeared to make milk vanish. It only took a small amount
of liquid to make the glass look full, and an inner chamber caught the liquid
when the glass was tilted and spread it out so that it looked as if I were
actually drinking the milk. My mouth was freed up behind the glass to form even
the toughest of sounds.
As I held the glass to my lips and pretended to drink, I recited a Wordsworth
poem, "I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o'er vales and
hills...." I made my Adam's apple bob up and down as if I were drinking.
"When all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils...." And
as I continued reciting, the ladies in the group stood up in unison and thrust
their prized flowers in the air and began to sway, vigorously absorbed in the
landscape of blooms.
"And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the
daffodils," I finished. My mother thanked the ladies and added that it was
a special pleasure to be there today since it was also my seventh birthday. I
had already had my seventh birthday two months before, but just the thought of
it brought the ladies marching forward to embrace me against their thick, white
necks and still larger chests and press a dollar each into my tiny hand.
For eight years my mother kept me in the public eye with bookings at nursing
homes, American Legion posts, and Elk Clubs in Mobile, Dothan, Selma, and
Montgomery. She developed a fancy antismoking script where Charlie Jr. appears
to blow out my match every time I tried to light up a cigarette. The PTA loved
the idea and we were invited to almost every elementary school in Alabama and
When I was fifteen, my mother met a man who owned three doughnut shops in
Birmingham. We were the guest act at the grand opening of his fourth store.
After the show he took us back to his house for dinner.
Charley Jr. and I sat in the dirty kitchen. I ate from a box of dayold
crullers. My mother and the man watched TV in the living room.
My mother kept making this loud laugh. It sounded like a crow. I peeked out
the kitchen door. My mother had her dress pulled up. She was sitting on the
man's knee. He kept whispering something to her, something he wanted her to say.
I sat back down at the kitchen table. Charlie Jr. sat in the chair next to
me. We were still dressed exactly alike in our matching tuxedos, except I had
taken my hat and monocle off and left them in the man's car.
I started to eat some chocolate twists, but my eyes kept looking at Charlie
Jr. He seemed to keep getting smaller and smaller, or maybe it was just that I
felt like I was getting bigger and bigger.
I walked out the back door of the house to get some air. The stars over the
trees and houses in the neighborhood seemed so tiny. I kept walking.
Dressed in the black tuxedo, I had no trouble catching rides. Truckers would
stop just to rib me about how I must have gotten lost from my senior prom.
I headed south for Gulf Shores. Once, Mom and I had stopped for gas there on
our way from Pensacola to Mobile. It was a beautiful little place along the
coast of Alabama with the whitest sand I had ever seen. And towering above the
sand, just under the bright sky, were golden yellow beach houses stuck up
proudly on pylons. I wanted to stand very still in the sand and look out into
the green water of the Gulf of Mexico and know that silence was the best
language ever spoken, but we were on a schedule and due in two hours at a
women's club tea room in Mobile.
I arrived at Gulf Shores at dawn. I walked out beside the Pink Pony Pub and
the Sea Horse Motel to where the water met the jagged creosote poles of a
decaying fishing pier.
The water moved towards me in graceful ripples that reminded me of the way a
magician's silk scarf might flow in front of him just before it changes colors
between his huge palms. I did not think about what I would do the rest of the
day or the next. I did not think about how odd I would appear dressed in formal
wear standing perfectly still in the white sand when the others arrived with
their coolers and Hang Ten towels and Frisbees. The beauty of the Gulf carried
no overwhelming need of thought.
I stayed on the beach all day, sometimes standing, sometimes sitting, hoping
that the sun would fade away the black fabric of my clothes and hoping that the
salt would corrode the leather and brass of my shoes; but by evening time all I
could feel changed was the exposed skin on my face and hands. As the night
closed in, I took my shoes and socks off and dug my toes into the giving sand,
unconcerned with what life lay beneath it, the sand crabs and spiders. I looked
into the moving water, my eyesight failing, searching for the dark outline of
boats moving beyond the sandbar.
I wondered if people out on those boats would be able to see me sitting so
motionless on the shore. And then I heard whistling. It was not the metallic
sound of my first ventriloquist whistle. It was the sweet human sound of air
pressed between lips. At first, I could only see the glint of something silver,
something barely the size of a woman's slip showing beneath a hemline. Then, as
the figure approached, the silvery form revealed itself as the aluminum leg of a
summer lawn chair.
A young woman carrying the chair unfolded it next to me as if I were
invisible. She pulled a beer off of a plastic ring that retained two others. She
wore a onepiece bathing suit with a sweater tied around her thin waist. Her
legs were as white as a pearl against the dark air.
She began whistling again in between sips of beer. The tune meant nothing.
Then she stopped and wet her lips with her tongue. I looked down at her feet.
Her toes were long and beautiful. I wanted to form some words to say to her. I
thought of phrases that would be easy to say. But I feared if I opened my mouth
only a stream of air brighter than the aluminum of her chair, whiter than her
legs, would come out, arching between us, breaking the perfect silence.
She turned towards me and offered me one of the two remaining cans of beer.
Her wellformed mouth invited me with a smile. I took the can and opened the
poptop and watched the beer foam through the small opening. I held the beer up
in a kind of a toast. "To the Gulf," I said, "that swallows up
everything." Then she tried to speak, but her lovely face twisted and
jerked and tried to catch that receding tide of language. Her labor for vowels
and consonants told me of her drunkenness.
She could not tie words together to ask of my attire or name. But just her
look, past speech, asked me to return with her, carrying the lawn chair back to
the only brick cabin on the beach. And there on the bed, under a wooden ceiling
fan, she communicated with her breath and tongue against my skin, stopping only
to turn the dial of a portable radio that hung from the bedpost by a strap to
I awoke to catch the sun at every window. She was lying quietly on top of the
Then I showered and used a large red beach towel to dry up the water I'd
splashed onto the bathroom tile. I looked through her cabinets for some
deodorant. I used her toothbrush. I wanted to wake her up with kisses for her
eyes and mouth. I wanted to tell her things about why I was on the beach in a
tuxedo and ask her about her own night vigil. I wanted to ask her name so I
could blow the word sweetly back to her over a generous breakfast of fresh
peaches and figs. I wanted to wrap us both in words like soft animal skins. But
the telephone rang in the other room.
I opened the bathroom door to see her standing naked, lit in silhouette by
the whitelighted window. Her face struggled again to conquer simple words. Her
"hello" and "yes" fought their way from her mouth like air
from a drowning man's lungs. One side of her mouth pulled tightly while the
other side seemed to stretch wide enough to swallow an egg. It brought back the
violence of my first struggle, my imperfect words.
It had not been drunkenness the night before but something else.
She hung up the black phone. She wrapped the sheet around her. I dressed and
explained that I was going out to look for a job, that I would be back later,
but her eyes could see my invention.
She turned and toyed with the radio. It seemed harder to get the right
station during the day.
After that, I lived for a while over the Mother of Pearl Dry Cleaners in
Mobile. I found a job service that would send me out about three days a week. On
the days I didn't work, I just stayed in my room and listened to the steam
presses below until I felt too sweaty and stiff to move.
The service had me fill out a list of interests and hobbies, but the jobs
never seemed to match them. For several weeks I worked in an icehouse shucking
oysters and cleaning crabs, and then I worked a few days emptying trash cans and
sorting mail at the newspaper office.
One morning the phone rang. A man from the service asked me to stop by the
main office. He called it the main office, but I knew they only had one
room in a building down on Magnolia Street.
When I arrived the man had my list of interests and hobbies laying in front
of him on his desk. He picked it up and fanned his big face with it. He told me
how the service prided itself on placing applicants with the right jobs. His
lips seemed to move too much for the few words he was saying. It was almost like
his words were dubbed.
He smiled and asked me if I wanted coffee. He said the job would last for at
least six weeks. He chewed a bit on the end of his pen. He wanted to make sure
that I planned to stay in town on the job. There would be a bonus at the end if
I did. He gave me the address card.
It was the largest church in Mobile. The banner out
front read "Summer Christian Youth Festival." The Reverend took me
down a long hall to my classroom. Along the way, he informed me of words and
subjects he didn't want me to use in front of the children. He took great
delight in going through his mental list as if he had recited it over to himself
many times before in private. He also told me he'd be happy to go over the
routines and dialogue that I planned to use later for the final Christian Youth
In the room, I was surrounded by children, all between the ages of six and
eight. In each of their laps they held the innocent dummies. The dummies were
all fashioned after religious models. Most of the boys had small fiberglass
figures of Jesus sitting on their knees, and the girls had been given Virgin
Mary dolls. On the instructor's desk in front of the room were other costumed
forms of angels, wise men, and even a special baby Jesus in a basket. It was my
first class in Christian Ventriloquism.
I slipped my hand inside the baby Jesus figure and found the metal levers
that controlled his eyes, mouth, and head movements. The inside of the dummy
felt hard like a seashell empty of its soft mollusk.
As I cradled the basket in my lap, I told the boys and girls how to find the
control levers in the back of their dummies. They practiced manipulating them.
The coweyes of the dummies winked. The heads turned. One of the girls had a
more expensive figure than the rest. She could get her Mary doll to wiggle her
ears. All of the children wanted to trade with her.
The children laughed and laughed. Then it was time to give them voice. I told
them how to hold their jaws rigid. I taught them how to smile and keep their
teeth slightly parted. I had them all repeat the simplest of sounds, the sounds
made without the use of lips.
I looked around the room and saw the children smiling and heard their droning
noises seemingly coming from the sacred figures swaying on their knees.
"Ay," I said. They mimicked the sound through clinched lips and teeth.
"EE," I cried. Again, they repeated it. "EYE...OH...YOU."
Then phrases returned from my youth, "She sells seashells Sunday by the
seashore." The skin on their small faces tightened and strained as I forced
them to form harder and still harder sounds and phrases, faster and faster, and
in louder voices. "Satan sells seashells Sunday by the seashore."
Their mouths became ugly machines, twisting up and transforming air into
sound into life for their faithful dummies. Their struggling faces reminded me
of the woman on the beach. Their gasping for the consummate voice, her gasping,
my gasping. "Kum Ba Yah," my baby Jesus shouted for them to sing.
"Kum Ba Yah," it shouted and shouted. And the girl with the fancy
Virgin Mary began to cry and one of the others ran out of the room, trampling
over his fallen figure of Jesus as he ran to get the Reverend back, and my lungs
felt like they were going to explode and send my heart pounding into the
I'd scare you if I told you any more. I'll only say that after the service
let me go, I tried to call my mother. Every time she answered the phone, I
couldn't speak. It was too painful. All I could do was listen. She kept
shouting, "Speak up! Speak up!"
I thought of going back to the woman on the beach, but I knew it would never
work with two dummies. There was only one alternative left.
I'd once read about how in the sixth century before Christ there was a temple
built in a place called Delphi. Sometimes the priests there would stand very
still and listen for strained sounds to come out of their stomachs. Words would
form, but their lips would not move. Then one of the priests would try to
interpret the bellynoise for someone who had come to them seeking the advice
of the gods. But one day all of the oracles fell silent.
And now, sitting in my small room over the dry cleaners, I wait for their
return because I know that memory and loss are just mirrors and time itself
comes back like a reflection. And circumspect, I will wait for that tiny private
voice within to articulate all possible things, and I will generously listen so
quietly and so still that I will hardly be here at all.