The word ventriloquism comes from the Latin terms venter and loqui, literally meaning “belly speak.” Dummies, therefore, are often referred to as “tummy talkers,” because they “speak from the stomach” and give voice to previously unexpressed thoughts and feelings. The doll speaks in a more frank and open manner than her human counterpart can, given the handler’s need to save face and follow established social conventions of propriety. The dummy, therefore, is the truthteller, the oracle, in this contentious relationship, and the “master” is soon revealed to be the subservient one. The audience sits in silent anticipation, eager to see the handler outwitted by a dummy who gives voice to the hidden and hitherto unacknowledged needs of heart, stomach, and genitals.— Elaine Blabler, Hearing the Unspoken Voice: The Ancient Art of Ventriloquism
When she was eleven years old, my older sister Cassie carried a ventriloquist’s dummy with her wherever she went. The dummy’s name was Marilyn, and at first nobody had the heart to tell Cassie that Marilyn was not really a dummy, but a charred log from our fireplace. Every night Cassie slept in her narrow bed with this splintered wedge of burnt wood. She cuddled with it on the sofa while watching soap operas and sitcoms, and she left ashy smudges on everything she touched, from the refrigerator door to her once-white gerbils. Cassie’s homeroom teacher was concerned. The school psychologist, Nancy Palermo, asked my father if we had recently lost any family members to a house blaze or fiery car crash, anything like that. My father said, “Not exactly.” Ms. Palermo wanted to see Cassie three times a week after school for private consultations.
We lived in a squat, crumbling yellow brick house surrounded by tiger lilies. All the houses on Hood Lane were the same size. Our street appealed to young couples just starting out, elderly folks in pajamas, recovering addicts taking life one day at a time, and struggling small business owners. There were no block parties or street fairs, but every now and then some drunk kid would crash his father’s car into a tree, and we’d all gather around swimming in the headlights.
My mother’s absence from our lives—she said she was just getting her head straight in Tampa, Florida—forced my father to become the sole nurturer in our household, a terrible burden added to his already overwhelming duties as paragon and provider. He hadn’t touched a vodka tonic in over fourteen months. But when my mother took off for Florida, a move that took us all by surprise, Dad stopped going to his Don’t Drink meetings and stayed home with us.
“You listen to me,” he said from the helm of his armchair, unable to ignore my sister’s strange new hobby any longer. “That’s not a proper dummy.” He rose to his feet and stood above us. “Just look at it, for God’s sake. It doesn’t even have a mouth or or even a face.”
When my sister didn’t respond, Dad changed tactics. In a softer voice, he said, “The other kids will make fun of you. You don’t want that—do you, honey?”
He unwrapped a lollipop and paced in front of Cassie, who was seated on the family room sofa clutching Marilyn to her breast like some horribly burned infant. I sat crosslegged on the floor at Dad’s feet, paying close attention because I knew that someday I’d need to write all this down, just in case somebody asked me why I behave the way I do. “Ventriloquists are . . .” He thought for a moment. “Annoying,” he said. “And nobody really likes them.”
Cassie brooded, arms folded, on the sofa. “That’s not true,” she said. “A lot of people like them.”
“Sure, the dimwits in the audience eat it up with a spoon,” he said, “but only because they’re embarrassed for the ridiculous sap who totes a stupid dummy around. Really. It’s old hat. Fifties Vegas crap. That type of humor doesn’t appeal to us anymore. We’re much more sophisticated in our interests nowadays, Cassandra.” He hooked his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans. “And I’m only talking about the traditional stuff. What you’re attempting here . . . Well, believe me, honey. Nobody will have any patience for some confused little kid with a burnt log for a freakin’ dummy. That’s for damn sure.”
“I like them!” Cassie said, her braces glittering. “I know you don’t care what I like, Dad, but ventriloquists make me happy.” She squeezed Marilyn tighter. “I’m gonna be a world famous ventriloquist someday, whether you like it or not.”
“Honey,” he said, “it’s burnt wood.” He chopped the blade of his hand through the air. “Am I the only one in this house who sees that? Just look at that thing. It doesn’t even have a mouth or—or even a face!” He turned to me. “Wayne, could you back me up here?”
“Dummies,” I said, smiling. “Dummies, dummies, dummies.”
My father stared at me for a few seconds without speaking.
“Mom would let me do it,” Cassie said. “Mom would encourage me.”
My father twirled the lollipop stick in his mouth. “I just don’t get the attraction of ventriloquism. Really. I’m at a loss here. I mean, it wasn’t even cool in my day. And now? Let’s face it, it’s not even in the conversation.”
He looked to me again. Whatever expression he saw on my nine-year-old face didn’t invite an easy alliance.
“You two need to learn about ‘cool.’ You know what the coolest kids in any school do?” Dad shoved both hands in the back pockets of his jeans. “They sing and dance. Look back in time, look forward: doesn’t matter. What will the cool kids be doing a hundred years from now?”
“Singing and maybe dancing?” I said, trying to catch Cassie’s eye, hoping she’d laugh with me.
“That’s right, son. That’s right,” he said, smiling back at me. “They will be singing and dancing in the streets. You can’t hold them back. Don’t even try.”
“I won’t,” I said.
“Smart. Because it wouldn’t do you any good.”
My sister hugged Marilyn to her breast. “You guys are both such jerks,” she said in a small voice.
“What did I do?” I said.
“Okay, okay, fine, if you insist on pursuing this,” he said, making a grand concession, the lollipop bobbing up and down in his mouth, “just ditch the log, and I’ll buy you a real dummy at the clown shop or whatever, and you can—”
“Stop it!” Cassie pushed past him. Swinging her pointed elbows, she ran out of the family room and stomped up the stairs, trailing a whiff of scorch behind her. We heard her bedroom door slam shut.
“Well, she’s got a flair for the dramatic, I’ll give her that,” he said. “But I’m worried about that girl. What is she trying to prove here?”
Stroking his goatee, that gingery eruption of hair on his face, Dad looked out the family room window at the snowplowed street. Cassie’s strange behavior had called into question so much that he had taken for granted, including his own coolness. He was forty-four years old, a marketing director for Studio Arena Theatre, a job that allowed him to dress and act like an artist—ponytail, earrings, jeans—yet still collect a businessman’s steady paycheck. He liked avant-garde theater, but he was not hip enough to deal with the grotesque in his own home. He bit into the lollipop. Flakes of green candy clung to the inverted triangle of hair beneath his lower lip. He would have welcomed my mother’s input in a situation like this. Her absence galled him. He looked down at me and frowned. “And what do you find so amusing, mister?”
I had become a watchdog for adult hypocrisy. I spent up to twelve hours a day studying the erratic behavior of grownups with a smirk on my face.
My father hitched up his sagging jeans and squatted before me like an aging baseball catcher. He put his hands on my shoulders. “Let’s have us a little chat,” he said, “man to man. Now, I know you two are a team, but we’re all on the same team, right?” I smelled the sour apple of his lollipop. “Is your sister still popular at that school? What do the other kids say about her?”
“She has lots of friends,” I said, and then corrected myself. “She used to.”
He nodded. “Minor setback. She’ll win them back. So, who are the most popular kids nowadays? The singers, the dancers? Or the jocks?”
“The nerds?” He smiled. “Have the nerds finally risen to the top?”
“Every cool kid is different, Dad.”
“Right, right. It’s the age of specialization. She’s taking a big risk with this log thing, but who knows? It might pay off. You think it could?”
I was the wrong person to ask. My inability to keep up with the latest trends always unnerved my father. The public schools, in his opinion, were a hotbed of ingenuity, a testing ground where a tribe of potential superstars sparred over the future of our culture’s rites and rituals. But I was too busy to worry about any of that. My mother had moved to Florida, without warning, and I’d become the unofficial archivist of her debris. I inventoried the baubles on her bedside table. I straightened the photo I’d pinned on the fridge beneath a pineapple magnet. Nights, in my bedroom, I read her left-behind books, especially the photocopied working scripts from the roles she’d played at the theater. I fixated on her tiny pencil-scrawled notes in the margins: “Build.” “Energy, energy, energy.” “Brokenhearted.”
“So what’s your gambit to achieve popularity in school?” my father asked.
“Your sister has Marilyn. What sets you apart from the pack?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“That’s loser talk. Think about where there’s a demand, a need, and then give the people what they want. Are there any singers and dancers in your grade?”
“I don’t know.” A tired sigh escaped me. “I guess.”
Roosevelt Middle School, a four-story moron factory on the west side of town, warehoused close to four thousand kids, and featured a substantial population of head bangers, gasoline sniffers, bullies and other future felons. Mr. Brummer, the head security guard, roamed the corridors eyeballing every backpack and lunchbox with the institutional distrust of an El Paso border guard. A cleft-chinned chain smoker with a diamond stud in his left earlobe, Brummer the Bummer would sometimes stop me in the hall, invade my personal space and ask an inane question just so he could see if my pupils were dilated. I didn’t know if he recognized the future stoner in me and was trying to prevent this terrible fate, or if all his chatter about illicit substances and “what they could do to a boy” actually drove me to the bong in high school.
“You kids have so much to offer,” Dad said, “but in my opinion you’re selling yourselves short.”
He tucked the sticky lollipop stick behind his ear, one of the oddest moves I’d ever seen him make. Though twenty years have passed since that day, I still sometimes think about that hapless white stick balanced over my father’s ear like an unsmoked cigarette, giving him the look of a street tough in an old Hollywood movie, a ne’er-do-well loitering outside the pool hall.
Dad patted my shoulder, stood up, and walked out of the room. In the kitchen, a cupboard door banged shut. “God, grant me the serenity . . .” he said. A moment later he returned, his cheek bulging with a fresh lollipop.
“I’m gonna check on Cassie,” I said, rising from the floor.
“Okay! Now you’re talking.” He nodded in approval. “Good man,” he called after me. “That’s the spirit! Report back to me afterwards and we’ll compare notes.”
I climbed the stairs and knocked on my sister’s closed bedroom door. “Get lost, Wayne,” she said, sniffling. “I just wanna be alone.”
I opened the door and stepped in. The bonfire aroma blended with all the other exotic smells of her bedroom: damp towels and washcloths; nail polish remover; sticky bottles of cheap perfume spot welded to the dresser; cherry and grape lip gloss. She’d moved these items from Mom’s dressing table to her own, along with some costume jewelry and a handheld mirror. Chest down on her bed, her ankles crossed in the air behind her, Cassie flicked through the pages of a Seventeen magazine. Marilyn was on the once-white pillowcase, just under Cassie’s swaying feet. In the virginal setting of her bedroom, this black log was as conspicuous and disconcerting as a man standing naked in traffic.
I sat down on the smudged pink comforter and placed my hand on her back, the way Dad sometimes did with me when I had a nightmare.
“I have gum in my room,” I said, trying not to brag. “Hubba Bubba and Bubble Yum. I’ll give you a piece. What’s your favorite flavor?”
She ignored me.
“I might have Juicy Fruit, but I’d have to check first.”
“I don’t want any gum. God.”
We sat in silence for half a minute, my sister smothering her tears while I searched for the right words.
“Want me to try to paint your toenails again?” I asked at last. “I can do it better this time.”
“Just leave me alone, Wayne. God, can’t I have any privacy in this house?”
“I wish! Tell me about it,” I said, employing two of her favorite expressions back-to-back to ingratiate myself with her. And for about three seconds, I gawked at the oily burnt stains on her pillowcases, knowing, even then, that they would never be clean again. “Hey, Cassie,” I said. “You’re right. Ventriloquists are cool.”
She swung her face toward me. “Really? You think so?”
“Definitely.” I nodded. “Yep.”
“I’ve been practicing every night. I’m getting better, too. I think I’m actually pretty good.”
“Well, that’s what it takes. To get good, I mean.”
“Do you want to see me do a routine?”
I told her I did, and honestly, I did. Even though my sister’s armpit sweat smelled foreign to me now and zits had colonized her chin, I still considered her my best friend. We hadn’t spent much time together since Mom had left for Florida. Cassie’s bedroom had become off limits. No boys allowed. So I felt honored by her invitation to watch a private performance.
She propped the burnt log on her lap. Her oily forehead featured a few ashy fingerprint swirls. Her smudged yellow T-shirt called to mind a demented crossbreed of Charlie Brown and Pigpen. “Okay,” she said. “Here goes.” She took a deep breath and shouted, “It’s a nice day today, isn’t it, Marilyn?” She bounced her left knee once, hard, and ashes fell to the rug.
“Mmm-hmm!” Marilyn said.
Cassie looked down at Marilyn as though she were a newborn baby.
“Do you like going to school, Marilyn?”
“Mmm-hmm!” Marilyn said.
“That’s good.” Cassie laughed. “School is important. But it’s also really tough for a lot of people. Will you be ready for seventh grade, you think?”
Marilyn thought about it for a moment, considered the possibilities before answering definitively: “Mmm-hmm!”
My sister stared at me with raised eyebrows. “So? What do you think?” A loose strand of blond hair fell over her eyes. She pushed her lower lip out and blew the curl back.
“Wow,” I said.
“Right? I’m getting good at it. Mrs. Palermo says I have a ‘unique talent.’
Remember when I told you about Mister Charleston and Woody coming for assembly? They were really great and everybody loved it when Mr. Charleston drank that orange juice and Woody sang ‘Feelings.’ Whoa oh oh feelings.” She searched my eyes for an answer and motioned to her oppressor downstairs. “And if I love it,” she said, “shouldn’t that be what matters? I want to get really good before Mom comes back, so she can see what I can do.”
On an intuitive level I understood my sister’s sorrow. On the other hand, I found ventriloquism weird and scary. And though I agreed, in principle, with my father’s assessment of the craft, I tried to remain neutral to protect everyone’s feelings. Even at nine, I recognized the necessity of self-preservation.
“Why won’t he ever support me?” she asked. “Why does he do that?”
I shrugged. “Because all grownups are dicks and I hate them?”
Cassie smiled at me. I smiled back. Then we both broke out snorting and cracking up. At that moment, we were as close as we had been since Mom left for Florida.
It didn’t last.
“Well, if Mom’s not back soon,” Cassie said, “I’m going to Florida to live with her. She’ll let me do what I want.”
My sister had once been popular and funny, a straight-A student who had always been a favorite of her teachers. Her high standing had given me, her little brother, an extra boost. Left to my own devices, I was a brooding, bookish daydreamer trying to read Waiting For Godot and The Bald Soprano in my room while other boys shot pellet guns by the railroad tracks. Sometimes I tried to read my mom’s existential philosophy books, too, and as a consequence of this unsupervised research, I began to suspect that God, like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, was just another big fat lie, a threat perpetuated by adults who wanted to keep children docile. I waited for the day when Dad would sit me down and explain that heaven and the devil and happiness and sex also didn’t exist. It occurred to me that grownups had no idea what they were doing, especially when it came to raising children, and I studied their alien behavior with cold objectivity, hoping that by understanding the nature of hypocrisy, I might not go through life terrified of absolutely everything.
As far as I could tell my sister was a lost cause. A training bra dangled over the back of her desk chair. She couldn’t pass a mirror without poking her hair, checking her teeth, inspecting her profile. Her once-smooth face was now shiny with grime and pustules. Something secret and horrible was going on in her bedroom at night, something that didn’t include me.
I wanted Cassandra to go back to normal, to give up ventriloquism and become my best friend again, but she was as stubborn as everybody else in the family. Nobody could tell her what to do. She needed to believe she’d made the choice on her own. My job, as I saw it, was simply to plant the seed and skedaddle.
“You know,” I said, rising to my feet, “it’s okay that you’re embarrassing our family with all this crazy stuff. Because Mom isn’t ever coming back. She couldn’t wait to ditch us.” I motioned with my chin to the burnt log in my sister’s arms. “Probably for reasons like this. We’re freaks.”
I left her bedroom with hardly a backward glance. I trotted down the carpeted stairs, kicked open the back door, and hopped down the slushy cement steps. Snow crunched underneath my sneakers in the driveway.
My father followed me outside. “What did you find out, champ?” he called out. “Let’s compare notes.”
I sprinted down the driveway and dove behind a snow bank, knowing that I had broken away from her, too, my last link to the idea of a family.
“Wayne!” My father stood on the steps and hugged himself for warmth. “Come here, son. I want to ask you some questions.”
Ignoring his call, I lay flat on the sidewalk behind the snowbank, holding my breath, swallowing my words, until my father cursed at the sky and returned inside.
From that night until just now, I have been on my own.