Thursday, August 13, 2020

“The Secret Language of Dummies”

Waldo McGee was on his good behavior. He had a good steady job now at the Prince Hal Room in the Hotel St Crispian, and he didn’t want to blow it. After his last set he would pack up his dummy Mickey Pumpernickel in his suitcase, have his one free staff drink at the bar, one and done, and then catch a cab to Bob’s Bowery Bar for a nightcap. One bock beer, maybe two, and then back to his room just up the corner at the Parker Hotel.

But on this August night, as on most nights, Waldo woke up after only an hour or two of sleep. He lay there in bed, Mickey next to him, Waldo stared at the dark ceiling, he heard the elevated train roar by, and he knew there was nothing to be done but to go down the block to Ma’s Diner on Bleecker for a glass of milk and some pie.

Waldo got dressed, and with Mickey under his arm he went downstairs, past Zeke the night clerk asleep at his desk, and out to the street.

It was just five a.m., the sun had not come up, just a faint glimmering above the rooftops and the chimney pots of the Bowery.

The diner was empty except for Ma, sitting at the counter reading a movie magazine. She had just baked a fragrant batch of pies for the morning. Waldo asked for a slice of sweet potato pie, with fresh whipped cream and a glass of milk, and, picking up yesterday’s Federal Democrat from next to the cash register, he took a seat in the corner booth.

The news was bad, as it usually was, but Waldo knew he should try to keep up, because you never knew when you might read something you could turn into a bit for the act. Three sets a night, six nights a week, you had to try to keep the routine fresh for the regular punters. But the thing about the news was, it was all in the headlines, and there wasn’t much point in reading the whole articles. Waldo turned to the funnies, and he was reading Mutt and Jeff when somebody tapped on the window.

Could it be? Yes. It was. Mo Mosco. And looking a hell of a lot worse for the wear, but then Waldo doubted that he had looked much better himself a couple of weeks ago. Jeeze, when had he last seen Mo? Before the war?

Mickey gave Mo a “come on in” wave, and next thing you knew Mo was sitting across the table. He had a beat-up old suitcase, and he set it down on the seat next to him.

“Nice little joint here, Waldo. Real nice. Whatcha got there, pie? And I see you still got Mickey Pumpernickel.”

Mickey was sitting to the left of Waldo, on the window side.

“Long time no see, Mo,” said Mickey.

“Got an old friend of yours with me, Mickey,” said Mo, and he opened up the suitcase and took out his own dummy, Mr. Fleeber, and sat him up next to him across from Mickey.

“Whatta ya know and a hidey ho!” said Mr. Fleeber, his usual catchphrase. That hadn’t changed in twenty years.

Ma came over and stared at the two men and the two dummies.

“Now I seen it all,” she said.

“Hey, beautiful,” said Mr. Fleeber, Mo’s lips just barely twitching, “how’s about a nice hot cup of joe?”

“Sure, little fella. Anything else?”

“Nah, just a nice cup of joe, thank you very much. Hot, sweet and creamy, just like you, doll.”

“Get my friend a slice of pie, Ma,” said Waldo. “You like sweet potato pie, Mo?”

“Yeah, sure, but I ain’t really hungry, Waldo –”

Mo looked like he hadn’t eaten in a day or two or three. His skin was the color of an old gunny sack, and he had two or three days’ growth of salt-and-pepper beard.

“Make it another slice of sweet potato pie for my friend, Ma,” said Waldo, “with whipped cream, and get him a nice glass of milk, too, on my tab, including the cup of joe.”

“Gee, Waldo,” said Mo.

The two ventriloquists sat and talked about the old times, the last days of vaudeville on the old Pantages circuit, the hundreds of road houses and gin joints from the Catskills to the Ozarks, from Frisco to Key West. They each had another slice of pie and another glass of milk, and then they both began to doze.

“These guys,” said Mr. Fleeber.

“I know,” said Mickey.

“Living in the past.”

“You can’t do that,” said Mickey.

“No,” said Mr. Fleeber. “Once you do that you’re dead. You might still be walking around, but you’re dead. Dead inside.”

“You get Mosco cleaned up, you’ll get a gig,” said Mickey.

“Maybe,” said Mr. Fleeber.

“You got to try, Fleeber. You can’t give up.”

“I know that, Mickey. God knows I know that. But this guy.”

He jerked his little thumb at Mo, sitting there slumped with his stubbled chin on his chest.

“You think this jerk is much better?” said Mickey, pointing a finger at the sleeping Waldo. “But I pushed him, and I kept pushing him, and now we’re working, and if it’s up to me we’re gonna keep working.”

“That’s what I’m gonna do,” said Mr. Fleeber. “I’m gonna push Mosco. But, say, you know I hate to ask, but you think Waldo might front Mo a fin, maybe a sawbuck, just so’s we can get a flop, get a bath and a shave, maybe get the suit cleaned and pressed.”

“I don’t know about a sawbuck, but I’ll bet McGee’s good for a fin,” said Mickey.

“Gee, that would be great,” said Mr. Fleeber. “A flop, a bath and a shave, that’s all Mo needs. You watch, he’ll make the rounds and have a job tonight.”

Sitting at the counter, Ma looked over at the two ventriloquists. They looked like they both had fallen asleep, but they weren’t hurting nobody, so she would let them sleep for a while. It was almost six, and the breakfast trade would be coming in soon, so she got up to start making the pancake batter.

{Please go here to read the “adult comix” version in A Flophouse Is Not a Home, illustrated by the one-and-only Rhoda Penmarq…}

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