First there was Suarez, and he was a fine friend, and a great performer. He wore a little green beret and a pencil thin moustache. The children all loved him. He spoke with a heavy Columbian accent that welled up from some place deep inside the old man and his voice was rich and wonderful. But Suarez was also a lecherous drunk who drove the old puppet-master to drink himself, and there would be times when he’d slip something wholly inappropriate and utterly profane into the act that would get him fired or sometimes beaten for the things that he said. With Suarez on his knee, the old man found that he could not control his mouth. For insulting the Countess Isabella Margarite De Louisa he was forced to destroy him in a public burning.
Then there was Barbary Bill, who the old man carved from the prow of grounded Barkentine that was left to rot and die in the Andalusian Slough. Bill was a pirate of the finest sort, a fallen nobleman who’d taken to the sea in desperation and disgrace. He had a peg-leg and a hook-hand and he’d lost an eye in Jamaica to none other Black Nancy Tate in a duel fought over the White Star of Corsica, a dazzling opal the size of a man’s fist. The children loved Bill’s stories and they loved when he’d sing. He knew all the old chanteys and the sailing songs from the era of wooden ships and he could dance a fine jig on the end of his strings. The old man sold him for twenty dollars on a bender in New Orleans and spent the money on a fat Spanish whore.
He won Old Sambo in a game of dice not three weeks later in Corpus Christi from a man much older than he who was a plantation slave in the days before the Civil War. Sambo was carved from solid Cameroon ebony, and the old slave claimed he was enchanted with the spirits the wretched dead. He was heavy and hard to handle, and the old man swore he had a mind of his own. He could dance up a storm and tell long, intricate jokes but he had a special talent for heart-breaking Negro spirituals that could bring a roomful of drunken hecklers to tears. Sambo’s voice was nothing shy of pure beauty and the old man was astounded by his capacity to summon it and maintain its silky tone. When he sang Old Man River it was like the ghost of Robeson himself had risen from the grave. He was that good. The old man made a fortune. But like all unexpected and undeserved fortunes it wasn’t meant to last. Sambo was stolen from his little wooden chest while the old man was sleeping off a drunk on a riverboat gig somewhere north of Biloxi. They strung him up and lynched him and set the old puppet’s clothes ablaze. The sight of that tiny wooden corpse swinging in the breeze was a horror to behold. It would be many years before the old man would again perform.
And then came Magnifico. The old man spotted him in a San Francisco junk shop, propped up on a spotted elephant with a sign around his neck that read simply, Sale. At once he saw straight through to the heart of the battered clown. He read within his eyes a vast and tragic biography that could rightly be his own. He bought the clown with his last twelve dollars and they spent their first night together in a wooden shipping crate hidden within the weeds of the China Basin rail-yard. And that’s where he learned his story. Magnifico was a juggler and an acrobat by necessity, but a grand illusionist by training. He could walk a wire and dance on a colored ball. He was the king of the Pratt-fall and a master of slapstick stunts. He was Charlie Chaplin carved out of wood. But he was so much more. He was Italian-made, as the great wooden puppets always are, he told the old man he was carved in Venice in 1876 as a magician, not as a clown, having had the great magical capacity bestowed upon him by Medoricci himself. They were adored in Europe. And they toured the Far East as the favorites of emperors and kings. He was, for a moment, a true star. But it didn’t last. For it is the hand of fate who works our strings and we have no choice in the end but to bow and dance to its mysterious whims. Medoricci drowned in a bathtub and Magnifico’s rightful vocation abruptly changed. He fell into the hands of a circus geek in need of a new gimmick. He spent the next thirty years playing the fool. Waiting through the indignity of it all. Sideshow after sideshow. 10,000 nights on a train. Each of those rackety nights packed in sawdust and wracked with shame and wondering, would he ever perform his magic again?
That first night in the packing crate he showed the old man wonders of prestidigitation and feats of sleight-of-hand that were astounding. He could levitate like an angel. He produced ripe, delicious fruit from thin air on demand. He pulled strange objects from his mouth including a clutch of fresh daises and a loaded derringer, and from his trouser pockets he produced endless numbers of wriggling white mice. There was no end to his wonders and on that first night he truly earned his name.
Together they worked the San Francisco vaudeville and for the first time in his long and tortured life, the old man earned both fortune and fame. They loved Magnifico. The old man earned enough to buy a tiny house in Noe Valley, and they were happy, the two of them. Every night before dusk, if the fog held back, they’d walk the streets together for the views and sometimes they sit nestled in the rocks above Corona Heights to look out over the hills.
On one such night the old man shut his eyes and drifted off into an endless sleep and into a wonderful dream where he saw Suarez again and Old Sambo. He shook the hand of Barbary Bill. And the others were there, the lesser puppets who lacked the magic – Lewd Lucy, the Fish Captain and Kentucky Pete. He went back to the land of wooden people, he saw all his old toys and heroes. All his old friends. But there was no Magnifico. He had left him behind on that golden hill.
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