His Master's Voice
Shelley flung open the door of the tiny dressing room he shared with the mind reader and slammed it behind him violently. He threw Woody on top of the small steamer trunk, sat down at the make-up table and put his head in his hands. In the bottom drawer on the left hand side was a bottle of bourbon. He was about to pull it out, but instead he turned to look at Woody's reflection in the mirror.
"You little bastard!" He muttered, "You little Irish son-of-a-bitch!" The dummy lay in an awkward heap on the trunk, and his normally bright and brassy smile seemed to mock Shelley. Without moving his lips Woody repeated the words aloud.
Woody McArthur, the leprechaun, bright green jacket, tan knickers, and green felt cap with tan hat band. Smoke still trickled through his parted lips from the dry ice implant in his throat and the clay pipe was still held high in his hand. Shelley was dressed as a Jewish pawnbroker in a black silk jacket and yarmulke. The act was dry as dust .... an Irishman wanting to buy the harp hanging in the pawnbroker's window.
"You just wait y'goddamn dummy! Sammy's gonna be in here any minute .... you're gonna get us put out in the street again." A decent gig at last in a great night spot on the North Shore, and what happens? Woody again! He blamed everything on Woody. Woody had a mind of his own and a voice to go along with it. It wasn't even Shelley's voice and what the dummy had to say tonight was going to get them both thrown out in the street again.
Shelley had to pass the blame along. He knew he would get the blame when Woody sat on his knee and in that hoarse Irish whiskey tenor of his that carried all the way to the back of the room announced that the bartender was HIV Positive. Some things just ain't funny, right?
Without knocking Sammy Kahn burst in trailing cigar smoke in his wake. He stopped abruptly in front of Shelley Lewis, and as he did, the smoke caught up and slowly wrapped itself around him.
"You outta your friggin mind or what?"
Shelley slowly rocked back and forth in pain. "I know, I know Sammy. But it ain't my fault, I swear it ain't my fault."
"Are you the ventriloquist or what? Twice this week already. Once I forgive -- twice your out. In your case I got to give another shot. Don't ask me why -- go ahead ask me why."
"You're my brother-in-law?"
"I oughta have my head examined, that's why!"
"He does it himself, Sammy, I'd never say a thing like that."
Sammy Kahn walked across the room and lifted the dummy from the top of the dressing trunk. He held Woody in front of him by the shoulders and stared at the absurdly grinning face. He turned to Shelley and said, "Maybe y'gonna tell me it's got a thing against Jewish ventriloquists."
"I been livin' with him a long time, Sammy. Him and me's done a lotta places -- I think he's got somethin' alive inside of him."
"Y'know Shelley, maybe you ain't happy in the entertainment business no more. You been in it, what, twenty five years? You can count on the fingers of one hand the guys who lasted half that long. Y'ain't no Peggy Lee you know. Maybe it's time you get out. Got any money saved up?"
"Three wives, Sammy -- how can I have money? And besides, it's all I know Sammy. I got this routine down with Woody so good I can do it in my sleep. It's paid us off ain't it?"
"Til now, Shelley, 'til now. But when I get ten percent of nothing I get ten percent of nothing, and you get ninety percent of the rest. The owner wants you out, plain and simple. The first night you introduced the president of Altec sitting in the corner, didn't you?"
"He did it! That little bastard Woody -- he did it!"
"The guy was sittin' there with this blonde broad wasn't he? -- Answer me, dammit -- wasn't he?"
Shelley turned back to the mirror. Through it he could see Sammy standing behind him holding Woody like a rag doll.
"You know the rules Shelley. Y'never, never do that without askin'. Nine times outta ten a guys' in there with a broad who ain't his wife. He disappeared like a shot .... threatened to sue us for character assassination. He can prove he wasn't there y'know, and you can't prove he was." Sammy threw the dummy down and backed away. "The second night you pulled this Hitler s**t -- all the good things he did!! What, are you crazy?! Half the crowd walked out, the rest of them booed you off the stage."
Sammy looked at Shelley, sighed and shook his head. "I gotta wife, Shelley .... a kid in Columbia and another one graduating from high school next year. Y'lucky my wife's your sister, otherwise I'd write you off. She won't let me do that, y'know?" He fished an envelope out of his pocket. "Look, there's a club up in Binghamton -- the "Paradise Hotel." On the first floor there's a cafe, the Cotillion Room. Y'gotta do your act on a dance floor between band sets." He handed Shelley a letter. "Get up there's best as you can -- I ain't stakin' you. The guy y'gotta see is Charoni. Y'got a week's pay comin' from this gig," He picked up Woody again, looked at him closely then tossed him to Shelley, "Here," He said, "This loser leprechaun is yours. Woody McArthur .... Jesus!" Sammy clipped the end off a fresh cigar, dropped the clipping on the floor and walked out.
Shelley sat Woody on his lap and ran his hand up inside the back of his coat. "So what's it gonna be, ya little Irish bastard? Binghamton .... or shall I pitch you in the dumpster outside?"
"You don't wanna do that," Woody shot back. "I'm worth eight hundred bucks, I gotta 360 degree revolving head, I got double winkers and wigglin' ears. Then you went and blew 400 bucks more on this dry ice gimmick. On toppa that I got a soul. You ain't throwin' my soul in the dumpster. You don't like Binghamton? What'sa matter with Binghamton?"
"It's downhill -- end of the linesville."
Woody looked at Shelley sideways. "Don't matter to me none -- I got no pride. I gotta soul, but I ain't got no pride. I don't get hungry, don't get tired neither. Gotta admit though, I sure get a kick outta screwin' you."
Shelley pulled himself together, stuffed Woody in the little steamer trunk and put his own costume in his old leather valise then looked at his reflection in the mirror. He shook his head at his own tired figure in the old black coat and slouch fedora. "Christ, will you look at Shelley Lewis .... you couldn't tell him from Willy Loman." A muffled voice came from the steamer trunk, "Suck it up, Shelley, let's get the money and go."
He opened the door to a burst of applause and the mind reader walked in flushed with victory.
"What an audience! Four curtain calls, Lewis. I think I'll stay here forever. How did you do?"
"Go pound salt!" Shelley pushed him aside and went to find the owner.
Shelley knew he could save a hotel bill if he took the Delaware Lackawanna train from Hoboken. From long experience he had learned to take night trains. The food is bad, the roomettes are like rolling prison cells, but you step out of the train at the crack of dawn with a smile, a shoe shine and a leg up on the competition.
He arrived in Hoboken at 6:45. He decided on a one way ticket to Binghamton. It was a week's gig, but who knows. "Shelley and Woody" had been held over before, even though Shelley couldn't remember exactly when. The train didn't leave for an hour, but that's the beauty of taking the train from Hoboken. Hoboken is the end of the line. The train is sitting there waiting for the handful of lost souls who have nowhere to go. Men with nothing in common except the job of getting out of town.
He found his roomette and dropped off his bag and the trunk that held Woody, then he turned to leave for the dining car. Before closing the door he looked at the trunk.
"I'm gonna go eat now, anything I can getcha'?"
"Course not! S'matter with you anyways! .... tell'ya what though, take me outta the trunk and sit me by the window. I like to watch the people comin' and goin'."
Shelley sat by himself in the dining car. Two other cheerless people, losers, like himself sat at other tables reading the evening paper. Salesmen most likely .... headed for Syracuse or Buffalo. "Christ!" he thought, "We're three of a kind -- all of us goin' nowhere."
Things hadn't been going well for Shelley since his last wife left him. His attachment to Woody became unnaturally close. There were times when he was convinced that this little wooden monster was the ventriloquist and he was the dummy. At other times Woody was a physical extension of himself that he could talk to man to man. Once or twice he had caught himself speaking in his own voice and moving his lips while Woody sat staring at him without moving his. At first it seemed there was nothing wrong with that .... nothing wrong at all. That's the way it's supposed to be. But then, on second thought, suppose Woody held the strings and was doing the talking for both of them. What then?
He needed a cigar after dinner. In the old days he always had a cigar after dinner. In the Playboy Club, the Century Club, somebody would always give him a cigar after dinner .... stand him to a brandy too. Even when he ate home, he'd have a cigar after dinner. But here, in the dining car you couldn't smoke. Signs everywhere -- "NO SMOKING." No smoking in the roomettes either. Imagine somebody telling Shelley Lewis, "No smoking," back in the old days.
$17.50. Hell of a price to pay for a lousy dinner like that. 15 percent? From a lifetime of tipping Shelley could do percentages in his head. Whores, waiters, agents and lawyers .... everybody wanted their 15 percent. "Well this guy in the white coat isn't gettin' more than $2.65, and that's givin' him the benefit of the doubt."
The train gave an initial jerk and began to crawl its way out of the Hoboken station. The two other men still sat there reading, reluctant to leave. Shelley had better things to do -- after all Woody was waiting for him. He had it all planned out. He would get undressed, wash up and go to the john. All this would be done with Woody's face turned to the wall. They would talk, but Shelley would not let Woody see him naked. He felt strangely vulnerable with Woody's eyes on him, measuring him. He'd let the bed down out of the
wall and they'd lie side by side and talk long into the night on the way to Binghamton and the "Paradise Hotel."
Shelley reached across Woody and released the dark green shade. It went up half-way and stopped at a crazy angle. Through the dirty window he squinted at the sooty downtown slum of Binghamton, New York,
"This is it, Woody. Take a look."
"I already seen it. We been here since 4 a.m."
Shelley looked at his watch, "6:30, I'm gettin' up. This damn compartment is givin' me the willies."
"Wadd'ya gonna do with me?
"Put you in the trunk .... wadd'ya think? I'm not gonna carry you around Binghamton on my arm."
Shelley spent a long time shaving then took his last clean shirt out of his garment bag. He considered it, then put it back and put on the one he wore yesterday.
"What suit'cha gonna wear?"
"The brown one, it'll hide the dirty shirt."
"Big mistake, Shelley. The dark blue suit and the clean shirt. Find a laundry and get'cha shirts cleaned. Brown suits are for losers."
Without argument, Shelley took Woody's advice and put on the clean shirt, a quiet tie and the dark blue suit. Woody had impeccable taste in clothing. When not dressed in his idiotic leprechaun outfit, he was always attired in elegant taste. Even now as he lounged in the double bed in his quietly striped silk pajamas, he was a perfect model of an English country gentleman waiting for his breakfast to brought up to him from below stairs.
"Another thing, Shelley."
"This act of ours .... bummer!"
"Wadd'ya mean, what'sa matter with it?"
"It just ain't funny no more. The old Jew and the Irishman jokes. Jesus! You make it even worse with your Shylock routine, and what about me, huh? A friggin leprechaun wantin' t'buy a harp in the pawnshop window. C'mon Shelley .... when y'gonna catch up?"
Shelley bristled as he always did when confronted with the truth. Normally he had a hundred excuses, each of them blaming his poor performance as a man, as a husband and even as an entertainer, on someone else. But it never worked with Woody. Woody knew him better than he knew himself.
"Got any ideas?"
"You bet. Remember the skit we worked on while you wuz in the hospital for the hernia? You're the dummy and I'm the ventriloquist .... ? We had it all worked out, you even got me a tuxedo .... I look goddamn good in a tuxedo, Shelley."
Shelley opened the steamer trunk to get Woody's clothes. "Think we could pull that off? We ain't tried it out on the stage before.
"What'ya mean stage, this is a dance floor! There'll be maybe fifteen, twenty people there and half of them won't be listenin' to ya. Great time to try it out."
Shelley pulled out the little tuxedo. "The suit's still here .... well let's get the pajamas off and see .... yeah, you're a cute little s**t all right. Well, get in the trunk; we have to look for the "Paradise Hotel."
"Get a cab y'cheapskate, don't go wanderin' around this dumpy town like y'just fell offa box car."
The taxi driver was asleep in his cab with the motor running. His head lay back on the head rest and his mouth hung open like that of a dead carp. Thinking he might be dead, Shelley hesitated before knocking on the window but there were no other cabs at the station.
"Hello in there," he knuckled the window gently. "Hello! can you take me to the Paradise Hotel?"
The driver closed his mouth and wiped his chin. He saw Shelley's face in the window, stretched and unlocked the doors with the master switch.
"I got bags -- they have to go in the trunk." The driver pulled a lever at the bottom of the door and the trunk door popped open.
"Help y'self chief. Ain't much room in there."
Shelley was able to squeeze his bag in the trunk which already contained two full sized spare tires, chains, pumps, a spare battery and a golf bag. He wrestled the steamer trunk into the back of the car with him.
"Where'd y'say y'wanna go, chief?"
Breathing heavily, Shelley replied, "Paradise Hotel."
"You got it!" The driver pulled out of the dingy station, turned the corner and pulled up in front of a dark and shabby bistro.
"This it? Jesus, it's just around the corner. Whyn't'cha tell me -- I coulda walked?"
"2.75 chief, how'd I know you could walk?" As a token of his concern he added, "Don't forget'cha bag in the trunk."
Shelley stood on the littered sidewalk and read the blacked out neon sign. "The Cotillion Room." Above it, on the second and third floors was the hotel. A blinking red sign, (with the "e" unlit) read "Paradis." A door, just to the left of The Cotillion Room was outlined with green neon, and on the jamb next to the knob, a hand lettered sign read "push button for service."
He was glad Woody couldn't see this, he was used to going first class. It didn't take a lot of imagination to tell what class this hotel was, a two story flop house over a night club could only mean one thing. He pushed the button .... nothing. On the third push the door buzzed and almost too late Shelley pushed it open and put his bags inside.
A flight of thirteen linoleum covered steps faced him. A dim wall light hung about half way up. It appeared as though the fixture had at one time held a gas flame. The stairs were too narrow for Shelley to carry the bags at his side, he had to go up sideways like a mountain climber, one step at a time.
He turned at the top of the stairs and tried to get his breath. It was broad daylight outside,but in here it might well have been the dead of night. The top half of a door opened to his right and a bald headed man in an undershirt poked his head out.
"Mornin' .... wadd'ya want?"
"I'm looking for a Mr. Charoni." Shelley looked up and down the dark hall. From one of the rooms he could hear a man and a woman arguing. One of the doors opened and a man in his underwear walked out and down the hall in the direction of the bathroom, scratching his backside on the way.
"I'm Charoni .... Buddy Charoni. Who're you?"
"I'm Shelley Lewis, the ventriloquist. My agent sent me up .... I'm a fill-in for the band. Do you put shows on in here?"
"Oh yeah, he called .... Kahn, I think. Jewish fella. You Jewish?"
"Oh, nuthin' .... Charoni lit the stub of his cigar with a wooden match. "Don't see many of em' down here, is all. What'cha ask me?"
Shelley had to think back a bit. "Oh, yeah, I asked if you put on shows here."
"Downstairs in the Cotillion Room. It's part of the hotel. I own it. It's open from 8 to 3:30 -- band plays all night long .... get ten minutes off every hour. You got the ten minutes. You gonna stay here in the hotel? I'll give you a good rate, say fifteen bucks for a room on the third floor, it's quieter up there. Not so much comin' and goin' .... know what I mean?"
Charoni opened the lower half of the door and came out in the hall. "Put'cha bags up there and come back down and we can talk over your act." He fished in his pants pocket and came out with a key. "Here it's 304."
Shelley put the key in his pocket and picked up the bags again. The stairs to the third floor were just as steep and narrow as the ones below. Again, Shelley had to climb them sideways. Worn rubber stair pads stopped at the third step, and the rest of the climb was bare wood. He was exhausted when he reached the top and sat on the top step with his bags behind him. He looked down the narrow hallway. A light was burning in the communal bathroom and gave just enough illumination for him to read the numbers on the doors. He pulled the key from his pocket and found No. 304. From the look of the key it could have opened every door in the hallway. He opened the door and went back to get his bags.
The room smelled as though it hadn't been opened in years. A queer mixture of dust and mouse s**t. This was apparently the room in which the "e"-less sign hung in the window. A dark green curtain was pulled down over it. Shelley opened the shade to let the morning light in -- there wasn't much. The window let in the north light and offered a pigeon's eye view of the railroad station. He could see the Pullman car he and Woody had slept in. It would sit there all day and be picked up by the returning train from Buffalo.
He opened the steamer trunk and lifted Woody out. Before depositing Woody on the bed, he checked it for vermin.
"There y'go little fella .... wadd'ya think of it?"
"I think y'hit bottom, Shelley. We s'pposed to stay here?"
A maple chest of drawers stood beside the bed. It was covered with dust. The drawers inside were lined with yellowed newspapers. The top was burned and the wall above it showed a sooty stain half-way up the ceiling. Looking at the electric outlet next to it, Shelley could see that some electrical appliance had shorted out, for the wall was blackened there as well. He could visualize some previous roomer cooking a can of Dinty Moore, having it boil over onto the hot plate and start a fire.
A single lamp with a paper shade hung from the ceiling in the center of the room -- there was no light bulb in the lamp.
"You been in the business .... what is it now, Shelley, thirty years?"
"Whatever. You're probably worse off now than when you started -- y'know that?"
Shelley got up and opened his bag. He unfolded his brown suit and went to the closet to hang it up. There were three wire hangers and an empty can of Budweiser on the top shelf. He hung up the suit and went back to his bag. He took out his shaving kit and his straight razor.
"I'm gonna go down the hall and shave."
"Wadd'a ya shavin' again for? You don't have'ta shave, y'just shaved on the train. Fifteen minutes ago -- y'just shaved."
Shelley looked closely at Woody. How much like a wife he was. He could remember Blanche asking him questions like that. Questions he couldn't answer. She was forever asking him, "Where y'goin' now?" "Stay here, you got work to do." "When are y'gonna fix the washer in the kitchen sink?"
"I like to be clean shaven. I don't like to feel stubble on my neck. Sometimes I shave three, four times a day."
He picked up the nubbly little face towel that hung over the foot rail of the bed and walked out.
"Wait a minute, Shelley! You bastard, I know what'cha up to .... come back here. What about me .... y'always thinkin' about yourself!! Goddamn it Shelley, you come back here now, y'hear me?!!!.
He walked into the bathroom and closed the door firmly and got out the razor -- he could no longer hear him.
©Harry Buschman 1998