Knock On Wood
by Frank Thomas Smith
After my old man died I became an orphan. My Fairy Godmother and that cricket weren�t around anymore to jump in when things got tough. I guess they figured that once I was a real boy their job was done and they could relax, for which I don't blame them.
When the American troops took Palermo there wasn't much else to do but steal bicycles. You'd think I'd have learned by then not to get mixed up with that kind of stuff. I learned all right, but real boys gotta eat. You remember the sly Fox and that miserable Cat who repeated everything he said? They were in pretty bad shape back when I became a real boy, but they bounced back right into the black market, which was like their natural habitat. They got me into the bicycle stealing business, which I'd probably still be doing if an American soldier hadn't adopted me. He was a nice guy, soft heart and all, kinda dumb. One day he left his flashy American bike on the street in front of a bar, chain-locked of course -- but what were chains to me? I had it cut through in no time and was on my way when an MP who didn�t have anything better to do stepped out of the whorehouse next door and I crashed into him. He grabbed me by the neck and asked me where I got the bike, which he figured I stole from an American because no Italian kid had a bike like that, and I said my friend loaned it to me. I said it in Italian, which he didn�t understand, so he whistled for an Italian cop who asked me the same thing in Italian and I gave the same answer. �What friend?� he asked. I pointed to the bar and they dragged me in, bike and all, and demanded that I point out my friend. I was thinking about the odds being all against me. Even if I made a lucky guess and pointed to the bike owner among the twenty or so soldiers in the bar, what�s he going to say? Just then a guy turned around and saw us.
�Hey, waddya doin with my bike?� he yelled.
�I caught this kid tryin to steal it,� the MP said. He didn�t know any Italian, so he hadn�t caught the friend alibi.
�He says you�re his friend,� the cop said in Italian, which the guy understood a little, �and you loaned it to him. These kids are all liars.�
The soldier looked down at me crying with my head down and wiping my dirty face with my sleeve, and he said, �Yeah, I�m his friend.� I looked up at him, thinking that maybe my Fairy Godmother was still around after all.
The cop mumbled something unprintable in Italian, let go of my collar and stormed out. The MP shrugged and followed him.
�Why�d you steal my bike?� the soldier asked me. I bawled some more, which was easy because I learned to do it when I was still a puppet while trying to think of something.
�I�m hungry,� I finally said, �and if I had a bike I could find work delivering things and have some money for food.� Or something like that. I didn�t mention that I stole about ten bikes a day, mostly beat up junk, for which the Fox and the Cat gave me cigarettes and food and even money sometimes. The soldier shook his head sadly and led me over to the bar and ordered a coke and a hamburger for me. I gobbled it down as though I hadn�t eaten in a month, although I�d just had breakfast and wasn�t very hungry. He asked me where I lived and I said on the street, which was half true because I had no permanent home, although at the moment I was shacked up with a little whore from Naples who had a pretty nice pad, considering circumstances. Trouble was I had to disappear whenever she had customers. Well, to make a long story short so I can get to the point, that soldier put me up with an army family until he was ready to go back to the States and he decided to adopt me and take me with him. He was a do-gooder, in the positive sense. He said he couldn�t help all the poor kids in Sicily, but he could at least help one -- me.
We went to live in his hometown, a jerkwater in Nebraska, where he married his childhood sweetheart, a schoolteacher, and settled down in his father's insurance business. I lived in a nice house, had plenty to eat, good clothes and even my own new bike. I had it made, it would seem. A big problem was that the town was 99% fucking Wasps.
My troubles started in school. The first day of class the teacher asked me my name. I knew English pretty good, by the way. Any thief in Naples worth his salt has to know English. I stood up and answered: �Pinocchio.� There was silence in the classroom for a few moments, until some wise-ass said, �Pinocchio! Yeah it must be. Look at his nose!� My nose is somewhat larger than the average Wasp�s, but in Italy a big nose is nothing to be ashamed of. Someone started to laugh and before I knew it the whole class was in hysterics. Some kids were even rolling on the floor holding their stomachs. At first the teacher tried to restore order, but then the bug got to her too, and she couldn�t help laughing with the rest of them. I was mortified. When the teacher got control of herself she apologized over the remaining giggles from the kids and asked me my last name.
�Baccigaluppo,� which was Gepetto�s name.
�Pinocchio Baccigalupo!� a girl screamed.
�No!� I shouted. �It�s Poppins,� which was my new father�s name.
�Pinocchio Poppins!� the bitch screamed and it started again. Soon the whole class was rolling around on the floor and I thought the teacher was going to flop down any minute, she was laughing so hard.
You can see why I didn�t like school much. My name was the first obstacle, then I didn�t play baseball, basketball or football, which is about all those kids did or talked about. One thing I could do better than them was fight though, and I kicked the shit out of two of the biggest ones the day after they all laughed at me. They left me alone after that, too much alone, I guess. There was one girl who liked me and she told me I should change my name. I agreed, but not there in Nebraska and give them the satisfaction of knowing I was ashamed of my own name.
I graduated from high school and my father wanted me to go to college, the University of Nebraska. I said no, I was going to New York to be an actor. Back in Italy when I was in that puppet show I got the bug and I had talent. The puppet-master was a sadist who wanted to burn me for firewood, but I never forgot the acting experience. My American father, who I suspect was glad to get rid of me, gave me some money, a new watch and a handshake and I was on my way.
If I had gone to acting school, as I had intended, my money would have lasted about three months, so I tried to get work in theaters on my own. If you ever tried that you know it�s hopeless. I hadn�t been so depressed since I turned into a donkey. But at least I was working then. I was wandering around in a funk down on the Lower East Side where I had my pad when I saw the poster: Caf� Theater. I must have passed it a dozen times and never noticed it. After all, who would expect to see a theater in that neighborhood? It was as off Off-Broadway as you could get without falling into the East River. The poster announced that they were doing The Glass Menagerie. I�d pawned the watch my Dad gave me as a going away present, but I figured it must be about eight o�clock. I was in no condition to pay the price of a ticket and I was standing there thinking about how I could sneak in, when a guy came storming out mumbling something about never having seen anything so disgusting in his life. He tossed his ticket stub over his shoulder and I ran to pick it up before it blew away. I�d say I went out to take a leak if anyone checked me.
The theater was in an old warehouse and you had to follow arrows pasted on the walls to find it up on the second floor. There were only about thirty seats crammed into a small space and it was full. There was a beat up bar near the entrance, which was the "caf�" part. I saw right away what had upset the guy who left. A black woman was playing Amanda, the aging white Southern mother, while the rest of the cast was white. I looked around and saw that the audience was very attentive. The play was very well done and you forgot after about five minutes that the actress wasn�t white, which says a lot for her talent. The program I found on my seat announced that the audience was invited to wait at the bar to meet the actors, so I decided to wait. Most everyone else left though and when the actors came out there were only five of us left from the audience. The other four were at the bar, but I stayed in my seat because I didn�t want to buy anything. According to the program the actress�s name was Judy and she was also the Managing Director. She became famous later so I won�t mention her last name because you�d recognize it.
Without make-up she was twenty years younger and beautiful. She came out smiling, but not for long. One of the actors, the one who played the Son, grabbed her by the arm and said: �Ten bucks? C�mon, Judy, you must have taken in a hundred tonight.� �Yeah,� the other actor, the one who played the Gentleman Caller, said, �what are you trying to pull?� The Daughter stood behind them nodding like a simpleton. She must have been playing herself in the play.
�And who�s gonna pay the rent and the expenses and the rights," Judy snarled, "you guys?�
�What rent?� the Son yelled. �You haven�t paid any rent in six months and you don�t pay for rights anyway.�
They kept screaming at each other and finally Judy told them if they didn�t like it they could fuck off. The Son said okay, but he was taking his audio equipment with him -- which he did -- and they left, just like that. Judy screamed something unprintable � an exact translation of what the Italian cop said in that bar in Italy -- and sat down on the floor and cried. By that time a young couple at the bar had left holding their ears, leaving two guys there, one tall and the other short, and me scrunched down in my seat. The two guys went over to Judy and one of them lifted her under her armpits onto her feet.
�There there, my dear,� he said in an oily voice with an Italian accent, �let us be of service.�
�...my dear, let us be of service,� the short one repeated. I couldn�t believe my senses. What were the Fox and the Cat doing in New York?
�You are a wonderful actress and you are well rid of those rank amateurs,� the Fox said. �Pray do not be sad.�
�...do not be sad.�
�I�m not sad, schmuck,� Judy said. �I�m furious.�
�And you have every right to be.�
�...every right to be.�
�What am I going to do now? We rehearse for three weeks, open tonight with a hit and those egotistical bastards leave me flat.�
�Allow me to make a suggestion.� the Fox said, starting to brush her off.
�...make a suggestion.�
�Go ahead, suggest, but take your hands off the merchandise.� She went to the bar and poured herself a beer.
�I am a well known director from Rome visiting New York on a sabbatical. My name is Remus.�
�Er..Carolingus Remus. And this is my assistant, Fidelius Feel. Both at your service.�
�...at your service.�
�My suggestion is to put on a one-woman play," the Fox said, and paused for effect. "You won't need to pay actors then. I will wire Rome that my return will be delayed and I will be the director.�
�What one-woman play,� Judy asked, suspicious but interested.
�Well, how about Giorni Felici?�
�What the fuck is that?�
�Happy Days, by Samuel Beckett�
�That has two people,� Judy objected.
�True, but anyone can play Willie -- even Feel here.�
�...even Feel here.�
�You must be kidding,� Judy laughed. �I wouldn�t be seen dead with this runt.�
�Hmm, that does present a problem, but not an insurmountable one.�
They hadn�t noticed me till then so I coughed.
�Who are you?� Judy wanted to know.
�An actor,� I replied, and stood up to show how much taller I was than the Cat.
�An actor!� the Fox bellowed. �Just what we need. What is your name, my friend?� Luckily he didn't recognize me, probably because I'd put on a lot more pounds and grown about a foot since he last saw me. That's what I thought then, anyway.
�...your name, my friend?"
"Wood,� I said, thinking fast. �Montgomery Wood.�
So I played Willie in Happy Days at ten bucks a performance and zip during rehearsals. The Fox was the director and the Cat was the lighting technician. The Fox wanted fifty per cent of the house, an outrageous cut, and Judy said okay, fifty per cent of profits, which she didn�t expect to be much. The Cat was also the cashier, which I didn�t think was a good idea. The Fox didn�t do much directing. He just sat on a chair in front of Judy with his leg up on another chair, in a directorial pose, and said, �Fine, dear. Wonderful,� when he showed up. �But what does it mean?� Judy would ask and the Fox would say it�s absurd theater, dear, it doesn�t mean anything.
A minimal set was required: the mound, the frame of which was hammered together by an amateur carpenter and covered by a piece of canvas with a hole in it for Winnie's (Judy�s) head and shoulders. She had a two-hour monologue to memorize and I helped her and when I got to know her better I asked why she played white roles. She said she had been in plays on Broadway and even movies, but was always cast as a colored maid or a slave or a half-naked African native, so she decided to have her own theater and play whatever roles she fucking well pleased.
Every night except Mondays I sat leaning against the back of the mound playing Willie, while Judy went through her monologue. I hummed a tune and blew my nose noisily a few times and let the back of my head be seen occasionally. Once I held up a dirty postcard so only it and my hand were visible. My big and only scene was at the end when I crawled out from behind the mound dressed in wedding garb, top hat and all, with a walrus mustache pasted on my lip. I passed to the front of the stage in full view of the audience, crawled up the mound toward the toy pistol lying at the summit an arm's length from Judy's head, rolled down again before reaching it, reverted to the all-fours position and looked up at Winnie while she sang the Merry Widow Waltz off key, glaring down at me as the curtain fell.
In the first act Winnie is supposed to be buried up to her waist in the mound, in the second act up to her neck. Judy would take her place on a raised stool inside the mound and put her head through the hole. My position was under and just behind her. This had its pros and its cons. On the one hand, it allowed me to gaze up admiringly at her gorgeous ass. The disadvantage was that she was prone to flatulence when she was nervous, which, during performances, was always, so I was more or less permanently enveloped in a fart-cloud. I tried to create tolerable working conditions by holding the mound's flaps open with my feet and wafting them back and forth, but it wasn't very efficient. Anyway, Judy complained that it disrupted her concentration.
I didn't just sit behind the mound picking my nose (according to script) and waiting for my cue at the end of the play, I was also the prompter. Once Judy skipped twenty pages and suddenly, ten pages farther on, realized that something was wrong and kicked me on the shoulder. I led her back to the point where she had strayed and when she made up the twenty pages, I deftly skipped her over the ten she had already recited and she sailed smoothly on from there to the end. The audience didn't notice anything amiss. It wouldn't have made any difference if the twenty pages were left out, except that the play would have ended too early.
Judy is a great actress and she played the absurd role with such emotion (her face is very expressive), that the audience was invariably moved and rewarded her with generous applause. When I joined her at the last curtain call the applause was noticeably louder, as though some arcane skill were required for my role. Judy didn't like it very much, I could tell, but she could hardly protest, for I also had a right to my moment of glory -- well, acknowledgment of my existence at least.
Judy's back often ached from being in the same rigid position for such a long time and I massaged it for her. At one of the last rehearsals, when the two of us were alone, the Fox and the Cat having been laid up with hangovers, I extended my massage down to her buttocks and finally caressed the insides of her thighs. Judy moaned passionately while continuing to say her lines. She had never been better. After I rolled down the mound at the end she sprang up from her hole, slid down the mound and landed on top of me. We struggled, fought, scratched, screamed, kissed frantically and finally made love at the base of the mound. I should add for historical accuracy that Gepetto used only the finest, hardest wood: quebracho, imported from Argentina, and somehow the molecules transferred to my flesh-and-blood pecker.
Afterwards, still lying on her back with her black dress bunched up over her waist, Judy said, "Oh, Montgomery, that was extraordinary...marvelous...But it must never happen again."
"But Judy, I thought we could include it, you know, change the ending."
"No! The theater is sacred, a temple, as is the play."
I knew she got that stuff from the Fox, and directors are personages to be feared, so I said nothing, which didn't mean that I agreed.
We had performed the play in public a dozen times when it happened. During the middle of the second act I began to stroke Judy's right leg. She missed a beat and tried to pull her leg away, but of course she had nowhere to go. She kicked me in the head with her other foot and I gave her the line without having to consult the script, which I knew by heart. Then I crawled under the stool and caressed the insides of her thighs, working my way up until my fingers were gently, expertly, massaging her "pleasure pinnacle" as Confucius called it. She moaned her lines for a few minutes, then lifted her face to the ceiling and cried, quite sincerely: "I - can't - go - on!" and farted so exuberantly that I was afraid the audience would hear it despite the canvas mound. It was a mistake though. I should have restrained myself before her orgasm. I slipped quickly back to my accustomed place, wafted the flaps and whispered: "Yes, Yes, I - must - go - on!"
"Yes, yes, I - must - go - on!" Judy emoted. I gave her the next line and she picked up the rest of the text from there. It was the dramatic climax that the play lacked.
Toward the end, after I rolled down the mound and stood on all fours gazing up at her, I knew what we must do to make theatrical history: exactly what we had rehearsed that fateful day. I was ready.
"Come!" I mouthed silently up at her. Judy sang a few notes of the Merry Widow and broke off with a sob. She knew, too. She thrust her right arm up out of the mound and picked up the pistol. Slowly and deliberately she aimed at me and pulled the trigger. The retort was deafening in that small enclosure and the audience recoiled as though the bullet had pierced its own collective heart. I twitched, arched my back like a menaced cat and flopped down. The Fox, who had been lounging in the last row, sprang to his feet and signaled for the curtain to fall. As he ran backstage the stunned audience broke into thunderous applause. Judy took fourteen curtain calls, thirteen alone and one with the Fox.
If she hadn't had an orgasm a few minutes before, she would have jumped out of her hole and we would have made ecstatic love at the base of the mound just like in rehearsal, and I would have been up there with them taking bows instead of being whisked away to the waterfront by the Cat.
A critic from a leading newspaper happened to be in the theater that night because he had seen everything else in town and was bored. His review was ecstatic. The Fox took credit for the New Ending and it made his reputation. He returned to Sicily, then Rome, and embarked on a brilliant career, with the Cat as his lackey. Beckett's estate sued the Caf� Theater and won of course, but that only served to make it so famous and well attended that Judy was able to move to a bigger theater Off-Broadway. It is virtually certain that once Beckett's plays enter the public domain the New Ending will be the standard version.
And me? The puppet who had such high hopes when he became a real boy? Still dressed in my wedding tux and top hat, with the walrus mustache in place, a bullet hole where my left eye once goggled at Winnie's ass and a cement block encasing my feet, I rested vertically at the bottom of Long Island Sound with my hair streaming up like spaghetti. Once again the Fox and the Cat had done me in. Somehow -- maybe using ESP, more likely eavesdropping -- they anticipated what would happen. Who else could have replaced that toy with a loaded pistol?
I watched the giant shark approaching from a vantage point above the water. (We hang around as spirits for three days after death, you know; that�s why wakes last so long.) It couldn�t have been the same one that swallowed Gepetto and me back in the Bay of Naples, but basically they�re all one big family--una gran famiglia. This time I was digestible.
The advantage in being a real boy instead of an immortal literary puppet is that I�m still around (up here), waiting to be born again one day and win, I hope, the final round against my two old antagonists. Whereas a puppet, once it hits the junk pile, is Wood.
� Frank Thomas Smith - (reproduction permitted if source given.)
Painting: �Black Actress� by Sigmund Abeles
This story was first published, in English, Spanish and French in The Barcelona Review