1. Brass Rod Used on Living Mouth for Smooth, Positive Control!
Tommy sports a feathered headdress, a tomahawk. Ask him his specialty and he’ll say, Scalping. I’ll get you front-row seats for 50 simoleons. A smattering of groans is all it takes. With winkers in both eyes, Tommy hits on flesh-and-blood ladies. He remembers Mae West’s chat with McCarthy and wonders if all wood and a yard long really mattered at the end of the day, when the engine hum lulled him in the cargo hold.
2. Foam-Lined Collar for Tight, Smooth Head Action!
Homer is sick of the labels. Dubbed the perfect country boy, he curses the powers that be, men who refuse to use their tools to fix his pie-in-the-face buck teeth. He knows they’re called incisors. For three shows a night, he’s forced to play the game, to whistle “Dixie” sloppily, to lament the demise of Robert E. Lee. Off stage, his best friend is Leroy, the only black male dummy in the wardrobe. Without a hand in his spine, Homer turns giant, moveable eyes toward books, all those books. He knows about Bill Clinton, Kris Kristofferson; he knows Rhodes Scholars can come from the South. He knows characters, those Carson McCullers characters, Flannery O’Connor characters, characters not whittled from wood to stomp out stereotypes, to lift the Leroys from Stepin Fetchit fates.
3. Sears Portrait Studios
Homer, Trixie Kay, Hank, and Jay P. Crackerbarrell showed up an hour early for the photo dressed in plaids, stripes, argyle, a white lace dishrag over crisp polyester. Black, red, burnt orange, turquoise—it didn’t matter as long as it didn’t match. Just this once, they cast aside competition, refused to size up by talent. This took unity under professional umbrellas, full protest mapped out like a Jane Fonda peace sign, a pink bumper sticker. When they sat, even Homer appeared relaxed for once, looking away from the camera, stretching a Handshaker arm over Trixie Kay’s legs. This time, she didn’t mind. Of course they knew what would follow, what the 360-degree head-turn feature was really for. Of course they knew it would be worth it.
4. Marvelous Martin Cash
He rolls them from gig to gig in a wardrobe on wheels. Typically they’ll go straight from hours of darkness to white stage lights warm enough to pucker the enamels of eyes. Once their loose legs rest on his lap, he’ll do the rest. They’ll seem to smile, slits in jaws the only sign they’re not in control. When Cash was only Martin, he never got a laugh, never won a fight with a child. Now he never notices when oxygen becomes scarce, never notices when the zipper on the bag pulls gently like a string.
Wiggling Ears can tell a joke without a punchline. The Stick-Out Tongue needn’t be rude; open up and say ah can play to kids. If you get the Spitter, point it at yourself or the floor; audiences don’t like to clean up. You can use The Handshaker to nudge but not The Nudger to handshake. Winkers are best of all, but you’ll have to go to camp to master them. Same with Raising Eyebrows. And don’t forget to use them all at once, or you might as well go back to your sock puppet past. Partners always know when you’re faking.
6. Figures Are Available in Either the Slot-Jaw Mouth or Living (no-slot) Mouth!
Trixie Kay can handle the men, can handle being one of the only girls. She likes how her Nancy Sinatra hairstyle stands up to travel. She and the others are all called mischievous, but she gets to stand up when hit on. Even in vaudeville, dames could slap scoundrels for a laugh. Nothing is ever funnier than rejection. Trixie Kay looks like the little sister you protect on the bus, but chauvinism didn’t paint those cheeks red. She stole that varathane finish from the case, looked herself in the mirror, applied till she was ready.
7. Contoured, Light-weight Body with Exclusive Inner Seat Allows Figure to Sit Alone!
You’re not like all the others, Leroy’s partner would tell him on stage. Next, disco music would split the PA, Leroy bobbing his head off-rhythm.
Q: What’s the square root of 3?
A: 1.73205080757, approximately.
Cue the plant in the audience, the 6-foot blond white woman who struts across the front row. Look at you. You’re not even going to whistle. Unable to frown, he sits upright under that caricature afro, mohair in need of a trim. He would run if his legs could touch the ground.
8. Trap Door on Back of Head
Jay P. Crackerbarrell is the only one who looks unhappy. He’s most affected by safety features, the sealed head. He knows why he was made this way, knows his head can’t swell, can’t rot, can’t mildew. Insects stay away. He will never split or crack. Being sealed inside and out would seem to prevent feeling, would seem to enable immortality without inconvenience of pulse. Yet he grimaces even when he’s the aggressor, even when they’re laughing with him. He longs to escape out that trap door just once, the boy outside the bubble who knows there can be no return.
9. The Ventriloquist, 1970
When he devised the routine, he couldn’t decide whether to go with Crystal, the black one, or Trixie Kay, who could pass for mixed. He knew Ronnie Spector was mixed, but most people didn’t. Black was probably better, definitely better. Flattening that kinky hair would disrespect the maker’s vision. Tearing it off seemed out of the question. So much trouble just for a beehive, but trouble is no problem when in the end, you get to enter to thump thump-thump CHICK thump thump-thump CHICK. Nothing is a problem when you hit all the high notes. If the real Ronnie were to get laryngitis, he could just stand there frozen mouthed while she lip-synched. But the hell with that. He always prefers the wooden ones, always likes how his hand feels through the back, on the dowel. Phil used to lock Ronnie in the house. He would take her shoes away. Crystal and Trixie Kay never take charge and still get all the credit. He didn’t have to matter at all while the audience sang along with “Be My Baby,” cherishing what it meant to be surrounded by a transparent wall of sound, to be dazzled by a voice thrown like high heels.
10. Ball & Socket Neck
People call Hank scholarly. What else would you call someone who wears a turtleneck and sits with his legs crossed? Hank once did an edgy bit, postmodern, meta. No one could figure out how he pulled it off, how he forced his partner to storm off and throw him against the wall. Hank froze, went mute. No one believed the next best thing—the last-resort mumbling—was his.
11. Historically Wooden Figures Have Increased in Value
Martin Cash retired when the stand-ups took over, men and women with only themselves. Now he runs the Marvelous Museum, where 60 ex-performers rest behind glass. Children often stare as if waiting for figures to move. Children ask, But what did they do? Cash just smiles back, mum, imitating Hank’s moment of disobedience. He redirects them to the golden age of Bergen and Winchell replayed on the TV screens above. The grainy footage separates hands from bodies.
Note: Names of dummies, their features, and several of the titles were derived from the 1970s Maher Workshop Figure Catalog.
Daniel M. Shapiro (email@example.com) is a special education teacher who lives in Pittsburgh. His recent book of poems, How the Potato Chip Was Invented, was published by sunnyoutside press. His poetry website is Little Myths (http://littlemyths-dms.blogspot.com/).