"This is an engrossing novel by one of the genre's most accomplished storytellers." Publishers Weekly
All the universe is a stage...and Sparky Valentine is its itinerant thespian. He brings Shakespearea version of it anywayto the outer reaches of Earth's solar system. Sparky can transform himself from young to old, fat to thin, even male to female, by altering magnetic implants beneath his skin. Indispensible hardware for a career actorand an interstellar con man wanted for murder...
About the Author
John Varley is the author of Slow Apocalypse, the Gaean Trilogy (Titan, Wizard, and Demon), Steel Beach, The Golden Globe, Red Thunder, Mammoth, Red Lightning, and Rolling Thunder. He has won both the Nebula and Hugo awards for his work.
Read an Excerpt
"I once played Romeo and Juliet as a one-man show," I said. "Doubling with Mercutio won't be a problem."
The curtain was already up, and Dahlia Smithsonour fair sun, the snowy dove trouping with crows, the rich jewel in the Ethiop's earhad yet to appear backstage. This was not a surprise. The last two nights we'd had to winch her loveliness into the balcony and tie her down to keep her from falling out.
"You're out of your mind," shouted Larry "The Leech" Crocker, our producer-director-stage manager: the wax in the Ethiop's ear. He was bug-eyed with fury, trembling, drenched in sweat ... and the picture of calm composure next to Dee, the assistant stage manager, who kept pushing Larry's ragged script away from her as if it might bite.
There had been talk of bringing in an understudy in view of La Smithson's recent behavior, but this was not the Schubert Traveling Shows, ladies and germs, this was The Crocker Players, and if you haven't heard of them it's probably because you live within a parsec of civilization. We were chronically undercapitalized (read "dirt-poor") and it fell to the ASM to understudy all the female roles. And while I'm sure Dee would have provided yeoman service as Ladies Montague or Capulet, and could probably have taken a creditable swing at the Nurse, the prospect of Juliet had turned her pale green.
"I don't know all the lines," Dee wailed.
"See?" I said. "She doesn't know the part."
"You're crazy," Larry exploded. "Aren't they onstage at thesame time?"
"Mercutio and Juliet never meet," I said. "I know you've put Mercutio at the Capulets' party, but the Bard doesn't demand it, and it can be, solved by letting the Prince wear my costume in the scene. Mercutio is masked, and has no lines. However"and I cupped my ear to the stage"you'd better make up your mind. Scene two is about to begin, and Juliet is in three. I'll need a little time."
"You're crazy," Larry the Leech muttered again, then jerked his head toward the dressing rooms.
"You'll never regret this," I said.
"I regret it already."
This being a Crocker show, it goes without saying that we were a lot more than forty-five minutes from Broadway. Hell, we were just about forty-five hours from Pluto. That's how long it had taken my last message to my agent to reach the System, and an equal time for the news to reach me that he wasn't answering his phone. No big surprise there; I'd been "on the road," as it were, for almost ten years now, and my agent hadn't been answering when I left. (The question I'd wanted him to answer? Simple, really: "Who booked me into this toilet?")
The plumbing fixture in question was know as Brementon. Who knows why? Humans have this need to name everything, no matter how little that thing may deserve it. When I saw the name on the travel itinerary it brought to mind a peaceful little hamlet. German, perhaps. Happy burghers in lederhosen, smiling fraäuleins in dirndls and pigtails and wooden shoes, cottages draped in swastika bunting. In reality, if they'd added "Maximum Security Prison" to the place's name they'd have been closer to the truth. About a quarter of it was a prison. We hadn't seen that part as yet, but if it was worse than the rest of the place, the mind reeled. B-town, as the players came to call it, could have provided the very definition of the word "boondock," except that the stop before B-town had actually been called Boondocks.
Brementon was a random collection of junk, natural and artificial, welded together in the cometary zone and pressed into service as a "City" by the escaped criminals, madmen, perverts, and other misfits who liked to call themselves Outlanders. Brementon, Boondocks, and ten thousand other similar wandering junkyards constituted the most far-flung "community" humanity had ever known.
As to where it was, that was something that could have mattered only to a celestial navigator. Upon arrival I'd looked for the Sun, and it took a while to find it. We were due to pass within ten billion miles of it in only four thousand years; to an Outlander, that qualified as a near miss.
It was tough to say how big Brementon was. Much of it was tied together with cables and hoses and it tended to drift around. If you'd grabbed two ends and yanked hard you might have stretched it out twenty kilometers or more, but you'd never get it unsnarled again. When I first saw it from the ship it presented a rude circular form about five kay across, like some demented globular cluster, or a picture of a spaceship a few seconds after a disastrous explosion.
One small part of this orbiting traffic-accident-in-progress was a silvery sphere called the Brementon Playhouse. It was tied to a counterbalancing ball containing the municipal sewer works, which gives a fair idea of the high esteem Outlanders held for The Arts. The balls rotated around a common center of gravity. The result was that we didn't have to play Shakespeare in free fall, as we'd done at Boondocks and several previous engagements. Friends, Romans, countrymen, throw me a tie-down! Talk about your theater in the round.
But enough about Brementon. Let's talk about me.
I raced up the spiral stairs in the wings and slammed into Dahlia's dressing room. I paused for just a second there, breathing the intoxicating air of the headliner. I'd hate to say how long it had been since I'd rated a private dressing room. I caressed the back of Juliet's chair, then pulled it back and sat in front of the light-girdled mirror and gazed into my face and centered myself.
I'd never actually done Juliet before. No point in telling Larry that. (The one-man show? A comic skit, really, with quick changes, slapstick, clown faces, and japery, lasting twenty minutes when I was really rolling.) No point in worrying him; I knew the part. But line reading is just the starting point, of course. You must get inside the character. All good acting is played from within. I had about five minutes.
It's not enough time, of course. It wouldn't have been enough even if I'd been able to use it to do nothing but think about the part. As it was, I'd need every minute to accomplish the physical transformation. But I did use the mental time to go back over the many, many performances of Juliet I had seen, going right back to Norma Shearer in 1936. As my mind ranged back over Juliets of the past, taking a bit of business here, a word emphasis there, my hands were busy changing hatchet-faced Mercutio into a visage with cheek to shame the fairest stars in all the heavens.
Once I had my own face. Well, I still have it, of course, the specs are somewhere in my trunk, the copyright number SSCO-5-441-j54902. It's a good face, and served me well in the trade for almost thirty years. But it became the wisest course not to use it.
Thirty years ago, with unaccustomed money in my pocket following a long and successful run, I invested in every makeup gadget then known to mankind. This required, among other things, that my entire head be taken apart and rebuilt. My body harbors enough tech wizardry to qualify as a public nuisance. Radios spit static when I walk by. Compasses are thrown off true. But when the part calls for a full-body alteration in a hurry, I'm your guy. Or gal, as the case may be.
My first appearance was a logistical nuisance, really. Juliet says, "It is an honour that I dream not" when asked if she wants to be married. To which the nurse hoots, "An honour! Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck'd wisdom from thy teat." A guaranteed laugh line, which dear sweet Angeline Atkins vamped outrageously, as she did the entire role.
The problem was that the next scene, Act One, scene four, was Mercutio's chance to shine. What to do, what to do?
First things first. I straggled into the costume, stuffing padding in the appropriate places. Luckily, the skirt reached all the way to the floor.
I pulled on a black wig, quickly combed it out, and then picked up the Masque-Aid. It's a nice little gadget consisting of two parts. The first is a thin plastic tube with a snap connector on the end. I fastened this to a matching connector hidden behind my left ear, turned it on, and heard the high hiss as air began to flow through it. The second part is a styling wand, which looks like a pencil with a broad, flat head. Both units are connected to a control console and a switching system buried in my cheekbone. I pressed the flat end of the wand to my face and got to work.
There's nothing real fancy about the wand itself. It contains a powerful magnet that rotates when I press a button with my thumb. When I put it in the right position it causes surgically implanted magnets to turn, which then turn screws ... which slowly cause various bones or groups of bones to move apart or closer together.
I can vary the distance between my eyes. I can lengthen my jawbone, raise and lower my cheekbones. I can create a brow ridge. In five minutes I can be Quasimodo or Marilyn Monroe.
That's the base. The air hose was taking care of the rest.
There are twenty little air bags embedded in my facial skin. Suck them all dry and I look like Death. Fill them up: Fatty Arbuckle.
The only problem with all this stage magic is it can hurt if done rapidly. Depending on how much I had to do, the pain could be like a mild toothache or a severe beating.
No one ever told me art would be painless.
I was brushing pink spots onto my cheeks when someone began frantically pounding on the dressing room door. "One minute!" Dee called.
"I'll be there." I slashed two bold eyebrows with strokes of a pencil, looked at myself critically one last time. I tasted blood, dabbed at a tooth with a towel, smiled broadly at myself in the mirror.
Larry was waiting for me in the wings, and I savored the expression of bafflement as I approached him. Beyond, Romeo and Benvolio were onstage, the curtain about to come down on the scene. Larry grabbed my arm.
"Listen, babe," he whispered, staring intently into my eyes. "You can't let us down. We're all counting on you, every last one of us. I know it's been a tough road. I know I've been hard on you, but I did it because I knew you had something, darling, some magical quality you can't buy in a store. I want you to go out there and knock 'em dead. When you come back, I want you to come back a star!"
"For pity's sake, Larry, get a grip on yourself." He stood there blinking for a moment.
"Sorry. I just always wanted to say that, that's all."
"Well, I'm glad it's out of your system."
From the stage: "What, lamb! What ladybird! God forbid!where's this girl?what, Juliet!"
Christ, that was my cue!
"How now, who calls?" It came out in a kind of croak, but at least it was a high-pitched croak. Lady Capulet and the Nurse looked at me strangely, but soldiered bravely on through one of the less interesting scenes in Shakespeare, all about Lammas-eve and other things of minimal importance to a modern audience. I let it all drone over me and concentrated on my vocal cords, which, in the rush, I had neglected to tune. I hummed softly to myself, earning a few sharp looks from Angeline. Finally I thought I had it, and just in time, too.
"It is an honour that I dream not of." Strange. I was sure I'd heard that voice before. Lady Capulet had her back to the audience ... my god, she was stifling a laugh! I played the line back in my head. Blanche DuBois! I was using the same voice I'd last employed in our production of Streetcar.
I frantically cast back through the female roles of my career, looking for something I could slip on like a comfortable shoe. A voice, a voice. My kingdom for a voice!
"Speak briefly, can you like of Paris' love?"
And I said, "I'll look to like, if looking liking move." Damn, that one sounded familiar, too. "But no more deep will I endart mine eye than your consent gives strength to make it fly." Great Caesar's ghost! That was Natalie Wood with a bad Puerto Rican accent! My review of Juliets past had led me down a cinematic byway.
Maybe if I broke into a chorus of "I Feel Pretty" no one would notice.
I had no time to lose. Exeunt all, curtain down, curtain up, enter Romeo, Mercutio, Benvolio, Maskers, Torchbearers, and others. I stood in the wings and went through a transmogrification that would have had Henry Jekyll green with envy while the company entered and stalled, as they'd been warned to do, until I was ready for my entrance.
Off with the dress. Off with the wig. And no time at all for a session in front of the mirror, this has to be quick, so with a wince very like a man in front of a firing squad, I jammed my face into a plastic mask and pressed the reset button on the Masque-Aid control console.
I don't recommend this. What happened next felt like I imagine having all your teeth removed at once might feelif you had five hundred teeth.
The machine went back to square one, at warp speed. In ten seconds I was Mercutio.
The scene went well. In it, I wax fey about Queen Mab, the fairies' midwife. Somehow my pain and disorientation made the lines less stilted than they usually seemed, less a flight of fancy and more an oration of deep meaning to Mercutio, a complex and difficult character. By the end of it, when Romeo calms me down, I was weeping unfeigned tears, shaking with emotion.
It is Larry's theory that Romeo and Mercutio were homosexual lovers. He makes it explicit by having Mercutio kiss Romeo after the line "Turning his face to the dew-dropped south." It is a good-bye kiss, presaging the upcoming assault on Romeo's heart by fair Juliet, and a prescient surrender at the same time. Myself, I have no opinions in the matter. I think it's too tough for a person of our age to really imagine what homosexuality was like in a pre-Changing time. But the scene played well. The curtain rang down to long applause.
And thank god for that, because I don't know if I could have faced the retransformation ahead of me without that sound to buoy me up.
Dee and Larry were arguing about something as I came off. Dee shouted at Larry to shut upwhich turned a few headsand grabbed my arm and pulled me to the stairs.
"I've got you five minutes to change," she said, hauling me along. "I'm replacing you in the dance, and we're doing two choruses. You'll enter, stage left, across from Romeo, while Capulet is talking. I'll cue you."
"I know the spot," I said. "Thanks." I kissed her forehead and entered my dressing room. Elwood was there waiting for me. I nodded to him and collapsed in my chair.
"There's talk of deleting the first scene in the second act," he said. Elwood is a tall man who likes to wear period clothing that hangs on his lanky body like billowing sails. He looks just like Jimmy Stewart.
"That would help a lot," I said. The styling wand was whirring quietly in my hand and Juliet's face was taking shape in the mirror. Elwood sat in a chair beside me and stretched out.
"Yeah, but it sort of cuts the legs out from under Mercutio."
Of course it did, and I didn't need Elwood to tell me. The scene had Mercutio growing increasingly frantic in his search for Romeo, who, we all know, was by then deep in enemy territory and ready to deny his father and refuse his name. Cut it, and Mercutio would look silly in scene four.
"This talk," I said, shrugging Juliet's costume over my clothes. "Who's saying it?"
"Oh, I hear things," Elwood said, with a shrug. Which is all I'd ever get out of him.
I didn't want to cut it. I'd hired on to play Mercutio, and I meant to play him well. And I'd promised Larry I could double the parts, and I meant to do that, too. But Mercutio exits at the very end of scene one and Juliet appears on the balcony at the very start of scene two. If it was only a matter of more pain I'd do it willingly, but for this appearance of Juliet I had to have the whole change and I just didn't know if it could be done in a minute.
There are air bladders in my body, too. I plugged the hose fitting from the Masque-Aid into a socket (never mind where; you could search me pretty thoroughly and probably not find it), and warm saline began pumping.
Juliet was thirteen. She had to be covered in baby fat. She needed a slim waist. She needed boobs, and a bottom.
Those last two would have to wait, as they'd look passing strange under Mercutio's tights and jerkin.
Dee was knocking on my door.
I got through the dance without mishap, and without the voice of Blanche, praise all the muses. I don't know where the voice I used came from, but it was suitable to a love-struck teenager.
Then off and wrench my face back during the short intermission between acts, then Mercutio's plaintive search for Romeo ... then I was tearing backstage, tearing off Mercutio's clothes, slapping my face into the Masque-Aid while Dee plugged in the saline hose ... and she was the only witness to what may have been the fastest sex change since Roy Rogers gelded Trigger.
A couple of pints quickly produced a pair of breasts fit for peace to dwell in. Ditto the behind; no sense overdoing it in either place. Suck out a little more juice from the waist, swell the hip, and voilà!
Only one small detail to attend to. Well, not that small.
The penis is just skin covering two blood-filled chambers. With the proper operation those chambers can be pulled back into the body, sort of like pulling a sock inside out. Extrude it and you're the leading man. Pull it back in for the ingenue effect. Do it several times quickly and you'll be popular at your next orgy.
My father would have been proud. I came off that stage Mercutio, and appeared sixty seconds later on the balcony, Juliet.
"With love's light wings did I o'erperch these walls," said Romeo, tearing off his shirt. "For stony limits cannot hold love out: And what love can do, that dares love attempt. Therefore thy kinsmen are no let to me." He kissed me as I shrugged out of my own shirt.
"If they do see thee, they will murder thee." I was breathing hard now.
"Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords. Look thou but sweet, and I am proof against their enmity." Dropping the Montague britches as he spoke to reveal not hand, not foot, nor arm nor face, but another part belonging to a man. A fair sun, arising! He came into my arms and we fell back together on the bed.
"I would not for the world they saw thee here." Kissing him again.
"I have night's cloak to hide me from their sight; and, but thou love me, let them find me here: my life were better ended by their hate than death prorogued wanting of thy love." And so, into the sex scene.
Yes, I hear you, all you purists out there. What can I say? Given my own druthers, I'd druther do it the traditional way, too. Passionate kisses, doe-eyed looks. But the public demands realismespecially in a backwater like Brementonand that's what they get.
Or that's what they were supposed to get. A minute into the naked embrace, I began to wonder if Romeo had read the same script I had. His bud of love, which by summer's had proved too like the lightning, which doth cease to be ere ripening breath should by then have proved a beauteous flower, one can say, It lightens. In a word, impotency.
O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, Romeo? Inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb, thy love has proved likewise variable.
When I had a chance to reflect on it later, the reason for his trouble was obvious. It's the obvious problems most people overlook. Romeo had an odd sexual quirk. He was a dedicated heterosexual.
I realize they're common enough in the general population, but they are rare in the thespian community. Hell, I'm practically one myself, except on the stage. Perhaps that's why no one really understood that when it came to the sticking point, as it were, his will would fail him. None of us really understood the serpentine logic of his particular perversion.
As a male hetero, he could only get aroused by a female. And though I now gave every evidence of that gender, he had known me as Mercutio, and that's what I stayed, in his mind.
I can laugh at it now. It's become one of those theatrical disaster stories we all love to tell each other, like the prop telephone that rings at the wrong time. (Solution? Pick it up, listen for a moment, then hold it out to your worst enemy and announce, "It's for you.")
There was nothing funny about it at the time.
You wouldn't have known it from the audience reaction, however. They were laughing. It's one of the worst sounds you can hear in my business: laughter when you haven't made a joke.
But if you're getting laughs, it's best to keep getting them until you figure out what else to do. Rising from the bed and stalking naked around the stage, I became Kate, shrew of Padua.
"Nay, then, I will not go today. No, nor tomorrow, nor till I please myself. The door is open, sir; there lies your way. You may be jogging while your boots are green; for me, I'll not be gone till I please myself. 'Tis like you'll prove a jolly surly groom, that take it on you at the first so roundly." Suiting action to the word, a frustrated woman trying to please herself.
Romeo sat disconsolately on the edge of the bed, hunting The Taming of the Shrew for an appropriate comeback. He looked up at me. "Why does the world report that Juliet doth limp?" he said. "O slanderous world!"
We tossed lines back and forth for a while. The laughter gradually fadednot because they were taking us seriously, but because we could stretch this situation only so far. I had no idea how to salvage it.
Suddenly Romeo jumped from the bed. He embraced me with one arm, his free hand rubbing his buttocks. And I felt his interest begin to rise.
Dee had procured a drug banned on most worlds because of extreme hazard to the male recipient: they often hurt themselves attempting sexual congress with electric light sockets and household pets. She had crawled under the bed and jabbed a needle right through the foam rubber.
"Now, Juliet," he said, "I am a husband for your turn. For by this light, whereby I see thy beautythy beauty that doth make me like thee wellthou must be married to no man but me. We will have rings, and things, and fine array. And kiss me, KaJuliet, we will be married on Sunday."
And so, at long last, to bed. Where he performed like a trouper and, as if in an effort to make up, tried to jump me again while we were singing the second verse of "Tonight."
And at long last, a scene I wasn't in.
While Romeo poured out his heart to Friar Lawrence (and, this performance only, tried to hump the Friar's leg), I staggered back to my dressing room with a full ten minutes to change back to Mercutio. And who should I find there but Dahlia Smithson, by now neither rich jewel, fair sun, nor snowy dove. I'd say she was closer to an envious moon, sick and pale. That which we call a rose would smell of gin. See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! See how her eyes, twinkling in their spheres, bulge from her head as she points to me and says, "What the fuck are you doing in here, in my costume?"
She bent over and threw up on the floor.
Well, it wasn't my problem, was it? I opened the door and yelled for Larry. Then I sat at the mirror and did what I'd have been doing with or without Dahlia's reappearance: turned myself back into Mercutio.
Dahlia Smithson was the only name with any star power in our motley cast. She was a fading star (you can't drink that much, miss that many shows, without entering a steady and inevitable decline), but her name above the titles of our little repertory was all that had drawn the working capital for this marathon mission to bring culture to the hinterlands. Did Larry have the nerve to fire her? Not a chance.
So I sang, "Farewell, ancient lady, farewelllady, lady," left the Nurse with Romeo, and hurried backstage with three or four minutes to perform my penultimate Capuletizationnot knowing if it would be needed, half hoping it wouldn't.
At first it seemed the problem had solved itself. Dahlia was stretched out on the couch, limp as Romeo's willie. Larry, lavender with terror, and Dee, purple with rage, were both tiptoeing around the room.
And Dahlia demonstrated the true resilience of the long-time alcoholic by springing from her resting place and shrieking like something out of Act One of the Scottish play. She was getting her second wind.
"You can't do this to me, you pusillanimous toad," she cursed. "And you! You ridiculous old ham! How dare you stab me in the back like this? Can't get a starring role any other way but stealing it from your betters, is that it? You polymorphous, talentless, scenery-chewing, ass-kissing sorry excuse for a has-been actor! I'll get you. I'll show you, all of you." She stormed from the room, but her voice drifted back. "I'll get you all!"
"And your little dog, too!" I cackled. Dee laughed nervously, but not Larry. He sank into a chair, eyes staring blindly into the distance, where I don't doubt he saw his profits flying.
Well, really. Has-been actor, indeed!
I stumbled through the end of Act Two, re-Mercutivated myself, and shambled out into the public square to meet my doom. By then I was a little delirious with the pain. I began to see an actual dusty street in Verona swimming in and out of view. I think it was the one from the Zeffirelli production. I frankly think I outdid myself in the swordplay that followed. I damn sure gave a hell of a performance after I was stabbed. I looked down at my woundnot so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serveand realized that in the confusion I'd forgotten to have the target area numbed. In one side and out the back the sword had gone, and damn me but the sucker hurt!
"Help me, Benvolio," I said, "or I shall faint. A plague on both your houses! They have made worm's meat of me." And never, dear hearts, were those words uttered in a more heartfelt manner.
Some artists can only work when all is calm about them. I seem to thrive on disorder. The worse things get, the more strongly my craft asserts itself. By Act Four I was solidly in the role. I was Juliet. Cast members began to come up to me in the wings and whisper encouragement and congratulations. It meant very little to me; I was living the next scene already.
But at one point I did become aware of a tall, broadshouldered man holding out a piece of paper to Dee, who was looking at it and shaking her head. He moved on to Friar Lawrence and Paris, who were awaiting their entrance. Paris frowned at the paper, shrugged and shook his head, and went on. The fellow drifted over to me.
"Excuse me," he said, in a voice like sandpaper on a bass fiddle. "I'm looking for a man by the name of Kenneth C. Valentine."
"And who might you be?"
He produced a private detective's license which alleged his name was Manuel P. Garcia, and that he was authorized by the principality of Brementonan autonomous region of the great Outland Free Stateto issue bail bonds, apprehend fugitives, conduct investigations, carry a nonnuclear weapon, and in general skulk, lurk, pussyfoot, slink, creep, and lie in ambush. What it really meant was he'd been thrown off the Brementon police force and was eking out a living the only way he knew how.
"Is he in trouble again?" I asked.
"I just need to talk to him, lady. Do you know where he lives?"
"Right now, in the same hotel with the rest of us. Look, I'm sort of busy here. But I know who might be able to help you." I grabbed my makeup bag from its emergency perch. in the wings and rummaged through it. "His name is Dowd. Elwood P. Dowd. Here, let me give you one of his cards." I handed it to him. "Now if you want to call him use that number, not this one. That number is the old one. Or you can hang around for the curtain. I'm sure Mr. Valentine will show up then."
I went out on the stage, fuming. God alone knew what Sparky Valentine had been up to this time. He was always in trouble of one sort or another. Having him hauled off into court would cause the production a lot of trouble.
"Yea, noise?" I whispered. I felt a steely resolve building within me. I could barely see for the tears streaming down my face. "Then I'll be brief. O happy dagger! This is thy sheath." I plunged it into my breast. "There rest, and let me die." I collapsed across Romeo's prostrate body and felt the total relaxation of death steal over me.
God, was I good.
I could actually hear sobs from the audience, that group of tough, semiliterate Outlanders. Well, it may be the saddest story ever told. It's been making people weep for six hundred years.
Could real death be any more peaceful than this? Could an actor get so far into a role as to actually die onstage? I'm not saying I felt death, but I had been so deep in Juliet that some reasonable imitation had taken me. I did not want to open my eyes. I did not wish to get up. When the curtain came down they had to lift me off of Romeo and carry me into the wings.
I was alive enough to take my bows. They'll have to screw me into a real coffin before I miss that.
The applause was deafening.
Unfortunately I wasn't able to stick around for the second curtain call. I hurried up the stairs to the dressing room, where Elwood had my trunk already packed. We wrestled it into the elevator and rode up to the weightless, centrifugal hub, took a moving beltway to a taxi dock, and a taxi to the spaceport, where a high-gee was boosting for Pluto in one hour.
It was a nervous hour, but soon I could see Brementon dwindling on the ship's rear screen, and relaxed for the first time since the curtain rose.
For you see, I am K. C. Valentine. But call me Sparky; all my friends do.
Judy was hollering something about Brick and Skipper, so Punch shouted back.
"You shut up or I'm gonna hit you with this crutch!"
But Judy never shuts up. So Punch started whaling away.
That's not the way it's written, but sometimes you have to punch up a play here and there if it lacks action. For a long time I'd stuck faithfully to the classical Punch and Judy repertoire, putting on everything from The Brigand Chief to Vendetta, or The Corsican's Revenge. After you've spent three or four weeks staring up Judy's skirt at her wide, flat butt, you get a little desperate to try some new material.
Now Maggie was shouting something about no-neck monsters; which didn't sit well with Dixie. They began to tussle back and forth across the stage. Judy got the upper hand and flung Dixie out into the audience. (I could see fifteen people through the peephole in the curtain; it was the best I'd done all day.)
Even if I could have held my hands above my head for three hours, no one but vagrants were going to stick around that long. Street theater is meant to be performed for people with a little time to kill while going from one place to another. Thirty minutes is about tops. Fifteen is a lot better. So Henry VI parts one, two, and three was right out. A Midsummer Night's Dream had gone over fairly well, as had King Lear. The critics had been cool to Cyrano, for some reason; with all the swordplay, I'd thought it a natural.
All the above had needed a little pruning here and there, of course.
But my last performance had left me a little cool to the Bard. I moved on to musical comedy. It turned out Punch and Judy were naturals at it. The children loved the songs, and the adults liked the jokes. I began alternating My Fair Lady with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and managed to keep myself diverted for two weeks.
"I'm not dyin' of cancer, Gooper. It's nothing but spastic colon."
"Of course not, Big Daddy. Have you made out your will yet?"
That's right. It was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, with punch and Judy as Brick and Maggie, the Devil as Big Daddy, the Crocodile as Big Mama, Toby the Dog as Gooper, and Hector the Horse as Sister Woman. And featuring Tennessee Williams as Man Spinning in Grave. Don't cry for me, Mississippi.
I don't know how many times Punch and Judy have saved my bacon. For an itinerant thespian, the skills of the Punchman can be a heaven-sent alternative to a life of crime, or worse, honest work.
It costs nothing. I have carefully preserved in my trunk six character heads made for me many years ago by a fan. But I make new ones regularly from papier-mâché, the ingredients for which can be mined from garbage bins behind any large food store. For paints, go to a flea market, engage an artist in conversation, and soon you will have the use of a palette and brushes. Costumes can be made from scraps begged from a dressmaker, or scrounged from dustbins, if you're handy with a needle and thread. Any actor who is not handy with a needle and thread needs to get out and see the real world more often.
There is a standard plastic packing crate you will locate easily if you haunt the delivery ways backing a mall. Sticks or stiff wire will make a frame to support the box above your head. Cut a hole in front, paint the proscenium with gay finials, arabesques, and dadoes. Now attach the curtain to the bottom edges of the box. If you can't find enough scraps, use your bedroll. Presto! You've just made a castelli, or swazzle-box, which, if you didn't know, is a curtained enclosure the size of a shower stall, with the Punch and Judy stage above it.
As my father used to say, "If you've got some ham, play Hamlet."
And I'd reply, "If you lay an egg, scramble it."
Thus we dined on many a meal of ham and eggs. And in the process, I learned how to make something out of nothing.
* * *
"I do love you, Brick. I do!" said Judy.
"Wouldn't it be funny if that was true?"
I pressed on the pedal with one foot, causing the music to swell to a climax, and as Brick went into Maggie's arms I bit the cork dangling at my left and yanked the stage curtain closed.
There was applause, so I pulled the cord on the other side opened the curtain again, slapping Punch and Judy down into the character rack in front of me, jamming my hands into Hector and the black glove I use to handle Toby, holding them up to take their bows. Toby yapped excitedly, dangling from his harness, six kilos of French ham. He's the only dog I ever knew who preferred plaudits to provender. I dropped him to the floor along with his bucket. He picked it up and ducked under the curtain to work the crowd.
The Crocodile, the Devil, then Punch and Judy. If a Punchman ever figured how to let the whole cast take bows at once, I never heard of it. I'll continue to bring them on in pairs until I grow another arm. I put my eye to the judas and saw the crowd had grown to perhaps two dozen. Toby trotted from one to another in his ruffled collar and pointed hat, holding out the bucket, barking if he didn't think enough was dropped into it, walking on his hind legs for the really hard cases, doing a back flip for the big spenders. Nobody can turn a tip like Toby.
I pulled the curtain closed and waited awhile. Lots of puppeteers reveal themselves at the end, take a bow of their own. I don't approve of it. My hands have done the performing. No need to break the spell. Let them go their separate ways with visions of brightly painted imps dancing in their sugarplum heads.
While I waited I reached into my mouth and popped out the silver swazzle. I always get a warm feeling when I handle it. It's nearly three hundred years old, and was given to me by my father. Families used to pass along expensive pocket watches, father to son. In my family, it was the swazzle.
It's a simple device. This one had been hammered from two coins, shaped to fit into the roof of the mouth. The two pieces were wired together, and between them was ... well, I'm not going to tell you. Swazzle-making was a closely guarded secret among Punchmen for centuries, and though I'm sure no one cares today, it just wouldn't feel right to spill the beans. But I can say it works something like a kazoo. With the swazzle in your mouth (and with a lot of practice) you can make that distinctive Punch twang/buzz/screech, like no other sound I've ever heard.
Everybody swallows the swazzle at least once while learning the trade. Getting it back is one of the prices you pay. Nobody ever told me art would be painless.
Toby stuck his nose under the curtain and set his pail at my feet. I lifted the castelli from its sockets in my belt, shrugged the curtain over my shoulders, and set the box on the floor, inverted. All the puppets fit neatly inside, and the curtain folded over it. (The curtain was also my sleeping bag, but since the bag is edged with gold braid and patterned in a comedy/tragedy mask motif, few ever suspected.) As I was doing this Toby nipped at my sleeve. When I frowned at him he looked off to his left, where my following gaze discovered a uniformed policeman leaning against a wall and twirling his nightstick at the end of a leather thong.
"Box, Toby," I said, and the dog leaped in on top of the curtain. I lifted it and walked past the flatfoot.
"Top o' the mornin' to you, Officer," I said, tipping my hat. He nodded, still regarding me thoughtfully, probably comparing my face with the ones he'd studied, pinned to the precinct wall, at the start of his shift. With any luck, he wouldn't make a match.
Or he could have been deciding whether or not to brace me on the matter of a performance permit, or a puppeteer's license, or a canine registration, or any of the thousand other forms citizens see fit to employ to harass people like me. I had no idea if any of the above were required here; it had been a long time since I'd been on this planet. I remembered it as reasonably loose, easygoing, even a little eccentric, like its orbit. But if history teaches us anything it is that frontiers become settled, then set, then rigidly bureaucratized, and the more bureaucrats there are, the more laws are needed to keep them fed. I hadn't been here in many years. It was time enough for lawyers to have sucked the blood from this society.
"Hey, you," said the minion of law and order. They are two of the most dreaded words I know, when coming from a blue suit. Well, Sparky, you can play deaf, you can play innocent, or you can run. But can you hide? I turned, and gave him Tom Sawyer. He made a poor Aunt Becky.
I barely got my hand up in time to snag the spinning coin that was coming my way.
"Good show," he said. A patron of the arts, a possibility I hadn't considered. "Nice dog, too," he added.
"Bless you, guv'nor," I said, tipping my hat again. "Punch thanks you, Judy thanks you, my dog thanks you, and I thank you."
And I sauntered away down the central promenade of a mall that could have been on Mercury, could have been on Mars, but happened to be on Pluto.
Civilization at last.