Magnifico

 

 

First there was Suarez, and he was a fine friend, and a great performer, who wore a little green beret and a pencil thin moustache, and 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. He was forced to destroy him in a public burning for calling the Countess Margarite De Louisa a poxy syphilitic cunt.

            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 sea 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 who let him lick the salt between her toes.

            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 ebony from Cameroon, and the old slave claimed it 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 forth 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 good 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. Strung him up and lynched him. They set the old African’s clothes ablaze. The sight of that tiny wooden corpse swinging in the breeze was a horror to behold. It was many years until the old man would again perform.

            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. He could see straight through to the heart of the battered clown and 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 together they spent their first night in a wooden shipping crate hidden within the weeds of the China Basin rail-yard. Magnifico was a juggler and an acrobat by trade 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 often are, and he told the old man he was carved in Venice in 1886 as a magician, not as a clown, having had the great magical capacity bestowed upon him by Medoricci himself. His rightful vocation was changed when he was sold to a circus geek in need of a new gimmick. He spent fifty years playing the fool. 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. He pulled strange objects from his mouth including a clutch of fresh daises and a loaded derringer, and from his trouser pockets he produced a living white mouse. There was no end to his many wonders and on that night he truly earned his name.

            They worked the San Francisco vaudeville for six months and for the first time in his long and tortured life, the old man earned both fortune and fame. He took 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 found himself in a land of wooden people, 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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