Henderson Lovely, Last of the Munchkins

Brett was lurking in the shadow of the doorway, the light just catching his scarred brow.

“Jesus Christ,” Henderson said to Brett. “You look like death warmed over.”

“Thank you, sir.” Brett smiled.

“The hell happened to this boy?” Henderson turned to look up at Pat.

It was a good question. Pat still didn’t know, as Brett refused to talk about it. He was certain, however, that Dean was involved—most likely he had chucked something at his son. Pat had tried, and continued to try to get Brett to admit it was Dean, so that he could have Dean arrested and out of his hair. Inexplicably, Brett was loyal to his attacker.

“My father beats me.”

Pat laughed nervously. “Don’t… pay any attention to him.” Then Pat perked and said in a deep voice, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” He waited for the reference to take, but Henderson freed himself from Pat, and wheeled past Brett and into the house.  He went straight for the kitchen, knocking into a chair as he opened cupboards with a broom handle.

“Where you keep the whiskey?”

“I’m sorry Mr. Lovely,” Pat said. “We don’t keep alcohol in the house.”

“What kind of respectable man doesn’t keep something stiff to offer his guests?”

Pat began to answer, but Henderson cut him off.

“Boy!” he screamed. Brett came into the kitchen. “Put some decent clothes on, we’re going out. Surely there’s a bar in this…” he omitted the obvious adjective, “…town.”

“Pat,” Brett said, “the old man and I are going to get drunk. Give me your car keys.”

Pat gave his son a look. He went into the refrigerator and pulled out a liter of Pepsi. “How about a nice cold soda?”

Henderson grumbled and spun the wheelchair around, gashing the dry wall. He went into his suitcase and pulled out a bottle of Wild Turkey.

“Get me a glass with ice, Mayor.”

Pat’s heart was fluttery with the kind of panicked palpitation that rendered him lightheaded. He put a handful of ice into a commemorative Oz glass and displayed it to Henderson, who scowled. With the glass in one hand, he had to open the bottle’s cap with his teeth. In doing so, his dentures flung from his mouth.  The teeth landed on the carpet.

“Get those for me, boy.”

Brett stepped back. “Um.”

“Brett,” Pat ordered, “get Mr. Lovely his teeth.”

Brett shook his head.

They all three looked at the teeth glistening on the rug. Pat finally bent down and grabbed them, the slime shivering his neck and armpits. Henderson opened his mouth. Pat looked at Brett, who nodded, amused. Pat eased the dentures halfway into the hot, moist mouth, then pushed the rest in with his fingertip. It made a sexual, unctuous sound. Henderson sucked the dentures into place, then looked at Pat as if this were a test, and Pat had failed.

ONE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY-TWO DAYS UNTIL THE OZ FEST

Tracking down Mr. Lovely was surprisingly easy. He was living in a retirement community in Tampa, and it only took a few phone calls to the clubhouse secretary to get Henderson’s number. Convincing him to come to Chittenango, however, was far more difficult. After attempting the nostalgic, sentimental appeal—which had absolutely no affect—Pat resorted to money. He offered Henderson $5,000. Henderson said no. He offered $7,500. Henderson said no. He offered $10,000. Henderson said yes. Pat hung up the phone that afternoon in December feeling shaky. Neither he nor Chittenango had anything close to that amount of money.

Pat woke the next day with an idea. He would raise the money, campaign for it, and inspire people to give donations. He had secretly missed running for mayor—politicking before small crowds, earning people’s votes. He’d do it again: persuade the village that bringing Henderson Lovely here could draw positive attention to Chittenango once again.  People from all over Central New York would come for the weekend-long festival to see the last living Munchkin. They would spend their money here; they might even return to see the Eerie Canal Landing Boat Museum, or the Chittenango Falls State Park.

To help advertise his efforts, Pat would build a sign—a donation thermometer to mark the progression of the money raised. Trent Shirley, Pat’s neighbor, cut him the 8-foot tall, wooden thermometer, and Pat painted it in his garage. He then strapped it to the roof of his station wagon, drove into town, and stabbed it into the snowy lawn of First Presbyterian Church, the location of the Oz Fest come June.

Chittenangoans were skeptical about paying so much to acquire Henderson, but they were willing to give it a shot, thanks to Pat’s enthusiasm and rhetorical savvy. First Presbyterian held a few bake sales; the Rotary Club sold spaghetti dinners, and the local pizzeria agreed to have Tuesday night specials—two one-topping pies for ten dollars—the proceeds of which went to the fund. Pat himself sold raffle tickets at the Chittenango Bears basketball games. All of this amounted to maybe a thousand dollars. Pat had to make his case for the Oz Fest elsewhere.

He campaigned tirelessly over the next few months. He went to Canastota, Cazenovia, Oneida, Verona, Manlius, Oswego, Utica, and DeWitt, putting up flyers, talking to people outside grocery stores and banks, and, most thrilling, speaking at town meetings.

…This isn’t just a cause for Chittenango, went the end of his speech. This is a celebration for all of Central New York, to prove our resilience in the face of adversity. To prove to the country that if we can dream, then we can survive, and if we can survive, then there is hope for all of America.

Pat loved giving this speech, and it grew more flowery the more he gave it. The response from the few people who came to the meetings, sitting in metal folding chairs in church basements sipping coffee from Dixie cups, was a polite applause.

Each time Pat drove into the village with his can of red paint to fill in another segment of the Bring Back the Oz Fest! thermometer, it had been toppled. Once, Pat righted the sign and was met with a spray-painted Fuck You. These were no doubt the antics of Dean Fleming.  He was making it clear that he did not approve of the festival. Pat was too focused on money to worry about the blaring irony of trying to honor someone who didn’t want it. One obstacle at a time, he told himself.