Henderson Lovely, Last of the Munchkins

Pat’s big break came when the Syracuse Herald Journal covered his efforts and included the story on the front page of the local section. Pat requested the headline, “The Mayor of Hope,” but the editor stuck with the banal: “Chittenango’s Oz Festival Returns, Wants Munchkin.” The end of the article provided contact information for donations, and soon after, the checks began to arrive. By the end of April, the snow nearly melted, Pat stood on a stepladder and scraped the bottom of the can to get enough paint to fill in the rest of the thermometer. Many residents came out to view the accomplishment. They clapped and cheered.

The moment didn’t last, however. An egg came hurling from nowhere and splattered the thermometer. Everyone, including Pat, looked for the source. The only thing anyone saw was someone across the street darting into the trees.

ONE DAY UNTIL THE OZ FEST

Pat assembled the lasagna while Henderson and Brett watched baseball in the family room. Every now and then Henderson would ask Brett about girls.

“You getting any snatch at school? Any pretty girlfriends you can invite over here?”

Pat quietly spooned the ricotta on the noodles so he could hear Brett’s answer. He knew little about his son’s personal life. He’d quit inquiring about it after his wife had left.

Brett laughed off Henderson’s questions, and said something about calling up hookers and putting them on Pat’s credit card. Fat chance, Pat thought. My credit card’s all maxed out.

The lasagna was in the oven. Pat took the Munchkin photograph from the wall, careful not to smudge the glass frame. He crouched beside Henderson’s wheelchair.

“Does this bring back any memories, Mr. Lovely?”

Henderson examined the photo, rattling his unsecured teeth around in his mouth. He then noticed the Oz memorabilia on the walls as if for the first time. He swallowed the rest of his bourbon, ice cubes crashing his lip. “What kind of life is this?”
“I’m sorry?”

“This is the way your house looks all the time? All this horseshit?”

“Excuse me, but—”

“Where’re the pictures of your boy or your wife?” Henderson looked gravely at Pat. “You got a wife, don’t you?”

“She left us losers,” Brett said.

“Looks like a child’s room in here,” Henderson said. When Brett thrust back on the couch and kicked his legs in the air, laughing, Henderson joined.

“Okay,” Pat said, standing and re-hanging the photograph. His hands were shaking.  “Okay.” He fled into the bathroom. I could tell you why the ocean meets the shore; I could think of things I never thought before. He sat on the toilet, fingering the triangle he’d made with the tip of the toilet paper, what he had once admired at a semi-fancy hotel. This couldn’t be the way it was going to go, he thought. No way.

The three sat down to the table when dinner was ready. Henderson ate a couple bites of the lasagna and salad, and then pushed it away and worked on his third bourbon. Pat hoped the old man was jollier in his intoxication, and so he tried engaging him. “Do you have any interesting stories to tell about being on the set of the Wizard of Oz?”

Henderson grumbled and shook his head.

Pat slumped, but during dessert—Strawberry shortcake with homemade vanilla ice cream—he tried again, this time whispering a question into Brett’s ear. Brett waited a moment, and then asked Henderson if he’d ever seen Judy Garland naked.

“What?” Pat slapped Brett’s arm.

Henderson took the question very seriously. “I sure wish. Had a fierce crush on her, yessir.” He twirled the ice in his glass, making music. “Damn shame what happened to her.”

“You mean, the interview on the Jack Paar show, when she said how unruly you all were, and every night you had to be rounded up in butterfly nets?”

Henderson glared at Pat and said very slowly, “I mean how she overdosed.”

This took whatever life there was from the meal, but Pat was undeterred. He had Henderson here, and he was going to take every advantage, no matter how it wounded his pride.

Once Henderson and Brett migrated to the family room, Pat abandoned the dishes to the sink and snuck a DVD into the player. He then backpedaled to sit in the recliner, and held Henderson’s expression in his periphery. On the television screen, pouty-lipped Dorothy scampered down a dirt road with Toto. Pat skipped ahead to where Dorothy opened the door of the once-airborne house, and the picture shifted to brilliant color, illuminating the flowers and yellow brick road.

They didn’t get very far in the scene before Henderson shouted.

“The hell is this?”

“I just thought we’d watch the scene in Munchkin City.” Pat was sheepish. “You know, where you come on.”

“No guldern way!” Henderson barked. “I never, not once, watched this stupid picture, and I want to die knowing I never watched it.”

“You’ve never seen it?” Pat turned to face Henderson as if confronting someone with a major crisis. “This is the most magical, amazing, wonderful—”

“Dad.” Brett never called him Dad. “He’s serious. Turn it off.”

The look in Henderson’s needling eyes revealed he was beyond livid.

“Will do.” Pat jammed STOP and sunk into the recliner.

“Good,” Henderson said. “Now boy, turn it to Law & Order. It’s just starting.  And you.” He shook his empty glass at Pat. “I could use a fresher up.”