Henderson Lovely, Last of the Munchkins

ELEVEN THOUSAND, THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTEEN DAYS UNTIL THE OZ FEST

The first time Pat had seen the film, he was six or seven. He sat on the bristly, industrial carpet in front of the television. The huge, colored bulbs on the Christmas tree were blinking just beside him. His father was smoking clove-scented cigarettes. His mother watched from the doorway of the kitchen, moving a dishtowel around a plate. The songs and characters overcame Pat. He felt he was hovering just above the floor, disconnected from his home, his body. Afterwards, his father had told him that the author of this story was born in their very own village. In a house that was walking distance from their own.  Pat’s heart pounded with possibilities. Of all the places in the whole, wide world, the man who created the Scarecrow and Lion and Tin Man was born right here! What a gift. What a wonder. That night, when he found it impossible to lie still in his bed, he looked at the dusty globe that sat on his dresser and spun it on its axis, examining the continents and oceans.  Suddenly, he lived somewhere. He, Pat Pratt—a boy who had very few friends, who wasn’t good at sports or drawing, who wasn’t the brightest in school—was now somebody.

ONE DAY UNTIL THE OZ FEST

They sat through two excruciating episodes of Law & Order during which Henderson demanded absolute silence so that he could follow the plot. It was 11 PM, so Pat got out blankets for Brett, who would sleep on the couch, and dropped by Brett’s room to make sure it was presentable for Henderson. No surprise, it smelled like marijuana. Pat sprayed the room with half a can of Febreze until it gagged him.

Pat returned to Henderson to see if he needed help getting ready for bed. The old man’s chin was on his chest, the wattle of his neck glistening with drool. He was asleep.

“Want some help?” Brett said from the couch.

“No, I got it.”

“Good.”

Pat wheeled Henderson into Brett’s room. He tried to jostle him awake, but Henderson was stubbornly unconscious. Pat rubbed his bald head and sighed. He unzipped Henderson’s jacket and unbuttoned his shirt, and worked them off his small arms. The skin sagged from Henderson’s sternum like an oversized sweater. When he pulled off the socks, Pat was horrified by Henderson’s feet—they were purple and curled as though they’d gone rotten. Looking at this withered, decrepit man passed out in the wheelchair, Pat wondered what kept Henderson alive. He seemed so shriveled and frail that the slightest nudge of nature could tip him into death.

He easily hoisted Henderson out of the chair, and placed him into Brett’s bed. In an unexpected memory-lapse of the reflexes, Pat tucked the covers under Henderson’s chin, just as he used to with his son.

THE DAY OF THE OZ FEST

An hour after wrestling Henderson out of bed and rushing him into the shower, Pat and Henderson drove into town. Pat had assumed, which was apparently stupid, that Henderson had a replica soldier costume from the film, as had all the other Munchkins.  Henderson explained that he’d never once participated in one of these ridiculous events, so why in the hell would he have a replica of his costume? Henderson elaborated on this point all through breakfast, and on until they were in the car, just to be sure Pat had been thoroughly ridiculed.

They drove by the park in front of First Presbyterian. Tents, vendors, food trailers, and a few rides were set up and ready for the crowds. A massive, inflatable Emerald City Castle was coming to life. The stage and surrounding bleachers were being assembled where, after the parade, Oz scenes would be reenacted, and the best costume contestants would be judged.

They passed under the banner that stretched across Genesee Street: Welcome Back to the Oz Festival! Underneath was written: Featuring the Last Surviving Munchkin, Henderson Lovely. At the bottom, in smaller font: Dedicated to Jason and Dean Fleming.

People were already claiming their spots on the curb for the parade. Pat winced at the green-brick sidewalks that used to be yellow, and the FOR RENT signs hanging in many of the windows. In the last five or six months, many of the shops on Genesee had closed.  Worse, it was the Oz-themed ones that hadn’t survived: Emerald City Lanes, Oz Cream, and Auntie Em’s Café. Pat had tried to persuade residents in the seasonal newsletter to eat and shop locally. To offer his own support, he frequented these places almost daily.  He’d spent more money than he cared to admit bowling (alone), eating ice cream (in winter), and ordering the lunch special every day of the week (almost always shepherd’s pie). Eventually, even he quit these pitiful routines seeing as he was often the only person in these establishments.

Pat stopped the car to allow a convincing Wicked Witch across the street. She wore a prosthetic chin and nose, crooked and warted. She looked at Pat menacingly as she skirted by. Her eyeballs glowed white against the hunter-green of her skin. Pat waved, enthralled at the enthusiasm this woman had put into her costume.

“Isn’t she great?” Pat said to Henderson.

“That’s a grown guldern woman playing make believe,” Henderson said. “It’s pathetic.”

Pat suddenly feared that Henderson would be just as rude to the residents as he was to Pat. This hadn’t occurred to him before this comment, since he’d assumed that Henderson’s aversion was personal. After all, a lot of people didn’t like Pat. He told himself that was the price of ambition, of being the catalyst for Big Change. It wasn’t about popularity, though honestly, he hoped people would ultimately extol him once they saw how successfully the Oz Fest went.

“Mr. Lovely, I hope you’ll behave today.” Again, Pat employed his mayoral tone. “We are paying you a lot of money to be here. So please—”

Henderson pinched Pat’s thigh. Pat howled.

“Don’t you dare try to make me feel guilty,” Henderson snapped. “You’re the knucklehead who squandered a mess of cash to get a wrinkled old fart to wave in your parade.”

“Why are you even here then?” Pat was surprised he hadn’t thought to ask before. So he asked it again, this time more commandingly.