FICTION December 14, 2012

Henderson Lovely, Last of the Munchkins

Henderson looked out the window and rapped his knuckles on the glass. He might have been looking at the families setting up beach chairs and blankets on the side of the road.

“I resented all the others for putting on their ridiculous costumes and dancing around in all your parades and festivals.” Henderson’s voice was soft and pensive, while retaining a throaty edge, as though anger were a breath away. “Before we were in that picture, we all worked the freak show circuit in carnivals, travelling round the country so people could gawk at us. I was Bitty-Ton. I wore a rabbit pelt on my crotch and carried an albino python around my shoulders. I’d been doing that since I was seven years old. Didn’t even know my real name. The one I got now I made up for the Oz picture. After the picture, I went back to being Bitty-Ton. You know the contract we all signed, how we were paid horseshit, got no royalties. Toto the guldern dog got paid better. And fifty, sixty, seventy years later, the only way we could make any kind of living was to dress up like clowns and come to your parades. Even after all this time, we’re still little freaks.”

“So… why are you here?”

Henderson looked at Pat disgusted. “I got my reasons, and I’m here. So keep out of my personal affairs. Fine with you?”

Pat turned into the large gravel parking lot of Oneida Savings Bank, where the floats and paraders were making ready. Pat found a spot and threw the stick into park. It went against his deep-seeded code to inflict anger upon an Oz actor, but he had taken enough abuse.

“Listen to me, Mister Lovely. I don’t give a”—he searched for the right cuss—“two shits what you have against me. But I have personal… affairs too. I sacrificed a lot to make this day happen. And I’m paying you handsomely for your services. So I’d appreciate it if you were a little bit more respectful.”

“It’s about the money?” Henderson shot back. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a tattered wallet, and whipped out a check. “Here’s the money, right here.” He jammed it in Pat’s face. “Take it. Take it and drive me to the airport. I don’t need it, don’t even want it.”

A small noise escaped Pat’s throat and bounced around his open mouth. He sucked his tongue in search of saliva. Just as he found a drop, there was a knock on his window. It was Maureen Benson, newly-appointed parade coordinator. She wore a headband with lion’s ears; her nose was painted black and she’d drawn whiskers on her cheeks.

Pat cranked down the window. “Hey Maureen, we’ll be right there.”

Maureen smiled at Henderson. She said to Pat, “We’re behind schedule. Just waiting on you.”

Pat rolled the window back up, slowly. He hoped the check wasn’t still in front of him.  Hoped it had never been produced in the first place. He looked past the check, through it actually. Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops, that’s where you’ll find me. He said to Henderson, “All set?”

Henderson’s glassy-blue eyes steadied on Pat’s. He said nothing for a long moment, then smiled. Pat couldn’t interpret it, but luckily, the check that had never existed was put back in Henderson’s wallet.

Pat tugged the wheelchair out of the back seat and helped Henderson into it. Maureen was there to usher them through the motley crowd of marchers. Designers were making final adjustments to the dozens of Oz-themed floats. Marching bands quizzed their instruments. Girls dressed as Dorothies or Glendas, and boys dressed as Scarecrows or Lions, darted around them. Then there were the regulars who came from all over Upstate New York to participate in any parade; these were the Civil War reenactors, the rescue missions with their army of dogs, the bagpipers, and the Shriners in their tiny cars.

Then they reached their float. Apparently, the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts had built it. A wobbly, cardboard rainbow with only three colors, not even the primary ones, arched over the seats in which Pat and Henderson would sit. Behind that was a slipshod yellow-brick road comprised of yellow and orange sponges. It took Pat a few moments to recognize the swirling mass of pantyhose and stretched cotton jutting from the back of the float—a twister.

Maureen hurried them aboard before Pat could find more flaws. Pat climbed on, then yanked up Henderson. Maureen’s husband, Rich, got into the black Ford pickup that would tow the float. He started the truck, and the stereo in the cab blared the film’s soundtrack. Maureen gave Rich the thumbs-up signal. There was a quick jerk, and they eased onto the road.

A group of twenty or so children dressed as Flower Munchkins surrounded Pat and Henderson’s float, shouting the lyrics along with the soundtrack. She’s gone where the goblins go, Below! – Below! – Below! Their voices were discordant but earnest. Pat was unaware of the addition of the children, but he was, at last, pleasantly surprised by something.

The float turned onto Genesee Street. A smattering crowd clapped and waved. Others looked on indifferently, talking on cell phones, or hands shoved into jean shorts. A handful of out-of-towners who thankfully showed up, snapped photos of Henderson. The children were more interested in the Smarties and Dum-Dums that the Flower Munchkins tossed at them. Pat spied a few kids perched on their father’s shoulders who waved ardently at Henderson. They seemed to have been told prior about Mr. Lovely, and were excited about witnessing him. Maybe when they grew up and hopefully remained in Chittenango, they would tell their own kids, “I saw the last living Munchkin.”

Henderson appeared to be enjoying himself. He shook his little hand here and there, calling out a squeaky hello to those who yelled his name. His unwaving hand tapped his knee to the music. His face even ribboned into a wrinkly smile, one that made him nearly unrecognizable as the crank who’d been staying with Pat.

It was at this moment—when Pat saw that this impossible parade was happening—that his heart seemed to radiate the entire spectrum of colors. He felt he could open his shirt and out would arch the rainbow he knew lived dormant inside him, and all the riches of possibility would sprinkle at the feet of his people. If only Brett were here to see this moment. But wasn’t he?

Just ahead, standing in front of the closed-down video store, Pat spotted a pair of crazed-looking teenagers. They wore colorful, striped shirts with suspenders. Their hair was heavily gelled and slicked back. Their cheeks were thickly rouged. Brett and Dean began shouting unintelligibly at Pat. Their pants, which Pat could now see since the crowd had given them space, were rolled up to their hairy calves. They both gripped paper bags.

Pat’s rainbow went monochromatic, then retreated back into him and sat there heavy in his chest. He turned away, and waved to the crowd on the other side of the street. Pat felt the float jerk to a stop. Brett and Dean were standing in front of the pick-up truck. The music had ceased. The crowd had hushed. Where was the police? Why wasn’t anyone doing anything?

The two approached, eying Pat. Henderson didn’t seem alarmed, but rather, amused.  Maureen had ushered the Flower Munchkins away. Brett and Dean climbed into the bed of the truck with some difficulty, and when they stood—only a few feet from Pat and Henderson—they wobbled. They’d been drinking. Pat couldn’t even look at Brett.  At this moment, he wasn’t his son.

Brett and Dean cleared their throats, smiled at each other, and then began. We represent the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild, the Lollipop Guild…. They sang out of the sides of their mouths. They kicked their feet herky-jerky style. And in the name of the Lollipop Guild—and here, they offered to Henderson and Pat the contents of the paper bags: two forty ounce cans of Genesee Cream Ale—we wish to welcome you to Munchkin Land.