Dinah Cox

THE UMBRELLA IS A MARK OF DISTINCTION

     So much for vacation time. None of that chestnut poinsettia business seemed to bring him any cheer. Buck up, he told himself. You're no Charlie Chaplin in Limelight; you're hardly that attractive. Consumerism is here to stay, fella, get over it and buy yourself a pair of stretch knit cuddle socks. No paycheck too low and no audience too small, he carried with him an oversized tricycle, a collection of kazoos, and banana peels both real and synthetic.
     The holidays usually found him on the potato bug circuit: schoolhouses and public libraries in the farm towns of Kansas and Oklahoma. Boohoo for sad clowns all across the continent. The New Year would come and go and he could celebrate by painting another teardrop on his cheek. Happy Christmas. Pack your bags full of discount candy canes and hit the road.
     He was in the middle of his Robin Hood routine, a chipmunk puppet poised on the end of his left hand, when a rotten tomato hit the edge of the stage. Juice and seeds showered the audience. A child squealed. He pulled an arrow from his quiver and aimed for the back row.
     "Who goes there?" he said. "Stand up and show yourself."
     No one answered. The audience, school age children and their parents, murmured their familiar pattern of questions and answers.
     "Who goes there," he said again, but he knew the answer. The librarian's nineteen-year-old son, just back from military kitchen duty in the Middle East, knew how to cause plenty of trouble.
     During last night's show he had pulled the fire alarm and later, made a phony announcement on the public address system. The librarian had apologized profusely.
     "He's not used to big crowds," she had said, offering free movie passes to disgruntled patrons as they shuffled out the door. "I mean, not this kind of crowd."
     The librarian's son — his name was something biblical: Adam or Isaac or Jonah — had scrub brush blond hair, the mark of a crusader. Earlier, he sneered when Charlie offered him a candy cane.
      "Got any vodka?" he said. His lips were wormy slabs. "Peppermint Schnapps?"
     "He's a little excited," the librarian said. "The holidays and all."
     Another tomato hit the edge of the stage. Charlie hopped on one foot to avoid a collision with the slippery residue.
     "An intruder in Sherwood Forest," he said. "I shall fight you at every turn."
     "Blow it out your ass," called the librarian's son, now visible from behind his fortress of dictionary stands. Today he wore an olive green jacket with American flags stitched to both shoulders. "Bob Hope is dead and he's still better than you."
     Charlie took off his feathered cap and bowed, a low sweeping gesture to accommodate spectators standing in the back. Outside, a late night garbage truck rumbled over ruts in the road. Charlie wanted to go home to his hotel room and roaring electric fire. Later, he would meet his nephew for a drink. The show must go on? He no longer believed in such cozy platitudes. Never would he reach the Palace, Broadway, the end of the tank town rainbow. He would live and die in small time shame.
     "I'm sick of this hokey-pokey crap," said the librarian's son. "Who needs it?"
      "You're right," Charlie said to the librarian's son. "Show's over."
     "Old man's got some fire in him."
     The audience members, rosy cheeked and damp, ambled toward the back door. Charlie was glad to see a few parents carrying stacks of books — some of them thick and ancient. He had been depressed to see the library's front desk looking like the express lanes at the supermarket — three lines for the checkout and return of laptop computers, two lines for film buffs, and one lonely line for the bibliophiles. The beep-beep of the electronic scanners reminded him of a hospital, life support gone dead.
     "I'm so sorry," said the librarian, rushing over from behind the circulation desk.
     "No problem," Charlie said. He was accustomed to lying to civil servants of all kinds. Tell the truth and you'll never be invited back. "I'll pick up my check in the morning?"
     "Oh, you're forgetting tomorrow's matinee," said the librarian. "For the Festival of Trees?"
     The librarian's son made gagging sounds, his neck and shoulders vibrating with machine-like menace. Inside the open tunnel of his mouth, his tongue wagged.
     "Right," Charlie said. "The Festival of Trees. Curtain goes up at 2:00."
     The librarian thanked him and grabbed a bucket of cleaning supplies from a closet in the corner. The son reluctantly mopped the tomato juice from the edge of the stage. A dark red stain lurked on the carpet below. Charlie wished for the smell of ammonia, bleach, anything to rid the place of its hovering cafeteria stench. Tomorrow he would bring a pine tree scented candle and light it backstage for good luck. At one time he believed in all that aromatherapy business — lavender and oatmeal and butternut squash. In his travel kit he carried a bar of soap that smelled of green tea. Not anymore. These days he believed in utilitarian antibacterial body wash, clean and simple. The candles he only used when he needed cheering up.
     His arrival back at his hotel room came too late to meet his nephew for drinks.
     "I'll come over right now," his nephew said before Charlie could beg off for the night. When the public library closed, so too did the town's one and only tavern. A sports bar across the river boasted of a big screen TV and dollar longnecks until two, but Charlie felt he couldn't handle the possibility of peanut shells littered all over the floor. He offered to meet his nephew and his nephew's fiancée at the Festival of Trees the next day at noon. He promised they would play carnival games and listen to carolers from some local church. Charlie dreaded the inevitable sleigh ride and its rush of cold air, but he looked forward to seeing Felix again. Born backstage and carried around in a dresser drawer, Charlie's nephew had been a vaudeville baby, his father a piano player and his mother — Charlie's sister — a first class comedienne. The piano-playing father was long dead and Charlie's sister was packed away in some nursing home somewhere, but the nephew was a pleasant reminder of times past. Family acts always brought down the house. One of their best tricks called for Charlie's nephew to ride a shiny new unicycle while balancing an umbrella on the end of his nose. People were suckers for that cute kid stuff.
     "Tonight's show really took the wind out of my sails," he said, but he was too late. Felix said he would tuck a bottle of whiskey under his arm and hightail it right over to Charlie's hotel room. Old times needed discussion.
     "Put on a robe or something, Charlie," Felix said. "Try to look decent."
     Charlie promised he would spruce himself up, but looked down at his drawstring pajama pants and decided a pullover sweater would do nicely. He would comb his hair and flatten the cowlick in the back.
     "Like a million bucks," he said to Felix before they hung up.
     Charlie cranked up the electric fire and turned on the television. Under the thin hotel blanket his feet were blocks of ice. Nothing would warm them. Propping himself up on a mountain of pillows, he watched a late-night talk show: a congressman bragging about a recent trip to Greece. They went to the Olympics, he said. The olive trees, the ruins, the amazing island of Crete.
     "My wife had her purse stolen," the congressman said, his slick hair shining underneath the studio lights. "The robbers knocked me down." Charlie pointed the remote at the television and raised the volume. He always liked to hear about the injuries of the rich and famous. The talk show host tried for some cheap jokes about the budget deficit and the congressman looked somber.
     "Here's the thing," said the congressman. His double-breasted suit jacket bulged against his sides. "I liked it."
     "You liked the Olympics," said the talk show host, pencil tapping on the desktop.
     "Yeah-yeah, the Olympics," the congressman said. "But what I really liked was getting robbed."
     The audience laughed. Easy crowd, Charlie thought.
     "No, I mean it," said the congressman. "I'm not accustomed to such intense levels of human interaction. The whole thing was really raw, really powerful."
     The host made a joke about butt-kicking action movie stars and cut to a commercial break. A teddy bear sang a song about fabric softener. Santa's elves promised serious stereo discounts. Charlie turned off the television. Spoiled, he said aloud, remembering the congressman. Needs to get mugged to feel important. I'd like to see him play the steel mill crowd in Youngstown, Ohio. They would eat him alive.
     "Ho, ho, ho," said Felix at the hotel room's door. "Got any trick-or-treaters in there?"
     Charlie opened the door and motioned for them to come in.
     "Uncle Charlie. You look just the same."
     "Felix," Charlie said. "My boy."
     If Charlie looked just the same — silver hair, spectacles, chin that tucked into his collar — his nephew Felix resembled a former child star fresh from the rehab clinic. Parts of him still seemed boyish — tight brown curls kept close to his head — but his mannerisms, a finger tugging an earlobe, a hand tucking into a pocket, seemed slower and more deliberate than Charlie remembered. His eyes were bloodshot and his face was rough.
     "My girlfriend," Felix said, nodding to the woman beside him. "Soon-to-be-wife. The mother of my children. Olivia, meet Charlie."
     Charlie and Olivia exchanged pleasantries. Olivia, who carried herself as a dancer might, grew up in this area. Her parents still lived in a farmhouse south of town. She and Felix first met in a nightclub in New York.
     "The Rainbow Room," Charlie said. "You ducked into a dark corner and declared your love for one another. The band played 'Moonlight Sonata.'"
     "We met in an elevator," said Olivia.
     Felix slapped Charlie on the back. "How's the old trick knee?"
     "My knee?"
     "Sure," Felix said. "You and everyone else in the whole damned world.
     You're on the drugs, I guess. Watch out. You know what they say: may cause nausea, erectile dysfunction, or accidental death."
     Charlie felt daily pain in his hands from arthritis, but he did not have a trick knee. Felix must have been thinking of someone else — another uncle perhaps, or a character in a novel. If Felix even read novels. Charlie suspected he would find Felix in the laptop line at the library.
      "I'm fine," Charlie said. "The old knee hasn't played a trick on me in years."
     The three of them sat down on Charlie's unmade bed and Felix motioned for Olivia to open the bottle of whiskey. Cross-legged, they arranged themselves in a circle and balanced plastic hotel-cups on their thighs. We're on a campout, Charlie decided. We shall celebrate a full house at an opening night party in the back corner of the green room. Charlie made a toast to old times and they all drank. After three long swallows Charlie asked Felix and Olivia how long they would be in town.
     "Big meeting on Monday," Felix said. "I'm in the ad biz now."
     "No kidding," said Charlie, warming up to the occasion. He launched into one of his favorite commercial-time tunes. "Calling … Rug Doctor! Help heal your ailing carpet! Rx for rapid cleaning, yeah!"
     "I don't know that one, " Felix said. "You know that other commercial? Cable Television is better than puppies? I thought of that. We did a whole series. Cable Television: better than puppies. Cable Television: better than the wheel. Cable Television: better than mom's apple pie. And I'm working on a screenplay. Seven nineteenth-century lifeguards. Black lifeguards. Very heroic."
     Charlie turned to Olivia and said, "Has he ever shown you his human cannonball routine? Boy, that kid could land like a bomb."
     "No," said Olivia. She turned to Felix and said, "You never talk about this stuff."
     "You're missing out," Charlie said. "This kid was the tops."
     For a while they made chitchat about Charlie's gig at the public library. While Olivia asked about the details of Charlie's handmade puppets, Felix searched under the covers for the remote and turned on the television. Trucks passing on the overpass outside made the whiskey slosh around in the bottoms of their plastic cups. As an afterthought, Charlie mentioned the librarian's son and his daily disruptions.
     "Hecklers," he said. "Some things never change."
     "You have to stop these things before they start," Felix said.
     Olivia told Charlie about her dream to return to this town and take over her father's farm. She would bring her children to the public library every Saturday morning.
     "Maybe," she said. "There's Felix's career to think about and everything."
     Felix nodded and changed the channel. Charlie, announcing Olivia would make a fine farmer, gulped another mouthful of whiskey. The late night news broadcast footage from some far away war and Felix put his arm around his girlfriend. He said, "Just call me Old Macdonald. Did you know the Amish were really popular this year?"
     Charlie stood from the bed and collected the plastic cups for another round. He wished for a board game or a round of Charades. A piano would do wonders. For a while Felix and Olivia argued about the difference between the Amish and the Quakers. Mennonites, Charlie said. They're the best.
     The next day Charlie put on his galoshes and headed for the town square. Rockabilly Christmas tunes played from a battery powered CD player. The Festival of Trees looked more like the festival of weeds. Salvation Army bell ringers looked haggard and desperate, their ears exposed in the wind. Charlie should have known this was no place for holiday cheer. He shook hands with Felix and gave Olivia a hug. The three of them stepped under an awning and ordered buckets of popcorn from a woman wearing reindeer antlers. Felix paid.
     "Mr. Big-bucks," Charlie said.
     "Just a decoration," Felix said, nodding at a fifty-dollar bill in his wallet. "I'm still the same backstage brat I used to be."
     Charlie sat down on a hay bale and ate his popcorn. He thought of Felix's better self, the boy he knew in the old days. Felix took the popcorn from Charlie and spoke of big business.
"You believe in all that crap?" Charlie said, still chewing. "Cable television: better than mom's apple pie?"
     Felix put an earnest hand on Charlie's shoulder.
     "Cable television is better than mom's apple pie. The future is here Charlie. Climb aboard or get left behind."
     "Oh, I know all that," Charlie said. "I'm not as out of touch as you might think. I have replaced my roller skates with roller blades. I use voice mail. My van uses global positioning satellites to tell me how to get to my next gig."
     "Be careful," Olivia said, staring at a Styrofoam snowman in the distance. "You don't want everyone to know where you are."
     "I'm serious," Charlie said. "I know how to roll with the punches. Sometimes, though, I wish I could make someone laugh. I would like to hear a guffaw from the gut."
     "Your show," said Olivia. "The children love you."
     "Yeah," said Felix. "Charlie's a big hit with the nursery school set."
     "Felix," said Olivia.
     "He's right," Charlie said, feeling extra sorry for himself. "I'm a regular Captain Kangaroo."
     Finally, they rose from the hay bales and strolled around a collection of storefronts — window displays with antique dolls and awkward arrangements of farm equipment decorated in the ubiquitous green and red ribbon. Construction on a sandwich shop made the entire block smell of carbon monoxide. In the center of the courthouse green, a bonfire simmered and died.
     "We're forgetting," said Olivia. "Our Christmas present for Charlie."
     "Oh, I didn't bring you anything," Charlie said. "But you can see this afternoon's show for free."
     "We didn't expect you to bring us anything," Olivia said. She pulled a small wrapped package from the front pocket of her parka. "It's nothing much."
     "Beautiful wrapping," he said. "Love the snowflakes."
     Charlie could not help but feel pleased. Mostly he just bought himself Christmas presents anymore. He could not remember the last time he had opened a package that did not have an impersonal baked good tucked inside — a pie from the mayor's secretary, a batch of brownies from the 4-H Club. This present even had his name on it — FOR UNCLE CHARLIE. He removed the gold cording and pulled off the paper.
     "Gorgeous," he said.
     "They're socks," said Olivia. Already Felix was up ahead of them, his head stuck into the front door of warehouse advertising old-fashioned toys and electronic games.
     Rolled into a tight ball and held together by a rubber band, this present looked more like a cinnamon roll than socks. Still, Charlie was moved.
     "They're not just any socks," Olivia said. "They're space shuttle slipper socks. Standard issue to U.S. Space Shuttle astronauts since 1982, these leather-bound socks are also a staple of wintertime comfort for the earthbound." She stopped and looked down at the puddles on the sidewalk. "I read that."
     Charlie thanked her and meant it. He thought of his Arctic hotel room and imagined a gently warming waffle iron closed around each of his feet. Tonight he would sleep well. He folded the wrapping paper and tied the gold cording around his wrist.
     "Don't you look flashy," Olivia said.
     They followed Felix into the toy warehouse and Charlie felt himself catching a little of the holiday spirit. Maybe this year he would buy himself some new handkerchiefs and couple of ties.
     Felix, mesmerized by a train set mounted to the ceiling, said nothing when Charlie and Olivia walked in the front door. Pulling a long collection of boxcars, the locomotive rushed around the store's perimeter. The checkout line was curiously absent of children. Their parents, doubtless too broke to purchase more than one of this year's hottest action adventure figures, clutched plastic boxes between mitten-clad hands.
     "Amazing," Felix said, pointing up to the train set. "This, my friends, is a genuine O-scale Pennsylvania flyer, complete with a functioning whistle, working headlights, and a smokestack that really puffs."
     "Sharp," said Charlie.
     "This building used to be a feed store," Olivia said. "I practically grew up in this place."
     "Got a penny?" Felix said to no one in particular. "We could put it on the track."
     "I can still detect the smell of fertilizer," Charlie said to Olivia, who fished for loose change in the front pockets of her parka.
     "Hurry," said Felix. "It's about to come around again."
     Charlie watched while Felix and Olivia argued about the contents of her purse. The turnpike was expensive, she said. She spent all of her money on tolls. Olivia told him to check his own pockets and Felix insisted he only carried a money clip these days; coins he either refused or tossed into the basket of some well-meaning charity. Charlie felt four quarters bouncing around in the bottoms of his own pockets, but said nothing.
     "Put your finger up there," Felix said to Olivia. "Put your finger on the track."
     "What, are you crazy?" she said. "Put your own finger on the track."
     Felix said, "Don't you want to feel something? Feel something real? Feel something authentic? Don't you want some kind of meaningful contact with the world?"
     "No," said Olivia. "I don't know."
     "Just put it up there," Felix said. "Just the barest edge of your finger nail. Come on, it's coming around again."
     "Why don't you?" she said.
     "Just do it," said Felix. "We don't have any more time to waste."
     Just before the steam engine came speeding toward them, Olivia looked around and saw no one was watching. The customers had proceeded through the checkout line and out into the parking lot. Most of the store's employees were looking at a ballgame on a television mounted by the front register. Olivia positioned her hand high above her head and inched her index finger across the edge of the track.
     "I can't believe I'm doing this," she said. "I never thought I would be so--"
     But before she could finish her sentence, the train came racing across the store, racing across the railroad tracks, racing across her finger. Charlie thought he saw blood.
     "Holy shit," she said, when the train had passed.
     "Not so loud," said Felix. "Are you all right?"
     "No, I'm not all right," she shouted. She put her finger in her mouth and sucked.
     On their way out of the store, Felix said, "It hurt, right? It hurt a lot?"
     "Goddamn right," Olivia said. Kids, Charlie thought. They must be too embarrassed to argue in front of him. In silence they walked the three blocks to the library.
     "I have an idea," Charlie said when they stopped at the door to the reference section. A light snow began to fall. "Why don't you do your unicycle act? Just for old time's sake? Olivia can watch from the audience."
     "I don't know, Uncle Charlie," Felix said. "I'm a little bit rusty."
     "Come on," said Charlie. "Just for kicks."
     "Yeah," said Olivia, cheering for the first time since her accident. The bleeding, at least, had stopped. "Come on," she said. "It'll be cute."
     "Tricky business," Felix said. "Maybe I can do it without the umbrella."
     "Nonsense," Charlie said. "The umbrella is a mark of distinction." He turned to Olivia and winked. "I read that."
     Felix finally agreed — only if he could practice backstage beforehand! — and they stepped into the warmth of the library. Audience members strolled through the stacks, their backpacks and briefcases reserving places for family members on the cushioned seats of folding chairs. Charlie and Felix went backstage while Olivia took her place in the front row. Through a hole in the velvet curtain, Charlie saw the librarian passing out programs.
     "What about this kid, this troublemaker?" Felix said, mounting the unicycle.
     "Oh, don't worry about the librarian's son," Charlie said. "He's out for bigger game than you."
     Felix opened the umbrella and slowly, carefully, balanced it on the end of his nose. He lost his balance and fell from the seat of the unicycle, his feet catching his fall. The umbrella tumbled to the floor.
     "Here," said Charlie. "I have an idea. You can ride the tricycle instead. The umbrella is really the important part, anyway. If something bad happens, you'll have protection. Plus, the trike has this horn, see." He pointed to an array of bells and whistles mounted to the tricycle's handlebars. "If you get out there and need saving, just honk the horn and I'll be out there in a flash. I'll be backstage changing into my lion's costume, but I can always come out without the tail."
     "Okay," said Felix. "Trouble and I honk the horn. Got it."
     The crowd noise grew louder as Charlie and Felix made their final preparations backstage. Charlie performed his pre-show ritual — candle lighting, stretches, and breathing exercises. He never bothered with the full face of make-up anymore, just a little color on his cheeks and a dab of lipstick for comic effect. When he was younger and his show drew bigger crowds, he might go through a whole stick of pancake in a week. Now he made quick use of an ancient tube of mascara. From his place behind the velvet curtain, he heard the librarian make her introduction. Everyone clapped.
     The Robin Hood routine went off without a hitch. Children laughed when Charlie juggled a set of bowling pins. He pretended to trip when Felix, hidden in a special spot backstage, rolled a bowling ball across the upstage edge of the platform. Someone cooed when Charlie pulled a live kitten from a secret pocket in his magic cape. Finally, Charlie went backstage to change into his lion's costume. He pulled the curtain back and Felix, standing tall on the pedals of the tricycle, emerged from backstage. Really terrific, Charlie thought. Just like the old days. He was finished with the right paw and strapping on the left when he heard a commotion in the audience. Peeking through the hole in the velvet curtain, Charlie saw the umbrella perfectly balanced on the end of Felix's nose.
     "Fuck this," said the librarian's son, right on schedule. "Who's this guy? Bring back the old man."
     Charlie waited to see if Felix would honk the horn. The umbrella fell to the floor.
     "Lost your balance, eh toughguy," said the librarian's son. "Whattsa matter, got a little case of motion sickness?" The audience mumbled. Charlie thought he heard the pleading tones of the librarian's voice. Again Felix did not honk the horn.
     Charlie knew he should attach his lion's tail to the strip of Velcro on the back pocket of his pants. Try as he might, he could not tear himself away from the hole in the curtain. He watched as Felix scooped up the dead umbrella and pedaled the tricycle across the front edge of the stage. When the audience hushed, he climbed up onto the seat and balanced on one foot. Ever careful, he opened the umbrella.
     "Enough," said the librarian's son, and in a great tussle of folding chairs and microphone stands, the librarian's son leapt up onto the stage and knocked Felix from the tricycle. Now the horn was out of reach. Felix would not honk for help.
     Charlie thought for a minute he would go out and restore order. His lion's paws planted to the floor, he pulled apart the curtain and stuck his head out in full view of the audience. He couldn't move. In the front row he saw Olivia, a Kleenex clutched around her sore finger.
     "Solomon!" said the librarian on her way up to the stage. "Please."
     Everyone was in a panic. The umbrella found its way into the hands of the librarian's son. He swung its curved handle at Felix's head.
     "You're dead," said the librarian's son. "Don't mess with me, man."
     Felix shouted for Charlie to help him. Unable to reach the horn on the tricycle's handlebars, he blew on a stray harmonica instead. Olivia started for the stage.
     Beep-beep: someone at the circulation desk was checking out a book. Charlie stood there with the curtains parted. Breathing in the smell of pine, he imagined himself standing in the middle of a forest, a real life Festival of Trees, a place where steady branches would protect him from rain.

 

 

 

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Dinah Cox has published or has stories forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, Copper Nickel, Cream City Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and others. She's a lecturer in the English Department at Oklahoma State University.

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