Every Monday and Thursday morning at 10 am, John would lock the front door of his apartment, and walk half a mile to the nearest food mart. The cashier at the food mart told anybody who would listen that John always bought the same groceries. He would buy two small chickens, a box of crackers, a block of cheddar cheese, a bottle of milk, a bag of lettuce, a small loaf of bread, and a box of cereal. The only variation in his purchase was the type of cereal that he bought. Normally the inhabitants of John’s neighborhood would not take such an active interest in a middle-aged man, but John was a street oddity, just like the pot hole that never got fixed and the poison ivy that grew next to the yellow fire hydrogen.
Every day from noon to 5 pm, John would open the curtain of his front window, and he would put a puppet on display. During this time, John would sit out on his porch, and he would be busy whittling a new puppet. These life-size puppets, which included both humans and animals, had simple bodies. However, the faces of these puppets were so intricate, that many of his neighbors wished they had the courage to ask him for their very own face sculpture. Although all of John’s neighbors agreed that his puppet-making was abnormal; they all had different theories about what drove him to this particular hobby.
Ms. Peters, after going through a horrendous divorce the year before, felt that he probably decided to start making puppets after his wife left him; Donald, who came to the street once every two weeks to either pick up or drop off his son(joint custody), thought that John was probably a millionaire philanthropist, who had given away all of his money to very important causes, and simply enjoyed spending his days carving puppets; sixteen year old Amber, who spent a lot of time volunteering with special needs kids, felt that John was mentally disabled; and twelve-year-old max told all the neighborhood kids what his brother told him: That John probably had sex with those puppets.
One day ten-year old Suzie McPheet was riding her bike past John’s apartment. Suzie, who was an only child, had a plethora of imaginary friends. Although by the time she was ten she knew they were not real, every time she did a solitary activity they would come and visit her. On this particular day, one of them told her to lift both arms high in the air so she would feel as if she was a bird soaring in the wind. Suzie, who was an expert bike rider, complied with this request, and she also closed her eyes so that she could imagine that she was a white dove. Suzie was so immersed in her daydream, that she completely forgot about the infamous pot hole, and went flying off her bike as soon as her front wheel hit the crack in the ground.
Suzie was not hurt, but the sight of blood all over her legs and arms caused her to start bawling. John, who had witnessed the accident from his porch, frantically looked around the street for other people, and after realizing that there was nobody to help the little girl, reluctantly walked up to her. “Come inside with me,” he said. “I have some band aids that will help you.” Suzie was too occupied by her tears to argue, so she followed him into the apartment.
John washed her cuts and applied band aids to all the right place. The shock from the accident had worn off, but Suzie was now filled with a different shock. She was inside the creepy puppet man’s apartment! Only the apartment did not seem so creepy. There was an obscene amount of puppets in this living room, but all the puppets looked friendly, and the puppet man reminded her of her uncle Bill, the way he kept fretting over her. “Would you like a snack?” John asked, and Suzie nodded yes. As John went to the pantry to prepare a plate of crackers and cheese, a cat puppet caught Suzie’s attention. She walked closer to it so that she could admire it, and the face of the cat looked so realistic, she began to pet it. “That’s Whiskers, my first cat,” John’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “He ran away fifteen years ago. He was a tough cat, so I’m sure he survived the streets.” “He probably died from old age now,” Suzie added, and John chuckled at her remark. “Let’s eat,” he said. They ate the crackers and cheese in silence and, and after she finished eating, Suzie thanked John for the band aids, and walked out the front door.
The next day during math class Suzie told her best friend Shelly about her adventures. “I bet he uses those puppets as voodoo dolls,” Shelly whispered to Suzie. “Those puppets are probably puppets of his enemies, and he punches them and pours boiling hot water over them, anytime he feels a need for vengeance.” “I don’t think so,” Suzie whispered back, “he didn’t seem vengeful at all.” “Well there is only one way to find out,” Shelly continued. “You have to go back there again.” So Suzie, who had no intention of ever returning to John’s apartment, went on his porch that very day, and said, “Do you think you could fix me that delicious snack you made for me yesterday? I’ve been thinking about it all day during school,” and John, too surprised by the request to say no, agreed.
They sat in the kitchen, eating crackers and cheese, and chatting quietly. As soon as John finished asking Suzie the usual questions which grownups asked her ( What’s your favorite subject in school, what do you want to be when you grow up), Suzie asked him the question that had been on her mind all day.
“Why do you make all these puppets,” she said, staring him straight in the eyes. “These puppets represent my memories,” John answered staring back at her. “Each puppet is a memory of a person or animal that I knew at one time. While I carve the puppet, I am able to relive that memory; and when the puppet is done, my eyes can view a snapshot out of my life.”
“So each puppet is like a photograph,” Suzie asked.
“Exactly,” John replied. “These puppets were made for the moments in my life that I did not have a camera nearby.” He points at three boy puppets that are hanging next to the couch. One of them has a malicious smile on his face, another looks surprised, and the third puppet looks serene. “I grew up in an orphanage, and most kids came and went. However, there were three boys who nobody wanted to adopt, and we became fast friends.”
“There was Lenny, who was too quiet for most parents to want. He enjoyed reading, and even when his face was not in a book, he would look at people with this blank stare. Speech had a difficult time escaping his mouth, and on those seldom moments when he did say something, it was always profound. I remember one time he told us how he saw a nurse kiss one of the visitors, and although he said it quietly, without adding any commentary, it was enough to start many scandalous discussions among the boys.”
“The second boy I was friends with was my namesake. John not only had my name , he also had my personality. We used to be called the J twins, and the only thing we did not have in common, was looks. John was ugly, and many suspected that it was his looks that kept him from getting adopted. He had dry flaky skin, a cleft lip, a lazy eye, and a giant smudged nose. However, his looks did not prevent him from running around and joking with the rest of the boys.
“The last boy of our group, who was also two years older, was jimmy. Jimmy was too violent to be adopted, and he got into at least two fights a day. He only tried to fight Lenny, John, and I once a week, and because of the infrequency of our fights, the other boys considered us to be his friends. He was loud and exciting, and it was always Jimmy who came up with adventures for us to go on(adventures that often ended with us being locked in the punishment closet).”
“Why weren’t you adopted,” Suzie interrupted. “I don’t know,” replied John. “I once asked the headmaster the same question, and he told me some kids are just unlucky.”
“Anyway, one day when Jimmy was twelve and the rest of us were ten, he told us that one of the ladies who was visiting the orphanage that day, was a witch. She had dark hair and smokey eyes, and she had come to the orphanage with her husband to find a kid to adopt.”
“’Aren’t you too old to believe in witches,’ John asked, and before Jimmy had a chance to punch him in the face, Lenny said ‘witches do exist, but they don’t speak in a human language.’”
“The head master and the couple was taking a walk in the woods behind the orphanage, and the four of us decided to trail behind them. It was windless day, and we were too far from the adults to hear what they were saying. The couple stopped walking as soon as they saw a creek, and we used this opportunity to get closer. ‘The boys go swimming in this creek,’ the headmaster said, and the lady turned to her husband, touched his thin arm, and said something that sounded like gibberish. ‘I knew it, she is a witch,’ said Jimmy, who was hiding behind the tree, and he ran from his hiding place, and pushed the woman into the creek.”
“The woman only got wet, but the four of us got into a lot of trouble. We weren’t allowed to go outside for a month, and Jimmy had to spend three hours in the closet every day for a week. A year later Lenny got adopted, and 2 years later John died of pneumonia. Shortly after that Jimmy ran away, and I heard years later that he went to jail for robbing a house. However, that day we were still friends; and I will never forget the loud laugh Jimmy had while he watched the head master and the man help the woman out of the creek, the look of shock on John’s face as he absent-mindedly crawled out of the bushes he was hiding in, and blank stare of Lenny who stood next to me.”
Suzie looked at the three puppets again, and she no longer saw wooden toys, but instead she saw three energetic boys playing in the woods. Next to the those three puppets hung a lady puppet with a dreamy look on her face, and Suzie wondered about the story behind that wooden doll. She was about to ask, but she noticed that it was getting dark outside, and she had no desire to end the day with a punishment for not being home before sunset. “It was nice talking to you ,” Suzie said, as she hurried out of the house.
The next day at 4pm, Suzie showed up on John’s porch. Before John even had the chance to ask her if she wanted a piece of cheese, Suzie inquired about the female puppet. “That puppet represents my wife,” John said. “But this puppet represents a time before she became my wife, before I even knew her name.”
“After I left the orphanage, I went to the university. After class, I would go to the school library to study, and every time that I went, I would see the same woman sitting at a table and studying. The woman always wore long skirts with peasant tops, and she would keep her eyes on the her books, while she tapped her pencil against the wooden desk. She had long brown hair, and she always wore a clip to keep it from falling over her eyes. Her hair ornament always had a depiction of flowers on it . Sometimes it was rose, sometimes it was a lily, once it was a blue daisy, and when I would peek at her face from behind my books, her hair always reminded me of a wild and beautiful garden. One time she saw me looking at her, and she looked back with a friendly glance, and she smiled. I smiled back, but I was too shy to do anything else. I had grown up in a boy only orphanage, and the only women I knew how to associate with were nurses or teachers. So I watched her silently for weeks, the way one would look at flowers growing in the wild.”
“One day, after three weeks of silent stares, I noticed she had on a plain clip without a flower.’Where is your flower,’ I asked, forgetting to be shy. She looked at me with an amused expression and said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know anyone noticed my flower clips. I was actually wearing a tulip one today, but it fell out of my hair, and I accidentally crushed it with my foot. I borrowed this one from a friend. It’s hideous, isn’t it?”’
“’Not at all,’ I replied, and she giggled at my response. ‘I see you in this library all the time,’ she said. ‘Sit down next to me, so that I can get to know you better,’ and she tapped the wooden chair next to her with her pencil. I only needed one invitation. We became friends first, then we dated, and later we got married, but I made this puppet to represent a time when she was just a beautiful stranger who stared at her textbooks.”
“Did you have any kids,” Suzie asked.
“Yes,” John answered, and then he changed the subject.
The next day John was ready for Suzie to come over. He had a plate of crackers and cheese ready for her, and he sat on the porch waiting for her arrival. But she never came. The weekend rolled around, and there was still no sign of her. By the time it was Tuesday, John was ready to accept the fact that he would only see Suzie during her occasional bike rides, when all of a sudden he saw her skipping down the street towards his house.
He invited her in, and as she sat on his couch munching crackers and cheese, he told her the story of one of his dog puppets. Suzie had eaten a big bag of cotton candy earlier that day, and her eyes wandered around John’s apartment with sugary fueled restlessness. She noticed a dark curtain in the corner of John’s living room, and she was surprised that she had not noticed it before. “Whats behind that curtain,” she asked him when he finished talking. John’s face got serious. “I’ll tell you about that some other time. You are coming back right?”
“Well I can’t come tomorrow because I have karate practice,” Suzie replied. “But I’ll be back Thursday.”
“And I’ll have crackers and cheese ready for you,” John replied.
For the next four months, every Tuesday and Thursday (on Monday and Wednesdays she had karate, and on Fridays she visited her grandma), Suzie would spend an hour in John’s apartment. There one week where she had the flu, and only came on Tuesday, but every other week John knew he would be sharing his memories for two hours with a bubbly little girl.
Suzie’s parents thought she was doing a good deed by talking to John, and they encouraged it. “Poor man, he must get so lonely,” Her mother said. “It’s good that you provide him with someone to talk too.” Suzie’s dad nodded in agreement. Her friend Shelly had discovered beanie babies, and she no longer had any interest in a middle-aged puppeteer (even if he really did make voodoo dolls). The residents of the street had tried to milk Suzie for information, but Suzie enjoyed the idea of keeping her meetings with John a secret, and after a short time, they stopped badgering her with questions.
Suzie learned many details about John’s life. She learned about his adventures in the orphanage, about his quirky former co-workers, about his stern boss, about the sadness he felt when the headmaster of the orphanage died, and about the yellow flowers that John’s wife used to plant. She learned everything about his life except what lay behind the dark curtain. Suzie was usually too enthralled in his stories to remember to ask about the curtain, and when she did remember, John skillfully avoided the question.
One day Suzie asked him why he took the puppets out on the porch. “I feel my memories need sunlight to flourish, the same way a tree needs sunlight to grow,” John replied.
Another time, after her school had gotten a visit from a local author, Suzie asked John why he did not share his memories with other people. “Keeping my memories a secret makes them sacred,” John replied. “Nobody knows about the teacher who influenced me to go to college, or how I felt when I bought a parrot. These memories are special because they are private, and they only belong to me. If everyone knew about them, it would not be any different from a TV show. Nobody thinks TV shows are sacred because everybody has access to them. But I suppose you are too young to understand this.”
“I am not too young,” Suzie replied indignantly, who felt her lack of understanding had nothing to do with her age. “If you feel this way, why do you share these stories with me?”
John smiled and said, “I share them with you because sometimes a person needs to vocalize his thoughts, to make sure they are real.”
After four months of these visits, Suzie got some unpleasant news from her parents, that forced her to run to John’s house on a Wednesday. “My dad found another job, and we are moving to another town this weekend,” Suzie said with tears in her eyes. “It will be okay,” John comforted her. “You’ll make new friends and have new adventures. Come back tomorrow and we will have a proper goodbye. I’ll get you a surprise.” The next day, the cashier at the local food mart, told all of his customers that John had showed up in the store on a Wednesday night, and that he bought a big chocolate cake.
John and Suzie sat at a table while they munched on chocolate cake. “Will you make a puppet of me,” she asked, and John nodded his head. “You know,” She continued, “ You never did tell me what’s behind that curtain.”
“I suppose this is the my last chance to tell you ,” John sighed. He walked to the curtain and lifted it up. Behind it were three puppets. One was of the woman Suzie knew had been John’s wife, but she looked older, and she had worried look on her face. Next to the woman were two boy puppets, of different ages, who had downcast eyes and expressionless faces.
“After I got married I had two kids,” John said. “I was so grateful to have a family. I was never able to bond with people before I became an adult. Most of the people in my life came and went, and the ones who stayed either stayed because they were paid too, or they were boys who had the same luckless fate as I. Every morning I would wake up and be amazed that I had three people who wanted to share my joys and sorrows with me. I swore that I would never take them for granted. One day we were returning home from the movies, and my wife had forgotten her purse. I was tired that day, and I was annoyed that her careless action prevented me from getting home sooner. I couldn’t see the kids faces, but their squeaky voices were giving me a headache. At that moment, I wished that my entire family could disappear somewhere, and that I could lie alone in my comfy bed. All of a sudden a truck appeared out of nowhere, hit our car, and caused our car to flip over.”
“The police said it was a miracle that I survived the crash. The doctors said that it was a medical phenomenon that I did not have any broken bones. My wife and kids were not as lucky. All three died that night. I got a huge settlement from the truck driver who killed my happiness, and I was able to stop working. I retired from life, rented this apartment, and dedicated the rest of my time to reliving my memories. I did not want to go back to life and try to pursue happiness again. I had achieved happiness, and I had taken it for granted, and I did not feel I deserved a second chance. That was seven years ago.”
This was the first time that Suzie experienced what sympathy felt like. “I think you punished yourself enough,” she said. “Perhaps,” John replied. “Perhaps not.” They continued to eat their cake in a comfortable silence.
When it was time for Suzie to leave, she gave John a hug, and told him that she would miss him. She walked out of his apartment without looking back, and she knew that out of all the people she would never see again, she would miss John the most. He watched her walk out of his life, and he wondered how he was going to start spending his Tuesday and Thursday afternoons.
12 Years Later
It is a slow day at work, and I decide to give into my grumbling stomach, and buy something to eat. As I walk to the corner store, a coworker yells “Hi John”, and I wave back. I have been back in the work force for ten years, and the best part is that nobody at work knows about my puppets. I still carve them from time to time, but it has become a part-time hobby instead of a full-time occupation. I walk into a store and head for the fruit aisle, and I accidentally bump into a bookshelf. A book falls to the ground, and I bend over to pick it up. I had seen this book in many stores before, but I have never been a fan of popular fiction, so I always walked right past it. As I pick up the book I notice there is a photo of the author on the back. The face looks familiar, and I bring the book closer to my eyes. Although she is now a young woman, and has a different last name, I recognize Suzie’s face immediately.
So little Suzie became an author, I think, and I can’t help but feel proud. I turn the book over and see the title, The Modern Day Geppetto, written in big red letters on the cover. I open the book and start reading. After I finish the first chapter, the book falls from my hands, and I run out of the store. Maybe I’m not running, maybe I’m walking or jumping or skipping, because I am not aware of myself or the people or the cars that are around me. I can barely handle the horror of what I just read, and I stop next to a bench to catch my breath. It is difficult for me to breathe, and the first sentence of Suzie’s novel is resonating in my head: “Every Monday and Thursday morning at 10 am, John would lock the front door of his apartment, and walk half a mile to the nearest food mart.