“Heh? And you call me the dummy!”
The audience roared at the familiar line and the ventriloquist and his dummy both took a bow and skittered offstage.
“Ervin Erskine and Enos, ladies and gentlemen!” Mr. Stedman reminded the theater’s patrons. “And now…”
Ervin had no interest in the rest of the vaudeville show. He walked as far as he could and still be in the building and let gravity place him on a chair. He let his dummy fall to the floor, briefly heedless of whether its nose would be damaged. His chin fell to his chest and he stared morosely at the dark floor.
“The applause doesn’t do it for you anymore, does it, Ervin?”
“No, Irene, it doesn’t. I don’t give two hoots about the applause.”
Irene didn’t look up from her needlework as she stitched up a tear in a performer’s dress. At 19, she was three years older than Ervin and treated him like a big sister.
“Neither does my uncle,” Ervin continued. “All he cares is that I bring home my pay envelope and give it to him. If I’m lucky, I’ll see a dollar or two of it. The rest goes to his gambling and drinking. And when he loses and gets drunk, I catch a clout on the head for not making more than I do.”
“But you are in show business,” Irene reminded him. “At least he doesn’t have you working at some terrible job where you could get hurt or grow old before your time.”
“I’m growing old before my time being the ventriloquist in Mr. Steadman’s show. My whole life is moving at turtle speed before my very eyes.”
“I mean it, Irene. Why, we’re about to have a whole new century – the 1900s. Things are happening out West, out in California. And I’m stuck here throwing my voice at this dummy to make other dummies laugh and to keep that dummy of an uncle in horses and booze.”
“So who’s the dummy, then?”
“Hey! Don’t be mean,” he complained.
“Then don’t be a dummy,” she shot back. “If you don’t like your life, change it.”
“So am I just supposed to up and leave and go West and not look back?”
Irene was still focused on her sewing. “You say that as though people don’t do it every day.”
“Well … I guess they do,” he allowed. “But my uncle…”
“Would be here and you’d be there with a whole continent between you.”
Ervin mulled that for a moment.
“You got paid before the show started, right?”
“And you still have the money. Your uncle hasn’t come to collect, has he?”
“No. I mean, I’ve still got the cash.”
“Surely it’s enough to get you far away from him to someplace where you could start over. If that was actually important to you.”
“Sure it’s important to me!”
“And yet you sit here night after night and complain about how terrible your life is instead of doing something about it. You talk about the wonderful things being done elsewhere and how you’d like to be part of that. And you always go on stage with your little wooden friend and then hand over your money to your uncle. Frankly, Ervin, I’m getting bored with it. Just like I’m bored with fixing Miss Maizie’s dress every night.”
“So why don’t you up and leave?”
“I’m not the one complaining about my life on a daily basis,” she reminded him.
At that she finally lifted her head and shot a nasty look his way. “Ervin, it’s very simple. Take charge of your life, or don’t.” She pointed at Enos, lying face down on the floor. “And while you’re trying to sort it out, ask him what it’s like to live your whole life with someone’s hand up your backside making you do things you’d never do on your own.”
Ervin reflexively looked down at his dummy, stunned by the brashness of Irene’s words. Then he stood up.
“I’ll send you a postcard from California. Thanks, Irene.”
He raced out of the theater, leaving both Irene and Enos speechless behind him.
Irene returned to her sewing and finished repairing the hem. She put the dress where Miss Maizie would find it for the evening’s second show. Then she sat in the chair Ervin had used and picked up Enos.
“Well, Enos,” she said, “he appears to be gone. Whatever shall we tell Mr. Stedman? The poor man now has no ventriloquist act for the later show.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Dollface,” the dummy appeared to say. “I gotta feeling something will turn up for him. And a lot better looking than that dumb boy, too. I thought he’d never leave.”
She smiled. “Let’s go see Mr. Steadman, shall we? ‘Irene and Enos.’ That’s got a much nicer ring to it.”
She threw her voice for the dummy again. “Kid, I think you just sewed your last seam. You’re really in show business, now!”