Allen White, mayor of Centralia, stared at the ventriloquist dummy that reclined in the box. He had asked his political party for funding, and along with a check, the package had arrived. It sported an orange face with pink circles around the eyes. Yellow hair swooned at the front of a mostly bald head. The packing peanuts were painted gold. Like a sloppy job with a spray can.
These puppets were nothing new. Other candidates were still using them in other states, even after the last election. Allen shook his head. He personally disliked the idea. He worried that the Vaudeville antics made it harder to lead. “Should a king compete with his fool?” he asked. On the other hand, the polls had their own truth to tell.
The dummy wore a suit. Allen saw a shiny corner sticking from the breast pocket, a small gilt envelope. He pulled it out. When he opened it, there was only one line of calligraphy. Each letter slanted to the right. It said: Now you can say whatever you want . . .
Allen stopped to imagine what a truly unfiltered day on the campaign trail might look like. However, he needed to speak at a nursing home in fifteen minutes. He closed the box and set it on the metal chair in the corner. He hummed a song from Pink Floyd as he left his office.
Allen took a deep breath. The smell of garlic, ginger, and grease wafted from the nearby Chinese restaurant. His campaign manager had rented the space next door for his headquarters, a defunct check cashing store, and the aroma was a nice bonus. The volunteers had already left. The mayor unlocked the glass door but left the large retail lights unlit. They made the space seem bigger, which made him feel smaller. When he reached his private office, he pulled the chain on his desk lamp. The dummy had migrated back to his desk. The box stood open. “I thought I put you away.”
He lifted out the puppet. A thin instruction manual hid beneath the foam peanuts. Badly written, like it had been translated into Russian and then back into English, but it outlined the basics. The mayor slipped his hand through the back of the coat and fiddled with the levers. They were placed along a central shaft that extended from the head. Like finger-friendly thorns on a rose. Each one controlled a different aspect of the rubberized face. Allen pulled the eyebrows down into a disapproving glare. He raised one eyebrow and pursed the lips. The dummy looked arrogant. Allen laughed in response. The mayor worked the small, expressive mouth. It seemed difficult to control.
Allen sat down as he started learning how to throw his voice. “Vote for me!” he said as he worked the mouth. He talked from the side of his own mouth and felt surprisingly good at ventriloquism. Allen reflected that he had practiced oratory since high school. He could capture emotion. He could annunciate. Ventriloquism was about controlling your mouth. That seemed like a good definition for politics too.
“My opponent is a loser!” Allen made the dummy say. He could tell immediately that the dummy lowered his inhibitions. It helped him understand why some candidates had been caught using the dummy to lie for them in the past election. Allen turned the head towards him.
“You need a name. What shall I call you?” Allen asked. He hiked the eyebrows to offer a look of surprise. He made the dummy glance slowly over his shoulder and then steered the eyes back into contact with his own. Even though the mayor knew it was only simulacrum, the pantomime of dialogue still created electricity. “People vote for people they know. Am I right?”
“You are!” the dummy replied.
“I bet you are a real Don Juan with the ladies. How about I call you Donnie?” Allen asked. He did not want to use the dummy but wondered if he could maybe use it at grade schools. Children liked simple, fun messages. The mayor, once again, closed the box and placed it on the steel chair. He was expected at bingo night.
The next morning the dummy had landed back on his desk. The box sat atop his morning paper. And the flaps stood open once more. It seemed like his staff was trying to prank him. Victor Lake stepped into his office and shut the door. He wore a gray suit. He always wore a suit. His necktie sported the face of Ben Franklin, the portrait from the money. “Thinking about using the dummy? Might be a big hit with your constituents.”
“Not sure. Performing the same song and dance as other candidates across the country. I feel like it makes me less independent.”
“Not sure it works like that. The only stripper I think about is the one in front of me.”
“You wanted to talk?”
“We need to say something about the munitions plant. Your opponent claimed this morning that you knew it was polluting the water. That it has been making people sick. She says you leaned on people to keep it quiet.”
The mayor sighed. “Rough neighborhood. Lots of immigrants. Alvarez thinks she can get their votes. Can you ask Doug to write my denial?” He taped up the cardboard box this time and set it behind the chair.
“Can we make the denial stick?” Victor asked.
“I drink the local water. So does my opponent.”
“It only impacts people with wells in that particular area. Some uncertainty about how far the plume has spread, though.”
“Whose side are you on?” Allen asked. He knew the public cared about parts per million and hydrologic mobility about as much as he did.
Victor held up his hands. “Just getting ahead of the story.”
Allen stepped around the desk and lowered his voice. “They make artillery shells, Victor. If Alvarez wants to criticize military infrastructure and local jobs, we can pop the champagne cork right now. We will express full confidence in our water supply.”
“Should we have some surrogates question her patriotism on social media?” Victor asked.
“Sounds like a good plan. Is freedom free? Does she not realize that we live in a dangerous world?”
Allen opened the door and motioned for them to leave. He also spared another glance over his shoulder, making sure he had stowed the dummy as intended.
Allen walked across the floor of the Lionel College Student Union. His shoes clacked against the tile. The school had invited the mayor to participate in the Donovan Lecture Series. Such a great venue. Great optics. Great acoustics. Professors would give extra credit for attending. They had even hosted Warren Buffett once.
Allen found his way to McBride Auditorium. Maroon curtains framed the stage. “We are all set!” Victor told him. Allen pumped the hand of his campaign manager before turning his attention to the Lionel College administrators. He knew them from Rotary.
A few minutes later Allen stood a few paces back from the lectern. He surveyed the auditorium. Not full but good attendance. He smiled with precision. The student body president read a litany of mayoral accomplishments: “. . . leading Centralia to consecutive years . . . honored by the Association of . . .”
Allen studied the lectern as he waited. It looked as old as the school. He saw his folder sitting on the shelf as Victor had promised. But he also spotted a small orange figure in the recessed space below the shelf. The student seemed unaware. Donnie sat with arms crossed in front of his knees. One of his eyes was closed. It looked as though Donnie, doing his best to hide, could not resist peeking.
The mayor felt an immediate chill. It was quickly replaced by hot annoyance. He had left Donnie in the office. His staff must have gone to great lengths to retrieve the dummy after he left. He appreciated a good running joke. But this was going too far.
“Questions from the audience?” the student body president asked.
The first girl stepped to the microphone. Thin and pale with round glasses, she wore tan pants and a Lionel College T-shirt. “What is your definition of leadership?” she asked.
The mayor, knowing that she had lobbed a soft pitch in his direction, saw the perfect opportunity to get back at his staff. He took a deep breath. “Before I answer that,” he said, “I want to introduce a special guest.” Allen bent down, feeling as though his body might have just expelled his spirit, and brought Donnie from below the lectern. The puppet, not actually very large, seemed to grow larger as Allen presented it to the crowd. He perched it atop the lectern. Its legs hung down across the Lionel College seal.
Victor shot Allen a surprised look.
“This is Donnie. He used to work in the entertainment industry. I told him he could hit the campaign trail with me today. Right, Donnie?” Allen looked at the dummy and waited for a response. He worked the head to make Donnie look around the room nervously.
“Was I supposed to write a speech?” Donnie asked. Allen had thrown his voice even better than he expected. It got a gentle laugh. Allen felt an exhilarating rush.
“We are just taking questions,” Allen explained. “The student at the microphone wants to know my definition of leadership.”
“I feel like you have a strong guiding hand.”
More laughter. Allen offered a deadpan response. “Well, that is one aspect.”
Donnie continued. “And you gave me a voice in the political process. Is that leadership?”
Allen returned his gaze to the audience. “I can see why Donnie feels that way. He was a gift from one of my supporters. I don’t want to embarrass the donor by naming him. He gave up ventriloquism years ago due to throat surgery. But he valued this dummy—"
“Who are you calling dummy? I’m a genius!” Donnie interrupted. Allen made the dummy sit taller and thrust his chin into the air.
“Sorry about that. But my supporter . . . he values Donnie and wanted somebody else to value this genius too. I brought Donnie here today to honor that gift. Giving what gifts you have and honoring the gifts of others, I think maybe that is a good definition of leadership.”
“But we mainly want cash going forward?” Donnie chimed in. Allen looked at Donnie in genuine alarm. How had he let that slip out? But the crowd laughed. Donnie had only stated the obvious. Allen saw with sudden clarity what lay at the heart of ventriloquism. He saw that the audience could accept the false distinction between the dummy and himself. They could believe, through the alchemy of performance, that what Donnie said could stand apart from what the mayor of Centralia actually thought.
Allen knew better than to break the momentum. He continued to weave Donnie into his answers. His only real trouble came when a hippie professor from the geology department came to the mic. Ponytail. Brown corduroy pants. White shirt. Hands in both pockets. “I have heard that Centralia may have buried information about a toxic plume in the groundwater. I have confidence in the people who conducted this research. Can you explain what your administration knew, when you knew it, and how you have responded?”
Allen felt his chest tighten. “I have read this story. I have full confidence in our water supply. I drink it myself. We bathe our children in it. That is one important aspect of local government. Our constituents are friends and neighbors. Our problems are shared, and we face them together.”
“The plume is miles from your house and from the city water supply. The concern is for wells near the munitions factory. They supply the original row houses from when the factory first opened.” Allen felt foolish for still holding Donnie but could not easily discard him.
“Do you live near the plume?” Donnie blurted out, talking to the professor.
The professor looked flustered. Or was it disgusted. He leaned into the microphone. “No. I do not live in those neighborhoods.”
Donnie shrugged dismissively. As though the professor should mind his own business. Allen was shocked. Had he just squeezed the wrong lever? Snickering laughter rippled across the room. The shrug had landed somehow. “Time for just one more question!” Donnie announced.
“What the hell was that story about the donor?” Victor asked in a low voice. Victor and Allen stood in the parking garage. Allen had just stowed Donnie in the trunk.
“Party money is donor money. That makes it true enough,” Allen said. He offered a mischievous smile. The impromptu lie had been an adrenalin rush. His fingers were still trembling a little.
“No practice run, no warning for the staff. What if you had bombed up there?”
“Well, who stashed Donnie up there in the first place? Did you do it?” Allen asked, pointing an accusatory finger.
Victor squinted his eyes. “No, man. I thought you put Donnie up there.”
“Then how did—” Allen began. But a car stopped. The window rolled down. An older man, balding with sunglasses.
“Great job today!” the driver said. “Donnie was hilarious!” Allen stepped over and shook his hand. They exchanged a few words before Allen returned and unlocked his car.
Victor shook his head again. “I told you. Constituents love this shit.” The two men paused again as another car passed. Its tires squealed against the slick garage floor. “But you know what it means when something plays well?”
Allen shrugged and waited for the answer.
“Voters will want more of the same.”
Allen swallowed hard. He had not really considered that.
Allen stood behind his car. Thin light from the garage door opener cast an ugly hue across his car. Like a rotting tomato. He had planned to take Donnie inside. His thumb hovered above the trunk release. He loosened his tie. The mayor disliked the idea of carrying the dummy back and forth. Bringing him into the house. Packing him into the car. It implied a level of codependence that Allen already resented.
He decided he could just store the dummy in the trunk. The mayor would, then, have him if needed. Allen slipped his keys into his pocket. As he opened the door that led to the kitchen, he stopped. Was that a muffled whisper? It had sounded like Donnie. He had caught the phrase “stolen election” and some words he could not make out.
“Get a grip!” the mayor told himself. He stared across the garage and listened hard. He barely breathed as the motion-activated light slowly faded. It left the garage in darkness. Only a wedge of light from the kitchen sliced across the cars. A bicycle hung from the wall. Its chrome glinted. But then Allen heard the prattle of the television. He realized he had just heard something from the news.
Dr. Shirley White rose before the sun had cleared the horizon. She was accustomed to early shifts in the ER. And late shifts. It allowed her to tolerate the long and irregular hours of a political spouse. It also allowed an acceptable number of public appearances in support of her husband. But she mostly did her own thing.
The light activated as Shirley stepped into the garage. She paused, sensing something amiss. Her house had been robbed once; she had that same feeling now. An instinct that something was out of place. Her eyes scanned the space. Bicycle on its hook. Stick tools in the usual order. A stack of “White is Right for Centralia” yard signs against the back wall.
“Oh, the stupid trunk!” she whispered. It was just cracked open. Allen had probably bumped the release on his key fob. Shirley stepped around her own car to shut it. She needed to leave soon but still looked inside. It was a primal impulse: the need to see what gets locked in the dark.
“Oh!” she gasped. The vacant eyes of an orange puppet locked with her own. Well, almost. The eyes were actually trained on her chest. The mouth hung open. One small hand lay across the crotch. The other hand was tucked behind its back. “Allen, why are you hauling this creepy thing around?” She slammed the trunk and opened the garage door.
Corn and soybeans flanked the road. Victor and Allen were headed to Broom Creek for a town hall. Victor had brought the latest copy of the Lionel Lantern. It featured a photo of Donnie talking. The campaign manager skimmed the article and read aloud. “White demonstrated his willingness to have some fun. He surprised the crowd with several minutes of an amusing ventriloquist routine.”
“Terrific. We should link to that story on Twitter,” Allen said.
Victor nodded but quickly turned the conversation to the issues and character of Broom Creek.
“So, they share the same problems as every other small town in the state. Is that a good summary?” Allen replied.
“Yes. But they have one advantage. They are closer to Centralia than most dying communities. They can aspire to become a trendy bedroom community. Centralia as the hub. Broom Creek and its neighbors as the rim of the wheel. This road as one of the spokes.”
“This road sucks.”
“Exactly. Improve the road between Broom Creek and Centralia, modernize the school, build some upscale houses, get a couple of trendy restaurants . . . and you become an attractive place for folks who want to avoid Centralia home prices.”
“Not to mention Centralia property taxes. Great angle. If we strengthen some of these small towns, it will help with rural medical access and drug abuse too.”
“You sound like Carol Alvarez.”
“There are some things we agree on.”
“Better keep that to yourself.”
A wiry man in jeans and a blue flannel shirt waited outside a modest brick building as they pulled into the parking lot. He looked like a farmer. His boots and belt buckle fit the part.
“This is the high school?” Allen asked.
“Just through grade eight. They bus kids to Loganville for high school.”
The man greeted them by the front bumper. “Thanks for coming. Big fan of your work. We will get you set up inside. Can I ask you something?”
“Of course!” Allen said.
“My wife commutes to Lionel College to finish her accounting degree. She told me what you did with Donnie yesterday.”
“Oh, well, you know. College crowd,” Allen demurred.
“I wanted to ask if you brought him tonight.”
Allen, like all politicians, hated to disappoint. He had not planned to use Donnie but quickly adjusted. “I think we could probably let him talk for a few minutes.”
“I appreciate that. This will be fun!” the man said.
Allen handed his keys to Victor. “Can you grab the dummy for me?”
Donnie had shifted to the very back of the trunk. Victor swept his arm across the recessed area to reach him, finally closing his hand around the head of the puppet. He felt hard wooden teeth behind the rubberized lips. And then the mouth snapped shut across the joint of his thumb. “Son of a—” Victor hissed. His thumb had red marks on both sides. “Just like he bit me!”
Victor shook his head. He must have triggered something in the internal mechanism. Like catching your finger in a folding chair. He grabbed the soft ankles of the puppet and let Donnie hang upside down as he carried him inside. His thumb still smarted.
Victor drove on the way back to Centralia. Centralia was the largest city in the district. However, the smaller towns still viewed Allen as less “urban” than Carol Alvarez. She had served as a licensed social worker before running a nonprofit agency. Her credentials failed to resonate in Broom Creek. “That socialism joke killed. You should do that one again,” Victor said. At one point during the town hall, held in the cafeteria, Allen had mentioned that his opponent had been a social worker. He had then allowed Donnie to interrupt.
“Did you say she was a socialist?” Donnie had asked. Eyes wide with alarm.
“No, social worker. You know, somebody who works for the state and tries to make sure people get the free services they need,” Allen had explained.
“Isn’t that a socialist?”
Somebody in the room had yelled, “Amen!”
“Have you practiced ventriloquism before?” Victor asked, putting on his blinker. “You are really good.”
“Thanks. And no, never had a lesson.”
In fact, Allen was surprised by his own level of skill. He seemed better than he should be, so much so that one particular moment in Broom Creek had actually rattled him. He had been focusing on bolstering the economic fortunes of the small community. Donnie had enthusiastically supported the idea.
“Just wait and see. There will be so much growth. Broom Creek is going to be a boomtown when I become . . . I mean when Allen goes to Congress. Believe me. You are going to see all kinds of things happen.”
Just a campaign promise. But his memory of that moment felt like narcotic fuzziness now. He could only remember hearing the words. Like Donnie had actually spoken without him. A disturbing idea. Like some sort of dissociative episode. Allen wondered if the hospitality cookies had been drugged. “What are the symptoms for diabetes?” he asked.
Mayor White sat in his campaign office. He needed to finish his speech for the big rally. Doug had written an excellent draft. His anxiety after Broom Creek had persuaded Allen to leave Donnie in the trunk and skip the Q&A. That format would also prevent questions about the toxic plume. The story continued to gather steam. A cancer patient who owned a well near the munitions plant had written an editorial. People farther from the factory were expressing concerns. And his opponent was getting traction with the “evil of staying silent” angle. Allen scribbled some jagged lines in the margin of his page. He had worked with Carol on some homeless initiatives and a drug treatment center. He liked her. But her campaign was treating him like a villain.
His phone buzzed. “This is Victor. Reporter wants to know if Donnie will appear at this rally.”
“News travels fast. Can you tell them no?” Allen asked.
“Some supporters were also asking this morning.”
“Am I going to let him give the speech for me?”
“What if he just introduced you?” Victor asked. “He could talk about how much he enjoyed his time on the campaign trail and act like it was never meant to last forever. He could mention how much he liked meeting voters. Express admiration for the political process. And then I could take him off stage and let you give your speech as planned.”
“Some sort of classy public goodbye. That sounds good. Thanks, Victor. What if one of the interns takes him away? That would level him down. Make him more like just another member of the staff. Like a loyal member of the party.”
“Good idea!” Victor said. He hung up the phone.
Allen eventually stepped out of his office and approached Sienna, one of his best interns. Blonde by choice and skilled with her makeup, she also had excellent posture. “Are you willing to briefly come on stage during the rally?” he asked.
Atkins Park had lots of foot traffic. Lots of parking. Nice stage for musical performances. They had drawn a crowd for the rally. Donnie was making a fine and reserved introduction. Allen hoped that it would offer closure. The dummy had been chewing up too much bandwidth. Like having a running mate for a single position. It distracted him, complicated his ability to talk about issues he had talked about for years.
Donnie turned his orange head toward Allen. “Can I say something else?”
Allen nodded but, from some deep pit of passive witness, felt himself veering off script. As though he were watching an accident unfold.
“I have also learned how nasty the other party can be. What liars they are. How do you stand the allegations? You are trying to make this state great again. The best. And then that woman rips into you because we make bullets for soldiers here in Centralia. Not nice. I would be outraged.”
Allen felt his knees wobble. He had just thrown himself into a box. “What am I doing!” he screamed inside his head.
“You said she was a socialist, right?” Donnie added.
“No, you said that!” Allen retorted. The audience laughed. Allen had no choice but to continue. He turned back to the audience. “I think we ought to feel proud that we support our soldiers. And Donnie is right. It is hard not to feel outrage when people try to tarnish my reputation. But what is good for this country is good for Centralia and vice versa!”
The crowd clapped. Donnie swiveled his head between the mayor and the crowd, and for just a moment, Allen thought he saw an unfamiliar look on the face of the puppet. A greedy narrowing of the eyes. The dummy looked as though he never wanted the applause to end. As though he believed every cheer was for him.
“Donnie, thank you for those thoughts. I will have Sienna show you to your seat now.” Taking her cue, Sienna walked briskly to the podium.
“Well, helllloooo, Sienna!” Donnie said. His tone sounded comically sexual. He tipped his head as though he were looking her up and down. Allen saw her stutter step as the words came out. He saw her chest flush red just below her collar bones. The crowd laughed, but some of that laughter sounded nervous. Sienna left the stage with a stiff stride.
The mayor could not easily set aside the angry tone that Donnie had struck. He could not easily exchange outrage for optimism. He forced himself to extemporize and only used his speech as a rough guide. “How many times have they held back economic growth here in Centralia?” he asked. No particular example came to mind, but he pressed onward. “They constantly work against us. They really do. They are against prosperity. Against democracy. Was the last election even legitimate?” Allen raged. The crowd glowed like coals in the fireplace.
As Allen finished his speech, an older man near the front yelled, “Bring back Donnie!”
Although the mayor was disappointed that Donnie still claimed their attention, he saw an opportunity and took it. “I intend to punish Donnie for his inappropriate greeting toward our lovely intern. We do not stand for that kind of thing in my campaign. Donnie will not appear with me for at least one week. Maybe longer.”
After a moment of confusion, the audience clapped. Allen smiled and waved to the crowd. He did not understand how the audience could accept this parsing of responsibility. But to his amazement, he had slipped himself off the hook.
The ER needed Shirley for the night shift tonight, the first of several in a row. She had already left. Allen headed straight for the basement. Disgusted with how things had gone at Atkins Park, with how he had lost control, he wanted to leave Donnie out of sight and out of mind.
Allen stepped into the room that Shirley had dubbed the Mayoral Man Cave. A little light still filtered through the small basement window. He dropped Donnie into the leather armchair and trotted up the stairs. Allen thought he heard a voice coming from the basement. “Many people are saying . . .” Impossible. He decided that an evening jog might settle his nerves.
An hour later Allen was on the last leg of his run. His head felt clear. Full of endorphins. He turned up the driveway and nearly tripped. A face stared out from the living room window. Even through the dusk, he could see the pink rings around the eyes and the shock of yellow hair. It just cleared the bottom of the pane and then jerked away. Allen felt the hair bristle on the back of his neck.
Breathing hard, his run multiplied by a sudden rush of adrenalin, Allen opened the garage door. His fingers trembled. He grabbed a hammer. He stalked to the living room but found nothing. Allen slipped quickly down the stairs, hammer still poised to strike.
However, Donnie sat exactly where Allen had left him. Or almost. The dummy had slid over onto one side. Both arms were twisted behind his back. Allen shook his head and slowed his breathing. A bead of sweat dripped from his elbow. He wondered if he was cracking up. “Just hold it together until you get elected!” he whispered. Allen assured himself that he would settle down once he won. He would head to Congress and do the work. He would right the ship after he beat his opponent.
Although she rarely used them, Shirley White, forced to cope with a constantly changing schedule, kept a vial of prescription sleeping pills in the medicine cabinet. Allen stole a couple.
At best, his imagination had run away with him. At worst, a possessed Vaudeville puppet lurked in his basement. “Or is it the other way around?” Allen asked himself as he climbed into bed. Exhausted. Sleep quickly pulled him into the inky void that only narcotics could provide.
And then, light streamed through the window. Allen had slept far into the morning. His mouth felt dry. His mind, still not entirely clear of the pills, vibrated like the phantom sound of an alarm after it stops screeching. Allen stepped into the bathroom. The cold tile woke his feet. An image flashed through his mind. He recalled Donnie standing at the foot of his bed last night. Had that actually happened?
Allen told himself that it was just a vivid nightmare, a misfire of the sleeping mind. He shook his head. “Stupid dream!” he told himself.
As he walked from bathroom to bedroom, his eyes traveled to where Donnie had stood. Allen saw a dark spot on the carpet. He squatted to touch it and felt that the spot was wet. “What in the world?” Allen said. He brought his fingers to his nose. The smell of urine. Allen now understood. His bladder had sought to wake him with a nightmare. A failed attempt to scare him awake. No matter. He grabbed a wet towel and scrubbed the carpet.
Shirley arrived home that afternoon. Trunk full of bottled water. Allen had asked her to pick up a few cases at the store. She decided to leave them for later. She looked forward to crawling into bed and reading some detective fiction. Her usual habit. “Oh my God!” she gasped as she walked into the bedroom. Donnie sat on the bed. Yellow hair obscured one eye. The other stared directly at her. “Allen, you turd!” Shirley smiled, her heart still pounding. Her husband had clearly played a joke on her. She kicked off her shoes and began to change out of her scrubs.
As she lifted the hem of her shirt towards her head, exposing her stomach, the hair electrified on the back of her arm. She caught a sense of motion from the corner of her eye. She jerked her head toward Donnie. The face looked the same but somehow eager. She saw a greedy look she had missed before. The dummy wanted something. No, it coveted something. In the same room with Donnie for the first time, Shirley fully realized how much she detested him.
“I bet you would like to watch me undress, wouldn’t you, Pinocchio?” She grabbed the dummy by the back of the neck. “You can just go downstairs and imagine whatever you want!” she said.
Allen adjusted his lucky red tie. He surveyed McBride Lecture Hall once again, waiting for the debate to begin. All seats were filled. More people stood against the back wall and along the sides of the auditorium. “More seating available in the courtyard. We’ll broadcast live . . .” the student body president announced. He had borrowed the microphone from the moderator. He paused and then continued, “. . . we need everyone seated before we begin.”
It took a few uncomfortable minutes to shift the surplus attendance. The crowd buzzed with energy. Their agitation finally coalesced around a single idea. “Donnie! Donnie! Donnie!” the rowdy crowd chanted. Some of them wore “Donniac” T-shirts. Allen saw another shirt that showed a rhinoceros in the crosshairs. He also read one that said, “It is NOT called the Brown House!”
The mayor pursed his lips. “They are all very special people,” he reminded himself.
“If we could settle down,” the moderator said. She was virtually ignored.
“Donnie! Donnie! Donnie!” The crowd was actually getting louder.
Allen shifted back and forth behind his podium, unsure how to respond. He saw Carol Alvarez looking down and shuffling her papers, forcing the mayor to deal with his own mess. Allen saw that he had unleashed the desire of his constituents to be entertained. He wondered how, short of losing the election, he might cram that back into the box. Campaigns were always a kind of performance, but this was different. Allen imagined Donnie stabbing the moderator while the audience cheered.
Donnie had stayed in the basement all week, even though audiences had begged him. This was too much pressure, though. Allen had planned for this contingency. He looked behind the curtain and nodded. Sienna carried Donnie out to join Allen on stage.
Certain factions of the crowd cheered and clapped.
Allen planned for Donnie to say a few scripted words during his opening statement. He would, then, make a joke about not wanting Alvarez to feel outnumbered and gracefully excuse the puppet. His voters would certainly respect that compromise.
Sienna wore tight black slacks and a form-fitting blouse as she walked purposefully across the stage. As the mayor took possession of the dummy, Allen immediately felt the same loss of control that had frightened him before. Donnie said, “You are a valued professional colleague. I have great respect for you!” as Sienna left the stage. It sounded purposefully forced.
A portion of the audience knew that it referenced his prior comment and laughed loudly. Some of them whistled. “Are you done?” Allen asked the puppet. He hoped to quickly move past the comment.
“Almost,” Donnie said, leaning forward as though he were watching Sienna leave the stage.
Allen felt panic rising inside him. What was he doing! But his opponent changed the focus by nearly shouting into her microphone. “Are you serious, Mayor White? Are you going to turn this policy debate into a circus by making me debate a puppet?”
“I see what you mean,” Donnie said. “She is nasty!”
“Donnie, that is not—” Allen sputtered.
“I am being completely serious. Why should I participate? Why should I remain on this stage? I did not agree to this. It disrespects the issues we came here to discuss.”
“If we could please just begin the debate?” the moderator begged, turning to the crowd. They had quickly splintered into factions and were beginning to yell at each other.
“Yes, please. Can we begin the debate?” Allen added.
The moderator turned quickly to the toxic plume. Donnie still sat across the podium. The mayor had failed to gracefully remove him from the stage. His hand had started to itch. Allen denied hiding anything. He suggested that a high degree of uncertainty still existed regarding the hydrology of the region, the source of the contamination, and whether cancer was clearly connected to the plume. Given the gravity of the issue, Allen left Donnie silent and unblinking.
“I have documentation from the testing firm. I have posted it on my website. It proves that they provided information to Centralia more than two years ago. No action was taken. Mayor White had an obligation to take decisive action. Further testing should have been conducted. People should have been warned and given the chance to move. A remediation plan should have been drawn up. The EPA should have been notified.”
“I take no responsibility for this. My opponent fails to appreciate how much information comes to City Hall. I have full confidence in the Centralia water supply. I drink it myself.”
The moderator corrected him. “The concern is for groundwater that feeds certain wells, not for the current municipal water supply.”
Allen retorted quickly. “The munitions factory is a large employer for Centralia and an important asset in the defense of freedom. Many people living near the factory work there. They depend on it for their livelihood.”
“Please,” his opponent interrupted. “Nobody claims that responding to hazardous waste, to protect the health of our citizens, requires shuttering the factory. And nobody should have to choose between their job and clean water.” Many applauded.
Allen felt his control of the dummy slipping again. His stomach dropped as Donnie jumped into the fray. “How would she know? Her family is from Costa Rica. They don’t even have a military. They rely on the United States for protection.”
Alvarez flushed red. “Sir, my grandfather was from Peru, not Costa Ric—“
“I have been hearing a lot of things about Peru too!” Donnie interrupted. The Donniacs stamped their feet and applauded.
“My heritage does not impede my ability to appreciate the security concerns of the United States. It is completely inappropriate to attack my backgrou—“
“Are you even a U.S. citizen?” Donnie interrupted. Allen personally liked Carol. How had he allowed himself to take the dummy in this direction? Did that voice even come from his throat? Sweat ran down the small of his back.
“Allen! How dare you attack my citizenship! Cancer follows the path of this plume. And you have ignored it. Your office has still not done anything. If you drink well water in the path of the plume, you are six times . . . six times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer.”
The mayor had not heard this. He opened his mouth to respond. Donnie responded instead. “Have they heard of bottled water? Have they heard of a moving van? Have they tried putting bleach in the water to sanitize it? If they are getting so much cancer, maybe they should find some better water. Sounds like a hoax to me.”
“Donnie!” Allen gasped.
“Maybe they had cancer when they crossed the border. Illegal immigrants moving here for cancer treatment. Many people are saying that. They come here and collect great benefits from the factory. Really great benefits, I can tell you. They use our great healthcare system. Best in the world. I have been hearing a lot about these people. They deal drugs and drive healthcare costs sky high. And the crime!” Donnie continued.
“What are you even saying?” Alvarez interrupted. “This is insane. I will not stand here while you peddle these . . . these . . . contemptible lies!”
The mayor saw Carol trembling with anger. And although his hand was not moving inside the dummy, Allen watched Donnie turn his head toward the audience. “A little sensitive about that citizenship question!”
“Go back where you came from!” one of the Donniacs yelled. He was young, sporting a thick beard and shaved head. He wore a “Make the White Choice” T-shirt. Several more shouts followed. The crowd jeered and booed. The anger in the room felt chaotic.
Carol Alvarez yelled into the microphone. “I am DONE with this!” She wheeled on her high heels and marched briskly from the stage. More clapping and shouting. But then the crowd mostly fell silent.
The moderator leaned into the microphone. “I guess that, uh, Mayor White, would you care to make a closing statement?” she finally said, her voice thin with stress.
Allen turned back to the microphone, certain that his mouth had played no part in the last few statements that Donnie had made. Allen improvised all the same. “You need a representative who can play the contact sport of politics. Who will stand up for the people. You need a representative who will not turn cancer into a political talking point. Which my opponent attempted here tonight. If you want a candidate who would walk out in the middle of a debate, vote for my opponent. But if you want a man who will stand and deliver, then I look forward to your vote.”
“Allen will definitely stand behind you. I can tell you that!” Donnie added. And as the crowd erupted once more with a mixture of anger, laughter, and applause, Allen hurried from the stage. He felt close to passing out and quite sure that he had gone insane. He had just destroyed his reputation.
Stinging silence filled the ride home. Shirley marched Allen to the basement and sat him firmly on the couch. “I have never seen anything like that from you. I am going to bed. You will not join me . . . and we will discuss this tomorrow.”
“Can we talk now?” Allen asked.
“Too mad to talk!” Shirley snapped. She turned and left the room, flipping off the light with an angry swipe.
Allen hurled Donnie across the room. The puppet landed once more in the leather armchair. Allen had bought a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign several years ago. He did not use it unless he was entertaining. But it was plugged in tonight. The sign cast a blue light across the orange face of the dummy. As though he reclined in a tanning booth. Allen jumped to his feet and stalked across the room. He wanted to smash the puppet under his heel. But even as he reached for the neck, Allen recalled how much his audience loved the dummy. He could not bring himself to destroy it.
But what did it matter anyway? Allen had just ended his political career. You could not level such racist accusations. You could not show such incivility. Television cameras had captured the whole thing. It would play for weeks on news channels across the country. Pundits would rake him over the coals. They would rake his whole party over the coals.
Allen flipped the dummy onto its stomach and pressed its face into the space between the cushion and the arm of the chair. The mayor dropped back onto the couch. He watched the small figure for a long time. No movement. No sound. Allen replayed the events of the last few weeks in his mind. “Why? Why?” he muttered. If only he had thrown Donnie in the dumpster as soon as the puppet arrived. “I was headed to Congress!” he whispered. Tears gathered in the corners of his eyes.
Allen just wanted the nightmare to end. He wondered if he could still denounce Donnie. Could he once again transmute the imagined distance between Donnie and himself into accepted fact? Allen also wondered, though, if voters might actually turn on him for denouncing the puppet? How had the dummy taken control? How had Allen lost control? Dull pain filled his gut. The dim electric hum of the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign was the only sound. It numbed his senses. Allen sank into sleep. Donnie mumbled “covfefe” into the seat cushion.
Allen woke with a start in the middle of the night. He felt the hair rise on the back of his neck. Limbs frozen with terror. Donnie sat straight in the leather chair. He looked sinister under the blue light. Allen recalled “The Inferno” by Dante. Ice filled the lowest level of Hell, the level reserved for betrayers. He imagined a similar blue pallor there. “What do you want?” Allen whispered.
“You need to tell me how great I am, Allen. I have said a lot of words. I say the best words. Only losers want to get rid of me. My answers were perfect tonight. Are you going to let that nasty woman beat you? That frumpy woman. Comrade Carol. That debate was perfect. Can you imagine us losing to Comrade Carol? How could that happen unless she rigs the election?” he prattled. It was only a whisper. But Allen heard every word distinctly.
“Stop!” Allen hissed.
“You want to be a winner? A tough guy? Get me back out there tomorrow. A lot of Mexicans live out by that factory. Let me talk to them. They want health insurance. They want welfare. But the Mexicans love me. Just wait and see.”
“Please! Please stop!” Allen stammered.
“I could probably cure cancer. These scientists . . . some of them are smart, but a lot of them are not so smart. Not as smart as me. I know lots about cancer. Take me into the office tomorrow. Have your staff say how much they love me.”
Allen tried to scream but could not make another sound. He slowly brought his hand up to his throat to see if his own voice box moved. He felt no motion. No vibration. Tears rolled down his cheeks. His legs would not move. They felt like the useless legs of a puppet. He could only watch and listen as the torrent continued. The dummy told lie after lie. “Your wife treats me very badly. I think she cheats on you. That campaign manager is very rude to me. Not a nice person. I think he gives money to Comrade Carol. He gives money to both parties. Nobody buys me though.”
Gray light filtered through the basement window now. Allen heard his wife stirring above his head but struggled in vain to rise or call for help. Shirley was preparing for her next shift at the hospital. How could she not hear Donnie talking?
A car door slammed in the driveway. The dummy dropped silent and slumped into the chair.
Mayor Allen White heard the murmur of conversation above him, multiple people talking with his wife. Words indistinct. One of them sounded like Victor. Were they here to arrest him? Allen wondered if he had imagined the whole night. Hallucinated it. Gone insane. Was this some kind of hysteria induced by stress? Had this crude little puppet really talked for hours? Had the mayor of Centralia really become the prisoner of this tiny incubus? Allen almost laughed.
He walked to where Donnie sat. He saw that the dummy clutched a corkscrew from behind the bar. Allen sought to take away the sharp object. He pulled forward on the corkscrew and the tiny hand that gripped it. Donnie slumped forward. Allen felt the small mouth snap shut on the back of his thumb, even as the corkscrew jabbed his palm. Both wounds hurt.
“You little troll!” he gasped. Allen jerked loose the corkscrew and jumped back into the middle of the room. The bite marks were clear. “You bit me. You . . . you drew blood. Who controls you? What do you want?” Allen whispered, suddenly certain that he had never actually controlled the demon that sat before him.
And then, he heard footsteps, only one pair of feet. Allen stood in the middle of room as Shirley entered. He still wore his suit from last night. He clutched the corkscrew in his injured hand and rubbed the bite mark with his other hand. Shirley wore fresh scrubs for work. Her hair was pulled back. She wore no makeup this morning. “Allen, you have company.” Although she still seemed stiff, some of her anger had dissipated. More than expected, actually.
“Reporters?” Allen asked.
“You think I let reporters into the house before breakfast?”
“I don’t . . . uh . . . who is it?” he asked.
“The chair of the national committee. A couple of big donors. Victor too.”
“No. I mean the head of the damn party. The head honcho. She just landed in Centralia.”
Allen lowered his head. He nodded, determined to show courage before the gallows. “I understand. They are asking me to resign. Alright. Let’s get it over with,” he said. He took several steps forward.
Shirley stopped him, putting her palm against his chest. “It . . . they don’t want you to resign.”
“Well, what do they want?” Allen asked. He felt truly puzzled.
“Bring the dummy,” Shirley said. She nodded toward the chair. Allen saw that Donnie was sitting upright once again, wearing an eager expression. Shirley looked at him and forced a smile. “They watched the tape of the debate. They want to put more money in your campaign. And workshops, Allen. They want you to conduct ventriloquism workshops for other candidates around the country.”
“I will tell them that you are coming shortly. Comb your hair!” Shirley said. She hurried back up the steps.
Allen drifted back to the couch. He sank to its edge. His hand still smarted. He could feel a little blood in the crease of his palm. He dropped the corkscrew. “What have I done?” he whispered. Only silence answered. An awful solitude filled his stomach. But then he rose with determination.
He looked at Donnie. “Alright then. Are you ready?” he asked. Allen adjusted his tie. His dream of becoming a congressman had just flared back to life. Like a smoking corner of parchment, suddenly kindled.