'I want the one with Jumping Jack,' she said.
'I should have known,' he said. She always wanted the one with Jumping Jack, a glove puppet with a giant smile. The way Uncle Mayes moved him and made him talk, though, you could tell that the smile was fake and that all Jumping Jack wanted to do was sit down and be left alone to cry. It made her feel quiet and sad to watch him, and she liked that.
His stage sat in the center of the room. As a backdrop, he fixed a screen of orange dusk, the moon and sun on opposite corners of the same sky. He'd gone to school to be a puppeteer. The only school that offered a degree in what he called a 'tragic trade.' Slumped on cabinets along the walls sat his puppets, each of which he'd made himself.
'Jumping Jack?' he said.
She wriggled into a comfortable position. 'Yes. Make him real sad.'
'You always like him sad,' he said.
'People should be sad,' she said. Her mother wouldn't have let such a comment go. She would have pestered Fandy about what it meant. Sometimes she felt like her parents were afraid of her because they didn't know what to do with her. Her mother was a nurse, her father a police officer. There was something straight and plain about them, while she thought of herself as curving and meandering. She saw her uncle as curving, too, but even more so, with number signs and swirls, and here and there an exclamation point. She had drawn it once, and then crumpled the picture knowing that she had not gotten it right.
Her uncle tilted his head and nodded. 'Maybe,' he said.
She thought it was exactly what needed to be said.
'Who else?' he said.
'Make it real,' she said.
'The real one?'
'I like the real one.'
The real one was the play that had earned him his degree. It was about Jumping Jack falling for Bethel, a beautiful but cruel rabbit who strings him along until he faces the audience and cries in despair that he is nothing.
He preferred glove puppets, but he also had marionettes, stick puppets, and sock puppets, and he could make any shadow puppet that Fandy asked him to. They were so real that she'd had nightmares about the spiders and ogres.
'How's the light?' he said.
He adjusted a dial on the wall. 'Better?'
She nodded, imagining what he saw of her: a dark, mysterious figure sitting on his chair. Sometimes she thought it would be nice if he was her father. Other times, when she was alone, she thought he could be her husband, too.
He turned on his iPod and played with the volume, and Tchaikovsky's First Concerto bloomed onto speakers around the room—a story for the ears, she thought, of love and then loss, and then love again. Uncle Mayes' musical choices contrasted sharply with the story. He called it an irony of the bitter variety.
Milton, the narrator and Jumping Jack's best friend, leapt onto the stage. He was an old man with a cane and a monocle.
'Friends,' he said, eyeing Fandy. 'I have lived long, and longed in living, and seen. But never have I seen a tragedy such as that of my closest friend, Jumping Jack, now many decades gone.' He shook his head. 'To live,' he said, raising an arm, 'is the greatest tragedy, for one who has not known encompassing sadness,' he turned his back to the audience and watched the moon, 'must but wait a little longer.'
Fandy ate a peanut butter sandwich on a single piece of bread folded in half. She liked the first bite best, at the center where the bread curved on itself—the part that she thought of as the belly. Her mother sat across from her with her own sandwich. She ate with a napkin in the other hand, and a glass of water.
'So,' her mother said. 'What'd you do at Uncle Mayes' today?'
Uncle Mayes was her father's brother, and her mother didn't like him very much.
'Well,' her mother said sarcastically. 'That sounds fun.'
'What's so special about your uncle that you go to his house every day? Is it the puppets?'
'No,' Fandy said.
'I don't see what else it could be. The man holes himself in his house. He doesn't get out. He doesn't have a girlfriend. It's not normal.'
Exactly, Fandy almost said. Instead she looked away. 'I don't know.'
'I swear,' her mother said, getting up to wash the dishes and put away the peanut butter and bread. 'Sometimes I think you like him better than you like us.' Her mother half smiled, half joked. Fandy smiled back.
They sat in his basement on the old couch where they made up stories about the moose head on the wall. It had been there when Uncle Mayes bought the house. Fandy said its name was Otter. Uncle Mayes said it looked like a Travis. Therefore they called him Ottis, and he had been a farmer in Delaware before the unfortunate accident that landed him on the wall. He had worn overalls and collected jellyfish.
'I have something to tell you,' Uncle Mayes said.
'Is it bad?' Fandy said.
'You're always looking for bad,' he said.
'It's real life.'
'I know real life,' she said, feeling adult and smart.
'It's good,' he said. 'Mostly.'
'Nothing is all good.'
'You're a philosopher.'
As much as she tried to hide it, Fandy liked hearing news. She hadn't yet gotten over her youthful yearning for things new.
'So?' she said.
'I'm moving to Japan,' he said.
Her neck tightened and she stared at him for a long time, wanting him to ask her to come and knowing that he wouldn't.
'A friend from school sold a script to a production company. He wants me to come along to help make puppets and oversee the technical things. They're filming in Japan.'
'Why Japan?' Her jaw went slack and her hands felt numb. She bunched and unbunched them.
'I don't know,' he said. 'I didn't ask.'
She watched his face and his expression became forever etched in her mind as the correlate of betrayal. She saw that she could not alter what would be, and she hated him for it.
'Aren't you happy?' he said.
'I want to go home now,' she said.
He nodded sadly and said, 'If I had a daughter, I'd want her to be like you. Nothing different.' It was exactly what needed to be said.
After he left, Fandy became obsessed with trees. She spent some time with the girl down the street who had hair to her knees, but the girl was interested only in horses and drawing horses and talking about horses.
'What happened with Tiffany?' her mother said one day after Fandy hadn't gone to her house in a week.
'She's a freak,' Fandy said.
'She's not a freak. She's a nice girl, and you should be spending time with nice girls, like other girls do.'
'You spend time with her, then.'
Her father sat in his chair. He'd long since given up trying to communicate with Fandy. He was stubborn and plain, and he liked to smile about stubborn and plain things, like the foolishness of global warming and the economy.
'Well,' he said, looking up from his morning paper. 'It's the weekend. Don't you want to go outside?'
'You don't want to go outside?'
'No,' she said.
'Go outside,' he said.
'Honey,' her mother said.
'She needs to get out and do things,' he said.
Her mother watched her, and her father watched her, and she felt uncomfortable under their gaze so she left.
In the backyard there was an elm, a friendly, fat tree with a knotted trunk and low branches. It almost looked like a hand when she glanced at it quickly, and so she climbed it and sat in a crook between the trunk and a long branch. She pretended the crook was her mother, never looking at her but only existing and waiting for her to sit inside of her.
She took to climbing the tree every day. Her mother's face appeared in the kitchen window now and then, watching her and judging with her straight-line judgment. The thought that her uncle would understand shimmered in her consciousness, but she pushed it away before it became coherent language. She brought a notepad with her and drew pictures of trees, and the trees became more and more strange until they were trees only in her mind. A series of lines and dark shadings and faces peering out from the lined paper. A secret language between her mother, the elm, and herself.
One day her father sat in the kitchen waiting for her. She closed the door and saw him at the table with a gallon of milk by his hand, and she knew he was going to say something.
'What are you doing?' he said. He never beat around the bush, and he never spoke to her unless there was a reason.
'Coming inside,' she said.
'What are you doing in the tree all day?'
'I know you're sitting. What are you doing?' She imagined that this was how he talked to people he pulled over, or to suspects before he beat them into admission.
'Drawing,' she said.
He held out his hand. 'Let me see.'
She handed him the notebook and he appraised her latest picture before turning to an older one, and then another. 'Doesn't look like anything.'
'It's a tree,' she said, feeling mildly embarrassed to reveal a thing that had become so personal.
'Doesn't look like a tree.' He flipped to the oldest pictures. 'This looks like a tree. So does this.'
'They're all trees,' she said. 'You don't know how to look at them.'
He turned the notebook sideways. 'Like this?' he said. He cocked his head at a picture and squinted. 'Like this?'
'It's abstract,' she said, remembering the way her uncle had once described one of his performances. She wasn't sure if she used the word right, but she glared into her father's eyes, daring him to challenge her.
He grunted. 'The point is, it's weird for you to sit in that tree all day.'
'You were the one who told me to go out.'
'Well, you didn't understand me.'
'I went out,' she said. 'What's not to understand?'
'Don't backtalk me, Fand. Tomorrow, you go outside. And I mean further than the backyard.' He got up to put his milk away. 'And do something with that girl, Tiffany. Or Beth. For Christ's sake.' He tossed her notebook on the table and walked out.
An oak stood along a worn trail far in the woods behind her house. The oak was famous with neighborhood children because of a knob that protruded four feet high from its trunk, two knots that peered out like wrinkled eyes just above the knob, and an old scar below the knob that looked like a sly grin. She grasped the bulbous nose and hugged the trunk and shimmied into its branches, which she pretended was a shock of hair. She became a flea, which she didn't like, and then she became a sparrow with a nest, and the tree an old, smiling man. Because her uncle, at twenty-seven, was an old man, the tree became her uncle.
She sat in its branches and drew pictures of trees, and eventually the trees took on the shape of people, and the people began talking amongst themselves about balloons and tiger sharks and, sometimes, unicorns.
When she went home her mother smiled and asked how her day was.
Fandy returned her smile. 'Good,' she said.
'What did you do?'
'Exactly what you asked,' she said, and she went to her room, her mother staring after her.
When she was used to climbing the uncle tree, she tried a new one, its branches a bit higher and thinner. She worked at it for a half hour before she got purchase on the bottom branch, and she pulled herself up and sat and thought that this tree was aloof, like a cat. And so the tree became a cat, purring in her notebook beside her uncle and her mother. She named it Surry because it didn't remind her of anything. The next day she climbed an even more difficult tree, this one an octopus named Morgan. And the next day she climbed a guitar-playing rainbow that she named Jesse, which was a name she liked.
Pretty soon her notebook was full of trees, each with its own personality. Sitting amidst the leaves of a big elm named Kaybee one day, Fandy heard a voice from below. Her first thought was of her father, and she looked below with a touch of dread that she would have to climb down and play with Tiffany.
Instead, a girl her age stared up at her.
'What?' Fandy said.
The girl had long blond hair and eyes so blue that Fandy couldn't stop staring at them.
'I said, what are you doing up there?' the girl said.
'Sitting,' Fandy said.
'How'd you get so high?'
'I know that,' the girl said.
Because her eyes were so blue, Fandy elaborated. 'I hugged the tree and pulled myself up. You have to hug it with your knees, too.'
'Oh,' the girl said. 'My name's Olive.'
'Mine, too,' Fandy said.
'No. Do you want to come up here with me?' Once the words were out she realized what she'd done, and yet she didn't feel the distaste that normally came with being around others. 'I like your eyes,' she said.
'My mom tells me that all the time,' Olive said. 'I don't know if I can get up.'
'Hug it with your knees. It's easy.'
Olive tried and slipped, and she stood below the tree and looked up at Fandy.
'Kaybee isn't very friendly,' Fandy said. 'Maybe we can try my uncle.'
'Where's he?' she said.
Fandy swung over, gripped a branch and hung, then dropped. 'Come with me,' she said.
In ten minutes, they sat in the crook of Fandy's uncle tree.
'What do you do up here?' Olive said.
Fandy felt a little defensive, but she said, 'I draw pictures.'
Olive looked at her notebook. 'Can I see?'
'I don't like to draw,' Olive said. 'But I have a gerbil that I talk to.'
'What's his name?' Fandy said cautiously.
'Her name. Chocolate. I named her. We call her Chocky sometimes.'
'My uncle calls me Fancy sometimes.'
'I have an uncle, too.'
Fandy almost asked if he was a puppeteer but realized that would be stupid. Instead she said, 'Do you like puppets?'
Olive shrugged. She kicked off her shoes and they fell to the ground, and she swung her bare feet. 'They're okay.'
'I like puppets,' Fandy said.
'Are you going to show me what's in your notebook?' Olive said. She looked at Fandy with her blue eyes.
'Okay,' Fandy said, handing the notebook over. It felt good to have someone look at her pictures who she didn't feel was judging her. 'They're trees,' she said, 'but they're really not trees, in a way.'
'What do they do?' Olive said.
'Do?' Fandy said.
They set her uncle's stage with a nighttime backdrop, a moon on the far corner smiling down on rolling hills and a single, forlorn tree.
'Are we supposed to be here?' Olive said.
Fandy shrugged. Uncle Mayes had given her a key in case she wanted to visit. Olive turned the light on and stared at the puppets surrounding the walls.
'You can't turn it on,' Fandy said, flipping the switch off.
'Why not?' Olive said.
'Some rooms are meant to be dark.' Fandy adjusted the dimmer to allow just enough light to see. When she was satisfied she stood beside the stage. Olive sat in Fandy's chair, and Fandy felt grown up, like her uncle, as though he had moved on to something greater and she had filled his space.
Fandy opened her notebook. The first picture was of the mother. She went behind the stage, feeling nervous, and thinking of nothing else to do, she raised the notebook to the stage and said, 'This is the mother. She doesn't talk.' She flipped a page. 'This is Surry. He's a cat. He likes ham and grass, and he sleeps with the television on because it makes him less lonely.'
'I sleep with the television on, too,' Olive said.
'Surry likes my uncle.' Fandy flipped to a series of squiggly lines and number signs and exclamation points, and she raised it to the stage and said, 'This is my uncle. He's a puppeteer and he's in Japan because he's stupid.'
'What do they do together?' Olive said.
Fandy flipped to further pages, where the trees had taken on personalities and faces, and she found one of the uncle, the mother, and Surry. 'This is them riding a bull. The mother doesn't ride bulls; she just watches. And Surry doesn't ride bulls, either. He pretends to be a bull.'
'But your uncle rides bulls?'
'My uncle rides the biggest, meanest bull ever. It breathes fire.'
'Bulls don't breathe fire.'
'This one does. And it killed eleven people that rode it before. But my uncle had a magic saddle that made the bull like it, and they became friends and lived together, and the bull didn't kill anyone, anymore.'
'That's nice,' Olive said. 'Tell me another one.'
When her mother told her that Uncle Mayes was on the phone, Fandy resisted running to talk to him. Instead she walked from her room with her hands in her pockets, and she took the phone like she didn't care.
'Fance,' her uncle said. His voice was deeper than she remembered.
'Hi,' he said. 'So, d'you miss me?'
'I guess,' she said.
'I'll take that as a yes.'
She sat at the kitchen table.
'So what have you been up to?'
'Just stuff,' she said.
'Stuff, huh? You sound like Polly.' Polly was a surfing witch that he'd made in puppet school. She wore sunglasses and a witch's hat.
'No, I don't.'
'That's exactly what Polly would say.'
'No, it isn't.'
'Aren't you curious about Japan?'
She pressed her fingers into her palm. 'Sure,' she said.
'Oh, come on. Are you mad at me?'
'Then ask me about Japan.'
'How is Japan?'
'Great,' he said. 'Josh's show is awesome, and we have some great computer guys working with us that will make his puppets really come to life. You're going to love it.'
'I don't care,' she said. The words were out before she realized what she had said, and she regretted them, but they felt good, so she said them again.
'Come on, Fance. You don't mean that.'
'The show's stupid,' she said. 'And I don't want to talk to you now.' Fandy knew how much it meant to him to finally be a part of something, but she'd gone too far to not say the worst thing she could think of. 'And I'm not watching the movie, or any of your stupid puppet shows, anymore. They're for kids.'
He didn't speak for a long time. She wanted him to fall over himself apologizing. She wanted him to ask her to come to Japan and be with him, and she wanted to refuse him at first and then, only after he spent a long time convincing her, to agree to go.
'Oh,' he finally said. 'I'm sorry about that.'
'Okay,' she said.
'Okay, then.' He paused. 'Can I speak to your father?'
She brought the phone to her father and went to her room to get her notebook, and then she went out back and climbed the mother tree.
'Once the mother was sad because her daughter ran away.'
'Make her daughter's name Olive.'
'Olive ran away. The mother cried. She cried for a long time.'
'But Olive was only hiding.'
'No she wasn't. Olive ran away to China, which is better than Japan, and she played with all the bears there.'
'China has panda bears.'
'But these pandas were magical panda bears. One of them was named Tiki, and he was bigger than all the other pandas, and when the pandas wanted to kill Olive, Tiki protected her. Then Olive and all the pandas were friends, and they were happy. But the mother cried and cried.'
'Is that it?' Olive said. She leaned forward in the chair.
'That's it,' Fandy said. 'Except that the mother was so sad that she died.'
'Everything is sad.'
Her mother held out the phone. 'Fand, it's your uncle.'
'I don't want to talk to him,' she said.
'He's calling long distance.'
'I don't feel like talking.'
Fandy turned away and her mother returned to the phone. When she was done she said, 'That was rude. Uncle Mayes is going to be staying in Japan for a lot longer than he thought. He might sell his house.'
'Okay,' Fandy said. She walked out of the kitchen, her legs feeling brittle.
'Terry walks with a little limp,' Fandy said. Her uncle's puppet room was dim, and the stage was set with a surreal sky of purples and orange hues. 'Because he fought in a war against Nazis and bulldogs. He had a machine gun, but he gave it away.' She eyed Olive. 'He could probably beat your dad up.'
'I don't think so,' Olive said. 'I went shopping with my mom, and when we got back she called my dad and he took in all the bags at once.'
'Still,' Fandy said. 'He could probably beat your dad to a bloody pulp.'
'He could beat your dad to a bloody pulp,' Olive said, fidgeting in her seat.
Fandy cocked an eyebrow. 'Probably,' she said. 'And my dad's a policeman.' When Olive looked sufficiently impressed, Fandy went on. 'Terry likes Jesse, but Jesse likes Surry, and Surry's mean to Jesse.'
'Yeah, but it's true. Most things that are true are weird.' She flipped in her notebook to her uncle, and turned to the next page. 'Surry's mother died in a train wreck while Terry was in the war. Surry has a pet iguana.'
'I don't like lizards.'
'Surry does. He feeds it cow poo and eyeballs.'
'But it's real.'
'It's still gross,' Olive said.
Fandy felt mean. 'Surry can beat your dad up, too, but he can't beat mine up.'
'That's not true,' Olive said.
'My dad can probably beat your dad up, too.'
'Why are you saying that?'
'Because it's true.'
The puppets seemed to stare at Fandy. She hated them and she had to take it out on something. 'You're dumb,' Fandy said. 'You sit in that chair and don't do anything except watch me, and you expect me to do everything all the time like you don't even have a brain.'
Olive got up and clenched her fists and blew a puff of air. She looked at Fandy with her blue eyes once more, and then she stalked out. Fandy smiled, feeling terrible and relieved and empty. She turned the lights off and sat in the dark. She thought about her uncle for a long time, and she thought that being Olive is a thing that nobody can escape. And in the blackness, before the dead, estimating eyes of puppets, the trees lay on her lap like a great weight, their whispers like wind through their limbs.
Title graphic: "Actors in Waiting" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2011.