Lawrence Russell


§§ I don't use a dummy for my speeches as the world is full of dummies who think they are the masters of their own destinies. The average ventril can project his voice a few feet at best, whereas I can project over great distances. The corner of a room or the gallery of an auditorium, no problem. And while it might seem fantastic, I can do even better than that. It's not necessary to use a fake voice, squeeze it into a boomerang, throw it towards a dummy and hope for the best. A true master can work beyond such mechanical charlatanry.

Ah yes, I can see doubt in your expression. A trick is a trick, you say. Illusion is just a sigh in the forest, or a mirror at the end of the corridor.

My friend and mentor Morgan was a master of sorts. His mouth never moved, never betrayed the source of the projection. His expression too was always sublime, that of the gratified listener. But even he failed when it came to significant distance. He really didn't have the technique, the special knowledge, so he was a showman rather than a master.

He looked the part of the master, I grant him that. The gray Merlin beard, the serpent rings and the tattoos... these certainly marked him as different, like someone who had travelled a great distance in order to keep the ancient wisdom alive and pass along the secrets of a true magician. In the limited milieu of carnivals and music halls and commissioned private parties, he was good, yes. Many thought he was the best alive, actually, and referred to him as Magnus or Morgan the Magnificent. In the early days I thought he was magnificent too but then, as the years passed, I realized he was somewhat less of a genius and more of a bully and a hustler. Women liked him -- I don't know why -- and in his arrogance he came to think of himself as a poet, not merely a ventriloquist. He could be witty, to be sure, but poetry? His ventril projections were doggerel, just a collection of jokes and sarcasms that played to the child, the fool and, yea, even the criminal within us.

Morgan met a woman who was a society hostess, a patron of the arts until she became infatuated with his plays, those little skits the ventriloquist stole from Pirandello and others, and staged with his dummy. She completely lost her head over Morgan. At this time, Morgan was involved with a gypsy dancer from the circuit, a casual romance that he continued on with, despite his new found friendship with Mrs. Fielding & her salon friends. Of course I was at many of these soirees, as I was the other character in these ventril plays that so amused the innocent.

Yes, I was Morgan's foil. And by the way, please don't call me "the dummy" as I am much more than a wooden doll in an Italian suit, I assure you.

By this time I already knew all of Morgan's tricks and a few of my own, so I was in no way the second string in the act. But of course he treated me as if I was, especially around his paramours. Rita the dancer was different. She was always nice to me, and I enjoyed reclining on her lap in the Green Room as Morgan mouthed nonsense at her, the sort of love talk that idiots and certain Englishmen enjoy. I suppose Rita must've enjoyed it too, as her hands caressed me beautifully while Morgan the Magnificent reclined in his armchair sipping a glass of single malt, his lust masked behind a beneficent smile. As I said, his technique was good.

One evening when Morgan went to see Mrs. Fielding alone, Rita found me abandoned and disconsolate.

Why Uno, she said, you look so lonely -- where's Morgan?

She sat down on the couch, fondled my hair. She was still in her costume, which revealed most of her splendid figure, especially her long, mobile legs.

You look lovely tonight, Rita, I said.

Naturally, she thought Morgan was somewhere in the room, projecting his voice.

Really? she said. I don't feel lovely.

Why not? I said.

I feel neglected, she said.

She smiled at me, took a quick look around the room. I imagine she thought Morgan was deliberately concealed and playing a game.

Are you in love with Morgan? I said.

I don't know, Uno, she said. He drinks too much and is a selfish brute.

Does he hit you? I said. He hits me.

Rita pulled me close, gave me a kiss. Usually she was playing when she did this, although that night I felt she wasn't.

Poor Uno, she said. I thought you were brilliant tonight. The audience too.

She got up, started looking behind the furniture, anywhere Morgan might be concealed.

Morgan isn't here, if that's who you're looking for, I said. He has a date with Mrs. Fielding.

Rita paused, alerted by my tone.

That phony bitch, she said. Does she think she can buy him?

I expect so, I said. She's going to publish a book of his poetry.

Rita emitted a shrill laugh.

What? The Sonnets of a Ventriloquist? she said. I should send my brother over to deal with her!

Better than you going, I said. He's lost his head, I'm afraid.

Rita was looking at herself in the mirror, as if her reflection contained the truth.

You're drunk, Morgan, she said. You're drunk, and usually when you're drunk, you tell the truth.

Her tone was cold, unlike her usual vibrant self.

Watch out, Magnus, she said. I might run off with Uno.

Don't tease me, Rita, I said. You'd never do that.

Why not, caro? she said. You dress so nicely and you have that Old World charm. What do I care about Morgan?

She was sitting beside me again, stroking my neck. I allowed her to draw my head down onto her lap.

Tell me where Morgan is hiding, Uno, she said softly.

He's not in this room, I said.

Really? she said. How far can he throw his voice?

Not far, I said.

Can he project through a wall? she said.

No, I said. He can't project through a wall.

Is this a new trick? she said. Where is he?

I told you he was with Mrs. Fielding, I said.

Making love? she said. The truth, now. I could break your neck, Uno. It would be easy.

Easy? Indeed, her pretty hand was tightening below my collar, her nails digging in.

Please, Rita, I said. Don't be angry with me. I can finish off Mrs. Fielding for you if you like.

You, Uno? she said. You'd do that for me?

Yes, I said. I can do it, I have the power.

Rita released me, took a look behind the dressing screen, then below the couch. She was confused, and angry because she was confused.

I don't know where the hell you are, Morgan, she said, her voice raised. Go on, hide. I think you're mad. Poetry, you cheat? You're lucky I can't find you 'cause right now I'd stick my heel in your ugly mouth!

She rummaged around some more as I lay there looking at the moldering ceiling. After she left, I took stock of my situation. Could I finish off Mrs. Fielding as I'd promised? Her house was at least five blocks from the theatre, a long way for a ventril projection, even for me. But as luck would have it, Morgan and Mrs. Fielding showed up within the hour outside the dressing room door whispering and giggling.

They entered like truants, kissing and groping.

The dummy reeks of cheap perfume, said Mrs. Fielding as she dropped her ample arse onto the couch beside me.

Er, he doesn't like being referred to as the dummy, said Morgan. Call him Uno.

Really, Magnus, I know show people are inclined to be superstitious, but this is ridiculous, she said, leaning over and sniffing me again. Whew -- gypsy oil, I think.

Really? said Morgan. His suit just came back from the cleaners.

Morgan was fussing around, looking for his notebook, the source of his great thoughts, routines, and what he called poetry.

You should get a new dummy, said Mrs. Fielding. This one looks like an Italian spiv.

I knew the woman hated me, although she'd pretended otherwise when we were first introduced. She was a mezzo soprano at one time, and still had that powdered unreality about her that belongs to the Old Theatre. High-strung and false, typical of the breed.

Be careful, my love, said Morgan. Some of his friends are gangsters.

Mrs. Fielding twittered, undid a few buttons of her bodice. Far too tight, she said. Lord, I need a drink.

I only have whiskey, I said.

Well, I didn't say it -- it was Morgan ventriloquizing.

Oh he talks! said Mrs. F.

Her eyes always looked false to me, like glass, with black pinholes.

Well ask Morgan what he thinks he's looking for, she said, patting my leg.

His poetry, I said.

How noble, said Mrs. F. You mean he brought me here to this seedy dressingroom to read poetry?

Morgan handed her a glass of whiskey, said, I can never find the blasted stuff when I need it.

Sit down, Morgan, said Mrs. F. The poetry can wait.

Morgan was tottering, obviously quite drunk. He was still in his tuxedo and wearing makeup, as he'd rushed off right away after the show. What was going on here, I wondered. Could it really be about poetry? Could his vanity be that great?

Tell me, Morgan, what do you think is the ultimate act of intimacy? said Mrs. F.

She was preening like the little dog she sometimes carried around.

The ultimate act of intimacy, said Morgan. You know, I wrote a poem about that.

Pray do tell, said Mrs. F. But get rid of the Italian. I don't like voyeurs.

I found myself laughing with Morgan's wheezing laugh.

I could write a book about what I've seen, I said.

You give me the creeps, said Mrs. F. I'm going to put you below the couch.

And the bitch grabbed me and pushed me below the seat into the stuffy darkness and that weakling Morgan never raised a finger to stop her. He did nothing, just allowed this donna to do what she liked. This would've been humiliating except that a pair of soft hands immediately drew me backwards into a familiar embrace. Yes, Rita. She hadn't left the room earlier but had concealed herself behind the couch. Was I happy? One hand went below my jacket, exploring my back. Was I happy? She found the handle, and I was alive. Was I happy?

I was alive.

During the war I was assigned to a radar unit, Morgan was saying. Ventriloquism is like radar, y'know. Call and response. You send out a signal, hit the target, and the signal comes back. Just like a bat.

Fascinating, Magnus, said Mrs. F. Did you get those tattoos when you were enlisted?

A couple, said Morgan. I started out in a carnival.

Interesting, so colourful, said Mrs. F. You haven't answered my question.

Question? said Morgan. Oh, the ultimate act and all that. Make yourself comfortable. I have the answer here.

He waved a piece of paper -- an old programme, the sort of scrap he often used to write his grand thoughts on. Poetry. He called it poetry.

He started to read, affecting a sermonizing tone: Do human beings simply hear what they want to hear? Or is there a sentient spirit in all matter, in all objects once touched by the hand of love?

I love it when you talk dirty, said Mrs. F., interrupting him.

Morgan, drunk as he was, was caught off-guard, chuckled feebly.

Did I say something funny? said Mrs. F., drawling in the snooty manner of a born actor.

My mistake, said Morgan. Shall I read on?

Yes, go on, expose yourself, said Mrs. F.

I beg your pardon, said Morgan. I'm, I'm not an exhibitionist, you know.

What are you talking about? said Mrs. F.

You just said..., he said.

I said what, said Mrs. F.

Morgan topped up his whiskey, took a healthy slug.

I must be projecting involuntary thoughts or something, he said.

That's what I find attractive about you, dear Magnus, said Mrs. F. You're slightly mad, and real poets are mad.

What did you ask me to do? he said. I misunderstood, missed the drift or something.

Expose yourself, said Mrs. F. Any lover can do it.

Morgan looked at her dubiously, then slid off his chair to his knees.

It's that fucking dummy! he snarled.

For God's sake, man, said Mrs. F. Get up, forget about the dummy, will you?

Uno you sonofabitch, said Morgan. I don't know how you're doing this but I know you're doing it!

I could see his crazy eyes burning in the semi-darkness as his makeup started to melt.

I love Rita, I said. And we're running away together.

He tried to grab me, but Rita drew me back, then stood up. Mrs. Fielding gave a little shriek.

You're a reptile, Morgan, hissed Rita. You make love with her?

She spat, just missing Mrs. F.

For once, Morgan the Magnificent was struggling to find the words. His mouth fluttered, caught between ventriloquism and reality.

This is a bloody ambush! he shouted.

Who is this gypsy slut? said Mrs. F.

Slut? said Rita. And you, you plump hag... a poet of the boudoir, I suppose? I could slit you open like a pig!

And on it went, and through it all Rita gripped me tightly like a shield. I didn't mind at all, because I knew my career with Morgan was finished. In this, the moment of his undoing, he now knew I was more than a slab of wood in a suit.

Why Uno, he said. Why? Me, your old pal, Morgan. Part of a team, you, me. Uno... Uno, I saved you from death!

He was referring to the time when he found me in Italy at the end of the war. People were looting the great houses, burning what they didn't like or want. Yes, he saved me from a bonfire.

He is mad, said Mrs. F. He talks to the dummy as if it's alive!

He is a ventriloquist, said Rita. He thinks everything is alive.

Rita took me away with her (at knife point, I should add) and although Morgan made attempts to get me back, he never did. In truth, Rita tired of me quickly, as women do with dolls, especially when they discover men are around... and there were always men around for Rita. That's how I ended up in the window of this brothel, dear lady. Her brother, a wily Romanian, immediately saw a new potential.

Behold the talking doll, the supernatural lover. I sigh, yes. Is this to be my fate? I have had many careers over the years, and I will survive, whatever the needs, whatever my skill at projection is required for.

I see you are still skeptical, I read it in your face. Alright, I'll divulge my secret: I was designed by the great Leonardo himself. That's correct: Leonardo da Vinci.

Think of it this way: I am his son.

Uno. I suppose Uno is a soprannomi, a nickname, so I would be Uno da Vinci. Or, technically speaking, I could be Uno di Borgia, as my father was working for the Duke of Romagna, Cesare Borgia, at the time of my conception. Yes, I was made for the amusement of the lovely Lucrezia Borgia, and she was the first woman I ever knew.

So, take me home. I can be had for a small fee. I have many talents and you won't regret having me around. Notice how well I dress, pure Italian chic, tailored in Milan. Yes, I was trained by Lucrezia Borgia, and have learned from many.

Incredible? If you doubt me, unscrew my left leg. With diligence, you'll find that it's hollow and contains the drawings of my likeness and design done in the immaculate hand of my father. Not now, though. Later, later. We need to become better acquainted, as my dismantling would be the ultimate act of intimacy.

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Uno © LR 2008