|Leaving Small’s Hotel|
YOU CAN READ
Have You Ever Wondered Why Microphones Don’t Resemble Ears?
THE MORNING, Albertine called three real-estate agencies to list the hotel
with them, and in the afternoon I ferried a dozen realtors out to look
the place over. They spent more than an hour with Albertine, going
through the buildings, walking along the beach, and listing the assets
and appurtenances. Every time I crossed paths with the group, one
or another of them was using the word charming, so it came as quite
a shock when they suggested an asking price considerably lower than what
we had invested over the years.
ON THE WAY back home, when I was about halfway back, I throttled down
and chugged along slowly to give myself some time to think. The bay
was calm. The pale afternoon light flickering on the surface struck
an autumnal note of things drawing to a close, of time running out.
I was just beginning to try to sing the chorus to “September Song” when
I spotted a rowboat ahead with someone standing in it, waving his arms.
When I drew closer, I saw that it was my rowboat and that the armwaver
was Lou, the grumpy guy. I pulled the launch alongside.
I am an avid eavesdropper, I have often wondered why microphones are not
made to resemble ears. After all, the point of a microphone is not
that someone is speaking, but that someone else is listening, or will be
listening. That is also the danger of microphones. What we
say never gets us into trouble unless it’s heard. Shout it at home
in your cork-lined room, and you’re safe. Tell someone, and you are
asking for trouble. Speak it into an open mike, and you’re courting
disaster. Yet who among us, upon discovering that an idea has popped
into our minds, can resist whispering it into an attractive ear or a microphone?
Consider the case of Bob Balducci, who rose to fame as a ventriloquist and ended up as assistant to a dummy. For quite a few years when I was a boy, “Bob Balducci’s Breakfast Bunch” was a program everyone knew. The Breakfast Bunch was broadcast from a restaurant where an audience of little old ladies sat at tables eating breakfast. The clatter of cutlery was always in the background. Bob ended his program with the same routine every time, saying, “Well, that brings another gathering of the Breakfast Bunch to a close, but it has been so wonderful being here with all of you lovely ladies this morning that I think we ought to do it again tomorrow . . . don’t you?”
The audience would call out, “Yes, Bob,” and begin cheering and applauding, and then the studio orchestra would strike up the lively Breakfast Bunch theme, and the program would be over.
On the morning that wrote finis to his career as host of the Breakfast Bunch, Bob ended the program with his usual routine, and when he said “I think we ought to do it again tomorrow . . . don’t you?” the audience chorused, “Yes, Bob,” and the lively Breakfast Bunch theme came up over their applause, but then, thinking that he was off the air, Bob turned to his second banana and alter ego, Baldy the Dummy, and asked, “What were the last words of our dear departed Uncle Don?”
“Gee, Bob,” said Baldy. “I haven’t thought of Uncle Don in years. I used to listen to him all the time when I was a little splinter. Poor guy.”
“I asked you what he said.”
“Well, you know, I’ve heard two versions of the story, Bob. In one, Uncle Don said, ‘That ought to satisfy the little bastards,’ and in the other he said, ‘That ought to keep the little bastards happy till next week,’ but in both versions the mike was on. Too bad. That was his best show.”
“And his last.”
“But in our case,” said Bob with an audible sigh, “there’s gonna be a whole new batch of desiccated old bats tomorrow.”
The microphone was open.
Like Uncle Don before him, Bob went down. The program went on, though. It was still called “Bob Balducci’s Breakfast Bunch,” but every show began with the claim that Bob was on vacation. Someone was always filling in for him.
I knew that Bob wasn’t on vacation. All I had to do to find him was tune in late at night, and there he was, still on the air — in a way. His new program was called “Baldy’s Nightcap.” Its star was Baldy the Dummy. Bob had only one line on Baldy’s show: “Yeah.” Sometimes it was, “Yeah?”
About once a month, at some unpredictable point in the program, Baldy would ask, “Bob?”
“Aren’t you the guy who insulted those desiccated old bats?”
“Baldy’s Nightcap” had a simple format. Baldy talked. That’s all he did. He didn’t play music or interview guests. He just talked. As he talked, he seemed to be doing nothing more than letting his thoughts run on, talking to a friend — me. Often he would begin by asking, “Have you ever wondered . . .” and go on to explore some question that he had been wondering about. Sometimes he would employ a prop. I remember his saying one night, “You’re probably wondering why I’ve got this log beside me. Well, you know what? I think it might be one of my relatives,” and he went on to reminisce — complain, actually — about growing up as a dummy in Falling Rock Zone, Minnesota. He never offered much detail about his private, off-the-air life. He was wary, I suppose, of suffering Bob’s fate. He claimed to live in a cave, but he never said a word about how he spent his days. It was as if he were someone else during the day, or asleep, or in a box. I would lie there, listening, and sometimes I would fall asleep, and wake, and sleep and wake again. It wasn’t that Baldy was boring, but he spoke with an infectious weariness that seemed to have begun long before the show came on and seemed as if it would continue long after the show was over.
He always ended the show in the same way, with a look at the miserable side of the news, an item or two from the day’s events that seemed to him most vividly to epitomize the pain and vulgarity of everyday life, followed by the words “Good night, boys and girls. Remember what Baldy says: stay in the cave. It’s a nasty world out there.” Sometimes, he would add, as if to himself, almost inaudibly, “That ought to satisfy the little —” and then the microphone would be switched off abruptly, leaving a wooden silence: dead air.
THE DUMMY is still on the air,” I remarked later, at the bar, where Lou
was again playing bartender. “I tune him in sometimes late at night
when I can’t sleep.”
“Really?” asked Jane. “I don’t think I’d want to listen to him late at night in a darkened room. There’s something creepy about dummies.” She shuddered theatrically. “They make my flesh crawl. I think it’s the expression on their little faces, you know — that smile, that creepy smile.”
“It puts me in mind of the risus sardonicus,” said Lou, polishing a glass.
“What the heck is that?” asked Dick.
“It’s a bizarre grin that forms on the faces of tetanus victims, brought on by spasms of the facial muscles,” said Lou. “Not a pretty sight.”
“You don’t say,” said Dick, pushing his glass across the bar for a refill. Jane reached toward the glass and held her hand over it to indicate that she would rather Dick did not have another.
“Why do they call it the — what was it again?” she asked.
“The risus sardonicus,” said Lou, “so called because in ancient times there was supposed to be a certain plant that grew in Sardinia, which, when eaten, produced convulsive laughter — sardonic laughter — ending in death.”
“Ooh,” said Albertine, with a theatrical shudder like Jane’s. “That is creepy.”
“And on that creepy note,” said Dick, “I think we’ll call it a day.” He took Jane’s arm and led her toward the door.
To Albertine and me, Lou said, “I’ll leave everything in shipshape shape here. You two turn in.”
“Thank you, Lou,” said Albertine. “You’re the perfect guest.”
When we reached the doorway, Lou called to us, in an imitation of the voice that I had used for Baldy the Dummy, “Good night, boys and girls,” and when we turned around to wish him goodnight he twisted his face into a bizarre grin.
IN MY BEDSIDE TABLE, I kept a small radio with an earphone. The
battery was nearly dead, and something was wrong with the volume control,
which made the sound rise or fall unpredictably when I tried to adjust
it, but if the atmospheric conditions were right and if I rotated the radio
until I had it aligned so that the signal was at its strongest, I could
still pull Baldy in.
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Copyright © 1998 by Eric Kraft
Leaving Small’s Hotel is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, dialogues, settings, and businesses portrayed in it are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Leaving Small’s Hotel was first published on May 11, 1998, by Picador USA, a division of St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010.
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