Alexandra Renwick is a dual US & Canadian author whose short fiction has been translated into nine languages and performed in audio and on stage. Though she splits her time south of the border between Austin and Portland, she currently spends most days up north, writing in a crumbling urban castle in Ottawa. More info at AlexCRenwick.com.
Nate was a goner the instant he lifted Monsieur Frappé from the battered leather case and set him on his knee. It was like love at first sight.
He'd never held a ventriloquist's dummy before. It was lighter than he expected. The Monsieur's clothes were straight out of old French cinema, suited to black and white canal shots with lots of fog: the antique sailor-stripe knit shirt; the miniature wool beret. The red polkadot scarf knotted at the wooden throat brought the term neckerchief to mind. Though the carved wood features—hooked nose, bushy eyebrows, deep-etched lines around the mouth—were clearly those of an old man, Nate had expected the dummy to weigh the same as one of his nephews. Back when he'd lived in his sister's basement the nephews had been young enough to still want to clamber up onto Nate's knee. The oldest, only three, would climb into Nate's lap and stare at Nate's face with solemn eyes, sucking his thumb while Nate tried to make conversation as he would with someone his own age. So, what are you up to these days? Nate would ask. Seen any good movies lately? Nothing in this world, Nate eventually came to understand, looked wiser or more all-knowing than a big-eyed silent child studying your face with mute intensity.
Not that Nate was great talking to adults either. But Monsieur Frappé was different. Monsieur Frappé was easy to talk to. The easiest person to talk to Nate had ever met.
"So, what are you up to these days?" Nate asked the dummy perched on his knee. "Seen any good movies lately?"
Though the wooden figure had no more response for him than a three-year-old nephew, it didn't matter. In the dim light of his small room's only lamp he and the Monsieur could hang out in casual congeniality. Nate sipped the beer in his left hand, resting the bottle on his left knee when not in use. On his right knee sat the Monsieur, wooden head bobbing in what felt like affable sympathy as Nate talked about his sister kicking him out, about feeling bad for not taking the bus all the way to Bellville to visit his mom at the home more often. About how it just got too frightening to feel so helpless, her not remembering who he was after a four-hour bus ride he'd have to repeat after only twenty minutes with her if he wanted to get back to the city in time for his night shift at the 24/7 Café. The Monsieur listened to it all, nodding with a wisdom born of mute, big-eyed intensity.
That night Nate met Kevin and a couple of his friends for beer down at the Lariat. If he'd still had his job at the café he'd have been elbow deep in greasy suds by ten. The novelty hadn't yet worn off of being able to go out because he didn't have to work. A conundrum, since without a job he'd run out of money far more quickly than he'd thought possible. Bar tabs at the Lariat didn't help.
Kevin's friends turned out to look much like Kevin. They all had that overfed sleekness Nate associated with the college crowd. If their hair seemed dirty it was the studied result of being cut the right way, of being styled with the right product from the right aisle at the right store. If their jeans had holes they were carefully orchestrated holes, factory planned and implemented, marketed intact with designer labels discreetly but not too discreetly adorning a small rectangle of denim-covered crotch or ass.
Kevin bought him a beer, which Nate sipped with a frugality he hoped didn't come across as fastidious. After this it would be water all night. He had exactly three dollars in his pocket, along with his ID and a key to the lock he hadn't needed since someone ripped off his bike from the café's back parking lot while Nate worked an extra-long shift. Cut through the metal cable, left its severed carcass in a puddle near the dumpster while, he imagined, the thief rode off on the bike Nate had owned since tenth grade.
Usually, Kevin's friends pretty much ignored him. So, what are you up to these days? Nate would ask them. Seen any good movies lately? Tonight, it would be different. Tonight, he'd brought Monsieur Frappé.
The Monsieur was an instant and resounding success. No sooner had Nate fumbled open the flap of his canvas duffel and pulled out the beaten leather case than the first girl paused on her way walking past, idly lingering to watch him pop the clasps and lift the dummy out.
"Oh my god, what is that?" she asked, perching one denim-fringed thigh on the edge of the vinyl seat closest to Nate. "Is that a ventriloquial figure? He's awesome!"
Nate never knew what to say to girls. Especially not the university girls who hung out at the Lariat, with their shiny hair and fresh-scrubbed faces and toenails painted in brushed-metal colors with polishes named things like aubergine steel and burnt sienna haze. Apparently, Kevin and his bros weren't as slick as Nate had assumed; having come off so aloof and confident moments before, they suddenly went all awkward and mumbly. Kevin sucked on the neck of his beer bottle like it was an oxygen tube and the only thing keeping him from passing out for lack of air.
Monsieur Frappé had no such trouble. Though it was Nate's mouth that moved, Nate's tongue and teeth and lips forming the words, and the words themselves coming from some weird place deep in Nate's brain, the Monsieur laughed and joked with the girl, complemented and teased her, made her laugh back and lean in and touch his polkadot neckerchief and striped sleeve. He used words like dames and hiya, toots and mademoiselle. Nate dredged up eighth-grade French class phrases (je t'aime! très belle!) and tossed them in a salad of old film quips and endearments and good-natured insults, hardboiled and noir.
Girls from all over the bar flocked to their booth at the back. Flocked, actually flocked, like bright beautiful shiny-haired birds, chirping and cooing and feathery. Someone—maybe Kevin, though Nate didn't stop to wonder much—kept an endless flow of beer at Nate's left hand. His right remained firmly shoved up Monsieur Frappé's backside, fingers working the hinged jaw until the bones ached. Nate's jaw ached too, from moving as much as the dummy's jaw moved—up and down, up and down—and from smiling so wide for five solid hours.
The world was blurry by the time the bar closed. Kevin and one of his friends had long since taken off with girls. The remaining friend stayed behind to pay their tab. Nate tried to hand him his three dollars but the guy waved him off, saying, "You were awesome, bro. Where'd you learn that shit? You were awesome."
The guy—Brandon or Brant or Brett, Nate couldn't remember exactly—gave him and Monsieur Frappé a lift home. Nate lied and told the guy he lived in an apartment complex four blocks from his actual place, too embarrassed to get out in front of the mildewed flophouse with the heaps of garbage, broken plastic strollers and rotting mattresses piled outside or leaning against the bent aluminum window screens. They pulled up to the curb and Nate stumbled out the passenger side, grabbing the duffel from the backseat and shrugging into the strap like shrugging into a one-armed coat. He thanked the guy and the guy replied, "Anytime, bro. You were awesome," and disappeared in a flash of red taillights down the street.
Adjusting the weight of the dummy's box across his back, Nate set off for home, feeling awesome. Monsieur Frappé seemed considerably heavier when he was being lugged over your shoulder in a duffel bag you'd found years earlier in the bottom of your dad's closet, a pile of stuff he'd never come back for though your mom always insisted he would. On your knee, receiving kisses from girls and ogling the deep vees of their teeshirts as they leaned and laughed, the Monsieur was lighter than air.
Turn one corner. Turn the next. Funny how neighborhoods could go this way, thought Nate, how one block could be cute college apartments and respectable hippie-lady yards with DIY mosaic birdbaths and tangled rosebushes, and the next block could be cars propped on broken bricks and feral cats spraying chain link fences in endless feline turf wars. It was in this stretch of street closest to Nate's place, cat-pungent and darker without many porch lights, that Nate saw the flier: Have you seen me?
He couldn't really miss it. The flier had been stapled at eye level in the exact middle of the street's only telephone pole, the stretch's only streetlamp bathing the black and white picture in its mellowing yellow glow.
His footsteps slowed. Though a moment earlier his feet, if clumsy from beer, had bounced with buoyant lightness, from one heartbeat to the next they grew heavy enough to grind to a halt, anchor him in place. He stood in front of the flier, the night no longer buzzy and bleary but sharp as the scent of cat piss. Have you seen me? someone had written across the top of the flier in thick black marker. Below, in the scrawl of a thinner pen, maybe ballpoint, the flier read, Beloved ventriloquial figure stolen from car parked behind the 24/7 Café. Please return to Thurman Theatre on 12th. No questions asked.
At the bottom of the page, centered on its own line, was the word REWARD in all capital letters, flanked by a pair of backward dollar signs and, confusingly, quotation marks. In the center of the page, black and white like a press release still shot or an old theater lobby card, sat Monsieur Frappé.
The striped sailor jersey, the craggy hewn eyebrows, the miniature beret tilted at a rakish angle. . . yes, definitely the Monsieur. But even if there'd been no photo at all, Nate would've known exactly what the flier was about. He could picture the night of the theft, rainy and with a hint of unseasonable chill. He could picture the scene of the crime, the parking spot beside the huge blue dumpster, rust flaking from every dented crease, grease and rotten lettuce slime oozing from underneath to puddle in dark oily splotches indistinguishable, in the dull yellow streetlight, from blood. He even recalled the car, sharp-finned, as rust-creased as the dumpster but more green than blue in the urine-yellow light. The trunk wasn't locked. The misting rain had been so fine it roiled rather than fell, dancing like millions of tiny insects in the streetlamp's halo.
Nate staggered the rest of the block home. His duffel felt heavier than it had even on the night he left his sister's house in the suburbs. His youngest nephew had gone to her with something clasped in his chubby baby fist, something he'd found in the pocket of Nate's jacket while rummaging for the bright twists of candy his uncle often brought home from the café, from the bowl by the register near the toothpicks and the penny dish. It was only a joint and not even Nate's, something forced on him by a fellow dishwasher at the café in lieu of his usual share of tips. Only a joint, but enough to scare his sister shitless, make her cry, make her toss him out in the night with only what he could carry and tell him not to come back until her kids were in college. Nate figured he'd be forty by then, practically dead. His sister was as lost to him as his mom, as the dad who'd once promised to come back for a pile of stuff even the charity shop didn't want.
Next morning, Nate's head pounded and his teeth were sore. The fingers of his right hand had swollen pink with blisters from working the Monsieur's jaw mechanism all night. He still managed to pull his jeans on one leg at a time, to brush his teeth because that's what you do.
He found Thurman's Theatre buried in a strip of tattoo parlors and piercing joints. A corner store promising lottery tickets and smoking paraphernalia. Liquor store windows oddly naked with their gaudy neon beer and vodka signs switched off, leaving them dead grey snake tangles in the daytime sunlight.
Nate stepped over crumpled newspaper and beer cans to peer past the thick dusty glass into the theater. Lights shone inside, but not up front, not in the lobby. Back and behind an empty candy counter, coming from what looked like an office. At first he tapped on the glass, then knocked. He thought he saw a person's shadow move across the lit doorway deep inside, but nobody materialized.
His pounding woke the guy sleeping in a moving-blanket nest in front of the shuttered ticket window. "Sorry," Nate said, but the guy was pretty nice about it.
"You got to go around to the alley," he told Nate. "Ring the bell."
The alley was considerably tidier than the street. Nate had to squeeze past a car nosed tight up against the theater's rear door in a manner surely no city bylaw condoned as a legal parking situation. A blue-green car, long and finned, creased with rust.
He shifted his weight. The corner of the box inside his duffel dug into a single vertebra low in his spine. The doorbell gave more of a buzz than a jangle when he pressed the button. Almost immediately, a man answered.
Nate felt his mouth hanging open, gaping wide like the mouth of a fish, like the mouth of a dummy with an unhinged jaw. The man in the doorway holding a brown ceramic mug of pungent black coffee was Monsieur Frappé.
Not exactly the Monsieur, no. Not quite. His skin sagged, droop-jowled and soft in a way firm chiseled wood could never be. He wore a pair of baggy trousers and a stained undershirt. Rather than a beret, a grey straw short-brim fedora sat far back on his head, very Sinatra. He had the Monsieur's bushy eyebrows, but he had ear hair too, big white tufts that seemed they might make hearing difficult. But it was him. It was definitely the Monsieur.
"Can I help you?" asked the guy, in a manner conveying zero interest in helping Nate with anything.
Nate had to shut his unhinged mouth before he could properly speak. "I think I have something of yours," he said.
They old guy's gaze narrowed. He studied the duffel slung over Nate's shoulder, maybe noticing the squared edges of the box inside, maybe calculating the size and shape of the item such a box would contain. "You better come in," he said, and stepped back to allow Nate to enter.
The tight snaking passage was narrow and dark, walls and ceiling painted black to absorb backstage light. Nate's eyes adjusted quickly. They passed a doorway open to the stage, massive theater curtains going by in a flash of faded red velvet scented like mothballs and stale lavender and cigarettes smoked fifty years earlier. The room to which the old guy led him looked more bachelor studio than theater manager's office. A cot stood in one corner, bed made but blankets dented in the middle, as though someone slept on top without getting between the sheets. A little square refrigerator hummed in another corner, topped with a microwave and flanked with a sink small enough classify as a water fountain.
The man took a second mug from the top of the microwave, nuclear-reactor shaped, identical to his own but half the size, and poured a cup of coffee for Nate, unasked. "So," he said, his voice unfriendly, full of gravel. "Where is it?"
Not, what is it. Not, where is he. Where is it.
Nate set his little coffee mug on the edge of the room's big desk, nudging aside a stack of old papers. He unshouldered his dad's duffel and unhooked the top. Already, he regretted coming. The old man was rude. He obviously didn't care about Monsieur Frappé, or why would he have left him alone in a trunk that didn't even have a decent lock? Having seen the Monsieur in action the previous night, Nate knew what a treasure the dummy was. That little wooden dude had charisma, vim and spit and vigor. Monsieur Frappé was a star, man. A fucking rock star. And this guy was acting like the Monsieur was no more important than a disposable lighter, about as insignificant as a ballpoint pen from one of those ink-dribbled cups at the bank. Guy like this didn't deserve the Monsieur.
Seething, Nate tugged the battered leather-covered box from the duffel. The old man lurched forward, coffee sloshing, hand reaching for the case. Nate made an involuntary shielding gesture with his arm and shoulder, an instinctive playground defensive maneuver underlaid with the mindless wail of the inner child, a sense of loss and possessiveness served with a hefty side of abandonment issues: mine.
The old guy's shoulders slumped. He set his coffee on the desk, heedless of the brown splatter it sloshed onto the papers stacked there, old handbills and ticket stubs, a newspaper open to the theater review inset, a relic from back when such things existed. The old guy lifted his fedora, ran his fingers through the salt and pepper wires of his hair, replaced the hat. He sank into the chair behind the desk, and that's when Nate noticed the second chair.
Sure, the guy had poured the small mug of coffee and offered it to Nate, but he hadn't offered him a chair. There were only two in the room: one the big banker's style chair behind the desk; the other identical but smaller, much smaller, suitable for someone the size of Nate's eldest nephew. For the first time, Nate noticed the second cot, a miniature version of the first, not identical but made neatly in a dresser drawer, slid under the larger cot like a trundle bed for kids' sleepovers. One small plate in the rack over the sink, one large. One small cup, one big.
Nate stepped to the desk and placed the box on top, over the handbills, over the rolled-up theater posters and curling lobby cards, the yellowing newspapers. The paper on top was dated the year of Nate's birth.
The man placed a hand on the case, but didn't flip the latches, didn't look inside.
"He's in there," said Nate.
The man nodded. "Okay."
"I think he's all right."
Nate's fury ebbed, leaving a pang of loss spasming under his ribs. "Look, it was me. I'm sorry I--"
The man stopped him, palm out like a cop halting traffic at an intersection. "No questions asked," he said. He peered up from under his bushy brows. "I guess you want the reward."
After a pause, Nate shook his head. He reached for his dad's duffel, slid the strap over his shoulder. He turned to go, pretty sure he could retrace his steps, find his way out the back. It wasn't that big a theater.
He was almost out the door when the guy called after him. "Hey!"
Nate turned, kind of hoping the old guy would press some money on him after all, though he'd as good as confessed to stealing the dummy in the first place. Probably was lucky not to have the cops brought down on his ass, questions asked or no. It wouldn't be seen as much of a coincidence that Nate's last night at the café was the same night the dummy had been stolen from a patron's car.
But the old guy didn't give him money. Leaving the case unopened on his desk, he got up, went to a mountain of ruffles and satin heaped in the corner farthest from the bed. Spangles and sequins, ribbons and feathers—it could've been the place where showgirl costumes went to die.
The man rummaged for a minute before tugging a case free. Rhinestones scattered. A feather boa clung to the surface of the battered leather, adhering by the barbed tenacity of its antique plumes. He came and thunked the case heavily on top of the one already on the desk. Nate winced, thinking of the Monsieur inside, though the dummy hadn't felt particularly fragile, or easily hurt. The man unfastened the clasps on the top case and pushed open the lid.
A female dummy stared up at Nate from a bed of threadworn purple linen. Rouge dotted her cheeks in two perfect circles. Her lips formed a cupid-bow moue. Her beret—not black like the Monsieur's, more raspberry—tilted off-kilter over her blond curls.
"You should take Colette with you," the man said. "It used to belong to my wife, but. . . well she said she was coming back for it, but that was a long time ago, you know?"
Swallowing hard Nate nodded, because he did. He did know. He slid the case into his duffel. Instead of wending backstage, they walked to the front. Dust made morning light slanting in the front windows look solid, big gold bars lying on the patterned lobby carpet. The man unlocked the door and Nate stepped out onto the sidewalk, beer cans crinkling underfoot. Before closing the door, the man told Nate one last thing. He said, "Give her a good home, okay?"
Nate smiled. "I will," he said, already imagining Colette that night at the bar, already hearing her voice as she laughed and teased and engaged with everyone, irresistible, a total rock star: So, what are you up to these days? she would ask, vowels made round and inviting by her husky French lilt, charming everyone in sight; Seen any good movies lately?
“ As with many of my favorite stories I sat down to write 'The Monsieur' with only an image in mind, in this instance Nate pulling the old ventriloquist’s dummy out of its battered leather case. My pre-writing life was gleefully spent running the coolest vintage shop in Austin, Texas for over a decade. It’s entirely possible I have an overdeveloped soft spot for wayward objects. ”