It was a grey, dreary, and foggy morning and my mood reflected this. I’m not sure if all people are this way but when I wake up my mood instantly reflects the weather outside. If it’s a bright and sunny day my mood is uplifted while a grey and dreary day brings it down to the level of crippling depression. Maybe it has something to do with my vitamin D levels?
Not that the weather made me depressed, because I can do that all on my own without assistance. Once again depression with no clear reason; the past few days of my life had been standard and average, but yet my mood was awful with nothing to point at or blame for triggering it. The weather just made it worse.
When I get that way I want to get out of my head. It’s like my mind runs nonstop with negative thoughts with no way to escape, hence the alcohol abuse, sleeping medicine abuse, and anything else I can get ahold of to derail the train of thought that runs through my dysfunctional brain. I want to get away from myself even though that is the most impossible thing that anyone could ever try to do. Being hopelessly locked in my head leaves me with no escape from my worst enemy: myself and my thoughts. All you can do is temporarily distract yourself.
Hence today and my walk. I don’t know why walking helps me, and sometimes I don’t even think it does help, but it’s something to do. It passes the time and makes it more likely that when I’m done my mood will have naturally improved. I headed out around 9 a.m. looking to do something, anything, to distract myself. I didn’t even know where I was going and let my subconsciousness direct me wherever it felt like. At first I went to the end of the yard, then I went to the end of the street, and after twenty or so minutes I found myself strolling through downtown Rockford.
Something about downtown attracts me. Perhaps because it’s where my dad and mom used to take me as a kid. They used to take me to the river where I could ride my bike along the bike path. Or in-line skate. Or just walk. Sometimes we’d feed the ducks. Apparently you’re not supposed to feed the ducks/geese anymore because they breed too much and bread isn’t good for them anyways. My mind is filled with a handful of very cloudy and vague memories of being downtown next to the river on sunny, wonderful days filled with childhood positivity and naivety. Maybe I go there because I like to pretend I’m a worry-free child again. Maybe it feels like coming back home to where I’m comfortable and at peace with my life. I don’t know if this is why I always end up here when I’m in a strange mood; I’m not a therapist/psychologist.
“Hey, I know you. Yes! It’s you!”
The voice startled me as I didn’t know anyone was around me. I turned and looked to my side and there was, I assumed, a homeless man standing there talking to me. I stared at him, too surprised to say anything.
“It’s you! The boy from my dream!”
This time I was able to choke out a very weak reply. “Um. What?”
“Yes, don’t you remember me? I was there!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I didn’t understand how this bum surprised me in the way he did. I looked around and realized where I was at: the corner of Chestnut and First Street. This bum was always here and in my introspection didn’t notice where I was. I had seen him countless times driving along this street and while never paying him much attention knew this was his usual location. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen him elsewhere than on this very corner of this very intersection. Bums always did seem to have a usual haunt for some reason. Maybe he was able to get more money from the passing vehicles here than anywhere else?
He wore an old military jacket with rips, tears, and stains all over it. I couldn’t read the name or anything to identify beside the discolored and ragged American flag patch sewn onto his sleeve. The jacket was open and underneath it he wore a dirty, ripped, and stained grey sweatshirt. His beard had food embedded in it along with what I assumed was saliva or phlegm. He was missing an eye but didn’t have a patch on or anything to cover it up. There was only an indentation in his face where an eye should’ve been. He was wearing a seemingly perpetual smile that was fractured by his rotten teeth. About half of them seemed to be missing, and the other half were a putrid color resembling pus or moldy cheese. I shuddered slightly.
He said, “Your name is…uh, well, what was it? Hmm. It started with a “J”. Jacob? No. Jeremy? No. Hmmm? Oh yeah: Jimmy. Your name is Jimmy, isn’t it? Well, you’re real name is James but your friends call you Jimmy, right?”
“How did you know that?” I asked of him. I wasn’t feeling good about the conversation anymore. Something seemed dreadfully off about it.
“I told you already! I seen you in my dreams! The dreams. You’re always there, walking around, jumping around, fluttering around like a bug. Trying to run but finding your legs are too heavy. You’re usually there with the girl, right?”
“What girl? What are you talking about?”
“The girl. You know her, you’ve always known her!” The bum began whispering and held his hand next to his mouth as if to shield his voice from any listeners, which of course there were none with no one around. “You fancy her, don’t ya?” He giggled spewing the putrid scent of rotting teeth into my face. “You don’t need to answer me, friend. I already know she’s special to you. But let me tell ya a secret: she fancies you too! You’re like two cute peas-in-a-pod, ya know that? Because I do. I watch you two. She fancies you and you fancy her. Boy, you would make a cute couple. Would ya like that?”
I simply stared at him.
“You know who I’m talking about, don’t be shy! The girl with the pale white skin, the blonde hair, the braid that falls over her shoulder. The one that kissed you. You know her!” He giggled.
I still didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Do you know why I know? It’s because I’m The Puppeteer! Some people call me The Puppet Master, and I don’t have a preference really. You can call me either one you want, or you can call me Blaine. Blaine is my name, and puppeteering is my game. Ha!” He laughed a disgusting laugh punctuated by coughing up phlegm and snot. Some chunks fell into his beard while the others ended up on the sidewalk. “I know my puppets, and I know you.”
“Look, I need to go. I have to be to work soon. And I don’t have any cash to give you, I’m sorry.” I turned to walk away but Blaine, The Puppeteer, kept taking, holding me firm by the threads of conversation.
“Do you know why they call me The Puppeteer? Do ya? Take a guess!”
“You like puppets? I don’t know. I really need to go. I have to be to work by two and…”
“Yes I do! In a way. My buddies in the war gave me the name. I suppose I used to be what you’d call a ventriloquist before the war. I’d get my dummies out, they’d tell some jokes and have some fun and my friends would laugh! It was a great time. Some people laughed but others found the dummies scary. But in the war, well, war changes you. It gets into your soul and brings out the demons. The demons that are yourself. I’d see dead people all the time, dead men, dead women, and especially dead children. And that gets under your skin.” He started to scratch his arm, seemingly unaware he was doing so, and laughed another dreadful laugh. “But the war didn’t get under my skin. It didn’t change me at all. I’m still the same dummy loving dummy that I was when I was drafted.
“So I’d keep bringing the dummies out, trying to make my pals laugh when things were scary and life didn’t seem worth living, but they started to not find it funny. And the dead women and children filled my head and danced around as if on strings, sometimes in my dreams but sometimes in real life. Like marionette puppets they’d dance. I was a ventriloquist and didn’t know about marionettes, but I became curious about them! The dead people as puppets. You can always learn a new art if you really want to.”
“Well, we came across a pile of people, there were always piles of people around. And I wanted to make them dance! To talk! To come to life! To give their stolen lives back to them! So ya know what I did? I found some rope. I tossed the rope over some tree branches and strung them up! It was hard work lifting these very heavy puppets off the ground but I did it. The children were the easiest and were always the happiest to be alive again. I made puppets out of all of them, I pulled the ropes to make them dance, and they were all happy. I could see them smiling when I pulled the strings to play with them.
“I showed my friends my puppetshow and some didn’t have a sense of humor about it. Some started puking. Some told me what I was doing wasn’t right. Some of the serious ones started crying. They didn’t understand the show. But some? Some of them laughed about it, they understood the show! A few even took the ropes and made the puppets dance on their own! The ones that did understand, they started calling me The Puppeteer. They got it! They understood me! So that’s who I am. I’m The Puppeteer! I string the puppets up, make them dance, put on a show, and people laugh. Even if they don’t understand the show at first, they eventually understand. Everyone laughs eventually. The puppets just have to dance long enough for them to understand.”
“Look, sir, thanks for your service and all, but I have to go. I really need to go.”
“You can go, I suppose, but don’t go too far.” He started whispering again. “I won’t let you go too far. Remember, I’m The Puppeteer, and guess who is one of my puppets? You are! You and that girl of yours! I’ve been watching both of you, and I think you’d be great to play around with. You both can make the audience laugh, cry, and feel something. And isn’t that the point of life? To feel something? So, yes, run along with your day, I’m sure I’ll see you one of these nights. Bring your friend too! I need both of you for the play!” He held his hand up in a spidery fashion as if he was holding a marionette puppet’s strings in his hand and shook it, making his imaginary puppet dance. His lone eye sparkled with madness as he giggled.
I gave him one long and piercing look, turned, and walked away. After a few steps I started jogging. And after a few more steps I started sprinting. Eventually it felt like I was running away from a predator, my blood pumped full of adrenaline, the fight-or-flight response in full effect. I knew the so-called Puppeteer was another lonely soul left behind in a quickly changing society and was no real harm — he just needed some mental help — but…what if? And the more I ran the more I noticed a feeling I couldn’t ignore. My arms felt heavy, as if strings were attached to them and holding me back. My legs also felt the same way, as if some force was trying to stop my running. I turned around and looked at the tiny and almost imperceptible shape of a person standing next to the road far in the distance. The shape was holding his hand out as one would do to control a puppet. Spidery and threatening. It had to be all in my head. I turned and tried to forget all about The Puppeteer on the corner of Chestnut and First, still running as fast as my legs would allow.