The Gingerbread Puppet Boy

by Mickey Hunt

The wrinkled old man sat patiently beside his luggage in the bus station and stared toward the glass door at the far end of the waiting room. What was this madness? he wondered. It had all started so innocently. He chuckled softly to himself . . .

His wife had wanted a son, plain and simple. But the doctor had told them even before they were married years ago this was impossible. She would be barren.
At first, she hadn’t minded so much. She had somehow gotten comfort from their puppetry business. Making the puppets, writing plays, and designing and sewing costumes used a lot of creative energy. Also, the uncanny lifelike quality of the puppets in performance and the joyful laughter of the children satisfied some of her maternal instincts. But it never really was enough . . .
Outside the bus station, up and down Main Street, all the townspeople and half the county had collected. Apparently, the tension was too much for these factory workers and part-time farmers because a fistfight broke out. A fresh-faced boy pressed his nose up against the glass door of the waiting room, peering inside. His eyes lit up when he saw the old man. “Hey everybody!” he piped. “The racer’s father is in here. I saw him on the news yesterday!”
The fistfight abruptly stopped, and the crowd that had been watching it surged through the door, eager to be nearer to the source of the irritation and excitement. A great, fat man charged through to the front. He might have been one of the fighters because he was sweaty and covered with dust. “I hear you’re a relation of this troublemaker!” he said loudly as his jowls shook.
“Well, you might say I am,” the old man answered.
“What did he say?” shouted two or three who were jammed up against the wall of the newly stuffed waiting room.
“He says he is a relation!” boomed the fat man.
Startled, someone backed away from the fat man and tripped. “Please, be careful of my luggage,” the old man said and pulled a rather large, long box with air holes in it closer to him.
“What I want to know,” the fat man demanded, “is who will pay for my broken fence and my lost cows that ran after this son of yours? And my boys took the pickup truck and have been gone for days.”
“And your kid stole my car!” a voice bellowed from the wall.
“My daughter!” a woman cried, and fainted into her husband’s arms.
A businessman shoved forward. “All the workmen at my factory ran off as well. Nobody has worked a single hour since that fellow challenged them all to a race. He said nobody could catch him.”
“What have you to say for yourself?” the fat man bellowed as he shook his finger at the old man.
“I can’t be blamed for him,” the old man replied. “He will have to take responsibility for his own actions, I suppose. Take him to the courthouse like you would anyone else, but . . . you’ll have to catch him first.” Here the old man looked at his box and smiled.
“That,” the businessman said, “is what every Joe Baloney and Jane Salami has been trying to do! Haven’t you seen the news? The whole country is crazy.” The businessman scratched his head. “I just don’t understand it.”
The old man said, “But you can’t blame him for folks chasing him. They could have just ignored him.”
“Sure we can blame him!” retorted the businessman. “He trespassed on my property, and then brashly claimed nobody could catch him. So, all my workers tried right then, and most are still trying as far as I know. Just imagine 75 men running off as fast as they could go, and for some, that wasn’t very fast.” He was looking at the fat man.
The businessman seemed suddenly struck with the humor of the improbable situation and grinned. “As fast as they could go,” he repeated, his voice starting to squeak. Then he burst into laughter.
The fat man joined in, too, as he remembered himself running and then later seeing his matronly cows tossing their heads and kicking up their heels like young heifers as they gamboled after the lanky and awkward, but incredibly fast young man. The brash fellow had called out to his herd, “My mama couldn’t catch me, the workers couldn’t catch me, and YOU CAN’T EITHER!” The fat man’s laughter was as infective as his anger, and soon the whole crowd in the waiting room was in howling stitches.
The old man saw his chance and hoisted up the box, hugging it as he pushed through the hysterical people and out the door. He looked at his watch. Ten minutes or more before the bus was due. He sat down on the bench and recollected the musings he had before the crowd interrupted…
Everything had turned out so unexpectedly. His wife seemed content having no children until they fully retired about a year before. Then she began yearning for a real family. It was just a month ago when he had an idea. He would build the best puppet he had ever made. Maybe that would please her, he had thought.
The old puppeteer had worked long hours. They were too old for a baby, he decided, so he made the puppet boy 20 years old and life-sized. The puppet was created from a very special gingerbread, and the pieces were baked hard and fastened together by the clip hooks and metal rings set into them. The puppeteer specially made him with moveable eyes and a mouth on a head that turned every which way, just like a real one. The puppet boy was a rod puppet. Each of his limbs had a thin, wooden, black-painted rod attached, and with three puppeteers operating him at once, he would be quite realistic.
The puppeteer’s wife sewed the clothes: a blue, green and yellow flannel shirt, brown corduroy pants, a red neckerchief, and a green hat. The puppeteer and his wife had been very busy and very happy.
One evening last week, they finished painting him and went to bed to let him dry overnight. The old woman must have yearned and prayed very hard for a son before she dropped off to sleep because the next morning something terribly unusual happened that started this whole mess…
The laughter inside the station faded, and the scuffling and shouting started up again. These practical people wouldn’t forget their troubles so easily, the old man thought. He pulled out binoculars and looked intently down the road from where the bus was to come. The last report on the radio said that the racer had hijacked a Greyhound bus and was headed in this direction. He had already broken through at least one police blockade. Up and down the street, hundreds and hundreds of adults and children were lined up as for a parade. Some held umbrellas to shade the sun. Balloons floated high up in the sky. At the far end of the street, another police blockade stood by.
“Sure to fail like all the rest,” he murmured and winked at his luggage.
The old man warmly remembered that morning when life began again. He and his wife woke up with sunshine streaming into the window on them in bed. The first thing they did, even before breakfast, was to dress their new puppet boy. The last thing to put on him was the red neckerchief. Just as the old woman knotted it around his neck, the puppet boy’s head jerked up, he blinked his eyes, lifted himself from his stand which then fell over, and he ran out the door pulling off the wooden rods and calling out behind, “You can’t catch me!” The old man had been following him the last few days like everyone else, but not before he had made some preparations…
Some of the people waiting for the fun craned their necks to look down the street. “Here it comes!” the fresh-faced kid piped out. The local marching band struck up a lively tune.
The crowd in the waiting room tumbled outside. The old man could barely make out the Greyhound way down the road and moving at high speed. He bent over, loosened the fastenings, and lifted the lid of the box.
“Okay,” he whispered, “you can get out now. Nobody will notice.”
The beautiful young puppet girl sat up and shook her long thick red hair. She stepped out of the box with a clumsy gracefulness and began some quick stretching exercises in her green running suit with yellow stripes all the way down to her running shoes.
She flashed her brown eyes at the old puppeteer. “Will he be on the bus?”
“I think so,” the old man replied. “Look!”
The bus was getting nearer. Behind it, also racing madly, followed a number of police cars, blue lights flashing, a pickup truck, motorbikes, a coal truck, and other assorted vehicles. A helicopter swooped overhead. People cheered from the windows and rooftops along the street. The bus entered the town and suddenly braked. The cars right behind screeched to avoid back-ending it. The police at the barricade were ready. But right in front of the bus station, an emergency door flew open and out jumped the colorfully clad puppet boy who rolled and tumbled to his feet. The whole crowd was silent and tense with expectancy. The boy gazed for a moment at the puppet girl, then shouted a challenge to everyone within earshot.
“Nobody has caught me yet, and not one of you can either!!!”
Every single soul that heard these words thought at that moment of just one thing: to catch this impudent rascal. A roar, like when a goal is scored at a big soccer game, exploded from the hundreds of throats, and as one huge mass, they were after him.
The old man joined the slow pokes trailing behind the pack. He walked just outside of town and watched the runners swarming across a large field. Through his binoculars he saw the puppet boy way ahead of everyone, but a green-clad figure was moving up on him fast, her red hair blowing straight back.
Running, running, she was right behind him now. The puppet boy glanced over his shoulder, and she made a flying tackle. They skidded together across the grassy ground.
He was caught!
The wrinkled old puppeteer chuckled to himself. His wife would be happy. They were too old now to have children, that was sure. Too much chasing around.
But grandchildren would be nice.


1 comment:

  1. Notes: I wrote this story some 33 years ago in a creative writing class at Berea College when I was a student there. Each of us was asked to write three sentences to begin the best short story ever, and then we traded our beginnings. I revised the story for the Gingerbread Festival in Knott County, Kentucky and it was published in the Troublesome Creek Times. I have since revised it again. In my early twenties I was a puppeteer with the Tears of Joy Puppet Theatre based in Vancouver, Washington. We performed with rod puppets and body puppets in churches, parks, and on university campuses.