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Political Porno Puppets

This short story is written by author Johnny Payne. We have previously published his nonfiction and poetry.





Sin is what is new, strong, surprising, strange. The theater must take an interest in sin if the young are to be able to go there.

Bertolt Brecht


Rob won a grant to travel to Buenos Aires to mount a Brechtian staging of his new play, Rip Me a New One, a scathing, some said scabrous, show featuring pornographic political puppets, hyperkinetic adults, and a trained goat. It was a semi-allegorical romp through a post-capitalist wasteland, based in part on the testimonials of Puerto Rican anarchists, another part on the remembered rants of unemployed friends, relatives, and ex-girlfriends, the third taken from his journal of dreams and nightmares, a show with him as ventriloquist, complemented by live performers and a diabolical mascot, a show distantly birthed by O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, midwifed via the circumlocutions of The Wooster Group, with Jean Genet as attending physician, a play with bells to be rung, poetic profanities to be spewed and ontological-psychosexual manifestos to be declaimed—with occasional music, ranging from penny whistles to an electric drill.

Rip Me a New One had gone down well at the Highways Performance Space, and he’d gotten favorable notice in L.A. Weekly. Masterful, mesmerizing, militant mind-chowder for the midnight mélange, they’d called it, euphoniously. A woman in the front row threw up at one of the performances, which he’d taken as a compliment, but it turned out she was pregnant and had eaten Thai food right beforehand. The rest of the 99-seat run had been packed.


Upon arrival in Buenos Aires, having installed himself in an efficiency apartment with a sink the size of a laptop, in Recoleta, provided for him by the Foundation, he headed straight for a scheduled meeting with his assigned contact, who had suggested they rendezvous at a nearby trattoria for a drink and to go over protocols. On the corner of his block sat a magnificent fruit stand, crammed with post-work customers, every apple, orange, pineapple, banana, and papaya, spotless and shining. Rob was thirsty-hungry, craving an orange for his walk, but he began to think about how the multinational conglomerate Monsanto had sprayed the fruit to make it appear perfect, doubtless deforming its workers and the unborn with poison, and he lost his appetite. It would go against everything the play stood for to buy a piece of fruit that didn’t have at least one small bruise.


The front of the restaurant was all glass, one of those antagonisms to when you’re trying to hide out with your espresso, hoping caffeine will jolt you out of your morning funk, while scores of pedestrians pass by, each staring into your soul as you swallow the oddly bracing bitter reality of your present life situation, contemplating the fact that you didn’t ask your wife’s permission to make this trip, she didn’t even know about it until a few days before your departure, intense arguments followed, and you’ve already begun the process of regret of why the hell you didn’t invite her along, except you knew she’d have schedule demands, she’d be pressuring you to go to the National Ballet, rather than to some dank basement where a new Buenos Aires playwright would be presenting his deconstruction of Marat-Sade, or she’d ask you to browse with her one of the famous and pricey leather shops, ending up with the purchase of $700 in belts and wallets and clutch purses for sisters and nieces, and in short, the trip would become about something else besides your play, which she sat through in L.A. without comment, thoroughly used to and perhaps now immune to, your inspired derangement, one which can be traced all the way back to the cruise ship where you worked as a young ventriloquist until you had a falling out with the captain over him pressuring you to add extra shows without extra pay, typical corporate squeeze, and in the middle of Alaskan waters with brilliant views of fjords and jagged, poetic snow and ice mountains, you literally took a shit on the deck, getting yourself almost literally thrown off the ship, in any case fired, and you ended up in a bar where you proceeded to hook up with a Yupik woman, a genial barfly with too much time on her hands, who claimed to be a reincarnated gray wolf, and you had to find your own way back to L.A., where your girlfriend of that time awaited, she could somehow smell the wolf on you and left you for good, and that stupid indiscretion has haunted you for years.


Anyway, it’s too late for Rob to invite his wife, or to avoid missing half a dozen of his daughter’s basketball games as they chase the high school state title, her at point guard. Rob’s contact awaits. A man in a thousand dollar worsted wool suit, temples touched with gray hair cut to exact sharpness, as in a woodcut, who is signaling with his hand, the same way Jorge Videla used to salute the nation before he talked about social mange and how subversives were hiding in the middle-class suburbs. Next to him sits his counterpart, wearing a turtleneck stretched at the front of the neck, a slight sag, as if from too much pulling, with moth holes or cigarette burn holes in his jacket, and a five-day beard. That must be the director, supposedly the co-director, Rob being the other, but he knows how that goes. He just wants to see his play on an international stage, so he’s willing to make allowances. Brecht was a tyrant, but he had the luxury of clear-cut fame to overrule everybody else in the collective.


Rob grasped both men’s extended hands at once, as if they three were going to have a quick prayer, only they didn’t, instead they sat down all at once, letting go of hands, whereupon the waiter instantly appeared, as if on skates, and took his order, an espresso and a beer both, raising the eyebrows of the man in the suit, but he decided to offer no explanation. He was a theater artist, and people had a way of making allowances when knowing that.


“So, Mister O’Rourke, you are much anticipated. I will tell you straight off I’m a banker, Sebastian González, I don’t read plays or go to the theater, though I did see a touring production of Forever Plaid. Delightful. This is my colleague, Simon Pinero. He is esteemed in the non-mainstream theater as something of a guru, after his recent sucés-de-scandale, Mortadela Estrafalaria, which sadly I was unable to attend. I know it had something to do with the Paralympics, and ice skates were involved.”


Pinero jumped right in. “I love your work. It’s indigestible. I have read it now five or six times, in addition to your production notes from the L.A. run. In my mind, I have formed an image of a vertical hockey rink framing the actors from behind, one that can be made cheaply with Plexiglas, well within our budget. It acquires a certain depth, as the rink will contract into a tunnel, sort of a Chinese handcuffs that will squeeze the actors as they come onstage and offstage into another hockey rink, this one horizontal, so that the two rinks are offset mirrors of each other. It’s also a womb, metaphorically, one into which the actors are born, and out of which they die. We have a mirror looking into a mirror, which is mise en abime rather than mise en scene. A visual surprise! But this squeezing tunnel has nothing to do with excretion, even though the mother’s womb lies biologically near the anus. For of course there is no mother! In spite of the fact that the main character of your work is in fact the mother. My interpretation is Lacanian, obviously, all about the presence and absence of her sustaining gaze. The hockey rink is really a secret eye watching the audience watching the show. I’m sure I don’t have to explain that I plan to avoid a pseudo-Freudian reification of the bourgeois nuclear family. The maternal and paternal Oedipal personas are a psychical-subjective positions that potentially can be played by any number of possible persons of various sexes and genders.”


The beers arrived, and the director sat expectant as Rob drank half of his and set the glass down, trying to look thoughtful. “You say you read my play?”


“Read it? I covered it with notes! It’s a palimpsest! You could put a frame around the pages and hang them side by side in your bathroom.”


“Maybe I’ll do that later. It’s just that, what I had in mind was a bare stage. And a real mom. And that we’d mostly be working with props, not scenery.”


“Strange. Very odd indeed. Naturally there would be many props. I even wrote in an extra character, named Prop Master, who runs around with boxes of flea market type stuff, letting the actors choose whatever props they want.”


“Yeah. Hm. I know my play may seem footloose and crazy, but truly, I wrote every word scrupulously, exactly like the score of a classical symphony, and in my production in L.A., nobody improvised anything once we got the staging set. You must control the chaos, otherwise it’s—chaotic. I’m really more of a Brechtian.”


“Brecht? I didn’t think anybody still read him.”


Rob gulped down his coffee in one shot. He was about to say something injudicious that would ruin any chance of a production going ahead when González set down his cortado and upraised his hand. “Gentlemen, please.” The director, who had been cheating forward, dropped back into his seat, like an attack dog that recognizes the whistle of its master. “I don’t mean to interrupt this spirited colloquy of artistic minds, most of which I utterly fail to understand, nor do I want to take sides. I have not read a single word of your script, neither do I intend to. However, I am only raising the question of whether a double hockey rink lends itself to children’s theater?”


“Children’s—theater?”


“Yes, Mister O’Rourke. The one on Corrientes. The last show we did was Pérez the Mouse. I’m told that some of those scenes were loud, smoky and a bit scary. We do have a few two-year-olds in the audience.”


“I’m not sure whether this show is suitable for children.”


“That’s the audience the grant was intended for. I’m surprised this issue didn’t come up in the interview.”


“Nobody said anything.”


“The good thing is, your play will also be performed by children, who are excellent translators. A child naturally understands a child.”


Rob turned to Pinero. “You knew about this?”


“Frankly speaking, I was only contacted yesterday morning. Nobody else wanted to direct it. Six other directors had passed it over. They just gave me a list of names in an email, and I assigned one role to each kid. It took about five minutes. There was no time to audition anyone, or even to meet them. I’m sure everything will be alright.”


“I don’t even know how to respond. Except to suggest that you allow me to direct my own play, after auditioning my own actors and we advertise it as an adults-only feature at the Corrientes.”


“Look,” said González. “I’m conservative, I admit. But since you wrote this play for adults, the children probably won’t understand most of it. Like when grownups have a fight; they tune 90% of it out. Besides, it’s written in English. Most of the parents bring the kiddies there to help them learn English. You’re talking about rich people who send their young ones to private pre-schools, and if they go to a show, it’s usually a musical cabaret, or one of those jukebox spectacles. Mamma Mia! is always a big hit here. Some people see it three or four times. We are an ABBA loving country.”


“He’s right,” affirmed Pinero. “I did Google translate a couple of scenes of your show into Spanish, because I don’t read English so well. I can speak it fine, but it’s like I have ADD or something when I read. I’m really more of a visual learner. And even in Spanish, I had a hard time comprehending much of what you wrote.”


“Let’s do a first rehearsal,” insisted González. “Humor us. The good news is, I’ll be there in person tomorrow, and I can offer a layman’s opinion, after I watch these innocent young tykes mouth your language. It will be enjoyable.”


“I thought you said you don’t go to the theater.”


“I’m going to make an exception because I like you. And because this ragged fellow Pinero told me there are puppets in it. I believe that’s the main reason the committee picked your play.”


***


In the early days—the early, early days, before internet, before his run with the cruise ships, when Rob could barely get a ventriloquist gig outside a child’s birthday party—he answered an ad in the alternative weekly, for a “private engagement for a talented and flexible ventriloquist.” There was a number to call, with no further details. The man who answered had a smoker’s hack and kept stopping to breathe. He was three drops short of a rasp, and one sigh short of an obscene phone call. He wanted to know whether Rob was artistic. Rob vouchsafed that he considered himself entertaining but wanted the man to define his term. “You know, artistic. You’d be part of an act.”

“I have my own act. It’s me and the dummy and a stool. You do know what ventriloquism is, don’t you?”


“I’m not an idiot. You’d have a partner. You’ll see when you get here. I need you to perform about twelve shows a day, but they’re short.”


“Twelve? At most I do two shows a day.”


“Don’t worry; it’s the same show, except a different audience and each show lasts five or ten minutes.” There was a click as the man hung up.


The money offered was neither great, nor insulting. Rob happened to be hard up for cash, so he went to the address given. It turned out to be on Times Square, in an arcade. Going in, he was surrounded by pornographic videos, then led down a hallway past a series of glass viewing booths, some with curtains drawn across. Others had a customer sitting on a stool in front, watching a mostly naked woman undulate with faux sensuality, one even pressing her chest against the glass. Her nipples looked like a pair of eyes watching Rob proceed deeper into the arcade.


He met the man with the hacker’s cough and he told Rob to follow him. The two turned right, then right again, then came up the plywood back side of the rooms, and the man opened a small door where a bright copper redhead in a G-string with frightfully pale flesh skeptically appraised Rob and the hard, elongated suitcase in his arms.


“Are you a blues player? Because I’m not here to make people sad.” Rob removed Chuck E., his dummy, and introduced them. The redhead, whose blue-mascaraed eyes and sallow face had begun to tend toward a permanent scowl, softened, letting a small smile play across her bitten lips, which needed a fresh application of lipstick. “Okay, set up.”


The first couple of shows went okay, with Chuck E. mostly throwing out faint compliments on the fair side of raunchy, with a dollop of salt, and congratulating the male visitor on his excellent taste. Rob had to talk over piped-in saxophone, playing with airy monotony tunes like Bob Seger’s “Watch Her Strut.” The woman, meanwhile, would call out practiced phrases, like “Does your wife do this? Only when she’s drunk, right?” Or else the redhead would offer spot therapy, such as “Who does she think she is? You have a right to rock.”


By the third show, Rob grew restless and bored. In his puppet’s ribald, squeaky voice, he began to throw out famous quotes of political economy. “I work for a government I despise for ends I think criminal.” And then he added, “But she has great tits!” Or else, he just shouted out “I love her fictitious commodities!” Whether his listeners understood or not, they laughed at these incongruous phrases. The exotic dancer became incensed, she tried to strangle an inanimate homunculus, and Rob got canned with only two days’ pay to show for his labors.


Yet it was the birth of his career as a playwright. He spent part of his earnings on a good bottle of bourbon, the first top shelf liquor of his life, returned to his walkup, and read in its entirety Albert O. Hirschman’s The Passions and the Interests, wherein it is explained how the pursuit of material gain, so long condemned as the deadly sin of avarice, after the 16th century got assigned the role of containing the unruly and destructive passions of man. A decade later, Rob entered a PhD program. In the meantime, he pioneered the heretofore non-existent art form of pornographic political puppetry.


***


Rob hated spending an evening alone. He’d brought his two favorite dummies along to Argentina, the well-traveled, slightly battered Chuck E., and the Bride of Chuck E., whom he saved for special occasions. Their first show together had been called Chuck E.’s in Love. He’d unpacked them in the studio apartment, set them on the couch, where they sat immobile, with their corpse-leer putting a damper on Rob’s already negative mood, after his strange first meeting. He had no idea how any of this was going to work. And he was without company on his first night in Buenos Aires, in a sterile studio apartment overlooking buildings just like his.


What Rob liked best was a dirty bar playing loud music and packed with people. In such an atmosphere, he’d written his best work. He was sociable, but didn’t even mind sitting alone at a table, so long as he had the faint roar of people at a slight remove conversing behind him as white noise. A television bleating political news, with hysterical moderators, was even better. It could be in Spanish or English—no difference because only his subconscious was listening to them, assimilating the best bits, which would sometimes show up in a new script, warped beyond recognition. If a radio station was competing with the TV, both at high volume, in a sonic duel, that simply provided the ideal counterpart to the raw, rowdy furnace of his soul.


His first decipherable thought was that he felt immediately hungry, not having been able to eat all day, and he dispensed six raw eggs he’d bought at a corner market on the way back home into a pot, half filled it with water and set the eggs to boil on the lilliputian gas stove, with its tiny if steady flame. After waiting a certain number of minutes, fidgeting, imaging a host of choirboys singing the profane words to Rip Me a New One, Rob decided he’d go out to eat instead, if he could find a local pub.


On the way, he got sidetracked by a man holding out a menu to passersby, who lured him into one of Buenos Aires’s many legendary steak houses, whereupon he treated himself to a big, almost raw churrasco of prime Argentine beef, from a cow doubtless herded with love by a caring gaucho, to keep the animal calm and the steak tender. God, it was succulent! He almost cried over the portion of meat, not so much for the cow as for how each fragrant bite unleashed poetry out of his being that had been cramped by teaching too many courses to undergraduate students riddled with disbelief and brains softened into desuetude by too many first-person shooter games.

Still, he couldn’t stave off the panic that flitted about him like a persistent night-moth, one he couldn’t seem to swat away, as it worried his face with its ephemeral wings. He began to walk faster along the rows of resplendent designer boutiques that were probably all on the verge of bankruptcy, due to Argentina’s infamous hyperinflation. As Rob ducked down a side street to enter a less trafficked area, in search of a bar, he noticed that a tall, leggy woman had begun to follow him. She was well dressed, in a white fur cropped jacket and a leather miniskirt, with high glossy boots to match and her hair sported the sleek highlights done in good salons, the ones his wife steadfastly refused to go to because she said they price gouged based on the assumption of female vanity.


He sat in the outside patio area, facing the street, at the first bar he came to. A soccer game was in progress on the television inside. A waiter appeared in short order, and Rob ordered a Pilsen. He would have moved inside to be battered by the announcer’s frenzied voice, but the place was almost empty and looked more ghostly than the outdoors. As he sat nursing his beer, almost as alone as he’d been in the apartment, the woman who’d been following took up a station directly across the street from him. She began to semi-strut slowly up and down the block, both languid and intensely physical, blouse low-cut, showing off her delectable wares. Never did she make direct eye contact. She acted more like she was waiting for a late bus and deciding whether to walk home instead.


Finally, Rob called across the street, “For God’s sake, come sit down.”

Immediately she took his invitation, first drawing close, perhaps so he could smell her obviously pricey perfume. There was no cherry stink of the common streetwalker on this woman, even though she had literally been walking the street. Face to face, they studied one another in silence.


“I’m married,” he said at last.


“All the more reason.”


“Even if I weren’t, it’s not my style.”


“You’re saying you’ve never been with a—professional woman.”


“Once. In Cuba. There was a monsoon beating the shutters and the roof. Water was dripping from one of the beams. She smelled like cantaloupe right at that point where you aren’t sure whether to eat it or not. You know, the perfume is really strong, it attracts you more, yet at the same time, you wonder whether you won’t be vomiting right after.”


“And did you? Vomit?”


“No, everything turned out fine. But the experience was forgettable.”


“Yet you can’t forget it.”


The lone waiter, who had been watching their pantomime through the plate glass window, squinting as if he were trying to read their lips, came outside to ask señor whether he would like another beer, and threw the woman a skeptical eye, as if to make clear he would protect this tourist’s honor and not allow her to defame the national character or create bad publicity for the restaurant.


“I’ll take another of these. And one for the lady.” The waiter stood resolute, as if reluctant to fulfill this foolish wish. “It’s okay. We’re just talking.” With an audible harumph, the waiter complied. The two sat in silence under the dark sky, listening to the late bus rumble down the street past them, until the waiter brought the beers with chilled mugs, going through an elaborate pouring routine for both, as if to say no hard feelings, before disappearing.


“Look, I respect sex workers. Even though it’s ultimately a losing proposition. Prostitution as a historical institution, the same as family, is a tool of producing and reproducing the hegemony of the ruling class and patriarchy.”


“That and three dollars will get you a cup of coffee. That and fifty dollars will get you a blow job. That and two hundred dollars will get you anything you want. That and five hundred dollars will get you me all night, and you wake up next to my naked body, except I’m wearing this authentic mink jacket.”


“I’m a playwright, by the way. With your looks and that sassy talkback, you could be an actress.”


“I get that line all the time.”


“It’s not a line. I also mean you could be an influencer, or a television personality.”


“You’re overly optimistic. Clearly, you’re not from Argentina.”


“I of all people am not a Pollyanna. ‘The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned.’ You know who said that?”


“Antonio Gramsci.”


Rob was taken by surprise, suddenly and brutally aware of how he’d been lording his intellect over her.


“What’s your name?”


“Carlotta.”


“Your real name.”


“That’s it. What’s yours?”


“Rob O’Rourke. I’m now embarrassed to ask, but how do you know Gramsci?”


“I studied sociology at UBA.”


“That’s the top school.”


“I know it. And I was a top student.”


“Why aren’t you practicing sociology?”


“I don’t want to get into my sob story. But I did try working as an office manager at a social services agency for a while, which is the only real job I could get. The pay was shit and nobody liked their jobs. They hated the clients and the clients hated them. But not real hate. They negated each other. Gramsci says that indifference is the deadweight of history. Buenos Aires is so busy trying to go back in time to become part of a Europe that no longer exists, it can’t progress. There’s no here. There’s no now. We have no answer for women like me, we’re stuck in the old dichotomies and archetypes. We suffer from a nasty populist streak, born out of a fitful fascist fugue state, an ersatz democracy, all undergirded by a basic indifference to outcomes. We’re too busy being ideological to be real. I can quote Gramsci verbatim. I did my senior thesis on his prison notebooks. Is it possible to have a collectivity when one has not been deeply loved oneself by individual human creatures? Hasn't this had some effect on my life as a militant--has it not tended to make me sterile and reduce my quality as a revolutionary by making everything a matter of pure intellect, of pure mathematical calculation?


“You remind me of my daughter.”


“That’s the last thing I thought you’d say. Is she a sociologist?”


“Still in high school. She’s tall like you. I should be at her basketball game tonight. They’re playing Pomona.”


“She’ll be alright. She knows you love her. Why don’t you put me in your play?”


“What play?”


“Didn’t you say you’re a playwright? And you said I’d be a great actress. If you really mean what you claim about me easing back on the sex work, cast me. Do you have a production going here?”


“Yes, I was brought down for the National Arts Institute to sponsor a new show of mine. But it’s—hard to explain the situation. First, my show is political pornographic theater.”

“Making me a natural fit.”


“Second, a gonzo director translated it into Spanish, and God knows what he came up with. But then a banker said they’re doing it in English, but the actors will be children who won’t really understand the words.”


“They’ll need a mom. I could be their mom.”


“I wrote a mom, but her children aren’t in the play. She already ate them.”


“Apparently they are. Maybe she threw them up.”


“Honestly, I have no idea what people are going to say when they hear my wisdom from the mouths of their babes. I’ll probably get deported from Argentina for sedition. The script is raw. It’s an outgrowth of my political porno puppet theater.”


“Puppets too? This sounds like fun. I wouldn’t miss it.”


“There’s little pay involved.”


“I don’t care. It will be my launching pad.”


“I’m already on shaky ground.”


“Come on. You’re right on the verge of saving me from myself. Are you going to throw me back on the streets?”


“It’s at Corrientes Theater. 2 p.m.”


Carlotta stood to her full height, twirled on her four-inch heels, and danced off down the street.


When Rob returned to his apartment in Recoleta, police tape had been strung outside the building and a crowd had gathered. Red and blue lights flashed, strobing the building. Nobody was allowed entry. He’d seen graffiti in the elevators, making him wonder whether this was the type of place where murders got committed. He’d seen an old lady shivering in a raincoat in the elevator, but no one threatening. Perhaps she was the one who’d gotten murdered.


Some of the onlookers stood around in their pajamas. He asked one what sort of violence had occurred in his absence.


“We could have all died in a conflagration. Some idiot left food boiling in a pan and went out, I guess. Black smoke came rolling down the hallway and we had to evacuate. I’d like to meet him in person, so I could whack him upside the head.”


“So would I,” said Rob, and made his way to the yellow tape, where a group of policemen stood, to discreetly identify himself.


+


The Corrientes Theater’s stage floor was painted in primary colors, like a kindergarten playroom, perhaps due to the recent staging of Pérez the Mouse. On that stage, a mob of a dozen children ran around chasing a ball, like a whirlwind of leaves circling a tree. In the seats sat a few dozen adults, possibly parents, maybe their relatives as well. Or undercover police, the kind who disappear people off a sunny residential street, cops who’d been given his script in advance and were waiting for the scenario to play out before slapping the cuffs on Rob, taking him in a black SUV to an isolated airport runway, and up into an unmarked military plane, where he would be dropped from 15,000 feet into a vast rural pampa. From the front row, Sebastian González, wearing a different expensive suit, this one a festive powder blue, gave him a short wave and a conspiratorial smile, as if to say, “We both love children. That we have in common.” There was no scenery, only the bare stage. Pinero came onto it holding two hula hoops, one in each hand. He lay them on the floor and climbed down to approach the playwright.


“Why are there so many children?” Rob asked. “Besides the puppets, I have only six characters in my script, calling for six actors.”