As of Friday, June 15, 2007, SCI FICTION will no longer be availabe on SCIFI.COM.
SCIFI.COM would like to thank all those who contributed
and those who read the short stories over the past few years.

Nothing goes through a theater faster than news that there's a sneak thief around.
Mabel put the bowl down; six or eight hands filled with biscuits dipped into it and came out with gobs of gravy.
The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode in On)
by Howard Waldrop

A few years before Manny Marks (that's how he insisted his name be spelled) died at the age of 107, he gave a series of long interviews to Barry Winstead, who was researching a book on the death of vaudeville. Marks was 103 at the time, in the spring of 1990. This unedited tape was probably never transcribed.

• • • • • 

Marks: … I know it was, because I was playing Conshohocken. Is that thing on? What exactly does it do?

Winstead: Are you kidding me?

Marks: Those things have been going downhill since the Dictaphone. How well could that thing record? It's the size of a pack of Luckies …

Winstead: Trust me, Mr. Marks.

Marks: Mr. Marx was my father, Samuel " Frenchy " Marx. Call me Manny.

W: Let's start with that, then. Why the name change?

M: I didn't want my brothers riding my coattails. They started calling themselves the Four Marx Brothers, after they quit being the Four Nightingales. Milton—Gummo to you—got it out of his system early, after Julius—Groucho to you. Of course, Leo and Arthur had been playing piano in saloons and whorehouses from the time they were ten and eleven. You'll have to tell me whether you think that's show business or not …

W: It's making a living with your talent.

M: Barely.

W: You entered show business when?

M: I was fourteen. Turn of the century. I walked out the front door and right onto the stage.

W: Really?

M: There was a three- or four-year period where I made a living with my talent. Like Gene Kelly says, "Dignity, always dignity." Actually, Comden and Green wrote that—it just came out of Kelly's mouth. I was in a couple of acts like the O'Connor/Kelly one at Dead Man's Fang, Arizona, in that movie.

W: With whom?

M: Whom? You sound like Julius.

W: Would I know any of your partners?

M: In what sense?

W: Would I recognize their names?

M: I wouldn't even recognize their names now. That was almost ninety years ago. Give me a break.

W: What was the act?

M: A little of everything. We danced a little, One partner sang a little while I struck poses and pointed. One guy played the bandoneon—that's one of those Brazilian accordions with the buttons instead of the keys. I may or may not have acted like a monkey; I'm not saying, and I'm pretty sure there aren't any pictures …

W: Gradually you achieved success.

M: Gradually I achieved success.

W: Had your brothers entered show business by then?

M: Maybe. I was too busy playing four-a-days at every tank town in Kansas to notice. A letter caught up with me a couple years on from Mom, talking about Julius stranded in Denver and Milton doing god knows what.

W: Did your mom—Minnie Marx—encourage your career as she later did those of your brothers?

M: I didn't hang around long enough to find out. All I know is I wanted out of my home life.

W: Did Al Shean (of Gallagher and Shean) encourage you?

M: Uncle Al encouraged everybody. "Kid, go out and be bad. Come back and see me when you get good, and I'll help you all I can." Practical man.

W: Your compatriot George Burns said, "Now that vaudeville is dead, there's no place for kids to go and be bad anymore."

M: What about the Fox network?

W: You got him there.

· · · · · 

Winstead: So by now you were hoofing as a single.

Marks: No—I moved a little from the waist up, so it wasn't, technically, hoofing. To keep people from watching my feet too much, I told a few jokes. Like Fields in his juggling act or Rogers with his rope tricks. Fields used to do a silent juggling bit. He asked for a raise at the Palace and they said: "You're the highest-paid juggler in the world." He said, "I gotta get a new act."

W: I've heard that story before.

M: Everybody has. I'm just giving you the practicalities of vaudeville. You're the best in the world and you still aren't getting paid enough, you have to do something else, too, to get more money. So I was a dancer and—well, sort of a comic. Not a comic dancer—the jokes are in your feet, then. My act: the top part told jokes—the bottom part moved.

· · · · · 

Winstead: What was—who do you think was the best? Who summed up vaudeville?

Marks: That's two questions.

W: Okay.

M: Who summed up vaudeville? The answer's the standard one—Jolson, Cantor, Fields, Foy, Brice, Marilyn Miller. They could hold an audience for ten hours if they'd have wanted to. And you can't point to any one thing they had in common. Not one. There are all kinds of being good at what you do …

W: And the best?

M: Two acts. You might have run across them, since you write about this stuff for a living. Dybbuk & Wing: a guy from Canarsie and a guy from Shanghai. Novelty dance act. And the Ham Nag. A horse-suit act.

W: I've seen the name on playbills.

M: Ever notice anything about that?

W: What?

M: Stick with me and I will astound you later.

W: What, exactly, made them so good?

M: Dybbuk & Wing did, among other things, a spooky act. The theater lights would go down, and they'd be standing there in skeleton costumes—you know, black body suits with bones painted on them. Glowed in the dark. Had a scene drop that glowed in the dark, too. Burying ground—trees, tombstones, and so forth. Like in that later Disney cartoon, what was it?

W: The Skeleton Dance?

M: Exactly. Only this was at least twenty years before.

W: So they were like early Melies—the magician filmmaker?

M: No. They were Dybbuk & Wing.

W: I mean, they used the phantasmagorical in the act. What was it like?

M: It wasn't like anything. It was terrific, is all I can say. You would swear the bones came apart while they were dancing. I was on bills with them on and off for years. They were the only act I know of that never took a bow. The lights didn't come up and they take their skulls off and bow. No matter how much applause. The lights stayed down, the two disappeared, then the lights came back up for the next act. I hated to follow them; so did anyone with a quiet act. They usually put the dog stuff and acrobats on after them, if they had any.

W: Never took a bow?

M: Never.

· · · · · 

Winstead: What about the horse act?

Marks: The Ham Nag?

W: What did it/they do?

M: It was just the best goddammed horse-suit act there ever was. Or ever could be. I don't know how to begin to describe it, unless you'd say it was like a cartoon horse come to life. Right there, live, on the boards. When you were watching it you felt like you were in another world. Where there were real cartoon horses.

W: Vaudeville was more varied than people of my generation think.

M: It was more varied than even my generation could think. You had to see it.

· · · · · 

Marks: Dybbuk & Wing set the pattern. Wing—the Chinese guy—never talked. Just like those magicians. Who are they?

Winstead: Penn & Teller?

M: Just like them. I don't mean just in the act, like Harpo. I mean, backstage, offstage, in real life. But I don't think he was a mute, either. I played with them for years and never heard him speak.

Like, one time backstage—we'd moved up to three-a-days somewhere—so we had time to kill. It may have been outside the City of Industry or somewhere. There was only one deck of cards in the whole place, and it was our turn to use them between shows.

"Got any Nine of Cups?" I asked.

Wing shook his head no.

"Go Fish," said Dybbuk.

I mean, Wing could have said something if he'd wanted to. It was just us in the room …

· · · · · 

Marks: Okay, the Ham Nag act was, it was always trying to get the one blue apple in a whole pile of green and red ones on a cart. Things kept going wrong. Well, you've seen films from acts back then, like Langdon's exploding car. For some reason, this was hilarious. The Nag made you believe the one goal in its life was to get that apple.

· · · · · 

Winstead: You said if I stuck with you, you'd drop a bombshell …

Marks: Oh, you were paying attention, weren't you?

W: Bombs away.

M: I played with Dybbuk & Wing and the Ham Nag on the Gus Sun circuit out of Chicago for at least four years. I think it was at the Arcadia Theater one afternoon when it suddenly clicked.

You remember I told you to look at those posters in your collection? You'll notice that on every one—don't take my word for it—everywhere the Ham Nag played, Dybbuk & Wing were on the bill …

W: You mean …

M: It took me four years of being on the same bills with them every day before I figured it out. Yeah, they were the Ham Nag, too. It did not come out of their dressing room—they must have changed out in the alleys or the manager's office or somewhere.

That day I went on, did my act, then watched. Dybbuk & Wing were on two spots before me, then suddenly the Ham Nag was on. (The Ham Nag did take four-footed bows and would milk applause. That's why it was called the Ham Nag.) It came offstage. I was going to follow; a chorus girl said something to me; I looked around, and the Ham Nag was gone.

I went to Dybbuk & Wing's dressing room; they were there. Wing was writing a letter and Dybbuk was reading what looked like a two-hundred-year-old book as thick as a cinder block and just as dusty. Like they'd been there all the time.

I finally saw them one night, coming back from the alley after the Ham Nag act. Wing saw me looking at them.

From then on, Dybbuk acted like it was no secret and that I'd known about it all along.

I'm not telling stories out of school here: few people remember either act (though they should), and the acts have been dead half as long as I've been alive. They were supposed to be in that movie I made (It Goes To Show You, RKO, 1933, when Manny Marks was forty-seven years old), but they were "hot on the case" by then, as Dybbuk said.

· · · · · 

Winstead: What was "the case"?

Marks: Okay. I'm approaching this as an outsider. Ever read The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot? Julius and Eliot had a mutual admiration society—they exchanged photos like International Pen Pals.

W: We had to read it in college.

M: Things will be easier if you go home tonight and read it again. Anyway, there's all this grail imagery in it, and other such trayf. Only you have to work through it, even if you're a Gentile. So where does that leave me? Julius once gave me a book Eliot took a lot of stuff from—somebody named Weston's From Ritual To Romance. All this stuff about a wounded king—like Frazer's The Golden Bough—look it up.

W: And this has something to do with a horse act?

M: And Dybbuk & Wing's dance act, too. Trust me.

· · · · · 

Winstead: So what you're saying here, at the age of 103, is that the Apocalypse may have been averted, and we didn't know it, or something.

Marks: Or something. No. I'm saying there was some kind of personal Apocalypse ("That which is revealed when the veil is dropped") involving Dybbuk, Wing, the Ham Nag, a couple other vaudeville types, maybe the Vatican, perhaps Mussolini—Stalin and Hitler for all I know …

W: This would have been in …?

M: 1933. When I was making It Goes To Show You. Why Dybbuk, Wing, and the Ham Nag couldn't be in the movie.

W: This I'd really like to hear.

M: You will. Hand me that bottle so I can wet my whistle.

· · · · · 

Marks: Now you've got me drunk.

Winstead: I don't think so, Mr. Marks. I've seen you drunk.

M: Where?

W: At Walter Woolf King's wake a few years ago.

M: If you were there, you saw me drunk. I was the oldest drunk there. At my age, I'm the oldest drunk anywhere.

W: You were going to tell me about the Vatican's and Mussolini's interest in a vaudeville horse-suit act?

M: Was I?

W: I think so. I can't be sure.

M: Okay. Is that thing still on?

W: Yes.

M: Here goes.

· · · · · 

Marks: Somewhere around 1927, Coolidge years, the Prohib, vaudeville was already dying. That October would come Jolson in The Jazz Singer. It wasn't there yet, but soon the movies would talk, sing, and dance—everything vaudeville could do, only better, because they could spend the money, and every film house could be the Palace, every night.

As I said, you couldn't tell it from The Jazz Singer—cantor's son in blackface, jumping around like a fool and disappointing his dad. I saw the play with Jessel back in '25. Trust me, it was just perfect for the movies, and more than perfect for Jolson.

But I had seen the end of, as the paper's named, variety. I knew it as soon as Jolson said "You ain't heard nothin' yet!"

So did Dybbuk. So did Wing.

We had to get new acts.

So this is the context I'm talking about.

What Dybbuk & Wing did between their acts was read and write. Wing probably wrote all the letters for them—he did to me, later—I never saw him actually reading, it was Dybbuk who always had a book open. Where he got them, I don't know—maybe they had a secret card, good at any library anywhere. They only seemed to have one or two books with them at a time. Carrying a bunch around in their luggage would have been prohibitive and tiring, especially on the Sun circuit—if you had it good, you only moved every three days; no split-weeks, and only in the relatively bigger towns.

They must have been reading and writing for years before I ever met them. They were on the trail of something. No telling who they corresponded with, or what attention they attracted.

I believe we were playing the Priory Theater in Zion, Illinois, when Pinky Tertulliano joined the bill. He was an albino comic acrobat—like that guy on Broadway now? (1990—ed.)

Winstead: Bill Irwin?

M: That's him. Anyway, since the Flying Cathar Family was already on the bill, they put him between Edfu Yung and Dybbuk & Wing. Edfu Yung was a Sino-Egyptian bird imitator; quite an act. And he threw his call offstage, like Bergen or Señor Wences. You'd swear the stage flies were full of birds. I don't know that Yung and Wing ever talked over their common heritage, since Wing never talked.

Anyway, Tertulliano—who had a very weird act even for vaudeville—and I'm not kidding—was off before Dybbuk & Wing went on, which is the important thing here.

We found out later he'd come straight over from Italy to the Sun circuit in the Midwest, which was unusual unless Gus Sun was your uncle or something—usually you played whatever you could get on the East Coast—unless you were some real big act brought over by an impresario—Wilson Mizener once said an impresario is someone who speaks all languages with a foreign accent—and if that were the case, what's he doing going on between Edfu Yung and Dybbuk & Wing in Zion?

Anyway, things went swimmingly for a week or two, and the whole bill moved to some other town.

I remember things happened on Friday the Thirteenth—it must have been in May, because a couple of weeks later Lindy made his hop—Dybbuk & Wing came off and stuff had been messed with in their dressing room.

Nothing goes through a theater faster than news that there's a sneak thief around. Suddenly keys are needed for the locks on the doors, and people watch each other's places while they're on. Like with the army, where barracks thieves aren't tolerated; if they're found, there's some rough justice dealt out. Signs go up and things get tense.

They never said what was messed with or taken; they just filed with the theater, Equity, and Gus Sun himself, and spread the word.

Nobody ever proved anything. Tertulliano left the bill about the time Lindbergh took off for France. Nobody else's stuff was ever taken.

Sometime in June, Wing got a letter with lots of odd stamps and dago-dazzler forms all over it; after he read it he gave it to Dybbuk, who told me: "Never act on a bill with Tertulliano; he's trouble."

That's all he said. Fortunately, I nor anyone else ever had to. Far as I know Pinky left vaudeville and went back to Italy. Which is strange, since he had such a good weird act, like the Flying Cathars all rolled into one.

· · · · · 

Marks: … so I started noticing stuff about both their acts. Like, in the skeleton dance. I told you there were glow-in-the-dark tombstones and things. One was a big sarcophagus, like in those New Orleans cemeteries. On the side of it was the phrase "Et in Arcadia ego"—"And I too am in Arcadia" is the usual translation, and people think it means death, too, was in pastoral, idyllic settings. I think it was just an ancient "Kilroy was here," myself.

And the horse-suit act, the Ham Nag. "Why is it always trying to get a blue apple?" I asked. Like something out of Magritte. Who ever heard of a blue apple? (Magritte's favorites were of course green.) Dybbuk didn't say anything; he just handed me what turned out to be the thickest, driest book I had ever tried to read in my life. Honest, I tried.

Wing didn't say anything, of course, he just nodded.

· · · · · 

Marks: A week later I brought the book back to them.

"If this is what you guys do for fun," I said, "I think you guys should get out to a movie more often, maybe buy an ice-cream cone.

"You asked," said Dybbuk. "That book explains most of it."

"That book explains my six-day headache," I said. "It's like trying to read Spengler. Better than any Mickey Finn at bedtime. Two paragraphs and I'm sleeping like a baby."

"Sorry," said Dybbuk.

"Besides," I said, "I came from a whole other background. I don't even try to keep trayf for the holidays. I'm not a practicing Jew—much less a Christian. People really believe that stuff? The fight between the Catholics and the Freemasons?"

"Some more than others," said Dybbuk. Wing nodded.

"So why put that stuff in the act if it's so important and so secret?"

And Dybbuk said, "If it's fun, why do it?"

· · · · · 

Marks: I had troubles of my own during all this time, by the way. They tried to slip me down the bill at the next tank town. I needed a new act. The comedy was fine; the dancing and singing never were much, but for vaudeville, it was a wow.

Then I met Marie, who as you know later became Susie Cue.

(Like Burns and Allen, Marks and Susie Cue were a double for the next forty years—in vaudeville, the movie It Goes To Show You, in radio and television—anywhere they could work.—ed.)

She was part of a sister act—the only good part. I laid eyes on her and that was it. I was forty-one years old in '27, she was maybe twenty. In two weeks we were a double and her sisters were on the way back to Saskatoon.

So my extracurricular interests changed dramatically. So did the finances, thanks to Susie. We became virtually a house-act on the Keith-Albee circuit and did a couple of the last (real) Follies before Ziegfeld croaked, and things got pretty peachy—even with the Crash. Fortunately, as George S. Kaufmann said, all my money was tied up in cash, so I came through it okay.

Meanwhile I heard from Julius that my brothers, except for Milton, were making movies, out in Astoria, of their stage plays. I wished them lots of luck.

But that was just another indication variety was dying. I mean, you have a play run for two years on Broadway and you still gotta make movies to make any more money. The movies, now that they talked—for a while there they talked but didn't move much—see Singin' in the Rain for that—were raiding everything—plays, novels, short stories, poems, radio—for that matter, radio was raiding right back—in an effort to get what little money people still had left. Movies did it all the time for a dime; vaudeville did it three times a day for fifty cents. Something had to give.

It was me and Susie Cue, and we went into radio.

Meanwhile, Dybbuk & Wing—I supposed it was Wing—were writing to us.

· · · · · 

Winstead: So this was …?

Marks: We went into radio in late 1931. So did everybody else. We'd tried three formats before we found the right one.

W: My Gal Susie Cue?

M: My Gal Susie Cue. The idea was, it was like having lizards live in your vest and I tried to deal with it.

W: Didn't Dybbuk & Wing appear on it?

M: Exactly twice. Tap dance doesn't come across on radio, especially if there's no patter. Even with a live audience all you hear are the taps—a sound-effect man with castanets can do that—and the oohs and ahhs from the audience.

W: What about the Ham—

M: Even they knew a silent horse-suit act wouldn't work on radio. That would have to wait for Toast of the Town on TV, but by then they were gone. I don't even know if there's any film of the horsey act. I once asked them how they did it so well.

Dybbuk gave the classic answer I've seen attributed to other people. He said: "I'm the front of the horse suit, and I act a whole lot. Wing just acts natural."

· · · · · 

Marks: I'm getting ahead of myself. While we were in the Follies and they were still out in the sticks, they wrote me. Letters about other acts, their acts, how bad variety was getting. I did what I could for them, got them a few New York gigs, mostly in olios before movies, that kind of thing. We got together when they were in town. I think they both had crushes on Susie Cue. (Who wouldn't?)

Anyway, when they were on the road they wrote me about their researches, too. It was all too arcane and esoteric for me (those are my two new words of the week from Wordbuilder®), but it seemed to keep them happy. They also made noises about "Pinky types" and "priests with tommy-guns" which I took at the time to be hyperbole (my new word from last week), but now I'm not so sure.

The trouble with paranoia (as Pynchon and others—yes, I do read the moderns) said, is the deeper you dig, the more you uncover, whether it's there or not. It's the ultimate feedback system—the more you believe, the more you find to believe. I'm not sure, but I think Dybbuk & Wing may have been in the fell clutch of circumstances of their own making.

That was about the gist of the letters—I haven't looked at them since the late '50s—the century's, not mine—in the late 1950s I was seventy—I was drunk one day and dug them out of an old White Owl box I keep them in. Susie Cue came in and found me crying.

"What's the matter, Manfred?"

"Just reliving the glory days," I said.

"These are the glory days," she said. Maybe for her. She'd just turned fifty.

Anyway, want to jump ahead to where it really gets interesting?

W: Sure.

· · · · · 

Marks: It was early 1933—the week before FDR was inaugurated and the week King Kong premiered (that was something people really wanted to see: an ape tearing up Wall Street). We were in LA, making It Goes To Show You. Dybbuk & Wing couldn't make it and were having their agent return the advance. I've been in show business for ninety years, and there are only two reasons for an act not to show up and giving money back: 1) You're dead; 2) Your partner's dead. That's it.

I got a confirmation it was them sent the cable.

So no Dybbuk & Wing and no Ham Nag, in their only chance to be filmed. I was more upset about that than about the hole in the movie. We had to get two acts for that—that's why The Great Aerius is in there as a comic acrobat and Gandolfo & Castell are in as the dance act. Then we lucked out and got Señor Wences, with Johnny and Pedro in the box. It was his first American movie. You haven't seen weird til you've seen Señor Wences in 1933 …

· · · · · 

Marks: Turn that off a minute.

Winstead: Why?

M: I gotta dig up the letter. I'll read it. It's better than I could tell it.

W: Do you know where it is?

M: Probably it's with the rest. Maybe …

· · · · · 

Marks: Did you like the lunch?

Winstead: God, I'm stuffed. Did you find the letter?

M: I think it was written on 1933 flypaper or something. It's pretty brittle. I think the silverfish have been at it. Yeah, I got it here.

W: Mr. Marks, I want to know exactly how we got off on this.

M: You asked about vaudeville. This is about vaudeville.

W: A letter dealing with Christian kook cults is about vaudeville?

M: You'd be surprised. Both contain multitudes.

W: Please read it to me.


Thursday, March 23, 1933

Dear Knowledge-Seeker (they always called me that):

Sorry about missing the movie deal and (it turns out) we sure could have used the money. I hope you understand. Who did you get to replace us? I hope they turned out boffo.

The easiest way to tell you about it is in order the way it happened. We got to Yakima on the hottest tip we'd ever gotten the week of FDR's inaugural. The tip wasn't about Yakima; it was further west, but this is the closest big-train passenger depot. We'd just done the week in Spokane. Coming in on our heels were the Flying Cathars (you remember them from the Midwest), who are now in a circus (where they came from and where they are now back). John Munster Cathar gave us a letter—an answer to someone we'd written to from Denver.

Let's say it was the most concrete clue we'd ever gotten. Our next booking was in six weeks in Seattle, after we'd supposedly gotten back from doing your movie in Hollywood. We called our agent and had him pick up some one-, two-, and three-nighters between Yakima and Seattle. He cussed us a blue streak for missing the movie and having to send the money back. But he got on the horn and got us enough gigs to cover a month of the six weeks anyway.

The first was the next day in a place called Easton, Washington. We went there and did a three-a-day, both acts. Then we got on a spur-line train off the B-N and went to a town called Rosslyn. Which is where we wanted to go in the first place.

An odd thing we noticed as we got there was that there was a priest waiting at the depot. Who he met in fact was another priest, both Catholics. The one he met was young.

Which is strange, since, believe it or not, most of the priests up here are Orthodox—left over from when the Pacific Northwest was Russian, and a lot of Greeks came here around the turn of the century.

Well, we went down to the theater, Rennie's Chateau. We gave the stagehands the drops for the skeleton dance, put our trucks and the horse suit in the dressing room, and asked where we could get breakfast. They told us a block down.

We walked down there. It was cold. Snow was still two feet high off the sidewalks; guys came by talking about how good the salmon run had been last fall. (The only water we could see was a small creek that went off back down toward the Yakima River to the south of us.)

Dybbuk noticed that the two priests were back down the board sidewalk behind us, walking the same way we were, talking with animation and blessing people automatically.

We got to the café, and it was full of lumberjacks, which they call loggers up here. There was a bunch of big tables pushed together in the center of the place, and there were twelve or fifteen of them at it, and they were putting away the grub like it was going out of style. There were plates of biscuits a foot high, and if they had been a family, the guys with the shortest arms would have starved to death.

We sat at the counter on the stools by the pies and cakes and such. Dybbuk got coffee, ham, and scrambled eggs. I got chipped beef on toast, coffee, and a couple of donuts.

The waitress yelled to the cook, "Adam and Eve. Wreck 'em. S.O.S. and a couple sinkers. Two battery acids!"

"Yes, Mabel," yelled one of the cooks, lost in clouds of steam and smells.

"More gravy over here, Mabel!" yelled half the table of lumberjacks.

"Eighty-six the gravy," said the cook, "Unless you wanna wash up. I'm outta big bowls."

"Use that old 'un in the high cabinet," yelled Mabel.

The cook went back and rummaged around. The short-order cook moved to his place at the stove; threw water and flour into the giant skillet the bacon and ham had been cooking in. With his free hand he broke six eggs onto the griddle. The main cook came back, moved exactly into the vacated other cook's place, and stirred the gravy with a big ladle.

He put it into a battered old silver server and passed it through the order-hole to Mabel.

Dybbuk paused with his coffee cup halfway to his lips, rolled his eyes, and focused back on the serving bowl.

Wing (me) followed his gaze. The server was what the ancient Greeks would have called a krater: a large, shallow bowl with handles on two sides. There was figurework on the base which extended up the sides of the bowl—it looked like bunches of grapes.

Wing (that's me) nodded to Dybbuk, rolled his eyes, and fixed them on the two priests who had come in and sat down at a window table. They were still talking away and seemed to be paying no attention to anything.

Mabel put the bowl down; six or eight hands filled with biscuits dipped into it and came out with gobs of gravy.

"I s'pose now you'll be wantin' more biscuits?" she asked.

"Mmmmff mmmfmmfs," said the lumberjacks.

"Two doz. hardtack!" she yelled to the cooks.

Back at the dressing room, we thought of a plan. We were going to be at the theater for three days. We got the manager's bill poster to make up a couple of cloth banners advertising the bill. Then we pinned them to both sides of the horse suit. We went out the side door of the theater and up and down the main street, which is called First Street—all the cross-streets are named for states—doing part of the Ham Nag act. We hit the bank, the five-and-dime, the firehouse, the Legion hall; we went past the Masonic Temple across the street from the theater, and of course the café. We went in and bothered Mabel and the cooks. We went back through the kitchen, out the back door, behind the buildings, and back to the theater.

The young priest, who'd been out in front of the theater, gawked at us with the rest of the town (we had quite the little crowd following us down First Street) but stayed in front of the theater, so we figured he wasn't waiting for Dybbuk & Wing.

Later, when we walked back to the hotel on Pennsylvania as ourselves, he followed us as discreetly as a priest can. When we looked outside later, he was still there.

At the theater, Dybbuk went out between our act and the horse act and bought the biggest ceramic bowl the five-and-dime had—it was at least two feet across and weighed a ton. We put it in the cemetery stuff the next performance, leaned it against a tombstone.

The second day the horse suit made more of a nuisance of itself in other parts of town (there were only eight blocks by seven blocks of it, counting Alaska Alley) but ended again annoying the customers and the help at the café.

Once again they were watching the theater—this time the old priest. There was a local-looking kid with him.

When we left for the hotel (as us), it was the kid who wandered that way, and it was either him or some other who stayed outside all night, as far as we knew.

On the third day we took the ceramic bowl with us—me (Wing) carrying it inside his part of the suit. It made for a lumpier horse, I'm sure. After nearly twenty years we move as one, but Dybbuk has to do all the navigating. As they say of huskies, only the lead dog gets a change of scenery.

So we take off down First Street, and even I can tell we're gathering a crowd as we go along. We do some shtick with oil cans at the gas station; I dance around in the back a little, and we move on to the Western Auto hardware store, and then we go down to the café.

This time we came in the back door. "Christ!" says the head cook, "not again!" Dybbuk starts farting with stuff (the laughter was at the Ham Nag flipping pancakes with its front hooves) and rummaging through the cabinets (through the slit in the side of the suit I [Wing] saw everybody in the place up against the counter, looking into the kitchen)—the head cook had taken off and thrown down his apron and walked out into the restaurant in disgust, and then—allez oop!—the ceramic bowl was outside the Ham Nag and the krater was inside, and everybody applauded as we turned and did the double-split bow in the middle of the kitchen floor.

Then we were outside again, at the front door. All I (Wing) heard was Dybbuk say "Trouble!" and grunt before something knocked me off my feet. I jerked back, and some heavy object flattened the suit right between Dybbuk and me. We jumped up and a fist hit me in the jaw and I fell down again. A hand came in the side of the suit and the silver bowl was jerked out of my hands and was gone.

Then something knocked us down again, and we got up and opened the suit to make it a fair fight.

We were surrounded by kids dressed as clowns, including the one I'd seen with the priest. They had what looked like rubber baseball bats and big shoes. There was about half the town around them, clapping and laughing. To them it must have seemed part of the show—the horse suit set on by jokers and clowns. The old priest was standing across from us on the sidewalk, with his hands in his pockets, smiling. He took his hand out and moved it.

I looked way down First Street, and the young priest was just turning out of sight two blocks away with something shiny under his arm.

We got back in the suit and wobbled back toward the theater, the clowns whacking us with rubber bats occasionally. But they hadn't been rubber back in front of the café.

We got back to the dressing room and out of the Ham Nag suit.

"The priest was giving us a Masonic hand signal," Dybbuk said.

Priests don't do that, I (Wing) indicated.

"They do if they're not just priests," Dybbuk said.

• • • • • 

We figured, like you did years ago, the kid had doped out we were the Ham Nag too, and the priests laid a plan for us. I'm not sure they knew what we were doing, but someone saw through our misdirection and kept his eye on what was going on.

As Barrymore said, "Never work with kids or dogs."

• • • • • 

We almost had it, Knowledge-seeker. Now we'll have to start all over again. After all this time, what's a few years more? I mean, the thing has been around for at least one thousand nine hundred and three years …

Here's hoping you and Susie Cue are in the pink of health. We'll be here in Seattle at the Summit on Queen Anne Hill from Thursday til the end of next month. Heard your radio show last week; it was a pip.

Yours in knowledge-seeking,

Dybbuk & me (Wing)

· · · · · 

Winstead: Can you still talk, after reading all that?

Marks: I think so, after I get some of this stuff down. (drinks) There, that's better.

W: I don't know what to say. That was a long session. I don't want to wear you out. Will you feel like talking tomorrow?

M: I think so. You wanna hear about the radio show tomorrow?

W: Whatever you want to talk about. Do you think they ever got it?

M: Got the gravy bowl?

W: The thing they were looking for.

M: Your guess is as good as mine.

· · · · · 

Manny Marks, the last of the Marx Brothers, died three years later at the age of 107. Barry Winstead's book—I Killed Vaudeville—was published by Knopf in 1991. Luke H. Dybbuk died in 1942; John P. Wing is still alive, though he retired from performing in the early years of WWII.

The End


Thanks, Ms. Emshwiller; and Mikes, Walsh and Nelson.


© 2005 by Howard Waldrop and SCIFI.COM