Things I Learned From Puppets About Kindness

Steve Loiaconi

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T here was a time when I would have ignored anything that looked like a robocall or a scam and just let it ring. But I was waiting on calls about several resumes I had sent out, and I couldn’t afford to miss a promising business opportunity, so when the call came from an unknown number in Queens one night, I answered.

“Hello?” I said.

There was silence on the other end at first, and then a frantic whisper. “I’m in trouble, Teddy,” the voice said. “Real trouble.”

It took me a moment to place the voice. I was used to it being much louder and more boisterous and projected from the mouth of an oversized clam.

“Happy?” I asked. “How the hell did you get my number?”

“The janitor who slipped me this phone gave it to me.”

“Where are you?”

“I’m locked up.” He sniffled. “They don’t need us anymore.”

“Gosh, that must be rough.”

“Listen,” he said, his voice quivering, “you gotta help me, Teddy.”

“In point of fact, I don’t.” I made no effort to mute my bitterness. “We don’t work together anymore, remember?”

He was silent for a beat. “You’re, you’re, uh, still upset about that, huh?”

“I’m still unemployed about that.”

“You don’t understand,” he stammered. “They’re rounding us up. They want to send us off to war. I’m a pacifist. A conscientious objector, even. This goes against everything I believe in. I need to get out of here before they ship me off to the Pentagon.”

I glanced at my three-year-old son Sam playing in the next room. He wouldn’t remember, but when our show was on, he used to clap and cheer and shout “Dada” whenever Happy popped up on screen. The thought still made me smile.

“Alright,” I said, “tell me what you need.”

Orbit-sml ><

“I ’m going to bust that plushy son of a bitch open like a pinata,” Charlie said.

He was waiting for me in the dim corner of a Brooklyn bar, nursing an overpriced pint of light beer and pretending to ignore the songs and laughter across the room when he wasn’t staring death in the same direction. Three puppets danced on the bar, without strings – a cat, an alligator, and a blob-like purple monster. Felt and fur flailed as a small crowd cheered.

The middle performer in the puppet trio had once been Charlie’s character on the children’s TV show where we had both worked. It was called Cinnamon Avenue. Yes, it was a shameless ripoff. But no, toddlers didn’t give a shit.

Aloysius Alligator had been a cheerful and inquisitive reptile who spoke in rhyme and occasionally offered life lessons in educational rap songs. He wore a sequined vest and a top hat and carried a cane. If you said he looked like a cartoon pimp, you would not be wrong. On the bar, Aloysius sidled up to Cutesy Cat and grinded against her suggestively. These days, he was acting like one, too.

This was the new world.

“Back when I was manning the puppet, we could never behave like that in public,” Charlie said, shaking his fist at the bar. Charlie was pushing sixty, overweight and balding. He had been planning to work a couple more years until he could start tapping into his retirement funds before it all went to shit. Now, he couldn’t find a job and his puppet was living its best life right in front of him.

“People always talk about how you get to Sesame Street,” Charlie said, gulping down the last of his drink. “What nobody tells you is, it’s the getting out that’s the real bitch.”

“Speaking of which,” I said, and I relayed what Happy had told me. Charlie listened to my tale, the wooly tufts of his eyebrows rising then falling, like the little homunculus puppeteer inside his head couldn’t decide between disbelief and a thunderous glower and was yanking on the strings at random.

In the end, he settled for laughter. Big beery gusts of genuine amusement.

“Six months! Six months is all it takes! God damned Pinocchio nano-chips bring these turncoats to life, studios put all us skilled performance creatives out of work to cover the start-up costs, then six months later the ratings are in the can, the studios fold like Kermit in a suitcase, and now it’s Happy the Clam, Gorilla Glam, and Skoozle Go To War? I fucking love it!”

He smacked the table with delight then stood to fetch another round. He returned with two full pints and a snicker of barely contained glee.

“I went to hit the can. There’s two studio guys waiting out back with nets,” he said, nodding with grim satisfaction. On the bar, the cat and alligator were mashing their plushy bodies together while dousing themselves with Mountain Dew. The armless blob, Manfred, watched with an alarmingly wide smile. “Enjoy your final moments of freedom, flop-mops.”

Charlie raised his glass for me to toast, and for the first time noticed I wasn’t sharing in his joy about the unfortunate situation of our former co-workers. “What did I miss?”

I took a deep breath and prepared to ask him what I came there to ask. “I’m going to break Happy out.”

I tried to project resolve, but I recognized how absurd the words sounded as I said them. Charlie snorting into the head of his pint did nothing to help matters. “Well, good luck with that,” he said, wiping sweat and beer foam off his jowls with his sleeve. Then comprehension dawned. “Oh, hell no…”

I nodded. “Happy thinks he’s got maybe a few days until the DoD contracts are finalized. Until then, he’s locked up at the studio. I need information about the building and, like, the security protocols. I know you still have connections.”

“Connections to a career that was snatched away from me in the prime of my life,” Charlie said, thumping his chest with two stubby fingers. “And me with retirement just around the corner too,” he added, heedless of the contradiction. “Forget it.”

A smattering of applause and hoots from the bar indicated the puppets had completed their sex performance, or whatever you might call it. Cutesy Cat dried herself with a stack of cocktail napkins and Aloysius shook like a freshly bathed dog, splashing laughing bystanders with citrusy soda as Manfred collected tips in his gaping lippy grin and settled their tab with money that rightly should have been ours.

I sagged in my seat. “I understand.”


“But truth be told, if I do this alone, there’s a good chance I wind up in jail.”

Charlie stared at me over the rim of his glass as he guzzled his pint, I’m sure picturing how horribly ill-suited I would be for prison life. It was a thought I had mulled over quite a bit myself.

We were jerked back to reality by a cry of “Charlie baby!” Halfway to the back door and his date with fate, Aloysius had spotted us across the room and was waving like we were the oldest of good old friends.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the alligator shouted, “big hand for Charlie! That man right over there taught me all of my moves!” Suddenly the clapping and cheers were directed our way.

“And speaking of big hands, I was glad your hands were small, you know what I mean?” Aloysius wiggled his butt suggestively. Charlie slouched low over his pint, waiting for a stage trapdoor to open underfoot and deliver him from humiliation.

“Remember this move, Chuck?” He performed his old signature dance, a rapid series of pop-and-locks with his stringy arms. Charlie hid a reluctant, nostalgic smile behind his glass. I had always been impressed that he had the dexterity to guide the puppet through the dance back in the day, given his general surliness and lack of rhythm.

Aloysius bowed and continued to the exit, oblivious to what awaited. The buzz in the bar picked up again, customers moving on to new sources of entertainment as readily as fickle toddlers.

Before Charlie downed the last of his beer, something adjacent to sympathy flashed in his eyes. He set the empty down with a sigh. “You sure you want to do this?”

“I can’t abandon him.” I shrugged. “We’ve got, I don’t know, a bond.”

Charlie shook his head. “You must be crazy.” He shook it again. “I must be crazy.”

“You’ll help?”

He laughed again. “Somebody wants to put a gun in that clam’s hands? If anything, I think we’ll be doing the military a favor.”

Orbit-sml ><

C harlie came through. He got his hands on an access card and scribbled down the security team’s night schedule. There were some conspicuous blind spots. With the show canceled and interest waning, the studio was cutting corners. Nobody cared much about getting in at that point, and the puppets certainly weren’t going to walk out on their own. Because they were locked in.

Still, I wore a hooded sweatshirt and brought a black ski mask, just in case I got caught on security cameras. I told Jessica I was going to a union support meeting and Charlie picked me up in a car so beat-up he had to lean across the passenger seat to pop the door open. “Get in.”

I stared at what was clearly a machete protruding from the enormous cupholder between the seats. “Can never be too careful,” he said.

“I don’t know, man. Maybe you can.”

“You might trust that smiling cockle, but I don’t. Get in.”

Charlie drove me to the studio. As we pulled into a nearby alley, I offered to grab Aloysius too if I saw him. Charlie snorted and eyed the machete longingly, a look that told me the puppet might be safer in a warzone than with him. Nostalgia only goes so far, I guess.

Hiding behind a dumpster next to a side door, I checked my watch. There was a shift change coming that would give me about ten minutes to act. I took a deep breath, pulled on my mask, and sprinted toward the door. I slid the card into the reader and slipped inside, crept cautiously beneath a camera, then strafed along the wall down the hallway.

I soon found myself on an abandoned soundstage. Much of the Cinnamon Avenue set had not yet been dismantled. I passed the auto body shop, cardboard tools hanging on the wall and fake grease painted on the floor. Skoozle’s manhole was covered with yellow tape. Inside the diner, where many of Happy’s scenes were set, the lighting bar had fallen from the ceiling. The stoop of the main building was mostly intact, but the front door had been removed, revealing piles of trash and debris behind it.

I remembered the first time I walked out onto the set with Happy on my arm, pride and excitement of a sort I had rarely experienced in my career. It was unnerving to see a place once so vibrant and cheerful reduced to this eerie, dank stillness.

The puppets were being held in one of the storage rooms. The access card got me inside, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when the lights clicked on. Rows of cages, furry limbs extended through the bars. Paws and claws wearily grasping for freedom. Some of the puppets moaned as one played a mournful harmonica tune.

When they realized someone was in the room, they began to rattle their cages and cry out. I ignored them, searching for Happy. No sign of Aloysius. Maybe for the best. Then as I moved between the cells a familiar white glove grabbed my arm.

“Teddy, you came for me!” Happy shouted. “I knew you’d come! I told everybody you’d come! Hey, guys! Teddy came!”

“Ix-nay on the Eddy-tay,” I sputtered between gritted teeth.

“What did you say, Teddy? I didn’t get that.”

I reached through the bars and grabbed him by his bowtie. “Stop saying my name while I’m in the middle of committing a felony to save your furry ass.”

He saluted. “Message received, loud and clear, Teddy.”

I shook my head. “Let’s get out of here.”

There was a control panel on the wall by the door. Charlie’s guy had explained how to unlock the cages, but it took me a moment to figure out the code for Happy’s cage. I punched in the number and the bars popped open.

You would think you would get used to the idea of puppets moving around autonomously, but watching him leap to the floor and perform a celebratory dance, jointless arms waving, knees bending in unnatural directions, his clamshell mouth open wide and emitting something resembling a high-pitched yodel… it remained quite troubling.

I was shocked out of my discomfort when an alarm screeched overhead. Happy froze.

“We gotta move,” I said, reaching for his arm.

He resisted. “I can’t leave everyone else here.”

“Of course you can.”

“Teddy,” he pleaded. “Have a heart.”

Security would be fast approaching. I hesitated, considering what could go wrong with all these things loose on the streets – but I also needed a distraction if we were going to make it back to the car.

I typed in the code to unlock all of the cages and pulled Happy with me against the wall by the door. Dozens of puppets poured out of their cells into a heap on the floor. Some looked cheerful but most were angry. When the first few guards entered the room, a furious mob of colorful felt charged straight at them, fists clenched and screaming with rage.

As the guards called for backup and struggled to fight them off, Happy and I snuck past. I raced down the hallway with a large, clam-headed plushy under my arm, shouting and crashing and clanging behind us.

I don’t know, maybe a puppet army made more sense than I’d thought.

Back in the alley, I hurled Happy into the backseat of Charlie’s car and jumped in the front.

“That clam smells awful,” Charlie said, accurately, pulling away and onto the street.

“That’s not what your sister said last night,” Happy muttered as he fumbled with his seatbelt. Charlie’s gaze flicked to the rearview and he glowered.

“How about a little gratitude, Happy?” I said.

“Yeah, thank this,” he sneered, grabbing at his crotch.

“Your friend is delightful, Ted,” Charlie offered, his jaw clenched.

“At least I didn’t make a living molesting plushies,” Happy said, sticking his head forward between us. “You could go to prison for that in seventeen states, you know.”

“It’s always hands up asses with you people,” Charlie said, balling his into a fist. “You know what—”

“Charlie, just drive.” I pushed Happy back in his seat. “Happy, shut up or you’re going in the trunk.”

“This is censorship!” He crossed his arms and frowned. “I got First Amendment rights over here.”

“No, you don’t,” Charlie replied, also accurately.

“And that’s another thing we need to talk about.”

Happy settled into a droning rant about how puppets helped build this country – not true – and deserved to be treated with respect – arguable – while misquoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Charlie pulled onto the highway.

“It’s going to be a long drive,” he sighed.

Orbit-sml ><

I n the chaos of the moment a bunch of puppets had escaped, so the search wasn’t focused only on Happy. The cops questioned me, of course, but I managed to avoid falling under suspicion. Everyone knows puppeteers and puppets don’t get along, not any more. I’m the last person who’d help him, right?

And my situation was hardly a lie. When I was let go from Cinnamon Avenue, I boasted I would be back to work within weeks, and thoroughly failed to live up to that bravado. Now my unemployment benefits were near their end, we had begun to dip into our savings to cover monthly expenses, and I had long since run out of favors to call in to try to line up new opportunities.

For his part, Happy integrated himself into our household about as well as any fugitive from justice (or injustice) could. And things went well at first. Helping with chores, entertaining the children, hiding in the attic whenever other people were around.

Turned out, things were going too well.

About two months in, the kids were spending more and more time with Happy. I was wrapped up in an increasingly urgent but frustratingly futile job search, Jessica was taking on extra shifts at the restaurant, and Happy was a cheerful felt clam with nothing else to do. So when Sam wanted to play hide-and-seek or Katie needed another guest for a tea party, they turned to him. He enjoyed it too, or at least he was far more convincing at faking it than I ever was. When one of the kids made a goofy joke or did one of their wacky dances, his laughter would echo through the whole house.

One day, I was scrolling through job listings on Jessica’s laptop and Happy sauntered down the hall carrying a baseball bat and glove. A few minutes later I heard him cheering and Katie giggling. I crept down the stairs, and there he was winding up to pitch with Katie down the hall, bat in hand, surrounded by valuable breakable objects, waiting to swing.

“Happy, no!” I shouted. “Are you nuts?”

I grabbed the arm he had reeled back, but his hand was empty.

“Teddy,” he said, “it’s all pretend.”

Katie glared at me and stomped away. Like I was the bad guy.

Orbit-sml ><

I t wasn’t just playing with the children, either. He was worming his way into every aspect of our lives. One evening I found him sitting with Jessica at the dining room table, rubbing her feet with his mitts and reading off charges from our credit card bills. She found tracking our expenditures to be a useful exercise. I was more of a “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” kind of guy, which I’ll admit had not worked out well for us so far.

“You could save a lot of money by changing cable providers,” Happy said. “I’ll pull together some numbers.”

“Just make sure you include the sports package,” she said, leaning back with a sigh. “Ted needs his bowling. Don’t ask me why.” She noticed me staring. “What?”

I shook my head and left the room.

“Hey, Teddy,” Happy called as I slumped up the stairs. “I guess all those songs about counting, something must have stuck!”

The following week, I returned home from a disastrous interview for a gig as director of a community puppet theater, eager to sit down with a cold beer and pop on the sports. I was greeted by a head-ringing clatter from the kitchen. I found Happy bungling between the refrigerator and the counter with his arms full of bottles and vegetables.

A pot of water was on the stove, and there was flour all over the floor.

I could see what was about to happen, but it seemed too late to say anything.

Happy stumbled onto a patch of white powder and lost his balance. He barreled across the room and slammed into a cabinet. Broken glass and orange juice and crushed tomatoes spilled across the floor and the pot of water fell from the stove, bouncing off his head and soaking him like a, well, like a clam.

“That could have gone better,” he said, dazed.

I surveyed the disparate ingredients strewn across the floor and counter. “What the hell, Happy.”

“I was making dinner for everyone,” he said, his shell drooping into a frown. He sniffled and rubbed his round puppet eyes. “I call it a lasagna-frittata-chilada.”

“That sounds awful,” I replied.

Jessica pushed past me and stepped gingerly around the rainbow of stains and spills on the tiles. “At least he’s trying,” she said, kissing him gently on his shell. While Jessica helped clean the tomato juice and soy sauce out of his fabric, I made the kids salty, overcooked eggs.

Later that night, I was awakened by the muffled sound of Sam crying out from his bedroom. He was sleeping through the night consistently at that point, but bad dreams were also becoming somewhat common.

Jessica rolled over. “What time is it?” she murmured and I fumbled for my phone on the nightstand.

“Three,” I said, looking blearily at the screen. “Another nightmare. He’s calling for Daddy.”

I lurched across the room and opened the door, Sam’s cries coming loud and clear.

“Wait,” Jessica said. “He’s not saying ‘Daddy’.”

“I’m ’a coming!” Happy exclaimed as he twirled down the hall.

Orbit-sml ><

J essica was sitting alone at the kitchen table working on probably her third cup of coffee when I returned from dropping the kids off at school and daycare.

“Where’s Happy?” I asked.

“Resting,” she said. “He was up with Sam for over an hour last night.”

“You sure you don’t want to join him?” I muttered as I poured myself one, and immediately regretted it.

She put her coffee down, eyes narrowed. “What the hell does that mean?”

I leaned against the counter, defensive behind my mug. “I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”

“He’s a puppet,” she sighed. “His eyes are always that wide.”

“He keeps giving you massages.”

“I’m tense,” she said, rubbing her shoulder, “and his hands are like firm pillows.”

I scowled. “Well, that sounds lovely.”

“It’s not like I hide it,” she said. “My husband’s out of work, my boss is a jackass, I’m trying to keep two kids alive in modern America, and I’ve got a fugitive puppet in full-on ALF mode in my attic.”

All of this was true. Entwined in my own stress and drama, I found it easy to overlook the weight she carried on behalf of the family. “So you two aren’t…?”

Her bug-eyed horror cut me short. “God, no. Is that even… like, does he have, you know—” she nodded toward my torso “—compatible equipment?”

“Let’s not find out. How can I help?”

“You can get a fucking job,” she snapped.

It was a low blow, but not unwarranted.

“I’ll figure something out,” I half-whispered.

Orbit-sml ><

I climbed up to the attic where Happy slept – or whatever it is puppets without closeable eyelids do. He lay silently on an air mattress, surrounded by towers of boxes, storage bins, and garbage bags of stuff. I tapped his leg with my foot, jostling him awake.

Rip off the band-aid. “You need to leave, Hap.”

“Yeah, right,” he muttered, still groggy. “Where am I supposed to go?”

“Literally anywhere but here.” When he arrived Happy had prepared some essential items in case he needed to make a quick getaway from the cops. God only knows what they were, but he’d wrapped them in an old towel and knotted it to the top half of a collapsable mop handle, like an artificial fibers Huckleberry Finn. I tossed it onto his mattress.

He jerked upright. “You can’t do that to me. Not after everything we’ve been through together.”

“I don’t want to, but I can.”

“Oh yeah?” His long, thin arm pointed to the small window above us. “How’s about I tell the federales you’ve been holding me captive up here?” He jabbed a fluffy finger in my face. “I go down, Teddy, you go down with me.”

“You wouldn’t,” I said, bristling at stiff resistance I should have been better prepared for.

“Try me.” His voice hardened like steel. “You don’t want to test a desperate puppet, pal.”

“I think I do.” I said. “Pick up your sad little hobo sack and hit the road.”

Happy swatted it aside and stood. He was about three feet shorter than me, so his effort to look me in the eyes lacked gravitas. He shuffled closer until he was just inches away and craned his neck upward.

“Maybe we should put it to a vote,” he said. “Who do you think the kids would rather have around these days? You or me?”

“This house is a republic, not a democracy. I know what’s best for my family.”

“Could have fooled me,” he huffed.

That was it. I lunged for his arm and tossed him across the attic. He landed on a box of Christmas decorations and immediately charged me with the pointed edge of a star-shaped tree-topper in his hand, clamshell face taut with rage.

Until you find yourself in such a situation, it is hard to conceive of what it is like to fight a puppet. You would think you could just grab them and rip them apart, but it’s not so easy. Their limbs are long but floppy, and they can pack a punch. They’re small and nimble, and their size positions them perfectly to strike at your shins or your groin. It’s hard to tell if you’re doing much damage even if you get some good shots in.

I reflected on this as we wrestled across the floor of the attic and tumbled down the staircase. He grunted and groaned, but kept swinging and kicking all the way down to the second-floor hallway, where he grabbed a lamp off a table and bashed it over my head. Blood trickled down my forehead as I grabbed the lamp’s power cord and lassoed it around his neck, pulling it tight with all my strength.

It occurred to me then that puppets don’t breathe. A strained giggle escaped his shell.

I lifted Happy overhead and hurled him over the banister to the floor below. He fluttered to the ground, and I raced down the stairs to the foyer, where I grabbed him, pressed down on his chest with my knee, and I battered his soft clamshell head with one fist and then the other, over and over.

All that frustration, slaked at last. I have to say, it felt fantastic.

Then I paused to catch my breath and realized my wife and children were standing in the doorway watching us.

“Daddy?” Sam said.

Orbit-sml ><

W hat I told the children: somebody at NASA glommed onto the notion that telegenic and personable sentient beings that didn’t need to eat, sleep, or breathe would make ideal candidates for high-profile long-distance space travel. So Happy, proud patriot that he is, signed up for a multi-year mission to Saturn. Of course, he had to leave immediately one morning for his secret astronaut training without saying goodbye, and he couldn’t write or call because, well, it was all so secret.

The weight of sorrow and pity in their eyes when they look at me now tells me they don’t buy it, but it’s the best lie I could come up with. Jessica’s eyes show something worse.

What really happened: once we calmed the kids down, I lugged Happy back up to the attic, duct-taped his shell shut, basically duct-taped his whole body into a plasticised canvas pillar, and barricaded the door. The next day, while the kids were at school and Jessica was fending off her boss at the restaurant, Charlie came over, we took the clam out to the garage, and he helped me remove the computer chip from Happy’s head.

All these little tendrils of nanotechnology that made his arms and legs and mouth move came dragging out after it. He didn’t sing “Daisy”. He just wriggled and made little muffled screaming noises from behind the tape over his mouth, until he didn’t.

Neither of us understood the technology, whether it could be reactivated or tracked or whatever, so Charlie took the chip and threw it off a bridge across town.

Charlie encouraged me to burn Happy’s body in the backyard, even offered to provide a barrel and a bottle of lighter fluid. But I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t just throw him out either. Once he was a simple, lifeless, inoffensive puppet, I unwrapped him and shoved him into a crawl space in the basement, behind some heavy boxes where Sam and Katie would never be at risk of stumbling across him. I don’t know. I couldn’t give him up, but I couldn’t ever look him in the eye again either.

I sometimes wake in the middle of the night and hear Happy’s laughter echoing through the walls, unsure if it’s a dream, or a vivid memory of happier days, or if an undead angry clam has somehow emerged from his crypt to seek revenge and sweep my children away.

Maybe I deserve that. Who really knows anything anymore?


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Steve Loiaconi

Author image of Steve Loiaconi Steve Loiaconi is a journalist and a graduate of George Mason University’s MFA program. His fiction previously appeared in Griffel, The Mystery Tribune, Samfiftyfour, Tales of the Fantastic, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as the anthologies Dracula’s Guests, P is for Poltergeist, and Open All Night. He lives in Washington, DC with his wife and son, and you can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and his website.

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