Kim Nelson: In a Voice That is New

Chris had been dreading the season-ending talent show for the entire run of summer camp. Other boys in his bunk had been talking about it since Day One, strumming Mumford & Sons riffs on acoustic guitars while pondering out loud how much the girls in Bunk 5 would go crazy when they heard it. Others had magic acts, juggling skills, or even some semi-decent stand up comedy chops for an 11-year-old. Chris felt lost and spent his time lying on top of his sleeping bag in his bunk bed, wondering if he could fake an appendicitis attack and get sent home from camp a week early, missing the talent show entirely.

One day, his counselor asked him to help clean out a storage closet in the arts & crafts shed. Chris moved box after dusty box of macrame and yarn God’s Eyes to the dumpster. When he neared the back wall of the closet, he came across an old black suitcase. It looked completely out of place among the cardboard, popsicle sticks, and bead boxes. He ran one hand across the lid, noting the thick layer of dust. He couldn’t resist opening the box. Nestled in white satin, a ventriloquist dummy laid asleep, eyes closed, little wooden arms crossed upon his chest. Chris gently lifted the dummy onto one knee and fiddled with the controls. The doll’s eyes sprung open, its wooden jaw stretching wide like a bear’s after waking from hibernation.

“Can I keep anything I find?” Chris asked his counselor later when the teenager returned to check on his progress. “Sure,” the counselor shrugged, scratching the thick white zinc oxide on his nose. “Whatever. I’ve gotta go meet Sandy at the pier. Hey, don’t forget to practice your talent show act, whatever it’s gonna be.”

Chris stashed the box under the stairs of his bunkhouse, taking it out only when the rest of the boys were at archery or team sports. Patiently and determinedly, he honed his skills with the controls of the dummy and learned how to throw his voice. He named the doll Stan.

With the end of the summer came the talent show. Chris was the last act to go. The room buzzed; no one had seen him practicing and didn’t have a clue what his talent was going to be. The curtain rose, revealing Chris sitting alone on a stool, bathed in the spot, Stan atop one knee.

Chris killed it. His voice flowed from the dummy’s mouth like he was one of Chris’s own appendages. Chris was the perfect straight man, reacting to the dummy’s mischievous wiggling eyebrows following off-color jokes about females counselors and late night bunk runs. Stan did a perfect, obsenity-laden impression of Mr. Fields, the camp director. The audience howled with laughter, amazed by the performance. They had written off Chris as the shy, quiet kid all summer, never realizing until now the fierce talent that had been lurking beneath his mild-mannered exterior. Throughout the amphitheater, the feeling swept over the crowd and counselors; they were the first to witness a bold new voice in the intriguing world of child ventriloquists.

 

This short story was written during a DWWP exercise in which we used the following quote by Nelson Algren as inspiration: “For there, even though their men write like boys, there are listeners who are ready to hear somebody speak in a voice that is new, saying something not said before, who will be better than anybody up until now.”

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