UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
Finally a hush rolled in over the audience. The dusty velvet curtain hesitated in coming down, drawing that extra ounce of suspense from them. The anonymous black mass broke into applause when the bald head of the Emcee came out between
The Emcee jumped before his crowd. He could make out a few familiar faces; all the usual drunks were there, suckling their pay from dirty brown bottles, as well as the loners from the convention at the hotel. A few families were seated in the front, the children lost in awe at the spectacle before them. He knew how to balance it all out between the drunks and the families: keep it quick and no dirty jokes. He had learned his lesson from that performance in Sioux City. He wasn’t good at telling them anyway. Delivery was fine, reception was fine, but it was not fine after the laughter died down. Once a dirty word left his lips, it traveled down to his hands and imprinted itself under his fingernails. After shows in lonely motel rooms he would try to scrub the filthy language from his hands, but the words and the punch line, that climax of the lewd concerto, always stared back at him in the creases of the palms.
Better stick to clean jokes, he thought.
The spectators applauded with a few whistles. No heckling, yet. The Emcee strode out and did a flip from one side of the stage to another, his silver coat and tails flying in his face and his legs becoming a crimson whirl to all those watching. The audience held its breath before he landed in front of a spotlight and a readily available microphone. He still had it.
“Ladies and gentlemen…” he began, “I present to you all the smartest man who has ever lived.” He waited for the usual sigh or grunt of disbelief. It did not come at first, but eventually could be heard. As soon as it passed, the Emcee knew it was his time to continue the dazzlement. “Ask him any question, and Mr. Know-it-all will answer it for you, any question about the world, anything there is to know of course. Don’t ask him your cat’s name, something you only know, but something everybody knows…or let me say, should know.”
Without asking, a few hands shot up immediately, wanting to ask the not yet present Mr.-Know-it-all. The Emcee ignored the dark stubs and went on to tell his audience the legend of Mr. Know-it-all, as the majority of them were wondering how such a freak of nature, with such a seemingly pretentious name, came to be.
“Mr. Know-it-all was once an ignorant mortal like the rest of us. How did he become the walking encyclopedia that will soon stand before you?” As always, the Emcee paused for that innocent child to break the silence and ask, “how?” The voice did not announce itself, and the Emcee continued, “He grew up in a house filled with books, with no siblings or neighbors to play with. How was this lonely boy to fill his time? Why with his books of course! He read them over and over again. Some say he went through over a thousand tomes, by the time he was ten (he hoped the audience would be able know what a tome was by the context of the Emcee’s speech, and if they didn’t, they could ask Mr. Know-it-all for the definition). He read books on philosophy, on the tales of faraway lands, and on the lives of great men and women. He read books on anatomy, physics, chemistry, astrology, anthropology, psychology, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, drama, comedy, even coloring books, anything he could get his hands on. His brain was like a sponge, ladies and gentlemen, it soaked up everything there was to know. At age 10, he was abducted by gypsies, and he soon learned every magic and card trick there was to know. He snuck in the back of college classrooms and learned mathematics from the greatest minds alive. He has learned every language and even every dance. Ladies and Gentlemen, without further ado, I give you… (Drum roll please) MR-KNOW-IT-ALL!!!
The crowd burst into applause as the Emcee stretched his arm out to a barren side of the stage. A burst of blue velvety smoke erupted and a figure emerged. He wore a pointed sorcerer’s hat, decorated with math signs and symbols. He wore glasses with thick gold rims, non-prescription, of course. The audience wanted to see him look smart as well. The answers he gave had to seem the result of a real personal intelligence, without the glasses his responses would seem to be less thought out, part of some encyclopedic script. It was all about the glasses. He whirled around, showing off his fuchsia cape and bright green shoes. Mr. Know-it-all wore a jacket covered with a map of the world. His pants were just a pair of jeans.
He waved the smoke away from himself and proceeded to the audience so their faces could come into focus. The bright stage lights bounced off his glasses and reflected white patches on the walls that moved with every turn of his head. He walked closer to the Emcee. The Emcee showed a burst of impatience and snapped his hand at Mr. Know-it-all, beckoning him to come over. Mr. Know-it-all picked up his green-footed pace and came to the Emcee’s side of the stage, where he whirled around again to the delight of the audience. The Emcee regained control and spoke.
“Ladies and gentlemen…and small children, can I get a few brave volunteers to ask Mr. Know-it-all questions and try to stump him? Don’t forget, if you stump Mr. Know-it-all on a question with a publicly known and verified answer, then you win the right to choose a prize from the box of mystery!”
A spotlight came up on a leggy blonde in a red dress turning around a purple box covered in black felt question marks. As soon as the audience made its appropriate sound of awe, the Emcee continued, the girl moving back behind stage. “Can I have a first volunteer?”
A hand went up.
The Emcee leapt off the stage and went over to a shadow. It slowly took on a human form and revealed itself to belong to a large black man. The Emcee held his microphone out for the man. He stood up and began speaking, “What’s the capital of Bangladesh?”
“Do you know?” the Emcee asked.
“I live next to a family from there. They’re really proud of the place, they tell me about it-”
The emcee commandeered the microphone and shoved it over to his mouth, “Mr. Know-it-all, do you know the answer?”
Disinterested, Mr. Know-it-all looked off into space and answered the question to nobody in particular.
The man nodded his head. Applause and awe came from the audience.
“Any other volunteers? I see a hand down there…” the Emcee moved to the front of the crowd, a retiree with dyed red hair became visible. “Your question ma’am?”
“Where is the county seat of Ward County, South Dakota located? I have a sister who lives there because her husband is an attorney, or rather was-”
“Does he know it?”
“Minot, NORTH Dakota, the site of Minot State University, Minot Air Force Base and the Upper Souris and J. Clark Salyer national wildlife refuge. The population was about 37,000 according to the last census.”
The lady sat down and a young man in the back stood. A spotlight found its way to him, and the figure that had been known only for its raised hand, became something more definite, an overweight youngster with an overbite and greasy hair. Despite that, he had a booming voice. He asked, “Who won the first MTV award for best video of the year?” As quickly as he had shot up, he sat down.
“A pop culture question! Let’s see if in all that fancy book learnin’ Mr. Know-it-all came across anything like that!”
Mr. Know-it-all folded his arms and looked up at the ceiling, pretending to be searching for an answer. “The Cars won it, in 1984, for the song ‘You Might Think’.”
The questions continued to come. As usual, he was prepared for the inquisitive deluge.
“Who discovered the positron?”
“Carl David Anderson.”
“What is the square root of negative 1?”
“Where do trumpets sit in an orchestra?
“Behind the French horns.”
“What is the month of March named after?”
“The Roman God of war, Mars; Ares in Greek.”
“How many regions does Italy have?
“What was the first opera?”
“Dafne, by Jacopo Peri, although little of the music survives.”
“How many senators are there in the New Jersey legislature?”
“Who is the only writer to have a book under every category of the Dewey decimal system?”
He thought, only for a moment, but at least he had to actually think about it.
“When did Guinea gain its independence?”
“October 2nd, 1958.”
“Who founded phenomenology?”
“What does klaxon mean in French?”
“What is the average temperature in Timbuktu?”
“Between 24 to 32 degrees Centigrade.”
“What does a computer byte stand for?”
“The maximum weight for a golf ball is what?”
“Not a lot.” He paused as the audience chuckled, “It’s more like 1.62 oz.”
It was becoming so tiresome, the answers flew from his tongue without ever having to pause at his brain. The audience was growing frustrated as Mr. Know-it-all grew frustrated with them for failing to challenge him. They searched from amongst its black mass for a question that could crack Mr. Know-it-all’s skull right open.
A young girl with blond pigtails stood up. Confidently she asked her question, “How many kernels on an ear of corn, on average?”
“Why are there 800 kernels?”
At first he thought she had asked “What?” and he would have to repeat the answer, but he realized she hadn’t asked that question. She hadn’t asked “Who?” as corn is not a person, “When?” for corn has had 800 kernels for a while, though the old varieties had less, but she was too young to know about them, “How?” because Mr. Know-it-all had definitely heard a “W,” and it wasn’t “Where?” for they were talking in averages, of the kernels of corn everywhere. No, it was that most dreaded and complicated of questions and, for Mr. Know-it-all, the form of inquiry to be avoided at all costs. He looked at the audience, hoping they hadn’t heard it. Mr. Know-it-all thought her voice was too young to be heard. But he saw their eyes were fixed on him, waiting for an answer. They had heard! The question now reached out and slapped Mr. Know-it-all in the face. An answer, he had to find the answer! Why? Why 800, and not 799? He knew the what, the how, and the where and who, but the why? That had eluded him. It had had eluded him all this time, through his journeys and readings. All he ever saw was facts, not reasons. What was behind it all? He had never asked that question. The audiences were always content with simple facts arranged with complex words. That little girl had found the hole in the edifice of knowledge he had built, a secret backdoor that was wide open, flapping in the wind and creaking incessantly now in his mind. She was now inside and shredding his dictionaries, burning the encyclopedias, smearing the ink on the novels and newspapers, melting his records and microwaving his CDs. All his precious knowledge was vanishing. In smoke, in water, in waves of energy, it was being carried away. No longer content with all this destruction, she was now even tearing down the shelves that held everything, so that he would have a place to store all his precious facts should he recover them. All the time she was singing “Why? Why? WHY?” and bouncing on the furniture and laying waste to everything. He wanted to wrap his hands around those annoying pigtails, spinning about like a hideous Maypole, and bring an end to her chorus.
Mr. Know-it-all remained cool on the outside, hiding a tumult within himself. The question ate away at him with every growing second.
“Because it’s an even number and nature designs things with evenness so they can survive better.” He didn’t really have an answer, because he knew what every answer to the question would bring.
“Because that’s the purpose of al living things, to survive.”
He felt like Aristotle, royally declaring a purpose for all living things, assigning some role to the birds in the air and the fish in the sea other than the observable facts he was more content to describe, how they survived and where they did so, never…
He wanted to come up with a better answer, but he became a tired parent and merely retorted, “Because that’s the way it is.” He knew he was just telling her, “Because I said so.”
The Emcee knew it was too much for Mr. Know-it-all. He was not prepared to deal with a problem like this, all he was expected to do was stand out in front of a crowd and answer questions. The Emcee remembered a time outside Helena when some over curious local did ask “Why?” but he immediately asked the audience for another question and Mr. Know-it-all never heard the man’s inquiry. This was going on too long; he rushed to the stage and tried to control the audience and comfort Mr. Know-it-all.
“Little girl, we can answer only questions that are objective, what you asked is not the domain of Mr. Know-it-all, but rather the domain of philosophy.”
“Because it deals with what is not really known.”
“Because philosophy is…is…people thinking great thoughts.”
“I don’t know,” the Emcee scratched his bald head. “To sound more important than they actually are.”
“Why?” She was enjoying this, the Emcee and Mr. Know-it-all could tell.
“Like anyone does to look more important than they actually are,” he looked at his act and saw that the comment hit him especially hard. He tried to tell him with his eyes that he didn’t mean it that way and that what he meant were people who have no idea what they talk about and use all those long words like imposters, wearing them like fake jewelry or furs. He was not referring to those who use them because they are the right words to use. The Emcee had never really heard the poor guy use big words unless they were first thrown at him. But Mr. Know-it-all was too shaken to notice the Emcee’s apologetic gaze.
“So they could get laid perhaps?” He said what was obvious to him.
The Girl’s question broke through the gasps of the audience. “Why?”
“Listen, if you don’t shut up, I’ll knock you clear across the room!”
The parent stood up, “Don’t threaten my daughter!”
“Why?!” The Emcee caught himself and covered his mouth. He regained his composure and made repressed fists with his hands.
A clear voice blew through the room and caught everyone’s attention.
“It’s a perfectly normal question, a worthy one to, perhaps the most important…” Mr. Know-it-all walked into the audience, passing rows of people who were gazing at the fallen star.
He kneeled down before the girl and took off his glasses and cape. How naked he was now. “I don’t know, it’s funny, you’d think I’d find that answer in everything that I read, the answer must have popped out at me from all those pages, but it didn’t. The room seemed darker than before, the spotlight dimmer. He could see, really see now. All the faces, their expressions were so crisp and sharp, he could gather in all the details. Mr. Know-it-all stood up and turned to the Emcee, who was frozen in his corner of the stage. “She got me. I don’t know the answer, give her the prize.” The Emcee tried to protest. Oh it would ruin all of them, it would be the end of the act. Word, precious word would get out and seep across the circuit and every theatre owner would soon learn that Mr. Know-it-all could be defeated.
“Give her the prize!” The Emcee bowed his bald head in humble submission. With that, Mr. Know-it-all calmly smiled at the little girl and staring into space, walked down the carpeted aisles, crawled up the stage, and disappeared behind a curtain.
The Emcee looked at his audience. What to do? He yelled for his lovely assistant to come out on stage, she obliged and he gave the little girl the box she had earned with her piercing question.
The girl seized upon the box like a Christmas present. She popped the lid off in a split second and leaned over, almost falling into the box. The Emcee wished she had, he could close the lid on her and forget about this whole episode. She kept herself from falling in completely though, and in the haze of silence, her fumbling around for the prize became an unbearable sound for the Emcee, that quiet scratching against the cardboard annoyed him. It was a sound he dreaded, the sound of failure. The girl emerged a moment later with her prize, a shiny silver dollar. The snow-white reflection illuminated her face. She smiled at her own likeness on the coin’s surface and walked offstage. The emcee wondered where Mr. Know-it-all had gone.
He was behind the curtains, wandering behind dusty set pieces and boxes of costumes that sparkled in the darkness.
It was all passing before Mr. Know-it-all, scenes and highlights from his life. There were few playmates, few friends, and few real teachers in the beginning. Then there were few parties, few presents, and few calls. Now there were just few surprises. He saw his nose covered in black ink from being trapped in his books. He saw himself watching others dance at school from a strategic position by the punchbowl. He saw himself underneath his blankets with a flashlight on, playing Trivial Pursuit by himself.
Meanwhile, a few people clapped awkwardly; was this a good thing, was this the end? They had expected a bigger prize, but the girl was happy, wasn’t that all that mattered? Yet some of them continued to be disappointed. The Emcee saw this and knew he had to keep his audience entertained. He had to give them something. They had to be kept there, they might forget about what happened with Mr. Know-it-all and maybe the act could go on. In the worst case, the two of them could head for south of the border and export the act to warmer climes. The Emcee smiled at this option. His pasty head could be baked a nice golden brown and female assistants could be had for half of what you paid for them in the States.
But what to entertain this restless audience with? Glasses were clinking in anticipation and boredom, that emotional combination which carries the potential for a riot within it. He didn’t bring his dancing cats to the show, or his usual deck of cards for tricks. He didn’t have a rabbit for his top hat. None of it could fit on the bus.
The first thing that came out was -
“What’s the last thing that goes through a flies head when it hits a windshield?”
The audience said nothing. The Emcee began waving his hands up. A drunk answered, “What?”
“Its ass!” He tried to say it like one of Mr. Know-it-all’s facts.
A mild chuckle. The Emcee hated to do this, but he had to keep everyone busy until Mr. Know-it-all showed up.
“Why don’t blind men skydive?”
“Why?” There were more people talking now.
“Because it scares the shit out of the dog!”
Bigger laughter, but also more disgust. The Emcee felt that sickening feeling again. His assistant came from behind the stage, she was heckled and hooted at by the drunks in the audience. “Why don’t you just juggle?” She had three red balls in her hand. The Emcee shook his head and the assistant dropped the balls onto the stage. His hands were too dirty to expose to the audience like that. The Emcee, undaunted, yet also disgusted, continued forth.
“Why doesn’t a chicken wear pants?”
He didn’t wait for a reply.
“Because its pecker is on its head!”
“Why'd they call it PMS?”
“Because Mad Cow Disease was already taken!”
He was on a roll now, the garbage was spewing from his mouth in greater quantities, leaping out all over the place. He couldn’t keep it down. He was vomiting vulgarities into the audience and felt ashamed for it. Yet he had to go on until Mr. Know-it-all came back.
“Why doesn’t Mexico have a good Olympic team?”
“Because anyone who can swim, run, and jump is in the United States!”
Thank god, no Mexicans in the audience. Ethnic jokes were always risky for the Emcee, they especially made him tense up. The audience cracked up again. He hoped now they would stop laughing, that he would tell one really bad joke and nobody would laugh, it would give a reason to just pack up and leave. But it didn’t look like that was going to happen.
“Why did the bald man put holes in his pockets?”
The audience wanted this one. They egged him on. They asked it, “why?” They demanded the answer, no matter how disgusting it would be. The Emcee bowed down a bit with his hands clasped together. To the impatient audience it looked as if the bald head was saying a prayer before defiling itself.
“So he could run his hands through his hair.”
A collective “ewww” came from the audience. Now they were disgusted with him. They could after all imagine him as that sort of man. Yet they were still amused.
The Emcee had one more trick, and pulled one of his pockets. It looked like a Klansman’s hood, with two big holes in it. The audience issued another sigh of disgust and joy at the Emcee’s miserable, dirty way of life.
Just then the little girl interrupted it all, “Look!”
To the Emcee’s horror, there were two feet hanging from the roof of the stage, clear as day in a smoke filled theatre. On them were a bright pair of green shoes.
Silence fell upon the audience and the little girl stood up.
There was a brief, innocent echo throughout the theatre. It was the first time the Emcee had heard such a sound. The question now was being asked of everyone there. While they all pondered, he saw an answer in front of him and in front of the spectators. With silent steps he crept up to the red balls he had abandoned to the stage a moment earlier. Before an astonished audience and below a defeated human being, the Emcee began juggling.Benjamin Nardolilli is twenty three years old and lives in New York where he looks for work and inspiration. He is originally from Arlington, VA. His work has appeared in Perigee, Thieves’ Jargon, Farmhouse Magazine, The Houston Literary Review and Perspectives Magazine. He maintains a blog at mirrorsponge.blogspot.com.
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