[This essay received an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Writers Association’s 2022 Jade Ring Contest. To read the works of other winners, see the links after the essay.]
Charlie broke my heart in 1971. Dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, and well-groomed with manicured nails and combed hair, he was debonair, even if his monocle made him look a bit stuffy. Always ready with a smart comeback, a smooth put-down, or a drop of wisdom, he was witty, candid, and self-assured. Charlie was a dummy, but I wanted him anyway.
The big problem—he was unavailable. Like all desirable men, he was taken. Women everywhere had lined up to have a chance with him. Seems like everyone wanted a wise-cracking fella who was perpetually dressed for the opera.
My mother broke the news to me. “Honey, I have to talk to you about your Christmas list.” I was twelve, so we had long ago stopped calling it “my letter to Santa.”
“I’ve looked everywhere.” Her voice shrunk as she spoke. “I can’t find a Charlie McCarthy doll.” She asked me to think of something else to add to my list. I did, but I don’t recall what it was. I could’ve asked for a hand puppet, but that would’ve been like having to settle for Eddie Haskell after hoping to date Donny Osmond. There was no substitute for Charlie.
I wanted to be a ventriloquist. I was going to be famous. I was going to be a star. And I couldn’t do it without Charlie. My daydream about becoming a celebrated ventriloquist was another chapter in my someday-I’ll-be-a-famous-singer-actor-or-dancer book of fantasies. I spent hours singing with Doris Day, Petula Clark, Dionne Warwick, and Barbara Streisand, pretending to be them. Sometimes I sang along with Johnny Cash, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., or Trini Lopez, pretending they had recognized me—a famous singer—in the audience and called me up on stage to sing with them. The exuberant audience, unable to contain their cheers and thunderous clapping, would rise to their feet moments before we had finished our duet.
Sometimes, I’d lay on the floral velour couch in the living room, the most elegant space in our farmhouse, and imagine myself a great actor giving spellbinding performances on stage or film. Or I would be Cyd Charisse, dancing, defying Newton’s laws of motion, giving men whiplash. When I wasn’t doing my famous talent stuff, I would travel to exotic places, win awards, and marry a leading man or a velvet-voiced crooner.
With Charlie I would’ve been more than a ventriloquist—I would’ve been funny! The see-saw, back-and-forth humorous banter between Charlie and Edgar Bergen captivated me. Bergen said things that came out of Charlie’s mouth. Through Charlie, Bergen insulted people and everyone laughed at Charlie. Through Charlie, Bergen flirted with women and everyone thought Charlie was adorable. Charlie sassed Edgar, his elder, and never got whapped alongside the head. My twelve-year-old mind found this setup very attractive. But reflecting on it now, I don’t think my mother would’ve whapped Charlie alongside his head.
After I learned Charlie wouldn’t be helping me on my way to ventriloquism fame, I crawled in the closet under the stairs. I sat with a box of hats, mittens, and scarves. I inhaled a mixture of musty wool and dust while tears rained down my cheeks. Charlie would never sit with me on the floral velour couch. I wouldn’t toss my voice into his throat. I wouldn’t watch our reflections in the mirrored wall as we practiced talking to each other. We might have sung along with Sinatra or Streisand, the three of us making harmony.
I was crushed. I was heartbroken. I was an overly-dramatic twelve-year-old. Oscar worthy, no doubt.
I’d like to say that I pined for Charlie and that Christmas Day was hollow without him and that I asked for him for my birthday in March. But I did none of that. I was over him before Christmas. I don’t remember what I got instead of Charlie, but it was the next best thing, and I’m sure I was happy with it. I ate my mom’s good cooking. I played board games with my sisters and cousins. And I read my new Nancy Drew mystery before I drifted off to sleep that night.
If Charlie hadn’t stood me up, truth is, I would’ve dumped him. Within a month or so, he would’ve been tucked away in my closet, along with my fantasies of winning an Oscar or a Grammy. I hope all the Charlies found better homes.
I never became a famous singer, dancer, or actor. I can’t carry a tune. I have no sense of rhythm. And in seventh grade, I learned I had terrible stage fright.
Funny, when I was twelve, I never imagined myself as a famous writer. I started writing after I retired, so I’m too old for silly fantasies now. But if I were twelve, I would win a Pulitzer Prize, I would make Oprah’s reading list every other year, and the New Yorker would call me and beg for one of my short stories.
[All the winners of the 2022 Jade Ring Contest can be read in the online Creative Wisconsin Magazine, along with other essays, poetry, and articles. If you wish to purchase a copy of the Wisconsin Writers Association Anthology 2022: Jade Ring and Youth Writing Contest, click here.]