The Puppeteer
Lindsey Cox

Mr. Reilly's heavy-lidded gaze sweeps over the cramped, untidy apartment. There are nicks in the wooden floor where countless careless feet have tread, the walls are virtually bare, save for a tattered Radiohead poster, and grubby clothes hang from the furniture and lay in heaps on the floor. He finds no clues whatsoever that the happy boy he once knew inhabits this space.

"Do you want anything to drink?" Arthur asks. He stands awkwardly in the doorway leading to what must be the kitchen, his eyes wide with alarm.

Mr. Reilly slowly wags his head back and forth. "I really should be going," he says softly.

He wanders leisurely past the sole window in the room, dusty sunlight slanting diagonally through the half-closed blinds. While a man declares definitively outside that his life has turned to excrement, Mr. Reilly wonders, where are the baseball trophies, the photographs of old girlfriends, the college diploma on the wall?  

Continuing to pace about the apartment like a caged animal, his gray eyes focus on a partially-closed door that leads from the main room. He strolls over to the door and nudges it open with his toe.

"I --" Arthur begins, but his voice fades away.

The door swings inward, and Mr. Reilly peers curiously around the corner. Inside, the walls are lined with shelves upon which are perched rows and rows of wooden puppets. Mr. Reilly steps inside.  There must be one hundred of them, all created with the same intense attention to detail. Each doll sits with their spindly legs splayed out and their thin, wooden arms folded neatly in their laps. Mr. Reilly takes in a young girl with golden braids and an elderly professor, complete with cornhusk pipe dangling from his lips. He recognizes his ex-wife's long, dark hair and knitted brow. 

At the end of the narrow room is a table that is covered with wood shavings and upon which two of the puppets sit. One of them is tall and has sandy hair. He wears a conservative, dark-colored shirt and a half-smile, his lowered lids lending him the appearance of being sleepy. Next to him is a boy donning a baseball uniform. On his left hand, the child wears a pitcher's mitt, and on his face is plastered a wide, oblivious grin. The puppet's hands lay close to one another, the fingers giving the impression of being intertwined.

Mr. Reilly is aware of a presence behind him and steps back to stand beside his son, who is now taller than he is. He reaches up to place a hand on Arthur's shoulder, and the two look on in quiet understanding.

First published: May, 2003