Without Hope or Agenda

ventre = belly and loqui = laugh


She was the prettiest girl he had even seen and immediately decided she had to be one of the five prettiest girls that ever were born. This determination was made within a second after seventh -grader Edward Wallace (Wally) Herlihy saw seventh-grader Ruth Wooler walking down the hallway on the first day of school. He also decided that love might be complicated but it was not difficult; this was the girl for him. The image was forever burned into his memory and it would be a long time before it left.

Luckily, he did not have the time or inclination of enlightening the beautiful Miss Wooler as the epiphany crystallized within his soul. He was still struggling to make the transition from a small grade school to a large high school environment and had no time to engage total strangers, no matter how lovely, in casual conversation. The time pressures of the new school plus his substandard social graces made for the decision for a tactical retreat a prudent one.

He kept an inquisitive eye out for Miss Wooler and was happy to see her in two of his afternoon classes. Isolated alphabetically to the rear of the classroom, Wally was positioned perfectly against the sidewall to keep one eye on the blackboard/teacher area and one on the freakishly gorgeous Ruth Wooler. Her beauty had transcended all his senses and he remained transfixed on her face. She had a cute nose, a perfectly concentric face; dark eyes all surrounded by an orderly crop of shiny brown hair. Her beauty was greater than the sum of its pleasant parts but this fact did not seem to be identified the other young boys. As he watched her, he couldn’t help but notice that no one else was doing what he was doing. In fact, it appeared that he was the only one stealing looks at this vision of loveliness.

Seventh grade is a tough time: puberty and social ignorance collide into an ugly goulash of hurt feelings, confusion and ignorance. The pain of unrequited love was not yet defined within Wally’s world but he saw both the high difficulty factor unkindly with the rather minimal chance he had to show this stunning creature any manner of his undying love. He had no money, no skills that would attract and was not considered handsome. If he worked at it, he was confident that he could achieve a pleasant generic category within the female ranking standards but significant amounts of hard work would be required.

Wally was not academically or athletically gifted; a living embodiment of the mean, he successfully finished all evaluations safely situated in the middle of the pack. These performances insulated him from the danger of the spectrum abuse; each end of the talent band was either mercilessly mocked for being stupid/week or universally hated for being intelligent/athletically gifted. Wally was comfortable at working inside of life’s in-betweens due to his uncanny ability of understanding his limitations.

It was only a matter of time before the rest of the male herd stumbled onto the fair Ms. Wooler so the window of opportunity to woo her was finite. This window timeframe was further pressured by Wally’s meager offerings as a boyfriend: other than his mother vouching for internal goodness, all he had was a dozen unenlightened buddies that would swear that he was the King of Siam for the right price. He did his research and determined that it was time to embrace the gray (yet dark) art of throwing one’s voice: the magic of Ventriloquism.

In retrospect, the solution was easy. He could learn the art within the confines of his bedroom and only bring it out as an attribute when mastered. This decision was confirmed when he spotted Ruth being chatted up by two eighth grade football players. His hope of her traveling underneath the collective radar of the motivated male was dashed as he saw her giggling and sending potentially come-hither messages that even these two pre-Neanderthals could comprehend.

She was wearing a dark pistou-colored knit dress with narrow white horizontal stripes and her eyes were wide with excitement as the two athletes chatted her up. From a distance, she looked like a holiday extension cord, wrapped up tightly with a high likelihood of unraveling any moment.  The metaphorical symbols flying back and forth from Wally’s head were too much to process; after school, he grabbed his books and biked down to the old Magic Shop that shared an entrance with the notorious Pool Hall. He didn’t care if he treaded near the epicenter of certain delinquency; he was on a mission.

He walked in the shared door and quickly veered towards the right. The door was open and the counter was filled with dozens of novelties, books and props. This was the place to get smart on the first plan of his plan; he needed some advice on Ventriloquism but he knew all he needed to know about women.

“Hello?” said Wally. The distinct clatter of pool breaks were in the background as his senses strained to pick up any clues of proprietorship. It was evident that he was alone in the shop but he didn’t know where to venture next: home, the pool hall or the back room. Unsure with his next move, he decided to stay put and look around in safe areas for manuals and other ideas on the elegant skill of ventriloquism.

A few minutes later, a shuffling sound was noted and began to intensify. Eventually, an old man appeared from the back room, fully aware that he had a potential customer waiting. He made eye contact when he fully appeared but showed no interest in assisting Wally. He went behind the counter and started rummaging through one of the many boxes behind him. Eventually, Wally walked over to him and said hello.

“Hello to you too,” said the man. “Are you curious about something?”

Wally was old enough to see the variation in his comments. Usually, a salesperson would ask if you needed help or something along that line but this guy asked the perfect question.

“Yes, I am. I want to learn about ventriloquism.”

“Ah, ventre-loqui! You wish to learn about the fine art of belly speaking. Why is that?”

“I don’t know,” said Wally. “I just want to.”

“I don’t believe you,” said the man. “Everyone has an agenda.”

Wally looked at him straight-faced, providing no clue of his intentions.

The old man stared for a minute and said, “Okay, then let me ask you a few questions.”

“Go ahead.”

“Are you learning about this because you saw a Ventriloquist on television?”

“No”

“Are you doing this because you want to be a magician or a comedian?”

“No”

“So, it’s because of some girl.” The old man’s trailed off in the distance as he disappeared behind the curtain but he kept talking. “I have heard worst reasons for learning the art of ventriloquism but we can work with it.”

“I didn’t say I was doing it for a girl,” retorted Wally. Inside he was dumbfounded how this old man figured it out but he wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of realizing that the guess was dead accurate.

“Okay,” said the old man, “Are you doing it for some girl?”

“Yes”

“At least we are on the same page now, “ said the old man. “What do you want to do with ventriloquism? Besides impressing the girl?”

“I want to throw my voice,” said Wally.

“You can’t throw your voice. That doesn’t happen like you think. The only way is to misdirect your voice using a source to give the impression that your voice is coming out of it. It can be dummy, a hand puppet, a cigar box or anything that is near your face.”

“I don’t want to talk into a hand puppet and I don’t think I have ever seen a cigar box,” said Wally, “I just want to throw my voice.”

“First lesson,” said the old man, “Ventriloquism is fooling your audience that an inanimate object is speaking instead of you.”

“Okay, but you are saying that your voice can’t come out of behind a door.”

“Perhaps, but your face has to be next to the door and you have to sell the fact that you hear the voice coming out as well. But a vast majority of ventriloquist use misdirection to sell it so you might have to open the door and lean in and talk. But if you are going to do anything related to ventriloquism it, start practicing in front of a mirror. You have to use all your tricks to fool the people.”

“I don’t want to fool people, I want to woo a woman.”

“Remember, people want to be fooled,” smiled the old man, “Give them a reason to have fun. The gal with the lamb sock puppet couldn’t have endured significant scrutiny. She was a nice lady, the lamb was cute and they were funny. And as a result, she made a living. And I haven't heard the phrase 'woo a woman' since the war.”

“Whatever: I came here to learn about being a ventriloquist. What can you sell me?”

The old man smiled and ducked down underneath the counter; he was throwing books into a box and after a few minutes, rose up to present Wally with his findings.

“There are about ten books in here that will help you understand ventriloquism.”

“Ten? I don’t have time to read ten books.”

“Okay, another option you might want to consider is standing in front of a mirror and speaking without moving your lips. Do that for a few months and come back.”

Wally frowned and pleaded for an easy way out of his plan. “Can’t you just tell me what to do?”

The man stopped smiling and said, “You have to do something. I can’t just wave a magic wand, although I have about two dozen for sale, and allow you to start saying smart things from across the room.”

Wally realized that he was at a crossroads. He could attempt to master the basic elements of ventriloquism through practice but if the old man was telling the truth, most of the work was preparation and good material. It didn’t to matter much if you voice was magically appearing from across the room. He thought on the whole issue and reached out to shake the old man’s hand.

“I am sorry for being so difficult. I was looking for an easier way and just realized that I have some work ahead of me. My name is Wally Herlihy.

The man smiled again. “Nice to meet you, Wally. That was a mature response to the brutal truth. Come back in a week and I will tell you about some of the greatest ventriloquists that ever worked. Maybe one of the stories will inspire you to gain some hope. ”

“Please tell me a quick story,” said Wally.

“I won’t get too detailed but one of the greatest ventriloquists of all time started on the radio. No one saw the dummy or any other props; they just heard two different voices and allowed the illusion to continue. In fact, when television got popular, this ventriloquist would come on a show and still amaze them. The problem is that his lips moved but no one cared: they wanted to believe the wooden dummy in his lap was alive.”

“So, there really isn’t such a thing as ventriloquism?”

“No, ventriloquism is real but it is based on three things: an ability to talk clearly with your mouth barely open, an object that you can direct the audience into accepting as a source of sound and finally, snapper patter.”

“Snappy patter? You mean, witty?”

“Snappy, witty…it doesn’t matter. I don’t care what you say but say it in an interest and amusing manner: remember, a mysterious voice that is not interesting or amusing would be annoying once the novelty wears out… which would take about two minutes. Now, go home and work on the first piece.”

Wally nodded and biked home. He went to his room and locked the door to his bedroom. He stood in front of the mirror and said the alphabet. As he experimented with a variety of mouth positions, he realized that either his pronunciation or mouth movement suffered. He became heartened when he began to replace hard sounding consonants with softer combinations that approximated the same sound. He stumbled on that realization when he was struggling with the letter “F.” After several attempts, he mistakenly used a “th” sound when saying the word “finger” and it came out as “th-inger.” However a pleasant mistake, he learned that he could soften some words without losing their impact; especially if he could make the connection between the new sounding word and some prop to the audience would make the connection themselves. If he could stick out his finger and say “th-inger” a few times to reinforce, he might be home free.

He started reading the newspaper at the mirror and kept stumbling over sounds, especially B, F, M, P, Q, V and W. Each time one of those consonants played a significant role in a word, his mouth would creep open and kill the illusion. He made a mental note that if he could not replace the word (pretty replaced by cute), he would have to use a prop to misdirect the audiences’ eyes if the word was vital. After a half-hour, his abdominal muscles began to ache. He was trying to speak as deep in his stomach area as possible but after the first thirty minutes, he had to stop. His head hurt by thinking so much on what he was going to say (and how he had to say it), his stomach hurt from a feeling similar to a thirty-minute sit up and his heart hurt due to the reality of all the things he had to do to successfully pull this off for the lovely Miss Wooler.

He dutifully attempted a second round that night after doing his homework and allowing his ego time to rest up.  He didn’t realize that ventriloquism was not one thing but a combination of three or four things that had to work together to have success. When he chose this strategy, Wally figured it was an easy thing to do so it was worth pursuing. The second session in front of the mirror was better than the first so he went to bed slightly encouraged with his performance.

The next day at school, he smiled slightly at Miss Wooler as they met simultaneously going around a hallway corner. His surprise quickly switched to cordial confidence because his agenda was now set: to meet her and allow her to discover the litany of his attributes that lay within. She smiled back and the first, and most important, connection was made. He didn’t know when he would need that connection but he finished the eye contact with a cordial “excuse me” and continued on his way. His secret plan had begun to steel his usually semi-retarded social skills and for the first time, he felt that he had not done anything appreciably stupid.

After school, he went down to the magic shop and was disappointed to see it was closed. There was a note on the door that said “Closed for the Day, Come Back Tomorrow.” There was a smaller message at the bottom of the hand-written sign that said, “Wally: come back in six days. Keep working on what we discussed and I don’t want to see you until then!”

Wally stood there for a moment; he had never seen his name proclaimed in public before and the proximity to the Pool Hall made him feel like a mobster. The guy had only met him once and he had already anticipated his next move. He got on his bike and went home to work on his technique. The night before the moratorium’s conclusion, he was improving his skill. His breathing was under control and he had composed a few script pages that were moderately easy to say with a minimum of mouth movement and Wally began to experiment with the use of props to keep scrutiny off his lips. He experimented with different props but seemed most comfortable using a book; using the cover as an approximate mouth opening, he tried to carry on a conversation with the book and even by his standards, did not completely suck at it.

Wally’s pre-occupation with the next lesson caused the day to fly by without effort. Ruth was now saying hello to him with a pleasant frequency but he chose not to follow in the increasingly long lines of young men that continually attempted a formal conversation with her. Ruth, ever friendly, would engage in the conversations with many boys but could not be accused of anything other than being polite. Wally was comfortable engaging in quick pleasantries; his plan was still weeks off. He found himself noticing that he was becoming more intriguing in her eyes due to his lack of fawning. His time would come on his terms, he thought. It was now time to learn about ventriloquism.

He rode his bike directly to the Magic Shop and walked in to the same scene as before: the shop was unattended and littered with magic books, gags and a wide variety of boxes. He shouted “Hello” and was surprised to get a cordial response from the backroom. The proprietor was walking up the back steps and seemed happy to see him.

“So, let me see what you got.”

Wally began by going through the alphabet and got through it admirably. The old man could see Wally was controlling his breathing, instinctively substituting alternative sounds for the letters loaded with aspirants and using his hands as a pacing device in order to pace his speech but also to distract the old man’s eyes when he got close to a word that caused mouth movement.

“Nice job,” said the old man. “You have been practicing.”

“Thanks. I am exhausted. My mouth hurts from holding it so still.”

“That is good for you. Remember that you can trick your audience by controlling the movement of your lips, and by not moving the mouth, you can give the illusion that the sound is coming from another source.”

“I was thinking about using a book.”

“Good idea, but work out what you are going to say before you start talking. This will take some time to come up with a few safe, soft sentences and give you time to practice.” The old man threw Wally a hardcover book and said, “Try a few lines; even if you have to repeat the alphabet again.”

Wally took the book, looked at it and said “A, geh, C, D, E.”

Then he opened the book and flapped the cover and attempted it to say, “th, G, H, I, J.”

“Not bad,” said the old man. “Keep working on the interplay and come back next week.”

“Next week?” I have to wait until next week to show you something?”

“Absolutely. In fact, let’s make it ten days but you need to have an eight-sentence monologue; four for you and four for your book. And make it funny.”

Wally frowned. “This wasn’t going to be easy.”

“I never said it was going to be.”

 Ten long days passed but even Wally was impressed with his progress. His speaking manner was far smoother and his breathing was much more under control. He started using a book as his target and opened and closed the front cover in a close approximation of an opened mouth. He began assembling a rudimentary script and relied on the absurdity of the book to charm Miss Wooler. If the timing was right, he had a real chance to impress her but he continually stripped down his plan, eliminating more and more elaborate methods to get his new-found skill to be best highlighted.

He walked in to the magic shop right after school on the tenth day and sat down at the counter. The old man came over and was pleased that Wally was not ejaculating out his script but rather taking his time with the presentation. He knew by rushing the gag, all his hard work would be for nothing.

They engaged in some small talk and the old man finally gave Wally an opportunity to show him what he had learned. He pointed at the book that was lying next to Wally’s elbow. It was an obvious prop for a magic shop but an intelligent choice for a school.

“What’s that?” asked the old man and pointed at the book.

Wally said nothing and picked the book up with both hands; cradling the cover with his right hand while supporting the book with his left. He looked at the old man and said very clearly, “This is a book.”

He opened the cover and a very passible voice appeared near the book: “I am the geh-ook.” He had nicely made the transition with the troublesome letter “B.” That letter has sunk hundreds of ventriloquists and by using his obvious voice first, he had nicely imprinted the word to the book, allowing him to replace the “B” with a far more friendly “geh” sound to make his first sentence work.

“Nicely done,” said the old man. “How much material do you have?”

“That is about it,” said Wally.

“You’ll need more.”

“I know. Any suggestions?”

“I would suggest three sentences. One: tell her that you are a book. Two: say hello and use her name. Finally, three: ask her to a dance or something.”

“Isn’t that rushing things?”

“You need to rush things,” said the old man. “Any more time you might start hyperventilating.”

“Good point.”

He shook his hand and went home. He had the first sentence down and started working on her name. The last name of “Wooler” was becoming more manageable as “ooh-ooler.”

A few days he had it nailed and went to the magic shop for a final dress rehearsal.

“Let’s see it from the top,” said the old man. “Do it just like you are planning at school.”

Wally shut his eyes and set the stage. “I will meet her in the hall. We are doing that more consistently these days and the background noise will allow me to mask a few of my mistakes.”

“Whatever. I will be her and you start your move.”

“I decided to use her book.”

“Nice touch but make sure it is successful.”

Wally, eyes still shut, faced the old man.

“Hello, Ruth.”

“Hello, Wally,” said the old man.  This was starting too slow but he felt his best position was to shut up and support the kid.

“What’s that noise?” asked Wally.

“What noise,” said the old man. He liked the transition and answered somewhat enthusiastically.

“It is coming from here,” said Wally. He grabbed his own textbook and presented it face forward to the old man.

Wally cracked the book open slightly and said “Hello Ruth.” His lips were still and with his own eyes selling the source of the sound, it appeared that the voice came from the book.”

“Nice,” said the old man. “Keep going.”

“I will pause for a moment,” said Wally. “No matter what she says, I will tell her that I am a book.”

“Well, I know you can say that. Get to the finish.”

“Do ooh ooh-ant to go the duh-anc with muh?”

“Nice. That should work. Now, get out of here.”

The dismissal was a relief thought Wally. If the old man was going to criticize him, he would have heard it but sending him home made him feel ready.

The big dance was two weeks away and the prime season for asking anyone was upon them. The next morning, by the hallway corner, he literally and figuratively ran into the lovely Ms. Wooler. As they naturally hesitated to avoid the collision, Ruth was brushed from behind and her textbook fell to the floor.

“Perfection,” thought Wally. He quickly reached down and grabbed the book. She was relieved that he had reacted so quickly and a smile spread across her face: finally, they had something to talk about.

“Hello, Ruth.”

“Hello, Wally,” said Ruth. It was the first time he used her name. She liked him but the shyness had made it difficult for her to encourage a conversation.

“What’s that noise?” asked Wally.

“What noise?” said Ruth. The hallway was cacophony personified but she was truly pulled into the question.

“It is coming from here,” said Wally. He grabbed her textbook and presented it face forward to her beautiful face.

Wally cracked the book open slightly and said “Hello Ruth.” His lips were still and with his own eyes selling the source of the sound, it appeared that the voice came from the book.”

“My book is talking!” shouted Ruth. She was completely and totally amazed at the feat unfolding in front of her.

 

Ruth could not contain herself, “What is that?”

“I am a book.”

Ruth squealed. It looked like the book was actually speaking to her. Wally was obviously doing it but it sounded like was coming from inside the book.

“Do ooh ooh-ant to go the duh-anc with muh?”

Clear as a bell, the question was asked. Ruth grabbed Wally and said “Yes!”

Wally was relieved that his plan worked. He smiled and said “Great.”

She hugged him and took her book from Wally. She flashed him another illuminating smile and ran off to tell her friends that she was going to the dance.

He headed off to his first class and he had secured a date with the woman of his dreams; now for the hard part, he got what he wanted. 


This title was lifted and inspired from a sign in a movie. I thought the combination of hope and agenda was an interesting one; as hope should be pure and without motive. The qualifier of adding "or Agenda" was refreshing and gave me the fantasy that the writer was thinking what I was thinking.

The motivations of people are also interesting. We need to begin to hold ourselves accountable for what is asked and most importantly, why it is asked. Too often, favors and demands come from many motivations as well as many demands on the act. I think the best first step for me is to stop talking about the idea and begin to bang out a few thousand words and see where my subconscious brings me. 

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