I. Nora Parham
…once in a lullaby
DOROTHY GALE in The Wizard of Oz.
Her real name is Nora (although it was necessary to rename herself Paula for reasons I will address further on) and she lives the better part of the workday inside a character 22 years her senior. Although it could sound compromising, she is considered a man with a woman’s soul because she decided to call herself Paula on the inside, and Mickey on the outside. His—meaning Mickey’s—main duty is to entertain the universe through the lifeless eyes of a rodent standing upright on two feet since 1928.
When children find him on one of the streets near Tiny Town, they react in contradictory ways. The more rambunctious ones run up to this opportunity; others approach him timidly. The most cautious ones slip behind their parents or escape, in search of something closer to their sense of reality or aesthetics. But those types are the minority. Mickey is the principal character here, and although he doesn’t monopolize attention, he receives more of it than any possible competitor. He doesn’t have a rival, and he proves this each time he raises one white-gloved hand up to his round ears, while waving to those present with her other glove. “Let the kids come to me,” his gesture implies, and while they decide to accept, or turn down the invitation, I patiently await the moment to focus my flash camera, and click.
Mickey doesn’t work alone; at least not apparently so. From a prudent distance, avid and tenacious as a lovesick cat, I follow him during his lengthy strolls along Main Street in search of the warmth and affection coming from visitors. And when they least expect it, so attentive to the rodent’s cajoling, Zap! The photo’s snap barely audible even to seasoned ears like my own.
Paula’s contract stipulates that no one can see her shedding the skin, or putting it back on. It’s also prohibited to leave the skin in plain view when not inhabiting it. Paula dresses and undresses alone, just like the spinster that she is, and she protects her costume by keeping it in a locker whose combination she shares only with Diana, her supervisor.
Things must be like that, and that’s how she does so. Paula is a professional in many trades (proof of this is her special usage of the masculine when commenting on some incident that took place while she was wearing the shell) and she congratulates herself on complying with each clause according to her obligations.
Out of her own free will she has added one to the long list: to think of herself as a man at work, and to return to her gender on time off. Every day, prior to putting herself inside the shell (I insist on that term, as the expression is hers), she devotes some minutes to studying the features that make up her character.
This attachment to the method has allowed her to hold on to the job for more time than any of her predecessors, and to especially avoid the blunders committed by Toby. Her predecessor was expelled from this Paradise lacking original sin for reasons both public and private. When I started to become friendly with her, and then started to share secrets (mine, as always, were fake; hers were probably true), Paula no longer had any difficulty in making her smile in the mirror identical to Mickey’s.
Before putting on the costume, Paula nourishes her lungs with the air-conditioner inside her personal dressing room. Her hands with whitish palms, revealing her racial origin, touch her balding cranium, and she rehearses a smile which she checks and touches up in the mirror, as if it were the makeup that, either from choice or apathy, refuses to wear the smile. The exercise helps imbue herself with the mouse’s personality. To reconstruct and then sustain on her features that indelible, festive face, although no one may peer down or from behind that giant head with round ears. “Down” and “behind” are terms she surely learned in school, although she now confuses their usages, however, she acts out her character with heart and soul because she (Nora Parham to those who know her secrets), is Mickey’s soul, and her own soul, to any doubters, is America’s smile.
Six months ago she won competing for the job, giving her the right to dress up in a rodent’s skin which was still of indeterminate sex.
Mr. Higgings gathered the winners in a large room, its walls covered with drawings highlighting the evolutionary process of the characters whose spirits had been summoned to imitate. By way of introduction, he explained to them that upon signing their respective contracts, they were governed by an unbending law: the errors of some bring down merciless repercussions (he softly sang) on everyone else. This secret link starts a chain reaction (a type of vicious synergy) that blemishes the soul of the entire City.
Mr. Higgings also alluded to a “sin” of such dimensions that the expulsion of its offender (no doubt referring to Toby) was unable to expiate the collective guilt.
She stopped using the name Nora to become Paula for two reasons: one was practical, and the other naïve. The first derived from an urge to squash any intent on finding her… the second, so that the repeated letter of her first and last name (Paula Parham) charm the Company. She imagined they would perceive the double P as closely related to the position they were filling: to interpret Minerva Mouse. Because Nora, or Paul Parham, heeded the call from Tiny Town to compete against numerous candidates who aspired to the right to infuse life into the big-girl mouse. Later, driven by necessity, she had to accept the job offer to incarnate the boyfriend.
“We are made to measure.” She would confess to me later. Toby also thought the same, although he would see the matter from a different perspective. During such moments, I agree with the both of them: the Company sought a body matching the costume’s size. For Nora, it was a place to hide equal to the size of her sins. And what better place to slip off her sins than a Paradise designed to deny them entry.
—NOW HIRING MM—
Those who read the wanted ad instantly figured out to whom the pair of consonants was alluding. The wide distribution of the ad spurred Nora. Perhaps if she knew that they only needed one person, as was the case (in the City there exists only One, and he is unrepeatable. To multiply him would place the seriousness of the Company in doubt), Nora wouldn’t have tried her luck, a concept that, on the other hand, she supposed non-existent.
She discovered the ad on the window of the small café where she was eating. When possible to do so without having any witnesses, she took down the flyer closest to her and took it with her. Her work hours in the Library guaranteed her some solitude and sufficient time to read it and ponder it without rushing. The ad was written in a list, and Nora understood that some categories possibly included her. It read:
DO YOU NEED WORK AND GREAT PAY?…
ARE YOU LESS THAN 5’ TALL?…
DO YOU LIKE CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS?
IF YOU ANSWERED YES TO ANY OF THESE QUESTIONS
The text appeared to be written in gothic font, or at least one that attempted to imitate the one that announced in more favorable means the attractions of Tiny Town. The flyer expressed urgency and improvisation; but above everything, it proved how the Company had never encountered problems in attracting candidates.
Nora called the number on the bottom of the page. A recording of a woman’s voice answered the call. “If you want to be Cinderella, press #1; if you wish to be Snow White, #2; if…”
Nora pressed Skip. She had no chance with those who only deserved makeup. She kept on pressing numbers until the same woman’s voice rattled off a new list: “If you want to be Mickey, press 1; if you wish to be Minnie, press 2”. The offerings were vast and Nora listened enchanted. Finally, she pressed #2: Minnie Mouse.
The voice asked for her name (“Paula Parham” she said without thinking much). After a chain of sounds due to the activation of a distant mechanism, the voice of another woman, this one more human, yet professional, gave her the appointed day (the following), time, and place for the interview.
That’s what the voice said: “interview.” It wouldn’t be her first one, but for previous interviews she always showed up as Nora.
Paula accepted the offer and moved to Tiny Town. It suited her for several reasons. She saved on transportation costs and rent. Also, she acquired a decent distance from the place she was leaving. She took advantage of discounts in the cafeteria exclusively for employees. The inconveniences consisted of inhabiting a barrack shared by those who trained and coached upright, two-legged animals ranging from elves, gnomes and other creatures never playing starring roles.
In the barrack, everyone recognized and called each other by their official names, even if this were prohibited. Darkness is propitious for taunting and plenty of people teased her due to her hermaphrodite condition. This quality of being male on the outside and female on the inside allowed her to avoid the crowds at peak hour and to use the least crowded toilets regardless of their designated gender. It was enough, they would suggest, to take off or leave on the costume and use the Lil’ Men or Lil’ Women bathroom accordingly.
The diminutives used on the door-signs referred to the steps that allowed visitors to accommodate themselves without much effort on the toilets, or climb the steps necessary to discharge into the urinal without wetting one’s shirt. But every time a character descended from the bunk, they were riddled with the same recommendations: “Be careful not to piss on your ears.” Or, “Remember your geometry classes.” The advice referred to the need to build the exact parabola so that the urine would reach the toilet. If the Company had had the courtesy to fit the bedrooms with adequate furniture to a stature that did not exceed 5’, the bathrooms had been left out of the relevant minimalism.
All of this was confirmed to me by Toby. Paula never commented on life in the dormitory. I would imagine the pissers taking a distance so that the yellow arch rose to the proper height and exploded with noisy precision inside the porcelain bowl. And as to the little ladies, I would imagine them climbing the three-step Everest during nocturnal emergencies.
Paula slept in the middle part of a three-tier bunk bed designed for young people, even though she did not fit into that category either clinically nor occupationally. At night, she settled under the official representation of one of Snow White’s dwarves who also acted as, when the case demanded it, the nephew of some other starring character. On the upper level, there slept the specialist in breathing life to the animals of the enchanted forest.
She endured the envy of some and the jokes of all, but with the strength of a luminary aware of the existing hierarchy. Paula was the only star in the bedroom; the others scattered about her enjoyed their minuscule privileges and battling the pettiness and insidiousness of lesser figures. Revenge was at the expense of salary and juicy commissions, the result of photographs.
We became friends because of work. Then from the certainty that I needed to pay her what I owed Toby. Sometimes I blame myself; sometimes I don’t blame myself so much because I am aware that, drunk or not, Toby would have ended up doing what he finally did. What I am sure of is that I should have given someone else the mission to tell Paula about Toby’s story. And if I didn’t do so, it was all due to the crazy and even contradictory versions that sped through the dormitories and dressing rooms, forcing me to make a determination about which I am still uncertain if I’m sorry or not.
Paula was not the same after hearing Toby’s story. She did not know whether to slip inside Mickey’s skin or start fearing it, as if it could infect her. What consoles me is admitting there was no one better than I to reveal what had happened. On the other hand, it was impossible to foresee the consequences of my actions. But such are regrets. They reproduce like lice, and it makes no difference to move elsewhere, because they’re tucked deep inside one’s head.
From the beginning, I realized that Paula didn’t consider the costume as a way to earn a living. I had never seen anyone incarnate that creature with such a religious calling. Maybe that’s what it boils down to. Paula and Toby each humanized the skin in their own way. They endowed it with what was lacking: awareness of sin, the certainty that evil exists only to enable good. That sacrifices have more to do with life than with death. Toby knew it: “Existence crucified me… I hope that by living I absolve the guilt of at least a few.”
In payment for Toby’s story, Paula told me snippets of hers. Her life was determined by her condition, her origin, the place where she had been born, her grandmother, the beauty school, her longings for work, the seclusion in the back rooms of existence. Her friendship with Myriam, with Marcial…
“That’s why you applied for the job?”
“Yes… partly because of that… Or because of the rat I killed.”
“Which you killed?”
“Yes… it was eating the books.”
And she told me of her duty collecting the corpses shriveled up by poison, decapitated or split in two by the trap’s clamp.
And so she told me the story of the rats whose agony she had witnessed; she was unable to finish them off, or to withdraw elsewhere. Paula chewed the meal she had been served, but nibbling at it, instead of chewing, as if she was certain that once she finished the food, there would be no place to go, nor anything else waiting for her.
Her passivity, her stretches of silence, her way of answering direct questions confused and fatigued me because they possessed a mental laziness. Some thought she was teetering the verge of insanity when they would see her lips intone an inaudible soliloquy; but such a mania was common in Tiny Town. It was a hard habit to break. But what seemed to others to be a rabid nibbling, on Paula’s lips appeared as a stubborn series of words and entire sentences which she could not manage to say out loud. This was clear to me because, suddenly, Paula raised her head and mocked my excessive attention.
“Don’t believe everything you portray.”
And she scolded me with her index finger where a defined stroke ran down it, separating it into two opposite shades, one dark, the other whitish, like the tones of the costume.
Paula often asked me to repeat Toby’s story. She insisted on listening to his physical description and knowing if he had been tried under the laws of Tiny Town.
“Cities have their own laws… in addition to the ones applying to the nation.”
“No… they fired him ipso facto.”
She didn’t ask me the meaning of the obdurate sentence because the phrase made sense just by its very sound.
“And did he do it? Did he really do it?”
“Everyone says he did.”
“And you, what do you think?”
“I believe they’re correct.”
I understood Toby even though I still can’t defend him. Paula was never able to do so either. The soul never betrays the body, rather, vice versa, and Toby, knowing it or not, was Mickey’s soul. Evil is contagious and that’s why the story scared her. Souls transmigrate; the skin remains, and Paula feared the presence of Toby’s perverted soul inside the recesses of the mouse’s skin.
Toby ran towards me at full speed. His legs and arms blurred by the distance, and it was difficult to pinpoint where some ended and others began. He looked like a clumsy little bird that couldn’t flit off. I opened my arms to greet him, seeing this as some spectacular game with which he pretended to welcome me, but before reaching the street that separated us, he skidded to his right, leveraging himself with one hand on a lamppost. The move made him stumble and fall in a slapstick manner. A clown seeking some yucks from a non-existent audience because the doors of Tiny Town had not yet opened. Toby got up and continued his sprint to the barracks containing dorms and dressing room. He disappeared behind the access door. I imagined that he was drunk because the time wouldn’t allow for any delays. He ran because he wanted to run or he did so while fleeing from someone.
Then his pursuers popped up: two uniformed police officers among them. The rest were Company employees and security personnel dressed in official attire. Some screamed, others pointed to possible escape routes. Behind me, the central avenue opened empty and clean. The perspective allowed one’s gaze to the entrance doors. They assumed that Toby had entered the building although they did not know where he might be hidden. For my part, I was sure where he had entered. I ran after them. We entered the building and divided in several directions. I joined those who thought like me, and we headed for the locker room. There were no cops among us.
There was no need to search much. They found him hidden inside the costume.
“It was my role,” he screamed from its guts.
They knocked him down onto his back, pinned his knees and hands between their arms and unzipped him. Now that I recall the event—and because this was impossible—it was like the false and persistent image of a scalpel slicing open the belly of the mouse. They yanked him out by force, by the feet, like a grueling delivery.
With his back to the ground, Toby was kicking and growling. The darkness of the dressing room contributed to making him resemble an unfinished embryo. Someone turned on the light. I watched him deny everything by shaking his little square hand. He was drunk and crying, which gave his refusal a false and fleeting persistence.
“It’s the role I play,” he sniveled. “That’s what they pay me for.”
Then I understood what had happened.
“The little girl said he was a boy with the face of an old man,” added a staff member.
“Obviously a dwarf,” another clarified.
Toby kept shaking his head. His face of a waxen doll melted from the heat of alcohol and fear.
“It wasn’t me… It was Mickey.”
Then I understood his crazy alibi. And his desire to hide and at the same time justify his actions with the disguise.
The highest-ranking supervisor ordered the door to be closed and the entrance to be blocked so that the mouse’s skin was hidden from onlookers. He took a quick look around him, paused upon seeing my camera, and pointed a finger at it.
I raised my hands shoulder-high as if I had heard “Stick ‘em up!” When they opened the door again, a group was crowded in front of it. Daylight smeared Toby with a false butter-like viscosity. Toby was still crying, and the fumes of drunkenness covered his face with phlegm and snot. He spotted me among the group and gazed at me, his eyelids swollen from alcohol. He looked at me, and I have been unable to forget his gaze since then; not because of the sadness or the fear that inflamed it, but because of the submissive, delicate request for some scrap of consolation that I was unable to extend.
The policemen led him handcuffed to the gates of Tiny Town. I saw him walking in the main street, the plump little arms crossed behind his back, the rings glistening beneath a metallic sun and trapping his wrists above the waist. The pair of policemen flanking him did not manage to maintain a steady pace. Between the three of them they composed a painting whose humor forced even the most circumspect to smile. The policemen chose to let him walk between them and they adjusted the movement of their legs to the rhythm of Toby’s measured gait.
I never heard anything about him again. A newspaper reported on the event as attempted rape. Another, surely more informed, as obscene fondling of a minor. There was never a mention of Tiny Town nor of the accused’s livelihood… nothing but his age and a last name that no longer matters. However, the columns were very pointed when specifying that the crime occurred somewhere outside the limits of Tiny Town.
Despite the strict orders, and the call for discretion as proof of loyalty to the Company, the news leapt through the streets of Tiny Town with the speed of the deer that abound in its territory. But everyone, figures and animals, were not only bestowed with that gift, but also with the opportunity to speak, and they found a way to exercise it. They spread Toby’s story throughout Tiny Town with the stubborn bravery of apostles forced to share it clandestinely.
Translated by Anthony Seidman
Anthony Seidman’s recent translations include A Stab in the Dark (LARB Classics) by Facundo Bernal and Smooth-Talking Dog: Selected Poems of Roberto Castillo Udiarte (Phoneme Media). His newest collection of poetry is entitled Cosmic Weather, available from Spuyten Duyvil. He has published translations, poetry, and reviews in such journals as New American Writing, The Bitter Oleander, World Literature Today, Poetry International, and Huizache.