I was in a foul mood when I left Natalie standing in line outside the Harpford Theatre for a production of "The Elephant Man." I didn't look back at her as I stomped up 9th Street and then crossed over to 10th where many of the bars and restaurants were located. I decided to indulge my anger over a couple of drinks before heading home, so I stopped at a seedy looking tavern called "The Bad Actors Club." Inside I found a dimly lit haven for down and out Thespians.I let my eyes adjust to the darkness for a minute, then glanced around. In the alcove to my right a fiftyish bleached blonde played an old Broadway tune on a piano. On the piano top a cigarette smoldered in an ashtray alongside a half finished drink, and a microphone hinted that sooner or later we'd hear what's left of her voice croaking out a few ballads. A sign to the restrooms pointed behind her. A long bar extended straight ahead to the rear wall, and across from it ranged a row of narrow tables for two. The place was packed with grubby customers, forties and up. They spoke quietly at the tables, and sat hunched over at the bar, clutching their drinks. There was but one empty seat, down at the end of the bar next to the serving station. I had to settle for that. I walked down the aisle, feeling self-conscious and out of place, as the patrons at the tables looked my way and shook their heads. I was, of course, overdressed, suit and tie. I wondered what they thought of this haughty intruder. A funny shaped guy was seated next to the empty stool. He had a broad, oval shaped back and wore a brown jacket with yellow splotches, reminiscent of the shell of a pet box turtle I had as a youth, and his bullet shaped head at the end of his long neck accentuated the effect. To top it off, he wore one of those pirate hats, as did Churchy, Pogo's terrapin sidekick. He grunted when I sat down, as if it had cost him some effort. "How's it going, Mac?" he slurred, leaning toward me. "Gene," I said. "Can't complain." He smelled boozy. Jesus, last thing I needed was to spend a couple of hours with a drunk who looked like a turtle. And he did. That hooked, hornlike nose, on its way from green to alcoholic red, punctuated his eerie resemblance to a tortoise. The bartender sidled over, and I ordered a draft beer. The man beside me continued to stare at me. "Nice threads, Gene," he said, tracing a pattern on my sleeve with his short, pudgy fingers. "You one of those producer guys?" "No," I said, moving my arm aside. "A director?" "No." "One of those guys they don't pay beans to, what do they call 'em?" That got me hooked. I thought for a minute. "A writer? A playwright, you mean?" "Yeah, that's it." "No." "What then?" Man, this was getting tedious. "An accountant." "Oh, wow," he said. "Money man. You work in show biz? Hey listen, I'm an unemployed actor. Maybe you got connections?" "Ah, sorry, no," I said. To my surprise, I began to warm up to the guy. "What kind of acting?" "I do monsters," he said. "I'm the best in the biz. But I just can't get a break. Know why I'm the best?" "No, why?" "Because I become the monster I play. The others are impostors. Phonies. They wear costumes. I'm the real deal, man. But I just can't get a break." He paused to take a swig of his drink. "That's a shame. What kind of monsters?" "You name it, I do it. Go ahead. Name one." "Werewolf," I said impulsively. "Nah," he replied. "I can't take those deadly martinis. Try another." "What?" I asked, wondering what the hell he was talking about. Then I got it. "You mean silver bullets?" "Yeah, that's what I meant. I do anything but them wereguys. Say, what's an accountant doing in this joint? No money here but what's sopping up booze." "My girlfriend and I were going to a play." Somehow the guy had me confiding now. "We had a fight. Now I'm here. She's at the play." "Pretty girl?" "Damned straight." "Hmmm. Must be the personality thing, then. Hey, was it a good one?" "The fight?" "No, the play." "Oh," I said, embarrassed. "The Elephant Man." "You kidding me, man? It's been sold out for three months. You can't get tickets to that." "Here," I said, pulling the ticket out of my shirt pocket and placing it on the bar. "Jeez," he said, picking it up with his hands. I hadn't noticed before how short and stubby his arms were, and his short fingers were like the claws on, well, a turtle, I guess. "This is the real thing. Wow. Hey, mind if I hold onto it? Maybe I can scalp it, score some dough." "Sure," I said. I didn't want it. "But you better hurry. Play's already started by now." He slid the ticket into a pocket of his crosshatched green vest, that resembled the underside of a turtle. And then I observed how short his legs were, that they didn't begin to reach the floor. What a weird little guy. "Story of my life," he said. "Bad timing. Hey, wanna see my Joseph Merrick? That was his real name, not John, you know. That elephant man, I mean." I didn't know. "Sure," I said again. "Close your eyes, don't open them until I tell you." I did. I waited a minute. "Now," he said. I opened my eyes. He had swiveled around so he faced me, and on the right side of his head there was a big, purple lumpy bruise. Otherwise, his appearance hadn't changed. "Gee, that tumor looks pretty authentic," I said. I pictured the revolting, misshapen face of John Hurt in the movie. "Nah," he replied. "I banged my head on my shell last night, trying to pull in during this scary movie scene. How about the rest of my impression?" "Not bad," I said, stifling a laugh. What a klutz this guy was. And he not only looked like a turtle, he thought he was a turtle. "I never get a break," he said, turning toward the bar again and slurping his drink. "I was up for 'Jekyl and Hyde,' and they gave me the understudy to Doctor Jekyl. Can you beat that? They gimme the straight guy. Me, the monster man. Jesus." I could understand it, if his Hyde was as bad as his Merrick. But I humored him, shook my head and said, "It's tough out there and getting tougher." "Wanna see my Karloff?" he asked. "Watch this. The barkeep won't even recognize me. No peeking." I did the repeat. There was no visible change this time either. "Barkeep, another Manhattan for myself and a drink for my friend, please," he said, without a hint of Boris Karloff's cultured British accent. The bartender strutted down and grinned at the guy. "Okay, Churchy, another Manhattan, and a beer here?" He nodded my way. Jesus, they even called him Churchy. He sulked. "Yeah," he said. After the barkeeper left to get the drinks he asked, "How the hell did he see through my act?" "Process of elimination. Who else could it be?" I said, indulging him. After all, the guy was buying me a drink. "Yeah," he said. "That's gotta be it. Now where was I? Oh yeah." The drinks came, and he took a gulp. "I can't get a break. I was up for one of them dwarfs in 'Snow White.' They offered me Dumpty, I think it was. I didn't know the thing was a fucking cartoon. I don't do cartoons. Jesus." Another slurp. "Tough," I said, commiserating with him. "Man, you've been around a long time." Could he be that old? "Yeah, and I still can't get a break. What's that one with the frog and the prince? 'Sleeping Beauty?'" "I don't think that's the name of it," I replied. But damned if I could remember. "Anyways, I get the part as the frog, see, but I do a poisonous toad by mistake, so I sting the princess when she kisses me and she gets asphyxiated before I can flip into the prince and they fire me. I can't get a break." "Jesus, that's tough." And getting tiresome. "And I can do it in reverse, too." Reverse toad? What's he talking about? But then came a stunner. I had taken a couple swigs of my beer when he said, "I don't get no respect." I did a double-take. It's a perfect Rodney Dangerfield, and for just a split second I think I see Rodney, but it's gone just as quickly. My imagination, suggestion, the voice was so good. How did he do that? "Whoops," Churchy said. "I mean I can't get a break," and he downed his Manhattan, wiped his mouth, belched, and climbed down from his stool. "Time's a wastin'," he said. "If I'm gonna scalp that ticket. Hey thanks for the drinks, Gene." And before I could sputter a protest, he waddled down the aisle toward the exit. He stopped halfway, and said, "Hey, once I get on my feet again, I'll throw some tax work your way." And then he was gone, and I was left holding the bag. The guy had stiffed me. "Churchy stick you with the tab?" the barkeeper asked, with a sly smile. I knew what he meant. Was I going to make good? I was the only guy in the joint with a suit on. Wouldn't have been a good idea to say no. I nodded glumly. He laughed, obviously relieved I wasn't going to welch on it. "Hey, the guy's got a great act. You got your money's worth." "Yeah," I said. Great act? What the hell was he talking about? "Let me have another beer." I watched the clock. The play would be out at ten- thirty. I knew Natalie would turn her cell phone on once the curtain calls started. She'd expect me to apologize. But I wasn't going to. She started this. She could do the groveling this time. No way was I giving in. Uh uh. No way. At ten-thirty I speed dialed her number. I considered that getting a taxi in that crowd might be dicey, and I couldn't let her wait alone late at night. We could call a cease-fire, continue the fight tomorrow. I heard a click, background applause, then "Hello?" Natalie said. "It's me. I'll meet you outside the theatre in ten minutes. We can grab a cab." "I've got an escort, thank you very much." Click. "What?" I demanded incredulously from the dial tone. An escort! How could she have an escort? Some guy made a move on her? Impossible. Not in that theatre. She'd never go that far just to spite me. Never. Totally out of character. I racked my brain for an answer. I had to get over there, fast. I dropped thirty bucks on the bar and rushed out of the place, then quick-stepped to the theatre. I paced up and down the sidewalk under the marquee waiting for Natalie, as the patrons began to file out. I just couldn't imagine any scenario that made sense, except that she was jerking my chain. And then I saw her, strolling arm in arm with another man, regarding him adoringly. That was the first shock. The second was that he was the handsomest guy I'd ever seen. Movie star looks. And the final shock was that they passed right by me. Natalie didn't even see me. And the guy: was that a smirk? Had she seen me first, pointed me out, put on an act? I gawked in astonishment, in utter dismay, as they walked up 9th toward The Avenue. Who was this guy? How had Natalie become so besotted so quickly? I followed them as they continued their promenade. And where were they going? Probably the guy's apartment, the green monster whispered to me. Yes, I was seething with jealousy as this guy horned in on my girl. How was I going to compete with looks and charm like that? I grew angrier and angrier with each step I took, when suddenly they sidestepped into an alley. What the hell? I stopped for a second and scratched my head. What was going on? And then it hit me, like an epiphany. While I seethed and roiled with envy, my subconscious had linked a few disparate facts together, and one by one they filed into my consciousness. Churchy conning me out of a few drinks. The barkeep talking up his act. Churchy imitating a buffoon. Churchy, forgetting himself and doing a perfect Rodney Dangerfield for a split second. Churchy performing the prince and toad, and in reverse. The truth leapt out and screamed at me. Churchy had conned me again, this time out of Natalie! He was no buffoon. He could play any role, flawlessly, and now he had assumed the part of the handsome prince, but for some inscrutable reason, he was doing his act in reverse, which meant-- He was going to kiss Natalie, morph into a toad, and sting her! I had to stop him. I broke into a run. My heart thumped in my chest as adrenaline surged through my veins. I darted into the alley where the light from a lone street lamp exposed Churchy the prince and Natalie my helpless lover facing each other, about to embrace, and execute that deadly kiss. I shouted at the top of my lungs. "Leave her alone, you bastard! Don't do it Natalie! Get away from him!" But neither heeded me. And then I charged. I don't think I've ever run faster. My shoes pounded on the pavement like claps of thunder, and just as their lips touched I launched a flying tackle at Churchy, bumping Natalie as I knocked the bastard down. The three of us sprawled out on the asphalt. I recovered first and sat up, assessing the damage around me. Natalie lay on her back, her eyes closed. Churchy was just coming to, groaning, only it wasn't Churchy. As he sat up and blinked at his surroundings, I was utterly shocked to see myself, or my twin. He wasn't the prince anymore. He was me! What the-- "You stupid oaf," he shouted. "Now look what you've done. What kind of idiot are you?" Natalie began to stir, but I was still too astonished to do anything but gape at my double. "You were going to poison Natalie," I said meekly, at last finding my voice. "I was just dissolving the spell, you blundering fool. You wrecked the act and reversed the polarity of the charm. Now I'm you and you're me. For chris sakes how could you be so stupid?" "What?" I asked, as the truth sank in. Oh my God. This guy wasn't just an actor, but a sorcerer, too. "What the hell are you talking about?" "It'll wear off in a few days," Churchy grumbled. "But meanwhile I'm stuck with being you." "Can't you fix it?" I asked. "It takes finesse, cooperation," Churchy said. "You can't bang around like a bull in a China shop." "Well of course I'll coop--" and then it dawned on me. Wait a second, a part of my mind said. Would a few days as the prince really be so bad? Christ, I could have any babe I wanted. A guy would kill for that. I brushed aside the guilty pangs about cheating on Natalie. This would be a scientific experiment. It didn't occur to me that Churchy would take my place in the meantime, so wrapped up in my own fantasies, was I. Imagine, snapping my fingers and the dolls come crawling! So I nodded in mock misery and said, "We'll get through it, Churchy." "Where am I?" Natalie moaned, as she sat up, dazed and confused. She looked around, then set her eyes on Churchy. "You fainted," he said. "You got shaky and woozy, and thought you were going to be sick, so we came in the alley." She shot me a bewildered glance - obviously she remembered nothing about the prince - and got to her feet with Churchy's help. "I just want to go home," she said. "Are we done fighting?" "Yes, dear," Churchy said. "Are you steady enough to walk?" "I think so. I just remember this handsome man sitting down next to me, and then I woke up here." They walked away from me, prattling on. I paid no attention. I was anxious to try out my act, perhaps at one of the singles joints. Should be jumping, at midnight on a Saturday night. With a gleam in my eye, I hoisted myself from the pavement, dusted off my clothes and swaggered toward The Avenue. A festive, post theatre crowd filled the broad, brightly lit boulevard, browsing shop windows and turning in to late night restaurants. The holiday atmosphere buoyed my spirits, and I decided to stop at the first singles bar I encountered, and I fairly skipped along, whistling a tune. But I could not resist the temptation to admire my reflection in a large, department store window. I faced the glass, shut my eyes, formed a flashing, irresistible smile, and beheld my new, dashing self. And of course, there I was, as any fool could have guessed, a goddam turtle staring back at me with a stupid grin on his face.
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Mr. Krauss is just too good. He keeps sending me stories and I keep publishing them. Ah, well, only one this year . . . I followed my own rules. How about some comments to our BBS? Help a fellah out, will ya? - GM