by Colleen Cable
“Were you aware,” the doctor asked, tracing a line with his finger down an X-Ray, “that you’re spine has healed incorrectly?”
The doctor stared. “This kind of malformation suggests that the spine was broken and then either healed incorrectly or that the break wasn’t treated at all. You’re saying you can’t remember breaking your neck?”
Buster thought back, reviewing his catalogue of pain. In the hazy photograph on the doctor’s desk, he could see his spine, the shadows of vertebrae twisted like the roots of an old oak tree. He pressed his fingertips into the back of his neck. It was true. He could feel the gnarled bones between his shoulders veering from center. He had never thought anything of it before.
He flicked through possibilities, discarding some and considering others.
The doctor looked at him expectantly.
“Well, in my line of work, it could really be anything,” he said. “You know, I think it was on Sherlock Jr. in ’24. There was a gag where I grabbed onto a water tower – the kind that cools down train engines – but the damn spout was busted and more water gushed out than I thought. It sent me eight feet down to the ground and then pummeled me with water.”
“And you didn’t go to the hospital?”
“I just thought I had a crick in my neck,” he said.
“We’ll be more careful with you at MGM, I can assure you,” the doctor said.
“Care’s got nothing to do with it,” he said.
The doctor nodded and gave him a manila folder with a copy of the X-Ray inside.
Buster had walked to the doctor’s, a small outpost on MGM’s lot, only a few blocks from his bungalow. Regular physicals were required now for all artists in the MGM stable, just one more thing that made Buster feel like a product on an assembly line.
He sauntered out of the office, nodding at people passing by, but quickly retreated back to his quarters. Once inside, he collapsed on his couch.
Buster took the X-Ray out of the folder and stared at it more intently. The more he stared, the more he felt the uneven knobs at the base of his neck, almost like they were shifting under his skin. He adjusted on the couch. From time to time, he did feel pain there. Sometimes he would turn his head too quickly or let it fall awkwardly in a gag and he’d feel a flash of heat right at that spot.
He suspected this break wasn’t from falling from the water tower, even though it was true the spout broke and sent him flying. But that hadn’t been the kind of pain when something breaks.
The real break came in 1907 and Buster was eleven, almost twenty years before. He remembered standing in the wings of the stage with his mother, waiting for their cue. Dancers in spangled costumes and acrobats in leotards rushed by them, trying to ready themselves for showtime. Buster, eleven at the time, shifted from one foot to another, feeling the floorboards accommodate his weight, hearing them sigh. His head was hot and itchy from the bald cap he wore. The glue was starting to melt slightly from his cheeks where red whiskers had been applied.
Some comedian was on stage at the moment, but Buster wasn’t paying attention to the jokes. He looked out at the audience – full that night. Laughter swelled like a hushed roar. He didn’t know the punch line. Had he missed it?
He watched his mother next to him, absent-mindedly fiddling with the valves on her saxophone and staring at something he couldn’t identify.
“The Three Keatons are next up,” the manager hissed. “Where’s the third?”
“In the bathroom,” Buster answered.
“He better piss fast,” said the manager before he went to wrangle another act.
Where was Pop?
Another laugh from the audience.
He and his father were about to perform their famous knockabout routine where they were both Irishmen – one a boozy strongman and the other a rough-and-tumble midget.
Mom sidled closer to him and put a hand on his shoulder. Her other hand still pressed the valves, which reminded him of someone merely mouthing the words without saying them. He looked up at Mom whose eyes were on the comedian. Worry spun her forehead into a knot.
The stage door clanged open. Even the comedian on-stage flinched and quickly glanced into the wings. Buster looked behind him and saw Pop leaning against the metal door, his shirt hanging out of his pants and buttoned haphazardly. His hair was thrown onto his forehead, which Buster saw was shiny from sweat. Pop breathed heavily for a moment or two, then lumbered forward and put an arm around each of them. He looked like he’d been forty years in the desert.
“Ready kids?” he barked, then laughed slightly.
“Joseph,” Mom tried to look him full in the face.
“Can’t a man have a little fun?”
“Pop,” Buster said. “Can you do it?”
“’Course!” He laughed again, but not in his usual earnest way. “Your Pop’s always ready.”
“Thank you folks!” The comedian on stage bowed and ran off into the wings, glancing toward the three of them. Pop tried to pat him on the back as he passed, but missed.
“Sonofabitch,” Pop said.
Mom wrapped her entire hand around the saxophone until her fingers turned white.
“Next up, ladies and gentlemen, is an act that has traversed the entire country from New York City to Tuscaloosa to Portland. Please welcome the inimitable, the familial, the wonderful Three Keatons!” the manager announced from the stage.
Mom walked out first and nodded to the clapping audience. They quieted and she began to play. Mom was the first ever female saxophonist to grace the stage in the US. Her fingers moved with such confidence and dexterity across the valves. The only way you could tell she was even breathing was by the way her shoulders picked up at exactly the right moment so that the music never paused. She blew life into the thing.
Buster could hear Pop’s bones creaking as he swayed. Or maybe it was just the ragged breathing. It was louder than Mom’s sax. Pop was drenched in a sweet and salty odor – whiskey and sweat and day-old clothes. Buster fixated on a white button that had loosed itself from Pop’s shirt that swung from a thin white thread over the landscape of cloth, stained and soaked and ravaged.
There was polite applause as Mom curtsied on stage. Buster remembered looking at her face and it was like it was etched in stone, grim. She only permitted a small smile before she began to walk stoically off-stage. Buster could tell her jaw was clenched as she tried to evaluate Pop.
“Ready, old boy?” Pop snarled.
Buster nodded. They’d be fine, he told himself. Pop was playing a drunk, so what did it matter that he actually was drunk? When Pop was as blotto as he was tonight, the throws and the hits and the stunts came more quickly and more aggressively than usual. He was a bull on nights like this. But Buster thought of the routine like a dance, and he was a damn good dancer.
“Joseph, you maybe shouldn’t tonight,” Mom whispered as she came off stage, but it sounded like a shout. The audience’s applause was waning.
He made a sound like pffffft. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Before Mom could make any more protests, Pop stumbled on-stage, waving to the crowd like a hammy politician. Buster and Mom shared a glance before she gestured for him to go on, shrugging her shoulders. “Be careful,” she said. “Smells like whiskey tonight.” Whiskey meant he’d be in a throwing mood, which was better than vodka, which meant punching. Buster knew how to roll out of a throw, take a fall, even when they came unexpectedly.
A stage-hand had moved their set on stage – a basic living room with a kitchenette in the corner. Pop banged around the kitchen at the start of their act. He threw pots and pans, searched in drawers and cupboards. “Where’s the liquor?” he said with a thick Irish accent.
A smattering of laughter.
Buster walked in the prop door.
“Where’s the liquor?” he asked again. Buster shrugged and went rummaging himself. “This kitchen is such a mess! It’s no wonder I can’t find anything.”
Pop grabbed the mop and bucket from the corner. “Guess I’ll clean up.”
He started mopping, but Buster “accidentally” got in his way. Pop pushed him to the ground and growled “Get out of me way!” Then he jabbed Buster in the belly with the end of the mop, harder this time than it normally was, even when he was that deep in drink. Buster gasped, but then held his breath. His hands cupped the end of the pole, so that when Pop started using him as a human mop, rubbing him around the wooden floor, the handle pressed into his hands instead of his stomach. Buster turned his face out to the audience, who by that time usually were too shocked in their horror instead of laughter. Once they caught a look of the Buster’s blank, affectless face, however, they started to giggle, which snowballed through the audience until they were howling. Pop shoved him here, there, waltzing with the mop with a boy stuck at the bottom.
When the bit was through, Buster got up and begrudgingly straightened his jacket, feigning belligerence. Pop then said, “Well, where have you been? Here I’ve been cleaning and all you’ve been doing is sitting on your arse!”
The audience ate it up.
Buster got huffy, then. He stomped around and pointed to the floor and then to his chest and shook his fists up at Pop. The height difference always got ‘em.
Pop started ranting and raving about how useless Buster was. Slurring. Then Pop pushed him, but Buster ran through Pop’s legs and tried to dodge.
In a flash, Pop picked him up by the seat of his pants and hurled him like a shot at the painted country backdrop behind them, off-set, but still on stage. Buster braced himself, allowing his body to go slack for the impact. He tucked his head so he could roll against the backdrop, but instead of feeling the soft resistance of the cloth, something solid jammed into the top vertebrae of his spine. Pain wrenched through his neck and hammered down his back and inside his head. He slid listlessly down onto the wooden stage. Buster clenched his jaw and slid his tongue over the back of every single tooth, trying to take his mind off the deep throb. He turned over and looked at the audience trying to keep his face composed, not letting the tears drip. His lip quivered and his throat became unbearably tight. He wanted to run off stage to his mother. He wanted to cry, was about to break character and start bawling. He was about to.
Pop came over and looked at him puzzled, his red-rimmed eyes squinted slightly. He lifted up the backdrop to reveal a brick wall behind it. Understanding washed over Pop’s face like a sobering cold shower. He had thought the backdrop was further downstage, the brick wall should have been yards behind it.
In that moment it was as though the entire audience shared in a communal gasp, breath held, waiting to be told that it was okay to laugh, that this was all part of the act. Buster remembered wanting to scream at them that he was just a boy. He felt as though they were asking for it to be an act, otherwise, they would be implicit in what had just happened to him, conspirators. He looked up at Mom in the wings, biting her lower lip. Then he looked at Pop again.
Pop was sweating so much that it began dripping to the stage. He looked like he was about to cry too. Buster gave him a nearly imperceptible shake of the head. Keep it together, that shake said.
Buster had fallen asleep on the couch, waking up just as the sun was setting. He felt groggy and disoriented. He had fallen into that memory so often lately, but now the memory had become something different.
Buster had always believed that the body was a physical record of a life. Pop’s hands were perpetually calloused from years of hammering wooden posts into the ground for tents or nailing up two-sheets and four-sheets on vaudeville. Mom never wore lipstick because she claimed her lips were forever chapped red from her sax mouthpiece. His wife Natalie said that no matter how many creams she used or doctors she saw, she would always have unsightly stretch marks up and down her abdomen from her pregnancies. Buster had a scar across his ankle from the time his shoelace got caught in a mechanized staircase while filming The Electric House and a missing fingertip from a time as a child when he got too invested in a clothing ringer and the machine snipped it right off.
He picked up the X-Ray photograph that had fallen to the floor. That night when his Pop threw him into that wall, he had been broken. He imagined the impact again and again, the spine snapping and then lodging together like two cars colliding. Car hoods accordianing, metal shrapnel and gears littering the road. Hot smoke rising out of the engines and the burnt smell of skidded rubber.
He couldn’t help but see his body as a machine, like any other. It had a design, the skeleton made of muscle and angles. He was always able to figure out machines by taking them apart and reassembling once he knew the shape, the way pieces went and worked together. Machines could be fixed, made better. Buster believed the body was just the same.
He got up and walked across the long bungalow to his office area – big desk, chair, and bookshelves – and tacked the picture to the wall.
He had been broken, yes. And if he thought about it, he still was broken, the bones having never set right. He felt that familiar unease whenever he remembered laying on that stage floor, but he was also somehow thankful that there was a physical record. He felt as though his body remembered in a more meaningful way than his mind.
On stage that night, he turned on his side, trying to keep his head and neck perfectly still, and faced the audience, all still waiting for the outcome. In this instance too, Buster’s body reacted for him.
Don’t cry, it said to him. Keep the face. Keep the face.
And the audience laughed. It was all part of the act. He thought he would be angry at them, but he wasn’t, couldn’t be. This audience, this changing room of darkened faces, those fluttering hands that clap and those gaping mouths that laugh, had raised him in some way. They taught him what was funny.
Colleen Cable is a recent graduate of the University of Maryland MFA program in fiction. She writes mainly historical fiction and is working on a novel about the life of silent film icon, Buster Keaton. She lives in Washington, D.C.