By Nancy Sweetland

My name's Jake. Just Jake. You'd have thought the Big Guy would at least have given me a surname. No. All ego, that's what he was, and a real pain to all of us in the troupe. At least I thought so. Ever since he'd picked me up in that bad production in Cleveland. But that's another story.

Take a look at the one hanging around next to me here. That's Marta. Gypsy blood, I'd say, from the paint on her, dark tangled hair and all. She gets most of the fun parts, flirty-like. Good costumes, too, made to show off ample cleavage that seems to be pretty interesting to the men in the audience, though I'm sure they'd never in real life have anything to do with a woman like her.

Flopped over on the couch there's blue-eyed Billy. He's a straight guy, kinda cute but not smart. Plays everything real sober down the line. The kind of looks you want to root for. Pure all-American Boy. Just the right touch of blond hair falling carelessly over his forehead--you know the type. Butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, as the saying goes.

And then there's Ma (or Aunt Nora, interchangeable, depending on which wig she's wearing for the day). Ma can play the heavy, or the sweet old lady, or, as Aunt Nora, the next-door nosy. Once in a while she even gets a musical part, but that's not the greatest since somebody behind the scenes actually does the singing and she just mouths the words. So far, she's not been brought back for an encore.

None of these others had surnames, either, though I've never heard them complain about it. When we all came on the Big Guy dubbed us whatever he wanted to, just one name, never even with a title. I wouldn't have minded being called 'Mr. Jake,' once in a while, or having the others get a little respect when it was due. Probably gave him a feeling of superiority. He liked being in control, able to pull strings and make things happen. It wasn't like we had a choice.

Everyday, every play was a challenge for me to keep my cool, but yesterday was the final straw that made up my mind to do something about my situation. The part I was given once again made me the buffoon, the guy who just doesn't have a clue, always bumbling around knocking things over, doing whatever I'm told and somehow just barely finishing up with all my body parts intact. Well, I was smarter than that and I deserved better. Not that the Big Guy knew or even thought to find out.

I could've been a hero, a detective, a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. If he would've let me, just once.

Take the time I was cast as a cowboy in a western called "Laredo Lode." Kind of a dumb name, when I think about it, because there wasn't anything about gold in it. Now there was a chance to be a hero, shoot the bad guys, get the girl, ride off into the sunset. You know, Gene Autry type. But what part did I get? I was the goof that fell off my horse while it was still in the corral and Billy, blond-haired Billy, rode off with Marta while I was dusting off my britches.

Oh, there's more. In the love story where I climbed the lattice up to the fair maiden's second-story window to serenade her, what happened? You guessed it. The lattice let go and I landed on my rump in the rose bushes.

Did I complain? Sure. But did the Big Guy hear me?

Here's the story that drove the final nail into the coffin. (Pun intended. You'll see why.) Aunt Nora (blond beehive wig today, this play must have been set back in the fifties) was going to be real foresighted. Pick out the casket for her own funeral. She had it all figured out, wanted to pay in advance, have the whole thing taken care of so "nobody else has to worry about making a decision at a sad time like that," she said, hanging her head to show just how sad it would be.

Sad time, huh! I would've been glad to see her go. 'Course I couldn't say so-that wasn't how things were supposed to play out. Keep your mouth shut, Jake, and do as you're told, and we'll get along just fine. That was the Big Guy's attitude, always. But I kept remembering pretty Adele, the cheerleader-type redhead whose neck was broken when the Big Guy had a hissy-fit one night after a poor performance and threw her against the wall. She lay there looking for all the world like a broken doll. I didn't know what happened to her after that. She was just gone.

Back to the story. Billy, Marta and I were to go along with Aunt Nora to the funeral home, just to make sure everything was done right. "I don't want any questions raised at the time of my demise, then," said Aunt Nora. "Just so you all know what I want and agree to carry it out. Is that clear?"

Billy nodded, his carefully studied blond bangs falling just right over his forehead. "Sure thing, Aunt Nora. It's your funeral." Funny, I'd heard that said a hundred times and this was the first that it had literal meaning. That got a few laughs from the audience.

I forgot to tell you, the Big Guy wrote all the scripts. Hollywood, he wasn't. But you play the hand that's dealt you, as they say at the poker table.

Marta flapped her arms and tossed her tresses, almost, but not quite, flopping her bosoms out of her blouse. "I think this is just crazy. It's not like you ever really die, Aunt Nora. You just stop. All the world's a stage. Your part just gets written out." That got a few titters from savvy people in the theater.

I didn't say anything then. My part was to keep quiet (like always) until we got to Carson's Casket Emporium - and how dumb is that for a name on a business. I thought an emporium was just a big junk store. Which this turned out to be, by the way. Those caskets weren't exactly the Rolls Royces of the funeral industry.

So the Big Guy finally gave me a line. "Okay, Carson," I said, like I'm the one gonna make the decision (best line I've had for a while. Tried to make it sound like John Wayne in True Grit.). Flip open those lids and show us your best."

Then the four of us followed Carson - a tall, skinny, weasel-type character - through his casket warehouse. I'm not kidding, there must have been two hundred photographs of coffins pasted up like wallpaper all around the room, showing different models for your final resting pleasure. Everything from cheap pine to shiny platinum look-alikes. Carson paused here and there, pointing out the best features of this wood, this satin, that hardware. He stopped about halfway down one of the rows.

"Now this one," he said, flinging open the lid on a deep mahogany box with a flourish and stepping back so we could all crowd up close, "is not our top of the line, but it's waterproof. Of course if you pay a little more you'll get a better product and you won't feel the damp on your face when it rains." He grinned as though he's made a damn joke. Then he went on about how of course, they'd all last longer in the poured cement vaults he certainly recommended. "Then there's no question of damp. Not ever."

"Good," said Aunt Nora, bobbing her beehive. "I like that. But I don't like the color." I was thinking this is supposed to be a comedy, but who could tell? I didn't want to, but the Big Guy made me mosey over to the next box, a shiny lavender with brilliant silver clasps. It was pretty fancy, cream-colored satin inside and all. I said, "Take a look at this one, Aunt Nora. So what if it gets damp? You're dead."

She shook all over, like this was really happening, like the thought of being dead was just hitting her. "That's easy for you to say, Jake. You'll still be hanging around."

She was quick with the repartee, and the audience picked up on that retort. I liked it better when she played Ma. Ma didn't come off with those good lines that made me look dumb.

Anyhow, we kept moving through the Carson's Casket Emporium, all of us, especially Nora, checking out this one, that one. She found one she liked and asked us, "Do you like this color? Think I'll look good in this one? Jake, you try it out."

I was thinking, not on your life. But suddenly, I was sailing through the air and found myself sinking into plush peach-colored satin in a casket big enough for a NFL linebacker.

"Ah, don't he look good!" said Bill, nodding like people do when they don't know what to say at a funeral.

Marta giggled, her bosoms straining against her blouse. "Trying it on for size, Jake? It's a little big. I don't think peach is your color. Ha Ha."

I hated this kind of stuff. But I had no choice; I just lay there and took it while Carson haggled with Nora about price and whatever else went with the casket. Flowers, a room, a preacher or somebody to say a few words. You know. There's more to the story, including some other laughs at my expense before I was allowed out of the box and we left. By that time I was damn tired of being the buffoon once again. But this time I felt different. I was determined to do something about it. But how?

I thought about it all the way through the rest of the stupid play. I thought about it after the audience left and the five of us were back in the dressing room.

The Big Guy put Bill and Marta down for the night. He tossed Aunt Nora's wig back on the fake head on the counter and she was also down. She really looked bad bald, but who was to see? Everyone else but the Big Guy had left the building and the whole place was dark and deserted.

Just as I expected, he intended to put me down last. He usually made some comment about what he had planned for me next, and it was never anything I'd have a part of, if I had my say.

"Hang on there, Jake," he said, carelessly tossing me up onto a wall shelf with a bunch of props and weights while he messed around taking the lid off a garbage can below me. When I saw what had happened to my strings, I almost laughed. Here was my how! This was going to be great!

"I got a swell idea for you in our next play," said the Big Guy. "See, pretend this is a manhole without a cover. You're walking Marta home after a date, see? And you're busy looking into her eyes, kinda moonstruck, like, and oops! You fall right into the manhole!" He nearly doubled up, laughing. "See? What a surprise! The audience will love it!"

But I wouldn't.

His head was right below me when he reached up for me, not noticing my strings were wound around the rope on a heavy curtain weight.

He pulled me down. My strings dragged the weight off the shelf and tangled with the weight rope and wrapped tight around the Big Guy's neck on the way down before he knew what had happened.

Oh, he thrashed around a lot and we got pretty tangled up. Messed up the dressing room, overturned the chairs. Bill and Marta and Ma saw what happened but I didn't worry about them. I knew they'd just sit around with their blank painted-on expressions. Puppets without a puppeteer.

It was perfect. Couldn't have worked out better if I'd really done it myself. Worst part was I couldn't get untangled and had to stay wrapped around his neck until the janitor came through and called nine-one-one.

Too late.

"Jesus!" The cop on the case stood back to take in the mess we'd made of the dressing room. "I've never seen a garroting like this. Who ever heard of a puppet making a kill? I swear, it's almost like it had a grudge against the guy." He had left the crime scene shaking his head.

The four of us were sold to another showman, one with a little more smarts, and things are just fine now.

I don't have to play the buffoon any longer.

The end.