"Tolbert Wigsby and the Tree of Hearts"
Mr. Happy Puppet Head is sick. I listen at night as he bobbles through the hallways, breathing heavily through his mouth as his nose drips steadily, soaking his mustache. He hasn't eaten or drank anything in the past two days.
I wake up to the sound of my roomate vommiting in the backyard. I grab a glass of water and run outside. I find him hunched over a pool of partially-digested milk, the empty gallon jug lies a few feet away. "Oh, Mr. Happy Puppet Head..." I kneel down offering him the glass of water. He cringes away.
"Milk is supposed to be healthy," he moans.
I'm about to tell him why and when milk is healthy when I hear a twig break from the other side of the fence. My ears perk up and I can hear the rustling of courderoy slippers on grass.
"He's sick," says an old-man voice from the other side. It's Old Man Wigsby from next door.
"We know," I say. "Mr. Happy Puppet Head, maybe you should go lie down."
"I don't want to go inside," he says.
"Do you want a cup of tea?"
"That tea stuff's not gonna do nobody no good," says the voice from the other side of the fence. "Never has, never will. What he needs is soup. Thousand Year Old Soup. From a wizard'."
Mr. Happy Puppet Head starts throwing up again, but this time nothing comes out. When he's finished he lies panting on the grass.
"Thousand Year Old Soup," says Mr. Wigsby. "From a wizard."
I pick up Mr. Happy Puppet Head and carry him inside.
"I know a wizard!" calls the old man from behind the fence. "I'll take you there, no problem! I don't mind. Promise."
I close the door behind me. I'm in no mood to talk to people if they're interested in talking crazy.
The next morning Mr. Happy Puppet Head is even sicker. His eyes are glazed and his mustache is drooping pretty badly. "We've got to get you to a doctor," I tell him. I touch my hand to his furry red forehead and it's burning hot.
"No doctors," he coughs. "I'll... doctors..." Mr. Happy Puppet Head moans and burrows his head deeper into the pillows.
I look out the window and Old Man Wigsby is standing there looking in at us. "Can I help you?" I ask the old man.
"I aint doing nothing!" yells the old man.
"Excuse me, but he has to sleep now" I begin to lower the Venetian Blinds.
"Hold it!" Old Man Wigsby sticks his cane into the window and holds the blinds up. I try to close the window, but it won't close all the way with the cane stuck in it. "Hold it! I said hold it!"
"Wizard soup..." Mr. Happy Puppet Head moans. "Wizard..."
"I don't think that's a good idea," I say. The old man has gotten his cane stuck in the blinds and is shaking it violently in an attempt to extricate it.
Mr. Happy Puppet Head rolls out of bed and lands at my feet. With a wild look in his eyes he starts biting at my feet. I can barely feel his soft plastc teeth through my rubber boots. "Wizard soup!" he yells hoarsly. "Wizard soup!"
Old Man Wigsby yanks on his cane, pulling the blinds to the floor.
"I hate her more than anyone!" Mr. Wigsby yells at us through the open window. "But thousand Year Soup is the best thing. Best damn thing there is." His face gets real serious. "He's dying."
"I think he's just sick," I say. "He'll be okay."
"I'm dying!" yells Mr. Happy Puppet Head, his mouth full of my boot.
I watch him chewing at my feet, a puddle of puppet drool forming around me.
"I'll take you to her, but I'll warn you, she stole my heart and never gave it back." He points to a scar on his chest. "I'll take you in my car. I have a car." And he turns and slowly walks over to his promised automobile.
We don't get further than fifteen minutes out on the highway before the car breaks down. First it just stops working, then something bursts from under the car, dark blue liquid spilling out.
"How much further are we?" I ask, my unconsious friend cradled in my arms.
"Five, six hours," He sratches his stomach. "I don't know."
"Is that by car or walking?"
"What are you asking me like that for?" he shouts at me. "That tone of voice! So grating!"
I turn and walk back to where I see a southbound bus stop just about a hundred yards away.
"Wait!" the old man yells. "Hold it a second!" I keep walking.
I don't turn around until I sit on the bench at the bus stop. When I do, I see him hobbling ever so slowly into the middle of the street. The first five cars see him and veer around, but the sixth is a large motor home that clearly doesn't see the tiny man until they are almost on top of him.
The RV slams on its breaks and stops inches from him. "Come on," he waves to me. "I got us a ride!"
Mr. Happy Puppet Head coughs up a large chunk of bright green mucus on me. I get up and walk towards the waiting transportation.
Pearl is a very nice lady who's older than Tolbert by a few years and can't stand for any of us to talk to her. "I can't concentrate on the road," she says slowly when Tolbert trys to tell her about the wizard and the Soup.
So we ride north in a silence punctuated by Tolbert commenting on the weather or the drive with Pearl silencing him calmly.
After about six hours we start to see small signs by the side of the road advertising the wizard. "Wizard," one says, with an arrow pointing down the road. "Thousand Year Old Soup," says another. The countryside is much more mountainous up here. Pictureseque. Very nice.
"Thanks for driving us, Pearl," I try to say when she drops us off at the entrance to the Wizard's place, but she slams her door and drives away before I can finish.
"Tolbert Wigsby," says the old Wizard woman. "I'm not giving your heart back." She's as old a woman as I can imagine. Wrinkled and shriveled and wizened and crooked and haggard, etc.
"I didn't come for my heart!" he yells. "We came for the soup. He's sick."
"I'm still not giving your heart back."
"But I'm doing a good deed!" Tolbert waves his stick to emphasize and knocks over a glass vase. He doesn't seem to notice. "Those were the rules. I don't do a good deed and you take my heart, I do a good deed you give it back."
The Wizard sighs. "The Rules were you had until the flower lost all its petals or you'd lose it forever. That was seventy years ago."
"Fine, just give him the soup or whatever you have or not I don't care." He turns and stomps outside.
"Follow me," the Wizard tells me.
The Thousand Year Old Soup is in the back room of her strange Wizard Store. Big cauldron of gross looking stuff.
"Go at it," she tell us as she dumps a bucket of what looks like mud into the mixture.
I hold Mr. Happy Puppet Head above it, hoping the stench will wake him, but he's sound asleep. Then my hands slip and I drop him into the Soup.
He wakes up yelling, but chokes on the soup. I reach to pull him out, but the Wizard shakes her head at me.
I let him flop around. He swallows a lot of the muck before he finally pulls himself out.
"Damn," he says. "I feel great."
As we leave, the Wizard tells us about how she burried Tolbert's heart in the back when the petals fell off the flower.
"I don't understand what you're talking about," I tell her, and pay her the five dollars for using her soup.
In back of the Wizard's Store is a big expanse of rolling green hills. In the middle of one not too far away is a tree. On the tree, growing like fruit, are throbbing human hearts.
We pick one for Tolbert and he examines it thoughtfully.
"Is your mustache shorter?" I ask Mr. Happy Puppet Head. "It looks like how you used to wear it a few years ago."
"I guess so," he peers down at it. "I also feel... optimistic. I guess I'm younger now." We watch as Tolbert holds the pumping muscle his own heart spawned. "Hey, you mind if I take a few?" Mr. Happy Pupet Head asks him. "I've never had human heart before."
Tolbert doesn't mind at all. We somehow get home and cook up Grilled Human Heart. It's delicious.