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Sock Monkeys and Dancing Hippos by Brandon Burke

Anyone alive in the 70s will remember stuffed monkeys made from tube socks, roach clips decorated with feathers, and stained-glass windows featuring doves. We had all these, along with crocheted jump suits with rainbows on the chest I naively wore.
The author waiting in line for the first Star Wars film

Supporting a growing family by selling pottery isn’t easy. Our house is filled with items dad has traded with other post hippies with a penchant for painting, poetry, and pot. While other kids, for birthdays and Christmas, get Stretch Armstrong, or Battle Star Galactica action figures, or slot car racetracks, we get driftwood with faces carved in them, hand painted trains, trucks, and puzzles. The things you see elves make in every animated Christmas movie, ever. I am perceptive enough to know our presents are better; handcrafted and unique just like God made me.

For my birthday I get a two-foot-tall marionette peacock with real feathers. I name him Rick. Though he has a slightly perplexed look in his eyes, he is cocky and proud when hanging in my bedroom. When I take him down and manipulate his strings, he’s a bit gawky. Rick takes giant steps, his head wobbles like a drunk toddler. I make him run, like a blind man someone has coaxed onto a treadmill. I take Rick through our house. I make him take blundering steps past an oil painting of a tiger. I make Rick fly and attack my brother Aaron in his handcrafted highchair. I make Rick tap dance in front of ceramic pigs with broken legs and missing snouts. If asked his thoughts, I imagine him awkwardly shifting his head towards me. His crossed eyes trying to focus, “What is wrong with me, how did I end up like this?”

“It just takes a little more practice,” I reply, “Just have faith. All things work out for the good for those who love the Lord.”

Rick looks away and whispers to himself, “I need to call my agent.”

My favorite item dad traded for is a 5-foot-tall mirror framed in stained walnut. The artist carved ornate designs and “Jesus Loves” at the top and “You” at the bottom. I stand in this mirror admiring my good looks; comfortable and confident that not only Jesus loves me, but everybody does. My least favorite is the wooden slide. After jumping around in the back sprinklers, bare chested in swimming trucks I climb up the stairs, then push myself down the slide. Wooden slides don’t thrive in backyard sprinklers and hot summer days. My dad pulls out the splinters with tweezers, needles, and pliers. “Well, what did you expect?” he laughs. “varnish”, I should have responded. As I’m bent over a chair, my bottom in the air, I make eye contact with Rick. I think he’s smirking.

Years later, I learned to dislike the full-length mirror. I’d stand in my tight white fruit of the looms, read the inscription and look at my reflection. “Jesus Loves” a chubby, naked, pink adolescent with a baby face and man eyebrows, “You”, I’d lean in and whisper, “What is wrong with me? How did I end up like this?” Behind me I can see the marionette in my bedroom, matted and tangled in a corner. Aaron threw up on him and I’d tried to give him a bath, but Rick will never be the same again.


There is a windchime that terrifies me. It hangs in the backyard and has an imprint of a real woman’s face trapped in the clay. Tinkle, tinkle, tinkle it calls. I think it would scream if it could only take a breath. The chimes might be Morse code, “Ahhhh, I’m trapped. Let me out. Someone help me!”. I hate the thing. When the Santa Ana winds come it gets angry, thrashing its broken chimes against the patio post. The face spins one way until its twine is taught, then spins the other way. The man who made the windchime is John. He came to live with us after Uncle Bob packed up his big rig and wife and moved back to the Ozarks.

At the arts and crafts shows John’s specialty is windchimes. I guess the public has lost interest in patio art adorned with a crescent moon, or a smiling sun, or a screaming woman, because John, his wife and his daughter have been living in their van. I assume the bear from The Jungle Book is based on John; huge, hairy, smiley and opinionated. His bare necessities included eating an entire pot of chilly my mom placed on the kitchen table while John and my dad worked out the living arrangements. John is the biggest, fattest person I have ever seen in my life and his wife is larger. Their daughter is normal sized, the color of her hair and her personality could only be described as cauliflower.

I’m amazed they were living in a van. The transient living doesn’t surprise me, that seems normal, but how did they all fit in a van? There might be enough room for their girth but not near enough room for John’s personality. His laugh couldn’t be contained in a warehouse and the arc of his mood swings would smash windows on both sides of an aircraft hangar. I trust my dad that these people need our help and proud of him for offering a place for them to live.

John, and his wife Lucille, fill our kitchen with white and yellow food donated by the Gleaner’s or purchased with food stamps i.e., Wonder Bread, Mayonnaise, English Muffins, gallons of milk, butter, Zingers, potato chips and big blocks of government cheese. My mom prefers I eat food that tastes of earth and has been pulled from her garden. She has forbidden me to touch John and Lucille’s food. She knows that our stock of people can put on weight easily when not spending the daylight hours working in a field. She is trying to delay my eventual obesity and delay John and Lucille’s claim to “contributing to the household”.

Lucille spends most of her time in the bedroom with her daughter. While John laughs loud and often and has an opinion on everything, his wife is silent. I’m not familiar yet with depression, or being withdrawn, or what it means to feel like life has passed you by, but I will be intimate with these someday. I just think Lucille is mean and maybe a little simple. I thought it would be John that I would be most engaged with, but he has no patience for my stories and songs. He has his own.

Lucille will venture out of her room when the house is mostly empty. She walks daintily on large legs and tries to sit down silently in an armchair where she can watch her daughter skip rope in the backyard. I usually skip rope with her daughter but once a month I sit with Lucille while she reads from her monthly subscription of Dance Magazine. She said, “It’s the one thing I told John I wouldn’t give up”. Lucille doesn’t let me touch her dance magazines, she’s concerned I might smudge them or crease the pages. She shows me pictures of the dancers flying, their leg muscles stretched and flexed mid leap, and tells me stories of when she was a ballerina. As she talks about this she smiles and rubs her hand down the bass of her neck. We expect fat women to be bold and brassy or at least cheerful. It makes us more comfortable but Lucille isn’t funny. She’s the opposite of funny. She does have the thick shiny hair many large women seem to have, hers is orange. Her skin is white, almost translucent when I watch her wandering down the hall with her head down, like a ghost haunting our house...a huge ghost looking around for something to eat or something she’s lost. But when she sits in the armchair and tells me stories of the famous dancers she’s met her skin glows reflecting the sunlight from the window.

Most of the time Lucille is scowling and sighing, her small blue eyes squinting out the window. I get the feeling that I should stay out of her way but when she’s talking about the ballet she’s welcoming and almost nice.

When I first heard John tell my dad that Lucille was once a ballerina, I couldn’t comprehend it. It was like being told she was once a toaster. The more I watched her with her magazines the more I could imagine it.

The same way I thought of John as Baloo from The Jungle Book, Lucille became the dancing hippo from Fantasia. Though large, the hippo spins like a top, balances on a toe shoe with her head held high and her other leg lifting behind her to the sky. She’s never out of breath, her tutu around her large waist creates a halfway point between her quick moving feet and the arched back and arms lifted over her head. In my imagination, Lucille has long eyelashes and a smile and is joyous. She is the star of the ballet and takes the stage to huge applause as the pencil shaped girls circle around her wait in the background.

When my parents are out John goes to the kitchen and offers me his food; strawberry Pop Tarts covered in butter, English Muffins with peanut butter and Grape Jelly. All the forbidden fruits. I know I’m not supposed to eat this, and John isn’t offering it to be nice. He’s offering it so he has a bargaining chip to use when it comes time for him to pitch in for the water bill, I eat it as fast as I can before Jesus can see me.

My stomach feels queasy and I sit down in the living room sucking a jelly stain from my t-shirt. Lucille comes in and sits down in her regular chair. She has her dance magazine and looks a little more animated today. She calls me over and shows me the cover. It’s a picture of a handsome man with a smirk on his face, like he’s got a secret. He has on a collared shirt, blue stretch pants, white leg warmers pushed down around his ancles and a huge crotch, like he’s hiding a half-filled balloon in his pants, maybe that’s the secret. Lucille points out the bold print at the bottom, “Exclusive! Baryshnikov’s Balanchine Adventure”. Lucille tells me that she was once in dance class when Baryshnikov came through and commented on her cambre during the adagio. Baryshnikov, Balanchine and camber mean nothing to me, but I smile, nod my head and raise my eyebrows as though I’m impressed. She describes in detail that day in the dance studio using French words that sound like fancy foods. I practice these words in my head with a French accent, “Yes please, I would love some A La Seconde on my Fondu Grand Plie.” Lucille notices that I’m daydreaming and stops talking. I ask her to show me how to do a move.

She has me stand up and grab hold of the arm of the chair with my right hand. She tells me to bend my knees but make my spine grow at the same time; I’m then supposed to open my left arm to the side. This is called a plie. I feel like royalty. Lucille isn’t impressed and she rocks back in her chair to get the momentum needed to stand up. I sit down on the ottoman and she tells me to watch, then takes off her house shoes. She looks frightening standing over me, and I get the idea that if she falls forward, she’ll squash me and I’ll never grow up and have the chance to order food in a nice restaurant using my French affectation. She takes a moment to place her heals together with her toes facing out. She is standing up straight, looking forward, her arms low and curved, outlining her large midsection. In shorter than a second, in the blink of an eye, even though I don’t blink, she becomes a living statue. She is simultaneously rigid and feminine. Her head moves slowly, softly left, as her arms start to lift then open to the side in a movement that has the impression of being quick but is smooth and slow. Her left fingers touch the edge of the chair; her right arm extended, long and powerful and curved, ending with one finger stretched out like the painting I saw of Adam reaching out to God. As she bends her knees she whispers “plie”. Her neck grows longer and her chin lifts slightly; she is floating up as her knees bend down. She continues and I can feel I’m breathing in time with her. She straightens her legs, then lifts her body up, up, up, on the balls of her feet. Her legs are squeezed tight and her right arm, still slightly curved is over her head, she takes her left arm off the armchair. Her fingers release the chair as though it had been there, not to keep her balance, but to keep her grounded to the earth. This hand comes up to greet the other. She is a skyscraper stretching to heaven, she is Athena leading warriors to battle, she is Lady Liberty, thick arms, long neck, solid jaw and majestic. She’s beautiful and this is my first experience witnessing it. I hear John’s footsteps behind me, but I ignore him. I’m in diva worship. He bounds forward heavy footed, “Oh isn’t she a knockout?”, he leans forward and grabs at her as she loses her balance, “My little Bala-rhino”. He laughs and slaps her back end. If I had a riffle, I’d shoot him, stuff him and mount his head on the wall, then sell him at the craft fair.

I come home from school and John and Lucille and their daughter are gone. On my bed is a stack of dance magazines. I hide them in my closet and bring them out when nobody is home. I read about Rudolf Nureyev, Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova. Inside is a fold out illustrating the ballet positions. I practice these in the backyard. The rhythm from the windchime setting the tempo for my adagio.
Author Brandon Burke

Brandon Burke is an out of work actor and stand-up comedian. Originally from the Ozarks, he grew up in Southern California and the Tehachapi Mountains. Brandon currently lives in London with his partner where he is finishing his first book, A Jesus Loves You Neck Tattoo – Autobiographical short stories about a boy struggling to find his identity while navigating Christianity, red-necks and a growing fascination with Bo Duke.

Facebook – brandoninbritain

Inst and twitter - @mrbrandonburke


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