The puppeteer wheeled his rickety cart onto the town green.
“Come one, come all!” He yelled in a heavy Italian accent, “The Great Rigattini will tell a tale of love and courage!”
Children gathered around and sat on the grass; the grownups stood in a circle behind them.
“The Great Rigattini will present the characters!”
“Rigattini! That’s pasta!” A boy yelled, and the crowd laughed.
The puppeteer’s cold smile showed through his heavy handlebar mustache and gave his face a devilish smirk.
I didn’t laugh; I knew the heckler, and I didn’t like him. He always mocked my little brother, who was born a simpleton. Willy scooched closer to me and his plump, fluffy body, like a stuffed toy, warmed me. Willy didn’t like the heckler either. I put my arm around him and turned my attention to the puppeteer.
He opened two small doors in his cart and revealed a stage; the background painted with bright stars over a mountain landscape.
“The story takes place at night, as our hero, Marcello, traverses the mountain,” he pulled out a beautiful marionette clad in red armor with leather boots. It was a true marionette of the Old World, like the ones my grandfather once crafted. I turned to Willy and smiled.
The puppet show continued, and at every instant possible, the heckler yelled out abuse and mockery. At first, some in the crowd laughed, but soon, the jokes went too far, and the crowd murmured uncomfortable. The puppeteer persevered; he was an excellent puppet master and the marionettes, all exquisite, moved with such ease it was easy to forget they were on strings.
Willy leaned against me with his head on my shoulder. He laughed, oohed and aahed at the right moments, enjoying the show. Only the heckler seemed determined on ruining it for everyone. I glanced at him and his ridiculous smirk. He always ruined everything for everyone.
Despite the mockery, the puppeteer drew us into the story. The crowd burst into raucous applause when the show ended. People approached him and put coins into a hat by the cart. With each clink, the puppeteer smiled with a grateful crinkle in his eyes, and bowed. The crowd dispersed. Hand in hand, we sidled up to the puppeteer as he put the marionettes away.
“Grazie,” I said and dropped money into the hat, “I loved the show.”
The puppeteer beamed, and the curly ends of the mustache almost reached his eyes.
“You speak Italian?”
I shook my head, “only a little.”
“My nonno made them,” Willy spoke in his soft lisp.
“Did he?” The puppeteer’s warm gaze fixed on Willy’s dull eyes.
“He came from the Old World. He had a workshop there.” I explained.
“Ah, then perhaps I should deliver this to you,” the puppeteer said and reached into his cart. He pulled out a stunning marionette of a young prince, hand-carved and hand-painted, its clothing so intricate only the best seamstress could have stitched it. He handed it to Willy.
“Oh, Mister, we can’t…” I was mumbling an excuse when I noticed the engraving on the marionette’s foot. Nonno’s initials and insignia!
“Perhaps one day this marionette will bring you all the good luck and fortune it has brought me,” the puppeteer said, “it’s yours, take it.”
As he locked away his cart, I heard running footsteps behind me. I turned just as the heckler pushed me to the ground, kicked me, then ran away. Willy looked about to cry and clutched the marionette to his chest.
The puppeteer raised a hand, fingers in a claw, as if he’d tied the strings of a marionette to the tips, and stared at the heckler as he ran. His face drawn and gaze intent, he twirled his fingers and twitched his wrist. The heckler hovered off the ground, his feet still moving, and fell hard on his backside. He screamed and cried, but no one minded him. The puppeteer flicked his wrist and turned his gaze. His features relaxed and their warmth returned. He offered me his hand and helped me stand.
“Si,” he smiled, “this marionette brought me many good things.”
He winked and wheeled his cart away.