It’s easy to blame the songbook. The songbook was my dad’s way of expanding his repertoire into something more kid friendly. He would sit in my room and sing me to sleep. The songs themselves weren’t so bad. Nothing too musically complex – three chord ditties with didactic lyrics – but I was a child, and my chops weren’t nearly as developed as they are now. It doesn’t matter. The music was only part of the mess.
Charlie’s Playhouse. It was a TV show, big in the eighties. Picture a Victorian mansion with vines on the walls. You might think this mansion would be occupied by some wealthy barons, with butlers and British accents and vintage cars, but you’d be wrong. This mansion was home to three puppets. They would walk around the house, limbs flopping, talking with jerking heads and motor mouths. Kids would laugh and smile and dream of playing with Charlie and the gang. Those kids were deluded little shits.
Charlie was the leader. He had blue skin and a fisherman’s hat. His dope-fiend eyes remained perpetually half open. Levy was the only female. She was some kind of rat-squirrel hybrid, with straw coloured hair and an unnaturally long snout. She wore a faded pink dress and asked if she was pretty. The Monster was a towering abomination with gargantuan buck teeth, draping fur and beady eyes. This was a show for children.
As luck would have it my dad loved the series. He was big into puppets for some inexplicable reason. Every weekend he would fire up a joint and watch VHS tapes of Charlie’s Playhouse. He maintained that there was a level of sophistication in the humor which catered to the older crowd. My mother would roll her eyes. I would stay the hell away.
I was ten years old when things got weird. It was just another Saturday. Dad spent the morning strumming his guitar, smoking copious amounts of dope. The theme song of Charlie’s Playhouse filled the air. That was my cue to get downstairs and keep myself busy until Dad got bored.
I went to the basement and began playing with my toy sword. As riveting as that sounds the fun in stabbing air lacks longevity. I decided to rummage through the closet, which, as a general rule, I tended to avoid. It’s where fun things went to die. There were old costumes and shitty board games nobody remembers like Kerplunk and Don’t Wake Daddy. What really caught my eye was the songbook. It was sitting on the shelf, a massive yellow hardcover with balloon letters and a red spiral binder.
I was just starting guitar at the time. Wanted to be just like Dad, minus the puppet fetish. I figured he’d be impressed if I could play a few tunes at our next jam session, so I grabbed the songbook and flipped open to the first page.
The song was called Wood, in the key of G Major. Beneath the title was a full colour illustration of the puppets from Charlie’s Playhouse. Charlie was holding a beat up guitar, flashing his trademark grin. He sat with his head tilted and arched his massive fingers. There was something malicious in the eyes tucked beneath his inviting veneer.
Levy’s snout was curled into a sneer as she lifted her dress in a curtsy. The Monster towered over them, baring rows of square teeth, perfect for chomping off arms and legs. I found myself transfixed by the picture. I was terrified yet enthralled in every detail. It took all my will power to close the book and put it back on the shelf. I shut the closet door, sat on the couch, and closed my eyes. I felt deeply haunted. The puppets were not right. They taunted me. Hated me, even. I could see it in their stupid eyes and that night I cried myself to sleep because they simply refused to leave.
I saw them over and over no matter what I did. Not only that. I had begun repeating their names in my head or just under my breath. Charlie, Levy, the Monster, repeat. After a while I would switch up the pattern. Charlie, Levy, the Monster, Charlie, the Monster, Levy, Levy, the Monster, fucking Charlie, Monster, Monster, Levy. It was incessant. I would count the syllables of each word on my fingers. If I fucked up, I would start over while the picture remained burned into my consciousness.
I kept my obsession hidden. Mainly because I thought I was going insane, but also because of the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing. Tell me, how does one reveal to their parents that they’re terrified by a trio of innocuous puppets? I kept my secret for four long months. One night, my mom took me to a late night movie as a special treat. I don’t think I paid a single second of attention. I was too busy repeating their names like a Pagan chant. My own personal mantra.
Mom must have known something was up. On the drive home, she pulled over and told me I was white as a sheet. She asked if everything was okay and I couldn’t hold back any longer. I burst into tears and confessed everything. She must have thought her little boy was bat-shit crazy but she hugged me anyway and told me everything would be okay. I’ll always love her for that. The next morning, the songbook was in the trash along with my dad’s bootlegged collection of Charlie’s Playhouse tapes.
I spent the majority of that summer frequenting the offices of various social workers, child psychologists, and so-called specialists. At first they tried to give me pills, but my parents had none of that. In the end they diagnosed me with an anxiety disorder. They said it must have manifested itself through the puppets. I won’t bore you with the details but there was a whole healing process and it was good for me. By the end of the year the picture was a distant memory and I stopped repeating the names altogether. In short, I was free.
So. Yesterday was my twenty-ninth birthday and I have to say, expectations were high. I had an afternoon lesson with Vania. She’s one of my guitar students. Vania’s a young woman of twenty four who studies psychology and keeps her bangs straight. I always had a soft spot for the psychologically inclined. Figured I owed them one.
She would talk to me about books she was reading, homework assignments, bands she listened to. She also happened to be a natural guitarist with a lovely voice. I enjoyed watching her perform. She was genuinely amazing in every way. She knew it, and she knew that I knew it. I liked that we both knew it.
When our lesson finished she hugged me and gathered her belongings. I wanted to say something, I really did, but you know how it is. When she reached the door, she turned. Her coconut scent lingered in the air.
“Hey,” she said. “I just wanted to say, if you aren’t doing anything later, I’m going to Sixth Sense tonight. The club, not the movie.”
I was stunned by the invite but uttered the best response I could think of. “Either way, you’ll probably see plenty of dead people.”
“As long as you’re one of them. You have my number. Text me tonight, okay?” She blushed and opened the door. “Happy birthday, by the way.”
I watched her leave and immediately ran to my closet. I would need my finest attire. Dress shirt. Vest. Slacks. I even brushed a thin layer of dust from my cologne. She liked me. She must like me to have invited me to a nightclub. I haven’t been to a club in years but I remember the drinking and dancing well enough. I pictured Vania, dress and heels, taking me by the hand and pressing her lips against mine. Time seemed to crawl. I debated the benefits of showing up casually late. I’m ashamed to say this but I changed outfits three times. Still, it was worth it for beautiful Vania.
She texted me right as I was stepping through the club’s doors and into a world of thunderous house music. Sixth Sense was filled with the usual array of clubbers. It wasn’t long before I spied a man dancing alone in a state of perpetual tripping, completely oblivious of his surroundings. I was watching him with what can only be described as cynical enjoyment when I felt her hand on my arm.
“You made it.” She was holding a mason jar filled with something blue. I couldn’t help but notice her tongue was the same colour. “Can I buy you a birthday drink?”
“I’d be a fool to refuse,” I said. She took a sip and led me to the bar. We didn’t say much but the silence was far from awkward. If anything, it would have been far more awkward to scream incomprehensibly into each other’s ears. She bought me a rum and coke, and then another. Soon we were dancing to something undoubtedly European. I could feel her pressed against me, swaying to the beat. I touched her cheek and she looked up, bit her lip, leaned forward. I met her halfway and tasted something blue. Have you ever noticed that house music is an aphrodisiac? We kissed as one song became another.
After what must have been an hour Vania pulled away and led me through the exit doors. “I need some fresh air.” She straightened her hair while adjusting her dress. “It’s really loud in there.”
“What?” I said, with an exaggerated yell.
“You know, sometimes your jokes are pretty lame.”
“You’re probably right. Sorry about that.”
“It’s fine. I guess the secret’s out.”
“I’ve had a crush on you for months. It seems kind of obvious now, doesn’t it?”
I took her hand. “The feeling’s mutual.” It sounded suave in my head.
She switched into an uncanny and strangely attractive Freud impression. “I believe we call that a breakthrough.” She kissed me again, this time on the neck. With her heels, she had no trouble reaching. “Why don’t we go back to my place?”
“I’ll get a cab.”
We were making out in the backseat like a couple of horny teenagers when the taxi reached her apartment. I barely remember going up the stairs but we definitely knocked down at least two of her paintings. Maybe a vase. She said her roommate was out of town. She had the place to herself. She told me this between kisses. We tore at each other’s clothes as she reached for the doorknob to her room.
Vania threw herself backward onto the bed, laughing in the darkness as she tugged at my belt. I had been dreaming about this moment. I needed to cherish it. I needed the full picture. I reached for the light so I could see her, all of her, and flipped the switch.
I saw the poster and my heart stopped.
Charlie was sitting on a park bench, holding that same fucking guitar, that same malicious twinkle in his half lidded eyes. Levy was beside him. Her snout was curled back in a gleeful gale of laughter. The Monster dwarfed them both. Tufts of fur hung from his body. Charlie’s mouth was twisted in a terrible grin. The poster read: “Charlie’s Playhouse: Jamboree Tour 1985.”
Vania’s lips were forgotten. She was lying naked on the bed, yet I could not see her. Fear washed over me like rusty water. Suddenly I was a child again, opening the closet door, reaching for the songbook. What was the song name again? Wood, but in what key?
“Do you have protection?” Her voice could have come from the bottom of a well. She must have managed to remove my belt because I was naked from the waist down.
“A condom,” she said. “But if not, I’m on the pill-”
I tried to snap out of it, to reach out and touch her perfect body, to close my eyes and forget about that motherfucking poster. I couldn’t. Their eyes were crawling all over me. I fought the urge to hyperventilate. My throat cried out for water.
“Are you okay?” Vania was sitting up now. “You’ve gone soft.”
I looked down and saw that she was indeed correct. I might have blushed if any colour remained in my face.
“Sorry.” It was all I could think of saying. “It must be the booze.”
“Are you sure? You’re as white as a sheet.”
I reached for my clothes. She touched my arm. Her hands were warm.
“I won’t judge,” she said. “There’s always next time.”
We got changed. Vania led me to the kitchen as I gave the poster a final look. My old friends watched me leave with smug pleasure.
“I know the poster’s weird, but it’s kind of a nostalgia thing.” She stood in the door frame with her arms crossed, watching me with faint amusement. “But that show, Charlie’s Playhouse, is a classic. You’ve got to check it out sometime, seriously. There are clips on Youtube. Believe it or not, it’s actually kind of sophisticated.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I don’t have the heart to take it down. I’ve had it for as long as I can remember.” She shrugged. “I’m sure you’d rather not spend your Friday night talking about puppets.”
I didn’t argue. We drank tea in her kitchen. Vania sat in her bathrobe, and I kept as far from her room as possible. There were bad things in there. If she caught me sending nervous glances toward her door, she didn’t address it. I left an hour later. She kissed me goodnight on the corner of my mouth. She told me to text her. I told her I was sorry. She said these things happen, from time to time.