The Exquisite Corpse Adventure
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The Regional Conference
By Gregory Maguire
The woods began to thin. In a stand of birches they came upon a battered roll-top office desk with a DEWEY FOR PRESIDENT IN '48 sticker on it, a stenographer's pad, a rolodex, and an old-fashioned phone - the sort with a receiver that looks like a tortured wooden daffodil from outer space. A glass jar of disgusting brown candies stood open to the air, and unfortunate insects that had passed over the mouth of the jar and died were scattered in a nubbly way, like bits of crumpled string, all over the ink-stained green paper blotter. A wooden filing cabinet, its open drawers over-crowded with files and spilling with papers, tilted against a tree.
“They're going to blame it on the secretary, I know it,” said someone, leaning down behind her desk and rooting through a bottom drawer. She emerged with a pencil, a clipboard, and a box of push-pins, and spectacles that were no help since they didn't quite fit on her nose. Her nose was huge. She was an elephant, like Hathi. “Yes, yes, your names?”
Hathi put up her trunk and moved it vertically against Sybil Hunch's lips, the intergalactic signal for “Shhh! Don't say a word!” In a fuller, flutey, society lady's voice, she cooed, “Have I put on that much avoirdupois? Don't answer that. I'm Number 47, don't you know, darling.”
“Number 47, Number 47. . . .” The receptionist flipped pages and huffed. “Millions spent on time-and-galaxy travel and they can't upgrade the front office? It's a scandal. It's a disgrace. And they think frequent flier miles are a benefit? Think again.”
In the bottom of the howdah, Roberta remained on her back, twitching with curiosity but nervous in the presence of nastiness. Joe and Nancy peered over the edge of the conveyance. Nancy suddenly recognized the receptionist. It was Plenty Sassy, another of the elephants from the Sick and Tired Circus. Since when could she talk? For that matter, since when could Hathi talk? All these gabbling creatures in the Circus, biding their time, minding their tongues, year after year, while Joe and Nancy had felt so alone! Together, of course, but alone . . .
“I thought you already checked in, 47,” said Plenty Sassy. “Or did I make my check against 46 too large? As an elephant, my eyesight isn't all that good.”
“They should let you hang up your wrinkly elephant drag,” drawled Hathi. “I'd complain, darling. I would. It doesn't do your figure any favors, for one thing. They can't treat the staff like that.”
“Well, they like to keep up appearances at the front desk,” said Plenty Sassy. “In case we have any unwanted visitors. Listen, you know the drill. Sling your disguise on the nearest broken tree branch, and you better hurry up. They've already started.”
“I need to use the little alien's room first. It was a long trip,” said Hathi.
“Tell me about it. Off to your left somewhere. Not sure how convenient the conveniences will be, sweetheart, not when they can't even supply me with a laptop. I'll tell you, this whole operation is being handled by monkeybutts. Excuse my French.”
Hathi tiptoed into the foliage to the left, but once she'd gotten a safe distance from the front desk, she rustled some vegetation to cause some aural camouflage, and she whispered to her passengers, “Elephants are notoriously short-sighted. She never recognized me from the circus.”
“Where are we?” asked Sybil Hunch. “Someplace risky. And I had such a good feeling.”
“Even misfortune-tellers can have an off day,” hissed Hathi. “Or maybe some good will come of this, risky or not. Now listen: I do think this might be the aliens' regional conference. I've heard Plenty Sassy mumble about it in her sleep all these years. Apparently it only happens once a decade. We might learn a great deal if we listen in.”
“I'm good at watching but I'm not as practiced at listening,” said Ms. Hunch.
“Eavesdropping is sneaky and morally dubious,” said Nancy.
“We're in a forest,” her brother reminded her. “There are no eaves.”
“That's right,” said Ms. Hunch. “I think, as matters go, that eavesdropping might be questionable but leaves-dropping is quite all right. Shall we?”
Joe nodded. Hathi nodded. Nancy paused and scowled, but her curiosity got the better of her and she gave a thumbs up. “I suppose we might learn something useful,” she said, “even if only that eavesdropping isn’t morally loathsome in every instance.”
Hathi inched forward.
A convenient blind of evergreens screened them all from the light glowing in the clearing beyond. “Now, hush,” said Hathi. “Need I say it twice? Just in case: Hush hush.”
Using her supple, elegant proboscis she prodded the branches. With a twitch of her nasal digit, she lifted a branch, like lifting a slat in a Venetian blind, so they could all see.
The yolky light took some getting used to; Joe and Nancy squinted against the brilliance. Their eyes drifted to the left and right. What they saw looked like a wardrobe from a B-grade monster film. That is, after shooting has stopped. After the starlets and studlets have gone off to the canteen to get a beer, because the production values are lousy and the script is senseless and the budget has been cancelled and the whole operation has been shut down. And the cast has been let go. And they haven't taken good care of their costumes on their last day because why should they.
This is to say the trees and bushes were draped with dreadful pelts. A scattering of wolf-skins, with glassy, artificial eyes like plastic olives. A sort of squid-sheath to which a likeness of a human head had been mounted. And behold: that objectionable couture known as Leonardo Dubenski, laid crossways on a boulder because it was hard to know which end was up. To say nothing of a couple of crones, a laughable Frankenstein noggin that wouldn't scare a kindergartner, some flea-bitten vampire capes and dentures complete with overbites, a half-dozen full-body clown costumes, and the likeness of a dental technician with death in her eyes.
Little by little, Nancy and Joe felt their eyes adjust to the glare. Sybil Hunch muttered, “All those years of staring into the crystal ball . . . especially at my place, where the reception is almost nonexistent. Can you children tell me what this is?”
“It looks to me like . . . three or four dozen poached eggs?” said Nancy. “Floating in a circle in mid-air?”
“Not quite cooked yet?” said Joe.
It was true; the matter was only partly congealed, and ranged from a rubber-cement transparency to a gluey, translucent white. Edges of the Eggy-Thingys raveled, broke off and orbited nearby like bits of suds until they gravitated slowly back and reattached.
“We can't wait any longer!” said one of the Eggy-Thingys. It was a little greyer in color. Distinguished, possibly bearded, if a poached egg can ever be said to be bearded. “A few of our number have yet to arrive, but we can't postpone the proceedings for them any longer. Our Exhibit A has a limited shelf-life. Let the Regional Conference come to order!”
“Plenty Sassy didn't send out the hold-the-date notices in time,” muttered one of them.
“She's got a cushy job,” sniped another. “All the hay you can eat, and then playing cozy-cozy with that Hathi, just to keep an eye on her. Once a decade Plenty Sassy has to organize a reunion and she screws it all up? Please.”
“I heard that!” bellowed Plenty Sassy through the woods. “My eyes might not be keen, but there's nothing wrong with my hearing!”
Sybil Hunch raised her eyebrows and poked the kids in the ribs. They all must remain very quiet indeed.
“No time for personal comments,” said Eggy Senior. “We have a quorum. Not that we need a quorum, because I'm the boss and a very fine and naughty dictator, if I do say so myself. And whoever arrives late will have to stay after and clean up the refreshments. So ha ha and boo-boo on them. Now. First, I'd like a report from number 17 - the agent who goes as Boppo the Clown.” As he spoke, the yolky heart of him blurred with mouthing motions. Like a sock puppet made from a room-temperature coconut custard. On the loose and floating around, looking for trouble.
“Boppo's not here. He's asleep,” said someone. “I passed him on my way here.”
“Why didn't you wake him up?”
“My disguise is as a poison butterfly. I didn't have the influence. Anyway, it's not my fault if Boppo drifts off to sleep at the drop of a meatball.”
“Narcolepsy,” said someone else, witheringly.
“Narcolepsy, my foot,” said another. “Hey, my foot just fell asleep. Do I have walking narcolepsy?”
They all laughed bitterly, and shook when they laughed like a bowlful of - well, never mind.
“It's my belief,” said the fourth voice, “that Boppo has developed a fondness for that soporific gingerbread he makes to disarm his enemies. He tucks into it when no one is looking.”
“Sassy, make a note of that,” called Eggy Senior.
“I already did. With a pencil. Gotta love the technological revolution!” she bellowed.
“Let's hear from number 24, then. The Squid. What can you tell us?”
“If you had given us better warning about not touching the Corpse pieces when we found them, I wouldn't have a human face on the top of my cephalopod body,” said another Eggy Thingy. “I almost had Sloppy Joe in my tentacles, but he tricked me into arm-wrestling with him, and then he escaped along with Arm Number One. I think having a face like a retired civil servant didn't help my concentration.”
“Tell me about it,” said the Eggy-Thingy with the voice like Leonardo Dubenski. “I forgot the little disaster that happened to me when I touched Arm Number Two, so then when out of habit I went to brush my teeth with the electric toothbrush - well, let's just say it wasn't pretty.”
“How come Boppo could carry the robot's heart and its brain without suffering a curse of terrible ugliness?” asked someone else. “It hardly seems fair.”
“Are you kidding? We're talking Boppo. He's already disfigured enough.” They shook with laughter again, coming dangerously close to scrambling themselves. Even Joe and Nancy snickered, which was something of a relief after all this tension. It was pretty funny. Sybil Hunch pinched them both, hard, to make them stop.
“No, really,” said the Eggy-Thingy who had asked the question. “Funning aside.”
“Boppo has earned a kind of immunity,” said Eggy Beard. “He brought our prisoner into custody. Look, we can't wait for Boppo to get here. We better bring out exhibit A.”
“Bring out the prisoner!” cried the other aliens. Joe and Nancy glanced at each other. Mom? Dad? Baby Max? But they were all in another dimension, weren't they? Still, their hearts leapt up. Just in case.
“The prisoner!” chorused the Eggy-Thingys.
“Keep your pants on,” brayed Plenty Sassy. “I only got one nose.”
They heard the rustling of leaves and the snapping of twigs. The secretary elephant lumbered into the clearing carrying a kind of birdcage. Inside it, hunched and smaller than he had once been, squatted Einstein.
“I thought he was only a projection of Genius Kelly!” Joe was merely mouthing, but Nancy telepathically - and through the movement of his lips - could tell what he meant. She shrugged. Who knew? But seeing Einstein again - loopy and dear as he'd seemed - felt like meeting up with a long-lost grandfather. That is, given the scarcity of other close relatives to cherish.
With the tiniest of beeps, Roberta made a kind of mechanical purr. She must be recognizing Einstein, too! Sybil Hunch put a calming palm upon Roberta's headless shoulder.
“How wonderful of Boppo to have severed this aerial projection from our opposite number that they call Genius Kelly,” said Eggy Senior. “This quivering hologram won't last forever, of course. Attributes rarely do. But before he fades perhaps we can learn a little something useful from him.”
“Oooooooh,” said the other Eggys, nudging one another with their elbows. Sort of. If you can think of giant partly-poached eggs hovering in a forest clearing as being able to give elbow.
“Time is of the essence to a three-minute egg,” said the leader, at which they all chortled - apparently an old joke, but they seemed to react as if to say, Aren't the old jokes the best? Joe and Nancy rolled their eyes at each other. This sounded like chatter from the old-time radio era of a yolk-a-minute comedy hour.
“Einstein, or Brainstain, or Greenbean, or whatever you're called,” continued Eggy Senior. “As a flitch of Genius Kelly - a kind of tossed-up bright shadow of his own thinking, created through the Exquisite Corpse method for the purpose of foiling our plans - tell us what you know about the location of the Corpse's memory.”
The Einstein apparition spoke in a voice much more timid than when the children had first met him. Their hearts pounded to hear him so frail. “It seems that the children have found Roberta's heart and her mind,” said Einstein, and allowed himself a bitten-off smile. Roberta gave a mechanical thumbs up.
“We know that!” roared Eggy Senior, and all the other Eggy-Thingys roared too. A chorus of roaring eggs is a terrifying thing to behold. Also to hear. “But in her memory is the knowledge of where all the remaining pieces must be. If we can find her memory before those pesky brats do, we can snatch the other pieces, and keep Roberta from being fully rehabilitated.”
“But,” thought Nancy, glancing at what they had so far of Roberta, “a fully-functioning Roberta is the only ally who can help us rescue our parents!”
“I'm not going to reach for another piece of the Exquisite Corpse,” said the Eggy-Thingy with the squid voice. “What'll it be next, naked human knees right in the middle of each tentacle?”
“Tell me about it,” muttered the Leonardo Dubenski Eggy-Thingy voice. “Ain't gonna happen. Have you heard about number 16 and her millipede problem? She's got mustaches where she has no business shaving.”
“You'll do what I tell you!” bellowed Eggy Senior. “Don't forget, you'll be richly compensated for your pains once we get home and Plenty Sassy processes the forms.”
“Ha ha.” From a quarter mile away, Plenty Sassy snorted without humor. “That's my first priority. Right. Processing payments. With a chalk board and an abacus. Ha double ha.”
“It's too late,” said Einstein. “I know I am about to flicker out, remaining little more than a memory to any who might care to remember me. But I will tell you this, you monstrous aliens without the benefit of hearts, shells, or the decency to wrap yourselves in a velvety hollandaise. Roberta already has her memory. The truth is that memory isn't something extractable, like a tooth, or a spleen. Memory is the sum of what is generated between the heart and the mind. It's the Exquisite Corpse of a human life. That's it.”
“Ooo-oooh,” said the Eggy-Thingys. They had never thought of this.
“And furthermore,” said Einstein, “while I'm on the subject, E=mc2? Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared? Not! I left out the secret ingredient! All good cooks do it. Preserves the mystery, and also their reputations.” He began to shimmer in the air before them and to fade, but as he disappeared he raised his voice as if to address the planet. “I loved you, Baby Max! Thank you, dear Genius Kelly, for carrying me in your memory! Remember, if anyone useful should be listening in the ferns or in the future, that the missing ingredient is found in the joke book! Which is in the drawer with the eggbeater! My candle's snuffed at both ends; it did not last the night. But ah my foes and likewise friends, the light! The light! Goodbye!”
And out he went, like a candle. No blue radiating glow where he'd been this time. Just emptiness.
The Eggy-Thingys began to mutter amongst themselves. They looked like a giant floating Baked Alaska, except lit with the light of their inner badness. Plenty Sassy lurched forward pushing a trolley with her trunk, but Sybil Hunch guessed that the Eggy-Thingys would need to dress in their corporal disguises to be able to help themselves to tea and some vile little cookies. Sybil Hunch tickled Hathi behind her right ear and made a motion with her head, as if to say, Outa here, sister.
“While they snack,” thought Nancy, “could we steal a lead?” Although stealing is generally considered unsavory, morally speaking.
Hathi backed up delicately, stealthily. For the first time in quite a while, the Sloppy kids heard no sinister voice mocking or cursing or threatening them from the next chapter. Just the silence - it trembled strangely in the tree limbs with its own particular gravity - of the evaporation of something that had resembled a human soul. They didn't speak. Every death - the death of hope, of fondness, of an enemy or a friend, even the death of an apparition - deserves a little respectful silence.
Audio recordings provided by National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
The National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance and the Butler Center for Children's Literature at Dominican University have developed a companion educational resource center (external link) to support “The Exquisite Corpse Adventure.”