In walked Dave, towering and foreboding. His arms were muscular, tattooed from shoulder to wrist. Dragons and monsters adorned them, colors blazing. They dared viewers to glance at their majesty, but also intimidated them enough to look away.
As with any new customer, their story is important. I can’t pair the book with the man unless I know of what he’s made. In Dave’s case, he turned out to be composed of much more than just ink on skin and masculine presence. His story had secret chapters, with little hint of their content.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“I used to collect a long time ago,” Dave said. “Loved reading these things. Guess I got distracted somewhere down the line and stopped. What’s going on in the world of comics these days?”
I gave my standard reply. “Well, we’re in a comic-book renaissance right now. Mountains of great product in every genre.”
Dave asked, “Where should I start?”
As with all new and returning readers, some sleight of hand is necessary to glean the information I really need to help them begin. It will never be about the product, but always the human being holding it.
“Where you from?”
Dave had just moved to Los Angeles from Florida. He’d been working two jobs there and decided to make a change. He landed some freelance construction work and had been plying his trade at different sites all over the city.
This explained the calloused hands, the sun-baked skin, the tattered, paint-splashed clothes. I came to know this as Dave’s regular attire and also came to enjoy the furtive, somewhat frightened glances from other customers in his vicinity.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”
So began our relationship. No ceremony. No dating rituals. No dinner and a movie. Just our good old-fashioned love of the written word and scrawled-on page that defines us and keeps us close. Intimacy of the mind.
Once, sometimes twice a week, Dave would come in and we’d talk at length about what he’d just read. He devoured everything I threw at him and came back for more.
Urasawa? Done. TeNapel? Done. Hernandez Bros? Done. Not to mention Waid, Johns, Bendis, Brubaker and the epic majesty of his favorite Marvel Annihilation epic.
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.
It was painfully obvious that Dave was unhappy with his work. While I could tell he must have quite a bit of carpentry skills and his body was most certainly built for the task, he also had a softness about him. An intellectual flair that didn’t befit his profession.
“I was unhappy in Florida. I felt so far away from everything. I thought maybe if I moved out here, I’d get closer to the things I really want to do,” Dave confided. “I have this image of who I want to be and if I don’t do it soon, I worry I’ll get too old and miss the boat.”
“It’s fear that stops us from being who we want to be, Dave. Not time.”
“I’m working on a few things,” He replied. “We’ll see if they pan out.”
His demeanor changed as he spoke. He seemed angry with himself. The smallest thing could trigger a shift, transforming him into an insecure giant. Because of this quality, I pried less than I normally would.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!
If there’s any certainty in lessons learned during a life in retail, it’s this: never judge, never assume, never expect. You will find yourself embarrassed, you will make an ass of yourself and you will see all expectations eclipsed.
I found myself with a rare day off. I discussed it with my lovely little girl and we decided to take advantage of the clock and make it a daddy/daughter day. I went online and found a crazy kid’s show playing at a local theater. It was a strange and mysterious version of “Alice in Wonderland” that nearly defied explanation.
In this unique little production, Alice (not the one from Lewis Carroll’s novel, but the one from the Brady Bunch) wakes to find herself in a surreal world where the classic story unfolds and is frequently interrupted by the characters we know and love from the story breaking out into songs by modern rock bands that had one hit and faded into obscurity.
But there were glowing reviews and parents online raved, so the tickets were procured. We had a nice lunch and went to our matinee. The lights went down and the wackiness ensued. It started off like gangbusters. Weird pop-culture references that cracked us both up, but only I really understood. It was obviously designed to appeal to both children and their grown-up dates.
The show veered from the “modern” world of the Brady Bunch into the tilted one of Sir Caroll. Hannah was utterly confused but got a kick out of Alice being an old maid. Then, out of nowhere, the stage exploded into a Cirque du Soleil extravaganza. Lights, costumes, stilts, the whole nine yards.
The cast broke out into song, danced and cartwheeled their way through a Frankie Goes to Hollywood number and finished with a flourish. The lights came up a bit, the audience cheered wildly and the cast froze in a musical tableau.
My hands stopped mid-clap. My mouth hung open. I stared closely at the stage, my neck craning to its breaking point.
There in the middle of this loony bunch of actors, standing straight upon his head, was my very own Dave.
What? How? Why?
The show continued and I was transfixed. Here was a man who I only pictured with a saw and power drill in his hand, walking on stilts as if they were grafted onto his legs. He changed costumes and voices like some sort of savant. He took up swords and plastered on make-up and leapt through the air like a gymnast. And he sang! This quiet hulk of a man that I knew from my store might as well have been an elaborate illusion. He was brilliant and hilarious and altogether shocking.
As the show wound down, the Jabberwock entered the stage. It was an enormous and intricate piece of puppetry. All beak and claw and roaring fire. Hannah actually shrunk back into her seat. It traipsed the stage, tearing limbs and eating characters whole. There must have been three actors in there manipulating this patchwork beast.
From the wings came the savior. Bells hung from his pointy hat. His green slippers curled at the front and sent him sliding in all directions. He swung his mighty plastic sword like a baseball bat. An Arthurian jester had come to slay the savage monster.
“Get him, joker-man!” whispered Hannah.
“Get him, Dave!” I whispered beside her.
As if he’d heard our plea, Dave ran across the stage, grabbed a rope, swung around twice, flipped upside down, did a somersault, handed his sword to a fellow thespian, juggled some fruit, took back his blade, leapt over two village commoners and let fly his weapon. Red scarves shot out of the Jabberwocky’s neck, signifying blood. It reached up with its scraggly claws and grabbed for its beak, but found only air.
Off with his head, indeed.
One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
We adults roared with approval and our children screamed, frightened but loving every minute.
And Dave raised his arms in victory, elated. So much so that he broke out into a bluegrass version of a Duran Duran song. The cast joined in, the townspeople were regurgitated from the headless beast and Alice was sent on her way, back to her little room beside the kitchen at Chez Brady.
Days later, I was deep into my work at the store, head stuffed under some back-issue bins.
“Howdy, stranger!” A voice bellowed.
“Howdy yourself,” I replied, shaking Dave’s hand. “Where you been hiding?”
I decided not to say anything for awhile. If Dave didn’t want to talk about his “project,” who was I to pull the covers?
We chatted up a storm as usual, walking the shelves and speaking passionately about comedy and tragedy and romance. I was no longer surprised at how adept Dave was at discussing these themes and how they lifted themselves from the written page into our hearts and minds.
Dave looked at his watch and grumbled, “Gotta get going. The new building site is all the way across town. Hate traffic. Hate construction. Hate.”
Again, the curtain fell over Dave’s face. It was painfully clear that this dual-role life he was living was eating him up inside. But maybe it wasn’t just that. Maybe he needed to talk to someone about it. Sometimes, letting the hero know you’ve discovered his secret identity can be a relief of epic proportions.
“By the way,” I said flippantly, “you make an excellent woman.”
Dave looked perplexed. “What did you just say?”
“I’m also very impressed that you can put lipstick on with your toes while wearing a colander on your head. Not an easy feat to accomplish for any six-foot-tall man.”
“When did you see it?” He said softly.
“A few days ago,” I replied with a smile. “Went with my daughter. Almost had a heart attack when I saw you up there! Why didn’t you tell me you were an actor?”
“Because I’m not an actor,” Dave demanded. He smiled a proud smile and announced, “I’m a clown!”
We both laughed hysterically, struck by the hilarity of such an honest declaration in the heart of Los Angeles, city of stars.
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
Over then next few months, Dave spilled the beans about the true trajectory of his life. From a small town in Florida to a large city to a road trip bound for California. About his love affair with theater and the circus and commedia dell’arte.
How he’d have to time everything just right to get from construction sites to whatever theater he was secretly performing in. How he’d rehearse late into the night with paint under his nails and a rumbling in his belly. How he desperately wanted to leave behind the world of drywall and staple guns.
“Sometimes, I imagine spending every day just making people laugh. I imagine looking out and seeing happiness and wonder. I imagine it every night and then I wake up and find myself with a hammer in my hand.”
I thought carefully before responding. I take imagination seriously.
“I read somewhere that we think in pictures. That the more we think about what we love, the more likely we are to find it in front of us. Don’t hide your pictures away, Dave. You’re not just looking at them. You’re in them.”
We talked for many weeks after that. Dave finally “outing” himself and regaling me with stories of covert auditions and much heartache (which it seems is a constant in the life of a performer, clowns especially).
Then the day came when Dave’s golden ticket presented itself.
He came into the shop, wound tightly. Obviously, something was up. Something big.
“What’s going on, Dave?” I said, concerned. “You look kind of pale.”
“Disney!” he shouted, startling some of the milling customers.
He went on, out of breath. “There’s an opening at the park. I have an audition next week. There’s only one slot. They said they need someone who can walk on stilts, juggle and improvise.”
“Well, that’s got you written all over it!” I said, beaming.
Dave’s jaw tightened. “But there are going to be hundreds of people auditioning for this and they’re only picking one performer. The rooms will be packed with young kids more athletic than me. Kids whose knees don’t creak when they get up in the morning. Who don’t have scars on their hands and wrinkles around their eyes.”
I shook my head sympathetically and said, “Yeah, but none of them have slain the Jabberwock. Saw it with my own eyes. Truly an amazing sight.”
We laughed together, two friends old enough to understand what victory really is. Not a job or a paycheck or a title. It’s knowing who and what you are. Without fear of reproach. Without need to hide in the dark. It’s not the slaying of the fearful Jabberwock. It’s the courage you arm yourself with on the way that really counts.
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Soon after, my friend Dave came in and closed his subscription account. He was moving away. Too far to make any weekly visits. It was a bittersweet moment for two men who’d shared so many fine stories and spent so many hours discussing the truth of things. But that was then.
Now, my friend Dave lives even closer to his dream. Just a few blocks away, in fact. From one end of our country to the other he traveled, pursuing something he wasn’t sure he could accomplish. Now, my friend Dave walks the fabled streets of Disneyland, a knight on stilts, forever on parade, only laughter left in his wake.
He teaches the younger kids what it really means to be a clown. What it means to live your truth. What it means to slay your very own Jabberwock and live to tell the tale.