A dilapidated yellow ice cream truck parked outside the fenced microwave tower, about a mile outside the tiny township of Cisco, Illinois. Aside from the few silver grain silos and the blinking elevator at the Co-op in town, the buzzing tower was the only vertical sign of human progress in the expanse of corn, beans, and roads, which divided the fields into a neat crosshatch.
“This will be our Babel for the night,” Abraham Jacobsen said to himself as he pulled into the tower’s gravel driveway.
From inside the truck, an unintelligible rant roared out the open window. Abraham opened the passenger-side door, rolled up the window, and slammed the door shut. The sound persisted. “No-no!” he shouted, banging his fist on the side of the vehicle. The sound quit.
Abraham lit a cigarette and sat on the crooked back bumper and looked up. He reflected for a moment how different his life would be if he could fly, stopping only to perch briefly in the high places. But if such a fiction were truth, he almost certainly would be where he was now, stuck on top of the tower instead of at its foot. This life was his life, he thought, and even if it were different, it would still be very much the same. “Ah, vanity, vanity,” he recited.
“Vain-tee, vain-tee,” a thickly accented voice echoed from inside the ice cream truck. Abraham looked out into the darkness. The angry ranting began again. He sighed a plume of smoke and closed his eyes.
His mother showed him off to her friends at the First Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia, and, before long, at the suggestion of the pastor, she found young Abraham a tutor, Randolph Stevens, PhD. When the boy was seven, the tutor gave up. “I don’t know what else to do with him,” Dr. Stevens had said. “I suggest you find him an agent.”
Abraham could do lots of entertaining and impressive things, but the one act that stuck was as easy for Abraham to carry off as it was for him to count backwards in multiples of seven. His mother encouraged young Abraham to read the Bible as often as possible, and he took to the practice of reading to his mother, grandmother, or, if no one else was to be found, his great-grandfather. He soon discovered that he no longer needed the book in order to recite its contents. This became the root of Abraham’s act; the plays he had performed as an infant transformed into off-the-cuff recitations of Exodus, Leviticus, Chronicles, the whole Old Testament. The act only became popular when Saul Prescott, the agent, suggested a certain dramatic flair and began testing show names in each of the boy’s performances. As The Young Rabbi, Abraham dressed the part and took requests for entire chapters—sometimes entire books—of the Old Testament to recite. He once performed a stirringly naive rendition of the Book of Revelation under the name The Little Revelator. This proved to be impressive in the abstract but quite boring in the concrete; after an hour or so, people were getting up to leave.
Saul finally struck gold, after numerous other attempts, with The Dyslexic Jew act. This was a novelty act that played well in the Bible Belt, but one with a “human element,” as Saul put it: “They’ll be amazed by you, but they’ll also pity you and feel better than you—all at the same time.”
This was Saul’s armchair definition of dyslexia: whatever Abraham recited, he recited backwards. Saul had a tailor friend make a Hasidic costume, and Saul manufactured a number of tattered, hand-scrawled scrolls for Abraham to carry around in a converted golf bag, almost like a quiver of arrows. Saul became convinced that the “dyslexic aspect” required everything Abraham said, did, and wore to be backwards. So, by the time of his performance on the Steve Allen Show when Abraham was seventeen, his clothes were on backwards; he walked backwards; and he shook hands using a trick that one of Saul’s contortionist acts, Bob Bend, had taught him, wrenching his elbow in a way that looked both backwards and terribly painful.
But after the biggest moment of both of their careers, Saul found himself still waiting for his protégé in the car hours after Mr. Allen himself had hailed a cab. Saul’s stomach soured as he realized that he would have to pay the boy’s mom a visit to explain how he had lost her son.
Like so many who enter the industry early on in life, even Abraham’s attempts at rebellion seemed to reflect the overarching influence of his act, as though he had been typecast for the role he played in his own life. And like most youthful rebellions, his was over by his thirtieth birthday, when he called Saul out of the blue to ask for work.
If the rumors are true about the time he spent in the ether, then his revolt was against himself. He settled down. He married, had a kid, bought a house, and tried to live a normal life built upon the scaffolding of carefully constructed lies about his age, his past, his average childhood, and his middle-class family life. He worked as a file clerk in a nondescript, low-ceilinged ad agency under the alias Jacob Abrams.
Whatever troubles lay simmering under the surface came to a boil when his boy was eight or nine. One afternoon his son found a little manila envelope with a number of photographs inside. Struck by that impulse in young boys that thirsts for fire, the boy, after carefully looking through the contents, took them to the bathtub and carefully set them on fire as his mother hung laundry on the line in the backyard. He crouched next to the tub, watching the images, one by one, shrink, crinkle, and curl. He gazed dumbly at the smooth cursive words, “Loved your bit. Steve Allen,” on a picture of a man with glasses standing on a stage, next to a thin man with a beard and a black hat and his clothes on backwards, and the boy’s eyes fluttered when those words ignited and burned more quickly than the rest of the photo, as though the note had been written in gasoline.
The boy stood mute as Abraham lectured him on right and wrong, on justice and mercy and vengeance, and, though the mother protested and threatened, the boy stood silently crying as Abraham took up his son’s treasured possession, a hamster, explained his purpose, and wrung the furry little thing like a dirty rag. As he dropped it on the floor between the mother and child, he muttered, “This is what you’ve done to me.” And he went off to pack a bag and catch a bus.
What happened in the two or three years between the hamster incident and his phone call to Saul is a mystery. When he limped into Saul’s office two weeks after the phone call, he looked like a disheveled, graying original of the parody he had once played as a child performer: dusty black clothes, crumpled black fedora, a salt-and-pepper beard of eight inches or more—the hollow look of a wounded prophet. Saul saw an opportunity.
“Great Tales from the Bible!” would be the name of the new act, Saul said. “Now, let me make some phone calls, and I’ll get right back with you.”
Abraham fell asleep in the old man’s office. When he awoke, three dwarves dressed as clowns were staring at him, one of them rasping gruffly to the others in some foreign language. Saul emerged from a back room, dialed a number, and said to the party on the other end, “Three hundred is the offer. Who else are you going to sell it to?” He paused as a voice chirped from the earpiece. “I understand that, but that’s as high as I can go, and you have no use for it now.” Pause. “All right, then, it’s a deal.”
Saul hung up the phone triumphantly and asked Abraham if he wanted to go for a drive. The dwarves looked at Saul quizzically. Saul pointed to the clock on the wall, “We’ll be back when the long hand goes one time around,” he enunciated, jabbing his finger at the face of the clock.
“Go one time round,” one of the dwarves repeated matter-of-factly.
Saul took Abraham to pick up his “touring bus.” When they arrived at their destination, a filthy, paunchy man with glasses and a thin mustache pleaded with Saul in a twangy whisper, as he looked at Abraham to ensure that he couldn’t hear the details of the conversation. “A deal’s a deal,” and “That’s not my problem,” Saul kept saying. After a few minutes, the man took Saul’s three hundred dollars, signed over the title, and gave him a set of keys.
“It’s in the back,” he said disappointedly.
Saul explained that the man had been an ice-cream man for twenty years and was having a hard time letting go of that life. He was some kind of pedophile, and the law had finally caught up to him and sent him away for a while. Now the ice-cream man was out on parole, but to ply his trade in the ice-cream-man business would be a major parole violation, given that his clientele would be predominantly under the age of fifteen. “All that to say,” Saul summed up cheerfully, “I got you a touring bus for a steal!” Saul pointed here and there in the back of the truck, impressed at the “roominess” of the ice-chests: “Space for costumes. Bolt a fold-up cot to the wall over here, a hot plate over there. This is it!”
Abraham started the ice cream truck, and after the thing coughed and chugged for a few minutes, he followed his agent back to the office where the dwarves were waiting for them.
When Saul ushered Abraham through the door of the office, the dwarves stood, one of them barking complaints that Abraham could not understand, waving his hand at the clock. Another simply queried, “One time round?” Saul issued apologies.
“Abraham, these fellows will be your acting troupe,” he explained. Abraham studied the dwarves. He had worked with dwarves some in the past and appreciated their versatility as actors and their history in the business, which reached back to the carnivals of the middle ages, through the golden age of the circus in America, and to the sideshow attractions at fairs and community festivals. Saul had taken on these particular dwarves as clients when recent shifts in middle-class consciousness had turned to pitying their “handicap,” which effectively robbed from them their livelihood and the opportunity to practice the art form to which they had dedicated their lives.
The dwarves could sense that Saul was going to make the necessary introductions, and, accordingly, they began to remove their clown wigs and false noses and ears, leaving their make-up without the other accoutrements of their characters. The one with the sad-clown getup smiled within a painted frown, whereas another stood deadpan, though his makeup smiled against his will. The third, with somewhat maniacal painted-on features—a mouth smeared on like an open wound and thick, angry black checkmarks for eyebrows—shrugged at Saul and said again, “One time round?”
Saul introduced them. Since the trio was Italian, Saul had given them names that seemed to him Italian-sounding names, but that also seemed to capture their essences so he wouldn’t mix them up. Eco, with the maniacal face paint, was an even-tempered man of an indeterminate age. He had attempted to learn English, though his method of scholarship had simply been to repeat the words he heard people say. He looked about like anyone else, just smaller, as if he had stopped growing at the age of four or five but continued aging. Grotto’s appearance bore some of the classic signs of dwarfism, and he seemed altogether twisted up. He seemed older than the other two, and he often seemed to be in pain, but he complained little and was of an affable disposition. Saul had named him according to his tendency to let his mouth gape when he wasn’t speaking, and even as Saul introduced him, Grotto’s painted mouth hung open, a slack cave. The most irritable and vociferous of the three men was No-no. He spoke in a grating, rumble most of the time, which would prove useful for scenes in which emotion figured heavily. No-no seemed to be the spokesperson of the group, which was unfortunate, because he only spoke Italian. Saul remarked to Abraham that he was almost certain the man was capable of speaking and understanding English perfectly well but refused to because he enjoyed the idiotic ways in which people attempted to communicate with him. No-no was known for drinking, causing trouble, and picking fights. Abraham gazed at his new troupe of bonsai pretenders, fingered his coat pocket for a cigarette, lit it as he glanced at the wall, and told them with a vacant ceremoniousness that he would be honored to work with them. Each reciprocated with a nod or grunt.
Over the next couple of days, Saul helped his “prodigal son,” as he called Abraham, and the troupe of dwarves gather the necessary accommodations for their travels, trim out the ice cream truck to make it suitable to its new purpose, and work through the generalities of what the productions would entail. Then, while Abraham worked prodigiously on scripts in the back room, Saul spent a whole day making calls to churches, camps, private schools, Bible colleges, and church-affiliated universities, and by the end of the day, he had gigs for “Great Tales from the Bible” for the next six months.
“I can make one more call if you like,” Saul said to Abraham as they prepared the bus for embarking on an all-night drive south. “Your mom still lives around here. I’m sure by this time she thinks you’re dead.”
“We’re both better off,” Abraham remarked, “A prophet and his home, and all that.” He turned to load a garbage bag stuffed with wigs. “Distance is a cure for time,” he said, but Saul had gone back to the office and had not heard.
“Great Tales from the Bible!” proved to be a success. Nothing to the degree of “The Dyslexic Jew,” but it was steady work, enough to keep fresh oil in the ice cream truck and enough that Abraham and the dwarves hadn’t needed to stop anywhere more than two weeks in the past two-and-a-half years. They had done dramatic versions of any tale from the Bible that had drama to be squeezed from it. Audiences seemed especially sucked into the stories Abraham lacked confidence about or had tried as jokes. No-no had recently played leads in “Post-Tumble Sampson” and “Lazarus Wakes,” while Abraham figured as both a guard and as Jesus himself. No-no, as Sampson, struggled, cried out, and died over a half hour narration of the Sampson story by the guard. As Lazarus, he simply lay in the grave, trying not to fall asleep as Abraham and Eco (as child) paced around the grave, weeping loudly and filling in the details. These Christians really are artless suckers, Abraham often thought, but a shepherd to his flock is as a master to his slave. Each has his role to play. Each, in a way, needs the other in order to become what he truly is.
Cisco, Illinois, would be no different. As the sun rose, Abraham drank some coffee by the fence, smoked a couple of cigarettes, and watched as the dwarves emerged from their converted freezer-box beds and stretched in the sunlight. “Good morning,” he said, and each of his brothers retorted as he expected: one with a nod, one with a grunt, and one with a kindly, “Morning.” Abraham explained the day’s play—Babel—which they would play at the Methodist Church in town. Eco sat up front as they drove into town, which Abraham preferred, since the little man had a way of repeating what he said to him back in a broken-down form that made it seem wise.
Eco pointed to his wrist. “We’ll be on time. Don’t worry,” said Abraham. He thought for a moment and continued, “You know, life is really God’s crucifixion of time and place. Perhaps that’s what Jesus is to him.” Eco silently stared out the half-opened window at the mazing rows of corn on the plain.
The little Babel-themed drama went just as planned. That is, right up until the end. After the close of the play, it was a matter of course to turn things back over to whoever was in charge—the head of the ladies group, the lead camp counselor, the alpha male at the men’s breakfast, or as in this case, the pastor. There was often a chance, particularly if pastors closed out, for an altar call, a “love offering,” or an opportunity for parishioners to share their own stories of God’s faithfulness. So, this time, as with all of the others, when the pastor took over, Abraham stood at the front of the sanctuary with his troupe, hoping for the “love offering.” He got an alter call.
As a few weary souls made their way down the worn strips of carpet that led to the altar. Abraham and the dwarves stood and tried to look pleasant, though not so pleasant that someone would try to pull them into their crisis of belief. As the recommitted faithful trickled back to their pews, Abraham noticed one young woman remaining. She mumbled in an audible baritone, her hands clasped tightly, her neck bent, her face crushed into her double-fisted hands, as she rocked her large body back and forth. Abraham looked out at the gathered townsfolk and discovered mostly patient gazes, the kinds of gazes people form when they become accustomed to something that might otherwise be out of place. Then his gaze met with a pair of cold, hard eyes. “She’s a retard,” the boy with the eyes said. Immediately, the boy was scolded and removed.
Abraham looked around nervously, and, to wrench the tension a turn more, he realized that the girl was clumsily making her way toward the alter space, behind which he and the dwarves were standing. Someone stopped her midway and recommended she go sit down, but the girl mumbled something loudly and ran toward Abraham, sliding on her knees the last couple of feet as she took her place at the altar in front of the performers. The girl removed her thick, black-rimmed glasses and gestured with her hand at Abraham. He hesitated, but bent to listen when she clutched his sleeve. Eco leaned in to hear the conversation. The girl mumbled on interminably—it must have been a matter of minutes—while Abraham nodded and said “Uh huh” and “Mm hmm.” Then she released him. The faces of all in the congregation were fixed on Abraham. He stared back. What did they want from him? He had not an inkling of what she thought she had conveyed through her grunts, mums, buhs. Then, noticing Eco, she grabbed him and mumbled into his ear, laughed, and released him. The faces turned collectively to Eco, and there was silence while the girl mumbled and giggled at the altar. Then Eco recited aloud in his pleasant, old-man-child voice, “Life is crucifixion of time and place. This Jesus is.”
Eco smiled at the girl, cleared his throat, and led the other two dwarves backstage. A woman from the congregation stood and came forward as she wept, holding a tissue over her mouth. Abraham watched a number of women gather around the altar, sniffles and sobs rising from the lot. A few glassy-eyed men kept their vigils in the pews. The pastor shook Abraham’s hand, grabbing his arm just above the elbow—then just gave him a full hug, which Abraham confusedly reciprocated with a couple of pats on the man’s back. “You just have to be one of us to understand,” the pastor whispered, as he slipped a check into the old prophet’s hand.
Abraham rallied his men, quickly packed the ice-cream truck, and departed. He parked the truck at the rest stop off of I72, a couple miles out of the limits of the township. He dialed a number at the payphone and lit a cigarette as he waited for an answer. “Saul?” he said as a swirl of smoke trailed from his lips, “Where to next?”