The Emperor’s New Head
Published in Timber Creek Review, January 2003. © 2003 amy purcell
I could tell you it was The Head that did it.
The way it itched and suffocated, the way the crowd’s cheering merged into a droning undercurrent that would provoke incidents of workplace violence in a lesser mascot. The way your El Gigante Bean Burrito from Taco Casa lingered in the burlap. The way the eyeholes created two mesh prisons, your true greatness hidden behind them. Or the way the fans threw things at The Head — in particular, The Beak.
I could tell you it came from enduring the constant ridicule about not being able to fly, evolution’s cruel joke on The Emperor Penguin, Mascot of the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre Penguins.
Those facts, while true, are mere excuses. It was an isolated incident, really. A situation, an unfortunate episode, a blip on fate’s devious screen. And it all began with Rhonda Sullivan, Wilkes-Barre native, Mother of Mercy High School, Class of 1985, most likely to accost any woman wearing the opposing team’s colors when the Pens go down.
I first espied her at a pre-season match against the Hershey Bears, a time when the Pens were in need of positive public relations. Prior to my arrival, the former mascot, known as Tux, had been charged with fondling some of the younger brood. His tragic downfall was my chance to rise above, become more than the average fan who knew how to call plays better than the current coach. I prepared a spectacular routine for Coach, a Yul Brenner-Charlton Heston combo peppered with Shakespearean asides.
Off the ice, Coach was a man who didn’t care for human interaction or any of the pleasantries associated with being socially well-adjusted. My interview consisted of one question: “Are you a weirdo who likes to touch kids?” And one statement: “Damned if I know why anyone would want to wear that monkey suit.”
I corrected him immediately, noting that monkeys were of the Primate order while penguins were of the Sphenisciformes order, though both species exhibit human-like qualities. The way Coach pounded his head on the desk indicated he was overwhelmed by my knowledge and eliminated any notion that I would be anything like his former employee. This was to be a top-notch, respectable organization with a dignified mascot. The Emperor was born.
I was involved, at that time, with Phyllis A. Berryhill, who boycotted all sporting events in favor of listening to Van Morrison and other depressives from the Sixties. She wore turquoise rings and spoke of the therapeutic benefits of rolfing and eating our weedy friend, the dandelion. When she forgot to bathe, she left a spicy mixture of basil and cumin in her wake. It was enough to stop onlookers. That and the fact that Phyllis was big-boned, voluptuous, a woman whose size was noted long before you reached her dull, forgettable face – a face that suited nuns and librarians though Phyllis had never felt the calling for either; instead, she wanted to save the world from plastics and pesticides.
Phyllis enjoyed The Head at first. She liked when I wore The Head and nothing else. We proceeded according to National Geographic after Phyllis dutifully researched penguin copulation. Our Love Penguin-style brought her closer to nature, she said, adding that The Head transformed my spare frame into a pillar of strength and dominance.
Her downfall was her distaste for the game, the inability to feel the call of the Pens even now that they were under my guard. Phyllis and her scant crew of organically-loaded followers congregated at an anti-sports friendly coffee shop on game nights to deconstruct the barbaric rituals of the game.
So you can see how Rhonda Sullivan, that wild blossom of pep rally spirit, drunk on 24-ounce drafts and the dream that Wilkes-Barre could one day be more than a forgotten coal town, ugly stepsister of Scranton, P-A, caught my attention. How the lead manicurist at Creative Cuticles and Tanning, was a breath of fresh, un-organic, evenly-tanned air. There would be no more talk of the evil chemical agents in deodorant, soap, and potato chips. Rhonda lived on and in a haze of chemicals, her hair a factory of golden highlights, three types of styling gels and maximum-hold hairspray. Her sculptured bangs rivaled Jacques Lipchitz’s Cubism era for sheer artistic risk. She believed in covering up imperfections, changing what Nature gave you. In this, I found my soulmate, someone who understood that the Self was an imperfect evolutionary process which needed artificial assistance like costumes, alter egos, and The Head.
When I spotted her again, I was flying solo. She was in the upper deck cheering the Pens to victory. I detected a crossroad of loneliness and desire in her vigorous wave. Next to her, eating a chili dog, wearing a sweatshirt featuring a severely faded wolf howling at a full moon, was her confederate of the moment.
The obligation to save her from this bore in cliched clothing required the T-shirt gun, a crowd-pleasing contraption that allowed me to snare my mate of choice at every game. Rhonda stood on her seat and waved her arms. There was a nice, welcoming body under that oversized jersey. I shot the T-shirt, cupid’s arrow, a 100% cotton flirtation into Rhonda’s outstretched arms.
Before I began my mating ritual, I tossed the kid next to her a consolation magnet and then presented — on bended knee, wings outstretched, beak tucked to my chest in reverence of her divine beauty -B Rhonda with a puck, signed by none other than the team’s center, Bobby Zukowski. I leaned toward Wolf Boy who belched into my eyehole, providing me with my cue to proceed to the piece de resistance.
We appeared on the big screen. That gets a woman every time, feeling part of the bigger picture, the part that’s about more than the game. I seized Rhonda’s hand and delicately pecked it with my beak. Our courting was captured by reporters and later replayed on Channel 9’s eleven-o-clock “Sports Shotzz” segment.
“Can I have your autograph?” she asked, standing on tiptoes, trying to peek into the eyeholes to see if she knew me. If I haven’t mentioned already, this was a common phenomenon among Wilkes-Barre women. Since my arrival, the mystery surrounding who I was had grown in proportion to the team’s winning streak. During the pre-season, the “Wilkes-Barre Recorder” named The Emperor one of the city’s Ten Most Eligible Bachelors, mortifying Phyllis Berryhill into a two-week sit-in at the coffee shop.
According to Mascot Code, “thou shalt not respond verbally to homo sapiens” so I scribbled the address of a nearby sports bar on the edge of Rhonda’s jersey. She cooed a sing-song “hee-haw” that frightened and aroused me so much that I had to decline any other autograph requests for fear I would find myself in the same predicament as the lecherous Tux who preceded me.
When we began our monogamous life together, the secrecy surrounding The Emperor boiled into a sexual frenzy that barely left me with enough energy for the game. Rhonda reveled in the idea that she was one among a handful who knew the person inside The Head. So I began wearing it off the ice. I ate breakfast in The Head (no small feat, mind you), watched television in The Head, took walks around the park, made love to Rhonda with The Head. She kept her eyes open and called me The King. She said it was different with The King, I was different. So you can see how these declarations began to make sense, began to show me who I really was.
I have a theory: your lover knows you better than you ever will.
And Rhonda knew me, she knew The Emperor. It was the mystery, the anonymity, the way The Head had its own playful tilt.
Her coworkers at Creative Cuticles couldn’t get enough detail. Mornings after each game, they surrounded her to see if she would crack under pressure and reveal my identity. They watched every man closely, looking for a telltale waddle or expression indicative of The Emperor’s personality. The gaggle of women anxiously waiting outside the locker room expanded at every home game. Wilkes-Barre was awash in sexual frustration much to the liking of my teammates. And it wasn’t just the women. Men found The Emperor irresistible too.
I have a theory: there’s only one right person for you.
And that was Rhonda, even if she didn’t subscribe to my theories. I also have a theory that the better you treat someone, the worse they treat you. The week before the big game Rhonda found imaginative ways to support this. We went south over a bucket of buffalo wings.
I returned from the luncheon of a lifetime, elated that The Emperor had broken every attendance and autograph record for mascot functions. I was at the top of my game despite my discovery of Rhonda’s secret shoebox that morning.
My rehearsal of “Fly Like An Eagle” had not gone well. My oversized flippers tripped me up one too many times and I kicked them under the bed in a tantrum that put Robert De Niro to shame.
So it wasn’t my fault that I found the box sitting there, tempting me to explore.
I found a team photo. Rhonda (or someone else, as I was still giving her full benefit of the doubt) had drawn a red heart around Bobby Zukowski’s head.
And then there was the vibrator, The Rabbit Habit, right next to it, complete with rows of plastic pearls in the mid-section and rabbit ears that fluttered at variable speeds. Five inches long, one and a half inches in diameter. I checked the batteries for juice. Good to go. I rubbed it against my wing, my chest. Things happened. I unzipped and compared my size against this penile robot. That mine was pure flesh and blood was some consolation.
Along with the photo and vibrator, I found myself remembering how Rhonda had suddenly, without my request, been appearing in the locker room after practices and games. How I hadn’t met Rhonda’s new girlfriend, Dawn, but how Rhonda blushed any time she mentioned needing to see her. There was also the time after the Syracuse Crush game, when the Pens won a 6-5 decision, that Bobby pounded me on the shoulders repeating Athank you, thanks man.”
“For what?” I asked, assuming it was for the win.
“For being nuts. It’s been a big help,” he replied, smiling so wide that the sight of his gaping, corncob teeth sent the children around me running for the comfort of their parents’ pants legs.
I have a theory: all the evidence is there but you never pay attention to it.
I smelled the offensive fowl flesh before she reached the door. She knew I didn’t tolerate chicken or turkey in my home, let alone a bucket of buffalo wings. Why call them buffalo when they are clearly part of a bird? Why the masquerade? Why the fowl conspiracy?
“How can you?” I demanded.
“Can I what?”
“Eat THOSE!” I wasn’t even going to mention the additional pain she’d created by not asking me about the successful luncheon.
“These?” she said, smirking as she opened the lid to reveal two dozen tiny wings basted in barbecue sauce. ABetter for me than the rabbit food you eat.”
“At least my food is not mechanically enhanced?” She did not catch my vibratory reference, too enchanted by the smell of tabasco.
“But it’s the wing,” I protested, holding onto my delicate arms in case her appetite overwhelmed her common sense. “The most important part.”
“Oh yes, that’s right,” she said with mock surprise. “I’m sorry. I forgot you’ve become part penguin.”
“It’s not that,” I argued. “I am merely in touch with my inner penguin. And if you haven’t noticed, The Emperor has successfully brought the Pens to the playoffs, to the best record in the league.”
She licked the barbecue from her fingers and lips, wagging the mangled wing at me. “We need to talk,” she said swallowing a large chunk of precious flesh.
This had been her song for the past month. On other occasions, when the tension had grown into a living species worthy of its genus category, I diverted her long enough with reports from the locker room, mostly untruths about Coach’s lack of confidence in Bobby’s ability to take it strong to the net. Or the speculation that his recurring knee injury would lead to a decision to cut him.
But on this night, I felt particularly strong, macho even. My ego, along with my beak, belly and wings, had been thoroughly stroked by a throng of fourth-grade hockey players who patiently waited for my autograph and an exclusive photo opportunity. The kids, they always saw who was the real hero and who was the phony. No one tried to pull The Head off. Not one child stuck chewed gum to my back. Two of the dear, naive pups even expressed their mascot aspirations.
I pressed on. “What do we need to discuss in particular?”
“Yes, that’s always a fascinating subject. I really do think we need to spend more time…”
“I want out, Mr. Emperor. King of the Weirdos. Why can’t you just be yourself?”
To Rhonda, I should only be Farrell Randolph Wieland, class of 1984, most likely to recite lines from obscure foreign films. Just a regular guy with a nine-to-five job at the Montage Ski Resort gift shop instead of the city’s full-time favorite pet. Rhonda thought I was wasting my education in social work but I reminded her that my work with the mentally deranged hockey fanatics was never done. The gift shop had only attracted your garden variety lonely single woman in her forties, or crotchety retired couple who, after thirty-eight years of child rearing, realized they had nothing left to say.
“I’m not. I’m done. Finished. The finale. That’s all folks, I’m flying the coop.”
In a chicken-induced frenzy, she threw a wing at me, splattering the sauce on my shirt, the permanent blood of her sin. She bit into the meat with abandon. A little too dramatic as I recall.
I gently pulled the next fresh wing from her hand and put it back on her plate. She slapped my face. Clearly, we were going to have some energetic make-up sex. Maybe The Head would make an appearance. It had been weeks since we’d succumbed to pleasures of the feather.
“That’s so like you!” she screamed.
“What? I’m merely trying to get you to be rational.”
“I am rational! It’s you who’s not. Pulling my food away from me, taking control like some animal in the wild protecting his mate. And you don’t control the game … I’m not a bird … I don’t … leaving.”
She lost her ability to construct a proper sentence and I had to calm her poultry-engorged nerves. I stood up and pounded my chest, letting out the quintessential crowd silencer – The Emperor Trumpet Call. All of Wilkes-Barre heeded and revered it.
Rhonda laughed, a non-stop hee-haw. Which reminds me of my theory: the things you find most adorable in your partner when you meet — take Rhonda’s laugh, for instance, that adorable, unique, contagious hee-haw, that overly loud, manlike hee-haw that causes babies to wail, trucks to stop, the world from revolving — are the things that later become the downfall, the Achilles heel, the tragic flaw.
She laughed as she pushed her chair out, as she picked up her tray of fleshy carnage, as she walked out the door.
I put on The Head and retrieved the vibrator.
She didn’t come home the next day or the next week as the Pens entered the Calder Cup Semi-Finals. As the Pens headed to the finals, Rhonda’s lucky jersey remained on my bedroom floor waiting for her return. I picked it up, smelled the arena, the stale Miller Lite, the cheese product, damp leftovers of close games.
That’s when I started making the doll.
The night of the game of incident, before Wilkes-Barre Guingate, international situation, call Peter Jennings please, I practiced my routines in front of the mirror. I displayed anger by pounding my wings on the mattress, pretending it was a row of seats. I knocked my head against the wall, the floor, in exasperation over an opponent’s goal. I expressed joy with a trademark waddle, my wings at my side, my feet out, rocking from side to side like a teeter-totter. I trumpeted with abandon.
When I got to the arena, there was a note from Coach on my locker. Coach’s office was buried deep within First Union Arena at the end of a dim hallway, next to the storage area for the Zamboni. He had requested the location, just as he had requested that his office be windowless and contain nothing but a desk, two folding chairs, one overhead light, an ashtray, and a poster of General Patton for inspiration. It was not what you would call an inviting, cozy room, and it was never good news to be called down to the inner sanctum of interrogation. Most players came out with a new career at Taco Casa.
Coach sat behind his desk wiping a white handkerchief across his forehead. The man could sweat, every shirt in his wardrobe stained yellow under the arms. Maybe if Coach had hair it would’ve masked the perspiration but he was a pale, hairless seal, soaked in a mixture of body odor and Old Spice.
The only thing between me and Coach’s scent was that desk and the secret playbook, a blue three-ring binder covered in thick duct tape. Other mascots, The Beaver, The Flying Eagle, Fleaburn (second to The Emperor in popularity), had bribed me for the book but I chased them off. If Coach had only known.
“We gotta win this,” he mumbled repeatedly. “We gotta win this.” I sensed that losing it would cause considerable damage to his already triple-bypassed heart.
I reminded him of my steadfast commitment to the team.
He looked at the doll, a little too much leering for my taste. Then he delivered my instructions, my agenda, my mission.
“No funny business, Farrell. No interruptions. No new routines. Keep the crowd focused on the game unless we’re up by five, then you can do what you damn well please. But no funny business this game. No getting in the team’s line of vision. No sneaking up behind the player’s bench and ruining their concentration. Just the regular intermission stuff and then one show before third period, a skate around the perimeter and off you go. Flap your wings or whatever but I don’t want none of your other tricks. Understood?”
A beautiful monologue. It was so “Brian’s Song,” so “Pride of the Yankees,” so 1980 U.S. Hockey crushing Russia. The man cared. He believed in his strategy, even though it was wrong.
My mind was already rehearsing the Big Dance, how everyone would storm center ice, pile around me to lift off my Head so the fans would know once and for all. How we’d all go to the finals after, me and Rhonda following the team bus in my orange Nova. How she’d change her mind about Bobby and come back to The Emperor.
Coach handed me a folder that had been hidden on his lap.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Complaints,” he said, lighting a third cigarette with his second. I restrained myself from commenting on a possible link between smoking and sweating profusely.
He was a man of few words and none of them were details.
“An exact number, please?”
Coach slammed his fist into the desk. A fine mist of perspiration landed on my face.
“Maybe a dozen, I don’t know, and I don’t give a fuck if there’s one or a hundred. All’s I want you to do is kill the act tonight. Tone it down. Make nice with the fans but not too nice. I don’t need any more parents calling me up because you chased their kid through two sections making that squawking noise and wiggling all over like you’re doing some sicko mating dance. I don’t even know if penguins squawk, but kill it. Got that Farrell?”
I leafed through the papers in the folder. Minor infractions, all of them. Parents or men who were jealous of my courting rituals, fans who weren’t well-versed in Mascot Theater. I handed the folder back to Coach and prepared for my grand exit.
“Do we understand each other, Farrell?”
“The Emperor doesn’t squawk,” I replied cooly. “He trumpets.”
The arena filled quickly. I ran through the stands beating my chest with my wings, chasing the opposing mascot, the vaunted Fleaburn of the St. John Flames. Coach caught me and gave me a look that said “it’s up to you, Emperor. It’s all up to you.”
By the second period, Wilkes-Barre was down 2-0, a shut-out in the making. I pulled out every trick — my silly string, my fake purse snatchings, my Chinese fire drills.
In the third period, Bobby Zukowski caught fire. That thug scored one goal, then another. The arena erupted. All eyes were on Bobby Z., including Rhonda’s, whose eyes and personage had somehow garnered a seat right behind the Pens’ bench. I found it odd but blamed it on her inconsistent and inexplicable behavior of the past week. The whole town had gone mad with hockey. Rhonda had caught the pandemic fever, forgetting who helped put the team in the finals and who was now leading the team back to victory. Had they been stuck with that Portland has-been, also-ran …but there was no time for sour grapes, as my presence had noticeably raised the team’s energy level.
Bobby dug the puck from the Flames’ corner and set off for the goal. All of Wilkes-Barre skated on Bobby’s shoulders. He lifted his stick and shot the puck low to the goalie’s short side for the eventual game winner. Bobby’s teammates pounded their chests against his as the announcer cried out “a natural hat trick for Bobby Z!!! A miracle in Wilkes-Barre, folks! Three minutes of play left! A hat trick miracle.”
The crowd went manic, jerseys were torn off, fans hugged the strangers next to them, some of the beer vendors distributed a free round.
I had never liked the announcer’s flair for exaggeration. Miracles. Please. It was my turn.
I moved to center ice, focusing my gaze on Rhonda who was leaning over her seat, pounding her fists on the team box. Later, I found her desperate display for attention sad but, at what was to be my shining moment, my finest hour, my magnum opus, I couldn’t see it as anything but what it was: a declaration of war, casus belli, a battle royale.
The tape played “We Will Rock You.” I had requested “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston but the atrocious, pock-skinned, overgrown adolescent audio-visual flunky wasn’t paying attention. The fans chanted for Bobby, looking for my support for that thug, that grinder whom Fate had blessed. My nerves could barely stand the ignorance of Wilkes-Barre. It’s another one of my theories: one percent of the world holds all the intelligence. The other ninety-nine percent are dodos.
I revealed the doll. Rhonda in all her glory. The jersey added a cup to her true bust size while the jeans took ten pounds off her frame so as not to share with the general public that Rhonda’s problem area was below the belt. I’d shaped the red wig into a ponytail with the requisite fin of bangs.
I placed her arms around my neck and velcroed the hands together. The crowd went still while I twirled, ballroom style. I skated toward Rhonda, the real Rhonda, love of my life, my one and only, cream of the flock.
Her beautiful mouth was agape, her eyes wide with anticipation as they were that first day we met. Her mouth stretched open wider, into a large “o” and that’s when I heard it.
The telltale hee-haw.
A slovenly chap, balancing a tray of nachos on his belly, pointed at her, then at her likeness around my neck. First Union Arena fell silent, all 8,783 fans. It was Borg versus McEnroe at Wimbledon with the crowd looking at the big screen, then to Rhonda, back and forth, back and forth. We were once again immortalized in technicolor, a public declaration of my love sure to be picked up by every news channel within 300 miles.
From behind the Plexiglas, Coach waved to me. He yelled something. A word of support, I guessed. But my common sense and morals were under the siege of the Hee-Haw. How she laughed and pointed. And then, there was the cup of beer, thrown over the Plexiglas barrier by Rhonda, landing ever so accurately on my Head. The music stopped.
And then, Rhonda booed. She booed loudly.
The first boo in a barrage of boos, spiked with contempt for the one key figure who brought the team to this moment.
I staggered to center ice, deflecting cups and popcorn and hot dogs with my free wing. I threw Rhonda to the ground. Her head hitting the ice without the crack and crunch I yearned to hear. I lifted her up and threw her down again.
Maybe if I had taken you to the Montage Ski Resort in Scranton, Rhonda. Would you have stayed if I had more meat on my bones? Wore more cologne or carried the smell of the locker room in my hair? Were my theories too much for you or was it my power over the game? Over the people of Wilkes-Barre? Was it too difficult to admit that Bobby Zukowski would have been recalled to Dayton if I hadn’t created stunning imitations of him that made him a fan favorite?
I was on top of her, tearing at her jersey, her jeans. A fragile wing came undone, spinning across the ice, leaving a trail of stuffing.
I heard the screams and felt the hands trying to lift off my Head. Who were these beasts? I could not fly. I could only flap helplessly as predators dragged me across the ice.
“I am the Emperor Penguin,” I cried out. “Aptenodytes Forsteri. Rara avis. Rara avis.”
I have a theory: we are the creators of active myths. We do not “know thyself” for we can’t. There is no such thing as Self. It is illusive, an illusion. You try to say the right thing, do the right thing. Be respectable. Accepted. But you choose a Self off the rack, and when it’s too tight or too loose, you adjust. You alter. You make do. What a man can be, he must be.
I put on My Head. It is the final game of the Calder Cup. Guinny (pronounced Gwinny), a female, weaker cartoon version if you ask The Emperor, will take to the ice. She breaks every rule in the Mascot Code, letting children climb on her, allowing players to stroke her wings, making suggestive movements with her hips. She makes peace with Coach. She does not transcend the team.
A woman with a quiet, reassuring voice leads me to the Recreation Room. She lets me stay in My Head. It is Chicken Tetrazini day and she knows.