“Just ignore my friend here, the proctologist,” said Crackers the dummy. “He’s the strong silent type. About as strong and as silent as the tree he chopped down to make me!”

The audience tittered. It was about all one could expect from a midday crowd at a regional casino.

“But seriously, folks,” the dummy went on, his leering grin waggling as he spoke. “Harold here just got into town, and let me tell you, it was quite a car ride! Of course, we weren’t riding in the car, we haven’t got the budget for that. We just ran near a slow one, and it was brutal. As they say, a man who run in front of car gets tired, and a man who runs behind a car get exhausted.”

The performance continued in that vein for some time, with people drifting in and out in clouds of smoke. The audience dwindled as the Harold and Crackers routine wound down. With the final lame wisecrack, the audience began to break up. Sam, still sitting in the back, came forward.

“Excuse me,” he said. “You don’t know me, but I think you did a show at my middle school a few years ago.”

Harold turned around and waggled his hands at Sam in an elaborate display.

“What?” said Sam.

More hand-waving, more elaborate this time.

“I don’t understand.”

“You’ll have to forgive him,” said Crackers. “Harold doesn’t talk except with his hands, and there’s only one sign everyone really understands.”

Sam jumped. The dummy was ten feet away.

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“Next in line, please,” said the DMV lady. She was the latest in a long line of formidable, disinterested ladies acting as gatekeepers for conveyances, ever since her ancestors had landed at Plymouth Rock and begun working at Ye Departmente o’ Carriages & Buggys.

“Hello, hi,” said the pretty but frazzled-looking young woman who was next in line. “My name is Owena Tuttle, and I need to apply for a special exemption.”

“What kind of special exemption, ma’am?” said DMV Lady. She mentally prepared a list of all the various forms, from 37-B to 882-Y, that might need filling out in a clear hand with blue or black ink.

“Well, you see, I’m a professional euryklide or gastromancer; I prefer the former term since people tend to think the latter means I’m a cook and I can’t make Ramen noodles,” Owena babbled.

“Ma’am?” said DMV Lady, raising a formidable eyebrow. “What does that mean, and what does it have to do with a special exemption?”

“Here, see for yourself!” Owena fished around in the oversized purse she carried and reeled in two wooden dummies, male and a female. “The special exemption is for my dear friends and business partners, Llewellyn and Gwyndolyn.”

“We keep getting pulled over because they say miss Dahlia Earnhardt here doesn’t have both hands on the wheel!” quipped Llewellyn, the male dummy.

“They say having us in the car anywhere but the inside of that stinky old bag is reckless driving!” added Gwyndolyn, the female dummy. “We need a piece of paper saying we’re okay to drive even when we’re rehearsing our act!”

DMV Lady raised her other, even more formidable, eyebrow. “You want a special exemption so you can do ventriloquism in your car while you’re driving?” she said, her voice dripping with honeyed contempt.

“Uh-oh, now you’ve done it,” said Llewellyn.

“She used the V-word!” chirped Gwyndolyn. “Shouldn’t have done that!”

“Please refrain from using that vile term,” barked Owena, “especially in front of my partners. Ventriloquism is vile, popularized vaudeville with uncouth stage tricks and falsehoods. Euryklides or gastromancers like myself tap into a much more reverent and mystical tradition of prophecy, with an authentic relationship with real and animatory spirits.”

“So don’t use the V-word!” squeaked Llewellyn.

“And don’t even think of using the D-word, you dummy, or you’ll see just how windy Ms. Hot Air Balloon here can get when she’s steamed!”

“Of course, of course,” said DMV Lady, her tone unchanged. She handed Owena a manila folder with a sheet of paper inside. “Take this copy of form 665-1 through the first door on your left up the hallway.”

“’bout time we got something done around here!” sneered Llewellyn.

“Don’t be rude,” said Owena. “Thank the nice lady.”

“Thanks for the dead trees, lady!” piped Gwyndolyn. “Since we’re made of wood, that’s basically like handing us Soylent Green!”

Her “friends” in tow, Owena followed DMV Lady’s directions and went through the specified door…and found herself in the parking lot, with a locked, handle-less door slamming behind her. The manila folder, when opened, held only a blank sheet of printer paper.

“She got you too, huh?” A guy with a hand-rod puppet stood there among a crowd of other misfits, including a clown, a mime, a juggler, and a unicyclist. The puppet guy moved the rod to place a reassuring felt hand on Owena’s sagging shoulder. “There, there.”

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“I’m Owena,” said the lady, stepping into the car carrying a rather large and lumpy paper bag. If taking her groceries with her was the “weirdness” Tim had mentioned when he set up the blind date, Cameron thought things might turn out all right.

“Owena? That’s a pretty name.” Cameron actually thought it sounded like something fit for a frumpy great-aunt, but his date was clear-eyed and cute, so she was going to get a lot of latitude. “What do you do for a living?” he continued, hoping to break the ice.

“I’m a professional Euryklide or gastromancer; I prefer the former because people tend to think the latter means cook and I can’t even boil water without burning it,” Owena bubbled.

Cameron devoted considerable effort to not scrunching up his nose. “I’m afraid I don’t know that that means,” he said tactfully.

“I’ll show you!” Owena reached into her bag and produced two finely carved wooden dummies, a male and a female. “These are my friends and business partners, Llewellyn and Gwyndolyn. Don’t mind their silence, they’re just a little shy.”

“So…you’re a ventriloquist!” said Cameron. “That’s neat.”

“Please do not use that term, especially in front of my partners,” Owena said with a sour look. “Ventriloquism is vaudeville stagecraft, while Euryklides or gastromancers have a much more ancient and mystical tradition of prophecy, respect, and access to the animatory spirits of the cosmos.”

Cameron was quiet for a moment, unsure of how to respond without betraying how deeply weirded out he was. “Uh…Tim said you wanted to eat at The Crockery? That’s it right there.”

“Oh, yes,” Owena said, sounding bouncy again.” Cameron pulled the car in and parked it, but before he could get out, Owena placed the male dummy on Cameron’s lap. “I don’t usually get to take both of my partners out at the same time. Could you help Llewellyn inside?”

“Umm…I’m not sure…” Llewellyn’s dead eyes in Cameron’s lap were extraordinarily creepy.

“They know me here, it’s okay,” Owena said. “I take one of my partners in here all the time.”

“Because…it’s good practice?”

“Heh, I suppose it is!” Owena laughed. “We have a good rapport, the three of us, but sitting there and talking it out does take some of the edge off our occasional stage fright.” She dashed out of the car and inside before Cameron could say another word.

When they were inside and seated–with the waiter giving Cameron a weary and knowing look–Owena swiveled Gwyndolyn’s head to face her blind date. “Well hello there, handsome,” she “said” in a squeaky voice. Cameron had to admit Owena was good; her lips didn’t twitch at all.

“Hello there…ah…Gwyndolyn,” Cameron said with a forced smile.

“Well, don’t we have an inflated opinion of ourselves?” Gwyndolyn “said.” “I was talking to Llewellyn.”

“Gwyndolyn! Be polite,” Owena admonished her left hand.

Cameron sighed, and fiddled with the levers inside Llewellyn for a moment. “Hello there,” he said. Cameron did his best, but his voice was barely disguised and his lips moved visibly. “F-fancy meeting you here.”

“Sounds like you have a touch of the flu,” Owena laughed. “What are we having?”

“Veal, I think,” Cameron said. He manipulated Llewellyn to say something he hoped would be charming: “How about a plate of wood chips?”

“Oh, that’s real nice,” Gwyndolyn appeared to say. “A baby-killer and a cannibal. You two make a right nice pair, don’t you? I guess it’s what you’d expect of two sods with wooden heads.”

“Come now, Gwyndolyn,” Owena said to, well, herself. “No need to be rude.”

“I’m just telling it like it is,” was the lady-dummy’s “response.” “Lllewellyn’s always a blockhead, but this sod has got a lot of impressing to do if he hopes to make it to date number two.”

Oh, that was it. That was the end. Cute or not, Cameron was just about finished with this date. “Look, toots, it’s not his fault that you’re nuttier that a sack of squirrels,” he responded using Llewellyn. “I mean, taking your dummies on a first date? Insisting on a weird name for what you do? Treating us like we’re not just fancy scrimshaw? Way to get off on the right foot!”

“Llewellyn, what’s gotten into you?” Owena cried, looking genuinely shocked.

“It’s not like we don’t get it,” Cameron continued with his bad squeaky voice and worse ventriloquism. “You set a high bar, bring out all the strange on date one to scare off anyone who isn’t serious. But you know what? I think you’re convinced that no one is a better match for you than your little toothpick friends, me and Gwyndolyn. And you know, you’re right.”

Cameron stood up, set Llewellyn in his place, and left.

“I’ve never heard you lose your temper like that before,” he heard Owena say to the dummy behind his back.

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