Bells on His Toes by Cleve Cartmill

Bells on His Toes by Cleve Cartmill from Vol 1, Num 1, 1949

Summary:  This story is about a cop named Hank who is in charge of investigating a “scientific cult” to find out if it’s harmful. He meets with the leader, and meditates with him, clearing his mind of everything but a singe thought: “Rings on his fingers, bells on his toes/He shall make music wherever he goes.” To his astonishment, the meditation seems to have been actual magic. Now, music from unseen orchestras plays songs that correspond to his moods, including Beethoven’s Fifth (da da da DUMMMMM) every time he walks into a room. This gets him fired from his job and kicked out of his apartment. Worse, the cult leader seems to have disappeared. After a few desperate days, the cult leader’s receptionist, Helen, helps Hank find a new job, scoring movies. All he does is read the scripts, and the perfect soundtrack pours from the air. Even better, Helen agrees to marry him! All of this happiness makes him useless at his job, though – no matter what he reads, all that plays is “Happy Days are Here Again.”

My impressions: I won’t lie to you guys, this story is funny. It made me laugh out loud at several points, particularly when Hank is talking to his boss and “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” started playing. I’m sure it’s even funnier if you know all the songs that are referenced, but it’s still effective.

Honestly, most of the story is still effective. Minus the song choices and some language we’ll get to in a moment, it reads like a contemporary story. The setup – normal guy in a normal world ends up with a magical Thing and has to deal with it – is used all the time, for comedic or dramatic or tragic effect. It’s an easy way to build tension, and it’s not hard to do well. It’s all down to getting the real world’s reaction to magic right, and Cartmill does a solid job of it, to the point that, if it were written today, I’d label this Magical Realism.

That said, he doesn’t get everything right. Unsurprisingly, it’s Helen who’s his downfall. She’s not a terribly written character – she has an actual personality, and moments of bitterness and spunkiness that add to the comedy well. Every single time she’s mentioned, though, she’s referred to as a “pretty blonde,” even after we know her name. It’s not a long story, Cartmill, we haven’t forgotten what color her hair is in a page and a half. It’s the kind of subtle sexism that probably was barely noticeable at the time, but now is just grating.

And then this happens. Keep in mind that the story spans less than a week, and this is at the end of the first non-work-related conversation that Hank and Helen have had:

“I can’t tell you, Helen, how honest-to-God happy I am. I’d got used to this screwy situation, and I don’t even hear the music myself, but it bid fair to wreck my chances at any job. I wish I could do something you’d like to express my appreciation.”

She didn’t speak, but her eyes had an expectant light.

Hank Smiley was not one to take the long way round. “I might as well find out,” he said. “The only way I know is to ask. Do you think you could get used to the music, too, and not hear it after a while?”

She aimed at him, but her eyes were serious. “Almost everybody is trying to hide something, Hank. You’ve turned a liability into an asset, but you’re still trying to hide it. As long as you’re conscious of it, I can’t forget it. It’ll be easy for me to forget it as soon as you do.”

“Well, I was ashamed of it for a long time,” Hank admitted. “But that seems silly. I’ll forget it, all right.”

“Then,” Helen said, “Sure I’ll marry you.”

 

What? Where the hell did that come from? I had to reread the passage a dozen times to make sure I hadn’t missed a line where he asked her to marry him. But no, I guess it’s implied that if she spends any more time with him, they’ll just have to get married. It’s baffling to me. I thought they were going to kiss, or start dating. This can’t just be a 1949 thing, can it? This is actually weird, right?

I’ll tell you what is a 1949 thing – turbans. When Helen is introduced, she’s described as wearing a turban, but she’s also described as blonde. This had me solidly stumped. Hair isn’t visible in the turbans I’ve seen.

Then, I did a little research. It turns out, in the 40s and 50s, they used “turban” to mean “wide headband”  or “wrap.” I was picturing her in like a proper Sikh turban, when they meant something like this:

Mystery solved!

Final Word: Does it hold up? Yes/No/Sorta

I enjoyed reading this story, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to reccomend it to anyone else.

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