I’ll tell you what happens to those logo mascot characters after their businesses go kaput: They lurk. Haven’t you ever wondered where they go? For years a blue rabbit represents life insurance or a can of beans the canning factory and then the companies fail and those characters seem to vanish. But see they don’t. They just go somewhere out of sight for a while, only to turn up later on some unforeseen day when we suddenly remember them. Something to do with collective memory or something. I’ve experienced it myself. Was sitting right there, right at the end of the counter at the Curry King, eating my samosas and checking the shop’s August report, when in doddered Phil’s long gone cartoon mascot. He sat two stools down and I thought to myself, “Now this is something.”
Recognized him straight away. The goldenrod body with each kernel’s undercurve tinted by an orange stroke. The drooping cornsilk topknot. The black arms and legs no thicker’n broomsticks and the shucked green shorts. Animated. I mean flat to the eye. This was no whelp in a costume like you’ll see winding up the crowd down at the ballpark. No, he was solid colors in a black outline, moving with slapstick, Vaudeville grace. And he’d seen better days. Round his frown was a stipple-stubble five-o’clock shadow and under his black oval eyes, sinking under the frames of his glasses, were crescents the color of bachelor’s buttons. As if that didn’t illustrate his condition enough, his posture was all wrong for sweetcorn. He curved like a gherkin and had the smell of corn whisky on him. This toon was pickled.
Looking to the door I expected to see Rod Serling standing there, ready to introduce the episode, but nope. We were still in Des Moines.
Cyril, he came out of the kitchen with a plate of something spicy, took one look at the six foot corncob sitting at the counter, and stopped midstride. “I say, I say, I say,” he said, because he’s of English extraction. He grew up in Fordhamshire but wishes he was Indian so he’s got a ponytail like a grey foxtail and wears saffron shirts that go on down past his knee sockets. The only other patrons, other than me, were a couple of kids — kids, they were probably forty — they sat there in the corner booth, forks and knifes stood straight up like they were birds in the wilderness waiting for something to eat.
Cornelius set his hands on the counter. His fingers, he wove them together, could’ve been sticks of black licorice. “Cup of coffee?” he asked meekly. “When you get the chance.”
“No coffee here, friend,” Cyril said and, ever the Brit, offered what they do have. “Tea?” He rattled off varieties.
“Whichever’s closest to coffee.”
“One Earl Grey brewed black coming right up.”
“Make that two, Cyril,” I chimed.
He twittered his lips, flipped on the kettle, and waltzed beyond the counter to serve the couple’s dinner. Not once did he turn his face away from the yellow fellow, who removed his oversized spectacles and rubbed his eyes, squinted to brackets.
I could see nobody else was going to do it so I voted myself head of the welcoming committee. “You’re not Cornelius C. Cob, are you?”
“Why yes,” he startled, his eyes going back to divotted ovals.
“Nub Franklin,” I introduced and extended my hand. He took it. Was just like gripping a balloon minus the squeak.
“Nub? That’s an interesting name.”
“Short for Norbert,” I said, used to the inquiry. “They nicknamed me the first time they diapered me.” I was laughing before the ear had a chance to react.
“Gosh,” he wondered, his voice a Don Knotts warble, “and here I thought nobody remembered me.”
“Can I ask you something?” I asked, peering into the pupils of the Ghost of Advertising’s Past. “How in Sam Hill are you even here?”
“That’s a funny thing.” He put a hand to his kerneled forehead as if checking for fever. “I’ve been wonderin’ the same myself. Wish I had an answer for ya.”
“And how,” Cyril noted. “Mum already thinks me stories of America are completely mental. She’s never gonna believe this one.”
They say seeing is believing, but really seeing just fosters it. The toon reached beyond light projector tricks and Hollywood special effects — and forget about computers and whatever crap they say they can do. After living a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed eighty-five years and seeing some of this and some of that, I vouch in all seriousness that just because we can’t for the life of us understand some such thing, that doesn’t mean whatever it is isn’t there. Persons, places, and things cooked up in a daydream can have rich lives all their own beyond the so-called confines of the imagination.
“I used to represent this place,” he shared self-consciously. “Well, back when it was another restaurant. This used to be Phil’s Sweetcorn Diner.”
“Phil Coombs was a personal friend of mine,” I said. “The diner here’d been around several years before I opened the gag shop across the street. Just after World War II. In fact, I remember the first time I saw you, sketched out on the back of an order ticket. Must’ve been sometime late forties, maybe ’50.”
“I was born in 1951.”
“I remember. I was there the day you were born.”
He ran his fingers through what little cornsilk he had left on top. “You were?”
So I told him the story from the start. When Phil came in that day in 1951, he might as well’ve been just off Mt. Sinai. He’d had a vision. I knew of such things myself, having had an epiphany of my own on the aerial tour of Germany they gave us servicemen after the war. Looking down at people’s homes and cities blown to ruin, I knew from then on the only bombs I could drop would stink and the only guns I could shoot would unfurl flags that said BANG! That’s how Nub’s Novelties came to be conceived. Old Phil was struck during the lunch rush, lifting the lid off a vat of boiling sweetcorn and seeing in the billowing steam cloud a man-like ear with the face of a hail fellow well met.
“Aw shucks,” the vision purportedly said. “I’m Cornelius C. Cobb.”
Phil, he clanged the lid back on the pot and lurched out the back door for a cigarette. That man was always smoking. I bet you he probably smoked half a pack out by the dumpster before heading back to the kitchen to finish up the rush. But the mystery wouldn’t leave him be, giving him a wink each time he shut his eyes. He scribbled the form best he could on the back of an order ticket. But that didn’t erase the apparition. Quite the opposite. Now it had a real presence outside his imagination and, worse, the likeness fell short of what he could see so clearly. And that was what brought him across the street with his apron and paper hat still on, bringing into my toy shop the smell of cigarette-smoked pork tenderloins and that crude doodle.
“Nub, I need your help,” he says. “I can’t draw for boo.”
Now I’d done a bit of graphics work for my shop — the sign out front, ads for the paper, promotional posters — using caricatures of myself. It wasn’t that I had some magnificent talent at drawing so much as in those days if you wanted something done you did it yourself to the best of your ability. Well, so, Phil had taken notice and hoped to enlist me to sleek up this character who’d got to haunting him. And when he held his sketch over the cash register in front of my nose for my professional opinion I thought he was putting me on. What I saw was a lumpy hot dog with stick arms and legs, a smiley face off kilter, and no buns.
“I don’t do blue material,” I told him.
“No, no, no,” he says. Snatched it back and took the pencil down from his ear and printed the name out at the bottom. He told me how it all manifested, the vision in the steam on up to his failure at capturing the spirit on paper, and offered dinner on the house for me and the family if I came over to the restaurant after closing to draw what he couldn’t.
Nada decided dinner for all of us was too hospitable so I ended up going over alone. And sitting right at the counter, I listened to Phil’s impressions when he wasn’t taking orders or topping off coffee and went about producing a police sketch of sorts. I sat there a couple hours over a tenderloin sandwich and who knows how many ears of corn, working out this character from his clues and criticisms on a Big Chief tablet with a kneaded eraser and a number 2 pencil. However many miscarriages later, from out of the smudges and lines, Cornelius C. Cobb emerged more or less the same as he appeared sitting on my left all these years later. From then on Phil paid me in meals to draw his mascot.
“Your horn-rim glasses,” I said to him. “My idea.”
He picked them up off the counter and polished the lenses on his leafy green pantaloons.
“And your shorts there, you didn’t have those at first. But after a few years Phil’s conscience told him it was indecent to have a trouserless corncob representing his diner.”
“Oh these things…” He fluffed them out and patted them down.
“Tea,” Cyril announced, setting two cups before us with a shaky rattle.
“Tea for two,” I crooned, “and two-for-ty, is twenty to three…”
We clinked cups and sipped. Cornelius’s cheeks puffed out and his eyes screwed up as he swallowed.
“Sheesis, Cyril,” I says. The tea could’ve passed for bile. “I thought you Brits were born knowing how to brew this stuff.”
“Guess I let her steep too long,” he balked. “Well, but he asked for coffee…”
“Oh it’s all right,” Cornelius said, and then, as if he were the poster boy for Midwestern manners, tipped the cup to his reaching lips and swilled the rest down with a soupy slurp. Wretched. Poor guy’s face puckered into a greenish asterisk and popped out again before sagging back to hopelessness.
I pushed my saucer away without another sip. Those kids, they hadn’t touched their dinner, either of them. They just sat there slack-jawed with the foil still wrapped round their flat bread. White collar by the look of them. Probably state workers, the capitol complex just up the street. I used to be better at picking them out than I am these days, all this East Village gentrification throwing off my nose, but that’s besides the point.
“You kids remember this guy,” I called over, hoping the recognition might rally Cornelius’s spirit a bit. I always get a kick stopping by my shop when some young pencil-neck I don’t know from Adam sees me and says, “You’re Nub!”
But this couple, they shied away. The gal sat her purse in her lap, unclasped it, and went to tapping out Morse Code on her little phone. Di-di-dit dah-dah-dah di-di-dit! The fella just sat there like a twerp.
“Surely you remember,” I say, patting the cob on the back. “Cornelius? He was on every sandwich wrapper and every corn bucket to come outta this establishment for decades. Back when this was Phil’s Sweetcorn Diner, the best tenderloins in all Iowa, an ear of sweetcorn with every meal. Or, if you liked, a square of cornbread or a bag of popped corn — you know, nobody thought that’d fly when Phil introduced it, popcorn with a meal. But it took off. The lawmakers up the hill, whenever the legislature was in session, they’d tromp down here every night, Phil staying open late just for their sake. You could hear the B.S. and smell the popcorn a block away. Old Phil ran this place right, right up to the end. What, twenty years now it’s been?”
“Phil died in ’79,” Cornelius faltered.
“Thirty years,” Cyril said.
Thirty years. Sheesis… Nothing to say to that.
“I came to Des Moines in 1990. After college,” the twerp in the corner says. And then, as if apologizing, “I grew up in Dubuque.”
“It was ’96 when Vidya got the job at Mercy, bringing us to Iowa, and was next year I opened Curry King,” Cyril shared. Vidya is his Indian wife, as brilliant as she is beautiful, my cardiologist. How those two found each other is a whole other story.
I thought back on all those years the old diner sat empty, nobody going in from the time Phil died to Cyril cleaning it up with plastic lotus flowers and elephants on the walls. A real eyesore, windows broken and boarded and up for lease for fifteen-some years. Well, but the economy down there between the river and the capitol was terrible, just terrible for a long stretch. Was just my store, the Locust Tap, Olympic Flame, and Blazing Saddle — the gay bar — amidst the dead buildings and deserted auto dealerships. Oh and the Italian Import Store, but that’s gone now, too, despite all the posh restaurants and boutiques that’ve sprung up since they’ve renamed it the East Village. Economic turnaround, they call it. I won’t complain — the shop’s doing alright — but the assumption that vitality has appeared in a part of town that never knew it is flat wrong. For heaven’s sake, the record store a couple blocks down, that used to be a Woolrich’s. I was mulling all this over in the silence that’d settled, not speaking to it though I should’ve. How else are these kids going to know that stuff?
Cornelius had set there without a word or a sidelong glance for several minutes. He was the next to talk. “There’s no place in this country,” he said, “for a mascot whose business’s gone the way of the dodo.”
“Baloney,” I said, leaning over and bumping him with my shoulder.
“No, really,” he says, looking at me with the saddest blue-lidded eyes I ever saw. “I’ve been out of work since Phil died with no one left to run the diner. My whole purpose, shucked by a heart attack.”
I let him go on.
“Gosh, I’ve been here all along but no one’s bothered to see me.” He clasped his hands and frowned with a perfect curve. “There was one job lead. Once. Hollywood called — somehow they saw the ten second spot I did back in the fifties for the drive-ins around town. Said they wanted me for a movie of a book. Sanctuary, they called it. I was to star alongside Popeye, so they said. But I backed out when I found out the role wasn’t an actual speaking part. A cob’s got some dignity left, hasn’t he? Film never got made anyway.”
“Oh come on,” I cheered him, having an idea. “How’s about the old slogan? I’d love to hear it again.”
“No, no.” He turned his body side to side, having no separate head to shake.
“Let her rip, Cornelius. For old time’s sake!”
He slouched lower on the stool, closing his eyes and palming his five o’clock shadow and yanking at the wilted cornsilk on top of his head. Cornelius couldn’t fulfill his purpose, having gone so thanklessly long feeling unneeded. But then, surprising us, he straightened up rigid and pointed to the ceiling with his forefinger. “Aw shucks, corn you believe it?” he said, raspy but trying. “Every meal at Phil’s Sweetcorn Diner comes with your choice of a corny-licious side! Say you saw me and we’ll lend you an ear…”
We applauded him, all of us, the gal in the booth clapping her phone. It did him good, inspiring a blush that brightened his jaundiced cheeks all lemony.
“Oh bravo,” I egged, sensing a flicker that begged a gentle bellows blow. “Again, again!”
Cornelius stood off the stool and gave it again — this time for himself more than any of us. As sprightly as in the old days, his spirit ignited before us. “Aw shucks, corn you believe it?” asked Lazarus on the cob, his cornsilk perked up proud. “Every meal at Phil’s Sweetcorn Diner comes with your choice of a corny-licious side! Say you saw me and we’ll lend you an ear!” Twinkles starred his eyes and he beamed tall, posture fixed and limbs striking a classical pose, a Technicolor maize god.
“There you go!” Cyril danced the end of a towel in his direction.
“Say,” he says with hope back in his voice, “you need any help ’round here?” He asks Cyril first and then turns to me.
“Uh…” The Englishman doesn’t know what to say to that so he looks at me, mumbling. “Corn didn’t make its way into South Asian cookery till long after the Americas were discovered…” Embarrassed, he slinked off with our cups and saucers.
All the life, all the vitality that’d swollen in Cornelius’s kernels spilled out his ears. He went from bright to sallow, wilting all over again, his lower lip pushed beyond his regular Maurice Chevalier pout. Pulling a napkin from a dispenser, he leaned over and wiped at some droplets of tea where his saucer had been and folded it over into a triangle. “Don’t have money for the tea I drank,” he said to the floor.
Cyril, behind the register down at the other end, lifted his shoulders. “No worries, mate.”
Shoving off the counter, the one part of the restaurant that’d survived all the years, Cornelius back-pedaled to the door in a scoliosis curl, shying from the murals of monkey kings and blue-skinned deities. “Just thought I’d stop in,” he said. “See how things’d changed, if anything’d stayed the same…”
Well if Cyril wasn’t going to do the decent thing, I decided I had to. “Come work for me at the store,” I implored. “You’d be perfect. A novelties shop is the place for a corny sorta guy!” At that moment, I swear, my mind wasn’t anywhere near the dollar-sign vision every other gags baron would have seen: Exploitation. Coming face to face with an animated ghost like this wiped away the cunning I’d learned in sixty-two years of business. No, I was a child in his presence. And I felt a responsibility for him. Here was something I’d lost, that we’d all lost, all of Des Moines, even if they didn’t know it. I couldn’t just let him go.
But go he did. Wouldn’t listen. “Mr. Franklin, with all due respect, sir,” Cornelius said, glum but firm, “your shop already has its mascot: You.”
“I’m eighty-five years old,” I told him and all gathered, laughing by myself, for myself. “I’m not gonna be here forever.”
“You got a family business,” he said, one licorice hand on the doorknob. “You’ll be around longer than some of us.” He opened that door and I wiggled my flat rear end off the stool. “No, no,” he insisted. “It’d just be nice, I dunno, if you’d remember me.”
“Never forgot you to begin with,” I told him.
“Aw shucks.” He cracked a solid white smile and blinked thoughtfully. “Thanks.”
The corncob walked out the door. I stood there a couple beats. Turned to the kids and shrugged at them and they shrugged back. Sat back on my stool, the stool I’ve always sat on, and just shook my head at Cyril.
“Vidya’ll never believe this,” he said cinching up his ponytail. “She’ll think I’m barmy till I tell her Nub Franklin was here, too. Then she’ll just laugh for putting her on.”
I got up again and went to the door, intent on pursuing Cornelius, see where he was going. Stepping outside was like entering an open-skied sauna, that terrible Iowa-on-the-last-day-of-August hot, so humid bluegills could swim down Locust Avenue if they wanted. I looked east toward the capitol, its gold dome lit by day’s last light, then west toward downtown, the sun nearly set behind the skyline. Nothing but heat. He’d disappeared back into the steam.
Across the street, there was my shop and my caricature painted life size right on the door. Made me ponder impermanence. And the silly legacy my memory might enjoy.
When I went indoors, back into air-conditioned, cardamom-smelling Curry King, I settled on my stool again and picked up my pencil to go over the paperwork I’d brought. But numerical concentration no longer made sense. I doodled Phil’s old mascot for the first time in decades. The drawing, scratched in the margins of the August report, was shaky, my hand not being what it once was. But Cornelius was there all the same.
Cyril slid down and gestured to my plate. “Your samosas’ve gone cold. How about some new? On the house.”
“Thanks but the only thing I could go for at the moment,” I told him, “is a bucket of Phil’s sweetcorn.”
“Understood.” He took the plate away and stopped three steps to the kitchen before spinning around. “What if…” he asked with a hush. “Curry King could do with a mascot, don’t you think? A crown jester to grace the sides of take-out bags, emblazon t-shirts, stand atop the roof in weatherproof fiberglass…” He was staring at my half-eaten appetizers, gazing at them like they’d spoken. I’d seen this exact condition before. “Sammy,” he announced, glazing. “Sammy Samosa!”
“Well for crying out loud.” I gathered up my report and laid cash on the counter, raised a hand to Cyril and the already disenchanted kids, and followed Cornelius’s lead, passing on the candied fennel in the dish mounted on the jamb, to step out into the steamy dusk.