Dolls Behaving Badlyby Cinthia Ritchie
Carla Richards is a lot of things. She's a waitress at Anchorage's premier dining establishment, Mexico in an Igloo; an artist who secretly makes erotic dolls for extra income; a divorcée who can't quite detach from her ex-husband; and a single mom trying to support her gifted eight-year-old son, her pregnant sister, and her… See more details below
Carla Richards is a lot of things. She's a waitress at Anchorage's premier dining establishment, Mexico in an Igloo; an artist who secretly makes erotic dolls for extra income; a divorcée who can't quite detach from her ex-husband; and a single mom trying to support her gifted eight-year-old son, her pregnant sister, and her babysitter-turned-resident-teenager.
She's one overdue bill away from completely losing control-when inspiration strikes in the form of a TV personality. Now she's scribbling away in a diary, flirting with an anthropologist, and making appointments with a credit counselor.
Still, getting her life and dreams back on track is difficult. Is perfection really within reach? Or will she wind up with something even better?
Cinthia Ritchie is a writer of unusual passions and unusual vision. She allows the world to flow through her and onto the page in prose that is breathless, intimate, and brutally, perfectly honest."Sherry Simpson, The Way Winter Comes"
Reader, you hold in your hands a novel so true and heartfelt you'll want to buy it for everyone you know."Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Bad Girl Creek and Finding Casey"
Despite, or perhaps because of, her very human flaws, Carla is a character who is easy to love, and her journal is an engaging read."Kirkus Reviews"
Ritchie's tale of female triumph makes for a fun read."Publishers Weekly"
Girlfriends, guys, ghosts, and G-spots. Cinthia Ritchie's tale . . . left me simultaneously wishing I had been born female and thanking God that I was not."Rich Chiappone, author of Water of an Undetermined Depth"
Alaska is the perfectly wild setting for this story of oddball characters trying to build creative lives around improvised family. The narrator's young son will surely steal your heart."Nancy Lord, former Alaska Writer Laureate, author of Early Warming"
An out-of-the-ordinary setting and cast of characters are the backbone of Ritchie's compelling debut novel...Ritchie depicts her characters' often bleak circumstances with humor and grace, and Carla makes for an atypical but eminently sympathetic heroine."Booklist"
First-time novelist Ritchie writes engaging characters and creates a sense of place that brings Alaska to life. For the reader of women's fiction who can handle a bit of the risqué."Library Journal
Verdict First-time novelist Ritchie writes engaging characters and creates a sense of place that brings Alaska to life. For the reader of women’s fiction who can handle a bit of the risqué.Karen Core, Detroit P.L.(c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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Dolls Behaving Badly
By Cinthia Ritchie
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 Cinthia Ritchie
All right reserved.
The Giant on the
Keep a diary, and someday it will keep you.
Thursday, Sept. 15, 2005
This is my diary, my pathetic little conversation with myself. No doubt I will burn it halfway through. I’ve never been one to finish anything. Mother used to say this was because I was born during a full moon, but like everything she says, it doesn’t make a lick of sense.
It isn’t even the beginning of the year. Or even the month. It’s not even my birthday. I’m starting, typical of me, impulsively, in the middle of September. I’m starting with the facts.
I’m thirty-eight years old. I’ve slept with nineteen and a half men.
I live in Alaska, not the wild parts but smack in the middle of Anchorage, with the Walmart and Home Depot squatting over streets littered with moose poop.
I’m divorced. Last month my ex-husband paid child support in ptarmigan carcasses, those tiny bones snapping like fingers when I tried to eat them.
I have one son, age eight and already in fourth grade. He is gifted, his teachers gush, remarking how unusual it is for such a child to come out of such unique (meaning underprivileged, meaning single parent, meaning they don’t think I’m very smart) circumstances.
I work as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant. This is a step up: two years ago I was at Denny’s.
Yesterday, I was so worried about money I stayed home from work and tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I sank my head under the water and held my breath, but my face popped up in less than a minute. I tried a second time, but by then my heart wasn’t really in it, so I got out, brushed the dog hair off the sofa, and plopped down to watch Oprah.
What happened next was a miracle, like Gramma used to say. No angels sang, of course, and there was none of that ornery church music. Instead, a very tall woman (who might have been an angel if heaven had high ceilings) waved her arms. There were sweat stains under her sweater, and this impressed me so much that I leaned forward; I knew something important was about to happen.
Most of what she said was New Age mumbo jumbo, but when she mentioned the diary, I pulled myself up and rewrapped the towel around my waist. I knew she was speaking to me, almost as if this was her purpose in life, to make sure these words got directed my way.
She said you didn’t need a fancy one; it didn’t even need a lock, like those little-girl ones I kept as a teenager. A notebook, she said, would work just fine. Or even a bunch of papers stapled together. The important thing was doing it. Committing yourself to paper every day, regardless of whether anything exciting or thought provoking actually happens.
“Your thoughts are gold,” the giant woman said. “Hold them up to the light and they shine.”
I was crying by then, sobbing into the dog’s neck. It was like a salvation, like those traveling preachers who used to come to town. Mother would never let us go but I snuck out with Julie, who was a Baptist. Those preachers believed, and while we were there in that tent, we did too.
This is what I’m hoping for, that my words will deliver me something. Not the truth, exactly. But solace.
Sunday, Sept. 18
Already I’m slacking. Writing is like working out. If you miss one day, it’s easy to convince yourself to miss another.
I’m an artist. I write this rather shamefully, as if admitting to an embarrassing medical problem that I have no right to be embarrassed about since I clearly brought it on myself.
“She’s obviously talented,” the art teacher informed Mother during my fourth-grade teacher conference, and Mother hung her head, her white-gloved hand tightening around the Ivory soap sculpture I had fashioned into a Campbell’s soup can. By the time we walked out to the car, my sculpture had melted under the wrath of Mother’s grasp.
Growing up in Dowser, a little southwestern Michigan town whose only distinction was an award-winning badminton team, I took every art class the high school offered. I even managed to win a few “prestigious” awards: the Dorothy Maloney Fellowship for Duck Drawings; the Hardings Grocery Store Cuts of Meat Award; and the Southwestern Michigan Lookalike Contest, where I painted the assemblymen in drag and almost got Mother kicked out of the Women’s League.
All this might sound heady and exciting, except that in our stuffy little farming community, the liberal arts were looked upon as a minor sin. Mother squirmed each time I brought home another award, while my older sister, Laurel, sighed and squared her shoulders, knowing it was up to her to do something with her life, since I was so obviously throwing mine away.
I slid through my senior year with Cs and Ds, skipped graduation, and hitchhiked down to the Greyhound station, where I made a one-way reservation to Farmington, New Mexico, the farthest my money would take me. I wore my lucky peasant blouse and carried my new Kmart suitcase, stuffed with art supplies, stray earrings, photocopies of Frida Kahlo’s paintings, and a brand-new diaphragm.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. Trying to make it in the art world is like trying to have an orgasm when you’re not in the mood: You strain and struggle and twist yourself into impossible positions until you almost, almost (oh god, oh yes, oh plllleeeassee) get there. But you never quite manage, and instead of being blissed-out on pleasure, you find yourself attending other people’s shows and pretending to be happy for them when all you want to do is give them a swift kick in the ass.
That’s what happened to me. I lost my orgasm. My resolve followed shortly afterward, along with my standards. I started settling for a little less here, a lot less there, and before I knew it, I found myself living in Alaska, a state so far removed it’s not even included on national weather maps.
Then I met Barry and really lost my steam. Years passed in a blur and the minute Jay-Jay popped his head from between my legs, it was sore nipples, sleepless nights, and Barry and me arguing about whose turn it was to buy diapers. Our arguments quickly escalated until he moved into a shabby apartment in Spenard, a down-on-your-luck neighborhood famous for its cheap hookers and even cheaper drugs, and I bought a shabby trailer less than a mile away. This is typical of Barry and me. We’ve been divorced almost three years yet neither one of us has the gumption to move on. We claim that this is so Jay-Jay can move back and forth between us but really it’s because we don’t know how to let go. Sometimes, I’m ashamed to admit, we still…
Whew, there’s the groan of the school bus grinding its way up the hill by Westchester Lagoon. In a minute Jay-Jay will charge through the door. “Mom,” he’ll scream, demanding food and attention, love and understanding. And I’ll give it to him, messily, badly, my hair falling down, my armpits reeking because I forgot to put on deodorant this morning. Jay-Jay is tall and blond, his legs starting to thin, poor kid. He’s caught in that awkward stumble of pulling away from the cute-little-boy stage. He’s choosy about food and movies, and so good-natured it’s easy to forget how smart he really is. He’s just Jay-Jay, a skinny kid with freckles who picks his nose when he thinks no one’s looking. He smells of milk and grass. What I like is the smell of his feet. Embarrassing, but while he sleeps I sometimes sneak into his room, lift his foot to my face, close my eyes, and inhale: subtle and slightly sweet, not yet sour, a bit musky.
Soon he’ll wear huge sneakers and clomp around the house. He’ll smell of sweat and get pimples and hard-ons. He’ll jack off in the bathroom and borrow the car without asking, while I sit home reading trashy magazines, hoping and praying that he doesn’t turn out to be as big an asshole as his father.
What’s on my kitchen table
Alaska Airlines Visa bill: OVERDUE!
JCPenney credit card bill: PAST DUE!
Anchorage Pet Emergency bill: DELINQUENT!
Ken doll, with the head cut off
Sex and the City DVD covered in ketchup
Wednesday, Sept. 21
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a sunny autumn day, and I’m sitting at a cleared space on the kitchen table, munching on Chex Mix and watching the dog dig holes in Mr. and Mrs. Nice’s yard. It’s almost time to pull on my wrinkled blouse and stained apron and head out the door.
My food service career began over fifteen years ago at a truck stop in Camp Verde, Arizona. Easy money, I thought, and a perfect way to supplement my art, which I was sure was about to take off.
When it didn’t, I hit the road and spent the next three years following the festival circuit in the summer and waitressing during the winters. I spent my days out in the desert sketching naked men I picked up in bars, transforming their tired bodies into paintings of cowboy butts floating in the air like helium balloons and penises shaped like the arms of saguaro cacti. I hadn’t snared a gallery show, but I was getting by. I had my own business cards (my name misspelled, but you can’t have everything) and a faithful following of women in Birkenstock sandals.
One night, camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern Arizona, red sandstone smeared across my face and arms, I dreamed that Gramma was standing in front of me, a white egg in each palm. I woke up sweating and irritable. Gramma, my father’s mother, was Polish and fat and smelled of onions and garlic. We had always been close. We were the messy ones, the stumbling ones, the ones who goofed up and knocked things over. Mostly, though, our relationship went like this: She cooked and I ate. She talked and I listened. She made messes and I played happily in their wake. Just thinking of Gramma made me so lonely that I broke down and called her from Holbrook the next morning.
“Yah,” she answered in her heavy Polish accent. “That you, Pushski?”
I asked her what it meant to dream of an egg. “Raw,” I told her. “In a shell. In someone’s hand. And white, almost luminous.”
“It mean,” she said slowly, “that you is brzemienny.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I shouted.
“You sure?” she asked. “You got the blood?”
“Yes,” I lied. After I hung up, I sat on the wilted ground outside the phone booth. I knew Gramma was right. I was pregnant and I had no idea who the father might be: That cowboy from Winslow who never wore underwear? That cowboy I picked up outside of Flagstaff who had a belt buckle larger than my head? That older cowboy who walked with a limp and lost three fingers off his left hand to a horse bite?
To make a long story short (and the less I talk about this phase of my life, the better), I had an abortion at the clinic down in Tucson. As soon as I was declared “normal” at my six-week checkup, I walked to the highway, stuck out my thumb, and waited for a ride. I left everything behind, even my car. It was the price I had to pay, was still paying, since as soon as it was gone that child connected to me tighter and firmer than if I had birthed it myself. I learned too late that some things can’t be left behind, that they seek you out, show up at your doorstep late at night.
“Sins make you fat,” Gramma used to say. I thought she meant it literally, that sins would cause weight to form on your body. But after the abortion I understood what she was really saying: sins bring you down, make you heavy. That they make you fat with your own misgivings.
I eventually reached Alaska, met and married Barry, and worked and quit and worked and was fired from a variety of waitressing jobs. We had Jay-Jay and our own house and a golden retriever named Almond Joy. I stayed home most of the first year, stumbling around in a sleep-deprived haze while Barry stormed off to work every day. As soon as I put Jay-Jay down for his midmorning nap I’d hurriedly pull my art supplies from the closet (I was down to two colors by then, phthalo green and cadmium orange, which sucked since everything came out a grainy, brownish mess). I was halfway finished with an Alaska nude Last Supper, but I was having trouble with the toes, which resembled slugs. Jesus’ thighs looked especially nice, though, very strong and competent and tinted an almond shade I was particularly proud of (I had mixed in a small bit of Jay-Jay’s infant formula to lighten the paint colors). Right when I hit on the brilliant idea of covering the apostles’ feet with bunny boots, Barry up and quit his job. I tried to keep painting but it was impossible. I threw my supplies back in the closet (just the phthalo green—the cadmium orange had given out the week before) and joined my husband on the couch for morning marathons of PBS shows: Mister Rogers, Barney, Reading Rainbow. I ate too many bowls of cereal, lulled into a sugary stupor so that I would often look at us all curled up in our pajamas at one o’clock in the afternoon and think, Isn’t this cozy?
The day I pinned a dish towel around Jay-Jay’s squirming butt because we had run out of diapers was the day I shook off my inertia, pulled on the only skirt that still fit, and marched around the restaurant circuit. I hit all the places that frequently hired but rarely advertised: Sea Galley, Sourdough Mining Company, Peanut Farm.
“I’ll call you,” everyone said. But no one did. It wasn’t my spit-stained shirts or lackluster hair that turned them off as much as my desperation, which emitted from my skin like a nasty odor.
One night in the Safeway, as I hurriedly wrote out a check I couldn’t cover for milk and crackers, the scrappy manager from the Denny’s accidently rammed my shopping cart. He remembered me right away—I had worked for him a few years before, quitting to hike the Resurrection Pass Trail, only to be hired back again, only to quit to kayak Prince William Sound. He eyed my meager purchases and slyly mentioned a day shift opening. Would I be interested? I swallowed my pride, added three Mounds bars to my order, and said I would. Then I drove home to share the good news with my soon-to-be ex-husband.
“I got a job,” I yelled. Barry grunted from the couch.
“Cool,” he said with disinterest. “Where?”
“Denny’s.” A long pause, and was it my imagination or did he actually sneer?
“Well, it ain’t the Hilton, but you’ll do just fine,” he said. Then he turned to Jay-Jay and patted his dish-toweled butt. “Sport, get your daddy another one of them beers.”
This is the truth: I used to lie awake and imagine my husband’s death. I imagined this right down to the clothes I would wear to his funeral—a simple black dress and a pair of designer shoes. In these fantasies, my expensive feet floated a few inches above the ground like in those pictures of the saints on holy cards. Like I was suddenly blessed.
For the past two and a half years I’ve worked at a restaurant called Mexico in an Igloo. It’s as tacky as the name implies, a monstrous igloo-shaped building that squats over half a city block, with cacti and tequila bottles jutting around the door and window frames. Tourists love it and locals tolerate it because the food is homemade, the drinks stiff, the salsa hot enough to knock sweat inside your winter drawers.
I start off each shift strong but fizzle halfway through. I don’t have the pizzazz it takes to be cheerful seven hours a day. By the time I pick up Jay-Jay from his after-school Camp Fire program, I’m itchy and irritable. He usually has the good sense to keep his mouth shut on the ride home. Once we walk in the house, however, he lets loose, his words shooting from his mouth so fast I often jump back as if under attack. Poor kid, it’s not his fault his mother hates her job. I try to listen, I really do. But some evenings I stare into his eager face as he goes on and on about some complicated story and want to yell, “Stop! Stop being so happy!”
Instead I smile my fake waitressing smile and make little cooing sounds of approval.
Then I warm up some bread. It’s my favorite thing after work, thick, sturdy wedges of brown bread so dense I have to rip pieces with my teeth. Jay-Jay munches the crust while I work my way through the middle sections. It’s satisfying to eat this way, no plates or silverware, only our mouths chewing. On Fridays, I spread open the paper to the entertainment section and daydream of myself as Talented Artist, my hips swaying under a long silk skirt as I give an interview to the snotty arts reviewer from the local paper.
“I know what it’s like at the bottom,” I say as he eyes my breasts (in this fantasy, I have hefty and enviable cleavage). “I lived in a trailer park for years, and the shading from this period was influenced by Kmart blue-light specials.”
These little fantasies calm me down enough so that by suppertime, Jay-Jay and I are able to enjoy a nice meal out in the living room, eating on TV trays while we watch Vanna applaud as contestants spin the big wheel.
“She’s pretty old, huh, Mom?” Jay-Jay says. “She’s been on forever.”
“Yes, honey, she has,” I reply. And I stare at the screen, the wedges on the wheel going round and round, my stomach full and gurgling, the dog lying on my feet, and the TV gives off a tint that makes everything around us, from the mangy carpet to the cracks in the wall, look homey and warm and inviting.
It isn’t, of course. But it’s a nice illusion.
Ms. Carla Richards
202 W. Hillcrest Drive #22
Anchorage, AK 99503
Dear Ms. Carla Richards:
We regret to inform you that your application for a Platinum Alaska Bank Visa Card has been declined.
After reviewing your rather entertaining credit history, we feel it is in our best interest to keep you securely focused on your current plan.
As always, thank you for choosing Alaska Bank Visa Card.
Douglas R. Winnington
Junior Account Supervisor
P.S. Did your August payment get lost in the mail again?
Friday, Sept. 23
Shhh! I’m crouched in the closet, hiding from my sister, Laurel, who this very minute is pouring herself a glass of my generic orange juice. I can see her through the cracks along the door hinges.
“Yoo-hoo, Carla,” she yells. “I’ve got wonderful news.”
I hold my breath and pray for her to go away. No such luck. She sits down at the kitchen table and shuffles through a magazine.
“Carla, listen,” she shouts toward the closed bathroom door; she must think I’m in there. “I sold the McPherson place, can you believe it? On the market for almost a year and I sell it in two weeks. Isn’t that amazing?”
She walks down the hall, her heels click-clack-clicking on the linoleum, and knocks on the bathroom door. “I’ve got to go, Carla. I’m meeting someone for breakfast.” A nervous cough, followed by a giggle. “No one special, you know. Just a…this client.”
She lets herself out and I wait a moment to make sure the coast is clear, then slip out of the closet and hunker down at the table to finish this entry.
I know it sounds a bit mad, hiding from my very own sister. But if you saw Laurel, you’d know what I mean. Two years older, Laurel is perfect, or at least she likes to think she is. Smart, talented, beautiful—that’s how Mother used to explain it to me. Laurel was the favorite. The shining star in an otherwise mediocre family. My brother and I (poor Gene, working as a manager for a Chickin’ Lickin’ back home in Dowser) were pushed to the background, half-hidden, like those relatives they used to keep in attics.
Now Laurel lives up on the Hillside in a perfect house with an immaculate lawn, expensive art dangling from the walls. Her husband, Junior, is a flat, white wall: no surprises, no deep shades or textures. He is a corporate lawyer for British Petroleum, and Laurel is one of the top-selling agents at Southwest Alaska Real Estate. She and Junior are among the Alaska jet set. They play racquetball on the weekends, tennis in the summers, take exotic vacations twice a year, and keep their cars so clean you could put on your makeup in the reflection of the chrome.
Laurel and Junior weren’t always Alaskans. They used to live in Chicago, a glorious six-hour plane flight away. Then one afternoon about five years ago, someone knocked at the door as I was untangling Barry’s fishing line. Jay-Jay, who was almost three at the time, raced to answer.
“Mom! Auntie Laurel’s at the door.”
“She has funny shoes.” Jay-Jay stared at his socks. “Like animal claws.”
I hurried out to the kitchen and found my sister leaning against the dishwasher, the toe of her expensive boot jutting across my path.
“Carla,” she cried.
“I didn’t know you were on vacation,” I said.
“Vacation?” She giggled. “We’re moving here.” Her voice was high and screechy. “We’re looking at houses up on the Hillside. It’s supposed to be the best neighborhood for people like us.” She nodded at my shabby kitchen as if to say, as opposed to people like you.
A few months later, they were tucked tidily away in an expensive house by the Chugach foothills, Laurel maneuvering her BMW along potholed roads and bitching about the general lack of basic traffic law obedience. I initially envisioned the two of us drinking tea and sharing pieces of our lives, like sisters in Hallmark Cards commercials, but that never happened. Laurel remained as unapproachable as ever, though she did soften toward Jay-Jay. Oh, the way my sister changes when Jay-Jay is around! Her face lightens, and the lines around her mouth even out. Laurel and Junior don’t have children. Laurel says she can’t, but I think she has willed her body not to reproduce, frightened as she is of the idea of pregnancy. And labor! Blood and sweat, screams and flailing legs: Laurel would die before she would allow herself to be seen like that.
I could go on, but writing about someone who is so goddamned perfect is like drinking too much. At first you feel brave and superior, but as soon as the alcohol hits your blood, you flatten out and realize that underneath it all, you just want to sit on a barstool and sob.
Monday, Sept. 26
Every Sunday the Oprah Giant posts a blog to give us poor diary-writing slobs hope. This week’s was about loss. “You can’t see the center of the pond when the water is muddied with regret,” she wrote. “Make a list of all the things you lost—socks and pets and that teacup from Aunt Mabel. Draw little hearts beside them. Treasure them! Love them! They’re not lost, they’re still hiding inside your heart.”
I snorted as I read this. List the things I’ve lost—please! What exactly was her point?
But then I remembered the winter after the divorce, when the snow and darkness settled in and I felt so alone that I called Laurel in the middle of the night. It was all too much, I sobbed. I couldn’t take it.
“I’ll come over Saturday and take Jay-Jay,” she offered.
“Thanks,” I sniffed. But it wasn’t a babysitter I needed as much as hope. I wanted someone to offer me a slice of hope, the way Gramma used to offer me a slice of lemon meringue pie, the middle shiny with promise.
“I’ll never love anyone again,” I cried dramatically.
There was a long pause. “Love isn’t what you expect,” Laurel finally said. “It doesn’t necessarily make you happy.”
I ignored the implication that my sister’s marriage wasn’t working. I was too selfish, too mired in my own pain to acknowledge anyone else’s.
“I’ll never meet anyone like Barry,” I continued. Now that he was gone, I forgave him his faults and remembered only the good. What had I done? Why had I left such a prince of a man?
“He chewed with his mouth open,” Laurel reminded me. “He hung dead animal heads on the walls. And remember your wedding? He wore hiking boots with his tux.”
“Those are no reasons to leave a good man,” I cried.
Laurel snorted in disgust. “What exactly about him do you miss?”
“He loved to eat,” I said. “He was a great hiking partner. He had a nice furry chest.”
“So get a dog,” Laurel snapped.
Enter Killer Bee. Like everything else around here, she isn’t much to look at. Part beagle and part Labrador retriever, her eyes are slightly crossed, her tail bent, her coat speckled with outlandish white spots, the largest one in the perfect shape of Florida, right down to the panhandle. Killer is afraid of loud noises, cats, small dogs, kites, the garbage truck, and plastic bags blowing in the wind. She also has a nervous stomach and throws up if anyone yells too long, too loud, or too often.
But Killer is loyal to a fault, patrolling the hallway at night, her toenails clicking on the floor like a demented sentry.
We rescued Killer Bee from the back of a pickup truck at the supermarket. Jay-Jay took one look at the squirming puppies and refused to budge.
“Can we get one, huh, Mom, huh?” He asked for so little, how could I possibly refuse? I gave the man a twenty and we drove home with that puppy licking Jay-Jay’s face. He named her the next day, after watching an advertisement for a movie about killer bees swarming a Texas town.
I have to admit that through all the housebreaking, the chewed-up shoes and coats, and the torn upholstery, it helped having another body in the house. Nights after Jay-Jay is asleep and I pace the dark living room, it’s reassuring to know that anytime I want, I can reach my hand out and she’ll trot over and greet me. She’ll always be happy to see me.
Jay-Jay wasn’t happy to see me when I picked him up from his after-school program this afternoon.
“You smell,” he hissed, glaring at my grease-splattered uniform. “The other mothers don’t wear stupid aprons.”
Well, what could I say? The other mothers had neat hair and I’m-a-respected-member-of-the-community clothes and wedding rings that flashed when they waved their hands. Jay-Jay attends the gifted program in a school located in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, and while he’s too young to understand the significance of class structure, he’s smart enough to decipher the nuances. He knows it’s not good to have a mother who works as a waitress and has rightly decided that this must be my fault. Once we got in the car, though, he was more civil, and by the time we hit the first traffic light, he was explaining a science class fiasco.
“Julia was supposed to only count the green colors,” he said. “But she didn’t, Mom. She counted everything but green.” Jay-Jay shook his head. “We came in last. It took us forever. We had to recount every single green.”
I had no idea what he was talking about but I nodded my head. I was looking forward to a long bath and a bowl of tomato soup with little oyster crackers floating around the top, like Gramma used to make. She called the crackers “little darling dumplings,” and thought they were the cleverest thing.
“Crackers that float,” she marveled, and none of us had the heart to tell her that all crackers float, to one degree or another. I was remembering Gramma’s tomato soup recipe when I pulled in the driveway and met up with the sight of my bearded ex-husband sprawled over the porch, his face hidden behind a hunting magazine. A bear growled out from the cover.
“Jay-Jay Jiggers,” he yelled, standing up and brushing off his pants. “Wanna head over for dinner? Got a nice piece of salmon and I’ll fry them little brown potatoes you like so much.”
“Can I, Mom, huh?
I hadn’t planned anything for supper but even so I bit my lip and acted like it was a big deal. Barry and I officially have joint custody; unofficially, I have custody and he has visitation whenever he feels like it. Usually this means every other weekend and a good chunk of the summer, plus fishing trips when the kings and silvers are running. I can handle impromptu visits, and Jay-Jay doesn’t appear to have a problem with them, either. What I have a hard time handling is the way Barry tries to weasel out of child support payments.
Right now Barry owes me over $1,600 in back support. When I mention this, his mouth tightens and his eyes narrow and he flashes that “don’t tell me what to do” look men have been giving women since we all started stumbling around upright. Don’t get me wrong, he loves Jay-Jay. He would die for him in an instant. It’s just that, like me, money isn’t his strong point. He doesn’t know how to save; he insists that it’s not in his genetic makeup, but really it’s because he blows all his money on fancy outdoor equipment.
“I said, can I?” Jay-Jay yelled, interrupting my thought process.
“I suppose so.” I sounded just like my own mother. “Don’t forget your homework, and take a sweatshirt in case you get cold and—”
A few minutes later they roared down the driveway in Barry’s ridiculous camouflaged Jeep. Barry is a chef. I have to mention this because it explains so much. The man loves food. That’s how we met. We were both stuffing grapes in our mouths at the Carrs produce section, those large black Concord grapes we used to pick back home. I was new to Alaska and couldn’t get used to the summertime light or the way the mountains looked when I walked out of my apartment each morning: stern and reproachful, like a father waiting for me to make a mistake. I was terribly unhappy. I had ditched a short-term fling in Homer and hitchhiked up to Anchorage with an old man whose dog chewed the zipper off my pack. I was homesick and couldn’t sleep, so when I noticed the grapes I felt redeemed. I looked up, saw Barry throw a handful in his own mouth, and grinned at him with purple teeth.
That’s how it started. It wasn’t at all romantic, but then again, nothing ever is.
Killer Bee Richards
c/o Ms. Carla Richards
202 W. Hillcrest Drive #22
Anchorage, AK 99503
Dear Killer Bee Richards:
Your owner is in trouble. He/she hasn’t paid his/her monthly bill. Please give a bark/meow in his/her direction to start the bone/catnip rolling.
If payment isn’t made by Oct. 15, your owner will be smacked with a newspaper and sent to a collection agency.
Woof woof, meow meow,
Dr. Francis Sterling and Dr. Emily Goodman,
Anchorage Emergency Clinic
Wednesday, Sept. 28
I. Am. So. Depressed.
After work today I trudged over to an appointment at the Consumer Credit Counseling agency. Laurel set this up for me after I mentioned that I was trying to get my life together.
A fattish woman who smelled of Jergens hand lotion, the credit counselor patiently explained the counseling motto: a penny saved is a penny saved.
“Clever,” I muttered as I pulled my dirty waitressing skirt over my knees. For some reason it was important that I make a good impression with this homely woman who knew how to save her pennies.
I answered questions and turned over copies of my pay stubs and income tax returns while she printed out a spreadsheet with my take-home pay on one side and my basic expenses on the other. No matter how she prodded and subtracted and crossed out items, she couldn’t get the columns to balance.
“You don’t need to buy name-brand food,” she said. “You don’t need Playtex tampons; generics work just as well.”
After half an hour of hard-grit figuring, she wiped her hands on a tattered Kleenex and looked up. Sweat dotted her forehead.
“Any additional income?”
I lied and shook my head no.
“Four hundred a month, but I never see it.”
“Never?” she challenged.
“Not for four, maybe five months. But wait! I got a couple of twenties a few weeks ago, but that’s only because he wanted me to watch his bird for the weekend and—”
“I think I’ve heard about enough.” The counselor glared me into silence. “The best solution,” she continued in a stern, no-nonsense voice, “is to find a better-paying job.” She scanned my application. “It says here that you’re a what, a waitress? And you’re almost forty?”
“Thirty-eight,” I said meekly. “I’m thirty-eight.”
She ignored this and pulled out a new form. “Let’s talk retirement. Any stocks? Money market accounts? CDs? IRAs?”
I opened my mouth, about to mention my closet filled with art supplies and half-finished paintings. I had invested thousands of dollars in my art. Surely dreams, however far-fetched, however misconstrued, must be worth something. But I knew that this sensible woman with her freshly ironed blouse wouldn’t see it this way, so I wisely shook my head no.
“Five hundred and seven dollars,” I whispered.
I shook my head again.
“Mrs. Richards, may I be frank?”
“Your financial life is a mess,” she said. “At the rate you’re going, you’ll be bankrupt in two years.”
A whimper of shame escaped my mouth.
“The best you can hope for at this point is to maintain your current level of debt and make every effort—and I mean every—to not dig yourself in any deeper.”
“Yes,” I whispered again.
“And cut up your credit cards, or at the very least put them in the freezer.” She leaned forward and glared straight in my face. “You can’t afford to spend another—and I mean another—aimless dollar.”
She handed me an appointment card for next month, shook my rather limp hand, and escorted me to the door. I was so depressed I stopped at JCPenney on the way home and bought a cookie jar that plays five different songs when you pop the lid. It was rather pricey, but the tag said it was dishwasher safe, so I knew it was a good deal. Besides, it was round and fat and reminded me of Gramma, who used to march down to the gas company every month and demand a handful of the free lollipops they handed out to the kids.
“I gotta pay, you gotta pay,” she’d say, her three chins wiggling with the indignation of having to hand over her hard-earned money to a company that heated her bathwater. If Gramma were still alive, she’d tell me to not worry, that a little debt never hurt anyone. Then she’d make chocolate chip cookies, which she called little brown chippies, and we’d sit at the table and eat them while they were still warm. Gramma used to say that as long as my belly was full, nothing bad could happen. It was a fib, of course, but it brought me such comfort that I’ve passed it along to my own son. Some nights that’s all I can manage for supper, a batch of chocolate chip cookies with tall glasses of milk, along with a side of cucumbers or tomatoes so we don’t get scurvy. I make Jay-Jay promise to never breathe a word that his mother feeds him cookies for supper.
“Big deal,” he says. “Malcolm’s mom forgot him at the state fair last year. He had to sleep with the cows, so you don’t have to worry. Cookies are nothing.”
Gramma’s Little Brown Chippies
- 2½ cups flour
- ½ cup margarine
- ½ cup Crisco
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup brown sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups oatmeal
- 2 cups chocolate chips
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- ½ teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350˚. Mix everything together. Roll in small balls, stick on cookie sheet, cook at 350˚ for 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from oven. Eat while still warm. Serves four, or one premenstrual woman.
Friday, Sept. 30
It’s late at night, Jay-Jay asleep, the house quiet. Outside the wind blows, a cool autumn breeze filled with the smell of damp leaves and silt from the inlet. I’m sitting at the kitchen table, my art supplies huddled around a Barbie doll arm, three Bratz doll legs, a Ken torso, and two vintage heads with the hair scalped off. As soon as I finish drinking my tea and writing this entry, I’ll start my second job. No one knows I do this, not Laurel or my best friend, Sandee, or the snotty credit counseling woman. It’s best to keep quiet about it, at least for the time being.
I’ve already spread newspapers across the table and assembled my X-Acto knives. I love the way they feel in my hand: cool and smooth and promising. Each time I pick one up I experience a tremendous urge to cut something, and once, after an especially brutal fight with Barry, I sliced holes in all of his socks, clever little rips that wouldn’t become apparent until halfway through the day, when his toes would suddenly pop through the seam and give off that itchy feeling that can drive you crazy. X-Acto knives make you think of things like that. They make you slyer and smarter than you really are.
Across the table I’ve lined up my paints and glue, sandpaper and drill, dental floss and various tricks of my trade along with the red storage containers I keep at the back of the closet filled with my “work” dolls, most of them bought for a steal on eBay because of cracks or missing eyes. Such flaws mean nothing to me. Like that Six Million Dollar Man show I used to watch growing up, I have the technology to make my dolls better and faster. Much, much faster. Because I make them anatomically correct. I drill tiny little vaginas and labia lips between those poor sexless thighs, and then I cover these private parts with seductive underpants, cheerleader outfits, or nursing uniforms with push-up bras stretched across newly expanded boobs so big it would be impossible for these dolls to see their feet if they had the misfortune of coming alive. I make dirty dolls. X-rated, but mildly so. I don’t do anything radical like butt plugs or fisting or foursomes, and I always make sure Ken carries a condom.
I sell these on an adult website and they’re more popular than you might expect. My agent is Jimmie “10-inch” Dean (no relation to the sausage), a former porn star who found Jesus during a stint in rehab and became so excited pondering the age-old question of whether Joseph and Mary had ever done it that as soon as he got out he started Thinking Butts and Boobs, an artsy adult website that speaks frankly and honestly about sex and desire and why we want what we want. It’s the adult site; it’s even been written up in such stuffy publications as The New Yorker and the Wall Street Journal.
I happened upon this site by accident one night as I was surfing the web looking for ways to make extra money. One minute I was reading about My Points accounts and the next I found myself at Jimmie’s website, which I like to think was fate since he was hosting his My Body and Why? art contest. First prize was $500, so I grabbed a Barbie, made her boobs bigger and her butt rounder, and then I went all the way and drilled a tiny vagina, complete with real-life labia (which was harder than you might expect, with so many folds and all). I only came in third, but Jimmie was so smitten that he called me the very next day to see if he could market the idea. I was sure he was joking: did the world really need dolls with cunts and pubic hair?
It turns out it did. The first five sold out in less than a day, and even though Jimmie has twelve other artists working on his Really Real, Really Feel Me doll line, mine are the most popular. I make four to eight a month and average $50 apiece. I could make more money if I branched out on my own, but I don’t want the hassles. Jimmie has an ongoing legal battle with the Mattel toy company and besides, I like the anonymity. I don’t have to suffer the embarrassment of walking into Jay-Jay’s school conference knowing his teacher knows I’m the creator of Purple Pussy Patty or Suck Me Harder Sammy.
My dolls actually sell more among women than men. This is a fact. It’s also a fact that women think of sex a lot more than men give them credit for. It’s just that we think of sex as a whole outfit, while men only think of ripping off the clothes and getting the deed done. Women dress up their fantasies, right down to the weave of the silk undies and the peek of lace around a push-up bra. We imagine not only hairstyles but the shapes of barrettes and the shades of toenail polish. Once we’re satisfied that our fantasy looks exactly as we want, only then do we bring in the men. And here’s the secret, the thing we all know but rarely admit: in our fantasies, the men don’t matter that much. Oh, we need their parts and their presence, but they are shadowy and often faceless because it’s mostly about us, our bodies, and the way we look and move. Sex for men is all about the orgasm. For women, it’s all about getting to the orgasm. I understand this, which is why my dolls are so popular. I take care with every detail, from the handbags to the toe rings to the fake designer camisoles, one strap slipping coquettishly down a shoulder.
I love sitting at my kitchen table late at night and chopping my dolls to bits. I feel so inexplicably happy that I often get up and dance around the kitchen. It’s not just about the money, which I so desperately need. It’s the knowledge that I’m creating something, and so what if it’s slutty dolls? I’m choosing colors and shading textures, I’m figuring lines and confronting angles. Lately I’ve begun dabbing small canvases on the side, sketching an identity for each doll. These paintings are embarrassingly sloppy and amateurish; it seems I’ve gotten out of touch these years I’ve been away. Yet I can feel a difference in my brush the nights I work on these, a thumping like a heartbeat, a tingle much like someone’s breath against my hand. Often I get so carried away I fall asleep right at the table, my head pressed on small tubes of acrylic paint so that when I wake in the morning, streaks blaze across my face like tribal markings. I don’t wash these off, I wear them as long as I can: to the post office, the grocery store, the bank, the color marking me as someone with a purpose, someone trying to find meaning, decipher nuances. Someone who matters.
Remember to Praise
When we praise the good things, the universe rewards us by subtracting from the bad. Think of it as a math problem with a smaller solution!
—The Oprah Giant
Tuesday, Oct. 4
“It’s not that I didn’t want to sleep with him,” Sandee said the moment I walked in to work this morning. “I just didn’t want to listen to him make a big deal out of it later.” She pulled a large tray out of the pantry cooler and began sorting salsa: green, hot, mild, and chunky. “It’s so pathetic when men try to thank you for sex.”
Sandee is my best friend. She’s a small-town girl from the Florida bayou who hates the heat and doesn’t know how to swim. She has platinum blonde hair and dimples and wears high-heel shoes even while waiting tables, her shapely calves flexing with each step. We work side-by-side stations during the lunch rush, and over and over, she saves my life. Unlike me, she actually likes to wait tables.
“The money’s not bad and I don’t have to wear career-girl bullshit outfits,” she says, tugging her apron over her hips. Sandee is fifteen pounds overweight, but on her it’s perfect. She looks ripe, like fruit waiting to be picked. She also has a way of making people feel right at home that nets her more tips than the rest of us.
“Honey, I’ll be right back,” she says, patting shoulders and soothing tempers so that even the older women, the hard, over-fifty women with sagging chests and bad haircuts, feel a need to protect her. No matter what she does, drops her tray or mixes up drink orders, the customers forgive her.
“Oh, darling, it’s just not my day,” she gasps, her hand held up to her mouth like a parody of old movies.
Sandee lives out in Eagle River, an upper-middle-class area about thirty minutes outside Anchorage, in a house with large windows overlooking the mountains. She was married once. On their third anniversary, her husband, Randall, surprised her with a Las Vegas vacation. He settled her in an expensive hotel, told her he was going out for breakfast, and never came back. He left her with a hefty hotel tab, a $1,600 monthly mortgage, and four maxed-out credit cards. Every three months, she receives a postcard from a peculiar location: Tupelo, Chattanooga, or Hell, Michigan, the backs holding strange and badly poetic messages scrawled in Randall’s stilted handwriting. “In the morning, the sky is the color of pumpkin pie,” the last one said. Sandee fumes for days after receiving one of these. It’s her theory that Randall is hiding out in Vegas and making a killing as a blackjack dealer. The postcards, she believes, are mailed by tourists after they return home from vacation.
“That would be like Randall, making someone else do his dirty work for him,” she says.
She isn’t sure if she’s still married (“He could be dead for all I know,” she says in more optimistic moments), and when men ask her out, which is often, she usually agrees. These dates rarely end well and the next morning she shares the unhappy details with me. Today it was a guy she met at the car wash over on Minnesota Drive.
“I knew he was left-brained—come on, he’s an accountant—but even that can be sexy. Remember that guy from British Petroleum who wore my underwear?” She tossed lettuce for the Caesar salad special. Croutons and cherry tomatoes flew. “Then he goes on and on about this digital recorder he got to capture rutting moose. I should have left right then but no, I hang around for the inevitable sex. Which was—surprise!—accompanied by the roaring and thumping of horny moose.” Sandee licked her fingers and stuck them back in the salad. “Why do I bother?”
I shrugged and headed to the empty dining room to set up my tables. The air was hazy with the smell of spilled tequila and old grease, and as I wiped chairs and tightened salt and pepper lids, I hummed along with the Mexican elevator music piped over the speakers. Since I’m the only all-day server—the others work split shifts and return for dinner as I’m finishing up the last of the afternoon tables—I get the prime corner station, five cozy booths plus two tables. Most days they’re covered through two p.m., which is a good thing: more tables equal more money.
Today was busy, and after everyone was cut from the floor I got caught with a busload of retired dentists from Wisconsin, all of them straggling in with that peculiar pallor of the overly stimulated tourist. They had been to Portage Glacier and Denali, cruised Kenai Fjords, walked along the Alaskan Pipeline, and were just now returning from a day jaunt along Turnagain Arm, where they had encountered two heaps of bear scat. A fat man shoved his camera’s viewfinder in my face.
“See?” He pointed to a blurry speck on the ground. “Scat so fresh it was steaming. Five minutes earlier, we’d have been ripped to shreds.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they had photographed dog poop, not bear. They were having such a good time—what right did I have to ruin it for them? They ordered premium margaritas and steak fajitas, left me a fat tip, and promised to send autographed pictures of The Scat as soon as they got back home. By the time I tallied up my bank, the dinner shift was in full swing and I was late picking up Jay-Jay. I found him slumped in front of the locked multipurpose room, a big-bosomed lady with a clipboard glaring down at me. Did I know, she barked, that I would be charged an extra dollar for every minute late? I shook my head and signed the form; I had barely broken even. The retired dentists had left $55 in tips, yet their staying late had cost me $35 in extra child-care fees.
“I had to wait with Mrs. McCallister,” Jay-Jay complained as we walked across the darkening parking lot. The air was cold and crisp—Halloween weather, I always call it, these midautumn evenings when the wind blows with damp promise and everything feels suspended and mysterious.
“She talked about when she was a girl.” Jay-Jay shuddered and pulled his coat tighter. “It was awful.”
“I was a girl once,” I said.
He gave me a disgusted look and climbed in the backseat. Once home I couldn’t muster the energy to cook, so we had TV dinners. Jay-Jay and I secretly love TV dinners; we love the brightly colored cardboard wrappers and the way the food is stacked so neatly in clever little aluminum trays and then covered like holiday presents. We eat these compact meals in the living room while watching movies. Tonight it was Dr. Dolittle, and we laughed along with Eddie Murphy, we slurped and chewed and wiped our mouths on the bottoms of our shirts. After we finished, we put on our coats and sat on the porch and ate Fudgsicles until our tongues turned brown. I was stuffing the second one into my mouth when Jay-Jay suddenly asked, “Mom, ever wish you had a penis?”
“Not particularly,” I said.
“Maybe then you wouldn’t be so grouchy.”
I lowered my Fudgsicle and stared at the slope of his forehead, so much like Barry’s that I had the sudden urge to smack him. “How so?”
“Because,” he explained in a patient, adult voice, “you could pee standing up.”
“I’m on my feet all day at work. I like sitting down.”
“Whatever.” Jay-Jay shrugged. I could tell he didn’t believe a word I said. I wondered if he was right, if I would be happier if I had a flap of skin swinging between my legs. I couldn’t imagine it, though; couldn’t imagine having to tuck it in and constantly rearrange it and worry about whether it would get hard when it wasn’t supposed to or, worse yet, not get hard when it was supposed to. No wonder men treated their cocks as if they were the greatest things in the world. It was like stroking a talisman or praying to an unpredictable god: if I worship you and grant you privileges you’ll always be there for me when I need you.
But they weren’t, that was the thing. Every man I’ve ever dated for an extended time sooner or later couldn’t get it up or got it up but came moments later, or got it up but not quite up enough, lying there and stroking it with a fearful, desperate look in his eyes. As I lay there beside them with my beautiful cunt that was always ready and only needed to be oiled from time to time and could come five and six and seven times in a row and never “petered” out or stopped working.
“Vaginas are really cool things,” I wanted to tell Jay-Jay, because I wanted him to understand how it is to always be open, how walking around with that hole between your legs can sometimes feel like a void—if not filled, you could find yourself leaking away. How a man’s penis might be more prominent but a woman’s desire is just as strong, if not stronger, because she carries it deep inside of her.
Of course I couldn’t say this to my son; it would be almost incestuous. Plus it wasn’t really Jay-Jay I was thinking about but myself and the way I’ve lived my life, flitting from one desire to the next, never stopping to question if I was moving in the right direction, or even any direction at all. If men follow the lead of their penises, then women follow the path of their wombs. We follow our nurturing instincts. We call this passion or sex or love, but really it’s deeper and more binding. It’s our true voice, pure and pink and strong. It’s the thing we seek yet fear and doubt because, think of it: how many of us really want to know the truth about ourselves? Most of us, I believe, are happier with lies.
Ms. Carlita Richards
202 W. Hillcrest Drive #22
Anchorage, AK 99503
Dear Ms. Carlita Richards:
Congratulations! As head librarian of Anchorage Community Libraries, I would like to commend you for having the highest outstanding library fine so far this year: $120.60, accumulated in daily fees for How to Save Your Own Life, by Erica Jong.
Please arrange payment as soon as possible. Until balance is paid in full, your library card will no longer be honored at local branches.
Shame, shame, shame on you, Ms. Richards!
Margaret M. Miller,
Anchorage Community Libraries
Thursday, Oct. 6
I lie. I can’t help it, they just slip out. Gramma never made a big deal out of my lies, at least not the small ones, which she called fibskis. She believed fibskis were the only thing holding the world together.
“Think anyone wanna see themselves like they really is?” she’d snort. Then she’d roll dough out over the kitchen table and cut noodles while she told the story of her name, which was supposed to be Rachel but ended up Bethany; the midwife refused to write Rachel in the registry, since it was the name of the woman who stole her husband, so she wrote the name of her dead sister instead. By the time anyone realized this, it was too late and Gramma became Bethany, a combination of two names and similar to a small town in northern Alaska. Perhaps it was fate, for not only did I end up living in Alaska, but my name is also a fibski. It’s not really Carla, it’s Carlita. I don’t admit this often because it’s obvious to anyone looking at me that I don’t have an ounce of Spanish blood in my veins. Laurel could get away with it, since she is darker, but I have that pasty skin of someone who should have been blonde but turned brunette. I wasn’t purposely given a Spanish name. Mother, drugged out on painkillers and flying from champagne, goofed. I was supposed to be a boy and Mother had the name Charles all picked out, after her great-uncle, who started his very own tire company and made a fortune, only to lose it on a mad gambling binge when he was eighty-four, but that’s beside the point. He was the only rich one in a family of middle-class people trying to toe the line and pull themselves up. I was supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor. “Or maybe even a movie producer,” Mother used to sigh when telling the story. Then she’d take two aspirin and lie on the couch with a washcloth over her eyes. Talking about our muddled family history gave her a fierce headache, and we all knew to keep it down at such times.
When the doctor handed me to Mother, all wrapped in a pink blanket with a frilly cap on my head, Mother tittered and tried to hand me back.
“I seem to have the wrong baby,” she fretted, still groggy from the drugs. “I ordered a boy and this seems to be, why, it’s a girl.” Her face was all scrunched up and puzzled, and at that exact moment Daddy took a picture, which is still plastered in the photo album, Mother holding me away from her body and looking at me with distaste, while I stuck out my tongue and crossed my eyes.
Later, when the drugs wore off and it finally hit Mother that she was stuck with another girl, she worried about what to name me. “Charles is such a good, solid name,” she insisted. “It seems a shame to waste it. Maybe we should name her Charles anyway? If we gave it a cute little spelling…”
Daddy refused. Even then he was secretly plotting to try again. So when the Mexican aide came in to change the sheets and pointed at me and asked Mother, “What you name,” Mother explained her dilemma. I don’t know how much the woman understood, but at one point she excitedly pushed back her massive braid and screamed out, “Carlita!”
“Carlita? That sounds so, well, ethnic,” Mother replied, but when Daddy looked it up in the baby book and found out that it was the female equivalent to Charles, he couldn’t be swayed. So I ended up a Polish-looking child with a Spanish-sounding name in a family with a mother who put on airs and a father who bought me baseball gloves and took me to football games and couldn’t seem to remember that I was really a girl. You’d think that when Gene finally came along, three years later, he would have given up, but he dragged Gene and me to every sporting event possible, and instead of making us athletic, all it did was give us a lifelong aversion to any type of game that required a ball.
Saturday, Oct. 8
“Think you’ll ever get married again?” Laurel was splendidly attired in a navy blue Halston blazer and skirt so slim she was forced to mince her way across the kitchen. “I’m not getting personal. I just showed a newlywed couple a condo over in Independence Park.” She plopped down on a kitchen chair without bothering to brush off the dog hair.
“So?” I took a savage bite of the peanut butter toast left over from Jay-Jay’s breakfast. I had been up late the night before, supposedly finishing a transvestite G.I. Joe doll order but actually working on my Woman Running with a Box painting. The box, now tied with red and yellow ribbon, was cradled against the woman’s chest as lovingly as if it were a child. I had no idea what was inside but believed that if I kept painting it would soon be revealed to me.
“…out of my mind,” Laurel was saying.
“The newlyweds. I can’t stop thinking of them. ‘Are you sure these are the counters you want?’ he kept asking. They were so endearing, so careful of each other’s feelings.”
“Give them a few years and they’ll be fighting over those very counters,” I snorted.
“Maybe not. If you find the right man it doesn’t have to happen that way.” Laurel’s voice was dreamy, as if she were talking from far away. I got up and stuck another piece of bread in the toaster.
“The question is whether this is a sign or merely a coincidence,” she said.
I didn’t know how to answer. Laurel has been acting strange, calling and asking off-the-wall questions: If I were a bug, would I rather be a beetle or a grasshopper? Were socks invented before shoes? And why do we care what color our car is when we can’t see it while we’re driving? These questions make me cringe. They’re like seeing Laurel without her bra, her pale, sad breasts forlorn and defenseless without their normal wedge of armor.
“Some days I put on a yellow sweater yet all day I feel as if I’m wearing black,” she was saying. “Oops, there’s my phone.” The theme from Jeopardy! blared as Laurel pulled out her cell and hurriedly tapped out a text message reply. When she looked up, her face was flushed.
“Where was I? Oh yes: if you had five hundred dollars, would you spend it on a swimsuit that makes you look perfect or a new radiator for the car?” She leaned back in her chair and flashed me a hopeful smile; lipstick gleamed against her teeth.
If I had five hundred dollars, I’d pay off some of my credit cards and buy a new pair of work shoes, but I knew that wasn’t what she meant. “I guess it depends on how often I used the car.”
Laurel’s face fell for a moment. “Okay, it’s your second car, the one you don’t use much. The one you keep for summer.”
“Summer?” I repeated stupidly. I knew she was trying to tell me something but it was too early in the morning to make the kind of mental leaps I needed to understand my sister. I nodded and chose the swimsuit.
“Yes!” She tapped the tabletop with her hand. “That’s exactly what I thought. So you agree, then? That I’d look good as a redhead?” She pulled a strand of her hair and stared at it with fascination.
“We’re talking about hair?”
“What did you think we were talking about?”
I paused. “I thought Junior hated redheads.”
“Oh, him,” Laurel said with disinterest. “I need something new, you know? Something bold. Something that shouts, ‘Here’s a woman who’s not afraid to take chances.’”
Laurel was afraid to take chances, but I knew better than to point that out. “Red is bold,” I agreed. “But I’ve heard that it’s hard to cover back up.”
“I know!” Laurel cradled her head in her arms. “It’s such a dilemma, Carly. I can barely sleep thinking about it. I want to look as if I’m in charge, but sexy in charge, you know?”
I was at loss for words. Except for the few days before her period, Laurel doesn’t allow her emotions to get the best of her. She’s logical and precise and careful. Yet there she was, sitting in front of me and revealing more moods then she’d had in years.
“The time!” Laurel stood up and pranced her way to the door without bothering to rinse out her dirty coffee cup. “I’ll call you,” she yelled over her shoulder. “About the hair, okay?”
The slam of the door, followed by the purr of her car’s expensive motor as she glided down my driveway. I watched out the window and wondered what was going on in my sister’s mind. Women always try to change their hair when they really want to change their lives. I did this myself, back before the divorce, before Barry and I dared utter the word, when we were still rolling it around on our tongues with an almost frenzied joy, each of us sure all our failures were the other’s fault. Instead of bringing up the subject of divorce, I began cutting my hair. It had been long when I married Barry, down past my waist, and I often wore it in a fat braid that hit comfortingly against my spine. I loved my hair. It was a shiny, dark blonde that picked up yellow highlights in the summer. Sometimes I wove ribbons through it or curled it in a mad array around my face.
“Getting loose,” Barry yelled when I let my hair down. “My baby’s a’gettin’ loose.”
I sacrificed my hair to free myself from my marriage. I hacked away, inch by agonizing inch, with Jay-Jay’s toenail scissors, ripping and tearing until my hair lay in uneven strips across my back, slowly creeping up toward my shoulders. Barry never uttered a word, not even when my hair littered the bathroom floor and stuck to the sides of his socks.
To retaliate, or maybe to keep up, he started killing things: a few spruce hens here, a rabbit or porcupine there. King salmon so fat and heavy the middle of the kitchen table sagged, and then a coyote, a lynx, and—god help us—a sheep and finally a caribou. The day I walked in the bathroom and found a moose head floating in a cold bath was the day I knew we had gone far enough. Next time, it could only be a person.
That night I waited up for Barry, who was working an insurance salesman banquet. I waited until he walked in the door, his ridiculous chef’s pants dragging on the floor, and then I coughed, cleared my throat.
“Divorce,” I said, and we both froze, the silence between us thick and dangerous. I said it again. It was as if I had no control over my mouth.
“Divorce, divorce, divorce,” until the very word became strange and blurry, like something you might read about in the newspaper.
“Shut up!” he screamed, which made me scream even louder: “Divorce, divorce, divorce.”
He finally had to hit me to shut me up, a gentle tap that didn’t even leave a mark, but still my eyes watered and I stared at him, momentarily betrayed. How dare he!
I kicked him, sly and quick, but he didn’t bother to fight back, just stood there, his shoulders slumped, his chef’s hat sagging against his neck. I hated him then, hated him with a passion so extreme that if someone had handed me a knife, I wouldn’t have hesitated to stick it in.
“You win,” he said in a horrible, gravelly whisper. “Happy now, god damn it, are you fuckin’ happy now?”
But I didn’t win. We both ended up losing more than we ever imagined, more than we even knew we had. Divorce sounds so simple, a two-syllable word about two people breaking apart. It’s not simple, though, and the break is never clean. And just when you think it can’t possibly hurt any more, it hurts more than is bearable, more than you can take. But you do take it, and that’s the worst part of it all.
Subject: What the fuck?
Your order is late again. Get your fucking ass in gear. Now!
On a cheerier note, the last batch looked good, especially the Hanging Low, Hanging Hard for Big Daddy military doll. The camo dick rocked, as did the rocket-flared cock ring.
Keep it up,
President, Thinking Butts and Boobs
Tuesday, Oct. 11
I can’t seem to finish my dirty doll orders. For the past two nights I’ve sat at the table, X-Acto knife in hand, and accomplished nothing. Oh, I did manage to slice open Ken’s buttocks and insert a small wedge of latex to give him a plumper, sexier behind, but my heart wasn’t in it and poor Ken ended up with lopsided cheeks and an ugly scar, which I didn’t bother to cover with dabs of flesh-coated tint. Instead, I stapled Ken’s mouth shut. Then his eyes, and his ears and hands, all the while wondering: what is it I don’t want to see or hear or touch or say?
My dolls are a camouflage, a distraction. They keep me from seeing my real self. But what if I were braver? What if I dusted off my brushes and concentrated, really concentrated, on the Woman Running with a Box painting? Finishing it would make it permanent, and permanence scares the hell out of me. Which is ironic, because one of the reasons I yearn to be an artist is to leave something behind, a record of my life, a yell in the dark: I was here.
Gramma was the one who first put a crayon in my hand when I was two, and forget the fact that I ate the first couple she handed me (primrose, followed by burned sienna and then midnight sky), I soon began coloring everything in sight, from Mother’s good white slip to the bathroom walls.
“Ach, you got the gift,” Gramma said, oohing and aahing at every smeary new creation. “You are a gifter.”
Gramma always believed I’d make it as an artist. She was the only one in the family who believed I would amount to something; she said she knew it the first time she plopped a piece of honey-glazed cabbage into my mouth. I sucked it slowly, intently, as if trying to draw out every single flavor.
“Greedy for life,” Gramma called it. She insisted it was a sign of a strong personality, someone with the gumption to go out and get what she wants. Poor Gramma, with her messy hair and unshaven legs and ugly flowered dresses clinging to her massive hips. Poor onion-smelling, mole-spotted Gramma. She was never good at predicting anything, not even the weather. If she said it was going to be sunny, we all made sure we carried our raincoats that day.
Friday, Oct. 14
“Midway through your diary writing you will be surprised by offerings of mysterious gifts,” the Oprah Giant wrote. “It could be money, free car repairs, or a letter from the sister you haven’t spoken with in years.”
When this happened, she continued, it was our obligation, our duty, to offer up praise.
So praise be the mailman with his balding head, his shuffling gait, his knobby knees (in the summer) and big red ears (in the winter). Praise be his little truck that creeps and coughs up our road each morning before I leave for work. Praise be his gloves with the chewed fingers and his cheery “Good morning, Miz Richards” and his breath that smells of butterscotch candies.
Praise be to you!
Because today you brought me two Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks, each made out for the whopping amount of $845.76 and tucked inside a small envelope with stars from the Alaska flag running up the side.
In Alaska, October is a holy month. It’s when every man, woman, and child, plus a few dogs and hamsters squeezed illegally into the system, gets a portion of the oil profits from the North Slope. Forget the fact that those same oil companies pollute our waters and kill our wildlife. Most of us are happy to receive this money we didn’t do a damn thing to deserve. We feel vindicated, as if it is our right, our pat on the back for having suffered through winter after dark winter, along with crappy springs and too-short summers. These checks usually average around a thousand dollars, though they’ve been known to soar past the fifteen-hundred-dollar range.
For a short space each October, the financial burden lifts from my shoulders and I am left feeling light and airy, as if I can accomplish anything. It’s an illusion, of course. Still, it’s a welcome reprieve. I buy balloons and decorate the kitchen.
“We’re rich,” I sing, dancing around the kitchen with Jay-Jay and Killer. I order take-out pizza—a luxury—and we sit on the worn linoleum and look through catalogs, deciding what to do with this windfall, this gift from god and the state and our pigeon-toed mailman. Jay-Jay usually buys video games and I always buy art supplies.
So thank you, Mr. Mailman. For the filbert brush and the bone-handled fettling knife, the Schmincke soft pastel set and the Totally Hair Ken doll, and especially for the 1966 blonde ponytailed Barbie I won on eBay, which is splendid and glorious and should arrive in your humble little truck sometime next week.
Monday, Oct. 17
Phone call at 8:03 a.m.
“This is Darlene, over at Alaska Consumer Credit Counseling. I see by my records that your dividend checks were scheduled to arrive this week.”
“Oh. Right. Yes.”
Excerpted from Dolls Behaving Badly by Cinthia Ritchie Copyright © 2013 by Cinthia Ritchie. Excerpted by permission.
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