Bouvier stood motionless before the great collection with his pesticide sprayer
swaying from his limp arm. He had never seen so many beautiful dolls. Their
finely painted lips pouted and shone as if begging for a light peck. Their
round eyes seemed to watch him carefully from the high shelf as he moved
closer. Glass irises gleamed like jewels lodged in pale stone. Blue and green.
Gray and brown. He put his sprayer down and edged closer. Tall, like his
mother’s side, he easily reached the peachy red-head in the back, who was
frozen in a coy giggle. He just wanted
to look. Just to see her linen frock and tiny leather shoes. Maybe to touch her
curls. She seemed to beckon to him saying, “Hold me close, Rusty. Kiss my
cheeks wash my hair name me love me scold me tuck me into bed.” He nestled her
into the crook of his arm and bounced her against his ribcage.
as Rusty cradled her to his chest, Mrs. Linden walked in with a glass of ice
water. She looked startled for a moment
and put the glass down on the table beside the bed. Rusty fumbled with the doll
and tried to set her back on her stand. His heart thumped, and he couldn’t hear
her even though the words weren’t angry. They were sweet. Too sweet. He could
smell her cunt as she came closer. He thrust the doll at her, and grabbed his
sprayer, and continued sweeping the mist of chemicals along the baseboards, but
Mrs. Linden stood in his way. She cuddled the doll against her sharp
collarbones. The pesticide misted her pink and green running shoes. He felt his
stomach churning acid into his throat as Mrs. Linden reached for his hand. He
let the tank drop to the red carpet with a slosh. She eyed him with a strangeness. With desire.
is beautiful isn’t she?” Mrs. Linden kissed the doll’s white forehead and
pressed closer to Rusty. “Looks like May, doesn’t she? May didn’t
have red hair though.”
of decay and age lifted off her
skin from behind her ears and between her small, flat breasts. She ran her
forefinger over the blue veins that swelled from his stained hands. Rusty
jerked back and slammed the back of his head into the doll shelf. The screws
that held the shelf gave way, and
Rusty could feel his face brushed with silk and lace as the dolls fell around
him. He could hear porcelain cracking on porcelain and tiny, cloth bodies
thumping against the carpet. The dolls heaped at his feet in a dusty, perfumed
pile. Mrs. Linden fell to her knees and
began scooping them into her thin arms. Rusty could see her ribs heaving
through the cloth of her dress. He
thought she might be crying. He stepped
over her, and grabbed his sprayer, and left her on the floor.
drove around the rest of the day chain
smoking. He told a young couple that roaches were just trying to get warm, just
like you or me. You gotta share. It’s Louisiana. That was his last house before
he stopped at McDonald’s to get two quarter pounders with cheese. He ate the
same thing every night in front of the television with a doll catalogue in his
lap. He watched little girls talk about what they wanted for Christmas and
taped it, so he could re-watch it in June with the window unit humming in his
dead father’s house.
Sometimes a little
girl would get a cheap,
plastic doll with painted-on, cornflower blue eyes and look so stunned that
Rusty would pause it and just whisper at the television about how he could give
her beautiful dolls. Dolls with little glass tears and crumpled hands. He would
doze off in his chair wrapped in a felt blanket with a wolf printed on it only
to wake up at three in the morning to go stare at his dolls who sat, and
reclined, and stood, and leaned on every surface in his sisters’ old room. He
just sat in the middle of all the peering cold eyes on the flattened brown shag
carpet and imagined his two older twin sisters brushing his hair when he was
three. May and Gaye. Shining repetitions of one another with the same gray eyes
and hair so blonde it was almost white. They were starlit Gemini rotating
around one another grinning and interlocking hands with identical, pearl pink
fingernails all in a row.
They were only two
years older than baby
Rusty, but he became the older child as soon as he was six and they left him to
go back to heaven.
came for them not long after he found them clinging to each other behind the
cotton shed, asking Jesus how come? The twins wouldn’t stay in their own beds
after that and instead curled around each other like mirror images on a pallet
on the floor. Sweat beaded and slicked, their white blond hair and their cheeks
burned with fever. He sneaked into their room, and they lifted up their
nightgowns in unison to show him the red streaks on their bellies. Rusty piled
dolls around his weeping sisters. He crawled into the ellipse of space between
them at night and reached out for them until one morning when May was as cold
as porcelain. The doctor said infection.
Sepsis and infection. Gaye followed her sister not a week later.
knew who did it. He always came around asking Daddy to borrow his spreader or
auger, just until he sold the two-year-old steers, then he could buy his own.
He would show the kids his shrapnel scar from World War I that crawled from his
armpit to the base of his throat. He dug in the pockets of his loose khakis and
pulled out fistfuls of cherry cough drops wrapped in waxy paper to drop into
each child’s cupped palm. No one suspected except Rusty, who saw him wipe his
face with a pair of girls’ panties one time at a church picnic.
house was never the same after that. Momma drank coffee all day and scrubbed
her hands raw with lye soap. Daddy seldom spoke.
Rusty sat on his hands in the middle of the floor and looked around him. He
never turned on the lights when he went to visit the dolls. Before the twins
died, when Rusty was very small, he would crawl into bed with May when monsters
scrabbled in his closet and ghosts peeped in his window. She would hug his head
and tell him not to worry because monsters and haints didn’t like being watched
and that’s why you never could see them. The dolls always watch and they can
see in the dark, everyone knows that now go back to your own bed before Daddy
catches us. And he knew he was safe.
now too big to sprawl on his belly, sat on the twin bed and polished third
editions Clarissa and Mandy’s green eyes with a jeweler’s cloth, until the moon
hung high. He put the dolls back on
their stands and left for the shower where he masturbated to nothing in
particular. He pulled his coveralls on and turned off the television, which
flicked images of an old woman with fake tits laughing at a little boy in
cracked a piece of nicotine gum through the foil against her front tooth, bit
down, and waited for it to burn against the roof of her mouth. Her daughter was
calling her from the living room.
on baby,” Katlyn yelled at the wall.
grabbed her teal bra off the laundry pile on the bed and flicked it at the cat,
who patted at the air lazily and closed his eyes. She clasped it in front, spun
it around, and leaned over from the waist so her breasts dangled heavily into
the cups. Katlyn drew the straps over
her shoulders and popped them. She stood up straight in front of the three
paneled mirror. The mirror that made her infinite. Thousands of images of her
receding into the silvery distance, where she was the only standing figure
Samantha, her only child, seven years old with tears wetting her stuffed seal’s
head, stood in the doorway in her Beauty and the Beast panties. She scrunched
her little face. “I can’t put my fucking jammies on.”
Her dark brown eyes
widened in delight at the
sound of “fucking.”
Couteau. Quit cussing. It’s
was distracted. It was Memorial Day, and the boys at Polk would already be
drunk and ready to spend away their checks in honor of this great nation. On
her. All she had to do was take off her top and sit on their dicks for five
minutes or so, and tell them how strong
and brave, until one of them started
crying on her bare tits about some dead gunny in the desert. Bingo. That was
twenty-five dollars in her g-string.
you’re wearing your red shoes.”
baby, I got to go to work.” Katlyn smoothed on pink diamond lipstick, dabbing
color where her lip split and arched from six cleft palate repairs. “Come
eased into the room. Her hair was snarled into a dry clump in the back and a
sticky smear of grape jelly on her cheek had already attracted dust. Katlyn
tugged up Sam’s sagging Beauty and the Beast panties and used a make-up wipe to
scrub away the purple stain. She didn’t have time to brush the rat’s nest out
of Sam’s hair.
Go to bed. I’m going to work. Kisses for me and kisses for you,” Katlyn said.
Meemaw coming tonight?”
sighed. Her mother hadn’t come in two years. Sam still asked every night.
but I’ll be home around four. You remember how to count the hours?”
checked her lipstick in the glass window before she locked up. It always ran
from her pocked lip into the divot under her nose. She wriggled the cheap
aluminum key into the door and forced the lock until she heard the bolt slide
she got into the purple Saturn, she smiled at the stillness. When Sam was in
the back seat, she pressed her bony knees into the driver’s seat and talked to
her naked Barbie about Princess Who-the-Fuck and her handsome prince. Katlyn
wanted to grab the frizz-haired doll out of her hand and hurl it onto the
highway. She wanted to scream when Sam asked her question after question. She
wanted to slap her daughter’s fat little face.
Where’s Daddy? When’s he coming to see me? I’ll bet he’ll bring me
presents. He lives in Lafayette? How far is Lafayette from here? The teacher
said our parents should come tell the class what their job is. Can you come?
It’ll be this Tuesday.
instead she turned up the radio and reached for the pack of stale cigarettes
she kept in the glove box.
was on his way to Pineville for a rat killing at the mill. The dawn was just
breaking through the
purplish clouds, and the smooth highway lulled him. He was thinking about whether
or not to add a
black doll to his collection. He had seen one online at the library with tiny
red ribbons tied around her sweet pompoms. Her puffed curls looked like bear
ears. She was posed perfectly. Her tiny
fists pushed defiantly against her hips. A gap tooth showed through her grin.
She had a slingshot just poking out of the front pocket of her overalls. Rusty
was entranced, but he worried that she would be lonely in the sea of plump,
peachy blondes and redheads.
was picturing his new dolls holding hands when three thumps knocked under his truck.
He heard a thin cry. His front tire lost traction, and the truck skidded into
the narrow shoulder.
forced the emergency lights on with the ball of his thumb and jumped out of the
truck. The front tire of the bike and a clear plastic Little Mermaid purse
filled with Nilla Wafers, and Barbies, and a few hundred pennies scattered over
edged closer and saw a little girl crumpled behind his front tire. Her fingers
were tipped with electric blue nail polish and her mouth was open. A piece of
folded notebook paper jutted from
her front pants pocket. Rusty pinched the corner of the blue-lined note and
tugged it free from her shorts. He shook it open.
dark eyes reflected the white side of his truck. She was missing teeth and he
could smell child sweat mixed with blood. He knew that smell. The smell of his
sisters behind the shed. Rusty licked the sweat from his upper lip and reached
to touch the child’s wrist. No pulse. Her still-warm skin was as smooth as a
mouse pup’s. He sat down cross-legged beside her and touched her knotted hair.
She was wearing pink shorts with an elastic waistband and an adult-sized baby
doll T-shirt from the Pegasus Lounge. He sprayed Pegasus every six months for
silverfish and roaches. They always tried to pay in him in beer tokens and lap
dances and all the lunch buffets he wanted, no matter how many times he told
them that he really did prefer a check. He laced his thick fingers through her
tiny ones and turned her hand over to look at her blue fingernails pressed
loosely against his knuckles.
came home to an empty house. She wasn’t even drunk anymore, just tired. She
walked from the front door with her red shoes dangling from her hand to Sam’s room
and checked her watch.
door was open. “Samantha. Hurry and get
up. I got to take you to school.” No answer. “Samantha Andrea.”
Katlyn picked up
a pack of cigarettes from the
kitchen counter and shook it, hoping for the soft rattle of a lone smoke.
Empty. She pushed her nails over her scalp and walked toward Samantha’s room at
the end of the hall. A pile of Sam’s dirty laundry slumped on top of the floor
vent in the hall. Sam’s father used to
lie on the vent when he got back from the asphalt mill and perch Sam on his
soft belly. She screamed and wriggled, and he puffed air in her ear and made
her wave bye bye when Katlyn left for the club at night. She never could make
it work with men who were good to her.
she got to the bedroom, she felt a thickness in her throat. The broken daybed
Sam slept on was empty, and the comforter covered in red and blue dinosaurs was
crumpled on the floor. Sunlight streamed through the gap between the hotel
towels that hung over the windows. Katlyn stopped in the center of the room.
Piles of construction paper, and the poster of Dora the Explorer, and a tube of
leaking Neosporin sitting in a glossy pond of petroleum jelly, and paper plates
with grease spots, and stuffed animals all gazing with black button eyes. No
Sam. A strange emptiness overwhelmed her.
It wasn’t sadness or fear. Just nothing.
pulled out her cell phone and called 911.
drove the back way home. He called the mill in Pineville and told them he had a
fender bender and that he’d be out next week. The girl child he found on the
road had her head on his lap, her bony knees pressed against the back of the
seat. She was cold and stiff, but Rusty knew a warm bath and cup of milk with
lots of sugar and a little coffee would liven her again. He petted her
blood-stiffened hair. He would give her his most beautiful doll and tuck her
into the May’s bed, and then he could sleep on Gaye’s bed under the watchful
forest of glass eyes and just love her.
Just wish for her.
always had a healthy mistrust of police. When they finally showed up, she
recognized the stocky red-head from the Pegasus. He chewed on the end of a
stick pen. She could hear the plastic crack every time he rolled it between his
teeth. “Where’s her daddy?”
driving in from Lafayette.” He wasn’t. She hadn’t even called him.
cop pulled the pen from his mouth and wrote something on his pad. A thread of
saliva trailed from the end of it, snapped, and hung from his lower lip. He
pressed his thumb against his chin and rubbed, trying to hide the shining line
of spit on his chin.
was staying with her while you were at work?”
pinched the soft skin on her wrist. “She was alone. I couldn’t get my mother to
come. She had something to do at church.” Another lie.
face remained impassive.
know anyone who would want to hurt you? You sure her daddy didn’t get her?”
told you he was in Lafayette.”
asked her a few more questions, told her to call her family and boss and looked
around the house. Katlyn led him to the back of the house and watched him. He
wandered around Sam’s bedroom and rubbed
the orangey bristles on the back of his neck. The muscles in his back bunched
and went lax as he rummaged through the piles of laundry. His wedding ring
seemed too small and pinched the freckled skin behind his knuckle.
We’ll get back to you as soon as we hear something.” His eyes swept over her
breasts, just once.
loved her best. He took her home and ran a bath. He apologized to her for her
broken bones and torn skin as he peeled away the sodden T-shirt with the tribal
Pegasus on the front. She had a tan line where her berry brown skin was cut
with the white swimsuit lines of a two piece. He sat on the toilet, held her
stiff little body facing away from him, and brushed the cockleburs and gravel
out of her curls. He lowered her into the bathtub and thought about his own
baptism, where he shook and fought the pastor who held him under too long. Her
hair floated around her in dark tendrils,
and he carefully scrubbed away the shit and blood. When he finished rinsing
Head and Shoulders out of her hair, he toweled her off and set to removing the
electric blue polish with acetone. “Pink is the only color for pretty girls.”
of Samantha curled in the rain as the months passed and the cops came and went,
but nothing. Nothing but a cesarean scar
and some faint memory of a dark-haired child.
danced and drank whiskey sours with nineteen-year-old soldiers waiting to be
dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan.
night, she brought some married Corporal home. He stood, straight as a bean
pole, in her kitchen. She poured some cheap bourbon into a glass and splashed
neon yellow margarita mix into it, and pushed it into his hand. He looked
have kids?” He nodded to a crude drawing of a cow on the fridge.
She poured herself a drink and smiled. “Not anymore.”
chest swelled with the feeling of freedom. She fucked with her bedroom door
open. She packed Sam’s toys into boxes and stacked them in the back of her car.
She watched soaps wrapped in the warm haze of pot smoke. She threw away the
list of numbers for the babysitter.
ordered a deep freeze for her. He lined it with wallpaper dotted with carousel
ponies and tigers and clowns and stood it upright, so his beautiful girl could
sit on her pink velvet stool and wait until Rusty came home with a Moonpie or a
ceramic figure of a golden unicorn for her. He had carefully glued her eyes
shut and brushed her lashes with mascara, leaning back to admire his work. He
rouged her cheeks and painted her nails
and every single night took her out of her cold room to tuck her into May’s bed
with his third edition Claire, the southern belle with real human hair.
find you a sister soon,” he said as he tucked the pink down comforter around
her. “Pretty girls ought never, ever be lonely.”
He switched off the light
and slid into the other twin bed, his feet jutting through the bars.
Peralez completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Texas and an MFA
in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, where R. received the award
of Best Thesis for a collection of short stories. R.’s work has recently
been published in the Five on the Fifth,
Crack the Spine, and Furtive Dalliance