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R. Peralez
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dolls6.jpg

Dolls

R. Peralez

 

Rusty 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.

Just 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.

“She 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.”

    The smell 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.

    Rusty 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.

Jesus 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.

They 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.

The house was never the same after that. Momma drank coffee all day and scrubbed her hands raw with lye soap. Daddy seldom spoke.

Tonight, 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.

Rusty, 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 coveralls.

***

Katlyn 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.

“Mom, Momma, Maaaaa.”

“Hang on baby,” Katlyn yelled at the wall.

She 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 left.

“Mom?” 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.”

 “Samantha Andrea Couteau. Quit cussing. It’s unladylike.”

Katlyn 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.

“Mom, you’re wearing your red shoes.”

“Yeah 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 here.”

Samantha 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. 

“Okay. Go to bed. I’m going to work. Kisses for me and kisses for you,” Katlyn said.

“Is Meemaw coming tonight?”

Katlyn sighed. Her mother hadn’t come in two years. Sam still asked every night.

“No, but I’ll be home around four. You remember how to count the hours?”

“Yeah.”

Katlyn 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 against wood. 

When 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.

But instead she turned up the radio and reached for the pack of stale cigarettes she kept in the glove box.

***

Rusty 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.

He 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.

Rusty 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 the asphalt.

 “Oh Christ.”

He 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.

Toylet paper

Bannnanas

Candy

folder

 

Her 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.

***

Katlyn 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.

“Shit.”  Sam’s 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.

When 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.

She pulled out her cell phone and called 911.

***

Rusty 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. 

***

Katlyn 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?”

“He’s driving in from Lafayette.” He wasn’t. She hadn’t even called him.

The 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.

“Who was staying with her while you were at work?”

Katlyn 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.

His face remained impassive.

“You know anyone who would want to hurt you? You sure her daddy didn’t get her?”

“I told you he was in Lafayette.”

He 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.

“Ok. We’ll get back to you as soon as we hear something.” His eyes swept over her breasts, just once.

***

Rusty 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.”

***

Posters 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.

She danced and drank whiskey sours with nineteen-year-old soldiers waiting to be dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan.

One 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 around.

“You have kids?” He nodded to a crude drawing of a cow on the fridge.

“No.” She poured herself a drink and smiled. “Not anymore.”

Her 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.

***

Rusty 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.

“I’ll 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.







R. 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 literary magazines.

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