I was the girl sandwiched between two brothers, and people gave me dolls. There was a fancy bride doll. There was an olive-skinned Italian doll with hair the color of ripe stalks of wheat with a pretty pink dress and a her-size parasol that opened and closed, with tiny lace trim and it was probably more interesting and beautiful than any doll. There was an Alice in Wonderland doll with pink pouty lips and pale yellow hair and a light blue dress with a white apron. There were twin baby dolls with matching yellow dresses.
Why do people give dolls to little, tomboy girls? They should have given me a stuffed baboon backpack, and a giant wrestling orangutan, and a ride-on wombat to have adventures with. I only remember playing with the bunk bed (that frequently collapsed) and the baby dolls (who I could not tell apart). I had all those other fancy dolls with dresses and shoes that I didn’t play with. They weren’t fun; they were stiff and they were scary. Dolls had their own ideas about sitting with their legs straight or having their eyes open, and they didn’t want to play with me the way stuffed animals did.
Stuffed animals liked all the games. Stuffed animals liked hiding under the bed with me, or making forts, or seeing if we fit inside a cupboard. Dolls were stiff, with plastic limbs and those terrible, terrible, unblinking eyes. Those eyes looked at me forever, and into my soul, where they saw that I was afraid of things like the big crows in the neighborhood behind my house, and then the dolls gave you the thoughts from their empty plastic heads: “Oh, you stupidy stupid! You’re afraid of the dark? You’re afraid of the basement? You’re afraid of crows? You should be. You should be!”
At night they were the worst. I had to lay each one down to make her close her eyes; otherwise they would all watch me sleep. I wasn’t allowed to have the cat in my room at night to keep them away, to keep me safe. The rule was we had to lock the cat in the kitchen. I could maybe even hear him trying to get out, trying to press open the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room, so he could come upstairs and kill those dolls for me, once and for all. My cat couldn’t kill the dolls in the daytime, only in the nighttime when they were doing the secret evil dolly things, and alive. He had to catch them at it. Only then could they be killed.
Sometimes, the dolls worked with my parents who were evil kidnappers who hid the skeletons of their victims in the crumbling walls of the basement. Or the dolls drove the getaway car for my grandparents who were really Bonnie and Clyde. If you could go into my grandparents’ kitchen where all their cupboards were very suspiciously metal, and when my grandparents weren’t watching you could go look under their sink and you would find sacks and sacks of money in the kind of canvas bags that had the name of a bank on the outside because it was money stolen from banks because they were really Bonnie and Clyde. My Great Aunt M— who lived with my grandparents had a pink satin bedspread and a fake fireplace with a real electric fake fire and a very large, fancy doll with a real china face; no one was ever allowed to touch or play with the doll but I knew this doll guarded the kitchen and the bags of money under the sink.
The dolls in my room made many bad things happen. The dolls brought lightning. The dolls brought fevers. The dolls made my brother get worms. They locked the bathroom door from the inside on my side so my other brother had to come through my room in the middle of the night, angry and yelling. The dolls killed the grass in the backyard so there was brown dirt instead of pretty, green grass like the grass next door. The dolls were why the cars drove too fast down my street. The dolls were why there were the big cracks in the sidewalk, thrust up from under the sidewalk so the sidewalk was uneven and so I would never, ever learn to ride a bicycle without training wheels because it was too bumpy, too bumpy. The dolls made it too sunny in summer so the sidewalks burned my feet and too cold in winter so the radiators banged. The dolls made it so my parents weren’t religious enough, so I didn’t know how to pray properly and I didn’t know how to get God on my side to keep the scary things out. The dolls made my room messy. The dolls went in my mother’s closet and stole her scarves and shoes and watched me try them on in my own room and then they didn’t put them back so my mother would notice things were missing and find them under my bed. The dolls were why my mother thought I was sneaky. I wasn’t sneaky; it was the dolls.
When I got big and went away to do more grown-up things like going to college, my mother did things like redecorate my room and, having stripped the wallpaper and repainted the furniture, her redecorating energies came to be directed upon the dolls. She sent my old dolls to the doll hospital. There they got new eyelashes, got the ink from ball point pens cleaned off their bodies, and got the holes repaired where I had stuck them with pins. The Italian doll had her hair restyled (because I had cut it off). The bride doll had her eye repaired (the one that got stuck). When they came back from the hospital, my mother had new dresses made for them: a new blue dress and white pinafore for Alice, a new wedding gown for the bride, a new pink gown for the Italian doll. Once freshly coiffed and dressed in new frocks, my mother sat the dolls, each with her legs straight in a wide V, on a tidy, new shelf in the room that had been mine.
After my mother died, my brothers and I went to her house to divide her possessions, and my stepfather expected me to take the dolls. In their new, fancified state they were no longer mine. My dolls were the ones with the ink stains and the pin-holes, the cut hair and torn dresses. My dolls were capable of great evil, and what new powers did these restored beauties have? I left them on the shelf. Maybe they had something to do with my mother being dead.