By: Sofi Papamarko
Mother believed in tzotchkes more than she believed in her own diagnosis.
Bisque porcelain angels, blown-glass ballerinas and salt and pepper shakers shaped like nesting hens continued to materialize on every available surface of our home. When the oncologist told us she had maybe six months to live, she seemed to pick up the pace. Every other day, a new package would arrive via the Home Shopping Network, emblazoned with a warning: FRAGILE.
“You can’t take them with you, Mother.”
“I’m not planning on going anywhere, Glenny,” she said. As though the collective presence of a hundred ceramic clowns and litters of mismatched hodgepodge cats would be enough to weigh down her corporeality, keeping her anchored in this world for good.
Mother’s favourite knick-knack was a pair of harlequin clown bookends she’d picked up at an antiques mall in Temecula. The black and white monstrosities lounged in their place of honour on the mantle. Their use was form over function; instead of holding books in place, they pressed up against one another with nothing separating them. As something of an inside joke to myself, I once sandwiched a copy of Either/Or between them. I mostly wanted to see how long it would take her to notice. Mother promptly returned the tome to my room, complete with a Post-It note asking that I store my books on my bookshelf, please, where they belong.
And then there were the porcelain dolls. She’d been collecting them for years. There were so many, they required a spare bedroom. Rows upon rows of pretty little dolls in bonnets and bows, dolls with unblinking blue eyes, dolls wearing white lace dresses, extravagant velvet gowns or nothing at all.
Mother had given a name to each of her tiny girls. Suzanne and Jacqueline. Miranda and Janet. And sweet little Ruth, her favourite one of all.
“Glenny, angel,” she said. “Fetch me Meryl, would you please?”
She would then proceed to have a full one-sided conversation with the doll as though the object were a dear old acquaintance she’d run into at the supermarket, telling her she looked well and summarizing soap opera plotlines.
Mother was a little strange herself, so I suppose I came by my proclivities honestly.
I had a collection of my own. Unlike Mother’s collection, it was not kept in plain sight, but rather, on my computer’s hard drive. Like Mother, I’d named them all.
Sandra and Danielle. Sweet Cindy. Little Jasmine. And perfect Rebecca, my favourite one of all. Girls in bonnets and bows, girls with unblinking blue eyes, girls wearing white lace dresses, extravagant velvet gowns or nothing at all.
Before I continue, let me state for the record that I am not a monster. I’ve never acted on these urges, would never act on them. I’m a 100% certified non-practising pedophile. I’ve loved my little darlings often, but only inside my head. I relieve my hideous desires with the aid of my
imagination and pixels on a screen. That’s it. That’s as far as it has gone or ever will go.
Now, I’m not stupid. I am aware I am culpable on some level. I’m guilty simply for being a consumer of such images. But Humbert Humbert I am not. I am incapable of physically harming a child. I wouldn’t hurt a fly. I’m a vegetarian, for crying out loud. And I’ve long since realized that the best way to not be led into temptation is to avoid it entirely.
One of the most interesting things I learned in high school was that post-adolescent girls do not interest me in the least. The folds of flesh and fat and hair that make up sexually mature female bodies held little appeal. If I’m being brutally honest, I find grown women repulsive.
There are no children in academia. Academia, therefore, was a safe place for me. Naturally, I remained there for as long as possible.
An undergraduate degree in English Literature was followed by a second one in Philosophy which was followed by an MA in Eastern Philosophy. Ten years of my life, an incalculable debt load and three impractical pieces of paper to show for it all.
I completed a series of internships after graduation, but nothing ever came of them. Just as well. I was badly needed at home when Mother got sick. I kept her company, cooking and cleaning when she didn’t have the energy to insist on doing it herself. Full-time caregiver is a respectable vocation — and it keeps me out of trouble.
We got on each other’s nerves, of course. I wished she’d stop smoking. She wished I’d leave the house, maybe go on a date or two. But neither of us changed a thing.
It was a Saturday. Mother said she was feeling better than she had in weeks and wanted to attend an estate sale.
“Bargoons galore, Glenny!” she’d always say. “Their loss is my gain!”
I dropped Mother off just before 10AM. I was to pick her up at half past one, after she and Doris had met for lunch. I was looking forward to spending those hours on the computer with my girls.
I’d just booted up the computer in the basement when the doorbell rang. I’d have ignored it had it not rung again in short succession another ten or fifteen times.
Expecting to see a pair of older women proffering religious tracts, I was already making my excuses and apologies when I was startled silent by the cherubic faces of two identical blonde girls in green and white uniforms.
“Wanna buy some Girl Scout cookies, mister?” they asked in stereo, penetrating my soul with their blue laser beam gazes. Their name tags read “Joni” and “Janis.”
“Uh, no. No thank you. Not just now.”
“Oh, come on, mister!” the one called Joni pouted. “It’s for a good cause!”
“I’m afraid I don’t have any money. So you’d best just…”
The girls squirmed themselves past me, making their way into the house.
“Whoa Joni, look!”
When I whirled around, the Girl Scouts were already fondling Mother’s glossy life-sized ceramic Irish setter.
“There’s a good puppy. There’s a good dog.”
“Don’t touch that!”
They looked dismayed but backed off. Their attentions were now focused on me.
“You wear your hair like a girl!” Joni shrieked, indicating the ponytail I’ve had since my first undergraduate degree. “That’s so funny!”
“Ponytails aren’t just for girls, you know.”
“Yes, they are!”
“No, they’re not.”
“Fine.” Then, under her breath: “They are.”
Joni was the clear leader. Janis was quieter. More of an observer. Undoubtedly more intelligent. I liked Janis best.
I could smell them, now. An intoxicating blend of baby shampoo, perspiration and Coppertone. Dizzy, I sat down. I had to get the Girl Scouts out of the house as quickly as possible, but I also never wanted them to leave.
“You have so much cool stuff,” Joni crawled into my lap, stopping time. “Where did you get all of it?”
“Here and there,” I said, carefully nudging her off of my lap. “Would you like to see the best part?”
“Yeah!” Janis took my left hand, Joni showered a Morse code of affectionate little smacks upon my legs and buttocks and before I knew what was happening, I had led these gorgeous creatures to our spare bedroom.
Where in God’s name was their mother? How was she not concerned that her children could potentially encounter someone like – well — me?
“I’ve never seen Barbies like these before!” said Janis, asking for a boost to reach the very top shelf. I raised her up by her armpits – the only part of her body aside from the top of her head that I deemed safe to touch. As she kicked up one smooth leg, I caught the briefest glimpse of blue floral underwear. The room undulated as though I stood in an aquarium.
“I wish you were mine,” she whispered into the plastic conch of Suzanne’s ear.
“How about I go brew some tea for a tea party?” I offered, sweating profusely. The girls were too entranced by their new porcelain playmates to answer definitively.
Tumescent and anguished, I slunk off to the basement. I had to make quick work of my libido and/or commit immediate hari-kari. But as I considered the logistics of taking my own wretched life without the poor girls having to discover my body (crawling into the deep freeze with a plastic bag over my head, perhaps?), the telephone rang. It was Doris. Mother had collapsed at the estate sale, and could I scurry over to the hospital right away, please?
The girls had worn matching knapsacks. Fuchsia. I remember this detail, now. Assuming they were at least halfway through their cookie run, the vessels wouldn’t have been stuffed to capacity with Girl Scout cookie boxes. There would have been room to fit other things. Three
dolls each, perhaps.
The police questioned me for nearly half an hour about the dolls that had materialized on neighbourhood porches. A brunette porcelain doll, a redhead, a bald newborn baby doll in her baptismal gown and a pair of blue-eyed blondes. It was eerie how the dolls matched the physical appearances of the sweet little girls residing inside, safely tucked into their canopy beds.
“Parents in the community are concerned,” said the wall-eyed Hispanic cop.
“So you don’t deny the dolls are yours?” That was the female officer, built alarmingly like a refrigerator.
“They belong to us, but I can’t account for how they arrived at their destinations.”
Mother was grilled next. Due to her precarious health, the police had come directly to our home, although I wasn’t allowed to be there while she was questioned. It had been two days since she’d been released from the hospital, and I was too nervous to leave her alone for long stretches of time, so I seized the opportunity to drive to the grocery store to pick up a few necessities. When I returned home, Mother had already retired. Every light in the house was off. Grateful, I descended into the basement to find some torture and peace.
It wasn’t until I retrieved the morning paper that I learned the police had concluded their investigation. Mother had confessed to them about depositing the dolls on the doorsteps of neighbourhood girls.
“I thought it was a nice thing I was doing,” she was quoted as saying in the newspaper. “I was just giving them some presents.”
I didn’t understand how this was possible. She’d barely been out of my sight these last few weeks. I needed to ask her right away, but when I brought her breakfast (a toasted bagel with peanut butter and honey), she didn’t wake up.
I have a theory and it is this: the first museums in the world came into being because a devoted child didn’t have the heart to purge his parent’s belongings.
It was like living in a mausoleum, being here in this house without her. So quiet. Unbearably still. But my girls kept me company. I only emerged from the basement to sleep or prepare instant rice.
When I ran out of money, I realized having an estate sale was my only option. I had no practical use for a thousand precious paperweights, but maybe somebody like Mother would fully appreciate these tacky treasures.
I’d keep a few things. Ruth and Sylvia, some old Christmas ornaments, the harlequin bookends. I would box them up for safekeeping.
When I retrieved the bookends, armed with a roll of bubble wrap, a piece of paper concealed between them fluttered to the ground. It was a printout of perfect Rebecca, naked and cross-legged on decaying parquet flooring. She stared at me accusingly.
On the back of the print-out, a yellow Post-It note with a spurt of Mother’s handwriting:
“Try not to be what you are,” it read. “For me, Glenny. For me.”