GULLEY OF THE DOLLS
Funny what I don’t remember. Me crying, I wanna live my reality. I really really do. Funny what I can’t pronounce. Big words like optical illusions fabricate deceptive realities. False naïveté invents photophobic sensations.
An old-style film shoots from my magic eye. I create a dreamlike panorama. A human figure transforms into celluloid. It’s body laces through sprocket holes and curls around a rotating wheel of metallic pointed teeth on the outer edge of a projector. A contracting and expanding loop, I pause at a ‘gate.’ An arc of light illuminates me and I appear upside down. A bogus animation transforms me into whatever I want to be; doll, mother, storyteller, fibber, brain-dead movie star.
And then I remember. Film travels in reverse. If film drags, it will tear me to strips.
SCENE 1. A scratched flickering picture captures the ‘old me’ aged thirty forty fifty, dissolving into the ‘young me’ an eight nine ten twelve year-old. A slow process, making the images acceptable and believable, that is until I demand,
Rapid impressions begin to race and whirr, pushing me back further in time. I have nowhere to go, but to rewind back to the beginning. Impossible recollections; a newborn gazes, unseeing into a mother’s drained eyes. The frames skip forward, showing a baby in the act of sitting upright. She stands, takes a first step and red-faced stumbles on a wrinkle in the carpet. She cries real tears.
I blink and two years flash by to the day I become the child star of my film.
A warm summer afternoon. The grass is grass. The toys are toys. Blue bucket, yellow spade and a three-wheeled bike keeps a close eye on a frowning two-year-old stranded in a sandpit in the sun. A wet toweling diaper and a cotton singlet cling to warm damp skin. The toddler eats mud pies, her mouth full of sand. With chubby fingers, she clasps a dandelion. A flimsy drifting weed, its virtues not yet discovered, like first experiences. She blows the dandelion with every ounce of breath in her tiny lungs and fine hair-like parachutes float away in the breezes of old memories.
The frames of the film cannot be separated. Thousands per second. A million miles of film pass through me like ghosts whooshing backwards through walls. Flesh, bones, wrinkles and scars, the sum of a brat growing into a child-woman flying the freak flag and asking herself,
“How can I give this stifled movie the great smacking kiss of life? Is it possible to create a film better than fine art? A moving film. Complete with joy, passion and sorrow. Mixed with a smidgen of cruelty, enormous despair and borderline hysteria.”
But not fear. No fear. No creepiness or bloodcurdling terror. Scary movies make me dizzy. My pupils dilate and my vision fuzzes. Though I enjoy the fact that in every horror film, an owl hoots or a wolf howls in the background. Poltergeists inhabiting headless shackled women are a joy to behold. Apparitions tossing dice and drinking green slime remind me of parents. Ghouls gloating over naked corpses riddled with maggots make me hurl. A perpetually full moon shines on freaks and trolls emerging from swamps. Explosions happen in slow motion. Mothers hit their children. Fathers disappear.
At first, I regret trying to be everything; film, projector, actor, star, and stuntwoman. Alone, I am incapable of building a set, composing melodies, writing scenes or creating a storyboard. But I do come to one decision. For the sound track, I choose a warped vinyl record playing on a gramophone. Squeaky squeak eine kleine Nachtmusik, like the mousey squeals coming from the back of Mummy’s throat. High notes follow, not music, not crying, but rushes of peaks and valleys. Beautiful noises fail to drown out Mummy the monster, shouting and running backwards. She holds both hands high as if trying to stop a giant wave.
The camera shoots an eternal childhood lived in an ordinary suburb. A telephoto lens pans dormer window-boxes filled with geraniums, a ticking clock, the wrought iron doorknob, a brass flap for mail and the faulty doorbell on the right. Instead of chiming dingdong, it grunts, “Grrrrr go away.”
The viewfinder focuses on forest fires, red tiled roofs, churches and a choir of angel’s caroling, silent night holy night, away in a manger, deck the halls. The camera searches out the ‘young me’ an eight nine ten twelve year-old hiding from Mummy in the garden.
Special effects create a man’s shadow. Daddy lighting a cigarette, gypsy Daddy, nomad Daddy, Santa Daddy, banshee Daddy.
The front door slams, shutting out the truth.
The camera ignores a child thrown into the street. A forgotten collapse, not too serious, knees grazed on the sidewalk and a landscape forming around weepy me. Giant spruce trees brush against the sky. A kookaburra laughs,
Hoo Hoo Ha Ha Hooahh Ar Ar Eh Eh.
Funny what I remember. Mud on my tartan skirt. A tear sodden five-dollar note sailing weightless as a whistle through the air. Mummy paying for her sins and scolding me,
“People will say you are weird.”
Conscious of my phobias, I am a wacky child spinning on a carousel. Fractions of seconds go round and round and round. Real film reels glimpsing faces in a crowd and fleeting incarnations of families, neighbors, beatings, rejection and reindeer.
SCENE 2. Exterior. The snow refuses to melt in the garden. A bird ceases chirping. A dog does not bark. Car brakes are silent. Winter sun streams through the window of a featureless pink room.
A tightly framed lens depicts a girl wearing a ballerina tutu sparkling with silver stars. Long luxuriant hair half covers the child’s naked torso. Her bossy mother places a glass jar on the dresser and commands,
“Try to be good. Be quiet. Sit on the edge of the bed and I’ll give you a lollipop.”
A life-size doll with golden tresses slumps against the child’s shoulder. Both the girl and the doll have their naked backs to the camera. At first, the girl caresses the doll. A languid gesture, flesh-colored plastic stroked to the sound of an orchestra playing Wagner’s ‘The Valkyrie.’ Thunderous music swells. At the same time, the child begins slapping the doll. She hits harder and harder, her fist pounding the base of what would be a spine if the doll were human. With each strike, the girl and the doll lurch forward as if glued to each other. They tilt back, then forward again, endlessly rocking back and forth. The music swells to countless thuds.
Thump thump whack whack smack smack.
The image blurs. A light smear of Vaseline around the filter distorts the aperture. In the darkened cinema, I can’t see the gelatinous contents of the jar on the bureau. Is it a brain bottled in vinegar? This makes sense. Thoughts must be preserved.
SCENE 3. I lie on the floor in my bedroom, my face full of books. What Katy Did Not Do, Blackened Beauty, The Infamous Five, The Evil Garden and a worn volume of Spooky Poe. Eight years old, brain intact, no school, mid-term holiday, boredom creeping under the door.
Downstairs, Mummy smash, smash, smashes around the laminated kitchen, a rickety room on the edge of decay. She breaks plates, ceramic bowls and porcelain cups all smashed to smithereens. Not on purpose. Lost her spectacles. She is overwhelmed, gasping for breath and yelling in a haggard voice,
“If this is love, kill me now. Give me a pillow to grind. No rest for the witty. I smell a Rolls Royce. Oh bite my tits. Over my dead body. I know not the ropes. So knock knock knock on pins and needles till the cows come home. Who was the idiot who declared every cloud had a silver lining? Who was the moron who said variety is the spice of life? My guess is not as good as mine and I am not running out of steam.”
The shattered pieces of china stay silent. Damaged souls do not have the answers. I sweep sharp chunks into the dustpan and throw them away.
Mummy’s jaw clenches. She doesn’t keep her chin up, never sees the funny side of things, always says die and screams,
“Breakfast is served.”
Me and her. Breaking fast.
She places a wooden spoon on the table. Handy, ready to wrap knuckles and risking punishment, I ask her,
“Where is Daddy?”
“He travels constantly for his job.”
“What does he do?”
She turns away. Occupation unknown. He could be a taxi driver, a pilot or an astronaut. Mummy treats him as if he is an absent pet. Daddy on the prowl, Daddy going walkabout, Daddy the hunter. I worry that he has been injured, maybe hit by a bus. The chrome fender bent out of shape from the impact, the bus bleeding, got what it deserved. Father killer. Daddy flying twenty-five yards, landing distorted and lacerated on the asphalt. I imagine his eyes fixed open like a dead doll. Medics zip him inside a transparent plastic body bag. And I fret, how will the oxygen get to his lungs?
But the truth is Daddy flees on emasculated wings. I am to young to know the difference between flee and flea or fled and dead or see and sea.
Lack of money keeps Mummy the scrooge awake at night. Visions of the sheriff parking a moving van in the driveway and confiscating her furniture. Each morning, disappointment greets her in the shape of a chenille housecoat and slippers with the backs trodden down. For hours, she shuts herself in a dark room, an ice pack soothing her hangover.
“I love your house.” says Pamela Gifford staying over sleeping in the spare room for a night. Aged ten, Pamela lives next door and is not my best friend.
She gazes at the ceiling lights globed in glass the color of chicken livers. Our bathroom, tiled aqua blue, has the image of a seagull gliding above a galleon etched on the shower screen.
I tell Pamela rambling lies.
“I am a magician who can see through solid barriers. In every room, countless lies are buried inside the bricks. Hundreds of falsehoods are festering and multiplying. Ten minutes before midnight, the house melts and the interior transforms into a maze of convex looking glass. Just like the Hall of Mirrors in a carnival sideshow. On the stroke of twelve every lie becomes visible.”
Pamela is riveted.
“Can you understand the lies? How many are there?”
I count on my fingers.
“Oh lots and lots. Millions.”
Off the top of my head, I recite a few.
“You have great power. You are pure and innocent. I am a gang leader. Barefooted you will see the world. All is unfair in love and war. The dog vomited on my homework. Unless you become a little child, you cannot enter The Kingdom of Heaven.”
Incredulous, she starts tapping the cement rendered walls.
“Are they real lies?”
“As real as you and me.”
“I don’t believe these lies exist.”
I reach for my magic wand and change the subject.
“Guess what? In the bathroom, a secret button is hidden near the bath. It’s true. I am not allowed to reveal the location because if someone presses the button, a shark, a ship and a cyclone will drop from the ceiling.”
Pamela looks up without moving her head. Her eyes widen and twitch.
“You mean a tornado? Can a tornado fall? Isn’t that a waterfall?”
The scene fades to the sound of a roaring waterfall.
SCENE 4. I sit on the floor in the kitchen, my arms full of books; A Christmas Carp, Deserted Island, Worst Expectations. My head hurts. Mummy tells me,
“You were struck by lightning.”
Confusion intersects the years. The shutter revolves, automatic focus, probing, following, filming the ‘young me’ mixing magical potions. I ride my tricycle, skip rope, and jump on a trampoline. Higher higher. I build castles bigger and bigger. I intend to be as big as possible. Not short. I detest small people.
The ‘old me’ changing into the ‘young me’ exposes a trusting heart and an unwavering belief in Santa Claus. Aged nine, I declare to Pamela Gifford,
“The most important date of the year is Christmas day, Jesus’s birthday. He is Santa’s nephew who got into trouble and died a terrible death. He left loads of money for Santa to buy toys for all the children in the world.”
Every year, I ask Santa for a doll. No one ever smacks a doll. A doll never says, listen kid, when you’re an adult you’ll discover that I signify a whole lot of outdated and diluted feminist crap. A doll highlights the signposts to a female future. Dolls skipping to the tune of gender identity; feminine Barbie, wishbone figure, fragile stiletto heels stalking a wide-eyed Raggedy Ann. Unblemished mannequins, brainless sex objects, chaste housekeepers and babies… Baby Alive Baby Born Rock-A-Bye Baby Beaten Baby Bashed Baby Bouncing Baby bawling,
“Give birth to a motherhood script. Nurture me.”
One Christmas, I reach into the pillowcase on the end of my bed and find a ‘here comes the rest of your life’ doll frothing with synthetic lace. Too young to be a bride.
The following year, a bald baby doll in a floppy cotton bonnet pops out of my Christmas stocking. Wrapped in a crocheted shawl, she croaks,
I cradle her in my small eager arms.
Of all the dolls, I love my pocket-sized hand-stitched Chinaman the most. I name him Mister Wong. He wears a green satin suit, Qing Dynasty cap and has a long black braid. We spend hours digging holes in the garden. Not to bury anything but to tunnel to China. Normal children escape monotony in the suburbs by striking forth in the direction of an exotic destination. I have a shovel and digging down is the only way out. But toy buckets and spades are no match for the sealed envelope of a damaged childhood folding back on itself.
Mister Wong, inscrutable, emphatic and confident, hears woks and chopsticks rattling deep in the earth. I morph into Wile E. Coyote, dirt flying in a furious frenzy, burrowing through to China and emerging on the other side of the world and hailing a Chinese roadrunner.
“Sell me a magic carpet, a beanstalk and a flying saucer.”
I play with Mister Wong’s red Chinese dragon and fly paper kites. He pours a cup of plum blossom tea from a terra cotta teapot with a tiny clay elephant glued on the lid. He searches the dredges and reads in the tea leaves,
“Wish from your heart.”
And as the tears of tea drain away, Mister Wong looks deep into my eyes and predicts the future. Ahahhhhh, much sadness.
SCENE 5. Mummy describes me as conventional, tongue-tied and submissive.
Pamela, chips in,
“But she is an artistic virtuoso at coloring pictures.”
Mummy glares at Pamela.
“Virtuoso, that’s a big word for a little girl.”
Head bowed, eyes lowered, pencil poised, I keep inside the lines. If I make a mistake, the freckles will fall off my nose in a shower of light brown confetti. These random splotches might stain my drawing of Santa. Pamela sniggers,
“Your drawing of Santa looks like an exploding tomato with crossed eyes.”
Mummy leans over my shoulder and scolds me.
“Not good enough.”
I persevere until Santa sports a Cheshire grin, cherry nose, snowy beard and twinkling eyes. He winks at me. I sketch a red basketball tummy and a chimney from which springs a wisp of smoke.
Pamela arches an eyebrow and examines my drawing. She squints with the authority of an art critic.
“Don’t draw him too fat or he’ll get stuck. Oh and…”
She snorts and points at my illustration of a blazing fireplace.
“You’ll set Santa’s bottom on fire.”
Impatient, I erase the smoke and hook Santa’s leg over the chimney. I am tempted to twist Pamela’s pimply snub nose.
Two weeks before Christmas, the shopping mall unearths an old man and dresses him in an inflammable Santa suit. One button is missing from his jacket exposing a gap between a faded T-shirt and hairy flesh.
“Imposter.” I say to my mother and refuse to wait in line with the other children.
At home alone in the garden, I sulk and pray to the genuine Santa,
“I want I want I want an Alice Doll for Christmas. Please. Please.”
An Alice doll has sapphire flirty eyes, black lashes and cascading yellow hair. Everything I crave at the odd age of eleven. If she is mine, I will become her. Heart of my heart, flesh of my flesh.
SCENE 6. Angry Mummy places a toast rack and a teapot on the table. All-thumbs today. Crash crash. I sigh, clumsy mother boiling eggs, another cracked dish, fallen to pieces for breakfast. Daddy never visits. Sometimes he writes: I’ll be home soon. No forwarding address. Daddy told me, Mummy fell off the bed during labor, just as my head crowned. Who knew a tender skull could break so easily?
Christmas is one week away. I cut paper bells and pine tree shapes coloring each one green and red, dotting them with yellow balls dipped in glitter and hang them on the sagging plastic tree, standing as if being punished in the corner of our sitting room. Pamela the useless lump, eyes a tray of cookies on the coffee table. I hold a teaspoon of glitter close to her greedy mouth.
“Coward! Watch me.” I swallow the gritty substance. Millions of particles swirl down my throat and a cloud of teeny sparkles settles in my stomach.
Finally, t’is the night before Christmas, the tinsel is stirring and out on the grass I hear a monstrous clatter. Pamela runs across the garden and trips on her shoelaces. Chest heaving, she catches her breath.
“Guess what happened to me last night?”
She doesn’t wait for my reply.
“Santa’s red sleigh, pulled by eight galloping reindeer, landed on the roof. I climbed out my bedroom window and went for a ride. Santa gave me hundreds of toys. Can you believe it?”
Crushed with envy, I protest,
“No. I can’t. I may be young, but I am not stupid.”
Then I remember hearing bells. My first rejection, phantom Santa, his belly wobbling like a bowlful of jelly, has flown above my house. He has passed by while I lay in a deep sleep, not hearing the prancing and pawing of each delicate hoof on the roof. Oh Dasher, Prancer, Donner and Blixen!
An excited Pamela spits.
“It’s true and I discovered something important. You can leave ice-cream cake but not ginger beer for Santa’s midnight snack. He drinks whiskey with his sweets.”
Whiskey is a mystery. Toffee colored water. Mummy’s favorite drink. We have a full cupboard of whiskey all ready for thirsty Santa.
Later that day, the temperature is minus two and to keep warm, I run around the garden. Poisonous sugarplums chase me. Not a creature stirs, not even a squirrel. I scamper into the kitchen and grab a red apple from the fruit bowl. Without taking a bite, I go into the wood shed. Made from rotting shingles and sheets of tin, it leans to one side and damp shafts of light seem to support the walls. In the dimness, I see shelves crammed with tools, paint tins, shellac and motor oil. I find an old brush and a bottle of deadly varnish. I coat the apple with thick layers of this sticky substance. The following morning, the juvenile serpent brandishes her shiny apple before the whites of Pamela’s lying eyes.
“You are Eve. This is magic. Eat it.”
Pamela edges away from me and mumbles,
“The first woman on earth.”
I am a ruthless killer starring in a murder mystery. I am a Dickens character, a miserable skinflint, colder than the Arctic. A grasping covetous girl who poisoned Pamela on Christmas Eve. An ambulance siren wails in the distance. I picture a stern policeman, a child on a stretcher and Santa’s silhouette against the full moon. Pamela’s mother shrieks and beats her breast. In the vacuum of her life, no one can hear the screams. My imagination muddles the crucifixion and the French revolution. A Roman centurion, dagger drawn, marches me towards a guillotine, the blade suspended from the top of a shaky wooden frame. A crowd of peasants shout ‘off with her head.’ Mummy stands, hands on hips, in the front row. An executioner throws a sack over my head and hisses,
“Santa will give your Alice Doll to a virtuous girl who isn’t a murderer.”
But on Christmas morning, I find her standing straight and tall under the tree. My sturdy Alice Doll dressed in a lilac nylon party frock. I tap her plastic head and hear a hollow sound.
SCENE 7. Rain and emptiness lash a day in May. Lightning strikes a distress signal. May day May day. Christmas is far away. I unzip a sofa cushion and hide Mummy’s wooden spoon. I know she will go to the shops and buy another one. Wooden spoons come in packs of three, size small, medium and large. Mother, father, daughter. Nuclear spoon family.
In the bedroom, a candle burns exposing Mummy and Daddy together in purgatory or better yet blazing further below in hell. I recall her staring in the looking glass, brushing her hair, plucking an eyebrow, misting her wrists with Eau Sauvage. Now it’s Daddy’s turn. His close shave. Daddy the predator does not wait. A goner. Damned elusive man. Mummy seeks him here, there; she searches everywhere for years then gives up and takes it out on me.
The bathroom door is open. Mummy soaks in the bath. Sick and tired, she gazes at the seagull hovering over the sinking ship etched on the shower screen. I wonder if she has found the secret button. Tense bubbles erupt. The bath water, tinged pink from her heavy menstruation, gurgles down the plughole.
Her open palm catches me unawares. Eyes shut tight, I cough and choke, trying to run. She whacks me on the head, nothing but a hollow sound. She strikes with a lightning ironing board, a strap, the teapot and that blasted toast rack, whatever weapons are within reach. Mad mother, blow to the brain. I fall and make the sound of a broken sapling wrenched from a tree.
I am a pocket-sized, hand-stitched child, barely conscious, moaning to my Mr Wong.
“I wanna live my reality, Mr Wong. I really really do.”
Mister Wong blusters sympathetic wisdom.
“Don’t worry. It’s not true. You’re imagining things. An insignificant movie. B-Grade. And remember, a nipper is as whimsical as a windmill and strong as an oak tree. You are impenetrable, resilient and imaginary. Like celluloid.”
I make the sign of the cross. Nose to navel. Left breast to right lung. Crucifixion.
A perplexed Mister Wong inquires,
“Whatever made her do it?”
And I reply,
“It’s not Christmas. She snapped I suppose.”
Her and me.
SCENE 8. Clouds clump and queue. Snow is snow. The camera noses along a city street. Indescribable crowds, half blind grandpas, sleek grannies, young professionals, frantic mothers jostle and argue. People buying last minute Christmas gifts, their shopping bags bulging with foul happiness. Babysitters tie balloons to strollers. A stocky girl, nasty little creature, almost slips on the pavement and grips her mother’s hand tighter.
I stare at myself in this scene. Aimless, medicated, released. A starlet dressed in a sequin ball gown. Brilliant organza. Not woman enough to absorb glittery bitterness. Older than the night, a frightening age where malice tastes like butter.
My pace quickens. A goner. Got to escape the past and the future.
The camera zooms in on a close-up of a forty-year-old child turning a street corner and bumping into an overweight woman. The camera pans a crater face, biting eyes. The woman’s brittle smile knows what happened to me. How I became trapped in a movie, an adult with the wounded brain of a twelve year old.
The woman says something. I ignore her and keep walking. Mummy always told me, don’t talk to strangers. I reach the entrance to a department store. A sign taped to the glass requests in polite handwriting, Please Use The Other Door. And I do.
The woman has a large parcel nestled in the crook of her arm. She follows me. Shoppers push and shove. Before I turn to run, she touches my sleeve, an unhurried movement. Her cigarette burns, she flicks ash.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
Uncertain, I blush and mutter,
“Pamela. I thought you were dead.”
Unsuccessful suicide, I’d heard. I stare at her. She is different, but the same. In my mind, I am running backwards, arms flung up as if trying to stop the huge surf from crashing. Does a tornado fall downwards? Is that the story of this film?
The woman tosses the package.
Under the paper, I feel a feeble human form and listen to the wha wha cry of a brand new baby doll.
Background ambient sounds intrude at this point. Foghorns in the distance. Cars brake. A cat in heat caterwauls. High-pitched yowls. Oh how the kitten howls.
SCENE 9. The final shot. I skim the years. Dark shadows gather. Electric storms split the sky. I have discovered not to over-think stars because stars don’t bounce and neither does lightning. I realize human’s trample on grass, grass is a notion and a notion is one of many blades growing in a field.
And these things I don’t know; a doll’s painted eyes, set in the swiveling socket of her empty head are blind. A doll has no visible fangs. A doll cannot open her mouth to call for help. A doll has no conscience or friends or a brain.
And without warning disintegration happens. A shock, a severing. This can’t be right. This can’t be the end. The film drags and sputters shredding my image. An imperfect sequence, she has edited a huge section and spliced the remaining scenes.
“Mummy, why cut this scene?”
And then Mummy’s voice, faraway, back to the beginning, drained monster.
“People will think you are strange. Hand me the doll.”
I clutch the doll to my chest.
“She cries real tears.”
Heart of my heart, flesh of my flesh.
The Alice Doll fuses to my character. She has thick plastic skin that smells of musk. Conjoined twins, we sit on the edge of the bed. Her pitiless eyes open wide and with the tips of my fingers, I pat her rosebud lips. She murmurs archaic ideas and I try to tell her, nobody cares about this stuff anymore. Warm breath in my ear, she whispers,
“Pursue a career, become a wooden bride, a cursed Mummy, a night nurse, an angry hairdresser, a bored shop assistant. Dye your hair blonde and drool.
Push a pram to Timbuktu. Grow bright front teeth and chomp on pickled brains. Cultivate a cute dimpled giggle even if your eyes are filled with tears.
Wear lacy negligees, frilly aprons, a fake tan, false eyelashes, a padded bra and white go-go boots.
Kick high. Aim low. Always swallow. Tie satin ribbons around your wrists.
Sing songs from South Pacific, Oklahoma, Sunset Boulevarde; Stars are breaking through, out of your dreams you long to fly. Wash that man right out of your hair. Some enchanted evening when you find your true love. Every movie is a circus.
Call yourself actor, actress, executive director, first assistant, location manager, script supervisor, casting. Castaway.
Wash away the guilt. Rinse the shattered dishes. Scrub those freckles off your face and for God’s sake stop frowning.”
Judyth Emanuel graduated with degrees in Visual Communications, Fine Arts and an MFA in creative writing.
In the past, she has lived in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, London, Cyprus and Boston and now resides in Sydney, Australia.
The year 2013 Judyth was accepted into The Writers Workshop at the Center For Fiction in New York City and in 2014 she took part in The New York Writer’s Workshop for Non-Fiction.
One Page Literary Magazine published online, her short short story titled Bad Hair Day.
She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a travel memoir.
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Photo by Tomek Dzido