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On the Mend by Michael Mercer



he had a collection of broken dolls in the basement. WE had a collection of broken dolls, I should say, for that was our conceit, in that brief time we were together, that they were ours, beautifully ugly bastard progeny, our neglected children waiting in the basement for some idle Sunday afternoon when laughing, wineglasses in hand, we would flick on the bare light bulb, descend the wooden stairs, and together make a project of their mending.

We never did.

They were broken in the usual ways.  Also unusual, interesting ways.  Lost limbs, eyes--lazy eyes that would not open, or else would not shut--thinning yarn hair, broken necks.  One was just a head.  Some were plastic, others rubber; cloth with rag stuffing coming out of mouths and guts and backsides.  They were pink in a wide range of unnatural shades, black both subtle and cartoonish.  From overdressed to birthday suit naked.  Each an original, in its fucked up way, distinct from the others, with its own personality, and unique history--about all they had in common was being broken.  She had collected them over the years--a perverse hobby, but there it is--found them improbably at flea markets, garage sales, in garbage cans, the arms of gullible children.  I had contributed a couple myself, in that short time we were together.  She tossed them into the basement with the others, and closed the door.

I did not think about them.  I don't think she did, either.  We were otherwise engaged.  But afterwards, long after I'd left, I pictured them as they were, down there in the basement huddled in fearful silence, a half torn ear cocked, a lazy eye rolling up at the creaky floorboards above them, where soon enough it would begin again:  the screaming and yelling, the breaking of dishes, the skidding of chairs.  The sickening thud as one of us hit the floor.  A poignant picture, for sure:  the dolls in their broken innocence, powerless, mute; waiting in vain hope that we might give them a bit of attention, if only we could stop tearing each other apart.

But that's not how it was.  I realize that now.  This is how it was:

*     *    *

They waited for us, at first, more impatient than innocent.  Jostling, jockeying for position.  Who would get mended first?  Who deserved immediate attention?  Surely we couldn't heal everyone.  Who would get well, and who would get left behind?  There were fights, one-armed slugging matches.  More heads came off, stuffing flew from backsides.  The fighting subsided, but resentments lingered, surviving the memory of what started them, whatever dignifying rationale.  I am shocked--and a little hurt--to realize just how quickly we were forgotten.  But it makes sense, I suppose:  hell, we weren't coming to mend them, we couldn't stop destroying each other.  So the dolls set about mending themselves.

Mending each other, I would like to say.  But to be honest, it wasn't like that.  Sure, some of the dolls, in their need, turned to each other, and some offered the extended plastic limb of friendship--but it was just a ploy to get something in return.  Alliances were hastily made, and just as quickly broken.  You could find yourself--if you were a doll--one day shunned by the group, the next day gratefully accepted, and the next shunned once again, which was somehow worse than never having been accepted.  It was a painful time.

The divisions were petty, and cruel.  The amputees scorned the wounded; the wounded resented the blind. The whole racial thing . . . well, you can imagine. Pride served as bitter consolation:  arguments about who was more broken, and thus more virtuous, more deserving of sympathy, not that there was any sympathy to be had.  The point was no longer to be mended, it seemed, to be made whole; the point was to make the most of your brokenness.  The dolls nurtured their wounds, fed them, loved them like children of their own.  And, as I say, they feigned to care for the wounds of other dolls, but not with any intention of healing, and only long enough to get more sympathy in return, or worse, to lull the other into an unguarded trust sufficient to allow a strangely satisfying invasion of the place where it hurts most.  God, the games they played!

I say "satisfying," but really there was little satisfying about life in the basement.  For all the small revenges, meticulously planned, little comfort. For a time, the broken dolls sought compensation in material things, each laying claim, in a frenetic competitive spiral of possession, to the old push lawnmower, the flat bicycle tire, the box of unread books, the Christmas ornaments . . .  Trades were made, dolls cheated each other, stole and stole back; those owning nothing offered dubious services in exchange for equally dubious "goods."  They were doing what they felt they had to do to survive, and self-righteously, for who can blame the broken?  But they weren't any closer to being mended--in fact they were getting farther away.

Not surprising, then, that a group of amputees went off to the other end of the basement "to start over," as they called it, to give up the old jealousies and greed and "find another way."  The cynics who stayed behind--and I have to confess, if I'd been a broken doll I would have been one of them--smirked and made derisive comments, just waiting for this new "mutually supportive, healing community" to come apart at the seams.

And come apart it did, of course.  Broken dolls can't mend each other, let alone themselves:  they're BROKEN.  They tried, and valiantly, I suppose. Perhaps for a time there was a possibility of something.  Something truly new and different, and truly healing.  There was trust--real trust, not just a set-up for the next fall.  And there was, for a time, a fascination not with their own brokenness, but with meaningful endeavors that might distract them from their wounds, that might, I daresay, even begin a kind of healing.  One of the dolls took the half-finished novel from the drawer of my old desk, and began writing.  Others dusted off her easel and brushes, and took to painting.  There was music--my old clarinet--and philosophy.  The arts flourished.

You can imagine how quickly, how inevitably the old broken egos came into play, in the guise of "creative differences," initially, and then barely concealed at all.  New cliques formed; the same old patterns repeated.  Dinner parties at one dollhouse or another, and if you weren't invited then you knew you were going to be talked about, and not kindly.  Spiritual matters were still discussed, but philosophers split mainly over who got to be guru and who had to be a follower.  For a time every doll was its own God, which of course made the whole God thing pretty meaningless.  It was some indication of just how lost they'd become when the central belief came back round to us, to me and her, to when and how she and I would stop fighting and come down to the basement to mend them all, the "new" dolls as well as the old, now indistinguishable in their desperate confusion, united, divided by their uncommon brokenness.

As I said, we never did.

I left first.  Slammed the front door so hard it came off its hinges.  She never fixed it.

She stayed perhaps a month longer.  Smoked cigarettes.  Drank tea.  Waited to stop shaking.  She packed a few things.  Adopted a bearing of making a new start. Walked out the space where the front door used to be, refusing to look back.  Leaving much behind, including her collection of broken dolls.

As far as I know they are still there, down in the basement of that empty house.  Still broken.  Still hurting.  Very quiet now.  Half torn ear listening. Lazy eye rolled up at the floorboards.  Waiting for her.  Waiting for me.  Waiting for us to come back and make everything all right.



Michael Mercer is the author of Mexicoland: Stories From Todos Santos.  "On the Mend" will be included in his collection Bandidos, which will be published next spring.


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