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
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.
Back to the Top
Issue 11 |
story copyright by author 2004 all rights reserved