GRANNY AND THE BONEHEAD SQUAD
by Maria Pinto
My grandboy, Ricky, actually comes over nowadays, ever since that stupid show. He’s been here every day this week, drinking all the juice in my fridge straight from the carton. He’s so proud of me, or at least as proud as a preteen can be of his grandmother. I mean I wasn’t on the show, but Alexia the reborn was. Ricky couldn’t be bothered with old Mema before, but then Mema got herself tangled up with the Music Television. I’ll take it, I suppose. Beggars and choosers and that.
After he accepted my hugs and kisses with minimal protest, I let him have the run of the house while I holed up in my studio, adding dimples to Ruthie’s knees. I can hear him in the kitchen now. He’s chugging my cranapple like a diabetic, cussing and fussing with Roland Nielson’s kid. Yes, the same Roland Nielson’s kid who shaved Marylou Crain’s mini-poodle and wrote a filthy word that rhymes with “Bundt” on the poor thing’s side in permanent marker, two summers gone. The same kid who has done worse besides—his worst, as we know it, involving firecrackers and the deaths of a whole heap of lizards this past Fourth of July. I remember a smell like chicken over that particular field as “The Star-Spangled Banner” played nearby. Made me hungry even as it made me sick. The boy won’t stop till he’s tried as an adult, I swear.
Ricky’s mother has already tried and failed to keep Ricky away from The Devil Jr., so I know there’s no use in my making an attempt.
Best I can do is keep an eye, right? My eyes and ears may have seen and heard the events of umpteen Sundays, but they still work as good as they did when I was a seedling. The ears in particular perk up when they hear, from the kitchen:
“Holy shit, that thing’s creepy! Like, that’s the most insane thing I’ve ever seen.”
Ricky must have just showed the Nielson boy Alexia, whom I lent to Ricky when he promised he could be gentle with her. I handed her over like I would have handed over any bun fresh from the oven. It put a twinge in my heart to see him cradle the doll with such exaggerated care, even if he was doing it to mock me. With her tawny head in the crook of his elbow, he’d looked up at me and asked, “If this baby doll is so precious, why’d you hire her out to The Bonehead Squad and let them do donuts at the Smart Mart with her on top of a car?”
“Oh, is that what they did?” I pretended to wonder. “I didn’t see the episode. Aileen will be over later with her laptop to show it to me, if I can stomach the sight.”
I know I didn’t answer his question about lending Alexia to a prank show, but he didn’t wait for an answer, anyhow, just rolled his eyes and left the room.
My reasons are actually quite simple. When the fellows from The Bonehead Squad came to my page at Rebornangels.com, saying they would be in the area soon and wanted to “rent my Alexia model” (as if there were more than one of her), I offered them Janie or Sue instead. But they wanted Alexia specifically and were willing to pay me a ridiculous sum for “the privilege of her company.” Go figure that. I was hesitant, but I gave it all a good think. The money they sent my way will let my daughter go back to school next year, like she wants to. She doesn’t know I can help her yet. I want to surprise her with the check. I couldn’t have lived with myself if I’d passed up the opportunity to support Lizzie, since she doesn’t pull in much income waiting tables. Mark barely makes enough to keep them in cola, bless his heart. Lizzie accepts little gifts from me now and again, if grudgingly. Except, of course, for the time I tried to give her Alexia.
Now, in the kitchen, Ricky is saying, “Dude, this is definitely the one. See, you can tell, it even has road rash on its face! I told my grandma not to fix it but she says she has to.”
“I still don’t buy it, man. So you have a real-looking dolly, big whoop. I’ll ask Greg if he DVRed the episode and we can put this thing next to his giant screen to compare. I’m pretty sure the fake baby they used wasn’t a beaner, though.”
This wasn’t the first time someone had made a peanut gallery reference to Alexia’s skin and features. When I first made Alexia, thirteen years ago this December (has it really been that long?), Aileen had run off at the mouth as well. She put it different, declaring there was “something a little on the American Indian side” about the eyes and coloration, and “did I mean to make a nonwhite doll.” At the time, I simply said that “yes, I meant every wrinkle, every pigment and every fine black hair on her sweet head.”
What I’d wanted to say was something far from kind about her project, which was looking more like the Elephant Man than a preemie. I don’t mind the noise of my own horn when I say that even though Aileen and I started making lifelike baby dolls at the same time, I surpassed her in skill quickly. My babies get adopted at three times the rate and many times the price that hers do. People smash open car windows to save my babies from boiling in their own sweat in parking lots. To my knowledge, nothing has ever been damaged or destroyed in the name of protecting one of Aileen’s babies, but everyone’s got their own reborn journey.
And it makes all the sense God has to spare that my most realistic reborn would look a little “Indian” around the eyes. The whole town, save me and the midwife, was in the dark about who was responsible for the swell of Lizzie’s belly. But if God hadn’t taken that child for an angel too soon, the girl would now be a year and two months older than Ricky, with a Mexican surname.
“I wonder if it has a vag,” that awful Nielson boy is saying, and I’m about to quit my workshop desk to go retrieve Alexia when the gravel on the front drive crunches under familiar tires. Ricky’s mother is here. You can tell because Mark knows not to drive that fast toward a civilized residence. And he listens to the tinny country/western station out of Jamestown, not that screaming heavy metal stuff we always fought about when Lizzie was a raccoon-eyed teenager living under this very roof.
I am in such a panic to get out and grab Alexia before Lizzie has a chance to see her that I knock over some turpentine as I get up. Shoot! Then a jar of watchful baby blue eyes spills into the mess. Shoot, shoot, shoot! Each cornea looks up at me like an accusation. The turpentine will ruin my baby-in-progress if I don’t mop up the spill, but as I do so, I hear from the kitchen:
“Mom, what the hell! Mom!” This is the sound of a boy with his ear in the makeshift vise an angry mother can create between pointer and thumb. Lizzie learned this pinch from me.
“What’d I tell you about sneaking off with this creep? Huh? What are you two, star-crossed lovers? Oh, are you playing house now? If you don’t get your ass in that tru…”
This trailing off is the sound of my daughter not believing her eyes. I get why she’d be angry, I do. She let me know a long time ago that the sight of Alexia makes her madder than a hornet. There are things we do in love that make our children think we hate them.
I’ve got enough of the turpentine mopped that I can leave the rest for later. I open the door to my workshop on this scene unfolding in the kitchen:
Lizzie is grabbing Alexia, her jaw tight with anger, holding the doll upside down by those pudgy vinyl legs that look so much like God-made flesh. Every doll I’d made prior to Alexia had been practice, I thought, for the real work my hands were called to do. I’d heard from the grieving almost-mothers on my forums that a reborn could help with the process, but Lizzie wrote me off as a sicko when I suggested as much. She has always loathed my hobby.
Neither did she want a reminder of the life she’d almost had with Juan. She says their time together was a mistake, that the loss of his child was a warning. But that just doesn’t feel right to me. Her dimpled smile was constant back then. Even though she felt the need to carry on with Juan in secret, Lizzie was never so well adjusted as when the promise of a life with him lay maturing in her belly.
Sure, it annoyed her when he called me “moms,” but I thought that was because she couldn’t stand the thought of me in the plural. It only came to me later that she might be ashamed to claim Juan in public. But it couldn’t be true. My stone-tough daughter would never be shy about loving whomever she loved in this world, busybodies be damned. Or maybe I failed her in that regard.
And then came that bleak day in the delivery room, and the umbilical noose, and the resulting depression. Then came the affair with Mark, and Juan’s roaring exit from town. Mark still has a scar above his eyebrow from that day. I’d hoped Alexia could contain the ghost of her nameless flesh-and-blood counterpart, so that she could be put to rest, someday. What a fool I’d been.
Now, in the kitchen, Lizzie is shoving her son away as he goes to grab the doll back. Lizzie is shouting, “I told that woman to lock this thing up somewhere ages ago, and what does she do? Puts it on TV and then lets my son play with it.”
Lizzie is turning on the stove. I could wrestle my Lexie from her grip if I moved quickly enough, but she’s already got that precious left foot in the flame.
I remember how hard it was to lacquer Alexia’s toenails to make them look glossy but unpainted. Sleek, but true.
The kitchen is filling up with the rank smell of burning vinyl. The smoke is not safe to breathe, but Lizzie doesn’t care; she’s got the effigy lit and is on the move through the back door. The Nielson boy is recording a video on his phone and saying, “I think I just fell in love with your mother, dude,” as we all follow her into the backyard.
Now she’s saying, “I don’t know what kind of weird shit you’re up to right now, Mom, but leave Ricky out of it, okay?”
She is lighting the old barbecue grill Mark brought over at the start of the summer and putting Alexia over the flames to finish the job. Then Ricky says, “Mom,” in a small, plaintive voice, the likes of which is rarely heard from a male child, and instead of looking at him where he stands beside her, she is looking at me on my back step, where I’m hugging myself despite the heat. She is looking me in the face, and seeing something there that must have stayed her hand all these years, what it is I still don’t know, and pulling Alexia back off the grill, flinging the charred brown body back to me, so that it lands unreal and wrong at my feet. She is shaking and crying, but in a fierce way that doesn’t want to be consoled. As she takes Ricky by the arm and leads him down the driveway to the truck, the Nielson boy following behind, still recording, the sound of cicadas warbling in the close, pre-rain air, she is asking, repeatedly:
“How could you?”
She could be asking that of anyone present, including a whole crowd of ghosts.
Maria Pinto was born in Jamaica and grew up in south Florida. Her recent work has appeared or will appear in Word Riot, Bartleby Snopes, The Butter, Pinball, The Missing Slate, FLAPPERHOUSE, Small Po[r]tions, 100 Word Story, and Literary Orphans, among others. She was the 2010 Ivan Gold Fellow at the Writers’ Room of Boston, in the city where she lives and does karaoke. Her debut novel is in search of a home. She’s working on the next.
Image credit: traaf on Flickr