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john biguenet

p a p e r . d o l l s

The door, the battered apartment door scarred by the comings and goings of so much furniture, resists him. But he knows its little tricks, knows how to lift it loose with the dented knob while pressing his shoulder into the slight depression beside 4G. It yields. Like everything, he thinks, once you know its secret. Women, for instance.

He remembers Janet, how you had to put your hand under the small of her back and lift, the whole time pressing down with your belly. And machines, he adds to himself, when gears are involved. He stands there, still in the threshold, holding a sagging bag of groceries--he notices something green, fresh carrots, he recalls, yes, the tops of them--but already he has lost the thread of his thinking. He is easily distracted these days.

He really is quite a good cook, he compliments himself, as he leans over the sink dicing half an onion. It makes him weep. But what is he making? He takes a moment; he has learned to be patient with himself. A box of pasta is on the counter. Oh, yeah, he remembers.

Many people, he knows, watch television while they eat. But he tries to maintain some--what is the word? Decorum. He stops chewing and repeats it. Decorum.

Not that he doesn't like television. As soon as dinner is over, he will turn it on. And it will stay on. Even after he falls asleep. But then, he doesn't sleep that much. Not really.

Of course, he hasn't had much time to actually watch it, either. Sometimes, but not often. At least, not lately. Still, he lets it run.

It's no big deal, as far as he's concerned, whether you do or whether you don't. Watch TV. It's up to you.

He's anxious to get them out, but first there are dishes to do. First things first, he tells himself. They'll still be in their box when he is done.

Actually, he likes washing dishes. He likes things clean. And it's fun, really, the bubbles sliding across the plate, in a childish sort of way. He takes pride in his neatness. It's a good sign, he thinks, almost out loud.

He adds his plate, rubbed dry, to the short stack of dishes in the cabinet. His hand bumps one of the cups hanging from hooks on the underside of the shelf above. It chimes against the next, and as he reaches to still the swinging, his hands collide with other cups until they all are clattering. The noise drives him back. He watches, nervously, as they calm themselves. He watches until the clicking of the china stops.

He is about to close the cabinet door--how gingerly he holds the tiny handle between his thumb and finger--when a shadow on the lip of a cup shifts, withdraws. He is unsure what he has seen until, feeling their way, two stiff tendrils of black hair edge from the cup, twitching, alert, sniffing the air. He feels the disgust crawling from his stomach to his throat. Then two eyes and the cockroach's shimmering body emerge, like a swatch of brown satin on the white porcelain of the cup.

It can fly, he thinks. Those are wings. He imagines the insect bursting from the cup into his face, the crackling wings beating against his mouth, his nostrils, the barbed legs grappling for purchase on his lips, the desperate creature struggling towards the dark wet cave it smells just beyond his teeth.

He shivers, and pressing his lips together, slips a saucer from the stack beneath the cups. Slowly, oh so slowly, he lifts the saucer on its edge. It rises like a huge moon until it eclipses the roach. Suddenly, he tips the back of the cup, loose on its hook, towards the saucer and locks one against the other.

Carefully pressing them together, he lifts the cup from its hook. He is afraid to turn either cup or saucer upright, so he carries them to the sink between his clasped hands. With an elbow, he runs the water. He takes a deep breath and in one motion, as if he were cracking an egg, separates saucer and cup and jerks the roach into the stream, which sweeps it down the drain.

He watches the water swirl for a few moments, then turns on the garbage disposal. He rarely runs it. He hates the grinding, the piercing pitch. He really doesn't like to think about it. It's too much like a snake. The way it chews things up and swallows them down its long black hose. That's why he hates snakes. No body--just a long black throat. But now he opens the doors beneath the sink and watches the hose pulse as the disposal pulverizes everything that falls into its maw. He thinks of a snake swallowing a mouse, of the shape engorging the long throat as it makes its slow, relentless progress towards that final pit of acid. He has always been terrified a fork will fall into the disposal and his hand will have to reach down into that darkness, blind fingers blundering among razor teeth, to retrieve it. He never leaves silverware in the sink.

Rousing himself, he turns off the disposal. He looks down at the cup and saucer. Something delicate and black--a leg, perhaps--slides down the wall of the cup when he lifts it.

He throws the cup into the garbage. And then he throws the saucer in the garbage, too.

He washes his hands, but not in the kitchen. At last he turns on the TV. A woman who was secretly impregnated by her dentist while she was unconscious from anesthesia is being interviewed by the host of the show. Her face obscured by a blue smudge, she seems to be crying. Every now and then, her shoulders shudder.

He remembers the box and gets up in the middle of her story. It is under his bed. He has to get down on his knees to reach it.

The box is so wide, he has to angle it a bit to get through the bedroom door. He got it at the bakery, Mr. Donut. He saw it on the counter and asked the lady if he could have it. The box he had was no good; the sides were too high. But this was just right The lady said they used it for big one-layer cakes, but he could have it if he wanted it. She whispered that they had plenty more in the back. Plenty more. But don't let Mr. Donut see. Mr. Donut with the mustache, not his brother, she explained.

He clears off the coffee table in front of the couch for the box. The woman on TV turns in her chair. Now he sees that she is large with child. With the dentist's child, he thinks, and shakes his head.

All the people are piled on top of one another in the living room. That's where he keeps them--it's the biggest room in the box--when he puts it away under his bed, the box. They get lost otherwise. Everything in its place, he repeats, as he lifts the little figures out one by one and lines them up on the edge of the table.

He admires the cardboard house. Apartment, really. The white walls that he cut from the boxtop are held in place with gray duct tape. He doesn't like the wrinkles in the tape. It looks like gray carpet scrunched against the walls. But nothing else worked. The problem was the doors between the rooms; the walls kept falling down. Everything else was too flimsy till he found the duct tape. But it looked crummy. He even tried to put little scraps of real carpet in the bottom of the box, but the people wouldn't stand up. He had to lean them against the walls, and that was no good. So he went back to the white cardboard floor of the bottom of the box. In the living room, he pasted a picture of a rug he cut out of a magazine. Cozy, he thought, much nicer. He remembers its name. Kilim. Or something else. He's not sure.

That's what gave him the idea. Now the bottom of the box is covered with magazine pictures of furniture in all the rooms. A sofa, chairs, the bed, a kitchen table, a television set, a tub--not the same size, of course, but nice stuff. And with the rubber cement, he can move them around if he wants.

There's the dentist running away from the film crew in a parking lot. They must have tracked him down. No comment, no comment. If they don't move that microphone, he is going to slam it in his car door. Have you got anything to say, the reporter is shouting as the dentist backs up his car, to the woman you took advantage of?

He chooses one of the figures that has a photo of his own face glued to the head. It's a man in a suit with one hand raised in greeting. He cut it out of the newspaper and pasted it on poster board, just like all the others. He slides it into the groove he has cut in a small half-circle of cardboard. Now it can stand up in the living room on the rug, if he wants. It can slide through the door into the kitchen or the other door into the bedroom. He stands it on the sofa across from the television set; the clown on the screen juggles three bars--red, yellow, and blue. A redder red, a yellower yellow, a bluer blue than real life. That's what the ad said where he got the picture of the TV.

He knocks on the table. Just a minute, he shouts in his paper doll voice. I'm coming.

He gently positions the cut out with Janet's face in the box. It totters on the rug. He reattaches her base. That's better.

Hi, she says.

Janet, says his own doll, what a surprise. I thought you were never coming back.

I changed my mind. I missed you.

He stands her on the sofa next to his own cut out.

I'm glad you're here.

Me, too, she whispers.

Let's watch TV.

He thinks about eating something. Chocolate chip dough. He always keeps a tube in the refrigerator in case he feels like baking some cookies. But then he remembers the leg of the roach in the cup.

There's another knock on the table.

Who could that be? Janet asks.

I don't know.

He chooses another figure, a man. This one has its original face, no photo glued on. In T-shirt and jeans.

I'm Bob. Is Janet here?

Hi, Bob, he says in his doll voice. I'm Louis.

Hi, Bob, says Janet.

Bob stands on the sofa with the other two.

Louis, Janet whispers, can Bob and I talk in the other room?

Okay.

The host tells the pregnant woman that he has a surprise for her. She is still crying. The curtains open, and the dentist walks out. The audience is clapping. The hands of the woman, like two startled birds, he thinks, flutter up to her mouth, behind the blue smudge that hides her face.

He shuffles the cut outs of Janet and Bob into the bedroom. Louis keeps standing on the sofa.

I just want to say, the dentist is saying, I just want to let her know that I love her.

When Janet and Bob are in the bedroom, he exchanges them for two other paper dolls. Another Janet, cut from a men's magazine, is laid flat on the bed without a base. She is naked, her legs bent. The head glued to the body is laughing; it looks like Janet must have been outdoors when the photo was taken. On top of her, he puts the other Bob, wearing nothing but underwear. The face is different from the first Bob, but the body is almost the same. It seems to be standing, but he doesn't add a base. He just slips Bob between Janet's legs. They have been slit to make room for the Bob doll.

I hate you, the woman is sobbing, don't you understand how evil you are? The host turns to the dentist. And what do you say to that, Doctor?

What can I say?

He changes the channel. Then he changes back.

But it's my baby, too, the dentist explains to the host.

There is another naked Janet, shot from the rear, folded like a little table sort of. He puts her on the sofa next to Louis.

I didn't want to hurt her. God knows, the dentist says, that was the farthest thing from my mind.

He knows there are good reasons not to hurt another person. The doctors at St. Cyril's often reminded him about them. And he is sure, he is almost sure, if he could just concentrate for a minute, he would probably be able to remember what those reasons are.

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