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