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Suzy Vitello

Paper Husbands


During the summers preceding our parent’s divorce, we were kept in our grandparents’ attic. Except for tv shows and hotdog meals, of which we partook downstairs, the bulk of our time those summers was spent folded under dormers, frolicking among antique toys, reams of paper, a dollhouse and decade-size piles of magazines.

Shoved up against a sloping wall of the north dormer, there was a coffin-shaped toybox. Grandfather had made the toybox for my father, and it held a sawdust-filled dog on wheels, a clown whose painted face had long since rubbed off, some Yogi Bear bowling pins, several jigsaw puzzles in boxes that were Scotch-taped at the corners, and a quiz game: Name the Capitals of the 48 States.

Toni preferred the Yogi Bear bowling game to the outdated geography quiz. She set the worn pins up repeatedly, and knocked them down with a dented plastic ball so they would clatter about the linoleum and roll under our shared double bed. Toni would emerge from gathering the pins, time and time again, covered in dust bunnies. I was happy to see this rendition of my little-sister-as-urchin, for as luck would have it, of the two of us, she had been blessed with the gorgeous gene, and I had not.

As for me—bookish, bossy and plain—I was more interested in the magazines and catalogs hidden behind sliding plywood, on the east side of the attic. National Geographic, Scientific American, McCalls, Family Circle: our grandparents hoarded them all. When she grew bored with the bowling game, Toni joined me. She clipped out all the Betsy McCall paper dolls featured on the last page of the namesake magazines, but to me, the little cherub in lacy white underpants seemed far too angelic. Too cute. More interesting were the Sears and Roebuck catalogs, with the expansive toy sections in the back containing doll carriages, high chairs, cradles. I grabbed the scissors from my sister’s hand as she scrambled to find a second pair, and together we cut out photos of these toys, and taped them to wish lists: scraps of yellowed paper from the swollen oak desk on the west side of the attic. Naively, we scrawled the outdated prices next to the merchandise, creating documents of hope and expectation, for we each had several dollars saved, flattened and stuffed in wallets we made from vinyl and gimp at the Stanley Demming Park summer camp where Grandmother deposited us occasionally.

So there we were, clipping and writing and dreaming. The sketches in the catalog were very fancy—different from the more contemporary Sears catalogs my mother consulted—and it gradually dawned on me, on my nine-year-old brain, that these catalogs were twenty years out of date. Toni sat next to me, musing out loud: should we order the tiny set of dishes, or the fancy perambulator? "We can’t buy these," I said.


"Because they don’t sell these toys anymore."


Just that. Oh, and a shrug, and on to the next thing. I felt like pushing her. Felt the weight, once again, of being an older, plainer, smarter big sister. Toni headed back to the toybox and began untangling a length of rope. "I’m going to pretend this is my pet," she said.

I yanked the rope from her hand. "You’re a stupe!"

I shrieked: "We’re not playing invisible pet! We’re going to make stuff. Dolls, and doll equipment. Now!"

"Um. Okay," said my little sister, who had just lost her first tooth a few days earlier and thus had received non-stop attention of every adult we’d encountered. I was glad we had the day before us, up in the attic. Thankful that our day would not be punctuated with adults cooing at Toni as though she were a Persian kitten or the Hope Diamond.

Luckily, we had an entire roll of newsprint our mother had left us before scooting off to finish her education at some sort of art camp. We had a box of crayons, scissors, glue. We had Lego, Playdoh. We had scraps of material.

In summers past, we’d invented a game called The Bunny Family, which consisted of four sizes of crude rabbits made from various Lego bricks. Babies, children, teenagers and parents. We hopped them around, Toni’s red family, my black one, engaged them in picnics on chenille bed spreads, rides on the ancient wheeled dog. The teenagers of our bunny families were extremely ill-behaved. They often hopped off to smoke cigarettes fashioned from the ends of toothpicks and affixed to the centers of their brick heads with pinches of Playdoh. Sometimes, they pushed their siblings off the bed, sending them cracking to pieces on Grandmother’s linoleum floor. Alas, because of the smooth, rigid construct of these Lego clans, their possibilities were finite. We couldn’t give them hair, or various body shapes. I wanted to create kids who were naughty, obviously naughty, and smooth, generic Lego bunnies somehow missed the mark.

Meanwhile, my father and mother were both having affairs. My father, the doctor (Grandmother and Grandfather’s only child), was back in San Diego, venturing over the border into Tijuana occasionally, to partake of inexpensive prostitutes as a supplement to his serial stash of nurses. My mother entertained relationships with the odd artist or eccentric stoner up at art school. Though I didn’t really understand adult relationships—the concept of fidelity, the idea of cheating—I had overheard some late-night conversations between my parents. My mother’s boyfriends were referred to as "those guys you sleep with," while my father’s dalliances included "whooers," and "those gals in the ER."

The clandestine nature of these liaisons was transmitted through the tenor of my father’s voice. There was a high-pitched squeak to the sound, consistent with an angry tirade, only in these conversations he tried to rein in his wrath to the confines of a whisper.

In the shadow of our parents’ trysts, we invented a new game. For this rendition of family life we turned to the newsprint, pens and scissors. We called it Stanleys and Joes. The new families featured infants, youngsters, adults, and bad teenagers. Stanley was the troubled adolescent from my family; Joe belonged to Toni’s. The parents of our Stanleys and Joes were ineffectual backdrop. Hardly worthy of drawing, let alone cutting out. We offered, like the adults in Peanuts, only their muffled voices. The babies were likewise, unimportant. Often we never even bothered cutting them out of the newsprint.

We drew several rough drafts of Stanley and Joe, however, only satisfied when the diameters of their unruly tresses were large enough to imagine doll-sized rats, snakes and spiders hiding there. Stanley and Joe sported, in addition to their tonsorial calamities, long, unclipped fingernails. They hid vegetables in their hair, and disgorged various bugs and reptiles in order to scare the little kids behind their parents’ backs. They refused, of course, to bathe, which led to occasional modification with crayon or ink pen, denoting additional filth.

We found some craft eyes in the bottom of the toybox, and attempted to stick them on the faces of our teenagers, but when we did, Stanley and Joe resembled the nerds of the Mystery Date board game, not at all our intention. And yet, the idea of a nerdy family member was somehow crucial.

Enter James. James was the archetypal pariah. Fat, zitty, bespectacled, he was the perfect target for a Stanley or a Joe. We each had a James. Toni’s was more definite in outline, mine more festooned with acne. We pasted craft eyes on these new paper dolls, and drew heavy, black-framed glasses around them. The weight of the eyes caused their heads to bend forward, making interaction, especially interaction involving Stanley and Joe, impossible. We discovered pipe cleaners were the perfect remedy, and taped them down the backs of our cut-outs. Oh, what fun we had, launching epithets at our unpopular Jameses. Throwing hearty paper knuckle punches.

As time went on, we became obsessed with this game. So much so that we began to bring the paper dolls with when Grandmother called us down for lunch. One day, Grandmother noticed our companions as we carefully laid them down on the table beside our frankfurters and cucumber salad lunch. She held my Stanley up to the window, "This is just a scribble here," she said, pointing at the coiling hair of my Stanley, the pasted on rat facsimile peeking from the mess. "What a gruesome little man," she said, holding the paper doll at arm’s length just before slapping him down next to my plate.

"Jacqueline, Jacqueline, Jacqueline." She shook her head. "And all those instructions from Mrs. Becker."

Ingrid Becker was, like Grandmother, a member of the Warwick Art League, and we’d taken a few of her children’s art lessons. They were expensive, however, and a bit out of the way, whereas the Stanley Demming Park and its cheesy craft sessions were free and just a few blocks from the house. But when we offered our park crafts up for inspection, Grandmother would hold them to the light, peering through bifocals, trying desperately to translate the value of the gimp key chain or the gum-wrapper necklace into her upper-class Viennese frame of reference. Grandmother eventually gave up on art lessons for us. We seemed content up in the attic, after all, so both the Ingrid Becker classes and the park craft afternoons fell by the wayside.

"Where is the effort?" Grandmother asked, wagging her finger first at us, then at our Stanley, Joe and James dolls who were now propped against the alpine motif napkin holder. "Why do you make these scraps when Grandfather’s dollhouse sits in the dust?"

"But we do play with it," Toni and I lied, in unison, with practiced sing-song voices. We’d stayed up all night playing with the dollhouse Grandfather had painstakingly crafted that first Christmas, three-and-a-half years earlier. A residence down the street had served as a model: the dentist’s home. The entire front wall of the house was a door you could open, complete with a small, brass knob. There was a living room, a bathroom and two bedrooms, initially, and a small wooden staircase connecting top with bottom. With each renovation, presented on subsequent Christmases, the dollhouse became more cumbersome, less graspable.

The previous Christmas, Grandfather had introduced a maid doll and a maid’s quarters, complete with a large deck and plastic ornamental shrubs. With my pre-adolescent growth spurt had come a clumsiness, and I invariably knocked over miniature tchotchkes and dismembered tiny chairs while reaching into one of the studies from the foyer. Playing dollhouse consisted more of re-erecting items than following the "imagination," and I forbade my little sister, who, naturally, was not cursed with my brand of clumsiness, from playing dollhouse when there were funner things to do.

We ate our frankfurters in silence while Grandmother dusted the cuckoo clock and muttered something about the housekeeper missing a section of wax on the kitchen floor.


Funner things, the following summer, included hours of television. I was now ten years old, and had just completed fourth grade in San Diego, where, in addition to awkward, I’d grown astoundingly unattractive: my teeth achieving maximum buck, my hair a new layer of frizz, and my eyes galloping to coke bottle territory. Toni, with her long eyelashes and pixie voice, remained an affront. There had been one episode, in the bathroom at Point Loma Elementary, where I had been approached by one of my sister’s classmates. "Your last name is Houston? Like Toni Houston?" I nodded at the girl’s incredulous expression. "But why is she so pretty, and you’re such a dog?" I was still of an age where I thought all questions required an answer of some sort, but the query was one I myself pondered relentlessly. So I shrugged, and continued rubbing powdered soap into my raw, red hands.

So here we were, back at Grandmother’s house for another summer. This was the year we began viewing All My Children. We’d worked up to it slowly, prolonging our television time gradually, sitting through myriad game shows: Truth or Consequences, Let’s Make a Deal. Up in the attic, Toni and I had created a blended version of the soap operas and game shows, and for this, we returned to the roll of newsprint. We traced life-size male dolls around each other’s bodies: three for each of us, because that was the format on The Dating Game. Then, we set our prospects on the sofa facing the dusty dollhouse, their paper bodies bent at their penis-less crotches. We took turns being the host, inventing answers for the three paper boyfriends. The other of us, the one seeking a date, sat on the very edge of the sofa, separated from the paper boyfriends by the flat plywood roof of the maid’s quarters.

"Where would you take me on a date?" Toni might ask. "Bachelor number one?"

"To the park," I’d say in a deep, affecting voice. "To sit on the bench and kiss."

"Bachelor number two?"

"Um….I’d buy you a mink coat."

"Number three?"

"We’d go to the church and get married, so we could go on the Newlywed Game!"

And that’s exactly where this game would lead, to another question and answer session, where we’d take turns exposing our paper husbands as buffoons, as on the real Newlywed Game, so we could wallop them for their stupidity.

Meanwhile, on All My Children, we witnessed the infamous Erica, Phillip, Jeff and Tara storyline. Toni and I sat transfixed, stuffed animals under our stretchy summer shirts (for our paper husbands had managed to impregnate us), watching that vixen Erica plot against Tara, to get Phil. Our own husbands were named English. Both of them. We called them the Englishes, and referred to them casually in our banter, patting our stuffed animal tummies until one afternoon Grandmother burst into the TV room to announce the boiling of the frankfurters, and caught us in our faux maternity. "This is not a game," she huffed. "Having a child is a blessed event. You must never make fun."

It hadn’t occurred to us that we were acting out a parody of childbearing. One couldn’t play house properly without a baby, and one couldn’t have a baby without first being pregnant. It was cause and effect, just as one couldn’t appear on the Newlywed Game without first capturing a spouse from the Dating Game.

It was clear that we needed to work on the stealth of our escapades. Our stern but well-meaning Grandmother looked sad as she watched us act out pregnancy. As if in doing so, we were circumventing innocence. Disrespecting the state of maternity. I felt sorry for Grandmother, who sometimes stood for half an hour in front of a childhood picture of my father. I wondered if she knew. Or what she knew, of her son’s married life.


Back home, before this latest summer, my parents’ casual affairs had become less subtle. There was the one morning I chanced to discover a blue van parked in front of our house. A vehicle belonging to my mother’s friend, Jack. My father had been out of town. That afternoon, my mother took me aside. "He’s just a friend, Jackie," she said. "Even though he spent the night, nothing happened."

Jack. I thought of unappealing things that rhymed with Jack, as in: there once was a dickhead named Jack… sack, shack, slack, smack. Why did his name have to sound so much like my name?

My mother asked me to explain this friendship to my little sister. "She’s so sensitive about these things," my mother said. I doubt my little sister even noticed, nor would she have a frame of reference for nothing happened. As much as I wanted the conversation with my mother to end, I had to ask. "So, are you guys getting a divorce?"

"Darling," my mother said, trying to pry my eyes up into hers by twisting weirdly in her seat and inserting her face near my collar bone, "I can’t answer that right now."

Our father, who was south of the border for an undisclosed reason, returned the following weekend. His first day back he spent with our mother, locked in their bedroom. Soft, warm murmurs came from behind their door, like apologies after a fight. Toni and I had been promised a trip to the zoo, but as the day wore on it became clear: there would be no outing. We decided to make a mess in the kitchen. We had a jar of this new product, Marshmallow Fluff, and a TV commercial showed kids making something called Fluffernutter sandwiches. Toni was spreading Skippy on the Wonder bread we had also convinced our mother to buy, and I had a tablespoon heaped with a mound of marshmallow innards when our father stumbled into the kitchen in his underwear.

He took a long, appraising look at me, my father did. The same way he’d passed his eyes over his Corvette once, after he’d watched a car parked next to it graze its hard, red finish. His eyes stopped at the glopping mound of white in a spoon held near my mouth. He shifted his glance to my belly, which had, over the last year, pooched out in a roll over my waistband.

"Jackie," he said, "you’re turning into a fat slob."

He filled a glass with ice cubes and orange juice, then returned to our mother, in the bedroom. I stuck the entire tablespoon of Marshmallow Fluff into my mouth and kept it there until I knew I wasn’t going to cry.


We developed a new version of Stanleys and Joes called: This is How it Happened. In This is How it Happened, we’d draw an unfortunate child on the newsprint—again, using our own outlines. Usually, the child would be dismembered or mutilated in some fashion. Perhaps the child would be missing an arm, or some vital organ. The drawing details were best left to my sister, who now, even according to Grandmother, was showing artistic talent. That left me with the happy chore of narrative. For example:

This is James, and he used to be a happy boy, but one day he decided not to come home for supper. Instead, he stole his little brother’s bike. As punishment, he was hit by a car, and now he’s a retard.

Toni hated when I invented an affliction that was difficult to draw, such as retardation, and she would edit my narrative, inviting a dented skull at least, or hair that grew out in patches. Occasionally, I had to pull rank and grab her pen to introduce a Frankenstein scar or a tilted, elongated mouth: "It’s pretty obvious that he’s not normal anymore."

The "anymore" was the crux of our game. All our freaks had been born normal. The interesting part was developing a story about each child, finding a heinous accident or misdeed that would result in spectacular malformation. Toni and I were God. We were fate. We had ultimate power.

In August, Tara got Phillip, and Erica set her sights on Tara’s brother, Jeff (the doctor). Erica’s evil behavior kept me both riveted and disgusted. I imagined inflicting a This is How it Happened narrative on Erica—inordinate weight gain, facial burns. Toni, however, hated Erica so much she stopped watching TV for a while. Instead, she began organizing our toys upstairs in the attic. I’d return to the attic after lunch to find stuffed animals lined up according to height, and paper dolls in various categories, stacked one atop the other with last year’s Stanleys and Joes peeking out of an old crayon box to weight down the pile.

Toni had taken to dusting off Grandfather’s dollhouse, and, I suspected, playing with it. When I returned to the attic, there she would be, cuddled up in a chair with the toy maid and the baby, murmuring some sort of nurturing dialogue. The sweetness of it made me sad, somehow. I retreated to the north dormer, pried open the lid of the toybox coffin, and thrust my hands inside. The rough, unyielding fur of the dog on wheels prickled my hands. The metal puzzles were cold to the touch. I kept moving my hands around in the toybox, as I imagined a blinded pirate might look for treasure. And, soon, I was rewarded. My hands discovered a small book.

The cover of the book—a boy holding a pencil between his hand and cheek while resting his elbow on a desk—jolted me with recognition. Where before I’d felt depressed and lethargic, I now experienced a burst of energy. The boy on the cover had a daydreamy look on his face, staring out into space. In his expression, I saw myself. Clearly, this boy was enchanted by something inside his head. I wondered, suddenly, if this had been a favorite book of my father’s. If he also aligned with the boy on the cover. The Good, Bad Boy, this book was titled.

I sat next to Toni, and began to read the story of this good, bad boy. His classroom was a lot like one I’d attended, back when I went to Sacred Heart—the year I developed a twitch in my right eye. Confined to a Catholic School of strict nuns and spirit-numbing punishment, the good, bad boy longed for release of some type. The book was composed of his eighth grade diary entries. It was the first book I’d encountered told through the voice of an actual boy, and because of that, my mind kept wandering to my father. The thought of my father as a boy in that attic, the thought of him as Grandmother’s little boy, before he became a husband. A father.

Toni had fallen asleep. She was so beautiful, my sister, with the maid and baby still curled in her fist, her cheek laying against the polished wood arm of the chair. I hated and loved my sister’s beauty. A paradox, like the good, bad boy. Like Erica. Like everything.

At the end of the summer, our mother came to fetch us. She looked rested and happy. No circles under her eyes. More smiles than usual. On our last day in Grandmother’s attic, our mother floated as she packed our suitcases, commenting on our imaginations when she came across the discarded paper dolls, which were piled up in the toybox— relegated to a common coffin.

"I’m glad you made use of the newsprint," she said. "My little James Thurbers."


We stared at our mother. Wondered at her psychic abilities. She was humming, as though the name she’d uttered was a compliment.

The next day, we left the summer’s creations in their crude coffin, and, wearing matching gingham sundresses, Toni and I boarded the plane with our mother for the long flight back to San Diego. When we arrived, there stood our father, his round, whiskery face greeting us. And this is how it would remain until the divorce was final, ten years later: Toni and I, our enigmatic parents, together, apart, together, just like tape and scissors and a family of paper dolls.

Suzy Vitellos’s short stories have appeared nationwide in such literary journals as Tarpaulin Sky, Kalliope and Plazm, among others. She holds an MFA from Antioch University in Los Angeles and she lives in Portland, Oregon.

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