What the Dolls See

I come from a long line of nervous women. The nervousness started when my great granny’s brain cracked. I never met her, but here’s what I’ve been told: it was the Great Depression. She and hers were down to cornmeal and dandelions. She chased her husband with a meat cleaver until he promised that he and the kids would go without supper. She wanted to buy genuine taffeta. She wanted a pretty dress.


And my granny, she had broken thoughts, too. When my mama was pregnant with me, my granny climbed the sugar maple in her yard. Before Mama burned bridges with the men in the family, they swore Granny mistook the telephone wire for a branch. My mama said otherwise. Mama said Granny eyed it, and right before she took hold, she said: Goodbye, little life. She shook with the spirit.


Two weeks ago, my mama joined them in their crumbling. I told her I graduated and that made me a woman. I told her I was leaving Tennessee. I told her I was going north because I was in love. That was that. She said, “Dumplin, he don’t love you. He ain’t even a man.”


I bit my tongue. He drove a mustang. He had thick sideburns.


“He only likes you ‘cause you got that exotic look.”


I said, “You just don’t like him ‘cause he’s white and ‘cause he drinks up all the Coke.”


“Dumplin, you watch your mouth.”


“You don’t even got a man.”


She set my baby sister down, safe in a swaddle. She chased me, tank-top tugged down. Tried to squirt me with her milk. Pinched nipples—yellowed streams of milk from her chest. I hid in the safest part of the trailer. Her closet. The door gets jammed sometimes. She hunkered and tugged at the knob. That stuck sheet of pine was my savior. She gave up and sprayed the wood until Nevaeh cranked up her colic. Mama’s footsteps creaked away. Nevaeh’s whines rattled. We haven’t seen our mama since. She went with my man to Ohio.


It’s just us. Baby Nevaeh and me. We splay on the futon. She nurses the bottle just fine. I feed her until she wiggles away from the flow. The first time, I hurt her. Her squalling carried into the blue minutes of dawn. That lip-burn better not scar. We’re okay now. I nestle her in my arms, breathe in the vanilla malt on her breath. I coo. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word. Your mama is a fucking turd.” I rock her into dreams. “And since she up and went cuckoo, I’m gonna stay and care for you.” I settle her in the crook of the futon. What goes on behind those pretty eyelids, dark and thin as petals? What do those flittering eyes see?


My dreams have been haunted with mad women. Mostly it’s Mama sneaking up the slope of our yard in shadows. Meat cleaver swinging from her grip. Sometimes I’m the one who’s lost it, pushing Nevaeh into bathwater murky as sin. But I’m not like my family.


I dig in my old toy bin by the recliner and pick a Barbie. Her white face tattooed with purple marker. Hair chopped short. Clothes long-lost. I prop her on the windowsill behind the lace curtain. Beside her, a Cabbage Patch doll I stationed yesterday. They sit on pink doilies and watch the yard. At the end of the gravel driveway, the postal woman stuffs letters in the box. Her stomach bulges. Her mullet stiff in the breeze. She studies the window, shakes her head.


I pop in a VHS tape: Labyrinth. While it rewinds, I cook popcorn on the stove. The cabinets and pantry will hollow soon. Mama left her WIC papers, food stamps. I’ll need to get a job. I’ll keep Nevaeh fat. I sit on the carpet and start the movie with salted fingers.


A soft tapping on the door. I peer through the peephole. A plump, light-skinned girl stands in a windbreaker. Her hair tied in thick plaits. A Blow Pop pocketed in her cheek. She lives in a fenced-in house across the street. She knocks, louder.


I swing open the door and hush her. “I got a baby sleeping.”


“Why you got dolls in the window?” She smacks her tongue against the sucker.


“Business is better when it’s minded,” I say.


“My name’s Elma. What’s your name?” She cranes her neck past me, into the living room. “Can I hold your baby?”


“She’s sleeping,” I whisper.


“Hey, you got any ice cream?”


“You sure don’t need none.” I step in front of her.


She backs onto the porch. “That ain’t your baby.” She crunches the candy to shards. “My mama said that your mama is a easy heifer.”


Nevaeh cries. I shut the door on Elma and scoop Neveah from the futon.


Elma presses her face against the windowpane. She fogs the glass with her words. “What’s a heifer?”


By the time I get settled, the sister on screen tries to know the difference between a truth and a lie. Nevaeh sucks butter from my fingers. The movie ends at sunset. Dusk reaches up to the porch, to the windows. I lock the door and turn on the porch light. All that swimming darkness. I scoot with Neveah pressed to my chest, to the toy bin. A clay girl, strawberry-sized. Her cheeks freckled. Her arms pocked by the old gnaw of my baby teeth. She joins the others on the windowsill. I cuddle Nevaeh on the spread futon. We sleep.


In the morning, I give Nevaeh a gentle wash in the kitchen sink. Her soft scent: lavender, baby powder. I dress her in yellow cotton. She babbles in her stroller. Before we step out, I check my pockets—ID, WIC, pocketknife. The walk to the grocery store isn’t far, but if anyone tries anything, I’ll stab. If the sharpness won’t kill them in the moment, the rust will, later. I wait by the door and steady my heartbeat. No demons stalk in daylight.


The sun bakes the porch. It rained last night. The tulipwood swells, dark. I pull the door halfway shut before I see it—below the window, a teacup with a chipped brim. It sits on a saucer. And in that cup, ripped dogwood blossoms and twigs float in rainwater. I rush back inside with Nevaeh and lock the door. My hands shake in the toy bin. I fill the windowsill with watching eyes: porcelain, paper, wood. A doll with acorns for eyes. A little girl with chewed bubblegum eyes. The last doll is a nesting doll. Eyes on the outside, eyes on the inside. I place her in the middle.


We step out. The stroller’s sunshade protects Nevaeh’s eyes. She sucks a binky. I lock the door, tug the knob three times, slip the key in my pocket. I kick the teacup and saucer. They shatter on the sun-bleached lawn. The day is humid.


The air conditioner of IGA kisses our skin. My muscles ache. My breathing throbs. I walk slow in the coolness, lean my weight into the stroller. Sleepy saxophone notes slide out the speakers. I push past dewed produce, by towers of toilet paper, keeping distance from strangers. The white women with beauty parlor curls smile at Nevaeh with pity in their eyes. I shop: a pound of cheese, low-fat milk, whole wheat cereal. Nine cans of formula. A stocker with a stain of a mustache helps me carry the food to the cashier. The cashier is a little older than me with glossed lips.


“This is WIC,” I say.


The stocker lingers, helps stuff plastic bags. The cashier totals. I give her the papers and ID.


The stocker peers. “Name doesn’t match,” he says.


“She’s my sister. My mama’s sick,” I say.


“Have your mother come in,” he says.


“She’s on her deathbed,” I say.


“I’ll get a manager.” He huffs and struts away.


The cashier whispers: “There’s a shift change at five. I work a double today. If you can come back around six, I’ll ring this up for you, no problem.” She gives a half-dimpled smile.


My thanks: pressed lips, a nod. We leave our food in the bags, walk back down the backroad to our trailer. The lock twists open with a click. I undress Nevaeh in the dim living room. She’s drenched with sweat. Her tiny body lolls. I settle her on the futon in front of a dusty box fan. She takes the bottle. I eat macaroni. She sucks the cheese from my fingers. At 5:45 Nevaeh slips into sleep. I work the binky in her mouth and tuck her into my old bassinet. “I won’t be long,” I whisper. I lock the door and pound my feet on mud, to asphalt, to tiled floor.


When I reach the base of our yard, the bags sag from my wrist and arms. My back and shoulders full of ache. Elma crouches on the porch below the window. I toss the bags to the ground and jump up the two steps to face her.


She squints at me. “You broke my mama’s teacup.”


“What the hell you doing?”


She sprinkles bits of bermudagrass in a cup of milk. “The dolls told me they was thirsty. The dolls told me, Elma, come feed us tea.”


“They did not,” I say.


She sprinkles more grass and stirs with her finger. “They woke me up last night. They was mad. They told me you don’t help their thirst.”


“Go on and get before I tell your mama.”


“What’s a heifer?” she asks.


I give her a mad-mama look. I give her a look that tells her I’m three seconds from beating her with my flip-flop. She scurries away. I cart the groceries in and go straight to Nevaeh. She looks at me, eyes wide as quarters. Her cheeks tear blotched.


“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry. I’m the sorriest.”


I plant feathered kisses on her forehead until she whines. She takes the bottle. While she sips in the bassinet, I harvest our mama’s things: jeans cut into shorts, tank tops crusted with milk, balled rubber bands twisted with her dead ends. A ceramic ice cream cone full of pennies. I dump the change on the floor and toss the cone in a trash bag with the rest of her things. A pair of scissors. A globe of yarn. There’s no more room in the bag. Hell, everything in this place she owns. I tie the bag, run down the porch, to the backyard. I toss it to the hem of the forest.


I talk to the bag. “Tomorrow, I’ll get a job. What I need you for?” I shoot spit to the mud. “What Nevaeh need you for?”


I fall asleep, naked, to Nevaeh’s light breathing and the lullaby on TV: You remind me of the babe. The babe with the power. The power of Voodoo. You do.


A sharp clanging rips me from my Mama-with-hatchet nightmare. I jolt up, throw on mama’s robe. The clock above the flickering TV tells me it’s three in the morning. The finished VHS tape sends out a steady bleat. I kill the TV’s power. Another clang outside. The rummaging sound leads me and the jut of my pocketknife into the black. Silence. Plastic crinkles. I run to the backyard. Elma hunkers over strewn clothes, rolls the ice cream cone between palms.


“What’s this mess?” I ask.


“The dolls told me there was a treasure.”


“You lie.” I fold the pocketknife. “You been watching me.”


She yawns. “I only been watching my dreams.” She pushes past me.


“That ain’t yours.” I reach for the cone. My thumbnail snags on her wrist.


She squeals. “You made blood.” She slams the cone to the ground. It chips on a stone. “You the heifer, ain’t you?”


Her feet pitter-patter away. I scoop up the mess, pile it onto the torn bag. Something leaps near my foot. I fork my fingertips through the dewed blades of grass until I feel it. The bumped skin of a cricket frog.


“Hello, little friend.” I carry his chirps inside and put him in the bassinet.


All the sleepiness leaves my bones. I shuffle to the kitchen. The magnet calendar on the fridge stops me from searching for pickles. Today is my birthday. The cabinets have what I need to mix. The sun peaks past the horizon when I finish: sweet cornbread with chocolate icing.


I take a tea candle out my room and put it on the cushion of chocolate. I suck down air and blow. The nineteenth wish of my life: let me give Neveah the care I’ve never known. I leave the treat on the counter and go back to my babies. The frog hides between two stuffed bears. I smear a little icing on the feet of the toys. The frog stays. “You just eat that when you get hungry,” I say. I cuddle with Neveah. Before I can close my eyes, she screams.


My morning is swampy diapers, warm bottles, two baths, back pats. At noon, she shuts her eyes and mouth. I find a white dress from our church days. I haven’t worn this since I graduated middle school. I squeeze in. My chest hugged flat. The short sleeves push out my arm fat. I slip into a black, hooded jacket. One sleeve is burned at the wrist. If I push the stroller just right, no one will notice. I nibble a slice of cornbread in the bathroom while I pretty my face. My choice of shoes: flip-flops, a pair of sneakers. Flip-flops will do.


Something thuds in the living room. I bolt into the hallway, to the futon. Nevaeh rests with a bottle poking out her lips. She’s safe. I look for what fell. The nesting doll, her innards split open. I put her together and return her to her post. The door is locked. The yard is empty. My steps can’t be heavy in this home. Something always breaks.


The mean heat of the afternoon makes me sweat. The sweat makes my skin lick the polyester. I itch. Nevaeh’s stroller wobbles over pebbles and sticks on the backroad. We cross the burning parking lot, into IGA. I go straight to customer service. A man with a moon belly stands at the register.


“I’d like to apply for a job.”


His thin-lipped smile stretches.


I stop filling out the application three times to feed Nevaeh, to change her. Emergency contact: N/A. Have you ever worked before? All my life.


“Come in a couple of days for the interview.” He takes the papers. “You’ll want to find a babysitter.”


I nod. The frog will keep her company. The dolls will keep her safe. I stroll her out into the early evening. The sky pink as taffy. When we reach the driveway, Nevaeh sputters out grunts. By the time I get her to the futon, her wailing hurts me. She won’t take the bottle. Rocking doesn’t soothe her.


“What you want?”


Her screaming eats at me. Her words formless as poor dough, but I know what she says. “You ain’t mine. You ain’t nothing but a heifer. You ain’t nothing.” Our fight is worse than throwing knuckles. She cries, I stroke her back. She wiggles away from milk, I sway. She calms a few minutes past midnight. She rests with puffy eyes.


I pace. My nerves won’t settle. I flick on the porch light. A mourning dove coos. That lonely sound feels like cold marbles in my belly. The frog still nestles between the stuffed bears. I take one. “She’ll be right back,” I say. I put her beneath the window, facing the wall. Pine and corkwood can’t block the sight. An extra pair of eyes offers me peace.


When our mama would get in a bad mood, she’d light a roll-up cigarette and fill the home with stink. In her room, the machine sits on a nightstand. My sloppy hands gut the first. Dry tobacco spills. The second cigarette is more paper than tobacco. I bring it along with a lighter to the door. I tap my pocket. Knife there, folded and ready. I unlock the door and open—just a crack. Nevaeh doesn’t stir. I blow smoke out into the sliver of night. It burns to the filter. I step on the porch to toss it.


Puddles of honey on the porch. Crowds of ants in a frenzy-march. Elma is a girl full of wrong. She’ll say, “The dolls want honey for tea.” The dolls don’t want anything to do with her. She knows that and hates me for it. She gave me bugs.


I drop the ember and filter to the porch. I creep as fast as I can to the bassinet. I cup the frog. “You a gift,” I whisper. It chirps. I go outside. The door clicks behind me. The frog squirms. I keep a tight grip and run down the driveway, across the street, to Elma’s mailbox. “Remember, you nothing but a gift.” I try to make it quick. The frog twitches after the second stab. My pocketknife shines inky in the starlight. I put his leaking body in the mailbox, on top of a grocery store’s ad paper.


I leave the knife in the kitchen sink to soak. I join Nevaeh on the futon. She reaches out in her sleep, brushes my mouth with her fingertips. “I hope you dream about nice things,” I say. I kiss her nails. “But don’t dream too nice. Don’t see pearls and taffeta. Dream about what you got, or you’ll wake up sad, baby.”


I wake up to the sugared singing of birds. Nevaeh’s eyes wander around the ceiling. I lift her. “You want breakfast, don’t you?” I bounce her in my arms, walk over to the window. A heat bubbles in my chest. I’ve never felt a fear like this in my life. Elma’s newest gift to me: on the porch, a wooden puppet sits with crossed legs. Ants trail up and down and up her stiff limbs. Her head is fixed up. Glossed eyes, knowing and never-lived, aim at the window. I meet her gaze.