By Maureen McHugh
“Señora?” The man standing at my screen door is travel stained. Migrant, up from Mexico. The dogs haven’t heard him come up, but now they erupt in a frenzy of barking to make up for their oversight. I am sitting at the kitchen table, painting a doll, waiting for the timer to tell me to get doll parts curing in the oven in the work shed.
“Hudson, Abby!” I shout, but they don’t pay any attention.
The man steps back. “Do you have work? I can, the weeds,” he gestures. He is short-legged, long from waist to shoulder. He’s probably headed for the Great Lakes area, the place in the U.S. with the best supply of fresh water and the most need of farm labor.
Behind him is my back plot, with the garden running up to the privacy fence. The sky is just starting to pink up with dawn. At this time of year I do a lot of my work before dawn and late in the evening, when it’s not hot. That’s probably when he has been traveling, too.
I show him the cistern and set him to weeding. I show him where he can plug in his phone to recharge it. I have internet radio on; Elvis Presley died forty-five years ago today, and they’re playing “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care.” I go inside and get him some bean soup.
Hobos used to mark code to tell other hobos where to stop and where to keep going. Teeth to signify a mean dog. A triangle with hands meant that the homeowner had a gun and might use it. A cat meant a nice lady. Today the men use websites and bulletin boards that they follow, when they can, with cheap smart phones. Somewhere I’m on a site as a ‘nice lady’ or whatever they say today. The railroad runs east of here, and it’s sometimes a last spot where trains slow down before they get to the big yard in Belen. Men come up the Rio Grande hoping to hop the train.
I don’t like it. I was happy to give someone a meal when I felt anonymous. Handing a bowl of soup to someone who may not have eaten for a few days was an easy way to feel good about myself. That didn’t mean I wanted to open a migrant restaurant. I live by myself. Being an economic refugee doesn’t make people kind and good, and I feel as if having my place on some website makes me vulnerable. The dogs may bark like fools, but Hudson is some cross between border collie and golden retriever, and Abby is mostly black Labrador. They are sweet mutts, not good protection dogs, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.
I wake at night sometimes now, thinking someone is in my house. Abby sleeps on the other side of the bed, and Hudson sleeps on the floor. Where I live it is brutally dark at night, unless there’s a moon—no one wastes power on lights at night. My house is small, two bedrooms, a kitchen and a family room. I lean over and shake Hudson on the floor, wake him up. “Who’s here?” I whisper. Abby sits up, but neither of them hears anything. They pad down the hall with me into the dark front room, and I peer through the window into the shadowy back lot. I wait for them to bark.
Many a night, I don’t go back to sleep.
But the man at my door this morning weeds my garden and accepts my bowl of soup and some flour tortillas. He thanks me gravely. He picks up his phone, charging off my system, and shows me a photo of a woman and a child. “My wife and baby,” he says. I nod. I don’t particularly want to know about his wife and baby, but I can’t be rude.
I finish assembling the doll I am working on. I’ve painted her, assembled all the parts, and hand rooted all her hair. She is rather cuter than I like. Customers can mix and match parts off of my website—this face with the eye color of their choice, hands curled one way or another. A mix-and-match doll costs about what the migrant will make in two weeks. A few customers want custom dolls and send images to match. Add a zero to the cost.
I am dressing the doll when Abby leaps up, happily roo-rooing. I start, standing, and drop the doll dangling in my hand by one unshod foot.
It hits the floor head first with a thump, and the man gasps in horror.
“It’s a doll,” I say.
I don’t know if he understands, but he realizes. He covers his mouth with his hand and laughs, nervous.
I scoop the doll off the floor. I make reborns. Dolls that look like newborn infants. The point is to make them look almost, but not quite, real. People prefer them a little cuter, a little more perfect than the real thing. I like them best when there is something a little strange, a little off about them. I like them as ugly as most actual newborns, with some aspect that suggests ontology recapitulating phylogeny; that a developing fetus starts as a single celled organism, and then develops to look like a tiny fish, before passing in stages into its final animal shape. The old theory of ontology recapitulating phylogeny, that the development of the human embryo follows the evolutionary path, is false, of course. But I prefer that my babies remind us that we are really animals. That they be ancient and a little grotesque. Tiny changelings in our house.
I am equally pleased to think of Thanksgiving turkeys as a kind of dinosaur gracing a holiday table. It is probably why I live alone.
“Que bonita,” he says. How beautiful.
“Gracias,” I say. He has brought me the empty bowl. I take it, and send him on his way.
I check my email and I have an order for a special. A reborn made to order. It’s from a couple in Chicago, Rachel and Ellam Mazar—I have always assumed that it is Rachel who emails me, but the emails never actually identify who is typing. There is a photo attached of an infant. This wouldn’t be strange except this is the third request in three years I have had for exactly the same doll.
The dolls are expensive, especially the specials. I went to art school and then worked as a sculptor for a toy company for a few years. I didn’t make dolls, I made action figures, especially alien figures and spaceships from the Kinetics movies. A whole generation of boys grew up imprinting on toys I had sculpted. When the craze for Kinetics passed, the company laid off lots of people, including me. The whole economy was coming apart at the seams. I had been lucky to have a job for as long as I did. I moved to New Mexico because I loved it and it was cheap, and I tried to do sculpting freelance. I worked at a big box store. Like so many people, my life went into freefall. I bought this place—a little ranch house that had gone into foreclosure, in a place where no one was buying anything and boarded up houses fall in on themselves like mouths without teeth. It was the last of my savings. I started making dolls as a stopgap.
I get by. Between the garden and the little bit of money from the dolls, I can eat. Which is more than some people.
A special will give me money for property tax. My cistern is letting low, and there is no rain coming until the monsoon in June, which is a long way from now. If it’s like last year, we won’t get enough rain to fill the cistern anyway. I could pay for the water truck to make a delivery, but I don’t like this. When I put the specials on my web site, I thought about it as a way to make money. I had seen it on another doll site. I am a trained sculptor. I didn’t think about why people would ask for specials.
Some people ask me to make infant dolls of their own children. If my mother had bought an infant version of me I’d have found it pretty disturbing.
One woman bought a special modeled on herself. She wrote me long e-mails about how her mother had been a narcissist, a monster, and how she was going to symbolically mother herself. Her husband was mayor of a city in California, which was how she could afford to have a replica of her infant self. Her emails made me uncomfortable, which I resented. So eventually I passed her on to another doll maker who made toddlers. I figured she could nurture herself up through all the stages of childhood.
Her reborn was very cute. More attractive than she was in the image she sent. She never commented. I don’t know that she ever realized.
I suspect the Mazars fall into another category. I have gotten three requests from people who have lost an infant. I tell myself that there is possibly something healing in recreating your dead child as a doll. Each time I have gotten one of these requests I have very seriously considered taking the specials off my website.
Property tax payments. Water in the cistern.
If the Mazars lost a child—and I don’t know that they did, but I have a feeling that I can’t shake—it was bad enough that they want a replica. Then a year ago, I got a request for the second.
I thought that maybe Rachel—if it is Rachel who emails me, not Ellam—had meant to send a different image. I sent back an email asking if they were sure that she had sent the right image.
The response was terse. They were sure.
I sent them an email saying if something had happened, I could do repairs.
The response was equally terse. They wanted me to make one.
I searched them online, but could find out nothing about the Mazars of Chicago. They didn’t have a presence online. Who had money but no presence online? Were they organized crime? Just very very private? Now, a third doll.
I don’t answer the email. Not yet.
Instead I take my laptop out to the shed. Inside the shed is my oven for baking the doll parts between coats of paint. I plug in the computer to recharge and park it on a shelf above eye level. I have my parts cast by Tony in Ohio, an old connection from my days in the toy industry. He makes my copper molds and rotocasts the parts. Usually, though, the specials are a one off and he sends me the copper supermaster of the head so he doesn’t have to store it. I rummage through my molds and find the head from the last time I made this doll. I set it on the shelf and look at it.
I rough sculpt the doll parts in clay, then do a plaster cast of the clay mold. Then from that I make a wax model, looking like some Victorian memorial of an infant that died of jaundice. I have my own recipe for the wax—commercial wax and paraffin and talc. I could tint it pink, most people do. I just like the way they look.
I do the fine sculpting and polishing on the wax model. I carefully pack and ship the model to Tony, and he casts the copper mold. The process is nasty and toxic, not something I can do myself. For the regular dolls, he does a short run of a hundred or so parts in PVC, vinyl, and ships them to me. He keeps those molds in case I need more. For the head of a special he sends me back a single cast head and the mold.
All of the detail is on the inside of the mold; outside is only the rough outline of the shape. Infants’ heads are long from forehead to the back of the skull. Their faces are tiny and low, their jaws like porkchop bones. They are marvelous and strange mechanisms.
At about seven, I hear Sherie’s truck. The dogs erupt.
Sherie and Ed live about a mile and a half up the road. They have a little dairy goat operation. Sherie is six months pregnant and goes into Albuquerque to see an obstetrician. Her dad works at Sandia Labs and makes decent money, so her parents are paying for her medical care. It’s a long drive in and back, the truck is old, and Ed doesn’t like her to go alone. I ride along, and we pick up supplies. Her mom makes us lunch.
“Goddamn it’s hot,” Sherie says as I climb into the little yellow Toyota truck. “How’s your water?”
“Getting low,” I say. Sherie and Ed have a well.
“I’m worried we might go dry this year,” Sherie says. “They keep whining about the aquifer. If we have to buy water, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Sherie is physically Chinese, one of the thousands of girls adopted out of China in the nineties and at the turn of the century. She said she went through a phase of trying to learn all things Chinese, but she complains that as far as she can tell, the only thing Chinese about her is that she’s lactose intolerant.
“I had a migrant at my door this morning,” I say.
“Did you feed him?” she asks. She leans into the shift, trying to find the gear, urging the truck into first.
“He weeded my garden,” I say.
“They’re not going to stop as long as you feed them.”
“Like stray cats,” I say.
Albuquerque has never been a pretty town. When I came, it was mostly strip malls and big-box stores and suburbs. Ten years of averages of four inches of rain or less have hurt it badly, especially with the loss of the San Juan/Chama water rights. Water is expensive in Albuquerque. Too expensive for Intel, which pulled out. Intel was just a larger blow in a series of blows.
The suburbs are full of walkaway houses—places where homeowners couldn’t meet the mortgage payments and just left, the lots now full of trash and windows gone. People who could went north for water. People who couldn’t did what people always do when an economy goes soft and rotten: they slid, to rented houses, rented apartments, living in their cars, living with their families, living on the street.
But inside Sherie’s parents’ home it’s still twenty years ago. The countertops are granite. The big screen plasma TV gets hundreds of channels. The freezer is full of meat and frozen Lean Cuisine. The air conditioner keeps the temperature at a heavenly seventy-five degrees. Sherie’s mother, Brenda, is slim, with beautifully styled graying hair. She’s a psychologist with a small practice.
Brenda has one of my dolls, which she bought because she likes me. It’s always out when I come, but it doesn’t fit Brenda’s tailored, airily comfortable style. I have never heard Brenda say a thing against Ed. But I can only assume that she and Kyle wish Sherie had married someone who worked at Los Alamos or at Sandia or the university, someone with government benefits like health insurance. On the other hand, Sherie was a wild child, who, as Brenda said, “did a stint as a lesbian,” as if being a lesbian were like signing up for the Peace Corps. You can’t make your child fall in love with the right kind of person. I wish I could have fallen in love with someone from Los Alamos. More than that, I wish I had been able to get a job at Los Alamos or the university. Me, and half of Albuquerque.
Sherie comes home, her hair rough cut in her kitchen with a mirror. She is loud and comfortable. Her belly is just a gentle insistent curve under her blue Rumatel goat dewormer t-shirt. Brenda hangs on her every word, knows about the trials and tribulations of raising goats, asks about Ed and the truck. She feeds us lunch.
I thought this life of thoughtful liberalism was my birthright, too. Before I understood that my generation was to be born in interesting times.
At the obstetrician’s office, I sit in the waiting room and try not to fall asleep. I’m stuffed on Brenda’s chicken-and-cheese sandwich and corn chowder. People magazine has an article about Tom Cruise getting telomerase regeneration therapy, which will extend his lifespan an additional forty years. There’s an article on some music guy’s house talking about the new opulence: cutting edge technology that darkens the windows at the touch of a hand and walls that change color, rooms that sense whether you’re warm or cold and change their temperature, and his love of ancient Turkish and Russian antiques. There’s an article on a woman who has dedicated her life to helping people in Siberia who have AIDs.
Sherie comes out of the doctor’s office on her cell phone. The doctor tells her that if she had insurance, they’d do a routine ultrasound. I can hear half the conversation as she discusses it with her mother. “This little guy,” Sherie says, hand on her belly, “is half good Chinese peasant stock. He’s doing fine.” They decide to wait for another month.
Sherie is convinced that it’s a boy. Ed is convinced it’s a girl. He sings David Bowie’s “China Girl” to Sherie’s stomach, which for some reason irritates the hell out of her.
We stop on our way out of town and stock up on rice and beans, flour, sugar, coffee. We can get all this in Belen, but it’s cheaper at Sam’s Club. Sherie has a membership. I pay half the membership, and she uses the card to buy all our groceries, then I pay her back when we get to the car. The cashiers surely know that we’re sharing a membership, but they don’t care.
It’s a long, hot drive back home. The air conditioning doesn’t work in the truck. I am so grateful to see the trees that mark the valley.
My front door is standing open.
“Who’s here?” Sherie says.
Abby is standing in the front yard and she has clearly recognized Sherie’s truck. She’s barking her fool head off and wagging her tail, desperate. She runs to the truck. I get out and head for the front door and she runs towards the door and then back towards me and then towards the door, unwilling to go in until I get there, then lunging through the door ahead of me.
“Hudson?” I call the other dog, but I know if the door is open, he’s out roaming. Lost. My things are strewn everywhere, couch cushions on the floor, my kitchen drawers emptied on the floor, the back door open. I go through to the back, calling the missing dog, hoping against hope he is in the back yard. The back gate is open, too.
Behind me I hear Sherie calling, “Don’t go in there by yourself!”
“My dog is gone,” I say.
“Hudson?” she says.
I go out the back and call for him. There’s no sign of him. He’s a great boy, but some dogs, like Abby, tend to stay close to home. Hudson isn’t one of those dogs.
Sherie and I walk through the house. No one is there. I go out to my workshop. My toolbox is gone, but evidently whoever did this didn’t see the computer closed and sitting on the shelf just above eye level.
It had to be the guy I gave soup to. He probably went nearby to wait out the heat of the day and saw me leave.
I close and lock the gate, and the workshop. Close and lock my back door. Abby clings to me. Dogs don’t like things to be different.
“We’ll look for him,” Sherie says. Abby and I climb into the truck, and for an hour we drive back roads, looking and calling, but there’s no sign of him. Her husband Ed calls us. He’s called the county and there’s a deputy at my place waiting to take a statement. We walk through the house and I identify what’s gone. As best I can tell, it isn’t much. Just the tools, mainly. The sheriff says they are usually looking for money, guns, jewelry. I had all my cards and my cell phone with me, and all my jewelry is inexpensive stuff. I don’t have a gun.
I tell the deputy about the migrant this morning. He says it could have been him, or someone else. I get the feeling we’ll never know. He promises to put out the word about the dog.
It is getting dark when they all leave, and I put the couch cushions on the couch. I pick up silverware off the floor and run hot water in the sink to wash it all. Abby stands at the back door, whining, but doesn’t want to go out alone.
It occurs to me suddenly that the doll I was working on is missing. He stole the doll. Why? He’s not going to be able to sell it. To send it home, I guess, to the baby in the photo. Or maybe to his wife, who has a real baby and is undoubtedly feeling a lot less sentimental about infants than most of my customers do. It’s a couple of weeks of work, not full time, but painting, waiting for the paint to cure, painting again.
Abby whines again. Hudson is out there in the dark. Lost dogs don’t do well in the desert. There are rattlesnakes. I didn’t protect him. I sit down on the floor and wrap my arms around Abby’s neck and cry. I’m a stupid woman who is stupid about my dogs, I know. But they are what I have.
I don’t really sleep. I hear noises all night long. I worry about what I am going to do about money.
Replacing the tools is going to be a problem. The next morning I put the first layer of paint on a new doll to replace the stolen one. Then I do something I have resisted doing. Plastic doll parts aren’t the only thing I can mold and sell on the internet. I start a clay model for a dildo. Over the last couple of years I’ve gotten queries from companies who have seen the dolls online and asked if I would consider doing dildos for them. Realistic penises aren’t really any more difficult to carve than realistic baby hands. Easier, actually. I can’t send it to Tony; he wouldn’t do dildos. But a few years ago they came out with room temperature, medical-grade silicone. I can make my own molds, do small runs, hand finish them. Make them as perfectly lifelike as the dolls. I can hope people will pay for novelty when it comes to sex.
I don’t particularly like making doll parts, but I don’t dislike it, either. Dildos, on the other hand, just make me sad. I don’t think there is anything wrong with using them, it’s not that. It’s just … I don’t know. I’m not going to stop making dolls, I tell myself.
I also email the Chicago couple back and accept the commission for the special, to make the same doll for the third time. Then I take a break and clean my kitchen some more. Sherie calls me to check how I’m doing and I tell her about the dildos. She laughs. “You should have done it years ago,” she says. “You’ll be rich.”
I laugh, too. And I feel a little better when I finish the call.
I try not to think about Hudson. It’s well over a hundred today. I don’t want to think about him in trouble, without water. I try to concentrate on penile veins. On the stretch of skin underneath the head (I’m making a circumcised penis.) When my cell rings I jump.
The guy on the phone says, “I’ve got a dog here, he’s got this number on his collar. You missing a dog?”
“A golden retriever?” I say.
“His name is Hudson,” I say. “Oh thank you. Thank you. I’ll be right there.”
I grab my purse. I’ve got fifty-five dollars in cash. Not much of a reward, but all I can do. “Abby!” I yell. “Come on girl! Let’s go get Hudson!”
She bounces up from the floor, clueless, but excited by my voice.
“Go for a ride?” I ask.
We get in my ancient red Impreza. It’s not too reliable, but we aren’t going far. We bump across miles of bad road, most of it unpaved, following the GPS directions on my phone, and end up at a trailer in the middle of nowhere. It’s bleached and surrounded by trash—an old easy chair, a kitchen chair lying on its side with one leg broken and the white unstained inside like a scar, an old picnic table. There’s a dirty green cooler and a bunch of empty forty ounce bottles. Frankly, if I saw the place, my assumption would be that the owner made meth. But the old man who opens the door is just an old guy in a baseball cap. Probably living on social security.
“I’m Nick,” he says. He’s wearing a long sleeved plaid shirt, despite the heat. He’s deeply tanned and has a turkey wattle neck.
I introduce myself. Point to the car and say, “That’s Abby, the smart one that stays home.”
The trailer is dark and smells of old man inside. The couch cushions are covered in cheap throws, one of them decorated with a blue-and-white Christmas snowman. Outside, the scrub shimmers, flattened in the heat. Hudson is lying in front of the sink and scrabbles up when he sees us.
“He was just ambling up the road,” Nick says. “He saw me and came right up.”
“I live over by the river, off 109, between Belen and Jarales,” I say. “Someone broke into my place and left the doors open and he wandered off.”
“You’re lucky they didn’t kill the dogs,” Nick says.
I fumble with my purse. “There’s a reward,” I say.
He waves that away. “No, don’t you go starting that.” He says he didn’t do anything but read the tag and give him a drink. “I had dogs all my life,” he says. “I’d want someone to call me.”
I tell him it would mean a lot to me and press the money on him. Hudson leans against my legs to be petted, tongue lolling. He looks fine. No worse for wear.
“Sit a minute. You came all the way out here. Pardon the mess. My sister’s grandson and his friends have been coming out here and they leave stuff like that,” he says, waving at the junk and the bottles.
“I can’t leave the other dog in the heat,” I say, wanting to leave.
“Bring her inside.”
I don’t want to stay, but I’m grateful, so I bring Abby in out of the heat and he thumps her and tells me about how he’s lived here since he was in his twenties. He’s a Libertarian, and he doesn’t trust government, and he really doesn’t trust the New Mexico state government which is, in his estimation, a banana republic lacking only the fancy uniforms that third-world dictators seem to love. Then he tells me about how lucky it was that Hudson didn’t get picked up to be a bait dog for the people who raise dogs for dog fights. Then he tells me about how the American economy was destroyed by operatives from Russia as revenge for the fall of the Soviet Union.
Half of what he says is bullshit and the other half is wrong, but he’s just a lonely guy in the middle of the desert, and he brought me back my dog. The least I can do is listen.
I hear a spitting little engine off in the distance. Then a couple of them. It’s the little motorbikes the kids ride. Nick’s eyes narrow as he looks out.
“It’s my sister’s grandson,” he says. “Goddamn.”
He gets up and Abby whines. He stands, looking out the slatted blinds.
“Goddamn. He’s got a couple of friends,” Nick says. “Look you just get your dogs and don’t say nothing to them, okay? You just go on.”
“Hudson,” I say and clip a lead on him.
Outside, four boys pull into the yard, kicking up dust. They have seen my car and are obviously curious. They wear jumpsuits like prison jumpsuits, only with the sleeves ripped off and the legs cut off just above the knees. Khaki and orange and olive green. One of them has tattoos swirling up his arms.
“Hey Nick,” the tattooed one says, “new girlfriend?”
“None of your business, Ethan.”
The boy is dark but his eyes are light blue. Like a Siberian husky. “You a social worker?” the boy says.
“I told you it was none of your business,” Nick says. “The lady is just going.”
“If you’re a social worker, you should know that old Nick is crazy and you can’t believe nothing he says.”
One of the other boys says, “She isn’t a social worker. Social workers don’t have dogs.”
I step down the steps and walk to my car. The boys sit on their bikes and I have to walk around them to get to the Impreza. Hudson wants to see them, pulling against his leash, but I hold him in tight.
“You look nervous, lady,” the tattooed boy says.
“Leave her alone, Ethan,” Nick says.
“You shut up, Uncle Nick, or I’ll kick your ass,” the boy says absently, never taking his eyes off me.
Nick says nothing.
I say nothing. I just get my dogs in my car and drive away.
Our life settles into a new normal. I get a response from my dildo email. Nick in Montana is willing to let me sell on his sex site on commission. I make a couple of different models, including one that I paint just the as realistically as I would one of the reborn dolls. This means a base coat, then I paint the veins in. Then I bake it. Then I paint an almost translucent layer of color and bake it again. Six layers. And then a clear over layer of silicone because I don’t think the paint is approved for use this way. I put a pretty hefty price on it and call it a special. At the same time I am making my other special. The doll for the Chicago couple. I sent the mold to Tony and had him do a third head from it. It, too, requires layers of paint, and sometimes the parts bake side by side.
Because my business is rather slow, I take more time than usual. I am always careful, especially with specials. I think if someone is going to spend the kind of money one of these costs, the doll should be made to the best of my ability. And maybe it is because I have done this doll before, it comes easily and well. I think of the doll that the man who broke into my house stole. I don’t know if he sent it to his wife and daughter in Mexico, or if he even has a wife and daughter in Mexico. I rather suspect he sold it on eBay or some equivalent—although I have watched doll sales and never seen it come up.
This doll is my orphan doll. She is full of sadness. She is inhabited by the loss of so much. I remember my fear when Hudson was wandering the roads of the desert. I imagine Rachel Mazar, so haunted by the loss of her own child. The curves of the doll’s tiny fists are porcelain pale. The blue veins at her temples are traceries of the palest of bruises.
When I am finished with her, I package her as carefully as I have ever packaged a doll and send her off.
My dildos go up on the website.
The realistic dildo sits in my workshop, upright, tumescent, a beautiful rosy plum color. It sits on a shelf like a prize, glistening in its topcoat as if it were wet. It was surprisingly fun to make, after years and years of doll parts. It sits there both as an object to admire and as an affront. But to be frank, I don’t think it is any more immoral than the dolls. There is something straightforward about a dildo. Something much clearer than a doll made to look like a dead child. Something significantly less entangled.
There are no orders for dildos. I lie awake at night thinking about real-estate taxes. My father is dead. My mother lives in subsidized housing for the elderly in Columbus. I haven’t been to see her in years and years, not with the cost of a trip like that. My car wouldn’t make it, and nobody I know can afford to fly anymore. I certainly couldn’t live with her. She would lose her housing if I moved in.
If I lose my house to unpaid taxes, do I live in my car? It seems like the beginning of the long slide. Maybe Sherie and Ed would take the dogs.
I do get a reprieve when the money comes in for the special. Thank God for the Mazars in Chicago. However crazy their motives, they pay promptly and by internet, which allows me to put money against the equity line for the new tools.
I still can’t sleep at night, and instead of putting all of the money against my debt, I put the minimum and I buy a 9 mm handgun. Actually, Ed buys it for me. I don’t even know where to get a gun.
Sherie picks me up in the truck and brings me over to the goat farm. Ed has several guns. He has an old gun safe that belonged to his father. When we get to their place, he is in back, putting creosote on new fence posts, but he is happy to come up to the house.
“So you’ve given in,” he says, grinning. “You’ve joined the dark side.”
“I have,” I agree.
“Well, this is a decent defensive weapon,” Ed says. Ed does not fit my preconceived notions of a gun owner. Ed fits my preconceived notions of the guy who sells you a cell phone at the local strip mall. His hair is short and graying. He doesn’t look at all like the kind of guy who would either marry Sherie or raise goats. He told me one time that his degree is in anthropology. Which, he said, was a difficult field to get a job in.
“Offer her a cold drink!” Sherie yells from the bathroom. In her pregnant state, Sherie can’t ride twenty minutes in the sprung-shocked truck without having to pee.
He offers me iced tea and then gets the gun, checks to see that it isn’t loaded, and hands it to me. He explains to me that the first thing I should do is check to see if the gun is loaded.
“You just did,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, “but I might be an idiot. It’s a good thing to do.”
He shows me how to check the gun.
It is not nearly so heavy in my hand as I thought it would be. But truthfully, I have found that the thing you thought would be life changing so rarely is.
Later he takes me around to the side yard and shows me how to load and shoot it. I am not even remotely surprised that it is kind of fun. That is exactly what I expected.
Out of the blue, an email from Rachel Mazar of Chicago.
I am writing you to ask you if you have had any personal or business dealings with my husband, Ellam Mazar. If I do not get a response from you, your next correspondence will be from my attorney.
I don’t quite know what to do. I dither. I make vegetarian chili. Oddly enough, I check my gun, which I keep in the bedside drawer. I am not sure what I am going to do about the gun when Sherie has her baby. I have offered to babysit, and I’ll have to lock it up, I think. But that seems to defeat the purpose of having it.
While I am dithering, my cell rings. It is, of course, Rachel Mazar.
“I need you to explain your relationship with my husband, Ellam Mazar,” she says. She sounds educated, with that eradication of regional accent that signifies a decent college.
“My relationship?” I say.
“Your email was on his phone,” she says, frostily.
I wonder if he is dead. The way she says it sounds so final. “I didn’t know your husband,” I say. “He just bought the dolls.”
“Bought what?” she says.
“The dolls,” I say.
“Dolls?” she says.
“Yes,” I say.
“No,” I say. “Dolls. Reborns. Handmade dolls.”
She obviously has no idea what I am talking about, which opens a world of strange possibilities in my mind. The dolls don’t have orifices. Fetish objects? I tell her my website and she looks it up.
“He ordered specials,” I say.
“But these cost a couple of thousand dollars,” she says.
A week’s salary for someone like Ellam Mazar, I suspect. I envision him as a professional, although, frankly, for all I know he works in a dry-cleaning shop or something.
“I thought they were for you,” I say. “I assumed you had lost a child. Sometimes people who have lost a child order one.”
“We don’t have children,” she says. “We never wanted them.” I can hear how stunned she is in the silence. Then she says, “Oh my God.”
Satanic rituals? Some weird abuse thing?
“That woman said he told her he had lost a child,” she says.
I don’t know what to say so I just wait.
“My husband…my soon to be ex-husband,” she says. “He has apparently been having affairs. One of the women contacted me. She told me that he told her we had a child that died and that now we were married in name only.”
I hesitate. I don’t know legally if I am allowed to tell her about transactions I had with her husband. On the other hand, the emails came with both their names on them. “He has bought three,” I say.
“Not all at once. About once a year. But people who want a special send me a picture. He always sends the same picture.”
“Oh,” she says. “That’s Ellam. He’s orderly. He’s used the same shampoo for fifteen years.”
“I thought it was strange,” I say. I can’t bear not to ask. “What do you think he did with them?”
“I think the twisted bastard used them to make women feel sorry for him,” she says through gritted teeth. “I think he got all sentimental about them. He probably has himself half convinced that he really did have a daughter. Or that it’s my fault that we didn’t have children. He never wanted children. Never.”
“I think a lot of my customers like the idea of having a child better than having one,” I say.
“I’m sure,” she says. “Thank you for your time and I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
So banal. So strange and yet so banal. I try to imagine him giving the doll to a woman, telling her that it was the image of his dead child. How did that work?
Orders for dildos begin to trickle in. I get a couple of doll orders and make a payment on the credit line and put away some towards real-estate taxes. I may not have to live in my car.
One evening, I am working in the garden when Abby and Hudson start barking at the back gate.
I get off my knees, aching, but lurch into the house and into the bedroom where I grab the 9 mm out of the bedside table. It isn’t loaded, which now seems stupid. I try to think if I should stop and load it. My hands are shaking. It is undoubtedly just someone looking for a meal and a place to recharge. I decide I can’t trust myself to load and besides, the dogs are out there. I go to the back door, gun held stiffly at my side, pointed to the ground.
There are, in fact, two of them, alike as brothers, Indian looking with a fringe of black hair cut in a straight line above their eyebrows.
“Lady,” one says, “we can work for food?” First one, then the other sees the gun at my side and their faces go empty.
The dogs cavort.
“I will give you something to eat, and then you go,” I say.
“We go,” the one who spoke says.
“Someone robbed me,” I say.
“We no rob you,” he says. His eyes are on the gun. His companion takes a step back, glancing at the gate and then at me as if to gauge if I will shoot him if he bolts.
“I know,” I say. “But someone came here, I gave him food, and he robbed me. You tell people not to come here, okay?”
“Okay,” he says. “We go.”
“Tell people not to come here,” I say. I would give them something to eat, something to take with them. I hate this. They are two young men in a foreign country, hungry, looking for work. I could easily be sleeping in my car. I could be homeless. I could be wishing for someone to be nice to me.
But I am not. I’m just afraid.
“Hudson! Abby!” I yell, harsh, and the two men flinch. “Get in the house.”
The dogs slink in behind me, not sure what they’ve done wrong.
“If you want some food, I will give you something,” I say. “Tell people not to come here.”
I don’t think they understand me. Instead they back slowly away a handful of steps and then turn and walk quickly out the gate, closing it behind them.
I sit down where I am standing, knees shaking.
The moon is up in the blue early evening sky. Over my fence I can see scrub and desert, a fierce land where mountains breach like the petrified spines of apocalyptic animals. The kind of landscape that seems right for crazed gangs of mutants charging around in cobbled together vehicles. Tribal remnants of America, their faces painted, their hair braided, wearing jewelry made from shiny CDs and cigarette lighters scrounged from the ruins of civilization. The desert is Byronic in its extremes.
I don’t see the two men. There’s no one out there in furs, their faces painted blue, driving a dune buggy built out of motorcycle parts and hung with the skulls of their enemies. There’s just a couple of guys from Nicaragua or Guatemala, wearing t-shirts and jeans.
And me, sitting watching the desert go dark, the moon rising, an empty handgun in my hand.
“Useless Things” originally appeared in Eclipse 3, edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books
More from Maureen McHugh:
Maureen F. McHugh has lived in New York; Shijiazhuang, China; Ohio; Austin, Texas; and now lives in Los Angeles, California. She is the author of a Story Prize finalist collection, Mothers & Other Monsters, and four novels, including Tiptree Award-winner China Mountain Zhang and New York Times editor’s choice Nekropolis. McHugh has also worked on alternate reality games for Halo 2, The Watchmen, and Nine Inch Nails, among others.